Gnosis/Praxis Connection - Matthew Sutton

An article on how Gnosis in English came to be (and more), by Matthew Sutton

Copyright 2023 by Matthew Sutton and Praxis Research Institute, Inc.


The Gurdjieff Work, Boris Mouravieff’s Gnosis and Robin Amis

by Matthew Sutton


I first came across Gnosis 1 in a Waterstones bookshop in London in early 1992. At that time, I had read some of Gurdjieff’s works and was actively studying Ouspensky's books, such as A Record of Meetings and The Fourth Way. I had also recently joined a Fourth Way group to find others to study with. As a young man in my late 20s, I wanted to discover my life's true purpose and what I should be doing with it. Gnosis brought the ideas I was coming across together in a very succinct way. It defined a method and way to approach life in a far more objective way. It provided perspective, and while books such as The Fourth Way introduced the need to work on oneself, Gnosis provided all of that but also gave a point of orientation as well as a context. Secondly, for a long time, I had come to understand that the Christianity we see today, especially in the West, must be very far from the original teachings of Christ and the experience of the Apostles.

Furthermore, I had a profound conviction that this teaching still had to exist today and that it could be found. Within a few short years and through a series of coincidences, I came to the heart of this mystery through the Divine Liturgy at the Russian Cathedral at Ennismore Gardens, which at that time was regularly officiated by Metropolitan Anthony. Yet despite this discovery and my later baptism into the Orthodox faith, it was also clear to me that as an imperfect human being, I had a long way to go to realise my desire to become truly Christian. For this reason, Gnosis never left me and it became a reference and orientation point, a comprehensive manual for "one who works in the world."

Prior to all this and a short time after I first bought Gnosis, I discovered I lived only a short distance from Martin Gordon who was responsible for the typesetting and selling of the books in the UK. Martin was a Study Society member and former student of Robin Amis, who in turn had coordinated the translation and publication of the book. The first two volumes had been completed and Volume 3 was being translated and edited. Robin was living in Massachusetts, and I offered my services to help Martin's attempts to publicize it in the UK. This work done on a voluntary basis involved visiting bookshops, book fairs, and arranging talks. Through these efforts I began to meet some of the people who were working with Robin as well as former pupils of both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky who were still alive and had taken an interest in bringing Gnosis to public attention. For me, as a young man, this role felt like a great honour, and I took on the opportunity with open arms.

Robin was something of an imposing figure. Though we had corresponded my first ever meeting with him was at the Royal Overseas League on Haymarket in the lounge room overlooking Green Park. He was clearly happy for me to offer my services and we began a regular correspondence but how he could help me in my spiritual search was much less clear. It was only when I travelled to Massachusetts in the winter of 1993 and met Lillian, Robin’s wife2 and their small study group that things began to make more sense. As I came to know, Lillian possessed an extraordinary asset and that was a heart of immense proportion and capacity. She had a wonderful ability to weigh the facts of a situation and return with a penetrating question or summary which always touched the heart of the matter. She was an excellent judge of any situation but also of the human character. It became clear to me over the years that I knew them, that Robin and Lillian were “cut from the same cloth”. Her heart and his immense intellect were perfectly matched. Where she was able to soften him, he was able to enlighten her. In their Massachusetts house in the cold of that icy winter, I really came to understand the nature and depth of their Work, undertaken at great personal sacrifice.

Robin had met "The Gurdjieff Work"3 in 1950s London in the period after Gurdjieff and Ouspensky's death. He had joined the Colet House group run by Francis Roles, one of Ouspensky's senior pupils and proved himself as a capable group leader. By the late 60s, he was running several groups in the Home Counties and the West Country. During the 1970s, the group work had developed and was centred in the Cotswolds at Wetherall House. Robin and Lillian had met and married and the craft workshops they ran were part-funded by the Arts Council. They received national recognition for their artistic achievements, most notably for large-scale tapestries which were created by group members applying principles of “The Work”, such as working with attention and self-remembering. Then in the late 1970s, Robin took senior members of his group to see a talk by Metropolitan Anthony, then bishop of the Russian Cathedral at Ennismore Gardens. This event combined with the financial demise of Wetherall due to cost cutting by the Arts Council had a profound effect on Robin. So began a journey that took him away from The Study Society and into a lifelong study of the ancient tradition of spirituality that has been preserved and practised on Mount Athos and other Orthodox monasteries like it, since at least the fourth century.

