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Esoteric Christianity

By Annie Besant

Sacraments Continued

WE have now to apply these general principles to concrete examples, and to see how they explain and justify the sacramental rites found in all religions.

It will be sufficient if we take as examples three out of the Seven Sacraments used in the Church Catholic. Two are recognised as obligatory by all Christians, although extreme Protestants deprive them of their sacramental character, giving them a declaratory and remembrance value only instead of a sacramental; yet even among them the heart of true devotion wins something of the sacramental blessing the head denies. The third is not recognised as even nominally a Sacrament by Protestant Churches, though it shows the essential signs of a Sacrament, [Page 299] as given in the definition in the Catechism of the Church of England already quoted.[See Ante, p. 283. ] The first is that of Baptism; the second that of the Eucharist; the third that of Marriage. The putting of Marriage out of the rank of a Sacrament has much degraded its lofty ideal, and has led to much of that loosening of its tie that thinking men deplore.

The Sacrament of Baptism is found in all religions, not only at the entrance into earth-life, but more generally as a ceremony of purification. The ceremony which admits the new-born — or adult — incomer into a religion has a sprinkling with water as an essential part of the rite, and this was as universal in ancient days as it is now. The Rev. Dr. Giles remarks: "The idea of using water as emblematic of spiritual washing is too obvious to allow surprise at the antiquity of this rite. Dr. Hyde, in his treatise on the Religion of the Ancient Persians, xxxiv, 406, tells us that it prevailed among that people. ' They do not use circumcision for their children, but only baptism, or washing for the purification of the soul. They bring the child to the priest into the church, and, place him in front of the sun and fire, which ceremony being completed, they [Page 300] look upon him as more sacred than before. Lord says that they bring the water for this purpose in bark of the Holm-tree; that tree is in truth the Haum of the Magi, of which we spoke before on another occasion. Sometimes also it is otherwise done by immersing him in a large vessel of water, as Tavernier tells us. After such washing, or baptism, the priest imposes on the child the name given by the parents".[Christian Records, page 129] A few weeks after the birth of a Hindu child a ceremony is performed, a part of which consists in sprinkling the child with water — such sprinkling entering into all Hindu worship. Williamson gives authorities for the practice of Baptism in Egypt, Persia, Tibet, Mongolia, Mexico, Peru, Greece, Rome, Scandinavia, and among the Druids.[The Great Law, pages 161-66. ] Some of the prayers quoted are very fine: "I pray that this celestial water, blue and light blue, may enter into thy body and there live. I pray that it may destroy in thee, and put away from thee, all the things evil and adverse that were given to thee before the beginning of the world. "0 child! receive the water of the Lord of the world who is our life: it is to wash and to purify; may these drops remove the [Page 301] sin which was given to thee before the creation of the world, since all of us are under its power".

Tertullian mentions the very general use of Baptism among non-Christian nations in a passage already quoted, [See Ante, p. 130. ] and others of the Fathers refer to it. 

In most religious communities a minor form of Baptism accompanies all religious ceremonies, water being used as a symbol of purification, and the idea being that no man should enter upon, worship until he has purified his heart and conscience, the outer washing symbolising the inner lustration. In the Greek and Roman Churches a small receptacle for holy water is placed near every door, and every incoming worshipper touches it, making with it on himself the sign of the cross ere he goes onward towards the altar. On this Robert Taylor remarks: "The baptismal fonts in our Protestant churches, and we need hardly say more especially the little cisterns at the entrance of our Catholic chapels, are not imitations, but an unbroken and never interrupted continuation of the same aqua minaria, or amula, which the learned Montfaucon, in his Antiquities, shows to have been vases of holy water, which were placed by the heathens at the entrance of their temples, [Page 302] to sprinkle themselves with upon entering those sacred edifices".[Diegesis, p. 219.] 

Whether in the Baptism of initial reception into the Church, or in these minor lustrations, water is the material agent employed, the great cleansing fluid in Nature, and therefore the best symbol for purification. Over this water a mantra, is pronounced, in the English ritual represented by the prayer, "Sanctify this water to the mystical washing away of sin", concluding with the formula, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son. and of the Holy Ghost. Amen". This is the Word of Power, and it is accompanied by the Sign of Power, the Sign of the Cross made over the surface of the water.

The Word and the Sign give to the water, as before explained, a property it previously had not, and it is rightly named "holy water". The dark powers will not approach it; sprinkled on the body it gives a sense of peace, and conveys new spiritual life. When a child is baptised, the spiritual energy given to the water by the Word and the Sign reinforces the spiritual life in the child, and then the Word of Power is again spoken, this time over the child, and the Sign is traced on his forehead, and in his subtle bodies [Page 303] the vibrations are felt, and the summons to guard the life thus sanctified goes forth through the invisible world; for this Sign is at once purifying and protective — purifying by the life that is poured forth through it, protective by the vibrations it sets up in the subtle bodies. Those vibrations form a guardian wall against the attacks of hostile influences in the invisible worlds, and every time that holy water is touched, the Word pronounced, and the Sign made, the energy is renewed, the vibrations are reinforced, both being recognised as potent in the invisible worlds, and bringing aid to the operator. 

