excerpt from Rene Zuber’s book,
Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff?
One day I made a note of a thought that had just struck me: ‘This teaching is a virile version of the Gospels.’
What was the date of this note? I do not know. It was certainly written before we had In Search of the Miraculous, or any of Mr Gurdjieff’s own books. Otherwise we would have been able to verify that he in fact defined his teaching as ‘Christian esotericism’.
But this is not how it was presented to us. Is it necessary to recall here that Gurdjieff’s teaching was purely oral, and that it sprang spontaneously out of life circumstances or from dialogues with his pupils. I can vouch for the fact that, during the years I knew him (and this reservation is important), I never heard him ‘lecture’. The very idea of seeing him on a lecture platform, or preaching in a pulpit seems absurd to me.
It is true that he never travelled, in France or elsewhere, without a retinue – namely, the motley band of pupils who always astonished hotel managements and the police. They probably did not realize that in antiquity, and even nowadays in Africa and Asia, a master lives in this way, at his pupils’ expense, while the pupils live under the watchful eye of the master.
As soon as the idea flashed across my mind, that the teaching was none other than a version of the Gospels in different language, I was overcome with great joy and at the same time a certain anxiety. Why? To put it simply, let us say that I had a feeling of stepping into private territory. For Christianity was not born yesterday. It belongs by right to the saints and elders of the Church. Furthermore, although nowadays its precepts are universally doubted, it is clearly still the foundation of our institutions, codes and ethics and our thought is steeped in it. Could it really be that until now we had not recognized it in this unknown teaching?
In order to recognize it in a form we had never seen before we would have had to have tasted its essence (which keeps its flavour throughout all changes of appearance). The essence of Christianity? Do not expect me to try to define what appears to be beyond definition. It would, however, be wrong to pretend to know nothing about it.
When I open the Gospels I receive a very strong impact. They burn with words of such piercing intelligence that they can never be forgotten:
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? (Matthew 7:3)
This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. (John 8:67)
Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. (Matthew 22:17-21)
Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? (Matthew 7:16)
Ye are the salt of the earth; but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. (Matthew 5:13)
These words, so often quoted and recited that one might think them flat and stale, are as alive as ever.
But it would be a mistake to took upon the Gospels as being only books of wisdom in the manner of a Taoist or Confucian text. They are also an account of an historical event – rather obscure, since it was ignored by the historians of the time – which has so deeply affected human beings that one does not know any more whether this historical account is an immense myth, or whether, as some would have it, this myth took the form of a story told from generation to generation for the last two thousand years, and is still commemorated in churches and public squares as a sacred drama.
The scenario has not changed down the years, but each century tells it in its own way so that the myth has become a mirror.
Thus the nineteenth century kept only the compassion, the tenderness and the non-violence of Jesus, the central figure. That is how Renan* sees it, for example. Nowadays if Jesus’s features are accentuated it is to put him at the head of all the rebels throughout the ages and to enlist him in the defence of the oppressed classes; in short to make him do battle with Caesar on Caesar’s own ground. It is still Saint Sulpice, but upside down. Thus he is ‘taken over’ by politics.
But the essence of the story – what makes it unforgettable – is the infamy of a just man being tortured by a conspiracy of unconscious forces, abandoned, humiliated, crucified, dying upon the cross, and then, on the third day, came the triumph of life, the news ‘Christ is risen’, which spread with incredible speed throughout the Graeco-Roman world and beyond.
Gurdjieff did not often raise this question of Christianity. He considered we had no knowledge at all in this field.
‘Imagine’, he said, ‘that an educated European’ that is to say a man who knows nothing about religion, comes across the possibility of following a religious way. He will see nothing…’ etc., etc.
* Ernest Renan (1825-92) the French scientist and professor whose thinking dominated the middle of the nineteenth century. His Vie de Jesus in particular exerted a profound influence.