Though Robin had embarked on a path towards Orthodoxy, "The Work" and those associated with it continued to appear on his journey, as if to remind him of his roots and the nature of his task. On Robin's first visit to Athos he met Gerald Palmer, a former pupil of Ouspensky who was also staying at Grigoriou, one of the 20 major monasteries on The Holy Mountain. This was in 1982 just two years before Palmer's death in 1984. Palmer himself had been instrumental in introducing the spiritual tradition of Mount Athos to the West by helping to translate and publish a number of key texts from the Russian Philokalia into English. Palmer later teamed up with Philip Sherrard and Timothy Ware (later Bishop Kallistos Ware) to work on the translation of the complete Greek text.

The Philokalia is a 5-volume collection of works that was originally compiled in the 18th century by Nicodemus the Hagiorite and Macarius of Corinth. Subsequent translations followed into Slavonic by Paisius Velichkovsky and a complete Russian translation by Theophan the Recluse in the 19th century. These translations had a profound effect on the spiritual and cultural renaissance experienced by the Orthodox East, especially Russia in the 19th century. The Philokalia is essentially a compendium of the spiritual wisdom of the masters of the Hesychast tradition from the 4th century to the 15th century. For western seekers the perfect introduction to the Philokalia and how to approach it can be found in the spiritual classic The Way of a Pilgrim. This short, highly readable book follows the trials and tribulations of an unknown seeker on his journey through 19th century Russia in search of an elder or master who can teach him the secrets of the Jesus Prayer. This prayer used in repetition forms the basis for the spiritual discipline required to begin the practise of Hesychasm, that sublime way that leads to stillness of the heart.

In the early years of the 1980s, both Robin and Lillian were received into the Orthodox Church by Bishop Kallistos Ware, and Robin founded Praxis Institute Press. Initially, the press was established to publish key Orthodox works and it translated and published a number of texts working with Esther Williams as translator most notably The Heart of Salvation by Theophan the Recluse. It also produced an audiotape of readings from the Philokalia chosen and read by Gerald Palmer for his blind friend Julian Allen. There were also two series of talks by the then abbot of Grigoriou monastery Father George Capsanis. Like Palmer before him, Robin maintained his close connection with Grigoriou visiting close to 60 times up to his death in 2014.

Though Robin visited Palmer at his home in Newbury and knew he had been a student of Ouspensky, Palmer never spoke of his background. The knowledge of that relationship came later when Robin and Lillian were living in Avening and had joined the Greek Orthodox Church in Bristol. By another coincidence two of the parishioners there were Sergei and Leslie Kadloubovsky (Kadleigh). Sergei was the son of Ouspensky's secretary Evgenia Kadloubovsky and he had grown up in Ouspensky's household at Lyne Place during the 1930s and 40s. It was Sergei who related the story that it was Ouspensky who had asked Madame Kadloubovsky to assist in the translation of sections of the Russian Philokalia for group meetings. Palmer had helped in this task and it was this undertaking that had awakened his interest in Orthodoxy, especially the Jesus Prayer. Following Ouspensky’s death Madame Kadloubovsky recommended Palmer visit Athos and specifically Father Nikon Strandtman, a monk and a friend of the Kadloubovsky family from pre-revolutionary Russia. In the event they met only by chance because Father Nikon had only just come out of years of seclusion and Palmer was the first person he saw on his arrival. Subsequently he became Palmer’s spiritual father and, on his advice, took it in hand, along with Mrs Kadloubovsky to translate an anthology of works from the Philokalia. Entitled Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer from the Heart the book was published by Faber and Faber on the recommendation of T.S. Eliot in 1951. 4a

