Book Review, by Joseph Caezza
THE VOICE OF THE EAGLE: THE HEART OF CELTIC CHRISTIANITY, JOHN SCOTUS ERIUGENA's HOMILY ON THE PROLOGUE TO THE GOSPEL OF ST JOHN, translated with introduction and reflections by Christopher Bamford, Lindisfarne Books (2000) 335 p, $16.95
Here is a poetic 206 page commentary by a contemporary scholar, Christopher Bamford, on the classic ninth century 43 page homily by the Irish sage, John Scotus Eriugena, on the 17 sentences that compose the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John. The contents of this book stretch back two millennia yet provide a key to the timelessness of higher reality. Dressed in the garb of an academic publication with its forward, extended introductions to the first and second editions and bibliography of editions, translations, studies and background reading this book should rather be read by a much wider audience of sincere seekers.
The 17 verses of John's Prologue constitute the single most significant dictum of the entire NEW TESTAMENT. The ninth century Irish sage, Eriugena, provides penetrating commentary on this ultimate masterpiece of esoteric thought. The present Lindisfarne publication begins with a forward by Thomas Moore that aptly depicts the peril of contemporary society where psychology has replaced religion.
"We live always on the edge of self-destruction, which takes the form of depression, suicide, violence and nuclear armaments, because we don't have the Divine life in us to offer hope. Depression is not really a psychological malady; it is rather an extreme abundance of an otherwise natural withdrawal from life. It is a theological issue, an existential melancholy, and it requires depth of thought far transcending the social-scientific categories we usually rely on."
The Prologue, Eriugena's commentary
and the poetic reflections that follow offer a luminous alternative to our present
culture of psychobabble.
Bamford's introductions and reflections situate Eriugena's homily as "The Voice of the Eagle -- The Heart of Celtic Christianity". In line with medieval thinking the totemic astrological icon of the eagle identifies the evangelist, John, just as the lion indicates Mark, the bull refers to Luke and the Aquarian Man calls to mind Matthew. The introduction to the first edition contains an invaluable biographic sketch of Eriugena, a sagely ninth century scholar of Latin and Greek. His views synthesized Platonism with Christianity and remain the only serious alternative to the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Eriugena's philosophy asserts the unity of being, consciousness and nature. These turn embedded in a substratum of Divine knowledge proceed through hierarchy and interaction.
The human being as spirit, soul and body set amidst this process naturally lives to unite with the underlying Divine substratum for the purpose of ultimate transfiguration. Eriugena's ideas found acceptance not only by the heretical Amaurians, Cathers and Brethren of the Free Spirit but influenced the kabbalistic Zohar of Moses de Leon, and the metaphysics of Meister Eckhart, Tauler, Ruysbroeck, Spinoza, Giordano Bruno, Hegel and even Ezra Pound.
Bamford's introduction to the second edition sounds reminiscent of an invitation to a chic religious retreat or perhaps the colorful writing found in some new age travel book. He invokes the living presence of angels and saints along with the ambiance of pilgrimage to illuminate the fundamental aspects of Celtic spirituality. Particular detail paid to St. Kevin, St. Columba and St. Brigid depict a uniquely Irish sense of holiness. Bamford here presents a solemn testament to all that is good and beautiful in Ireland. These insightful introductions alone justify the price of the book.
Along with the EMERALD TABLET the PROLOGUE TO THE FOURTH GOSPEL ranks among the most profound articulations of western esoteric wisdom. It deserves to be memorized and recited daily. Here one might perceive the mysterious "prima materia" so highly coveted by lovers of alchemical wisdom. The 'Logos' or 'Word' John describes in the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel is nothing different from the Tao of Lao Tzu or Brahman of the Upanishads. The Jesuit, Jean Pierre de Caussade aptly refers to it as the "sacrament of the present moment".
Robert Lawlor in chapter five of his now classic SACRED GEOMETRY explains the first three verses of the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel: "In the Beginning was the Word , and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. ..." as a description of the Golden Section, phi, the harmonic potency behind all natural growth as matter evolves back into light. An almost identical statement is made in the riddle of the nymph to the alchemist, Cyliani, in his HERMES UNVEILED: "From One, by One, which is only One are made Three, from Three, Two, and from Two, One." She explains that he can accomplish nothing in alchemy without solving it. The Golden Section saturates all of nature revealing the Divine Presence as dense dark matter progresses through time back to light. The Prologue tells us: "The Light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not!" The brilliance of John's expression catapults a pious reader into stratospheric transcendency.