When Ouspensky asked Gurdiieff: ‘What is the relation of the teaching you are expounding to Christianity as we know it?’ He answered: ‘I do not know what you know about Christianity. It would be necessary to talk for a long time, in order to make clear what you understand by this term. But for the benefit of those who know already I will say that, if you like, this is esoteric Christianity.’
Gurdjieff used these words when speaking to pupils who can be called ‘Christians’ (with all the limitations implicit in this term), since they belonged to pre-Revolutionary Russia, and since their personal search had led them either to try to free themselves from an influence which had disappointed them, or instead to explore its mysteries in order to rediscover its essential meaning.
He once said to pupils who had come from England and the United States to join him at the Prieure at Avon, that only the man who is able to put Christ’s commandments into practice can be called a Christian. Referring to the well-known commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself, he asked who was able to do this? ‘If you have had a cup of coffee, you love; if not, you do not love.’
‘Dr X, if you are struck on the right cheek will you offer the left one?’
The commandments exist as an ideal, but the knowledge that would enable us to keep them is lost. However, such knowledge constitutes the other half of Christianity, its esotericism. It has been preserved in certain schools. Each one of you will be able to initiate himself into it while staying at the Institute which has been opened at the Prieure, on the condition that you feel the need for it.
Thus he spoke about Christianity only to people who already had some idea of its meaning.
But labels, as we know, mattered little to him. Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Lamaist, Muslim … as soon as one gets to the heart of the matter, whatever the differing names, one comes upon the same truth. He had already explained these things to his Moscow pupils in 1916, and here we have Ouspensky’s very precise account.
‘You must understand’, he said, ‘that every real religion, that is, one that has been created by learned people for a definite aim, consists of two parts. One part teaches what is to be done. This part becomes common knowledge and in the course of time is distorted and departs from the original. The other part teaches how to do what the first part teaches. This part is preserved in secret in special schools and with its help it is always possible to rectify what has been distorted in the first part or to restore it to what has been forgotten.
Without this second part there can be no knowledge or religion or in any case such knowledge would be incomplete and very subjective.
This secret part exists in Christianity as well as in other religions and it teaches how to carry out the precepts of Christ and what they really mean.’
What is the fundamental sound which emerges from words like these?
Blessed is he who has a soul. Blessed is he who has none, but woe to him who has it in embryo,
Today exists to repair yesterday and to prepare for tomorrow.
Those who have not sown anything during their responsible life will have nothing to reap in the future.
All life is a representation of God. He who sees the representation will see what is represented … He who does not love life does not love, God.”
How often he voiced the idea that there are only two ways of freeing the man (not yet born) from the animal (who carried the man in embryo): conscious labour and suffering voluntarily undertaken.
This was the Alpha and the Omega of his teaching, his final message, the bottle which he cast upon the waters, before disappearing into the ocean.
One would have to be deaf and blind not to recognize that this thought and the Christian tradition are identical in essence.
When I speak of a ‘virile version’ of the Gospels it must be remembered that I was born almost seventy five years ago into the French Protestant bourgeoisie.
At that time, when the characteristics of the nineteenth century were exaggerated to the point of travesty, science was seen as objective, pitiless, in a word, masculine; whereas religion was subjective, sentimental, tender-hearted, in a word, feminine. These two points of view, at times considered complementary, at times incompatible, formed the basis of the masculine-feminine dialogue. I well remember, that among themselves men spoke about religion rather ironically as being a concession to the weakness of women. Only at funerals did they put their pride in their pockets.
Nowadays, however, one could just as easily argue the opposite. Belief in science, like political militancy, is based on the idea of unlimited progress, promising discoveries or marvellous achievements. It generates an often fanatical devotion which is more feminine than masculine. Whereas the metaphysical disquiet which underlies religion requires the courage to open one’s eyes unflinchingly to seemingly unanswerable problems, an attitude I would call essentially virile.
