There is a tremendous interest in gnostic mysticism after the discovery of the Nag Hammadi writings. But also well-established sources such as the gospels can surprise us when we read them with different eyes. I know that many spiritual seekers are not interested in the bible. But denying our ‘Christian baggage’ meant that we did not accept part of our identity.
Many times I had listened to the Matthew Passion before I read Matthew’s Gospel. The word gospel was not yet part of my personal lexicon. To me Matthew was simply an author and what he had told was a story. A story with a message, as I had been told. That message should be a blessing.
When I started reading the first gospel of the New Testament I felt everything but blessing. As a conscientious student of philology as the University of Moscow I read Matthew’s Gospel despite growing reluctance. I wrote a thesis about a well-known Russian apocryphal, and getting to know the source of the cannon I thought was a must, even though my professor did not insist; the country was still Communist and bible studies were taboo. You simply could not find religious literature in the bookshop. Only specialised scientific libraries have the ‘holy books’. My first meeting with Matthew was at the manuscript department of the large Lenin library. Apart from dictionaries and encyclopaedias there was a copy of the New Testament on one of the shelves, an edition from the time of the Tsars.
Forbidden books are particularly attractive. Unfortunately, the expectation of exclusivity cannot be fulfilled for everyone. While reading the first few pages of Matthew’s story it soon lost its initial appeal. At the time I longed for colour, play and adventure, I wanted to learn, enjoy life, and I thought it was absurd to declare the spiritually poor blessed. Actually I thought that the whole story was quite absurd, not to mention poor and dull.
Matthew’s story only started to interest me after my journey of discovery in the wide world of spirituality. My experience with other spiritual traditions put the qualities of the gospel in a very different light. What I had experienced at the time as a poor piece of writing suddenly came across as simple and concise. At first I thought Matthew’s story was ‘boring’, now I would say ‘modest’. I would also describe its ‘emptiness’ in other terms: the story is a description of the essential orientation points in life, without the trimmings. After having heard and read so many stories I started to appreciate all these qualities tremendously.
You need a good reason to pick up a ‘boring book’ for the second time. I had one. It struck me that I felt more sympathy for people who valued the great stories of their forefathers than for those who knew nothing of them at all. My favourite writers were well versed in their own culture, but they could also see beyond cultural boundaries. I saw them as people who had crossed borders yet still harboured warm feelings for the ‘parental home’. At a certain point I asked myself: ‘where do I stand?!’
I considered myself a spiritual nomad, and nomads have no parental home. For sedentary people the fatherland is home, for nomads it is simply the well where they happened to be when they were born. I don’t know if wells carry a particular meaning for all nomads, but for me this appeared to be the case. My ‘well’ is the spiritual source of Russian culture: Christianity. Despite my disappointment with the book of Matthew, I always had a wonderful sensation looking at old icons and crosses. Although Eastern mysticism fascinated me more than Christianity, I didn’t get that same sensation from the ying-yang symbol, the dancing Shiva or other images from the East. At a certain moment I wanted to understand more of my Christian sentiment. It was time to reread Matthew’s story.
My second encounter with the story of Matthew was at home a few years ago. The content of the story was already known to me. The fact that I had no expectations was beneficial. This time the story fascinated me. Gold dust can look quite plain when you see it for the first time – although that shouldn’t have been an excuse for a curious philology student. How come I didn’t notice the grains of gold dust when I first read Matthew’s story? And how come they had such little value for my friends from a Christian background who had known it since their youth?
I was simply asking myself rhetorical questions. There are so many factors, which influence the perception of text. That perception is always coloured by personal needs of the moment and the framework of the reader. During the second reading I directed my attention to the proverbs; as a spiritual nomad I was trying to see if it could possibly give me insight. To my delight I found insight in abundance. I have collected these proverbs and changed their sequence. Think of these six collections as rhapsodies, told by wandering bards from Hellenistic times. Such rhapsodies were creative compositions of literary fragments. Although it is a genre, which disappeared from literature a long time ago it appeared much later in European music and still exists there today.
The Hellenistic view was that the arts were a necessary tool for imparting Godly inspiration. This was passed on from muses to authors and then from authors to rhapsodists, the authors of rhapsodies. The latter, of whom Homer was the most famous, translated godly inspiration to the public. The gospel rhapsodies in this book are by no means an accurate recovery of the forgotten literary genre in its original meaning. It is simply a composition of gospel proverbs presented in the style of rhapsodies. Also my intention is different: I would like to bring across a perception of the gospel from a trans-religious perspective, and not so much an inspiration.
A Feeling of Connection
Furthermore it is important to note, that I did not go to work on this as an academic, but as a spiritual nomad. This is how I came to a selection of proverbs in which universal values have been expressed into the Christian language.
The aspect of language is of great importance in this. Mother tongue, in my understanding, is more than the words people learn from their parents. Symbols and images also belong to the psyche of a child. From this point of view my sentiment for icons and crosses is hardly a mystery. Whichever way you look at religion, you always deal with your forefather’s confession of religion, which is part of your culture; the subconscious absorbing of their expressions of belief through literature, old art and many other channels, cannot be obscured by an ideological or academic filter.
I don’t know what determines the inner connection with one’s own spiritual baggage, but in the course of time I have come to the conclusion that one can enhance this feeling of connection, just like any other feeling. In the old days travellers would carry a little pouch of home soil with them. Is such a thing imaginable with a spiritual journey?
Change of Perspective
I've made gospel rhapsodies of different lengths and of different thematic motives. This motif is indicated with a primeval Christian metaphor, which is revisited in the title. Here and there, in between the proverbs from Matthew there are proverbs from other gospels. I did not take this any further because these sources are considered by everyone in the Christian world to be the foundation of the Christian tradition.
In my view the main theme of the gospel is change of consciousness. A few proverbs in which this clearly resonates come back in consecutive rhapsodies, like a musical intonation or melody can run though the entire oeuvre of a composer. This is one of the specialities, which separates this sequence of rhapsodies from the usual collection of quotations. I hope that the reader will see the other unique qualities for him or herself.
Be that as it may, the purpose of these rhapsodies is to create a shift of perception and awareness. From the old paradigm to a new one. The collection is for people who are curious about such a shift in perspective.