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  • Roger Lipsey

What Light Does the Gurdjieff Teaching Shed on Religion? -- 1

The first of three posts from a 2018 talk given in Cambridge by Roger Lipsey: Judeo-Christian values in The Psalms

The author dedicates this summer series of posts

to his friend of fifty years, Erik Koch (1933 - June 2024),

who found in Ouspensky's Tertium Organum

 the basis for visionary art.


The Gurdjieff teaching is a way of inquiry. What that means is that people speak with each other; they ask questions; they listen. A way of inquiry implies listening and cultivating how to listen. As I raise different points of reference in the Gurdjieff teaching and in the world of Judeo-Christian religion, which is really the only reference point I'll use today, please be aware of your questions. We’ll turn to them to conclude this exploration. 

Erik Koch, Champ de la Terre, 1970, Paris
Erik Koch, Champ de la Terre, 1970, Paris

Meister Eckhart is familiar to you all. Meister Eckhart, circa 1300. A Dominican monk, teacher, preacher, and a mystic at a level that very few human beings attain. Meister Eckhart said, "You must have an exalted mind and a burning heart in which, nevertheless, reigns silent stillness." An exalted mind and a burning heart in which, nevertheless, reigns silent stillness. This, were it possible, is the whole accomplishment. What is implicit in that is that having struggled to be that way. It's not a given; it has to be paid for. What is implicit also is the fruit of accomplished humanity. And the two fruits of accomplished humanity are compassion or empathy, and wisdom.

"You must have an exalted mind and a burning heart in which, nevertheless, reigns silent stillness." What is implicit in this is having struggled to be that way. It's not a given; it has to be paid for.


What does wisdom mean? It means a view of the whole that is able to think clearly and act justly in any given situation. These few words from Meister Eckhart represent or imply the whole accomplishment. When you listen to his words, when I listen to him, I hear the echo in me, "I cannot." And then I hear another echo off the other wall of myself, "I must." And another echo, "I can. I wish. It must be possible." If Eckhart can, then someone else can. Not me, why would it be me? But someone. It's worth remembering. Maybe my remembering will help that other person.

At the height of Christian spirituality, there were a way, ideals, values ... and means, a method. This is going to be important in Gurdjieff's critique of contemporary religion.

It's clear just from this little example at the height of Christian spirituality that they knew and that there were means. One doesn't say such a thing without knowing the way. At that time—again another implication—there were a way and means. There was method. It may well have been in the monasteries—Eckhart was largely speaking to monastic audiences. Let's keep this in mind: there is the ideal, the desired accomplishment, and then the method, the means. This is going to be important in Gurdjieff’s critique of contemporary religion.


The Psalms: the values of the Judeo-Christian religion

I want to begin with the Psalms. Let’s consider some values from the Psalms so that we know what we're speaking about when we say “religion,” which can be abstract. I want us to find our way toward overwhelming respect for what religion—Judeo-Christian religion—is and has been. 



One of the powerful, emotive, subliminal messages from the Psalms and from many other aspects of religion, is ancientness. It goes back 2500 years. And one feels that. One feels that over all this period of time, both for Jews and for Christians, Psalms are a constant in people's lives. They are a source of true teaching. The first lesson is to implant us in long time. This greatly matters. There can be a sense of isolation, confusion, and rootlessness in our time. But the Psalms offer rooting in long, long time. Generations without count. 


Awe and Mystery

Another value in the Psalms is a sense of awe and mystery. They teach that. If we go to the Psalms, you cannot help but encounter awe and mystery. I'm going to read the first few lines from Psalm 19. Many of you will remember them. This is a translation by Robert Alter, a scholar, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, who has re-translated all of the Psalms in the most poetic and learned way. I do recommend Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms. Here is the beginning of Psalm 19. It doesn’t matter that none of us can understand much of this intellectually; it reaches elsewhere. 


Day to day breathes utterance. 

And night to night pronounces knowledge. 

There is no utterance and there are no words, 

their voice is never heard. 

Through all the earth their voice goes out

to the world's edge, their words. 


An impossible thing: day to day utters, breathes utterance. The world—the world of light—is endowed with consciousness, with intelligence. And then night to night pronounces knowledge as if there is another category of conscious knowledge that can be shared only in the dark, so to speak, and shared by the dark.


Already in two lines, we are in a world of awe and mystery. And then, the psalmist completely reverses himself. Apparently. "There is no utterance and there are no words, their voice is never heard.” Total contradiction of what was said before. He then unites the two. "Through all the earth their voice goes out." Whatever these voices are—whatever has been uttered and pronounced—is inaudible to us humble creatures, as if too high-pitched or too low-pitched, but audible in some other sense. It's the elephant's grumble or the hummingbird's conversation that goes out to the world's edge.


Dialogue with the Highest

There is another crucial element in Psalms: the sense of dialogue with the highest. The Psalmist is a representative "I". He speaks: “I” this, “I” that. Sometimes "we." We are invited to join this knowing individual, this suffering individual, related to the highest, skipping over presumably many worlds to address the Lord, the highest. And this world, through which the Psalmist's prayer reaches the highest, is full of knowledge. Here are a few words that you'll remember from Psalm 139, this time in the beautiful Revised Standard translation.


O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me, 

thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up. 

Thou discernest my thoughts from afar. . . 

Even before a word is on my tongue, 

Lord, thou knowest it altogether. 


These are wonderful, astonishing things. I'm not reading the rest of Psalm 139, but these few lines make clear that the values of Judeo-Christian religion—could they be captured in oneself—have to do with a world encompassed by a highest listener and a low speaker, and a zone and immensity filled with knowing.

The second post in this series will appear August 1st.


I Need to See That I Do Not Know

A facile “I know" is a rote thought. When I’m faced with the reality that I might not know, I experience a new sense of gravity in my body.


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