In Judaism, and in Islam, religion (without being the particular prerogative of either sex) is primarily a matter for the men. The same is true of early Christianity, whether it be Judaic or Greek.
Simon Peter said to them: Let Mariham go away from us. For Women are not worthy of life. Jesus said: Lo, I will draw her so that I will make her a man so that she too may become a living spirit which is like you men; for every woman who makes herself a man will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Certain stories suggest that Gurdjieff did not speak kindly of the clergy. Yet how could a profoundly religious man not feel an instinctive estrangement from Church officials? The best known example which at once springs to mind is Jesus of Nazareth who, having clashed all his life with the formalism of the Pharisees – that ‘race of vipers’ and ‘whited sepulchres’, as he called them – was finally delivered to his executioners by the High Priest himself!
Gurdjieff’s anti-clericalism was not only directed against Pope, Archimandrite or Patriarch but also against priests of other confessions, whether disguised as laymen or not. He included in it our ultimate fantasy when he spoke of ‘your Mister God’ (a character tailored to our own image, who, while strolling in his garden, takes cigars from his pockets and offers them to the chosen,’as he did in the film Green Pastures).
None of us will ever forget Mr Gurdiieff’s funeral service, which took place with great ceremony in the Russian cathedral in the rue Darn in Paris. I do not think that the clergymen who officiated on that day will readily forget it either. So great was the attentiveness it was as if a mass of flames rose above the coffin. The congregation stood, as it does in all Orthodox Church services, and remained absolutely silent, refusing to depart until long after the last lights had been put out and the door of the iconostasis closed.
Where did Gurdjieff come from? We know nothing about his childhood or the town of Kars where he was born. The province of Kars, formerly populated by Greeks and Armenians, had been annexed by Russia a few years after his birth. Moving with the great wave of Western technology which the Russian Empire represented at the time, with its telegraph, railways and administrators, and then outdistancing it, he penetrated into the heart of central Asia in search of monasteries and other places where secret knowledge was preserved. He never spoke to us about this period of his life.
From the time he reappeared in Russia (which was still Holy Tsarist Russia) his peregrinations from East to West are better known to us. It is difficult to say whether these were due to circumstances or to fate, or whether they are proof that he had undertaken a mission to the West.
In Paris, where he settled, he was part of the first big influx of exiles from Russia. The Prieure at Avon, near Fontainebleau, which he bought in 1924, in order to open his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, is history (so close to us that we can almost touch it), but it is also legend since we only know of the life there through the extraordinary stories told by those who experienced it.
It is worthy of note that Gurdjieff’s move to the West did not end in France, a mere western cape of Europe; nor in the ‘valiant little island off the coast of France’, as a journalist humorously described Great Britain when we were all but erased from the map of the ‘free world’ and England stood alone against the might of the Axis.
He visited the United States several times, wanting to make sure before be died that his teaching was firmly planted there.
Where did Gurdjieff come from or, rather, from where was he returning? From exile, a long exile which he could not be said to have submitted to, since he had given it a meaning and had voluntarily taken all the consequences upon himself. Seen in this light his solemn funeral service, celebrated according to the rites of the Russian Orthodox Church, signified the return of an exile to the land of his birth. It restored him to the motherly arms of the Church in the presence of his two families joined anew, the one of the blood, the other of the spirit.
However ignorant we may have been of the liturgical language used in the Orthodox service, we could recognize the ‘Gospeli pomeloi’ and the ‘Kyrie eleison’, phrases which had comforted all his ancestors.
It is true that we are all exiles, for when we enter this world we are banished from the unknown country of our arising. As we leave childhood behind we feel ourselves being driven from its verdant paradise. And in the end we shall still cling to the last remaining threads of life, instead of preparing for the inevitable.
Now one of Mr Gurdjieff’s characteristics was that he never regretted the past. The high plateaux of Anatolia, the stupas of Buddhist Asia, the gilded cupolas of Russian churches, even the vulgar hubbub of Broadway? They were all one to him. Being everywhere in exile, he was everywhere at home.
