Love is Patient, Love is Kind: St. Paul’s Advice For Contemporary Esoteric Spirituality
Love is patient, Love is kind. Love is not boastful or envious or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” St. Paul, First Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 13 verses 4-7
You’ve likely heard these lines at pretty much any wedding you’ve ever been to. As someone who used to officiate at weddings I can recall all the glazed eyes and people checking their cell phones whenever someone would start reading it. It was like I could feel the air go out of the church.
In those moments the thought that always ran through my head is why did this reading became so popular at weddings in the first place? Sure, on a base level, there’s an obvious connection between Love and marriage.
On second glance I find it very odd indeed that we should have this reading at so many weddings when after all this passage is about esoteric paranormal phenomenon. It’s true. The original context of these words are a criticism of the ethical misuse of esoteric and paranormal capacities. So unless the couple in question getting married have been consistently misusing their esoteric capabilities, especially in regards to their relationship, it raises the question of whether it is the most apt reading for their wedding.
The famous lines quoted above come from the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s First Letter to the newly formed Christian community in Corinth. It was very likely written between the years 53-57 C.E. about 25 years or so after the death of Jesus.
The wedding canopy that hangs over 1 Corinthians 13 has caused us to miss what this passage is actually about—an ethical and spiritual reflection on the appropriate and inappropriate applications of esoteric or mystical experiences. In an age of renewed interest in esoterica, the occult, paranormal and mystical phenomenon, I think St. Paul’s words have some serious import for us if we can only get a sense of what he was actually saying.
Metapsychosis, as Jeremy so eloquently articulated, means (for him) “a movement of soul-within-soul. Mind to mind. Psyche to psyche. The movement and transmigration of consciousness, culture, and world(s) as they churn in the sea of becoming and meaning-making.”
I think that St. Paul’s writings in the First Letter to the Corinthians have something very important to say to us about this meta-path of soul. In particular what are the ethics of working soul to soul, psyche to psyche? How do we relate to each other and use for the good that which arises out of our souls? Especially in this time, in this age?
Here I think is where St. Paul’s subtle analysis of mysticism, esoterica, and ethics can be of great value to us. A key reason I believe so are the parallels between the ancient Corinthians and our own contemporary era.
Corinth at the time of St. Paul was a colony of the Roman Imperium. It was a city with longstanding history and prestige in Greece but had fallen into relative decline as money and peoples moved elsewhere in the globalized economy of the day. Rome had in fact destroyed the city—brutally disappearing its men, selling its women and children off to slavery—a mere century or so previously. Rome repopulated the city with Romans, Greeks, including a significant percentage of Jews.
While the state machinery of Imperial Rome whirled in full gear, a soul sickness pervaded the empire. The civic religion of the Roman state was beginning to decay, weaken, and fracture. As the civic religion desiccated, people looked for Eastern religions to fill the void—which in their time meant to places like present-day Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, and Iran, especially Judaism and what would come to be known as Christianity (interestingly for us labeled “Western” religions with our Eastern religions then being Southeast and East Asian ones).
During this time all manner of spiritual exploration and experimentation flourished: Goddess worship, Mystery Cults, philosophical-mystical revivals, exorcists, medicine people populated the scene. The world became filled with messianic figures—Greek, Jewish, and otherwise.
There was a thriving marketplace for spiritual awakening, debate, and engagement. In the rapidly hollowing-out husk of the Roman Empire people turned to God or gods. There were charges of problematic eclecticism (i.e. ancient spiritual cafeteria-ism), critiques of true Westerns being blinded by “Eastern” heresies.
I hear many echoes to our own day: from the dark underbelly of Pax Americana and globalization, to the wild wanderings of beings to find meaning, wisdom, and solace in any and all places, to the specific explosion of interest in alternative states of being and experience.
From this ferment was came an explosion of interest in and experience of mystical experience. Including but not limited to a very small community in the city of Corinth. This community consisted of Gentiles who had been drawn in certain respects to Judaism. These were Gentiles who were drawn to the Jewish spirituality (but not necessarily Jewish customs of circumcision or kosher food restrictions) were known as God-fearers.
St.Paul—who was Jewish as were all the leaders of the first generations of what came to be known as Christianity—felt that God had called him to work with Gentiles. So he began by connecting with God-fearers. These individuals formed the basis of what we would call the Christian community in Corinth (though they did not call themselves Christians it should be noted).
