Gurdjieff & Christianity

by William Patrick Patterson

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     Was Gurdjieff a Christian? The orientation of the teaching—is it Christian? Entering the new millennium, some fifty years after Mr. Gurdjieff’s passing, it is important to begin to understand the part that Christianity played in his life and in the teaching he brought.

      Certainly, as Gurdjieff makes clear in Meetings With Remarkable Men, he was raised as a Christian—I know the rituals of the Greek Church well,” he would say many years later, “and there, underlying the form and ceremony, there is real meaning.” His first religious tutor was seventy-year-old Dean Borsch, the highest spiritual authority of the region. As Dean Borsch aged, he asked the young priest Bogachevsky to tutor Gurdjieff and confessed him every week. For two years, Bogachevsky tutored the young Gurdjieff and then, when the priest was posted elsewhere, he had Gurdjieff continue his confessions by mail.

      It is interesting to note, regarding Bogachevsky’s caliber, that later he went to Mount Athos as a chaplain and a monk. Soon, however, he renounced monastic life as practiced there and went to Jerusalem. Bogachevsky joined the Essene Brotherhood there and was sent to one of its monasteries in Egypt. He was given the name Father Evlissi and later became one of the assistants to the abbot of its chief monastery. According to Gurdjieff, the Essenes had preserved the teaching of Jesus Christ “unchanged” and that as it passed from generation to generation it “has even reached the present time in its original form.”

      The depth of what Gurdjieff felt for this man was expressed when, in his maturity, he declared, “Father Evlissi, who is now an aged man, happened to become one of the first persons on earth who has been able to live as our Divine Teacher Jesus Christ wished for us all.” [Emphasis added.] Gurdjieff’s choice of words would seem to indicate that for himself Gurdjieff accepts the divinity of Jesus Christ. He speaks, for example, of Jesus Christ as “a Messenger from our ENDLESSNESS,” “that Sacred Individual,” “Divine Teacher Jesus Christ,” and “Sacred Individual Jesus Christ.”

      Although Gurdjieff speaks highly of Christianity and of Jesus Christ, there are also many stories of his making fun of Catholic priests, even shouting at them on occasion. For example, his niece Luba reported in her Luba Gurdjieff: A Memoir with Recipes, “My Uncle never taught us how to go to church, or pray, or anything like that. And he never liked priests or the nuns. When we were out driving and he saw a priest, he would say, ‘Shoo! Son of a bitch.’”

      Gurdjieff certainly knew a great deal about Christianity—not only its religion but its esoteric foundation as well. This can be seen when he came to Russia in 1912 and took the guise of a Turkish prince, calling himself Prince Ozay. Within a year of his arrival in St. Petersburg he met the young English musicologist Paul Dukes, later an officer in British intelligence. Dukes reports that the prince wore a turban and spoke in Russian with a marked accent. He was of medium height, sturdily built and the grip of his hand “was warm and powerful. His dark eyes, Dukes said, “piercing in their brilliance, were at the same time kindly and sparkling with humor.” After a chess game which the prince won handily, he spoke knowledgeably to Dukes in English (which Dukes said he preferred) of the Lord’s Prayer. The prince told Dukes it was designed “as a devotional breathing exercise to be chanted on a single even breath.”

      “I have been in many churches in England and America,” said the prince, “and always heard the congregation mumble the Lord’s Prayer all together in a scrambled grunt as if the mere muttered repetition of the formula were all that is required.”

      Ozay informed Dukes that the incantation of prayers as a devotional breathing exercise was practiced in the earliest Christian Church, which inherited it from the ancient Egyptians, Chaldeans, Brahmins, and others in the East, where it is known as the science of Mantra. This esoteric side, Ozay said, was lost in the Western Church centuries ago.

      Gurdjieff had intended to found the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Russia, but the revolution precluded this. It was not until eight years later, in 1921, that he was able to establish it in France. At the time, he stated the Institute’s aim unequivocally: “The program of the Institute, the power of the Institute, the aim of the Institute, the possibilities of the Institute can be expressed in very few words: the Institute can help one to be able to be a Christian.” He spoke of a Christian as being “a man who is able to fulfill the Commandments…both with his mind and his essence.” St. George the Victor was proclaimed as the Institute’s patron saint.

The Original Christianity
      The opening of All and Everything, First Series, begins with a prayer: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and in the name of Holy Ghost. Amen.” And within, Gurdjieff speaks of Christianity as based on “resplendent love,” saying also that among all of the ancient religious teachings none had so “many good regulations for ordinary everyday life.” He believed that Christianity is the best of all existing or future religions “if only the teaching of the Divine Jesus Christ were carried out in full conformity with its original.” [Emphasis added.] It is not clear what he means by the words “its original,” but presumably a religion or teaching that came before Christianity. Something of the same sort happens with the aforementioned prayer, for he says in introducing it that this “definite utterance…has been formulated variously and in our day is formulated in the following words.” He is quite clearly, then, pointing to something that was Christian but which predates Christianity.

