Some Background For You Before I Get to the Spiritual Message of the Book of Thomas
The ancient land of Syria, just north of Israel, has witnessed the emergence of numerous religious movements over the millennia. It is said that two thousand years ago Saint Paul encountered the light of the resurrected Christ as he was traveling on the road to Damascus, Syria. The Damascus Document, found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, reveals that many Essenes, who were Jewish mystics, lived there at one time. Syrian Christians believe that the apostle Thomas and other Hebrew-Christians brought Christianity there sometime during the First Century AD. Their traditions say that Saint Thomas traveled from Israel to Syria, then continued his missionary journey to the East, eventually ending up in India. The life, travels, and teachings of Mar Thomas are recorded in the Acts of Saint Thomas, a book written in Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic language. Many Thomas churches eventually adopted Orthodox Christianity sometime during the Fourth Century AD and are now associated with the Syrian Orthodox Church, one of the oldest churches in the world. The Syrian Church has a very old manuscript of the New Testament called the Peshitta, written in Aramaic, the language of the first followers of Yeshua. Being adjacent to Israel, Syria, during the pre-orthodox period, the early days (First through the Third Centuries AD), enjoyed an intimate direct knowledge of the Yeshua tradition. During those early centuries, many other writings were available or being composed at the time, books not included in the Orthodox New Testament or European “canon” of scripture, like for instance: the Gospel of Thomas, also a beautiful collection of Rumi-like psalms called the Odes of Solomon, the Gospel of Philip, the Book of Thomas the Spiritual Athlete, the Repose of Saint John the Evangelist, the Gospel of the Hebrews, Gospel of the Ebionites (used by Hebrew Christians who were vegetarians), Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and other fascinating documents that preserve important information about Christianity during its formative years. Though not recognised as scripture these days or included in the Roman Bible of the Fourth Century, books such as the Gospel of Thomas and Odes of Solomon were used for several centuries as sacred scripture by various indigenous expressions of Christianity in places like Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia to the East.
A few decades ago, some Egyptian farmers near the village of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt were digging near a large bolder and unearthed a clay storage jar containing fifty ancient texts, including the Gospel of Thomas. Those books had been hidden there for one thousand seven hundred years, buried by monks sometime during the Fourth Century. They were raised during the month of December, 1945 and are now known as the Nag Hammadi Library. “There is nothing hidden that won’t be revealed, and nothing buried that will not be raised.” (Yeshua, Gospel of Thomas, from Saying 5)
Out of all these early Coptic and Syrian-Syriac-Aramaic books, the Gospel of Thomas has generated the most excitement in recent years. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is getting some major attention as well. A few pages of Thomas written in Greek, were unearthed in Egypt at Oxyrinchus along with many other old writings. Some of these apocryphal “lost books”, including a complete edition of Thomas, were eventually found near a site where, during the Fourth Century, there once was a monastery operated by Pachomian monks near the village of Nag Hammadi in Egypt. The Nag Hammadi gospels were written in Coptic, the language of Egyptian Christianity, and likely were copied into Coptic from earlier Greek manuscripts. Those “Gnostic Gospels” were discovered in the dry climate of Egypt, and in some people’s minds are associated with Egypt, but it is very likely many of those sacred texts have their origin in Syria, composed in Greek or even Aramaic, especially the Gospel of Thomas.
There’s a growing consensus in the world of theological scholarship that Thomas, which is a collection of 114 proverbs and parables of Jesus, is a “must-read” for anyone who seriously wants to study the teachings of the historic Christ. Biblical scholar Ron Cameron says analysis reveals that many of these sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Thomas are “more primitive”, are in a purer, earlier form, than their New Testament counterparts. (“The Other Gospels”, Westminster Press)
Collections of the sayings of Jesus, like the Q Gospel (a term used by scholars for the collection of sayings that both Matthew and Luke quoted from in their gospels), as well as the collection eventually given the name “Gospel of Thomas” in Syria, were compiled before gospels such as Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Many early contemplative mystics and “Wisdom Christians” used the Gospel of Thomas, greatly valuing it as a spiritual manual, a book of the wisdom of Jesus about how to experience the Kingdom of God, the spiritual dimension, during this present life. I also find the Book of Thomas to be a very spiritual document, not emphasising history of the past or prophecy speculation about the future, but a present-tense spiritual Kingdom of God available to human beings right now in this present moment, for those who learn from a living Master (one who already experiences this and works with others) the Methods of inner seeing and hearing so that souls may discover how to enter the Kingdom of the Light.