Paul preached his message, his gospel, of the Crucified and Risen Christ Jesus and these Gentiles embraced this message. For them it opened their hearts, their souls, and for many of them their subtle experiential channels (as we’ll see in a moment).
That is to say the ancient Corinthian Christians were newbies; they only had a few decades of practice in the way of Jesus under their belts. They were attempting to be formed in a tradition, one that they were not born into. One that they were both trying to remain faithful to and yet also incorporate while modifying it to reflect their own reality, all the while hoping to remain faithful and genuine in doing so.
This challenge these Corinthians were faced with I think is very much the challenge of many contemporary North American spiritual practitioners of all shapes and sizes: plant medicine practitioners, Western practitioners of Eastern traditions, spiritual but not religious. Perhaps even more broadly the entire moment towards a globalized identity and culture faces this same question: what will be the spiritual expression(s) of such a globalized person, of communities that seek to live such an identity?
In particular, what are the ethics of a meta-psychosis? If meta means both a second order reflection on as well as that which is bigger, the question of the ethics of our psyches is absolutely crucial.
I maintain that St. Paul’s words transmigrate across time and space in contexts that are different but perhaps not as totally different as we might surmise. These words speaking of the primacy of love.
Paul was one of the founders of the community at Corinth. It is in this role that he wrote his letters, primarily as it turns out in this case to admonish and critique the growing problems of the fledging Corinthian Christian community.
Though the Corinthian Christians were still relatively young in their practice they were nevertheless accessing very strong spiritual experiences. They were also apparently really struggling to maintain their ethical integrity in the midst of such experiences. They were navigating important questions of authority and tradition on the one hand while allowing room for spontaneous expression on the other.
I hear echoes of that struggle to our own—only a few decades since the counterculture rise, the importation of Eastern spirituality, shamanic revivals, along with the loss of traditional supports and consequently numerous forms of abuse: financial, spiritual, sexual, and emotional. Yet all the while we maintain a sense that these experiences and capacities are crucially important and have something profound to offer us.
It would be tempting to call this reflection an esoteric reading of 1 Corinthians, except that would be wrong. It’s not importing esotericism into the reading. The esotericism is there in plain ancient Koine Greek (or English in my translation). It’s right on the page. If anything it’s taken enormous amounts of efforts over the years to misread the very clear intended meaning of the text.
Paul begins his letter to the Corinthian community in this manner:
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given to you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Notice the emphasis there on knowledge of every kind—including as we’ll see esoteric knowledge (gnosis). Esoteric or paranormal experience were apparently quite common in the Corinthian church. Intriguingly Paul recognizes this reality but this is not Paul’s primary interest. His interest is in the ethical and communal context of esotericism.
So what are these esoteric gifts? What kinds of experiences and capacities (siddhis) were these early Christians expressing?
Paul offers a list of what these esoteric Christian spiritual gifts are (in chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians): in traditional Christian theological language these are called charismatic gifts, from the Greek charism/charisma meaning grace.
utterances of wisdom
gifts of faith
gifts of healing
prophecy (aka divination)
discernment of spirits
speaking in tongues
Paul later adds to the list things like “various forms of assistance and leadership.” (Rejoice and be glad organizational visionaries and movement builders, you too have a spiritual gift to give!).
The key point is that the presence of a spiritual power, what Paul calls The Spirit of God, has unleashed esoteric experiences and capacities in this community. So far, so good. But something is not well. After all the nice flowery greetings and thanksgivings in the first 9 verses, Paul gets right to the point in verse 10:
“Now I appeal to you brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul, ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas (Peter)’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ (1 Corinthians 1: 10-12).”
So while there’s a great sense of esoteric and mystical experience abounding these experiences are not solving the fundamental problem of a community rife with division, power plays, and egotism. The spiritual experiences are being subsumed into the larger context of division and spiritual egos. This is what all the “I belong to Paul or Cephas or Apollos” is about—people in the community were lining up behind their favorite charismatic spiritual teacher. This is the mystical equivalent of “My dad can beat up your dad.” Sadly my spiritual teacher can beat up your spiritual teacher is alive and well in our time.