      It is clear he believes that Christianity—the religion—was mixed with Judaism, and that Judaism by that time “had already been thoroughly distorted.” During the Middle Ages, Christianity was further distorted by the fantastic doctrines of hell and heaven imported from Babylonian dualism by the Church Fathers. Christianity, Gurdjieff says, had been “the religion and teaching upon which the Highest Individuals placed great hopes”—note how he separates religion from teaching—but, as a result of what he calls “absurdities” and “criminal wiseacring,” genuine faith in Christianity was “totally destroyed.”

Messengers from Above
      Perhaps more significant for determining whether or not Gurdjieff was a Christian is that while he obviously held Jesus Christ in very high regard, he does not take him as the only Son of God. Rather, Jesus Christ was but one of a number of Messengers from Above, though of these He apparently holds a special place. Although Gurdjieff speaks of Jesus as a saint, as he does of Saint Buddha, Saint Mohammed, Saint Lama, and Saint Moses, it is only Jesus and Buddha that Gurdjieff also speaks of as being “Divine.”

      Gurdjieff’s view of the resurrection of Jesus Christ differs radically from accepted doctrine. He holds that if a person dies and is buried, “this being will never exist again, nor furthermore will he ever speak or teach again.” However, in seeming contradiction, he views the Last Supper as being a preparation for the sacred sacrament Almznoshinoo on the Kesdjan body of Jesus Christ. Almznoshinoo, he says, is a means of materializing and communicating with the higher-being bodies of a deceased physical body by the Hanbledzoinian process of intentionally coating its Kesdjan body. In order to accomplish this, a particle of an individual’s Hanbledzoin must be taken while he is alive and either kept in a corresponding surplanetary formation or taken in and intentionally blended with the Kesdjan bodies of those who will afterward participate in the Almznoshinoo process.

      Because Jesus Christ did not have the necessary time before he was crucified to explain and instruct his apostles in certain cosmic truths, he had to resort to a magical ceremony so that he might complete his mission while still in a cosmic individual state. It was at that moment, according to Gurdjieff, that Judas put forward an ingenious plan—the conscious betrayal of Christ—that would gain them the necessary time. Gurdjieff refers to Judas as a saint who, of all the disciples, was the most devoted and had the highest degree of reason.

      Concerning religion per se, Gurdjieff tells us there are seven levels. The religions of the first three are subjective and correspond to people who are primarily instinctual, emotional, or intellectual. It is at the fourth level that religion begins to become objective, free from the distortions of personality. At this level, the practitioner is beginning to emerge from the hypnotism of ordinary life and engaging in a struggle with what it means to be a Christian. Only at the fifth level does one have “the being of a Christian,” for only at this level can life actually be lived in accordance with the precepts of Christ, because one has now achieved a commensurate unity and will that is free from external influences.

Good & Evil Nonexistent
      Concerning good and evil Gurdjieff is quite clear. “The fantastic notion,” he says, “namely that outside of them [outside of people] there exist objective sources of ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ acting upon their essence” is without foundation—there is no external good and evil.

      Our present notion of good and evil, Gurdjieff believes, is based on misunderstanding. He says that long ago a being of Beelzebub’s tribe, Makary Kronbernkzion, who was a full member of the Society of Akhaldans, an esoteric brotherhood, was the first to employ the words. In an essay he wrote, entitled “The Affirming and Denying Influences on Man,” he spoke of the trinity of forces in the conscious evolution of human beings. The first force he characterized as arising from the causes proceeding in the Sun-Absolute, and issuing from it by momentum. This force, like the other two, is totally independent. Kronbernkzion called this force “Good.” When the momentum of this force is spent, there is then a striving to reblend with its source, the Sun-Absolute. This fundamental World Law is characterized as, “the effects of a cause must always re-enter the cause.” This second backward-flowing force, which must continually resist the momentum of the first force, he called “Evil,” or the active force. From the clash and friction of these two forces is formed the resultant, which in relation to the two other forces is considered neutralizing. This trinity of forces issues from one cause, the Prime Source of all creation. As long as people project a good and evil having some objective existence outside of themselves, spiritual evolution becomes curtailed.

      Gurdjieff, although raised as a Christian and no doubt baptized, had a deep understanding of Christianity, held its regulations and commandments in high regard, as he did its Divine Messenger from Above Jesus Christ, would nevertheless not be accepted by either the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches as a practicing Christian. And yet Gurdjieff, it is quite clear, would insist that he was a Christian—a genuine Christian.

      Clearly, for Gurdjieff, the word Christianity has a meaning different from that of contemporary churches. After his arrival in St. Petersburg, the subject was broached when Gurdjieff was first asked, “What is the relation of the teaching you are expounding [the Fourth Way] to Christianity as we know it?”

      “‘I do not know what you know about Christianity,’ answered Gurdjieff, emphasizing this word. ‘It would be necessary to talk a great deal and to talk for a long time in order to make clear what you understand by this term. But for the benefit of those who already know, I will say that, if you like, this is esoteric Christianity.’”

