Seven Pillars House of Wisdom > Articles > Reflections on Prophetology: The Origins of Inspiration, Part II

Reflections on Prophetology: The Origins of Inspiration, Part II

Jean-Yves Leloup

This article continues from Part I.

Let us take it as given, then, that sacred texts have their stories. Let us further accept as true that each prophet and each writer connected with those texts have individual stories. These various stories influence the character of the messages presented. Furthermore, if the messages are, as the conveyors of those messages claim, “inspired,” then the source of that inspiration must be considered. And if these messages are, metaphorically, seeds, we should likewise take into account the metaphorical soil in which they germinate—the mind of the reader or listener.

Let us consider prophetic messages as we consider other products of inspiration, as art. In modern esthetics, the purpose of art is often defined as “expression.” Even accepting this definition, we have further questions. What is being expressed by the art? And who or what is it that is doing the expressing?

If art is a translation of inspiration into the world of the senses, by what means is interiority rendered externally? How does the invisible become visible? How does the inaudible translate itself into words?

The diagram below suffers from all the limitations that inescapably bound such a representation. It suggests, however, the plurality of inner levels from which an inspired work may originate. The diagram calls upon certain currents of contemporary psychology in distinguishing these levels, but also taps into other, more ancient traditions about the human unconscious.

The space in the center of this circle is also the space that contains the circle. It is the full emptiness, the Source.

Let us undertake an exploration of the ten “spaces” from which inspiration may originate and an inspired work may emerge:

1. The Persona

If 90% of the iceberg of inspiration is more deeply submerged, the space of the persona is the part that can be accessed through vision and hearing. The persona is the channel through which sound passes. The sound may be the echo of consciousness itself, or a perception, an opinion, a judgment. This place of origin is built of a consensual rationality, a dialogue between the inspiration and the inspired one. Even art can be pressed into conformity. There are “schools of art,” modes of expression with which artists of a various time and place comply. There are also patrons of art who demand that art comply with their tastes and objectives. At the level of the persona, art is consciously produced and inspiration is secondary.

Nevertheless, the “rational crust” is sometimes broken through. An artist somehow escapes the constraints of outside society and finds that art is guided from within. There is a speech beyond the controlled speech, a genre that is not prefabricated but that has its own logic, that creates itself. This is a foray into the unconscious at the first level, the most superficial origin of inspiration.

2. The Personal Unconscious

This space is the unconscious that is the territory of Freudian psychoanalysts. The Personal Unconscious is formed of our history, a history projected in our words and deeds. Although these words and deeds have nothing to do with what is prophetic or visionary, this personal unconscious can communicate with unconscious levels accessible to the “little self.” If such communication is conscious and rational, the words that are revealed are often said to arise from “intuition.” If the communication is something less “reasonable,” it may be called “telepathy” or “divination.”

A psychoanalyst may be able to facilitate communication with the personal unconscious. In less time and with less expense, an art therapist may be able to do the same. Yet the personal unconscious speaks most cathartically and helpfully when one establishes the dialogue oneself.

3. The Familial Unconscious

The footprints of our ancestors are imprinted in our DNA. In addition, there are skeletons in every family closet, phantoms almost palpably present, secrets that shout in the determined silence of parents in the presence of their children. Much of psychoanalysis is an exorcism of these ghosts. Art, though, is perhaps even more powerful than analysis.

Our “inspiration” may have its source in the deeds or misdeeds of our forebears. Through art, this familial unconscious can be accessed. Our knowledge of our family’s past can liberate us from its burdens. The plight of an heir to wealth or power is a very familiar tale. The heir’s primary identity is “the heir,” an identity that can obliterate personality and veil levels of deeper consciousness. A work of inspiration that arises from this level of unconsciousness can be a healing. “Let the dead bury the dead” are words of release. By knowing family history, one who accesses this level of the unconscious may not be “doomed to repeat it.”

4. The Parasitic Unconscious

The Familial Unconscious allows communication with inspiration that has a source outside the current space and time. Beyond this, however, on another level, communication is possible with those incarnate in this space and time but unconscious. It is also possible to communicate with those who are disembodied but have not yet become “spiritual spirits.” Such spirits may be those who have failed to “go toward the light” when their mortal vessels had to be abandoned. Spirits such as these are often parasites and, like other parasites, can have a positive or negative effect upon their hosts. Some invite “possession” through channeling or séances. An artist may become convinced that a genius of some sort has taken control of his body. Madness—or, at the very least, confusion—may result when someone claiming to be inspired fails to distinguish between simple information conveyed through an angel, a disincarnate spirit, or any other “foreign entity” and the revelation that comes through an archetype in the Collective Unconscious. The phrase “Parasitic Unconscious” should be reserved for a victim tormented by thoughts, words, and actions not his own, one unable to integrate the promptings of this spirit with other sources of inspiration. One who is inspired should seek to know the source of inspiration. Inspiration by a parasite need not be categorically rejected, but only in recognizing the source of messages can the receiver maintain some freedom.

