Throughout my whole life, during every minute of it, the world has been gradually lighting up and blazing before my eyes until it has come to surround me, entirely lit up from within.
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
The problem with supposedly universal temples is that, inevitably, some of us find no home in them. We must perforce look elsewhere.
From Auric Perennialism…
The formalized notion of a universal religion seems to have started with Akhenaton of Egypt, who decreed that everyone worship his two-handed sun god. The notion resurfaced under the military priests of Judaism, and again in the religion that named itself “catholic,” which meant “in general,” although not open to the divorced, the remarried, contraceptive users, queer people, non-Christians of any other faith, women who have had abortions, feminists, polytheists, practicing witches, the unbaptized, married priests, or women priests. Similar exclusions closed off access to the other “universal” religions.
When Counter-Reformationist Agnostino Steuco coined the term “perennial philosophy” in 1540, he sought to link his version of Christianity with the classical likes of Plato and Plotinus. Truth, he believed (with Ficino and Pico della Mirandola looking over his shoulder), emanated from a single divine, eternal source. The truths of the philosophers and poets of old had anticipated Catholicism. He dedicated De Perenni Philosophia to Pope Paul III.
In the hands of hermeticists, theosophists, Transcendentalists, writers like Aldous Huxley, and Western-educated Hindus like Vivekananada and Ram Mohan Roy, this universalist (catholic) notion gained an esoteric coating, but its essential monism remained intact. Taking a cue from Goethe and Ficino, even C.G. Jung believed in a fabulous Aurea Catena, a “Golden Chain” of perennial esoteric praxis going back through Hermeticism to the ancient Chaldeans and Egyptians.
By self-definition, there is only one Perennial Philosophy. “All religions are one,” joined by the teachings of a trans-cultural lineage of the inwardly pious. However, an underlying unity of Source does not necessarily translate into a unity of lineage. In fact, most mystics remain embedded in the religion they grew up in rather than feeling any kinship outside of it. Hildegard of Bingen tried to convert Jews and preached against heresy. The Tibetan title of Dalai was established by Mongolian ruler Altan Khan, who after his spiritual revelations proceeded to outlaw indigenous shamanism. (Once the missionary known later as the third Dalai Lama convinced the overlord he was the reincarnation of Kublai Khan, Buddhism spread throughout Mongolia.)
Why should there not be many esoteric lineages? And what if, hidden behind the dazzle of spiritual golden light, we could discern the star of a more lunar, less literal, more intuitive tradition, passed on not so much from teacher to student in an unbroken chain as from what is periodically in the air, what surfaces now and then from collective consciousness: an Argentum Catena or Silver Chain of subtle hints about our psychospiritual relations with a lively, animate world? A tradition rarely in the spotlight, murmuring instead like a quiet stream flowing through cracks in ideological dams that split self from Earth and spirit from matter? A tradition that keeps psychodynamics and ecosystemics together while shining reflective lunar light on their interplay through time and place. As Islamic alchemist Muhammad ibn Umail suggested, “Turn the gold into silver” and see what is revealed.
…to Argent Inspiration
In this kind of spirituality, the divine does not lurk above or beyond the world of appearances, but instead, as immanent, infuses it with animate power. The gods and spirits, sprites and daemons express this power with their wondrous diversity. They also show up within us, as the work of Jung has demonstrated. But not only within us.
Imagine a spiritual path without official clergy, hierarchy, creed, or book. Without guilt, obedience, submission, or doctrine, and without any interest in making converts. A path that recognizes the validity of science, but as one of many ways of knowing. The primary moods of this spiritual path are awe, appreciation, curiosity, responsibility, loving respect, care, homecoming, and belonging. Primary values of this path include care of self, other creatures, people, planet, and cosmos. The path does not confine itself to the human realm, but recognizes spirituality as a trans-species capability.
Ethically, actions and practices that keep us connected and in respectful relationship to Earth and its cosmos-linked powers are considered good; those that separate us from Earth, the cosmos, ourselves, and each other are bad. (Unlike “moral,” which refers to custom, “ethical” derives from a word that points to where horses come home at night.)
A primary piety of this path is love of Earth and all the other divine powers of the cosmos, love given not from fearful children bowing down, but from psychological adults engaged in an ongoing conversation with these powers. Who knows? Perhaps they need our appreciation, or at least our human feedback. We can offer them this via gnosis: direct apprehension of their sacred presence.
