Get thee behind me, Satan . . .

Fragment of Gospel John
Fragment of Gospel of John (Wikipedia)

We are in the final stages of preparing for our last talk of the year at Glastonbury, working with the Glastonbury Reception Centre, who have been our hosts for the full six talks which have run, bi-monthly in that lovely Somerset town. Thursday will see us, once again, returned to a winter landscape, allowing a wonderful contemplation of the full year which has just passed.

This pre-Christmas talk is entitled, “The Secret Language of Esoteric Christianity” and examines the very deep interpretation of the Gospels put forward by Maurice Nicoll, who studied with both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, and was asked by both to prepare a detailed interpretation of these sacred works from the perspective of the thinking of the Fourth Way, as Gurdjieff’s teachings became known after his death. During his life Gurdjieff never compared ‘the System’, as he called it, to Esoteric Christianity, but close to his death, he said that the two were, in fact, very close in method.

It took Nicoll the last ten years of his life to prepare the two volumes – ‘The New Man’ and ‘The Mark’. They provide a very radical view of Christ’s mission, and one that can be uncomfortable to read; as it challenges the somewhat sanitised and moralistic nature of our relationship with this received wisdom in its conventional form.

Such sayings as “The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother, the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law” (Luke 12:53) should make us think very deeply about what might be hidden in such very specific wording . . .

On Thursday, we will be considering three of the parables and using them to uncover a language of meaning that is consistent across each. There are so many revelations as one considers each tale in the light of this deeper and profound approach. One of the parables we will not have time to cover is the narrative (quoted here from Matthew XVI 24-25) where Jesus says to Peter, his disciple “Get thee behind me Satan, thou art a stumbling block for me: for thou mindest not the things of God but the things of men”.  Now, in the context of a modern interpretation, where the word Satan is equated with the Devil,  this is an astonishing thing to say to anyone, let alone a close disciple.

The build-up to this is Peter’s insistence that Jesus is surely not going to die as others do. Nicoll proposes that the word Satan has a different context and really means mixing up the levels of meaning. It is accepted that the parables were capable of being read on at least two levels – the literal and something higher. Many of them, such as the the Pool at Bethesda, make no sense at all in the literal, and require much deeper probing if we are to tease out a profound and mystical meaning. We will be considering this story on Thursday. For now, and by way of the revelations that such probing can produce, let us consider the background to Jesus’ apparent attack on his friend.

Jesus goes on to say, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever would save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it”.

In the original texts, the word used here for ‘life’ was actually ‘soul’ and, strangely, if you ask people to quote the verse, they often use the word ‘soul’ in place of ‘life’.  Presumably, the church, having immortalised our ‘souls’ by placing them out of reach of all but priests, found it difficult to maintain the analogy with such contents of the actual Gospels.

As we are, according to the story, dealing with men who originated as humble fishermen, we have to question how Jesus taught them. We know nothing of the inner work he carried out with the disciples, but we can infer much from the implied dual meanings of the words of the Gospels.  The concept of levels of meaning was dear to the hearts of Gurdjieff and his followers, and not just from a neo-Christian perspective. He taught that it was vital to separate things so that they could be compared on their own levels – and to mix these risked enormous confusion.

One such example from the Gospels is the use of the word ‘Pharisee’ – apparently Jesus’ favourite targets. He was certainly direct in what he said, but did he really pick on a religious group so singly and savagely?  Or perhaps he meant the Pharisee in each of us – the one who made visible worship to show to others how much he/she was worthy of their admiration; and how much they adhered to the letter and the law of their worship? If this were the case, then what a powerful metaphor it created in a single word . . . of such impeccable and higher logic are great and secret languages woven.

Returning to our theme of laying down one’s ‘life’ or ‘soul’. If Jesus was seeking a way to convey the ‘me-ness’ of a person, then the word ‘life’ might not be specific enough. Life is more easily equated with the difference between a living and a dead thing. The animation is Life, mysterious and difficult to define though it may be. The interior life of a person is the garden of study for all philosophical systems, and it is reasonable to surmise that the word ‘soul’ was used to describe this. In our modern world, the birth of psychology has seen this notion replaced by the term psyche, but the meaning is very similar except that, from Greek times on, great scholars viewed the soul as containing all the interior experience of a person, including what we now call the spiritual, rather than just that belonging to the physical.

If we re-examine the notion of laying down a life in this context the quotation from the Gospel of John becomes:

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his soul for his friends.”

Here we have a very different metaphor; that a ‘man’ would die, not to his organic life, but to the current level of his interior state – something that few psychologists would dare approach. And yet, this teacher of fishermen, two thousand years ago, said it plainly. In laying down his ‘soul’ in this way, he approached the kind of conscious love that mystics attribute as the supreme teaching of all avatars who come into Life to teach in this way.

Could the phrase of Jesus: “Get thee behind me . . .” not indicate a simple layering from front to back, of the interior higher state having precedence?

In this context, Jesus goes on to speak of the difference between servants and friends. Servants are those who obey because of authority and without understanding. Friends are people close to us, perhaps Companions of the Way, for whom we are willing to lay down our present state of ‘me-ness’, sacrificing and risking all, in the centurion-like faith that such a ‘death’ of state renders us a vessel for inner re-birth. The centurion most certainly made a friend of his servant, thus transferring him between levels of his interior life.

In our talk on Thursday, we will approach more of this secret language and open it to discussion and examples from all our lives. It will be a rich and rewarding forum.


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