Wealth at Home in Poverty: Reflections from Ancient Christian Wisdom


Recently, I began to explore the so-called Gospel of Thomas, known to exist but lost until its rediscovery with other ancient texts, at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, shortly before the end of the Second World War. With other participants, I was encouraged to do so by Cynthia Bourgeault, in an on-line Introductory Wisdom School with the Center for Action and Contemplation.

The sayings, or logia, in that text mostly begin, ‘Jesus said,’ and Cynthia rightly acknowledged that we could get rather distracted by questions of authority, ‘Is it a gospel, is it an epistle, is it not?’ There are good arguments that some of the contents go back as far as the canonical gospels, whilst some are later. What is undeniable is that these sayings represent one strand at least of the diverse and plural Christianities of the early years of our era.

During my recent mandatory quarantine on my move from San Francisco to New York, one of the things I took the chance to do was to engage again with Thomas in reflection and Lectio Divina.

Some of the logia are simply identical to familiar verses in the canonical gospels, whilst others carry the freshness of a familiar gospel precept expressed in a way just different enough to evince a spark of freshness. Moving as I was from one household of brothers to another, the non-inclusive language of the translation I had in front of me[1] reminded me, in the simple beauty of Logion 25, what it is that I need to be and do,

‘Love your brother like your soul, guard him like the pupil of your eye.’

Coming to Logion 27 on a day when I was so distracted by a difficult and frustrating administrative task that I was tempted not to turn to prayer and reflection at all, I read,

If you do not fast as regards the world, you will not find the Kingdom. If you do not observe the Sabbath as a Sabbath, you will not see the Father.’

How can we open our eyes to the things of God if we never look up from our necessary but distracting daily tasks...though the true contemplative vision will have us see God in the mundane and everyday too?

And then there was Logion 29…

Jesus said, ‘If the flesh came into being because of spirit, it is a wonder. But if spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders. Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth has made its home in this poverty.’

I believe that this whole world of matter and flesh, everything we see in our daily lives and through our telescopes and electron microscopes and scanners, in all its diversity and beauty, exists because of the will of God, that ‘flesh came into being because of spirit.’ That really is ‘a wonder’, too much of a wonder for many, this idea that our universe was willed into existence. So, my first response to the second sentence of this

saying was to see it as almost sarcastic… There are many who believe that everything about human life that we associate with spirit – love; beauty; wonder; awe; even the intellect itself and the ability to ponder terrifying existential questions – is only an emergent property of random physical processes. Such reductionism seems to say that what we call ‘spirit’, ‘came into being because of the body’ and that, indeed, is not just a wonder, it is a ‘wonder of wonders!’ You might say, it takes a lot of faith to deny creation!

But then I pondered the possibility of seeing these two ideas in something other than an antagonistic way, to consider the saying with the unifying spiritual principle of both/and rather than either/or. What if the story of science is true? That over 13.7 billion years, matter and energy, through physical processes of interaction and the biological process of natural selection, have given rise to an organism capable of reflection, of asking questions and expressing wonder at its own existence? And what if the story of faith is also true, that God willed and intended something like that all along? Wonder of wonders of wonders!

Indeed, the Franciscan story of the Incarnation takes all this further, that Christ himself was the reason and purpose of creation from before the beginning of time. Not a ‘rescue plan’ for creation gone wrong, but the purpose of creation in the first place. In his human incarnation in Jesus, the wisdom of Christ, the love of Christ, the Divine Compassion, were only made manifest, were only physically knowable through that human birth. Though Christ in the Trinity is eternal, thisunique expression of that Spirit, Christ in a particular human being walking around, came into being, like the rest of us, ‘because of the body’, the body he received from Mary of Nazareth.

And so, also, everything in which we rejoice in the diversity of life – mountains and lakes; dolphins and monkeys; plankton and radioisotopes; Mozart and the chanting of Tibetan Buddhist monks; a Black Lives Matter protest speech and the writings of Hildegard of Bingen; the wisdom of St Paul and the insights of native American spirituality; Frida Kahlo and the frescoes of Giotto – all this emerges, from the possibilities intended by God, and yet at the same time from the simplest forms of matter and energy and a few physical laws. ‘Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth has made its home in this poverty.’

[1] Translation of the Coptic by Thomas O. Lambdin, used by John W. Marshall in his HTML Five Gospels tool http://sites.utoronto.ca/religion/synopsis/

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OUR PRAYER

+ May our holy father Francis pray to the Lord that we may have the grace to observe the Gospel with greater devotion.  Amen.

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