This Silver Chain reaches far back, to the first animistic practices of ancient shamans and medicine people and nature artists, practices that have not died out. Not everyone would resonate to it. Across times and cultures, some would, and have.
Characteristics of the Silver Tradition:
- Matter, nature, world, and cosmos perceived as enspirited and animate
- A profoundly and consistently felt unity of divine, world, and innermost self
- Reconciliation of “inner” and “outer” animism via an archetypal World Soul
- Transition from dysdaimonia (misalignment with one’s “Angel”) to eudaimonia
- Emphasis on knowledge through symbol, metaphor, image, story, and myth
- Transmitted mainly in bits and pieces, “in the air,” synchronistically arising
- Encouragement of students to become teachers; non-hierarchical
- A heart-based path, with “heart” (following Ibn Arabi) as a chamber of divine images
- Engagement of the imaginal as a semi-autonomous many-powered realm of being
- The spiritual adventure pictured as long exile leading to joyous homecoming
- Actions and responses of the “subtle body” felt through the physical body
- Liberation from everyday ignorance and illusion (the Gnostics’ “deep sleep”)
- Anti-authoritarian, nonorthodox; friendly to religion but not held by it
- Compensatory to more solar, exoteric, priestly forms of knowledge-practice
- Challenging of polarized gender roles; acceptance of diverse forms of love
- Of interest mainly to gnostically inclined seekers wanting knowledge more than belief
- Of an underground tradition, never mainstream, reborn in periods of cultural collapse.
Although we will look later at four Western examples of the Argentum Catena—namely, Gnosticism, alchemy, depth psychology, and spiritual ecology—we understand the tradition to be worldwide, because perceivers of immanent spirituality are. Reverent Earth-honoring and cosmos-oriented systems of embodied gnosis grew early in Africa, Australia, and Native America and continue to evolve as changing times demand. Taoism and certain schools of Vedanta and Buddhism regard matter itself as sacred and ensouled, and mystical Judaism recognizes Shekinah as the holy spirit of dwelling. Echoing these traditions, contemporary complexity sciences have observed self-organizing patterns intrinsic to existence emerging from apparent randomness and chaotic rupture.
The Silver Chain is not synonymous with esotericism, however. Striving for realms far above, practitioners of dualistic systems that regard embodied existence as unreal do not live in an animate world filled with holy forces. In some forms of neo-Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Transcendentalism, Theosophy, and New Age religion, the focus of effort is almost entirely individualistic, with a Christian emphasis (even in pagan systems) on the primacy of the personal soul without the Christian focus on service and social justice in this world. The controlling motif is flight, not depth.
A partial Silver Chain timeline might be helpful:
- Ancestors and founders: shamanism, Paleolithic art revering animals and elements.
- 200,000 BCE: humanity born of geological rupture (Rift Valley).
- 12,800 BCE: ejection from “Eden” via the Younger Dryas freeze.
- 9500 BCE: the first temple at Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey (“Anatolia” means “Sunrise”).
- 7500 BCE: city life starts at Catalhoyuk (“fork mound”).
- 2600 BCE: Pyramids and Sphinx built; the Pyramid Texts; embalming will become alchemy.
- 2334 BCE: the Age of Empires begins when Sargon I conquers Sumer as drought deepens. His daughter.
- Enheduanna composes the “Exaltation of Inanna” and interprets dreams.
- 1500 BCE: Indo-European tribes from central Russia move in on India. Earliest hymns of the Rig Veda.
- 1400 BCE: the Oracle at Delphi founded; the Pythoness prophecies until 390 CE.
- 800 BCE: the first Upanishads are written down from far older spiritual-contemplative traditions.
- 700 BCE: The Odyssey and Iliad show the gods (including Gaia) as among us. Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days. Early Celts engage in craft and ritual in Hallstatt, Austria.
- 636 BCE: birth of Thales of Miletus (636-546). He will teach that “all things are full of gods.”
- 623 BCE: Yahwist nationalists in Judah write Deuteronomy and add Adam and Eve to Genesis. Gnostics will reinterpret these stories to place emphasis on Eve and Sophia.