Eriugena's homily speaks from these stratospheric heights. He tells us: "All things come from a single First Principle, and nothing is found in the nature of things visible and invisible, by whatever kind of generation it emerges into its own species, that is not stationed eternally in the only begotten Word of God, in whom all things are one."
Compare this to the third sentence from THE EMERALD TABLET:
"And as all things came from one word of one being, so all things came from this one thing by adaptation."(*)
A discerning reader recognizes a
familiar vision. Eriugena's other significant works include the PERIPHYSEON
-ON THE DIVISION OF NATURE, a synthesis of cosmology, theology and philosophy
and translations of the Greek works of Dionysius the Areopagite, St. Gregory
and St Maximus. Taken together these works set the stage for the soon to follow
medieval high culture with its gothic cathedrals and alchemical mysticism.
The bulk of this book features Bamford's reflections on Eriugena's homily. Divided into three parts, "The Way", "the Word", and "the World" this commentary illuminates the jeweled insights of the Irish sage. It presents the timeless wisdom of his homily in contemporary terms to a civilization desperately in need of such clarification.
Make no mistake. This is not a book about alchemy. Yet at times it seethes with precious indications on the Great Work. Students of medieval Hermetic literature will be familiar with idioms such as "the eagle's gluten", "make the eagle fly" or "fly seven eagles". Bamford explodes the essential message of this common metaphor:
"In a sense, all phenomena are symbols, binding temporal and timeless realms together; and what needs to be understood is understanding itself, the apprehension of the meaning at once hidden and disclosed in the interwoven pattern; for the sign or symbol lies not in the sound but in the knowledge - the understanding - that, by means of spirit, soul and sense, a person is able to realize through it. The sound, indeed conceals as much as it reveals, for it is precisely not what it announces. It is an appearance, veiling and unveiling what it brings to the senses. The task of understanding, then, is to reveal what is concealed, an act of interpretation that is essentially alchemical. For alchemy is the art of occulting the apparent while revealing the hidden. Put another way, what is involved is the process of extracting the "light" from "matter", in which it is buried. Thus, not surprisingly, in alchemy "to make the eagle fly" means "to extract light from the tomb and bring it to the surface."
Here the reader will delight to learn that Bamford is a close personal friend of Andre VandenBroeck who in turn was a student of R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz. Schwaller as been recognized as the original genius behind the authorship of Fulcanelli's MYSTERY OF THE CATHEDRALS. This mysterious volume represents the twentieth century's foremost exposition of hermetic wisdom. Schwaller's insights emerge occasionally throughout Bamfords reflections.
Because of his job as editor and chief of Anthroposophic Press some readers may have a knee jerk reflex to pigeon hole Bamford as merely a mouth piece for the views of Rudolph Steiner. Yet except for one brief quote this text is devoid of such references. Instead Bamford's reflections froth, almost to the point of irritation, with citations from a myriad of other great minds. Sadly there is no mention of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, whose formulation of the "Logos" as transcendent Divinity greatly influenced John's Prologue.
In its entirety this book clarifies the enigmatic Prologue as well as the essential spirit of Irish contemplative tradition. A recommendation for future editions might include providing the actual Latin and Greek texts of the Prologue. Eriugena in sections VIII, XVI and XXI of his commentary laments on how much easier understood the original Greek text is over its Latin version. With the recent revival of the Tridentine Latin Mass this book is all the more welcome. Recitation of the Prologue comprises the finale of this forgotten rite now ever growing in renewed popularity.
Over the past several decades a counter culture fascination with the Chinese Tao and the Hindu Brahman might hopefully give way to a return to our own mystical heritage that John refers to as "the Word". These concepts all retain a similar meaning by speaking the unspeakable. This book paves the way for a rediscovery the high wisdom of the west.
(*) This translation of the verse from the EMERALD TABLET appears on page 61 of the August 1978 issue of Parabola, Volume III, Issue 3 which was devoted to "Inner Alchemy".
Return to Book Reviews