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Origen – Early Christian thinker often associated with celibacy

Origen (allegedly) castrating himself before a nun – via Wikipedia

Origen (185-254) was a religious scholar, intellectual and ascetic born in Alexandria who tried to synthesize Greek philosophy and Christian belief.

He believed that all souls existed prior to birth, an idea condemned by the Church in the 6th century and rejected by St. Thomas Aquinas.

Origen may have proposed a type of reincarnation but his surviving texts are too fragmentary to be sure.

His orthodox contemporaries believed that he favored a form of universal salvation stipulating that all souls are ultimately admitted to heaven, even the Devil’s. But he, himself, denied that Satan would be saved.

A fierce ascetic, for many years the accepted story was that Origen castrated himself. But in light of recent scholarship and the dissemination of information through the internet, this claim seems dubious today.¹

Carl Jung and others wrote about Origen’s alleged castration. For Jung, Origen did the deed to get closer to his God. But I remember reading this and thinking that Jung was way off here. Most religious traditions demand celibacy for advanced mystics and contemplatives, not because sex is perceived as bad, per se, but because the proverbial seed is said to contain power that facilitates connection with the deity.²

Hence saint Paul said, to paraphrase:

If you can’t be like me (celibate), get married and have regular sex
1 Cor 7 ³

“Universal Man”, an illumination from a 13th-century copy of Hildegard von Bingen’s Liber Divinorum Operum (“Book of Divine Works”, c. 1165) via Wikipedia

Arrested in 250 CE under the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Decius, Origen suffered prolonged torture before dying two years later from his ordeal.

Once deemed an important Church Father, he is still regarded as an important theologian. His ideas continue to influence philosophers and Protestant theologians.

¹ For more on this and universal salvation, see my highlights at LINER.

² I don’t know about the physiology of women and how female celibacy relates to spirituality. Spirituality is variously defined, so this is a complicated topic, any way you look at it. See for instance, Elizabeth Abbot, A History of Celibacy. For Abbot, celibacy combined with spirituality seems to mean she gets more out of her creative life from abstaining. But for deep contemplatives, the meaning seems more esoteric, having to do with the value of contemplative intercession.

³ Like so much in the Bible, this seems a rather general statement. As if all human sexual needs can be boiled down to two types! In reality, I think we see a continuum of needs, often changing over time as individuals not only age but also evolve.

Related » Anathema, Church Fathers, Excommunication, Universalism



Sri Ramakrishna – Hindu spiritual figure claiming to have practiced different religions

English: Ramakrishna Paramhansacommons:Image:R...

Ramakrishna (Photo: Wikipedia)

Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86) began life as an obscure, unschooled village boy, Gadhadhar Chatterji. His first major religoius experience came at age six.

Ramakrishna describes his first spiritual ecstasy…while walking along the paddy fields, a flock of white cranes flying against a backdrop of dark thunder clouds caught his vision. He reportedly became so absorbed by this scene that he lost outward consciousness and experienced indescribable joy in that state.¹

In the years to come, he became a prominent Hindu holy man, emphasizing unity among all religions.

Ramakrishna says he practiced all faiths and discovered that they all lead to the same spiritual place. Just how thoroughly, however, one can effectively rid oneself of one’s cultural and religious biases remains open to debate. My sense is that he viewed other religions through the lense of his own biases, even though he claims all thoughts of Hinduism vanished while, for instance, someone read the Bible to him or while he recited the name of Allah.²

To me his exploration of non-Hindu religions seems superficial and, perhaps, even delusional. He bases his analysis on visions had while practicing some of the outward measures of different religious faiths, including Chritianity. But for most mystically inclined Christians, religious visions only strenghthen and reassure. They are not the measure of faith. Faith is about putting your religion into practice, day in and day out. It’s about finding God through selfless serving, while sweeping the floor or maybe cleaning a toilet. It’s not about a brief and, I would suggest, questionable vision that comes after a few days of external practice. Anyone on drugs or with a hepped up brain can have that. Moreover, it is not about wanting to be exalted as a holy man that everyone should liken to God.³

This issue aside, biographers say Ramakrishna often fell into extended ecstatic raptures. These trances were extreme to the point that even Ramakrishna himself sometimes wondered if he’d gone mad. At such moments the Hindu Blessed Mother, Kali, apparently would appear in a mystical vision and console him with her graces.

English: This is a pencil sketch of the holy m...