In the rue des Acacias in Paris there is a bistro which I never pass without glancing inside, because many a time I saw Mr Gurdjieff sitting there, on a red moleskin-covered bench, studying the customers at the bar as they enacted the human comedy which, though endlessly renewed, is always the same. To behold Mr Gurdjieff for an instant without being seen by him was so exceptional that I have never forgotten it. I remember that his face, the face of an old athlete imbued with compassion for human beings, had an air of melancholy about it, as if he belonged already to an ‘elsewhere’ which he would not name.
This was during the last years of his life,
The essentially Christian flavour of the teaching, so rightly called ‘unknown’ by Ouspensky, generally passes unnoticed. That Gurdjieff wished it to be so is beyond doubt. If he had revealed to us that he was teaching in the direct line of the Gospels – which is what emerges for us from the reading of his books – he would have caused the worst kind of misunderstandings. We were not ripe for such a confidence.
Our discernment on this particular point went no further than that of the cow in the story he loved to tell. This cow, well cared for by her owner, went out each day into the fields, and in the evening would return to her stall by herself, without anyone having to show her the way. Without ever making a mistake, she used to stop in front of her door, push it open, go in and find her bedding and her manger. One day, however, it so happened that she stopped at a door which seemed to be her door and yet she did not recognize it, for during the day someone had painted it red.
Gurdjieff was irresistible when he described the cow, torn between ‘Yes, that’s definitely my stall’ and ‘No, it can’t possibly be!’ The cow’s perplexity, the thickness of her bulk pierced by a gleam of awareness, became our own concern because the animal in the fable represents man.
In order to evoke this situation he used the tone of voice at once mocking and indulgent which we also heard whenever he called somebody a svolatch, a Russian word for scoundrel. For men and animals each have their own place on the great scale which links all living creatures.
Who thought of painting the door red? That is a question better not asked. However, I like to recall here Luther at the dawn of the Reformation nailing his theses to the closed door of the church at Wittenberg, or, in our time, Gurdjieff, behind a Tantric mask, making his way towards the West after two thousand years of Christianity.
It was Paul Valery who said: ‘To think is to lose the thread.’ A surprising statement, you may say. But what he meant was real thought, capable of questioning, and not the thoughts which flow with the current, by the association of ideas, as soon as active and fervent questioning ceases in our minds.”
I am not trying to establish without further discussion that Gurdjieff was Christian. I refuse to think like a computer only in terms of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The question whether or not Gurdjieff was Christian (or whether at one and the same time he was and was not) is much too important to be dismissed superficially.
For the crisis in which we are all involved on the planet Earth, and which shakes the very foundations of our existence and our civilization, is the ending of Christianity.
Could it be that a new bud is sprouting on the old Christian tree in front of our eyes?
In order to be certain that this is so perhaps we need to recall the dogmas of the Revelation, the Incarnation, the Holy Trinity, the Redemption, the Communion of Saints and the Resurrection of the Body and, removing them from the museums where they have been stored, to examine these solemn devices – this, of course, with the help of theologians – in order to re-establish them in the fullness of their meaning and to compare them with the electrifying affirmations which correspond to them in the teachings of Gurdjieff.
But this would be going far beyond the promise I made myself to say only two or three essential things about Mr Gurdjieff.
As an example of the non-dogmatic and entirely practical way in which he taught I will describe what happened to me one Christmas Eve (the Russian Christmas which is thirteen days later than ours). I had been asked to go to his flat where I found another of his pupils. The master of the house showed us into the empty drawing-room, and there in the middle of the floor lay piles of toys, sweetmeats and oranges. We had to divide them up and put them into little paper bags, so that each child could have his share.
A lovely pine tree, fresh from the flower market, confirmed that everything would be done according to custom. I took it upon myself to transform it into a Christmas tree with the necessary tinsel, candies and stars. For someone from Alsace, like myself, this was a deeply satisfying task.