- 582 BCE: Pythagoras (582-507): the first in the West to write about Earth as mother. Aesara of Lucania is the first depth psychologist: only a page survives of her book Human Nature.
- 500 BCE: Ile Ife founded in what is now Osun State in southwestern Nigeria. The religion of Ifa works with oracles and dreams and does not rigidly separate spirit from nature.
- 360 BCE: Plato writes the Timaeus and describes the Anima Mundi (World Soul).
- 331 BCE: the Alexandrian Library founded.
- 318 BCE: Jixia Academy (named for a harvest god) founded in what is now Shandong, China.
- Year 0 CE: Gnosticism flourishes; Jesus is executed.
- 200: Maria Prophetissa of Alexandria is the first known alchemist.
- 390: Gnosticism outlawed in the now-Christian Roman Empire; Gnostic manuscripts buried to protect them from being burned.
- 415: Alexandrian Library burned down by religious fanatics. Martyrdom of Hypatia, scientist-philosopher director of the Library.
- 762: the Abbasids found the House of Wisdom in Baghdad.
- 900-960: Muhammad ibn Umail (“Senior”), Gnostic, hermeticist, alchemist.
- 1165-1240: Abu Muhammad ibn Arabi, Sufi poet and philosopher.
- 1433-1499: Marsilio Ficino and the Platonic Academy of Florence.
- 1493-1541: Paracelsus the physician.
- 1548-1600: Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake for revealing his gnosis.
- 1568: Yoruba slaves brought to the Caribbean by Spanish soldiers carry spiritual stories and practices that will continue to thrive and evolve.
- 1575-1624: Jakob Boehme.
- 1623-1673: Margaret Cavendish.
- 1749-1832: Wolfgang Goethe, composer of Faust and founder of Goethean phenomenology.
- 1757-1827: William Blake.
- 1801-1887: Gustav Fechner.
- 1875-1961: CG Jung.
- 1877-1962: Hermann Hesse.
- 1897-1967: Christiana Morgan.
- 1903-1978: Henry Corbin.
- 1905-2004: Jane Hollister Wheelwright.
- 1944- : Alice Walker, who lives in an animate world and refers to God as “Godness” and “Mama.”
Let us consider four types of Silver Chain spirituality.
The center link of the Silver Chain is the World Soul. The Gnostics knew her as the primal self-reflection of the unknown and ungendered God. “I am the First,” she tells us in the Trimorphic Protennoia, “the Thought that dwells in the Light. I am the movement that lives in the All, She in whom the All takes its stand, the first-born among those who came to be, She who exists before the All.” She was also known as Eve, Norea, Mary Magdalene, Barbelo, Zoe, and Sophia, who breathed soul into all the living.
In Gnostic lore, these feminine Messengers of Light and bearers of Gnosis who teach and mother us all can stand up even to Heaven. In one story, Norea, daughter of Noah, calls out to God when evil tyrants try to molest her. An angel descends instead to help her, but Norea, surprised, neither bows nor wavers but promptly demands, “Who are you?” In response to this courage, the angel, Eleleth, whose name means Sagacity, teaches Norea of her spiritual ancestry. Later, when Noah refuses to let her aboard the Ark, she blows her hot breath on it and burns it down. Noah rebuils his boat but does not make this rejective mistake a second time.
The Gnostics also told a very different version of the Genesis story. In it Eve, an emanation of Sophia, comes upon a deanimate Adam lying helplessly on the ground. What happens next is told in the text On the Origin of the World:
When Eve saw Adam cast down, she pitied him, and she said, “Adam, live! Rise up upon the earth!” Immediately her word became a deed. For when Adam rose up, immediately he opened his eyes. When he saw her, he said, “You will be called ‘the mother of the living,’ because you are the one who gave me life.”
Mary Magdalene stands forth as another powerful learner and giver of Gnosis. For Christian Gnostics she was the true inheritor of the inner teachings of Jesus. Some Gnostic texts refer to her as his “companion”; others reveal her as the brilliant one in the midst of rather dull male disciples. When Jesus asks her about her bouts of conflict with them, she replies, “I fear Peter because he hates women.” In what remains of her gospel he ridicules her when she reveals a vision. Peter took over the church built atop his tomb; Mary was branded a prostitute by Pope Gregory.
