How (not) to Convert the Pope: the Curious Cause of Abraham Abulafia

Imagine this: the year is 1280 C.E. You are forty years old, and you’ve spent the last twenty of those years traveling and studying.

And now, through Prophetic vision, you’ve received your life’s mission:

You must go to the Pope, in Rome, and convert him to Judaism.

More on that in a bit…

*

So what were you studying for twenty years?

Jewish mysticism. As a Jew hailing from Spain, you have access not just to traditional Orthodox Jewish teachings, but also to the mystical schools of interpretation known collectively as Kabbalah. 

*

It’s important to note that Kabbalah isn’t one, monolithic entity, one coherent school of thought; it’s an umbrella term that includes practices that run the gamut from the Gnostic/visionary/mystical, to the ritually complex workings of magical invocations/evocations, Alchemy and Hermeticism.

The one common thread among Kabbalists is a reverence for the Hebrew language – including, perhaps even privileging – the Hebrew alphabet. Each letter has an associated number; adding these numbers gives every word a semi-unique number. Likewise, adding the values of words gives any given phrase its own value. These numbers can then be compared, contrasted, manipulated and massaged to yield various prophetic or hidden meanings. Taken together, this form of decoding the Bible (or any text for that matter) is called Gematria.

An example of Gematria using the sacred four letter “name” of God, the Tetragrammaton, Yod He Vau He (read right to left)

Back to 1280 C.E. and your story:

In addition to the Tanakh (the source text for the Christian Old Testament), you have studied the major Kabbalist texts, as well as the teachings of Maimonides (a teacher who, despite wide acceptance in the general Jewish community, was held in very low esteem in Spain). You’ve also been writing furiously…

And in the process, you’ve come up with some conclusions of your own.

Okay, maybe more than some conclusions.

So many conclusions in fact that, when taken as a whole, you’ve formed a coherent body of teaching.

So what do you name your emerging school of thought?

After all, you of all people know the importance of words, of names…

With words alone, Yod-He-Vau-He (a.k.a. Yahweh/Jehovah) ushered creation into being.

Let there be light.

Spoken by the Unnamed.

Then you realize it: Your Kabbalah is about more than just a name.

Your teaching is the Kabbalah of Names.

Yes, indeed. The Kabbalah of Names.

*

So what is your technique?

In brief:

  • Step 1: Ritual Purification (fasting, ritual garments, wearing of the tefillin (small boxes of Biblical scrolls))
  • Step 2: Casting of letters in patterns
  • Step 3: Chanting of letters, ritual breath-work, and body positioning (specifically of the head and hands)
  • Step 4: Mental projection and visualization of your Astral double *

If you, dear reader, come from a Wiccan/Neo-Pagan/Thelemic or a Tantric Hindu/Buddhist background, this should all look very familiar; not identical, but definitely familiar.

This is a clear example of visualization, steeped in the Jewish tradition (it should be noted that visualization therapy, divorced from any religious accoutrements, is becoming an increasingly popular CAM (complementary alternative medicine) therapeutic approach).

[* Step four contains four further states, but I’ll leave that up to the intrepid reader to research, in awe and trembling]

*

Your name is Abraham Abulafia, and the year is 1280.

Through your practices with the Kabbalah of Names, you have received a Prophetic Vision.

You must convert Pope Nicholas III to Judaism.

On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, no less.

Of course failure will mean certain death. This is, after all, an act of seditious heresy. The penalty for such an act was clear:

If Abulafia were to fail, he would be burned alive at the stake.

No pressure at all…

Then again, when you’re a Messiah ushering in a new age of Prophetic Vision, what could possibly go wrong?

*

And that is where this story takes a funny turn, simply because by all means, Abraham should have been burned at the stake.

However, when he arrived at Rome, the Pope wasn’t there.

He was at his country retreat at Castro Soriano.

Of course, Abraham had come quite a ways, and wasn’t going to be so easily deterred.

So he headed off to Soriano, to see the freshly minted Pope.

*

Nicholos III would have a very short papacy: two years and barely nine months, during which he gained such a reputation for nepotism that Dante reserved a spot for him in the Eight Circle of Hell. This area is reserved for those who commit simony, which is the sin of profiting off of the Church through the selling of clerical positions or the pawning off of relics.

This was the man who Abraham was riding to Soriano to convert.

However, word reached the Pope before the Evangelical* Jew could reach the gates of the courtyard.

Was the Pope ready to greet Abraham?

With open arms:

And a torch in one hand, and shackles in the other…

[*some of you may question my use of the word Evangelical, assuming it to be synonymous with a certain brand of Christianity. However, the word goes back to pre-Christian Rome, where it referred to those who went from town to town, spreading the “good/true” (eu) “news” (vangelion), typically the impending arrival of the Caesar; the word was co-opted by the early Christian movement]

*

And so Abraham Abulafia met his end, like a roasted marshmallow on a crisp, Autumn, campfire night…

The End.

Or at least it should have been…

*

“privatus subito omni sensu et motu” read the Chronicon Parmense.

“Subito factus apoplecticus, sine loquela moritur” said Bartholomeus (Ptolemy) of Lucca.

So there you have it.

*

Let’s try again:

“He [the Pope] was suddenly deprived of consciousness and movement” read the Chronicon Parmense.

The Chronicon Parmense was a 14th century Italian town chronicle, written in vernacular Latin, that captured the history of the Commune of Parma. 

“[the Pope was] suddenly stricken with apoplexy, he died without speaking” said Bartholomeus (Ptolemy) of Lucca.

Bartholomeus was a contemporary historian, most noted for his warm friendship with St. Thomas Aquinas.

So Abraham arrives at the outer gate, and is told that the Pope is dead.

Mission…accomplished?

*

Abraham went back to Rome, where he was held for a month, and then released. After all, he hadn’t actually done anything.

So Abraham went back to rambling. He was heard from next in Sicily, before heading to Messina, where he declared himself Messiah and gathered a reasonable following – large enough to warrant eventual exile. From Messina, he wandered to the island of Comino, near Malta, where he wrote what is considered his most approachable text, the meditation manual Imrei Shefer, “Words of Beauty”.

After that, the trail goes cold…

*

In the end, what remains of Abraham Abulafia?

Perhaps little more than an historical footnote.

Perhaps little more than a name…

Which might the most fitting epitaph of all

for the author of the Kabbalah of Names…

The Eighth Circle of Dante’s Inferno – The Panderers, Seducers and Flatterers by Sandro Botticelli (15th Century)
An illuminated page from Abraham Abulafia’s Light of the Intellect (1285), from no less than the Vatican library(!)

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