When I was in high school, I took a 20th century novel class with a teacher whose name escapes me (I've now remembered it, but am not putting it here in case she reads the internet ;-)). I don't remember much about her except the low-cut tee shirts she wore every single day. There's nothing wrong with this look, of course -- it's just that she was a fairly well-endowed woman, that she sat at a student desk leaning forward facing the class with her arms crossed under her bust line, and that she had seated boys in every front row seat. I can't think that that was an accident. She was odd. Aside from the tee shirt thing and her inordinate love of biographical criticism, what I remember most about this teacher is that she assigned me to read and do a presentation on Herman Hesse's novel, Demian. When I say it disturbed me, I mean it FREAKED ME OUT. It was my first introduction to the concept of gnosticism, an old heresy that continues to rear its ugly head. A type of gnosticism, Manicheanism, posits that the light and the darkness are continually at war and that the universe (and human beings) were created as a result of this war. The goal of spiritual life is to extract the light (the spirit) from the dark (the material). Hesse's novel is all about this.
At least two of my beloved writers from the early 20th century, Joyce and Yeats (what IS it with the Irish, huh?) included aspects of gnosticism in their works. Joyce had the whole initiate and adept thing down pat, as I found when I finally was able to read Ulysses after multiple attempts. I read it in a special seminar in graduate school and remember being so incredibly frustrated at the babble I was having to wade through. I was reading the words, but not understanding. My professor kept urging me to just keep reading and to not give up. Once I'd reached the Episode 4 (Calypso), I was starting to enjoy myself. By Episode 15 (Circe), I was having a grand auld time. In talking about the experience, the professor reminded me that the stumbling blocks to understanding all were in the first part of the novel, commonly called The Telemachiad (after Odysseus's son, Telemachus). Wading through that difficult part of the novel was my "initiation" according to the gnostic path of spirituality, and now I was an "adept". And, of course, Yeats was a devotee of Madame Blavatsky and a member of the Theosophical Society which she founded. He delved further and further into esoterica and believed in things (such as automatic writing, which he practiced with his wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees) that no Nobel Poet Laureate should.
So, why am I talking about Herman Hesse, Joyce, and Yeats (besides my love for at least the last two)? Why am I talking about gnosticism? I think it's because I find it very tempting and at the same time disturbing and elitist.
First the tempting part -- it's a truism that life can be ugly, full of suffering and sadness. Who wouldn't want to escape it? Who wouldn't want to think, "if I only had the key, the wisdom, I could transcend all this suffering. I could become what I REALLY am -- a spiritual being -- instead of being trapped here in this material and suffering realm." Of course, it's also tempting to believe that you have some kind of special knowledge -- that you have passed the test of the initiate and have read all 21 chapters of Ulysses and liked it. (As both my dad and my husband would say, "That and a five dollar bill will get you a cuppa coffee at Starbucks").
Now the disturbing and elitist part (and the point, I think). First, why should we believe that we should transcend suffering? No one but a masochist seeks suffering out, but all of us surely understand that it will come to us. What we do with it is the question. My normal response to suffering is to curl in a ball and whine, 'WHY ME. OH WHY ME?'. That's the disturbing part. The elitist part is the dangerous thinking that somehow, if only I could xxx, I could fix the suffering, end the suffering, because I'm so smart, motivated, and work-oriented, that I can fix it myself. All those other people who can't seem to get their lives, their families, their households, their weight under control? Well, I'm not like that. I could if I really wanted to do it.
So, what do I do with the fact that I don't do it? That, after years of "trying", here I still am?
Choice #1: Self-hatred. Wallowing. More ice cream.
Choice #2: Realize my radical dependence on something (SOMEONE) more capable than myself, someone who sees my efforts and says, "Hey, that burden you are carrying? Put it down. MY yoke is easy and MY burden is light. Try it for a while."
And my response, with the father of the possessed child in Matthew 9: 14-29 is "Lord, I believe. Oh help my unbelief."