Even before he came along, Gnosticism was forced underground in 367 CE by what had hardened into the early Christian Church, attacked by it partly because of a reverence for wise goddesses. Gnostic myths told of powerful archons on the loose: male sub-gods, or “Authorities of Darkness,” that ruled the world and worked to keep us all asleep and unaware (and, in our day, funding wars and buying things). Gnostic codices hidden in buried jars continue to surface, each text giving voice once again to what had been silenced for so many centuries.
Sophia resurfaced as a key figure in alchemy, a wisdom tradition starting in Egypt and evolving in the Middle East when shut out of Europe by popes and bishops afraid of the alchemical preoccupation with ensouled matter. If everything is enspirited and the Kingdom of Heaven all around us, as the Gospel of Thomas says, then we need beg for no keys to get in. Alchemists found magic and meaning even in dungheaps and dark corners. They took seriously the parable of the rejected stone that in wise hands could serve as the cornerstone.
Every tradition includes its share of shysters, and alchemy was no different. Some of its representatives sucked coinage from imperial treasuries by pretending to turn lead into gold: foreshadowers of the bankster frauds of our day. The genuine alchemists sought the Philosopher’s Stone of healing, mystery, and Sophia. “Our gold is not the ordinary gold” goes one of their famous sayings. Another warns of literalism and reductionism: “Beware of the physical in the material.”
Like the Gnostics, the alchemists knew that to find Sophia one must turn away from public spectacles and dazzling venues and seek her sparks of light in the dark, where most fear to look. For the adepts cooking and praying at their laboratory altars, the darkness within and the world’s darkness joined in one shadowy realm where animated beings and forces held sway. It was possible to glimpse them through vera imaginatio, the true imagination, not to be confused with making things up. The alchemists had in mind what Henri Corbin described as the imaginal, the realm of suprapersonal images he had come across in the sacred writings of the Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi. This mystic’s visionary encounter with the beautiful figure of Wisdom moved not only the alchemists but the Christian mystics and European troubadours. Dante’s longing for Beatrice recalls this numinous Islamic motif.
Although alchemists sharply disagreed over more than a thousand years of labor about the order of operations to bring forth the Philosopher’s Stone from unrefined prime matter, many subscribed to four main phases of their great opus: the Blackening first, then the Whitening, the Yellowing, and the Reddening last. Some speculated that the Stone itself gave off a red glow. Shine it on lead and it turned to silver or gold; on sickness and it healed; on glass and it gave forth precious gems; on itself or other objects to create more Stones. “Projection” was a Gnostic term and then an alchemical one. Adepts compared watching the Stone coagulate to witnessing the wedding of Sophia with her heavenly mate, referring to him as King Sol and to her as Queen Luna. The glowing Stone was their divine child.
CG Jung saw all this as psychological activity projected onto matter through chemistry. Blackening meant descent, depression; whitening reflection, purification; yellowing dawning insight; and reddening passionately embodied attainment announced by the Coniunctio, the marriage of “opposites” in the individuating psyche. In both alchemy and Gnosticism he saw the ancestry of his own version of depth psychology.
Jung’s influence on the Silver Tradition has been a mixed one. Those of us who have heard of Gnosticism and alchemy as wisdom paths probably owe this to Jung’s work on them. His psychology updated both of them. But it also makes the double move of subjectivizing spiritual work while taking soul out of the world. If that world seems animated, Jung believed, only our projected human psyche makes it so. What is of value remains inside us, with outer events important only insofar as they serve interiority.
In fact most, perhaps all, of Jung’s original key ideas look like psychologized translations of Gnostic concepts and images. “Archetype,” “syzygy,” “shadow,” “projection,” “image,” “wholeness,” “unconsciousness,” and “Anthropos” are Gnostic terms. Individuation is the psychological counterpart to Gnosis. In making these translations Jung reified intuitive, subtle, and lunar layers of consciousness all around us into solar theoretical constructs inside us: exactly what Ibn Umail warned against, comparing such an introverted approach with hiding inside the brain and the Stone instead of working on its trans-psychic refinement for eventual use out in the world. Jung did likewise with alchemy.
Late in his life, Jung recognized and wrote about the workings of activated archetypes outside of himself. At bottom, he wrote, psyche merges with world. Jung’s insistence that we cannot be healthy while dissociated from the natural world identifies him as an early ecopsychologist.