5. The Collective Unconscious

We inherit the consequences of our early joys and traumas from our personal past. We inherit the consequences of our ancestors’ deeds. Our culture, our civilization, also endow us with a legacy. This is the Collective Unconscious.

Whereas a neurotic may be at the mercy of his Personal or Familial Unconscious, a psychotic is the prey of the Collective Unconscious. There is no escape from archetypal images and symbols. Charismatic leaders and creators of masterpieces draw upon this level of inspiration. Why, despite the poverty of its content, did Hitler’s message mesmerize the masses? It drew upon the Collective Unconscious.
It is at this level that the word “prophet” can, for the first time, be used accurately. There are those who are able to tap the spirit of a particular ethnic group or an entire religion. Those inspired in such a way can allow listeners to discover or “remember” their coherence and identity. When this happens, the individual conscience is subsumed in the group consciousness—a consciousness that is exclusionary by nature and can allow great crimes against those defined as “other.”

The Divine Unconscious operates in each human being starting from that which limits him: culture, history, and, above all, language. Every language is sacred to the one whose mother tongue it is. One’s native language expresses the hidden, most profound sense of both individual and collective existence. Muslims say—rightly—that the Qur’an is untranslatable. Its beauty and spirituality truly speaks only to those nourished on its vocabulary. At a fundamental level, it is a revelation for the Arab peoples. A convert to Islam must, in some sense, change his language. Such a change requires a change in that person’s bonds to the Collective Unconscious. A transformation of this sort is undoubtedly possible, but the disruption of identity has serious consequences.

Religious conversion is only one example. Can a Spanish artist really “convert” to the idioms and grammar of African art? Can a musician trained in traditional Japanese music “convert” to jazz? Superficially, yes. Deeply, perhaps not.

The Collective Unconscious is particularized and limited, not universal. It is structured, not as a language, but pictorially. Visionaries, charismatic leaders, great artists, and prophets resonate with the images and symbols that make up the Collective Unconscious. Those who receive the message from these intermediaries, in turn, find a familiar internal resonance of their own.

6. The Physical Unconscious

The Physical Unconscious is not synonymous with the biological Unconscious. It is true that bodies have a nonverbal language of their own, but that is another subject. Nor is the Physical Unconscious a term for nature spirits, sprites and nymphs and local deities. The Physical Unconscious is the speech of Earth itself. The Greek word physis can be translated as “Nature.” The physical is that part of Nature that is visible. It is the blossoming out of the world, the fullness of what a glance can hold. What opens out also closes. This disappearance of what existed for a time is what has made sages and poets throughout time compare life to a dream, an illusion. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes contemplates what disappears in what opens out. Lao-Tzu contemplates what opens out in what disappears. Marveling at the vanity and vacuity of the world does not mean that one does not marvel at its beauty.

The Physical Unconscious is the language of an acorn growing to an oak and an oak declining into dead wood. It is heard in the roar of a lion and in the chirping of birds. A man who sings because he is too dazzled to speak is accessing the Physical Unconscious. The poet is not “above” the prophet, but his words originate in a different “place.” Poetic language is not only the language of the individual, not only the language of the collective, not only the language of the species. It is the language of earthly Creation, the language by which the planet tries to express itself and reveal its secrets.

Image courtesy Jose Said Osio.

7. The Angelic Unconscious

Reports of conversations with angels are not uncommon. One of the most famous is that of Gitta Mallasz, a Hungarian artist who was a young woman during the Second World War. In 1943, the Catholic Gitta and her two Jewish friends, Hanna and Lili, also artists, decide to meet weekly to discuss their writing. On June 25, 1943, Hanna opens her mouth to tell Gitta that the words she has just shared are disappointingly superficial. A strange energy wells up in Hanna and she is astonished to hear her own mouth repeating Gitta’s words verbatim. For the next seventeen months, at 3 o’clock nearly every Friday afternoon, Hanna receives and speaks messages from “beyond.” The speakers of these 98 discourses reveal themselves as the angels of the three young women. While we are not told how their art changed because of these angelic visits, the recorded words suggest that their art became joyful—and this during one of the most difficult times in history, both collective history and the personal history of the young women.

Gitta described her angel as a double, but one born of the light, who revealed more and more of the internal light of divinity. She spoke also of her angel as a guide sent by God to comfort and lead her. Her description is far from original. Yet it is arresting despite the lack of originality.