Summarizing the Spiritual Message of the Gospel of Thomas in the Context of Syriac Mysticism
Humanity is caught up in empty pursuits, and has become so intoxicated by, and addicted to, these attachments that it no longer sees the spiritual world. By abstaining from these intoxicating activities and notions, we can become sober enough to appreciate the teachings of spiritual masters that can help us to both see and hear spiritually. Once freed from various inferior forms of intoxication, we then thirst for a higher reality. We begin to change our ways. (Gospel of Thomas, Saying 28) The teachings of the master are intended to undo the inherited false beliefs of his/her students.
“The Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, but alas, people do not see it.” (from Saying 113) He told them to give up naive hand-me-down religious notions about where God is and “when the Kingdom will come.” These old beliefs only serve to deny souls access to the presence of God in the present moment. (Saying 39) The spiritual realm of God is not up there in the sky with clouds and birds. He told them it was in their hearts, in their very souls within. He instructed that if they would learn to contemplate, they would make an astonishing discovery! They would truly start to know themselves to be the sons and daughters of the Living Father, their real identity as souls. (Saying 3) Most do not believe it is possible for them to see the heavenly realms or dimensions, right here, right now. This condition of limited vision is described as spiritual poverty. (Saying 3) Yeshua the Living One didn’t want his students to conceive of the spiritual Kingdom of the Heavens as some external event arriving physically on earth in “the future”. The unhealthy approach of waiting for “prophecies” to be “fulfilled” promotes a running-out-the-clock mentality. Instead of pondering how best we can live our lives and live them well, we are encouraged, by the powers that be, to remain caught up in the illusion and wait for the next “big date” on the calendar to arrive. Then as now, there is always some new theory about when this will be. After one prophecy falls flat, then a new prophecy comes along to take its place. A new date is selected, is marketed to the masses. The “goal-post” is moved from 100 AD to 1000 AD, 1855 to 1856, from 1982 to 1999 or 2000, and now to 2012, and so it goes, “same as it ever was” (Talking Heads). The notion of a future-tense Kingdom of God or Golden Age coming down from the sky, also makes it completely unattainable by us human beings, as we live our lives here in the present-tense. All this endless prophecy info-tainment and idle speculation amounts to is to distract us from seeking the real spiritual dimensions that are available to us right now during this life.
There is also another factor and this is called “level confusion”. This is when other dimensions are conceived of as being squeezed into the dimensions we human beings are more acquainted with: the outer world of the five senses, the material world of space and time. With level confusion comets in the sky can be interpreted as being be great “signs and wonders” proclaiming the end of the current age. Or perhaps a certain political party or events upon the world stage are viewed as somehow effecting the heavens. Perhaps realities more likely to take place on the astral level are thought of as eventually happening on earth. With level confusion, heaven may be thought of as being “up”, as in being up in the sky or up with the stars of this particular Milky Way galaxy. I remember once noticing a book that proclaimed that the planet Saturn is the true location of heaven, that it is the “seventh planet” — seven is a nice number, and so on. And with level confusion, demarcations between dimensions have also been projected out into the material world, and even the world of politics, by dispensational thinking. That is to say, a belief that as of a certain date on the calendar, such as 70 AD, 1000 AD, 1843, 1999, the year 2000, 2012, or at the arrival of some date-certain on the calendar (usually the Gregorian calendar as opposed to the Islamic, Jewish or Chinese!), the laws of physics will change, world peace will automatically happen to us without even our own involvement in the process to make it so, and a different age will commence as if by magic — POOF! Jesus, the aliens, and angels will pick up after us, will clean up after humanity, creating for us a world that we ourselves are seemingly unwilling or unable to create, and this would be solely due to some calendar rolling over, taking humanity into a different epoch.