So something’s gone very wrong. In order to try to heal the divisions and transform the situation Paul reminds the Corinthians how they came to their spiritual experiences in the first place:
“When I came to you brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom…I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (1 Cor 2: 1, 3-4)
Here then is the crux of Paul’s argument. If I put it in point form it’d be:
1. We only come to spiritual experience through grace (the Spirit and power of the divine).
2. That spiritual power is best expressed, paradoxically, through humility and love.
Fancy discussions, lofty treatises, and the like will not grant us spiritual insight (human wisdom versus the power of god(s). But then, more pertinent for our purposes here is point #2: what is the best way for the grace of the god(s) to be expressed in life? Can these experiences come to actually reinforce and strengthen a sense of egotism? Or can they help resolve such egotism?
St. Paul’s answer is that while these experiences are ultimately meant to help reduce egotism, they can just as easily get sucked into supporting egotism. In the case of the Corinthians (and sadly I think we are far too Corinthian nowadays) he sees the latter, not the former occurring.
In response to this failure, Paul will articulate a beautiful vision of the power of love as a medicine to heal all egotism, particularly spiritual egotism.
Liberal Christians as well as academic religious scholars have shied away from this (obvious) esoteric context to Paul’s letter as it raises the uncomfortable question of mystical experience. Now it is certainly true that the ancient Corinthian church lived in a radically different social, technological, philosophical, and political world then we do. There are points of overlap I would argue, but there the distinctions really need to be honored. That being said, the specific esoteric processes being described by St. Paul are not unfamiliar to our world. They are available experiences today in very similar, if not nearly identical form. I contend that while Paul’s words are expressly in response to specifically ancient Christian forms of esoteric experience, I think his words can have meaning and insight for those of us in participating in the larger realm of esoteric and mystical experience who aren’t doing so in a specifically Christian context or form.
Let’s start in Chapter 12 (one chapter prior to the Love is patient portion read at weddings).
“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed…There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of service but the same Lord; there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor 12: 1, 2-7)
I really want to emphasize that last line:
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Paul then goes on to articulate his famous image of the church (the spiritual community or sangha) as a body, with no part of the body ultimately being superior to any other, but rather each simply performing its function for the sake of the whole.
“If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?…If all were a single member, were would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ (1 Cor 12: 17, 19-21)
This message is a radical one in this or any age. It clearly states that our own spiritual, mystical, or esoteric capacities only exist as gifts to help others. Further we are not to grade or judge each other based on a supposed hierarchy of spiritual gifts. All are equal in the eyes of God. Different gifts are simply different gifts and each has their place.
Perhaps most radical of all Paul states boldly,
“On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be the weaker are the indispensable.” (1 Cor 12: 22)
In an era where spirituality is increasingly a pastime pursuit of elites, Paul reminds us that those who seem on the periphery, the forgotten, marginalized, and oppressed ones, are the indispensable ones. And just so we keep our historical sense in mind, the Corinthian church was having a problem with its wealthier members excluding its poorer ones from their spiritual gatherings–which Paul rails against in Chapter 11 of the letter. The Corinthians are sounding more and more like us or we like them every second.
In contrast, Paul’s vision is one of radical interdependency or inter-being. It’s a complete and total critique of Western culture’s pursuit of radical individualism–even and most especially within the context of spiritual individualistic consumerism (aka spiritual materialism).
Which brings us to the last and crucial line of Chapter 12 (verse 31):
“Strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”
Paul is saying there something tremendously important not only to the ancient Corinthians but to us. Yes we should strive for the greater esoteric gifts—if you are called to plant medicine that is a kind of spiritual gift. If you are called to energy healing, that’s a kind of spiritual gift. Strive for all these insofar as you do so with an aim to buildup the common good. We should strive for these gifts as a way to help each other.
But there is still yet an even more excellent way than striving for the buildup of the common good through spiritual gifts (as great as that it is when done properly)—and that way is the way of love.
The Corinthian church was doing neither. Just a recap of what we’ve learned of the Corinthian community:
1. They had formed factions around various spiritual teachers in the Christian movement
2. The rich were having a separate gathering with each other, excluding and shaming their poorer members (poorer in human economic terms only).
3. They were misusing esoteric processes for their own glorification (spiritual egotism).
And here are a few other gems I haven’t mentioned but worth listing here to get a sense of the serious problems in this community.
4. Some of them were suing each other in civil courts (Chapter 6).
5. They were fighting over food purity issues (their version of our vegan, vegetarians, raw foodists, gluten-frees, omnivores and carnivore fights).
6. One individual was sleeping with his stepmom (true story, read Chapter 5—”a man is living with his father’s wife’).
In other words, image, sex, money, and power were corrupting their spiritual path. Sound familiar?