Ouspensky's own appreciation of the Orthodox spiritual tradition and the Jesus Prayer is well known to students of Ouspensky's earlier works for example his chapter in A New Model of the Universe, “Christianity and the New Testament” as well as his introductory lectures The Psychology and Cosmology of Man’s Possible Evolution. However, less well known was the fact that Ouspensky as an Orthodox Christian by birth remained so and Sergei related that he regularly attended the Liturgy up to his death.4b Also Robin always maintained that in pre-revolutionary days Ouspensky had also been friends with Father Nikon. Though I never discussed the source of Robin’s information it is now clear it must have come through Sergie.

From left to right: Lillian Amis, Sergei and Leslie Kadloubovsky and Robin Amis circa late 1980s

Their original meetings could have been through the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian Theosophical Society of which they were both members for a short time5a or even Ouspensky’s lectures which attracted large numbers prior to the outbreak of war. Interestingly the president of the St.Petersberg branch was, Anna Kamenskaya, who also appears to have been acquainted with Mouravieff suggesting he may also have been associated with the Society during his years in St Peterberg as a naval officer.5b

In the late 1980s Robin suffered a back problem and visited an osteopath in Cheltenham. During one visit the osteopath asked Robin about his interests. Robin spoke about his research and visits to Mount Athos. Hearing this, the osteopath mentioned that another of his patients had the exact same interest and was engaged in the translation of an important text relating to Eastern Orthodoxy. This text turned out to be Boris Mouravieff's Gnosis and the gentleman in question was Sadek ‘Dick’ Wissa, an Egyptian who was living in England. He was under the direction of Doctor Fouad Ramez, a former correspondent of Mouravieff who lived in Cairo. Robin and Lillian took the opportunity to meet with Dick as they both realised that coincidences of this nature go beyond chance, indeed as Gerald Palmer himself once stated, “in the spiritual life there is no such thing as mere coincidence”.6 A warm friendship ensued between them and as a result a collaboration was struck up in the efforts to complete the translation. For Sergie it also began to answer questions about the mysterious "third man" that used to visit Lyne during the 1930s.


Over the next five years all three volumes of Gnosis were translated and published. The translation and editing work were coordinated by Dick, Robin and Lillian closely assisted by Sergei and Leslie. Robin also corresponded with and on one occasion visited Dr. Ramez in Egypt.

Robin Amis and Dick Wissa working on the text of Gnosis 1988

It was later in this process that I first met Robin and offered to help with the marketing of his books. Martin Gordon had organised a stand at the 1993 London Bookfair for Robin's book publishing project Praxis Institute Press. It was here that Gnosis as well as titles from the Eastern Orthodox tradition were officially launched in the UK. On the last day of the exhibition, an elderly man came to the stand taking a keen interest in the books and how we were getting on. He stayed to talk to us for a while before moving on to visit other stalls. For an elderly man he possessed a great energy and enthusiasm that felt quite infectious. After he left, Martin said the man had been a student of both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and I felt disappointed not to have engaged him in further conversation. An hour later I had to leave, as I was travelling up to Scotland later that day. As I walked along Kensington High Street to collect my car the same man was standing at the bus stop. He spotted me and we greeted each other. The conversation was warm and full of life. I said I was going to Scotland to do some winter climbing. We shared a passion for both Scotland and the mountains. I said I would like to meet him again and so he invited me to lunch when I was next in London and so began for me a wonderful friendship and stories about a world which I could only ever had hoped to read about in books. The gentleman in question was Aubrey Wolton who now at 93 had first met both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky in Constantinople in 1921.