I had almost finished when Mr Gurdjieff came in, glanced at our work, and going up to the tree signalled to me to hang it from the ceiling. I could not believe my eyes. ‘But … Monsieur … from that hook up there? Upside down, with the roots in the air?’ That was exactly what he wanted. So, I was left to strip the tree, climb on a stool and attach the roots to the ceiling as best I could. As for the candles I had no instructions and Mr Gurdjieff had already left the room.
The story is perplexing. It is easy to say: ‘This man has his own way of doing things. Stop wondering about him.’ On the contrary, I always ascribe to him a precise intention in everything he did. What was the intention in that instance? He who has ears to hear let him hear!
Although we might tend to accept it or reject it completely, following our natural inclination to laziness, Gurdjieff’s teaching cannot be so cheaply manipulated! Its invigorating and provoking quality is inexhaustible.
I will give you two examples of this. The first one does not seem at first sight to be connected with the biblical or Christian dogmas just mentioned. I am referring to Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. What is the main thread running through it? It is the exile of Beelzebub, who was banished from the planet of his birth for a sin which he had committed out of excess of pride in his youth. Thereafter, in the course of a long journey which took him to the utmost confines of the solar system, he was obliged to undergo a series of trials in order to acquire the experience and wisdom he lacked. Here one recognizes the scenario (journey – ordeals – achievement) common to voyages of initiation in all traditions. A Christian would call it a story of redemption.
Gurdjieff’s challenge consists in choosing as hero of this adventure the Prince of Darkness himself, that is to say Beelzebub, as if to remind us that evil is not excluded from the laws of the universe, but is, on the contrary, and at all levels, one of its mainsprings, the principle without which there could be no individual redemption.
This question will not leave us in peace.
The second example touches us Christians particularly, for it concerns a certain person, Judas, whom from childhood we have been taught to consider as the arch-traitor of all time.
He handed over his master. He collected the reward for his betrayal, his thirty pieces of silver. And then he went and hanged himself. Shame and damnation be upon him forever!
Now, in Beelzebub’s Tales, Gurdjieff tells the story differently. Judas, he says, was the best and most faithful of all the disciples. Jesus, who saw him every day until the fatal Last Supper could not have failed to discern the innermost thoughts of his disciple’s heart. If we read the scene of the arrest in the Gospels we can be sure that, in fact, the two principal actors, Jesus and Judas, were acting in perfect connivance. Iscariot had been charged with the worst possible mission: to appear to betray his master. He acquitted himself with great courage. How then can one explain the fact that for two thousand years Christianity has unceasingly cursed the name of Judas? Here I take the liberty of pointing out that throughout history Christianity has likewise cursed the Jewish people, accusing it of ‘deicide’ and holding it responsible for the death of Christ. Only after a decision of Vatican 11 was this fantastic accusation withdrawn.
During the meetings that Gurdjieff had with his pupils in Moscow or St Petersburg in 1916, he explained how the Christian Church as we know it came into being, and what its true function originally was.
Here is a long extract from this important text:
We know very little about Christianity and the form of Christian worship; we know nothing at all of the history and origin of a number of things. For instance, the church, the temple in which gather the faithful and in which services are carried out according to specific rites; where was this taken from? Many people do not think about this at all. Many people think that the outward form of worship, the rites, the singing of canticles, and so on, were invented by the fathers of the church. Others think that this outward form has been taken partly from pagan religions and partly from the Hebrews. But all this is untrue. The question of the origin of the Christian church, that is, of the Christian temple, is more interesting than we think. To begin with, the church and worship in the form which they took in the first centuries of Christianity could not have been borrowed from paganism because there was nothing like it either in the Greek or Roman cults or in Judaism. The Jewish synagogue, the Jewish temple, the Greek and Roman temples of various gods, were something quite different from the Christian church which made its appearance in the first and second centuries. The Christian church is a school concerning which people have forgotten that it is a school. Imagine a school where the teachers give lectures and perform explanatory demonstrations for ceremonies, or rites, or ‘sacraments’, i.e. magic. This would approximate to the Christian church of our times.