      In the account it is important to note that the first use of the word “Christianity” is italicized. The word is given even greater stress by making clear that he himself emphasized the word when he spoke, “answered Gurdjieff, emphasizing the word.” Saying he does not know what the questioner understands by the term Christianity, Gurdjieff adds that in any case he will answer, but “for the benefit of those who know already.” On the basis of these remarks some, such as Boris Mouravieff and Robin Amis, have believed that Gurdjieff was referring to Eastern Orthodoxy as it is practiced at Mount Athos. But this is simply an external reading, which, even at that, contradicts itself.

      In continuing the discussion, in the very next paragraph, Gurdjieff speaks about “the desire to be master of oneself, because without this nothing else is possible.” Then he addresses the subjects of love of mankind and altruism, and concludes with “In order to help others one must first learn to be an egoist, a conscious egoist. Only a conscious egoist can help people. Such as we are we can do nothing.”

      In sum, one must strive to become a true individual and to do that one must practice esoteric Christianity.

Rediscovery of Original Christianity

      From the remarks discussed previously, it is quite clear that Gurdjieff, in his quest for the origin of esoteric knowledge, rediscovered what he called a Christianity before Christ. “The Christian church,” said Gurdjieff, “the Christian form of worship, was not invented by the fathers of the church. It was all taken in ready-made form from Egypt, only not from the Egypt that we know but from one which we do not know…. This prehistoric 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.”

      After rediscovering the essential principles and ideas, Gurdjieff traveled to Persia, the Hindu Kush, and elsewhere to reassemble the complete teaching from the many elements that had migrated northward over time. He then reformulated the teaching, which he called [or was called] the Fourth Way, for our contemporary understanding and introduced it to the West. In first speaking of its origin he declared—“The teaching whose theory is here being set out is completely self-supporting and independent of other lines and it has been completely unknown up to the present time.” [Emphasis added.] It is “completely unknown” because its origin is prehistoric—predating the ancient Egyptian religion, Judaism, Zoroaster, the Avesta and the Hindu Rig Veda.

      So, in sum, Gurdjieff is, and is not, a Christian. The Fourth Way teaching is, and is not, Christian. It depends on what we know about Christianity, our definition of it.

      For Gurdjieff, there are two forms of Christianity, its original form, and its contemporary form.

      The Fourth Way, for Gurdjieff, is esoteric Christianity in its highest form. That is, if it is so recognized and practiced. Otherwise…. Notes

  1. Greek Church. G. I. Gurdjieff, Views from the Real World, p. 86.
  2. “Passing from generation to generation.” G. I. Gurdjieff, First Series, p. 703.
  3. Messenger from our endlessness.” Ibid., pp. 99, 701.
  4. Sacred Individual.” Ibid., p. 701.
  5. Divine Teacher Jesus Christ.” Ibid., p. 703.
  6. Saint Jesus Christ.” Ibid., p. 737.
  7. Shoo! Son of a bitch.” Luba Gurdjieff, Luba Gurdjieff: A Memoir with Recipes (Ten Speed Press, 1993), p. 64.
  8. English. Did Gurdjieff speak English? Mme de Salzmann told James Moore that Prince Ozay was Gurdjieff. Paul Dukes reports that the prince’s friends spoke in Russian. “Ribald stories made up part of the conversation, some of which my host [the prince] translated to me with gusto.” The Unending Quest (Cassell & Co. Ltd., 1950), p. 104. Dukes, an intelligent young man with a fine ear, makes several references to the prince speaking English. As he said he visited with the prince off and on from 1913 until February 1917, it is inconceivable that Dukes could have been misled. By making reference to Gurdjieff speaking English, was Dukes protecting Gurdjieff? As Dukes published his book after Gurdjieff’s death, there was no reason to protect him. Did Gurdjieff feign not being able to speak English to make it harder for his English and American students to understand him? That’s a possibility. As with many things about Gurdjieff, we are left in question.
  9. Prayer. Ozay told Dukes that a greater measure of the mantric art survived in the Greek Orthodox Church, especially in its Russian branch, on account of its devotion to pure song without instrumental interference. The Orthodox Church has never allowed its singing to be crippled or debased by organ ‘support,’ and indeed does not permit organs to be placed in churches. Ibid., p. 110.
  10. The Institute and Christianity. Gurdjieff, Views from the Real World, pp. 152-54.
  11. Relation of Fourth Way to Christianity. P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous (Harcourt Brace & Co., 1949), pp. 102-03.
  12. Resplendent Love. G. I. Gurdjieff, First Series, p. 702.
  13. Full conformity with its original.” Ibid., p. 1009.
  14. Definite utterance.” Ibid., p. 3. Given this, it is wondered whether Gurdjieff’s admonition “Do not do to others what you would not wish them to do to you” is an example of an original formulation, later changed.
  15. Thoroughly distorted.” Ibid., p. xx.
  16. Mouravieff and Amis. William Patrick Patterson, Taking with the Left Hand, The Mouravieff ‘Phenomenon,’ Arete Communications, 1998.
  17. All taken in ready-made form from Egypt.” Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, p. 302.
  18. Makary Kronbernkzion. Gurdjieff, First Series, p. 1138.
  19. Completely unknown.” Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, p. 286.

First printed in The Gurdjieff Journal.

William Patrick Patterson is the author of seven books on The Fourth Way, the latest of which is “Spiritual Survival in a Radically Changing World-Time.”