In the early Church, Baptism was preceded by a very careful preparation, those admitted to the Church being mostly converts from surrounding faiths. A convert passed through three definite stages of instruction, remaining in each grade till he had mastered its teachings, and he was then admitted to the Church by Baptism. Only after that was he taught the Creed, which was not committed to writing, nor ever repeated in the presence of an unbeliever; it thus served as a sign of recognition, and a proof of the position of the man who was able to recite it, showing that he was a baptised member of the Church. How truly in those days the grace conveyed by [Page 304] Baptism was believed in is shown by the custom of death-bed Baptism that grew up. Believing in the reality of Baptism, men and women of the world, unwilling to resign its pleasures or to keep their lives pure from stain, would put off the rite of Baptism until Death's hand was upon them, so that they might benefit by the sacramental grace, and pass through Death's portal pure and clean, full of spiritual energy. Against that abuse some of the great Fathers of the Church struggled, and struggled effectively. There is a quaint story told by one of them, I think by S. Athanasius, who was a man of caustic wit, not averse to the use of humour in the attempt to make his hearers understand at times the folly or perversity of their behaviour. He told his congregation that he had had a vision, and had gone up to the gateway of heaven, where S. Peter stood as Warder. No pleased smile had he for the visitant, but a frown of stern displeasure. "Athanasius", said he, "why are you continually sending me these empty bags, carefully sealed up, with nothing inside?" It was one of the piercing sayings we meet with in Christian antiquity, when these things were real to Christian men, and not mere forms, as they too often are today. [Page 305]

The custom of Infant Baptism gradually grew up in the Church, and hence the instruction which in the early days preceded Baptism came to be the preparation for Confirmation, when the awakened mind and intelligence take up and reaffirm the baptismal promises. The reception of the infant into the Church is seen to be rightly done, when man's life is recognised as being lived in the three worlds, and when the Spirit and Soul who have come to inhabit the new-born body are known to be not unconscious and unintelligent, but conscious, intelligent, and potent in the invisible worlds. It is right and just that the "Hidden Man of the heart" [1 Pet., iii, 4 ] should be welcomed to the new stage of his pilgrimage, and that the most helpful influences should be brought to bear upon the vehicle in which he is to dwell, and which he has to mould to his service. If the eyes of men were opened, as were of old those of the servant of Elisha, they would still see the horses and chariots of fire gathered round the mountain where is the prophet of the Lord.[2 Kings, vi, 17. ]

We come to the second of the Sacraments selected for study, that of the Sacrifice of the Eucharist, a symbol of the eternal Sacrifice [Page 306] already explained, the daily sacrifice of the Church Catholic throughout the world imaging that eternal Sacrifice by which the worlds were made, and by which they are evermore sustained. It is to be daily offered, as its archetype is perpetually existent, and men in that act take part in the working of the Law of Sacrifice, identify themselves with it, recognise its binding nature, and voluntarily associate themselves with it in its working in the worlds; in such identification, to partake of the material part of the Sacrament is necessary, if the identification is to be complete, but many of the benefits may be shared, and the influence going forth to the worlds may be increased, by devout worshippers, who associate themselves mentally, but not physically, with the act.

This great function of Christian worship loses its force and meaning when it is regarded as nothing more than a mere commemoration of a past sacrifice, as a pictorial allegory without a deep ensouling truth, as a breaking of bread and a pouring out of wine without a sharing in the eternal Sacrifice. So to see it is to make it a mere shell, a dead picture instead of a living reality. "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion [the communication of, the [Page 307] sharing in] of the blood of Christ ?" asks the apostle. "The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ ? "[1 Cor., x, 16 ] And he goes on to point out that all who eat of a sacrifice become partakers of a common nature, and are joined into a single body, which is united to, shares the nature of, that Being who is present in the sacrifice. A fact of the invisible world is here concerned, and he speaks with the authority of knowledge. Invisible Beings pour of their essence into the materials used in any sacramental rite, and those who partake of those materials — which become assimilated in the body and enter into its ingredients — are thereby united to those whose essence is in it, and they all share a common nature. This is true when we take even ordinary food from the hand of another — part of his nature, his vital magnetism, mingles with our own; how much more true then when the food has been solemnly and purposely impregnated with higher magnetisms, which affect the subtle bodies as well as the physical. If we would understand the meaning and use of the Eucharist we must realise these facts of the invisible worlds, and we must see in it a link between the earthly and the heavenly, as well as an act of the universal [Page 308] worship, a cooperation, an association, with the Law of Sacrifice, else it loses the greater part of its significance.

