Lecture 38 — Religion

by G I Gurdjieff

Contents List:

Relativity of Religion
Living Religion
Forms of Worship
Church as School

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See also:

Masonic Lecture 17
Immortality and Four Bodies of Man
Consciousness, Laws, and Influences

Relativity of Religion

Religion is a relative concept: it corresponds to the level of a man's being. One man's religion might not be at all suitable for another man — that is to say, the religion of a man of one level of being is not suitable for a man of another level of being.

It must be understood that the religion of man number one is of one kind; the religion of man number two is of another kind; and the religion of man number three is of a third kind. The religion of man number four, number five, and further is something of a kind totally different from the religion of man number one, number two, and number three. [See Categories of Man — Ed.]

Living Religion

Religion is doing: a man does not merely think his religion or feel it; he lives his religion as much as he is able — otherwise it is not religion but fantasy or philosophy. Whether he likes it or not, a man shows his attitude towards religion by his actions and he can show his religion only by his actions. Therefore, if his actions are opposed to those which are demanded by a given religion, he cannot assert that he belongs to that religion. The vast majority who call themselves Christians have no right whatever to do so because they not only fail to carry out the demands of their religion but they do not even think that these demands ought to be carried out.

Christianity forbids murder. Yet all that our technological progress amounts to is progress in the techniques of murder and progress in warfare. How can we call ourselves Christians?

No one has a right to call himself a Christian who does not carry out the precepts of Christ. A man can say that he desires to be a Christian if he tries to carry out these precepts. If he does not think of them at all, or laughs at them, or substitutes for them some inventions of his own, or simply forgets about them, he has no right whatever to call himself a Christian.

I took the example of war as it is the most striking example. But even without war the whole of life is exactly the same. People call themselves Christians but they do not realise that they not only do not want, but that they are unable, to be Christians, because in order to be a Christian it is necessary not only to desire, but to be able, i.e. to be ONE.

Man in himself is not one. He is not 'I', he is 'we'; or, to speak more correctly, he is 'they'. Everything arises from this. Let us suppose that a man decides according to the Gospels to turn the left cheek if somebody strikes him on the right cheek. But one 'I' decides this either in the mind or in the emotional centre. One 'I' knows of it, one 'I' remembers it — the others do not. Let us imagine that it actually happens, that somebody strikes this man. Do you think he will turn the other cheek? Never. He will not even have time to think about it. He will either strike the face of the man who struck him, or he will try to call a policeman, or he will simply run away. His moving centre will react in its customary way, or as it has been taught to react, before the man realises what he is doing.

Prolonged instruction, prolonged training, is necessary to be able to turn the other cheek. If this training is mechanical, it is again worth nothing because in such a case a man will turn his cheek because he cannot do anything else.


Prayer can help a man to live like a Christian — but it depends upon whose prayer it is. One must learn to pray, just as one must learn everything else. Whoever knows how to pray and is able to concentrate in the proper way, his prayer can give objective results. But it must be understood that there are different prayers and that their results are different. This is known even from ordinary divine service.

But when we speak of prayer or of the results of prayer, we always imply only one kind of prayer — petition; or we think that petition can be united with all other kinds of prayers. This, of course, is not true. Most prayers have nothing in common with petitions. I speak of ancient prayers, many of which are much older than Christianity. These prayers are, so to speak, recapitulations; by repeating them aloud or to himself, a man endeavours to experience what is in them, their whole content, with his mind and his feeling. And a man can always make new prayers for himself. But the whole point is in how he says it. If he repeats it even ten thousand times a day and is thinking of how soon he will finish and what there will be for dinner and the like, then it is not prayer but simply self-deceit.

But it can be prayer if the man recites his prayer while concentrating on what the words mean. He says 'I' and tries at the same time to think of everything he knows about 'I'. It does not exist, there is no single 'I', there is a multitude of petty, clamorous, quarrelsome 'I's. But he wants to be one 'I' — the master; he recalls the carriage, the horse, the driver, and the master. [see Four Bodies — Ed.]. 'I' is master. 'Want' — he thinks of the meaning of 'I want'. Is he able to want? With him, 'it wants' or 'it does not want' all the time. But to this 'it wants' and 'it does not want', he strives to oppose his own 'I want' which is connected with the aims of work on himself — that is, to introduce the third force into the customary combination of the two forces 'it wants' and 'it does not want' [see The Law of Three — Ed.]. 'To be' — the man thinks of what to be, what 'being' means: the being of a mechanical man with whom everything happens; the being of a man who can do. It is possible 'to be' in different ways. He wants 'to be' not merely in the sense of existence but in the sense of greatness of power. The words 'to be' acquire weight, a new meaning, for him. 'Serious' — the man thinks what it means to be serious. How he answers himself is very important. If he understands what he means, if he correctly defines for himself what it means to be serious and feels that he truly desires it, then his prayer can give a result in the sense that strength can be added to him, that he will more often notice when he is not serious, that he will overcome his discordant 'I's more easily, make himself be serious.