Sketch of the holy mother Sri Sarada Devi (Photo: Wikipedia)

Before marrying Sri Devi, Ramakrishna prayed that Kali would “root out” all of her sexual tendencies. Not surprisingly, their marriage was never consummated. While this may seem strange to many who can’t see beyond our materialistic, techno-sexual culture, the two reportedly were united in a purely spiritual sense, making sexual union redundant, perhaps even distasteful. Considering she was much younger than him, this is surprising. But most Hindu accounts don’t talk too much about female sexuality, focussing on the male gurus’ ‘great victories’ over their male sexual urges.4

To help overcome his male sexual urges, Ramakrishna often dressed and behaved as a woman. Again, to me this seems quite crude, not in the sense that I am against cross-dressing (I’m not) but in the sense that it is such a materialistic, clunky approach. I would think that a deeply spiritual person, someone revered as holy, would be able to inwardly experience a “subtle body,” as the Hindus put it, of the opposite sex without having to go through all the laborious externals of cross-dressing.

The Gospel of Ramakrishna, based on the writings of his direct disciples, is widely available in the West. Essentially a wisdom book, it is full of pithy sayings and examples. In one analogy Ramakrishna notes, for instance, that bad tomatoes rot faster when bashed up and thrown into a garbage heap. This alludes to the idea that the soul may be purified of ungodly attitudes (bad tomatoes) through holy suffering (for more on this dynamic, see » Bhagavad Gita, Alchemy).

With regard to the idea of karma transfer, which for most people sounds alien and difficult to grasp, an Indian biographer writes that Ramakrishna:

had a vision of his subtle body…[with] a number of sores on the back. He was puzzled by the sight, but it was made clear…profane people had caused the sores on his body. They themselves had been purified, but they had left the suffering arising from their own sins with him.5

English: Photograph of Ramakrishna, taken on 1...

Photograph of Ramakrishna, taken on 10 December 1881 at the studio of The Bengal Photographers in Radhabazar, Calcutta, India. (Photo Wikipedia)

This illlustrates some core beliefs about the dynamics of Hindu mysticism. Similar but not identical beliefs can be found in Christian mysticism, In Catholicism souls closer to God suffer for the salvation of less pure souls (see » Faustina Kowalska). Further to this point, the worldly critique that “prayer does nothing” might, from the perspective of a bona fide saint, be seen as an unfortunate misunderstanding perpetuated by ignorance or sin.

Having said that, the idea that we can pick up bad vibes from other people is nothing new. And I think some religious people sensitive to this dynamic make a kind of grandiose career out of being “special” and “holy” when really, they are just sensitive—probably at least partly due to some physiological predisposition. The grandiosity, I think, comes from an underlying inferiority complex or from some other complication.

On the social level, Ramakrishna’s disciples founded the international charity organization known as the Ramakrishna Mission. And his most beloved disciple, Swami Vivekananda, became another pivotal Hindu religious figure.


² Ibid.

³ Non-Christians, of course, accuse Jesus of this. But it’s pretty clear that Jesus didn’t personally want to go on the cross, a symbol which has lasted through the centuries.

4 We also see this with Gandhi, who apparently in the platonic sense slept naked with his grand-neice and married women to overcome his sexual urges, which seems a little weird from a Western perspective. See >>

5 Swami Tejasananda, A Short Life of Sri Ramakrishna, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama [Publication Department], 1990, p. 92. PDF (downloadable) version:, p. 105.

Related » Brahman, Contemplation, Hinduism, Mental Prayer, Spirit, Vocal Prayer

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Evelyn Underhill

English: Evelyn Underhill. Author given as Wil...

Evelyn Underhill (1855–1908) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Evelyn Underhill (1850-1941) was a British author on the subject of mysticism. Underhill is often described as an Anglo-Catholic. Although she was interested in the Catholic faith, her husband apparently resisted her conversion. Thus she technically remained a Protestant.

Her book, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (1911) is widely regarded as a Christian classic. Here Underhill revives the memory of many Christian saints in the minds of her mostly protestant readers.

She dismissed William James‘ Four Marks of Religious Experience, preferring to treat the topic in a fresh new way, loosely based on her own religious experiences as compared to those found written in Christian history. James, himself, openly admitted that he was not a mystic but, rather, an interested researcher and writer on the topic. So, by way of analogy, Underhill’s revision of James was something like an actual race car driver telling an interested onlooker that he didn’t really know what he was talking about when writing about race car driving.¹

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

Sincere mystics, she writes, are aware of the need for intense rational discernment and self-analysis.