The employment of bread and wine as the materials for this Sacrament — like the use of water in the Sacrament of Baptism — is of very ancient and general usage. The Persians offered bread and wine to Mithra, and similar offerings were made in Tibet and Tartary. Jeremiah speaks of the cakes and the drink offered to the Queen of Heaven by the Jews in Egypt, they taking part in the Egyptian worship.[Jer., xliv. ] In Genesis we read that Melchisedek, the King-Initiate, used bread and wine in the blessing of Abraham. [Gen., xiv, 18, 19. ] In the various Greek Mysteries bread and wine were used, and Williamson mentions their use also among the Mexicans, Peruvians, and Druids.[The Great Law, pp. 177-181, 185 ]

The bread stands as the general symbol for the food that builds up the body, and the wine as symbol of the blood, regarded as the life-fluid, "for the life of the flesh is in the blood".[Lev., xvii, 11. ] Hence members of a family are said to share the same blood, and to be of the blood of a person is to be of his kin. Hence, also, the old ceremonies of the "blood-covenant"; when a [Page 309] stranger was made one of a family or of a tribe, some drops of blood from a member were transfused into his veins, or he drank them — usually mingled with water—and was thenceforth considered as being a born member of the family or tribe, as being of its blood. Similarly, in the Eucharist, the worshippers partake of the bread, symbolising the body, the nature, of the Christ, and of the wine symbolising the blood, the life of the Christ, and become of His kin, one with Him. 

The Word of Power is the formula "This is My Body", "This is My Blood". This it is which works the change which we shall consider in a moment, and transforms the materials into vehicles of spiritual energies. The Sign of Power is the hand extended over the bread and the wine, and the Sign of the Cross should be made upon them, though this is not always done among Protestants. These are the outer essentials of the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

It is important to understand the change which takes place in this Sacrament, for it is more than the magnetisation previously explained, though this also is wrought. We have here a special instance of a general law.

By the occultist, a visible thing is regarded as the last, the physical, expression of an invisible [Page 310] truth. Everything is the physical expression of a thought. An object is but an idea externalised and densified. All the objects in the world are Divine ideas expressed in physical matter. That being so, the reality of the object does not lie in the outer form but in the inner life, in the idea that has shaped and moulded the matter into an expression of itself. In the higher worlds, the matter being very subtle and plastic, shapes itself very swiftly to the idea, and changes form as the thought changes. As matter becomes denser, heavier, it changes form less readily, more slowly, until, in the physical world, the changes are at their slowest in consequence of the resistance of the dense matter of which the physical world is composed. Let sufficient time be given, however, and even this heavy matter changes under the pressure of the ensouling idea, as may be seen by the graving on the face of the expressions of habitual thoughts and emotions.

This is the truth which underlies what is called the doctrine of Transubstantiation, so extraordinarily misunderstood by the ordinary Protestant. But such is the fate of occult truths when they are presented to the ignorant. The "substance" that is changed is the idea which makes a thing to be what it is; "bread" is not [Page 311] mere flour and water; the idea which governs the mixing, the manipulation, of the flour and water, that is the "substance" which makes it "bread", and the flour and water are what are technically called the "accidents", the arrangements of matter that give form to the idea. With a different idea, or substance, flour and water would take a different form, as indeed they do when assimilated by the body. So also chemists have discovered that the same kind and the same number of chemical atoms may be arranged in different ways and thus become entirely different things in their properties, though the materials are unchanged; such "isomeric compounds" are among the most interesting of modern chemical discoveries; the arrangement of similar atoms under different ideas gives different bodies.

What, then, is this change of substance in the materials used in the Eucharist ? The idea that makes the object has been changed; in their normal condition bread and wine are food-stuffs, expressive of the divine ideas of nutritive objects, objects fitted for the building up of bodies. The new idea is that of the Christ nature and life, fitted for the building up of the spiritual nature and life of man. That is the change of substance; the object remains unchanged in its [Page 312] "accidents", its physical material, but the subtle matter connected with it has changed under the pressure of the changed idea, and new properties are imparted by this change. They affect the subtle bodies of the participants, and attune them to the nature and life of the Christ. On the "worthiness" of the participant depends the extent to which he can be thus attuned.

The unworthy participant, subjected to the same process, is injuriously affected by it, for his nature, resisting the pressure, is bruised and rent by the forces to which it is unable to respond, as an object may be broken into pieces by vibrations which it is unable to reproduce. 

