The Metamorphoses of Theophanic Visions

~Henry Corbin

In the Acts of Peter, a book belonging to those so-called "apocryphal" collections which were particularly esteemed and meditated upon in Gnostic and Manichaean circles, we read a narrative that provides an exemplary illustration of theophanic vision. Before a gathering of people the apostle Peter refers to the scene of the Transfiguration that he had witnessed on Mount Tabor. And essentially all he can say is this: Talem eum vidi qualem capere potui ("I saw him in such a form as I was able to take in"). Now in this gathering there are, several widows, afflicted at once with physical blindness and incredulity of heart. The apostle speaks to them in a tone of urgency: "Perceive in your mind that which ye see not with your eyes." The assemblage begins to pray, and thereupon the hall is filled with a resplendent light; it does not resemble the light of day, but is an ineffable, invisible light such as no man can describe. And this radiant "invisible light" shines into the eyes of these women, who alone are standing in the midst of the prostrate assemblage. Afterward, when they are asked what they have seen, some have seen an old man, others a youth, still others a little child who lightly touched their eyes and made them open. Each one has seen in a different form, appropriate to the capacity of her being; each one may say: Talem eum vidi qualem capere potui.

The occurrence of perceptions possessing, like this one, a personal character is attested by a number of other passages in these "apocryphal" Acts. In the Acts of John, in the narrative of the calling of the Apostles, when John and his brother James return in their boat after a night spent on the sea, both of them behold on the shore a being who beckons to them. But their visions differ: one has seen a little child, the other a pleasant and comely man of noble bearing.

Perhaps we shall find the key to these visions, the basis of their reality and their variations, in a few striking pages of these same Acts of John. On the evening of Good Friday the Angel Christos, while the multitude below, in Jerusalem, imagines that it is crucifying him, causes the apostle John to go up the Mount of Olives and into the grotto illumined by his presence; and there the angel reveals to John the mystery of the "Cross of Light."

This cross is called sometimes Word, sometimes Mind, sometimes Jesus and sometimes Christ, sometimes Door, sometimes Way, sometimes Son, Father, Spirit, sometimes Life, and sometimes Truth. It separates the things on high that are from the things below that become (the things of birth and of death), and at the same time, being one, streams forth into all things. "This is not the cross of wood which thou wilt see when thou goest down hence: neither am I he that is on the cross, whom now thou seest not, but only hearest his voice. I was reckoned to be that which I am not, not being what I was unto many others. . . . Thou hearest that I suffered, yet I did not suffer; that I suffered not, yet did I suffer; . . . and in a word, what they say of me, that befell me not. But what they say not, that did I suffer."

This brief quotation from the sublime discourse will suffice for our purposes. This mystery of the Cross of Light, which was one of the favorite themes of Manichaean piety, recurs explicitly in Shiite Ismailian Gnosis. The texts we have just cited from the so-called "apocryphal" Scriptures (like many others from the same source) give us the right tonality and may serve here as a prelude. If we reflect on the scene recorded in the Acts of Peter, we shall come to conclusions that will serve us as premises. We are dealing with visions, theophanic visions. There is actual perception of an object, of a concrete person: the figure and the features are sharply defined; this person presents all the "appearances" of a sensuous object, and yet it is not given to the perception of the sense organs. This perception is essentially an event of the soul, taking place in the soul and for the soul. As such its reality is essentially individuated for and with each soul; what the soul really sees, it is in each case alone in seeing. The field of its vision, its horizon, is in every case defined by the capacity, the dimension of its own being: Talem eum vidi qualem capere potui. The community of vision will be established not by reference to an external object, an evidence uniformly and fully given to all, but by reason of a dimension of being that is common to this or that group or family of souls. This adequation of vision to the dimension and capacity of the soul in which it takes place is the foundation of what we may call the metamorphoses of theophanic visions. We find a distinct formulation of these metamorphoses in Origen, where, speaking precisely of the Transfiguration, he declares that the Saviour existed not only in two forms—the one in which he was commonly seen, the other in which he was transfigured—but that in addition "he appeared to each one according as each man was worthy" (sed etiam unicuique apparebat secundum quod fuerat dignus). This statement is in keeping with the conception of the metamorphoses of the Logos, no doubt derived from Philo and frequent in the works of Origen, according to which the Saviour appears to men as a man and to the angels as an angel. It fits in with the vision of the steps of the Temple, in which the Saviour is, by reason of his humanity, the first and lowest step and, by reason of his angelic nature, the uppermost step dominating all the others, so that all the steps are the Saviour. In Ismailian Gnosis we find a similar image: the Temple of Light of the Imam, who is constituted by all the degrees of the esoteric hierarchy, to each of which the divine Epiphany is manifested in the measure of its capacity.

From: 'Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis'