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Esoteric Christianity

By Annie Besant

The Hidden Side Of Christianity (Concluded)


WHILE it may be that some would be willing to admit the possession by the Apostles and their immediate successors of a deeper knowledge of spiritual things than was current among the masses of the believers around them, few will probably be willing to take the next step, and, leaving that charmed circle, accept as the depository of their sacred learning the Mysteries of the Early Church. Yet we have S. Paul providing for the transmission of the unwritten teaching, himself initiating S. Timothy, and instructing S. Timothy to initiate others in his turn, [Page 60] who should again hand it on to yet others. We thus see the provision of four successive generations of teachers, spoken of in the Scriptures themselves, and these would far more than overlap the writers of the Early Church, who bear witness to the existence of the Mysteries. For among these are pupils of the Apostles themselves, though the most definite statements belong to those removed from the Apostles by one intermediate teacher. Now, as soon as we begin to study the writings of the Early Church, we are met by the facts that there are allusions which are only intelligible by the existence of the Mysteries, and then statements that the Mysteries are existing. This might, of course, have been expected, seeing the point at which the New Testament leaves the matter, but it is satisfactory to find the facts answer to the expectation.

The first witnesses are those called the Apostolic Fathers, the disciples of the Apostles; but very little of their writings, and that disputed, remains. Not being written controversially, the statements are not as categorical as those of the later writers. Their letters are for the encouragement of the believers. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, and fellow-disciple with [Page 61] Ignatius of S. John,[Vol. I. The Martyrdom of Ignatius, ch. iii. - The translations used are those of Clarke's Ante-Nicene Library, a most useful compendium of Christian antiquity. The number of the volume which stands first in the references is the number of the volume in that Series. ] expresses a hope that his correspondents are " well versed in the sacred Scriptures and that nothing is hid from you; but to me this privilege is not yet granted" [Ibid., The Epistle of Polycarp, ch. xii.] — writing, apparently, before reaching full Initiation. Barnabas speaks of communicating "some portion of what I have myself received",[Ibid., The Epistle of Barnabas, ch. i. ] and after expounding the Law mystically, declares that "we then, rightly understanding His commandments, explain them as the Lord intended".[Ibid., ch. x. ] Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, a disciple of S. John,[Ibid., The Martyrdom of Ignatius, ch. i.] speaks of himself as "not yet perfect in Jesus Christ. For I now begin to be a disciple, and I speak to you as my fellow-disciples", [Ibid., Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians, ch. iii. ] and he speaks of them as "initiated into the mysteries of the Gospel with Paul, the holy, the martyred".[ Ibid., ch. xii.] Again he says: "Might I not write to you things more full of mystery ? But I fear to do so, lest I should inflict injury on you who are but babes. [Page 62] Pardon me in this respect, lest, as not being able to receive their weighty import, ye should be strangled by them. For even I, though I am bound [for Christ] and am able to understand heavenly things, the angelic orders, and the different sorts of angels and hosts, the distinction between powers and dominions, and the diversities between thrones and authorities, the mightiness of the eons, and the pre-eminence of the cherubim and seraphim, the sublimity of the Spirit, the kingdom of the Lord, and above all the incomparable majesty of Almighty God — though I am acquainted with these things, yet am I not therefore by any means perfect, nor am I such a disciple as Paul or Peter". [ Ibid to the Trallians, ch. v. 2 ] This passage is interesting, as indicating that the organisation of the celestial hierarchies was one of the subjects in which instruction was given in the Mysteries. Again he speaks of the High Priest, the Hierophant, '' to whom the holy of holies has been committed, and who alone has been entrusted with the secrets of God". [Ibid., to the Philadelphians, ch. ix. ]

We come next to S. Clement of Alexandria and his pupil Origen, the two writers of the second and third centuries who tell us most about [Page 63] the Mysteries in the Early Church; though the general atmosphere is full of mystic allusions, these two are clear and categorical in their statements that the Mysteries were a recognised institution.

 Now S. Clement was a disciple of Pantaenus, and he speaks of him and of two others, said to be probably Tatian and Theodotus, as "preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy Apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul',[Vol. IV. Clement of Alexandria Stromata, bk. I., ch. i. ] his link with the Apostles themselves consisting thus of only one intermediary. He was the head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria in A.D. 189, and died about A.D. 220. Origen, born about A.D. 185, was his pupil, and he is, perhaps, the most learned of the Fathers, and a man of the rarest moral beauty. These are the witnesses from whom we receive the most important testimony as to the existence of definite Mysteries in the Early Church.