The worthy partaker, then, becomes one with the Sacrifice, with the Christ, and so becomes at one with, also united to, the divine Life, which is the Father of the Christ. Inasmuch as the act of Sacrifice on the side of form is the yielding up of the life it separates from others to be part of the common Life, the offering of the separated channel to be a channel of the one Life, so by that surrender the sacrificer becomes one with God. It is the giving itself of the lower to be a part of the higher, the yielding of the body as an instrument of the separated will to be an instrument of the divine Will, the presenting [Page 313] of men's "bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God".[Rom., xii, 1. ] Thus it has been truly taught in the Church that those who rightly take part in the Eucharist enjoy a partaking of the Christlife poured out for men. The transmuting of the lower into the higher is the object of this, as of all, Sacraments. The changing of the lower force by its union with the loftier is what is sought by those who participate in it; and those who know the inner truth, and realise the fact of the higher life, may in any religion, by means of its sacraments, come into fuller, completer touch with the divine Life that upholds the worlds, if they bring to the rite the receptive nature, the act of faith, the opened heart, which are necessary for the possibilities of the Sacrament to be realised.

The Sacrament of Marriage shows out the marks of a Sacrament as clearly and as definitely as do Baptism and the Eucharist. Both the outer sign and the inward grace are there. The material is the Ring — the circle which is the symbol of the everlasting. The Word of Power is the ancient formula, "In the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost". The Sign of Power is the joining of hands, symbolising the joining of [Page 314] the lives. These make up the outer essentials of the Sacrament.

The inner grace is the union of mind with mind, of heart with heart, which makes possible the realisation of the unity of spirit, without which Marriage is no Marriage, but a mere temporary conjunction of bodies. The giving and receiving of the ring, the pronouncing of the formula, the joining of hands, these form the pictorial allegory; if the inner grace be not received, if the participants do not open themselves to it by their wish for the union of their whole natures, the Sacrament for them loses its beneficent properties, and becomes a mere form.

But Marriage has a yet deeper meaning; religions with one voice have proclaimed it to be the image on earth of the union between the earthly and the heavenly, the union between God and man. And even then its significance is not exhausted, for it is the image of the relation between Spirit and Matter, between the Trinity and the Universe. So deep, so far-reaching, is the meaning of the joining of man and woman in Marriage.

Herein the man stands as representing the Spirit, the Trinity of Life, and the woman as representing the Matter, the Trinity of formative material. One gives life, the other receives and [Page 315] nourishes it. They are complementary to each other, two inseparable halves of one whole, neither existing apart from the other. As Spirit implies Matter and Matter Spirit, so husband implies wife and wife husband. As the abstract Existence manifests in two aspects, as a duality of Spirit and Matter, neither independent of the other, but each coming into manifestation with the other, so is humanity manifested in two aspects — husband and wife, neither able to exist apart, and appearing together. They are not twain but one, a dualfaced unity. God and the Universe are imaged in Marriage; thus closely linked are husband and wife.

It is said above that Marriage is also an image of the union between God and man, between the universal and the individualised Spirits. This symbolism is used in all the great scriptures of the world—Hindu, Hebrew, Christian. And it has been extended by taking the individualised Spirit as a Nation or a Church, a collection of such Spirits knit into a unity. So Isaiah declared to Israel: "Thy Maker is thine Husband; the Lord of hosts is His name ... As the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.[Isaiah, liv, 5; Ixii, 5. ] So S. Paul wrote that the [Page 316] mystery of Marriage represented Christ and the Church.[Eph., v, 23-82 ]

If we think of Spirit and Matter as latent, unmanifested, then we see no production; manifested together, there is evolution. And so when the halves of humanity are not manifested as husband and wife, there is no production of fresh life. Moreover, they should be united in order that there may be a growth of life in each, a swifter evolution, a more rapid progress, by the half that each can give to each, each supplying what the other lacks. The twain should be blended into one, setting forth the spiritual possibilities of man. And they show forth also the perfect Man, in whose nature Spirit and Matter are both completely developed and perfectly balanced, the divine Man who unites in his own person husband and wife, the male and female elements in nature, as "God and Man are one Christ". [Athanasian Creed. ]

Those who thus study the Sacrament of Marriage will understand why religions have ever regarded Marriage as indissoluble, and have thought it better that a few ill-matched pairs should suffer for a few years than that the ideal of true Marriage should be permanently [Page 317] lowered for all. A nation must choose whether it will adopt as its national ideal a spiritual or an earthly bond in Marriage, the seeking in it of a spiritual unity, or the regarding it as merely a physical union. The one is the religious idea of Marriage as a Sacrament; the other the materialistic idea of it as an ordinary terminable contract. The student of the Lesser Mysteries must ever see in it a sacramental rite. [Page 318]




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