Years after the war, Gitta spoke of “simultaneous presence on two levels,” which she characterizes as a state of consciousness fully awakened on both the spiritual and on the material plane. As Rumi said, “Poor man! He is half angel and half animal, forever in tumult and battle. The angel is saved by knowledge. The beast is saved by brute ignorance. Midway between and struggling—such a predicament is man’s!” As a human being is of flesh and spirit, she is both terrestrial and celestial. Inspiration does not necessitate becoming pure spirit. It requires integrating the voice of the angel just as it integrates the voice of the id. For today’s humans, the Angelic Unconscious allows passage between the spiritual and ontological worlds. Serge Boulgakov speaks of angels as the “celestial ids” of human beings, spirits that free the human from identification with the empirical ego. “Freed” does not mean “no longer associated with.” Such freedom would constitute an unnatural rupture and precipitate an otherworldliness that is antithetical to the real work of the angelic, which is to strengthen the link between the two planes. An angel is the body of Divine Spirit visiting our own spirits. Angelic words echo Logos incarnate.

There are angels of darkness, however, just as there are angels of light. Sometimes the dark angels appear to be angels of light. If an angelic visitor excites and inflates the ego, its nature can be easily discerned. Angels of light differentiate while unifying. Angels of darkness separate while mixing. Consider the difference between “I am the Christ” and “Not I, but Christ in me.” A spirit that inspires us to fusion, finding the divine within, is of the light. In contrast, a spirit that separates us from the divine because we see no difference between divinity and our limited selves is of the darkness. Angels of light remind the human being to express the Logos, to be the incarnate image of the Divine.

Inspiration by angels of light produce icons, not idols. They raise art above its matter and its form. Angels of darkness trap us and lock us within ourselves. There is no room for God in this case. Angels of light open us to the Other, restore us to Divine Presence and reveal Divine Presence within us. At this level of the unconscious, the human being is a mirror for Divine Light.

8. The Self, the Imago Dei

Jung notes that it is important to differentiate between the awakening of Self and the realization of Self, between the arousal of ego and the integration of opposites. He found the most meaningful symbol for this integration in mandalas, a pattern oriented around a central emptiness. Self is the unconscious center of personality, contained by it and yet expanded beyond its limitations. To be integrated is to be whole—not to be all, but to allow the play of apparent opposites.

To be inspired by the Self is to be centered. Words that come from the center “taste” integrated, hold paradox without tension. Self is the invisible priest who blesses the wedding of Beauty and the Beast. Neither Beast nor Beauty, he leads bestial desire beyond itself as he leads angelic desire beyond itself.

In dreams, Self often appears as a Divine Child. Jung calls this child the Dei Imago. Not God, the Dei Imago is yet the footprint of God in the human as the Self is not God and yet is the footprint of God. A mirror is not the light that it reflects, but although it receives light from another source, it can also be a source of light.

Another metaphor is the river and the ocean. The two bodies of water are one, but the ocean is infinitely more than the river can express. Work inspired by this level of the unconscious connects the visible and the Invisible, time and Eternity, humanity and God.

9. God the Creator

Beyond the Self is the Creator of the Self and of all. At this level, we are beyond the dualities of consciousness and unconsciousness. At the origin there is only unity. It is here that sacred texts have their origin. It is here that words themselves have their origin. It is here that the speakers and writers of words originate. Still, before sacred words are received and before they emerge, there are many layers of the unconscious that they must cross. The water is pure at its Source, but, like a river, carries sediments and runs between the boundaries of its banks. However fresh the Source, a river may be polluted at the mouth. Yet, despite the pollution, the water may still be drinkable and refreshing.

Up to this point, we have not asserted that those inspired spoke the words of God; rather we discussed the level of the unconscious that shaped the presentation. Now we remember that everything, conscious or unconscious, has an origin. Nothing is without the Origin. Nothing is not without the Origin. Nothing is real but Reality. Nothing is but the great “Is;” there is a single Being from which all beings spring.  
God speaks as clearly from the mouths of the insane as from the mouths of the wise. The insane do not know this truth, but the wise do. We cannot “find God elsewhere than everywhere.” Were there no Origin, there would be no temple, cathedral, mosque, synagogue. There would be no Universe. Yet adherents of each religion have confused their “houses of God,” their monuments to the Divine, with the Divine itself. The misguided have attempted to appropriate the Origin with their “own” sacred texts. Apprehending the Absolute only relatively, these “believers” seek to make of their relative an absolute to be imposed upon others.

Since all words, all texts, have a single Origin, all are holy. Through every word, the One Being speaks. Thus there is no word that is not holy. But what is the origin of the Origin, the cause of the Cause?