The Christian church, the Christian form of worship, was not invented by the fathers of the church. It was all taken in a ready-made form from Egypt, only not from the Egypt that we know but from one which we do not know.
This Egypt was in the same place as the other but it existed much earlier. Only small bits of it survived in historical times, and these bits have been preserved in secret and so well that we do not even know where they have been preserved.
It will seem strange to many people when I say that this pre-historic Egypt was Christian many thousands of years before the birth of Christ, that is to say, that its religion was composed of the same principles and ideas that constitute true Christianity. Special schools existed in this pre-historic Egypt which were called ‘schools of repetition’. In these schools a public repetition was given on definite days, and in some schools perhaps even every day, of the entire course in a condensed form of the sciences that could be learned at these schools. Sometimes this repetition lasted a week or a month. Thanks to these repetitions people who had passed through this course did not lose their connection with the school and retained in their memory all they had learned. Sometimes they came from very far away simply in order to listen to the repetition and went away feeling their connection with the school. There were special days of the year when the repetitions were particularly complete, when they were carried out with particular solemnity – and these days themselves possessed a symbolical meaning.
These ‘schools of repetition’ were taken as a model for Christian churches – the form of worship in Christian churches almost entirely represents the course of repetition of the science dealing with the universe and man. Individual prayers, hymns, responses, all had their own meaning in this repetition as well as holidays and all religious symbols, though their meaning has been forgotten long ago.
And further on he adds:
A ceremony is a book in which a great deal is written. Anyone who understands can read it. One rite often contains more than a hundred books.
In the light of this reply we discover the profoundly traditional aspect of Gurdjieff’s thought. This is only a step away from enlisting him in the traditionalist camp, among those who by taking Western thought to extremes consider, in the name of the one and only primordial tradition, that progress is a delusion.
Likewise, if we choose to consider only one aspect of his thought we could see him as one of the inspirers of the ecological movement, or even as a forerunner of psychoanalysis.
Gurdjieff appeared at the beginning of this century like a megalith, a survivor of some unknown catastrophe, set there as a challenge in his isolation: in a word, he was an anachronism.
This is no longer so. Under the pressure of all the archaeological, ethnological, psychoanalytical and sociological discoveries which challenge once more the unduly narrow views of the nineteenth century, our century has caught up with him, and is even trying to appropriate him. Faced with this phenomenon, which is especially evident on the West Coast of America, in California, I feel like asking: ‘How will they serve him up next?’
But let us return to traditionalism. This word took on a quite different meaning in the 1950s and its current (non-philosophical) sense is quasi-synonymous with conformism and conservatism. This is its debased meaning. Etymologically (from the Latin tradere: to transmit) the emphasis must be put on the transmission of a living primordial knowledge and not at all on a blind attachment to the forms and structures of the past.
In Orthodox Church services there is a perfect symbolical representation of tradition every time a member of the congregation holds a candle and lights it from his neighbour’s flame. This little flame – which the slightest breath could blow out – is, in fact, fire – fire coming from another fire which, passing from one person to the next, will light as many flames as there are souls present. The image is perfect because fire, reborn from fire, cannot be corrupted.
But is anything incorruptible in the current of life?
As Gurdjieff explains elsewhere, nothing can ever remain still, everything that does not ascend is destined to descend. The higher the source the deeper the descent. Religious teachings are no exception. He once explained this in a very picturesque way when answering one of his Moscow pupils. He was asked if one could find ‘anything real in the teaching and rituals of existing religions, or anything that might lead one to attain something real’.