Jung did not live long enough to hear about spiritual ecology, but he would have recognized its lineage despite his bias toward introverted individualism because he knew that all our ancestors revered spirits of nature and place. The usual notion that this sensibility was killed off by science fails to note the incompatibility of nature reverence with the industrialization of entire regions of our planet. Thomas Berry was referring to this when he pointed out that the big cultural stories we live by today are both spiritually and ecologically destructive. By contrast, if everyone viscerally felt Earth to be one vast temple, its destruction would halt overnight. The alternative is Mordor, the Upperworld leveled into an Underworld where even the rivers burn.
Spiritual ecology goes by many names—ecospirituality, nature spirituality, religious ecology—but remains steadfast in its commitment to a conscious relationship with a reenchanted world alive in ways we might never have suspected. Going well beyond Gaia Theory’s emphasis on a self-regulating planet making itself optimal for life, spiritual ecology calls for the towering artificial wall between self and world, culture and nature, inner and outer, and material and spiritual to be torn down. With it could fall many us-vs-them dualisms that keep things globally greedy, violent, overspent, and overheating.
Neither ecopsychology or spiritual ecology idolize Nature; instead, they revere its animated soulfulness, which includes respecting the needs of its breathing, blooming, and crawling emissaries in the web of interspecies kinship in which we too are embedded. “Emissaries” because of more and more accounts of animals in trouble calling out to us: whales entangled in nets, elephants escaped from the circus, the decomposing manatee that came to me in a dream.
As yet, spiritual ecology contains no consistent set of schools or practices. Most books on it are anthologies. It remains a diverse body of knowledge and ritual.
I call my version of spiritual ecology terragnosis for two reasons. The first is that my sense of the sacredness of nature, place, plant, animal, element, and Earth is served in part by terrapsychology, the study of how these presences interact with us continually and, usually, unconsciously. Consider the Bay Area, the largest estuary on the West Coast of this continent. Ecology knows the estuary as an edge place where different kinds of waters, temperatures, plants, and species meet to create incalculable richness and diversity. Augmenting this truth, terrapsychology asks: In what ways is this place a cultural, psychological, and spiritual estuary too?
For we are not separate from where we are. Geologically understood, California, named for a fictional black queen who embarked on risky adventures, is quite young and restless. The coast used to start somewhere in Nevada. Over millions of years, plate tectonics scooped up island arcs to form our edgy state “west of the West” and to load it with rumbling earthquake faults; the San Andreas gets its name from the saint who was martyred by being pulled apart. We watch for incoming waves and balance on shifting surfaces. Little wonder we’re such an impulsive, quirky, and innovative bunch.
All of which is to say that places live us at least as much as we live them. We can measure them to some degree, but from the standpoint of unconscious perception, they are packed with vital powers we ignore to our downfall. The failure of place-based imagination plays a significant role in the worldwide ecoapocalypse bearing down on us.
I had assumed that the Earth, the spirit of the Earth, noticed exceptions — those who
wantonly damage it and those who do not. But the Earth is wise. It has given itself into
the keeping of all, and all are therefore accountable.
The second reason for the word “terragnosis” is that a terrapsychological sense can help us welcome home the banished gods—who do not go away, as Jung points out, but return to our secularized and materialized daily round as fads, isms, breakups, breakdowns, and wars. When we fail to keep the altars in repair, the Sacred shows up as symptom.
As collective consciousness moves on, the old forms of the gods collapse, inevitably, prompting the short-sighted to believe the magic gone forever and the Divine safely reduced to neurobiology. The bewildered then believe in anything they hope will save them from the abyss of meaninglessness: iPhones and comfort food, Adam and Eve cavorting with dinosaurs, the Invisible Hand of Molloch’s relentless Market. William Stafford’s poem “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” puts it like this:
If you don’t know the kind of person I am and I don’t know the kind of person you are a pattern that others made may prevail in the world and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
But then, inevitably, the star rises once again. The time of renewal dawns, IF we can provide what the ancient Greeks called xenia—hospitality—to What addresses us in plants, animals, symptoms, synchronicities, and dreams: What knocks at the very doors of perception.