“His disciples said to him, ‘Twenty-four prophets have spoken in Israel, and they all spoke of you.’ He said to them, ‘You have disregarded the Living One who is in your presence, and have spoken of the dead.'” (Saying 52) “His disciples said to him, ‘When will the resurrection of the dead take place, and when will the new world arrive?’ He said to them, ‘What you are looking forward to has arrived already, but you don’t know it.'” (Saying 51) “If those who teach you say to you, ‘Look, the Father’s Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will get there before you do. If they say to you, ‘It is under the sea,’ then the fish will arrive there first. Rather, the Father’s Kingdom is within you and it is outside you.” (Saying 3) “You examine the face of heaven and earth, but you have not come to know the one who is in your presence, and you do not know how to examine this present moment.” (Saying 91) Yeshua instructed his students to discover “the new world” (the spiritual realm) for themselves right now, during this present time here on earth via mystic contemplation, not by looking up at the sky or hoping the latest speculation about prophecy will lead somewhere. “Look to the living one as long as you live, otherwise you might die and then seek to see the Living One, and you will be unable to see.” (Saying 59) The poet Rumi says, “My friend, the Sufi is the child of the present moment: to say “tomorrow” is not our way…..Some persons, relying on the promise of “tomorrow”, have wandered for years around that door, but “tomorrow” never comes.” (Rumi Daylight”, translated by Camille and Shaikh Kabir Helminski)
The Gospel of Thomas contains no prophecies about “end-times”, and so far, all of it’s “prophecies” have come true. While some choose to wait, putting the spiritual journey off till some future life, the mystics have their own second coming today, their own resurrection from the dead during the present moment, awaken from the slumber of the ages and sail across the Ocean of Illusion, guided by inner Light and the Music of the Spheres. The date on their calendar is Timelessness in the “NOW”, and it has come to pass in their own experience. Out of the darkness, the Light appears. Meditation becomes a Tunnel of Light, a Portal to the Beyond.
Receptivity to All-That-Is in the Present Moment via Inner Seeing and Hearing
The Living Master said to his initiates: “I will give you what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand has felt, and what has never occurred to the human mind.” (Saying 17) “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the Hidden Things will be revealed.” (Saying 108) The Master taught his disciples that in order to see the spiritual realm, they must “fast from the world” and enter into heavenly repose (sabbath rest) — rise above body-consciousness, mental impressions, memories, worries, and agitations. They must set aside some time to rest spiritually, to temporarily close their physical eyes (and ears) to the outside world in order to “see the Father”, the Supreme Being, with the eye of the soul. (Saying 27) Quite frequently mystics describe the inner vision as something that spontaneously appears when they reach a certain level of interior awareness called “pure prayer”, a term used for what we might call “meditation”. The Egyptian mystic Evagrius wrote: “The offspring of pure prayer is swallowed up by the Spirit. From this point on, the mind is beyond prayer, and prayer has ceased from it now that it has found something even more excellent. No Longer does the mind actually pray, but there is a gaze of wonder at the Inaccessible Things which do not belong to the world of mortal beings.” (“The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life”) “We have come from the Light”. (from Gospel of Thomas, Saying 51) “For you have come from it, and you will return there again.” (from Saying 49)
Becoming a Child of the Light
Many of these spiritual movements of Essenes, Gnostics, Friends of God, Ebionites, Manichaeans, etc…. have described themselves as “the children of the Light”. It was not an old scripture dating back many centuries, but a living teacher by the name of Yeshua who once taught his living students at the time that they would be able to experience “entering the Kingdom”, the other dimensions of Inner Space in the present-tense by seeing Divine Light. Note: the usage of the word “Light” here is not as a metaphor for intellectually understanding teachings, but refers to a real Divine Light that is mystically seen during contemplative meditation with the eye of the soul. “If your eye be Single, your whole body will be full of Light.” (Saying preserved in Matthew 6:22) “For this reason I say, if one is whole, one will be filled with Light, but if one is divided, one will be filled with darkness.” (Yeshua, from Saying 61, Gospel of Thomas) Becoming “a Single One”, a spiritually whole person united with God, was the goal of the Thomas tradition of Syrian mysticism. “When you make the two into one …… then you will enter the Kingdom.” (Saying 22) The spirit, mind and body of the mystic all become united in God; its new way of being is “Singleness.” The word for “Single One” or “Singleness” in the Syriac-Aramaic language is “ihidaya”, and is used to describe souls that enter into mystical oneness. (“Ihidayutha, A Study of the Life of Singleness in the Syrian Orient”, ARAM Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies) According to this book by Sebastian Brock of Oxford, the hermits of the Syrian tradition eventually were called “the ihidaya.” However, “ihidaya” isn’t merely a title, or a robe that one puts on, but is a matter of spiritual realisation, a state of being, an individual experience, a mystical level of awareness that is reached by a contemplative soul.
