Sunday, October 16, 2011

The necessary simplicity

Following Jacob Needleman's recommendation, I bought a copy of Thomas and Olga de Hartmann's 'Our Life with Mr Gurdjieff'.

It reminded me of another encounter between a sophisticated author and a holy man - St. Pavel Florensky's 'Salt of the Earth' - Florensky's bare, simple, moving account of his staretz: Father Isidore.

There are many, no doubt, who would think the comparison invidious - Father Isidore is secure within a recognisable tradition, that of Orthodoxy whereas Gurdjieff: who was Gurdjieff?

It is a mystery - from whence he came, with what traditional understanding - a mystery that the book deepens rather than dispels but what comes through both texts is that a genuine spirituality imposes a simplicity that ultimately costs not less than everything. It asks us to follow it with an unerring attention and conscience - and it eludes us precisely because of that simplicity.

You cannot think your way to salvation, though thinking may help, you must surrender to a deeper force: an attention that gathers up all your faculties and that transforms them - an attention that allows for a different, sacred presence to become present in your daily life and leads you to be present:-

"I am" (as St John's Gospel radiates) is the signature of the spirituality that lays claim to a Christian descent: that vivid reality of being gifted into being.

Both books are marked by it.

The irony is that the authors were to suffer diametrical fates - the one (the de Hartmanns) with the help of their teacher made their escape from revolutionary Russia and the latter (Florensky) was destined for its centre: the Gulag and martyrdom.

Meanwhile, the de Hartmann book gives tangentially a vivid impression of the challenges of that revolution and the skilful way Gurdjieff's guidance led them through - even if partly coloured by the celebratory embrace of the pupil, his skill was preternaturally in evidence.

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