From deep within the existential void growing around the oppressive Roman Empire, the Gnostics creatively reimagined the myths handed down to them, and by doing so revealed the divine powers of the cosmos as accessible from within. At the outbreak of World War I Jung reimagined them again as psychic forces for which he borrowed the Gnostic term “archetypes.” Here on the brink of ecological extermination, our own species ripe for the endangered list, can we return the divine to the world, so to speak, while preserving its root within us?
For example, how would it be to see archetypes around us as well as within us? Scientists tell us that spiral galaxies tend to live longer because their spin funnels gaseous nourishment to their stellar systems. Furthermore, these galaxies, each embedded in a vast framework of dark matter, continue to create, evolve, and self-organize. Is not the spiral also an ancient religious symbol? A symbol Jung interpreted as the path of individuation, a path not linear but circular and three-dimensional?
Earlier I compared the Silver Tradition to a quiet stream. For Thoreau, “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.” Annie Dillard said that “Time is a creek bearing changing lights.” In an interview in 1971, William Stafford mused, “I keep following this sort of hidden river of my life, you know, whatever the topic or impulse which comes, I follow it along trustingly. And I don’t have any sense of its coming to a kind of crescendo, or of its petering out either. It is just going steadily along.” Jung writes of the river’s flow, ever-changing but ever-renewing, as an archetype; moreover the archetypes all behave like rivers finding their proper channel. Hindu tradition tells us that the Ganges is a goddess. Stellar gas pulled into a black hole flows like a flickering river along which Time itself shifts and blurs. Don’t all of these together tell us, each in its own way, that rivers are sacred entities? That foundational images ever loom in the flux and foam of existence?
Going one step farther: what if each goddess, god, sprite, spirit, daemon, and familiar reflected some intelligent aspect or quality of the natural world? Perhaps Sophia is the “within of things,” as Teilhard de Chardin so poetically expressed it: the within of everything, the subjective dimension of the cosmos. Across pantheons her wise sisters go by names like Star Woman, Fatima, Andraste, Brigid, Nuwa, Sekhmet, and Amaterasu. They personify the scope and power of trans-human Wisdom filling the universe.
What about love? Perhaps Aphrodite and her erotic sisters bring the attractive force that binds hearts and hadrons, particles and anti-particles, seducing them into giving up their passionate energies to hold everything together. —And why not just call the fruitfulness of Earth (otherwise known as Arda, Terra, Ala, and Gaia) by holy names like Demeter, Sita, Flora, Pomona, or Pachamama, with a contemporary understanding of them not as otherworldly mega-people somewhere behind the crops and plants, but as Fertility itself a sentient earthly abundance, imaged, animate, and fully capable of response?
Unlike world-negating forms of Gnosticism, terragnosis takes seriously its ethical obligations to this world. A secure attachment to place and people facilitates a sense of belonging to the animate multiverse around us, however vast and mysterious. Greed, warfare, intolerance (sexism, ageism, racism, imperialism, colonialism, and all other isms), and destruction of humans, nonhumans, and biosphere are contrary to the laws of spiritual integrity and must be actively and peacefully opposed.
Terragnosis also recognizes our sentient Earth as the country common to us all. An ancient and beautiful prayer says, “On earth as it is in heaven”; today we say, “In earthheaven.” Heaven down, up, here,within, between us, and all around us. The path of terragnosis points toward Terrania, the just, sustainable, locally rooted, ethnically diverse, globally linked, and thoroughly enjoyable world civilization we must assemble if we are to continue our existence on Earth.
Could Silver Tradition reverence for the World Soul and the faces of the divine feminine heal our deep planetary crisis? Not by itself, any more than worshipping goddesses leads to respecting the rights of women. But perhaps in the very persistence of this suppressed Tradition we find an example of the hardy patience and this-worldly practicality that must accompany reverence. In a visionary encounter described by Clarice Lispector, St. Teresa speaks of the door to Heaven opening at any time, anywhere, even while one is pruning an orange tree; and when the door closes, there remains the tree to be pruned.
We return to the advice of ibn Umail, known in the West as Senior: “Turn the gold into silver.” Beyond the auric glow of the solar, the evident, the literal, and the masculinist, beyond fixes, master plans, and global interventions, look in a time of darkening sky and sea for a hint of silver lining.