In exactly the same way, a man can pray — 'I want to remember myself'. 'To remember' — what does 'to remember' mean? The man must think about memory. How little he remembers! How often he forgets what he has decided, what he has seen, what he knows! His whole life would be different if he could remember. All ills come because he does not remember. 'Myself' — again he returns to himself. Which 'self' does he want to remember? Is it worth remembering the whole of himself? How can he distinguish what he wants to remember? The idea of work! How can he connect himself with the idea of the work, and so on, and so on.

In Christian worship there are very many prayers exactly like this, where it is necessary to reflect upon each word. But they lose all sense and all meaning when they are repeated or sung mechanically.

Take the ordinary God have mercy upon me! What does it mean? A man is appealing to God. He should think a little; he should make a comparison and ask himself what he is and what God is. Then he is asking God to have mercy upon him. But for this, God must first of all think of him, take notice of him. But is it worth while taking notice of him? What is there in him that is worth thinking about? And who is to think about him? God himself! You see, all these thoughts and many others should pass through his mind when he utters this simple prayer. And then it is precisely these thoughts which could do for him what he asks God to do. But what can he be thinking of and what result can a prayer give if he merely repeats like a parrot: 'God have mercy! God have mercy! God have mercy!' You know yourself that this can give no result whatever.

Forms of Worship

Generally speaking, we know very little about Christianity and the form of Christian worship; we know nothing at all of the history and origin of a number of things. For instance, the church, the temple in which the faithful gather and in which services are carried out according to special rites — where was this taken from? Many people do not think about this at all. Many people think that the outward form of worship, the rites, the singing of canticles, and so on, were invented by the fathers of the church. Others think that this outward form has been taken partly from pagan religions and partly from the Hebrews.

But all of this is untrue. The question of the origin of the Christian church — that is, of the Christian temple — is much more interesting than we think. To begin with, the church and worship in the form which they took in the first centuries of Christianity could not have been borrowed from paganism because there was nothing like it either in the Greek or Roman cults or in Judaism. The Jewish synagogue, the Jewish temple, Greek and Roman temples of various gods, were something quite different from the Christian church which made its appearance in the first and second centuries.

Church as School

The Christian church is a school — a school concerning which people have forgotten that it is a school where the teachers give lectures and perform explanatory demonstrations without knowing that these are lectures and demonstrations; and where the pupils, or simply the people who come to the school, take these lectures and demonstrations for ceremonies, or rites, or 'sacraments', i.e. magic. This would approximate to the Christian church of our times.

The Christian church, the Christian form of worship, was not invented by the fathers of the church. It was all taken in a ready-made form from Egypt — only not from the Egypt that we know but from one which we do not know. This Egypt was in the same place as the other, but it existed much earlier. Only small bits of it survived in historical times, and these bits have been preserved in secret, and so well that we do not even know where they have been preserved.

It will seem strange to many people when I say that this prehistoric Egypt was Christian many thousands of years before the birth of Christ: that is to say, that its religion was composed of the same principles and ideas that constitute true Christianity. Special schools existed in this prehistoric Egypt which were called 'schools of repetition'. In these schools, a public repetition was given on definite days — and in some schools perhaps even every day — of the entire course in a condensed form of the sciences that could be learned at these schools. Sometimes this repetition lasted a week or a month.

Thanks to these repetitions, people who had passed through this course did not lose their connection with the school and they retained in their memory all they had learned. Sometimes they came from very far away simply in order to listen to the repetition, and went away feeling anew their connection with the school. There were special days of the year when the repetitions were particularly complete, when they were carried out with particular solemnity — and those days themselves possessed a symbolical meaning.

These 'schools of repetition' were taken as a model for Christian churches. The form of worship in Christian churches almost entirely represents the course of repetition of the science dealing with the Universe and man. Individual prayers, hymns, responses — all had their own meaning in this repetition, as did holidays and all religious symbols, though their full meaning has long been forgotten.

Every ceremony or rite has a value if it is repeatedly performed without alteration. A ceremony is a book in which a great deal is written. Anyone who understands can read it. One rite often contains more than a hundred books.