‘Yes and no’, said G. ‘Imagine that we are sitting here talking of religions and that the maid Masha hears our conversation. She, of course, understands it in her own way and she repeats what she has understood to the porter Ivan. The porter Ivan again understands it in his own way and he repeats what he has understood to the coachman Peter next door. The coachman Peter goes to the country and recounts in the village what the gentry talk about in town. Do you think what he recounts will at all resemble what we said? This is precisely the relation between existing religions and that which was their basis. You get teachings, traditions, prayers, rites, not at fifth but at twenty-fifth hand, and, of course, almost everything has been distorted beyond recognition and everything essential forgotten long ago.’
This short fable, by the way, also illustrates the debasement that Gurdjieff’s teaching may undergo in the future. If one tries to turn it into a doctrine in order to preserve it intact, it will cease to be a leaven.
But let us return to the text concerning the origins of the Church. Christianity is not confined to the historical and geographical bounds of the New Testament, nor even to the much larger framework of the Bible. Its roots lie buried in ancient Egypt – ‘pre-sand Egypt’ as it is called by the author of Meetings with Remarkable Men. Beyond this unknown Egypt it is embedded in the civilizations which may have existed on earth before the great perturbations described in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. Total though this disaster was, it has, however, always been possible for those who were about to disappear to leave certain traces for those who come after to find.
A rising sap, secret and unique, animated all civilizations prior to our own. The oldest tree that has ever grown on this earth can thus be called by the name of one of its main branches: Christianity. If one of these branches withers it will grow green again elsewhere. This is a wager we are always ready to make. ‘We civilizations now know that we are mortal’ is a warning that we heard when we were young.” But it is in the very nature of man to begin his stubborn and apparently useless effort over and over again in order to attain the unattainable: he will always take up a challenge.
According to the text just quoted, the challenge for the early Christians was to keep alive certain revealed truths, in spite of the inertia and death which always threatened them.
A truth is revealed in fact like a legacy entrusted to man. Man is responsible for the spark of consciousness which he alone has received out of all the creatures who inhabit the earth. This puts him in great peril, in danger as he is of yielding to the lulling charms of nature – his own nature – the moment he ceases to use those faculties which alone distinguish him from animals and plants. He is required, and endlessly reminded, to watch.
A fully awakened man will not be completely dependent on surrounding influences, nor entirely taken in by appearances, since he will be able to distinguish the essence from the form which contains it. He will maintain the form as long as it envelops the essence; but he will not attach himself to it, and will even know how to break out of it. Let Rene Guenon conclude:
“Metaphysical truth is eternal. By the same token there have always been those who have been able to know it truly and totally. Outer forms and contingent ways may change but there is nothing in this very change which. Belongs to what is nowadays called evolution. It is merely a simple adaptation to this or that particular circumstance, to conditions specific to a race and to a given epoch.”
Was Gurdjieff a traditionalist? It would be much more correct to say that everything about him was traditional: he was himself the tradition.
Many a time on the journeys some of us have made to Morocco, Afghanistan, Tibet and India, we have imagined ourselves coming across him on a street corner or in a bar at the heart of some bazaar!
Gurdjieff enjoyed embellishing his words and writings with spicy but scathing aphorisms and proverbs, which he attributed to Mullah Nassr Eddin, the legendary character who brings to life the popular wisdom of Asia. It is strange that the only traditional authority, under the cover of which he introduced himself into Europe, was this unknown figure. How ever much the scholars rummage through libraries and pore over manuscripts, they will not find any thing which can be attributed to Mullah Nassr Eddin – and with good reason!
There is no doubt that Gurdjieff wanted to cover the tracks of his past, to conceal the name of the chain of tradition, or initiation of which he was the culmination. This has always made him suspect in the eyes of the traditionalists; I mean those who did not possess, besides other necessary qualities, the sense of humour indispensable for ‘scenting’, even from afar, his allegiance to tradition.
Herein lies a mystery. He was a profoundly religious man, so traditional that, having known him, we can open any one of the sacred texts of mankind and perceive their meaning as if he had given us the key.