To describe the nature of our friendship would be beyond the scope of this article but what impressed me about Aubrey was that throughout the whole time that he knew these great characters and their many collaborators he maintained working friendships with them all. As he showed with his interest in Gnosis's publication, he saw things from a much wider perspective believing in the positive role "The Work" could play for the benefit of society as a whole. He was his own man and knew how to be of service. He never sought any kind of status, position or authority for himself in "The Work”. As a result, his name is rarely mentioned in the Fourth Way's broader literature, though careful research available on-line does reveal a few fragmentary glimpses. 

He recognised the importance of Mouravieff's work. On quite a number of visits I could see the volumes of Gnosis on his bookshelf were not simply ornaments but were well thumbed and he developed a close relationship with both Robin and Lillian. In fact, before Robin's death Robin bequeathed me the correspondence they maintained with Aubrey during that time. It makes poignant reading as Aubrey encourages and advises them through periods of discouragement and some of the most challenging stages of the translation. Aubrey also played an important role in contacting the dwindling group of former students of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky who were still alive about Robin’s work and Gnosis. Considering his interest, I once asked Aubrey if he had ever met Mouravieff. This elicited a fascinating reply. He said he and his fellow students knew of Mouravieff's visits and had seen him when they were living at Lyne in the 1930s but he never met him. As a result, Mouravieff was something of a mysterious figure and they asked Ouspensky if they could meet him but Ouspensky refused their request.

The group of former students who played a supporting role in Gnosis's translation was a wide one. Those I knew of included Annie Lou Stavely and John Lester, who Robin and Lillian visited in Oregon.  Alicia Kenney, Kenneth Walker's secretary helped fund the book and Richard Guyatt at the Study Society, who Robin remained in close touch with and would regularly visit. In another interesting connection, I became friends with Lewis Creed, Beryl Pogson's literary executor. For a short while, I helped Lewis market Beryl Pogson's books before Eureka Editions took on the role in 1995. Lewis and I remained friends, and he introduced me to Bert Sharp, who like Lewis was a former Pogson student who was in the process of organising the first “All and Everything” Conference. Bert was very kind to me, and he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things related to "The Work." Unusually he also had excellent information on and an interest in Mouravieff. He had acquired this information, via sources unrelated to Robin's connections. Through this interest, he asked me to invite Robin to come and talk at the First All and Everything Conference in 1996.

While Gnosis wasn’t widely known in the English speaking world it was in the French. Partly as a result of Mouravieff’s contributions to Synthèses magazine in the 1950s as well as running his own groups and a course at Geneva University on esoteric Christianity, Gnosis achieved quite significant sales when it was published in 1960s. Despite the fact that his wife Larissa had to close his Centre for Esoteric Christian Studies (C.E.C.E.) after his death, Mouravieff’s legacy has been sustained in France in more recent times through the work of l’Association Boris Mouravieff. Robin and Lillian maintained close relations with members of l’Association beginning with the translation of Gnosis and this continued until their deaths. Part of the reason Gnosis wasn’t well known in the English speaking world was that the translation Mouravieff authorised by Mrs. Lucas of Volume 1 and Manek D’Oncieu of Volumes 2 and 3 hadn’t been published and very few people had seen it. Mrs Lucas was the wife of Mouravieff’s secretary and D’Oncieu one of his students. In the end D’Oncieu’s translation served as the basis for Robin’s translation of Gnosis 2 and 3, when Dick Wissa left the project following the publication of Gnosis 1. In addition, Robin speculated that there was a reluctance in some quarters to publish Mouravieff because of Mouravieff’s 1958 article published in Synthèses magazine Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and Fragments of an unknown teaching, which was critical of both Gurdjieff’s teaching methods and character.7

Attending the conference appeared to be an excellent opportunity to introduce Robin's research about the spiritual tradition of Mount Athos and his own role in the publication Gnosis to others involved or interested in “The Work”. By 1996 Robin had already moved beyond his role as the translator of Gnosis by writing his own book A Different Christianity about the spiritual tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy and published in 1995. This book made a detailed study into methods and practises of the Athonite monks and provided interesting insights and comparisons to the Fourth Way's psychological method. Robin felt these insights and comparisons might be particularly useful for others at the conference, especially as the Orthodox connection to the Work had been much neglected. He brought his findings in good faith, yet the reception his talk received was decidedly mixed as the transcripts of the proceedings show. At that time being young and inexperienced I had little idea of the politics or factions this work had generated in the decades after Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s deaths in the late 1940s.