A child points his finger at the Hebrew beth, the word that begins the beginning, bereshit, “At the origin,” which we translate “In the beginning.” The child asks, “So what was there first of all?”

Beth is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It follows aleph. A wise rabbi could answer the child, “First of all, was and is aleph. Aleph is the Unsoundable, Aleph is the Unnamed One.”

The child would be contented with the answer because it seems to be an answer to his question. The rabbi could also be happy, because, in answering, he has contented the child, spoken the truth and yet preserved the mystery.

In the same way, when we ask questions about the sacred texts, we receive answers to content the children that we are. We find great words and take them for answers—but we do not understand the deeper meanings. We make war based on the little that we have understood and we will make peace based on the much that we have not understood. Fortunately, “holy” words are indeed words that are also “holey.” The holes of these words are full of silence and of vast space. They cannot be grasped, not even by the greediest.

10. The Open, the Deity, the Missing Origin, the Divine

Meister Eckhardt said that there is a great abyss between God and the Deity. God was created by human beings, because human beings need to limit and to name. “Without me,” Angelus Silesius wrote, “God cannot make the smallest worm. If I am not with Him, it is His ruin.” This is a recognition that we are necessary for God, that we help God be God.

The concept of a Creator is a concept—a concept of a creature reflecting on its being. This is a necessary stage, but it is not the final stage. 
The unconscious at this stage is truly unconscious—not because of a lack of an object for the consciousness but because language and even perception are not able to achieve consciousness of what is beyond Origin. Deity does not speak. Deity cannot be expressed. Words come from humans and from God, but there are no words for what is beyond God. Here at this level, poets and prophets alike must be silent. If they speak, it is only to recall us to Silence, as Ignatius of Antioch wrote: “The Verb left Silence to return us to Silence.” The Presence that speaks to us at this level releases us from all words—and also from all forms. Here we are broken. If we try to bring back echoes of the Abyss, we will fail. As Denys the Theologian writes, “Ultimate Reality has no name and has all Names. It is nothing like anything that is and is all that there is. One knows Truth only by ignorance. It transcends any assertion, any negation.” Deity is beyond even Being.
The prophets allow us to hear and understand That Which Is. The mystics allow us to hear and understand That Which Is Other Than Being. Preferring one voice to another is not the way of wisdom; listening to both is. We are asked to be attentive to That Which Is within ourselves and be as closely attentively to That Who Does Not Exist In Us, the Vacuum, the Void, the Space, the Source and End of our breath, the beginning and end of Life, the beginning and end of Being Itself.

If we do this, neither fanaticism nor idolatry is possible. How can we impose upon others our own sense of the Void? Inspiration at this level is not an annihilation to nothingness so much as an expansion beyond limits, an opening to the invisible and ineffable.


When we consider more carefully the possible sources for inspiration, we are less hasty to label the human source of inspired words. We are reluctant to label our fellow humans too quickly as saints, prophets, geniuses, or madmen. On the other hand, we may consider more completely whether the inspired words seem good or useful to us or to others in our time and place. Even more, we may judge the implication of the survival of sacred texts for many centuries or even millennia.

“By their fruits shall you know them” remains a sound criterion for judgment of works of inspiration. What comes most directly from the Immortal lasts for a long time, what does not passes with relative swiftness. There is no word, no text, that is not, in a sense “made up.” The ear of the listener “speaks” as loudly as the mouth of the speaker. Judging objectively is a goal, but seldom a reality.

Like great scientists and great artists, prophets (when not corroded by paranoia) are characterized by deep humility. They know that, even when it takes considerable labor to “translate,” even roughly, what their inspiration speaks, they are a channel for that inspiration, not the originator. That Originator is not always acknowledged. Part of them may even deny the Origin. Yet they are perpetually awaiting the next visit of that Unknown Visitor.

Inspiration is a nameless and mysterious force. We cannot find its true and deepest origin—but we can search for it as deeply as we are able to do so.

The knowledge vouchsafed by inspiration is different from the knowledge learned through experience. If we pursue science, we find the truth of “discovering objects” or “building objects.” When we are pursued by inspiration, we find a truth and a Truth without object. There is no path to Life except Life itself. Inspiration is the light upon that path.

If we remain open to inspiration, we dance with Life, the life given to us, an offering that puts time in its proper place, as a single day of Eternity.

Jean-Yves Leloup is a Ph.D. in Theology, Philosophy and Psychology. He is also the founder of the International College of Therapists as well as an author on spirituality and psychology. His many works include translations and commentaries on the Coptic Gospel Of Mary Magdalene and the Coptic Gospel of Thomas and Philip, as well as a range of books designed to enrich the Western spiritual tradition through greater familiarity with that of the East.

Read more about Jean-Yves Leloup

30 March 2009

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