Ecstasies, no less than visions and voices, must, they declare, be subjected to unsparing criticism before they are recognized as divine: whilst some are undoubtably “of God,” others are no less clearly “of the devil.”²

In Practical Mysticism: A little book for normal people (1914), published at the outbreak of WW-I, Underhill makes a distinction between meditation and contemplation. While these two terms often overlap, Underhill suggests that, for the most part, meditation may lead to more elevated forms of contemplative understanding. As Underhill puts it:

Now meditation is a half-way house between thinking and contemplating: and as a discipline, it derives its chief value from this transitional character.³

Evelyn Underhill and Michael Ramsey by mberry

Evelyn Underhill and Michael Ramsey by mberry via Flickr

The strength of this definition is that it’s not black and white, as so many fundamentalists and conservatives depict the world. Rather, it represents a developmental approach. One meditates to put things together, process information, and make sense of their world. But that’s not enough. One also has to reach for the highest high, which actually reaches down to us. For Christians, this is the experience of the Holy Spirit, which perhaps not all forms of meditation emphasize.

Another strength of Underhill’s approach is that she tries to normalize and remove the stigma from a discussion about mystical experience. This is ahead of its time. Today, we hear lots of talk about removing the stigma of so-called “mental illness.” But we still don’t hear much about removing the stigma around talking about mysticism. If anything, we’ve collectively gone backwards toward a kind of techno-materialism. The term “mental illness” implies a predominantly medical issue instead of one involving the entire person—physical, psychological, social and spiritual.

Related Post » Alice in Wonderland, Sri Aurobindo, Clairaudience, Kabbala

¹ Not that Underhill was the final authority. Her letters to the respected religious layman Friedrich von Hugel reveal her own struggles and uncertainties. See She simply makes some good points.

(Baron) Friedrich von Hügel (1852 – 1925) was an influential Austrian Roman Catholic layman, religious writer, Modernist theologian and Christian apologist (Wikipedia)

² Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (New York: The New American Library, 1955 [1911]), p. 361. As the administrator of Earthpages, a site largely about religion and religious experience, I have come across so many people utterly convinced that they’re “special” or some kind of prophet just because they’ve had an unconventional experience or two. In some cases, it seems these folks are misguided. Over the years I’ve discovered that it’s easy to make mistakes with mysticism. Not so easy to admit it. Why? Because admitting we’ve made a mistake means we have to FEEL the underlying emotions we’ve been covering up, and which contributed to the mistake in the first place. It’s far easier for some people to go on being misguided. They don’t have to feel what hurts. And as long as they keep their erroneous ideas to themselves, they can sometimes function well enough in society to effectively mask their borderline psychological condition.

³ ___, Practical Mysticism: A little book for normal people (London: Dent, 1914), p. 46.

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Vashist Forest 2 by Paul Evans via Flickr

Vanaprashta (Skt: ‘home in the forest or woods’)

In traditional Hinduism this is the third asrama (Vedic stage of life) in which the male, having fulfilled his matrimonial dharma as a householder, generally retreats to the forest to study the deeper meaning of sacred texts and to become adept at meditation.

Some Hindu texts stipulate that the religious recluse must be a Brahmin, but this view is not universal.¹

Vanaprashta is a difficult path to follow, especially today. Within the changing face of Hinduism the contemporary practice is more a psychosocial rather than geographical withdrawal. Today’s Hindu meditator, whether male or female, may pull back into the deeper aspects of the psyche (and perhaps beyond) without necessarily leaving the household.

Mahatma Gandhi with textile workers at Darwen,...

Mahatma Gandhi with textile workers at Darwen, Lancashire, England, September 26, 1931. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This shift is made evident in Pauline Kolenda’s ethnographic study conducted in Khalapur, where she notes:

Jivan Mal was a Gandhian. Like Gandhi, he tried to live his life according to the four ashramas, and when we knew him, he was in the third ashrama; he was a vanaprashta one who had retired from ordinary life to devote himself to religion. He explained that he and his wife were “like brother and sister”; he had given up sexual activity. Consistent with his religiosity and his Gandhianism was his strict vegetarian diet, but inconsistent with his Gandhianism was his inability to consort with untouchables, to be near them or to take food or drink from them or with them.²

¹ When I first made this entry at, Wikipedia made little or not mention of Vanaprashta. But it’s caught up. For more details on the life of the traditional hermit, see .

² Pauline Kolenda, “Micro-Ideology and Micro-Utopia in Khalapur: Changes in the Discourse on Caste over Thirty Years,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 24, No. 32 (Aug. 12, 1989: 1831-1838), pp. 1833-1834. One might ask how such snobbishness could be a sign of positive spirituality and in keeping with God’s will.

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Trappist Monk|Monje Trapense

Trappist Monk|Monje Trapense (Photo credit: ireneantper)

In Catholicism the term “brother” denotes a member of a religious organization, often a monk. It also refers to those engaged in teaching, nursing or other works of charity, such as the “Christian Brothers.” Some brothers may be ordained as priests.

Historians often claim that Irish monks kept the flame of piety alive, preserved ancient legends and sustained scholarship during the Middle Ages when a highly corrupt clergy brought shame to the Christian Church. But it’s hard to know just how accurate these claims are.

In some Protestant denominations the term “brother” refers to a fellow believer, based on one interpretation of the word brother (adelphos) as found in New Testament Greek. And many believe that Jesus had brothers, based on their interpretation of the Greek word, adelphoi. This position is rejected by Catholics, as exemplified here:

On the World Wide Web:



The Painting of Divine Mercy by Adolf Hyla. Th...

The Painting of Divine Mercy by Adolf Hyla. The phrase at the bottom is Polish for “Jesus I trust in you.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The terms contemplation and meditation are often used synonymously. In Christian mysticism, however, contemplation is regarded as a higher and nobler activity than mere meditation. As the scholar of religion, Evelyn Underhill, puts it:

Now meditation is a half-way house between thinking and contemplating: and as a discipline, it derives its chief value from this transitional character.¹

This definition represents a developmental approach. Instead of being ‘this or that,’ as so many fundamentalists and conservatives tend to depict the world, meditation leads to contemplation. Along these lines, many Christians hope that those who don’t understand the unique beauty of their Christian contemplative experience would come to realize it with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

Contemplation emphasizes and encourages an inner union of the individual with God, which, at some point, involves intercession. By way of contrast, meditation doesn’t necessarily imply the existence of the individual or God, as we find in most forms of Buddhism.

Some Buddhists, however, use the word contemplation within their own social and religious framework. Whether or not Buddhists entirely escape the cultural assumptions and obligations bound up within that religion, as so many claim to, seems highly debatable.

English: Saint Faustina Polski: Św. Faustyna K...

Saint Faustina Kowalska (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Catholicism, contemplation (as intercession) is recognized as a type of work distinct from more visibly active works, such as teaching or ditch digging. However, not all Catholics – to include priests, monks and sisters – immediately recognize this type of work when present in saintly individuals. Some Catholics are arguably just too conventional  (or perverse) to see a holy person when they’re right in front of their eyes.

For instance, St. Faustina Kowalska is now hailed as a great contemplative saint within mainstream Catholicism. But in her Divine Mercy Diary she writes that she encountered harsh skepticism from some of her religious superiors who really should have known better.

Perhaps part of the difficulty in recognizing bona fide saints whose contemplation is, in fact, their main work has to do with cultural preconceptions and stereotypes about the idea of holiness. We tend to applaud people who make their good works highly visible. Imagine, for example, a churchgoer who’s having clandestine sex with her minister and cheating on her husband. As long as everyone thinks she’s a “good Christian,” organizing religious events and sitting on the boards of charities, she can fool almost everyone into thinking she’s a saint.

English: Evelyn Underhill. Author given as Wil...

Evelyn Underhill. Author given as William Edward Downey (1855–1908) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Aside from religious hypocrites who never try to improve their immoral behavior, as in the above scenario, many people expect a saint to be flawless and without sin. This too is misguided.

In addition, the psychologically injured or, perhaps, spiritually deceived among us might claim to be saints when they’re not. And then, if that’s not enough, there’s the reality of outright charlatans and hoaxers. Taken together, these pseudo and potential saints complicate the picture as to just what a saint is. At least, they do in the eyes of humanity.

At a Catholic Mass the following was written in the church bulletin. No mention is made of intercession, which arguably is crucial to the contemplative life. But this brief passage probably represents the average Catholic’s understanding of the idea of contemplation:

In contemplative prayer, we learn to create silence to allow God to transform us; to strive to create a peace which surpasses all understanding; and to heal the wounds of a lifetime.²

¹ Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism: A little book for normal people (London, Dent: 1914), p. 46.

² From “Contemplative Prayer Workshop” in Bulletin (September 5, 2010), St. Michael’s Cathedral, Toronto, Canada.