Eighteen months later, Lillian sent me a copy of an article on Mouravieff, which later became a section in a book, written by William Patrick Patterson, a one-time student of Lord Pentland, called Taking with the Left Hand. Reading it, I saw one unusual incident that occurred at the conference in a different light. On the second evening, Robin and I ended up being seated for dinner with Patterson and Alick Bartholomew, the original publisher of Jonathan Living Seagull and founder of Gateway Books. Alick and Robin were both larger than life characters and were sat opposite each other. They got along very well. One might imagine remembering interesting esoteric conversations between these two, but their most memorable exchange was Alick trying to persuade Robin as to the benefits of his latest discovery… Kombucha Tea! Throughout most of the conversation, Patterson, who sat opposite me, was subdued. I had never met him or even heard of him. He must have been aware that I was assisting Robin and had an interest in Gnosis because, at one point, he leant over to me and whispered. "You don't believe all that stuff about the Fifth Way, do you?" This reference to Mouravieff's contention that there exists a more rapid path of esoteric development that can be achieved by two people, man and woman working together, was for me in the circumstances bizarre. By framing the question in this way, he clearly already held a negative view of the subject.

Both the article and the subsequent book were hostile towards Mouravieff and Robin's efforts to translate and make Gnosis available. Seemingly having little information on Mouravieff other than what was available in Gnosis and Mouravieff's 1958 Synthèses article Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, Patterson created a story around Mouravieff and his relationship with Ouspensky based on his own opinions. It described Mouravieff as having a devious character intent on robbing Gurdjieff of his system and attempting to portray it as Orthodox Christian teaching. He also cast Robin as a villain because of his role as translator and promoter of Gnosis ably assisted by his group of devoted Mouravieff "followers." I could only think he was referring to me! He hadn't met anyone else connected with Robin. Certainly, he had no idea of the efforts of the few remaining students of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky to get Gnosis published in English. As I came to understand by reading the transcripts many years later, Patterson appeared to believe that the publication of Gnosis, its direct reference to the teachings of the Orthodox Church and Robin’s contention that the Hesychast Tradition was a key aspect of the psychological components of the “Gurdjieff Work” represented an existential threat to Gurdjieff’s teaching. Ultimately though, whatever he intended by writing his piece the effect on Robin and the future of Gnosis was very definite.

Robin, who had come to the conference in good faith to share the fruits of his research, refused to respond. In his heart, he felt it would be impossible. Lillian felt the same. They were probably right, but it seemed very unjust. While Robin did receive support from senior people in the Work such as Ted Nottingham8 and Richard Smoley, Robin no longer made any efforts towards fostering a relationship with “The Work”. Instead, he turned to Athos for succour and, in the coming years, began a long study of Gregory Palamas and his work The Triads, deepening his experiential knowledge of the Hesychast tradition. This resulted in an excellent translation and commentary on The Triads in 2002. For those who wanted to see Gnosis find its place within the pantheon of “Work” literature, they were to be disappointed. It must have been one of the last occasions I met with Aubrey prior to his death in 1999 and I related these events to him. After I had finished, we sat in silence for a very long time. At the end of the silence, I asked Aubrey, who had been a close friend of Lord Pentland from when they met at Lyne in the 1930s and had subsequently worked together in Washington during the Second World World War, if he had ever heard of Patterson or read any of his books. He just shook his head. “No” he said.


