The various late-classical sects falling under the catchall term “Gnostics” were nothing if not some of the most impressive practitioners of mythopoesis the world has ever seen. Drawing on biblical, platonic, and Zoroastrian antecedents, their various mythologies—which have influenced scores of poets, thinkers, writers, and artists from Jacob Boehme to William Blake, from Cormac McCarthy to Terrence Malick—are extraordinarily rich and imaginative explorations of the human condition, a condition often depicted as the journey of a being, whether human or angelic, lost in a world of chaos, madness, and cruelty. In the age of the imprisonment and torture of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, of kangaroo courts, of the apotheosis of political and corporate propaganda, and of the alternate realities of social media, the internet, and gaming, the Gnostic imaginary, well, is not too hard to imagine as a reality. But a reality lacking in anything truly participating in the Real.
One of my favorite (and certainly the most accessible—Gnostic myths can be very complex) iterations of this mythopoetic motif is found in The Hymn of the Pearl, a fable attributed to the Apostle Thomas and appended to The Gospel of Thomas. The Hymn tells the story of a king’s son who is sent into the world to retrieve a pearl in the keeping of a serpent. He leaves his family and sojourns into the Land of Egypt, where, as he is just about to complete his mission, he is distracted by friends he’s made and, as the story relates, “I forgot that I was a King’s son, / And became a slave to their king. / I forgot all concerning the Pearl / For which my Parents had sent me; / And from the weight of their victuals / I sank down into a deep sleep.”
Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups, based on The Hymn of the Pearl
Elsewhere in the Gnostic corpus, our divine origin is spoken of in terms of a spark enclosed in darkness (this is a theme, incidentally, of Metaphysical Poet Henry Vaughan’s 1650–55 collection Silex Scintillans—“the sparking flint”). Such is a recurrent theme in literature, not to mention film. And we have all had moments when we found this in our own biographies. No one is immune. As Psalm 82 describes it, “They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course.” I think this an accurate description of our own times; indeed, of all times. We walk on in darkness.
At this time of the Winter Solstice, the festival of the light literally overcoming the darkness, to which was later added the Feast of Christmas (even though Jesus was probably born in April), the festival of the Light of the World (though the world comprehendeth it not), I think it a good thing to contemplate our own lostness in the wasteland of Egypt (though on the surface it seems so rich) and remember from whence we came and whither we are called.
The protagonist of The Hymn of the Pearl comes to himself when he receives a letter from his Father: “Up and arise from thy sleep, / Give ear to the words of Our Letter! / Remember that thou art a King’s son; / See whom thou hast served in thy slavedom. / Bethink thyself of the Pearl / For which thou didst journey to Egypt.” Psalm 82 uses much the same language: “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes. Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations.” Jesus is our letter from the Father.
So at this time of the light’s victory over darkness, may we also remember why we were sent into the Land of Egypt.
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.