In this toxic brew, Paul reminds them of key points:
1. Spiritual experience is a form of grace. It is a gift of the divine and is meant to be shared as a means of building up the common good, not to glorify oneself. Because after all one has not really done or achieved anything—as it all comes from The Divine.
2. Strive therefore for the greater esoteric gifts, offer them to others as gifts in service.
3. Above all follow the yet more excellent path of love.
And then after all this comes the famous passage of Chapter 13:
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have I love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13: 1-3).
All of the processes there mentioned are esoteric ones—speaking in tongues of angels, prophetic powers, understanding all mysteries, having all knowledge and faith so as to remove mountains (co-creators! manifestors!).
Yet: “If I do not have love, I am nothing.”
No qualification. No hedging there from Paul. Without love, it’s all meaningless. Without love, spiritual experiences add up to a giant pile of nothing, maybe even something worse than nothing.
Again Paul reminds the Corinthians it’s worth striving for these capacities, as long as we remember A) they are gifts to be used in service to others and B) what motivates our giving is love.
“If I give away all my possessions but do not have love I gain nothing.”
That’s a direct shot to contemporary celebrity spiritual philanthropists who give away lots of money to make themselves appear holy and caring.
“And if hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
Paul here is referring to spiritual ascetics, who perform incredible acts of self-denial but only do so to boast and look superior. In our day, we’re less likely to see as much denial ascetics as we are to see yogic super athletes. They may not hand over their bodies, rather they may rather work them out to appear incredibly physiqued, sexy, Tantric, whatever. But if they do so without love, they gain nothing.
What then is love?
“Love is patient (i.e. long-suffering), love is kind…Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues they will cease; as for knowledge it will come to an end. For now we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part, but when the complete comes the partial will end…For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part, then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13: 4, 8-9a, 12-13)
Love runs deeper (according to Paul) then all mystical or spiritual experiences, however graceful, however helpful they may be. In so arguing Paul makes clear that love is the possibility of all beings. For any number of reasons a person may not have the opportunity or aptitude to work with esoteric capacities, but all can love, which in an ultimate sense is the only important issue in play. The mystical-esoteric phenomena and gifting can be a relative aid to the ultimate work of love. But shorn of the context of love, these capacities are more than likely to only create a more nefarious, spiritualized form of selfishness.
Love is fundamentally wishing the best for another, for all others. It is letting go completely of the idea that I ultimately know what is in the highest good for another being. In that releasing and surrendering of understanding, I cease to try to control. I watch my tendencies to try to manipulate another—whether covertly or overtly—and I simply hold in my heart a vision of their deepest blessedness. If I may add simple acts to that intention which, as best as I can relatively discern, may help in their blessedness and if those acts are welcomed by the other, then I hope to take those acts. Something as simple as a smile, holding a hand, cooking someone a meal, offering a truly listening ear, communicating (verbally or nonverbally) empathy and compassion.
Love is radically simplifying.
Love is, where appropriate, being willing to step aside for the good of another. If we were all constantly stepping aside to give to another then all would be taken care of. In Christianity this is called the perichoresis, whereby each of the persons of the Godhead mutually indwells with the others. In true love, one finds one’s true self only in loving another and being loved in return, just as the other only finds her true self in loving another and being loved in return.
Paul’s point is that love transcends the mystical esoteric (it includes it as well, at least ideally). Love is deeper.
I believe that St. Paul’s wisdom can help us in this unmoored spiritual age to find renewed discernment and care.
Love, as Paul says, never ends. Everything else, all other spiritual capacities or powers do eventually end. Therefore all such capacities must be judged in light of Love. Any other approach to esoteric powers, however well-intentioned, is, I believe, ultimately untrustworthy.
We find ourselves living in the multiple simultaneous breakdown of empire, postmodernity, and meaning. Out of those breakdowns some feel the ineluctable pull to reweave, to rebirth, and to generate something creative, something new, some beauty and wisdom in the face of such monstrous oblivion-inducing technologies and anti-life forces. Some of those forces being political, others being embedded in consciousness directly, while yet still others being of an etheric nature (what St. Paul calls the powers and the principalities.)
Against those St. Paul offers this sagely insight:
Experience the grace, the ultimacy, and the potency of Love.
Out of love for Love seek the higher esoteric gifts so that they may be given as a way to build up the good of all.
But deeper than the gifts is to Love.
If we are to meet soul to soul let it be in Love. Amen.