“There is Light within a Person of Light, and it illuminates the entire cosmos.” (Saying 24, Gospel of Thomas)
Kabir said, “The Light of one soul is equal to that of sixteen suns.”
“When the Father, who alone is good, visits the heart, he makes it holy and fills it with Light. And so a person who has such a heart is called blessed, for that person will see God.” (Valentinus of Alexandria)
“Faith in Christ is living, noetic Light. The Light of Jesus is noetic [spiritual] Light, and blessed is the soul which is accounted worthy to see it!.” (Saint Isaac the Syrian)
“The sun of consciousness within my heart keeps on shining and shining, all the time. Neither does it set nor does it rise.” (Maitrey-Upanishad)
“Man’s soul shall become, when it leaveth the body, a great flood of Light, so as to traverse all the regions until it cometh into the Kingdom of Mystery…… Seek, all of you, after the Light, so that the power of your soul that is in you may find Life. Do not cease seeking day or night until you find the Mysteries of the Kingdom of Light, which will purify you, transform you into pure Light, and guide you into the Kingdom of the Light. (Gospel of Faith-Wisdom — Pistis Sophia)
“A hymn of Rig Veda says, ‘Flashes of lightning are seen in the inner sky.’ Then, the powerful sound of rain can be heard; this sound is capable of washing or purifying the sins of the listener. During meditation, the saadhak (practitioner) sees a number of scintillations, flashes, sparkles, and electric-like sparks, and hears thunderous rumbles……..When a spiritual seeker sits in meditation, he/she makes an ascending journey, rising from the Aajnaa Chakra (variously termed as the Divine Gate, Third Eye, Divya Chakshu, Teesraa Til, Dasham Dwaar, Shiv Netra, Trinetra, etc. etc.) into the region of the Thousand-petalled Lotus, or the Sahasraar. Ascending further, when entry is made into the Trikutee, the inner Sun becomes visible, by seeing which the seeker acquires the super-natural or divine vision so as to be able to see all the three worlds.” (Sant Sevi Ji Maharaj, Maharshi Mehi Ashram, Kuppaghat, Bhagalpur, Bihar, India)
“Beneath all other impelling forces in the creation, spirituality is the primary cause. That, and that alone, is the driving force that always leaps up to join its Source. In every living being, from tiny plant up to man, the spiritual Flame of life is struggling upward and onward toward its Source of Being, and this process and this struggle must go on until the last speck of dust returns to the Central Fires of Infinite Being.
“The message of the Masters fills the world with hope, and at the same time it offers a rational foundation for such hope. It not only tells people what they should do, but it offers them a definite Method of doing it. In the march of the ages, cycle after cycle, in every planet where human beings reside, the great Masters are the light bearers of that world. Until the end of the ages, they will remain the friends and saviors of those who struggle toward the Light.” (Julian Johnson, “Path of the Masters”)