I realised in the years that followed that I was very naive in arranging Robin’s visit to this conference. The reaction he received was to some degree understandable. Ever since Gurdjieff’s death in 1949 his various pupils had gone their own way, forming different groups and organisations. By the mid-1990s people like Aubrey, Annie Lou Stavely, Dick Guyatt and John Lester who had actually been taught or studied directly with Gurdjieff or Ouspensky and helped maintain a unifying thread were fast disappearing. The All and Everything conference itself was centred on a celebration and study of Gurdjieff’s primary book. This book is noteworthy because it had created a whole new language for the teaching to the one that had originally been transmitted by Gurdjieff to Ouspensky during the period 1915-1918. This new language even by the time of the First All and Everything conference had already taken on a life and tradition of its own.  People wanted to meet and deepen their knowledge of All and Everything but the differences in language had by this time created a deep split between the Ouspenskyites and the Gurdjieffians. The fact that Mouravieff’s Gnosis to some degree reflected that earlier language of “The Work” immediately put Gnosis on a “lower” level to that of All and Everything aligning it with Ouspensky’s teaching, which in some “Gurdjieffian” eyes was seen to contain errors. Ouspensky after all had left Gurdjieff in 1922 and not received his later “teaching”. 

Secondly it is widely understood by those in “The Work” that Gurdjieff is the source of the system of teaching presented by Ouspensky. While its lineage may have been drawn from various ancient traditions the terminology, diagrams and the meat of the teaching itself if not Gurdjieff’s sole invention was at least formulated by Gurdjieff. This is important because any perceived claim, that its true source was elsewhere, would immediately be treated with suspicion. Again, this was understandable because many different theories as to the source of the System have been put forward over the years. The assumption of some of the audience was that Robin had come to tell them that the Hesychast tradition preserved in the monasteries of the Eastern Orthodoxy was the actual source of the system just as others had claimed it had come from Sufism, Tibet or other Central Asian traditions. In fact, Robin was well aware that the truth of the matter wasn’t quite that simple. There were parallels but quite clearly there were important differences that could not be so easily explained.

Robin himself had a high opinion of Gurdjieff, despite knowing all the contradictions of Gurdjieff’s character. This knowledge did not just come just from Mouravieff’s Synthèses article but direct first-hand correspondence with those affected by Gurdjieff’s behaviour especially in regard to women as well as discussions with former pupils. It has to be said that much of this knowledge is now a matter of public record. However, Robin came to the conclusion, that Gurdjieff straightened himself out in the last two years of his life. Certainly, the period following Ouspensky’s death when Gurdjieff received many of his former pupils was extraordinary and did provide an impetus to the Work that has survived to the present day. He was also convinced that in the last two years of his life, Gurdjieff tried to point some of his pupils towards Orthodoxy and specifically Mount Athos. Hence why he related the story, published in an article in Gnosis Magazine named “The Secret of the Source” that Gurdjieff told a former student that he should go to Athos and “re-establish” contact with the Tradition.9 He related the story again during the All and Everything Conference. It has to be said that the claim was met with scepticism and even hostility by some.

Robin first told me about the story when we first met in the early 1990’s, however he never said who the person was and it felt wrong to ask. As time went by, I imagined that this former pupil could only be Aubrey so one day I asked Aubrey if he had ever been to Mount Athos. He said he had and that Gurdjieff had told him to go shortly before he died. He went to Athos with three other senior students and they spent some time on the Holy Mountain. I asked him if he had found something from which he could work from. He said that he hadn’t, so nothing came of it.

Having always assumed that it was Aubrey who Robin was talking about I never discussed it further with Robin. Then, only recently I brought the subject up with another colleague and who was also friends of Robin and Lillian. He told me that after Robin’s death in 2014 he had asked Lillian if it was true that Gurdjieff had advised a pupil to go to Mount Athos. “Yes”, she replied “it was a member of Mrs Staveley’s group and another man, a Frenchman, Bernard Lemaître, who had drowned shortly afterwards”.