In between many other books about many other religions, I'm reading Smoley's Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition. I already know a lot about Gnostic and mystic approaches to Christianity, but this is helping to put some of the 'pieces' of my understanding together. The book explores some developments in mystical Christianity through the ages. These include early theologian Origen's beliefs in reincarnation and the four-level cosmic scheme, magical monotheistic traditions like Hermeticism (which included the Order of the Golden Dawn), the Christian roots of modern Tarot reading, and the Sophia myth of the Gnostics (a particular favourite of mine).
The Christian mystics were often deeply aware of these esoteric mysteries. Hildegard von Bingen had visions of the Divine feminine through which she understood that all of us are potential mystics and visionaries. Her visions of Divine Wisdom - Sophia - communicated a feminine Divine archetype that was both terrible and tender. Her theology had undertones of pantheism too. Another great mystic and heroine of mine, Mother Julian of Norwich, was essentially universalistic - she believed that God would not condemn anyone to hell (even though she struggled with this insight because it was basically heretical according to the Catholic Church). Because we are created in the image of God, nothing can separate us from God. Instead, Julian emphasised the all-encompassing, all-transforming love of the Divine - a far deeper love than we can ever imagine.
I don't agree with everything associated with Gnostic and mystic Christianity, especially its concept of the world and humanity as fallen - but there is much here that draws me towards a deeper union with Divinity. There's also much in common with other religions here. In the tenth century, the Greek Orthodox priest Abba Dorotheus used a circle as an illustration. He said:
"The more one is united to his neighbour, the more one is united to God. To help you understand the meaning of this word, I will give you an example taken from the Fathers: Imagine a circle traced on the ground, and its centre. We call the centre the middle of the circle. Concentrate on what I am telling you. Imagine that this circle is the world. The centre is God, and the rays are the different paths or ways of life of men. When the saints, desiring to approach God, walk towards the centre of the circle, they come nearer to each other as well as to God, the more they approach the centre of the circle. The nearer they come to God, the nearer they come to each other. And the nearer they come to each other, the closer they are to God."
( http://www.scourmont.be/studium/bresard/13-gaza.htm#gazaIII )
In this book, Smoley relates this image to esoteric (inner) and exoteric (outer) Christianity. Imagine a circle divided into 'outer' and 'inner' circles of religion. In every faith, Smoley argues, there are many who remain within the outer circle. From the perspective of the edge of the circle, different religious beliefs (located on the other side of the circle) seem VERY different. However, for those who are willing to go deeper, the more they move towards the centre of the circle, the more they have in common with those believers from other faiths who are also moving towards the centre. The closer we are to the Divine, the more we are the same.
The book contains a fair bit of history of the way that esoteric Christianity developed, but it's presented in a coherent way that links together very different ideas and traditions. I recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about the hidden, buried and suppressed mysteries of Christianity. Fundamentalists and anti-Christian types alike are likely to find it difficult to deal with. But for anyone, of any faith, with an interest in the deeper mysteries of the Divine, you might find it helpful to remember the inner/outer circle image. The closer we move to the centre of the Divine circle, the fewer differences between us and our beliefs, and the closer we come to each other in our realization of ourselves as aspects of the Divine.
Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
And first Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day through whom you give us light.
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendour!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
In the heavens you have made them, bright
And precious and fair.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all the weather's moods,
By which you cherish all that you have made.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious and pure.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
Through whom you light the night.
How beautiful he is, how playful and powerful and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother,
Who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces
Various fruits and coloured flowers and herbs.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Death,
From whose embrace no mortal can escape.
Blessed are those She finds doing your will.
The second death can do no harm to them.
-- St Francis of Assisi, Canticle of Brother Sun