The Stromata, or Miscellanies, of S. Clement are our source of information about the Mysteries in his time. He himself speaks of these writings as a "miscellany of Gnostic notes, according to the true philosophy", [Vol. IV. Stromata, bk. I., oh. xxviii. ] and also [Page 64] describes them as memoranda of the teachings he had himself received from Pantaenus. The passage is instructive: "The Lord . . . allowed us to communicate of those divine Mysteries, and of that holy light, to those who are able to receive them. He did not certainly disclose to the many what did not belong to the many; but to the few to whom He knew that they belonged, who were capable of receiving and being moulded according to them. But secret things are entrusted to speech, not to writing, as is the case with God. And if one say [It appears that even in those days there were some who objected to any truth being taught secretly! ] that it is written, ' There is nothing secret which shall not be revealed, nor hidden which shall not be disclosed,' let him also hear from us, that to him who hears secretly, even what is secret shall be manifested. This is what was predicted by this oracle. And to him who is able secretly to observe what is delivered to him, that which is veiled shall be disclosed as truth; and what is hidden to the many shall appear manifest to the few. . . . The Mysteries are delivered mystically, that what is spoken may be in the mouth of the speaker; rather not in his voice, but in his understanding . . . The writing of these [Page 65] memoranda of mine, I well know, is weak when compared with that spirit, full of grace, which I was privileged to hear. But it will be an image to recall the archetype to him who was struck with the Thyrsus." The Thyrsus, we may here interject, was the wand borne by Initiates, and candidates were touched with it during the ceremony of Initiation. It had a mystic significance, symbolising the spinal cord and the pineal gland in the Lesser Mysteries, and a Rod, known to Occultists, in the Greater. To say, therefore, "to him who was struck with the Thyrsus" was exactly the same as to say, "to him who was initiated in the Mysteries". Clement proceeds: "We profess not to explain secret things sufficiently — far from it — but only to recall them to memory, whether we have forgot aught, or whether for the purpose of not forgetting. Many things, I well know, have escaped us, through length of time, that have dropped away unwritten. . . . There are then some things of which we have no recollection; for the power that was in the blessed men was great". A frequent experience of those taught by the Great Ones, for Their presence stimulates and renders active powers which are normally latent, and which the pupil, unassisted, cannot evoke. "There are also some things which remained [Page 66] unnoted long, which have now escaped; and others which are effaced, having faded away in the mind itself, since such a task is not easy to those not experienced; these I revive in my commentaries. Some things I purposely omit, in the exercise of a wise selection, afraid to write what I guarded against speaking; not grudging — for that were wrong — but fearing for my readers, lest they should stumble by taking them in a wrong sense; and, as the proverb says, we should be found "reaching a sword to a child". For it is impossible that what has been written should not escape [become known], although remaining unpublished by me. But being always revolved, using the one only voice, that of writing, they answer nothing to him that makes enquiries beyond what is written; for they require of necessity the aid of some one, either of him who wrote, or of some one else who has walked in his footsteps. Some things my treatise will hint; on some it will linger; some it will merely mention. It will try to speak imperceptibly, to exhibit secretly, and to demonstrate silently". [Ibid., bk. I, ch i. ]

This passage, if it stood alone, would suffice to establish the existence of a secret teaching in the Early Church. But it stands by no means alone. [Page 67] In Chapter xii of this same Book I, headed, "The Mysteries of the Faith not to be divulged to all" Clement declares that, since others than the wise may see his work, "it is requisite, therefore to hide in a Mystery the wisdom spoken, which the Son of God taught". Purified tongue of the speaker, purified ears of the hearer, these were necessary. "Such were the impediments in the way of my writing. And even now I fear, as it is said to cast the pearls before swine, lest they tread them under foot and turn and rend us ' For it is difficult to exhibit the really pure and transparent words respecting the true light, to swinish and untrained hearers. For scarcely could anything which they could hear be more ludicrous than these to the multitude; nor any subjects on the other hand more admirable or more inspiring to those of noble nature. But the wise do not utter with their mouth what they reason in council. But what ye hear in the ear said the Lord, 'proclaim upon the houses' bidding them receive the secret traditions of the true knowledge, and expound them aloft and conspicuously; and as we have heard in the ear" so to deliver them to whom it is requisite; but not enjoining us to communicate to all without distinction, what is said to them in parables [Page 68] But there is only a delineation in the memoranda, which have the truth sown sparse and broadcast, that it may escape the notice of those who pick up seeds like jackdaws; but when they find a good husbandman, each one of them will germinate and will produce corn".

Clement might have added that to "proclaim upon the houses" was to proclaim or expound in the assembly of the Perfect, the Initiated, and by no means to shout aloud to the man in the street.

Again he says that those who are "still blind and dumb, not having understanding, or the un-dazzled and keen vision of the contemplative soul . . . must stand outside of the divine choir. . . . Wherefore, in accordance with the method of concealment, the truly sacred Word, truly divine and most necessary for us, deposited in the shrine of truth, was by the Egyptians indicated by what were called among them adyta, and by the Hebrews by the veil. Only the consecrated . . . were allowed access to them. For Plato also thought it not lawful for ' the impure to touch the pure. Thence the prophecies and oracles are spoken in enigmas, and the Mysteries are not exhibited incontinently to all and sundry, but only after certain [Page 69] purifications and previous instructions".[Ibid., bk.V, ch.iv.] He then descants at great length on Symbols, expounding Pythagorean, Hebrew, Egyptian, [Ibid, ch. v-viii] and then remarks that the ignorant and unlearned man fails in understanding them. "But the Gnostic apprehends. Now then it is not wished that all things should be exposed indiscriminately to all and sundry, or the benefits of wisdom communicated to those who have not even in a dream been purified in soul (for it is not allowed to hand to every chance comer what has been procured with such laborious efforts); nor are the Mysteries of the Word to be expounded to the profane". The Pythagoreans and Plato, Zeno, and Aristotle had exoteric and esoteric teachings. The philosophers established the Mysteries, for "was it not more beneficial for the holy and blessed contemplation of realities to be concealed?" [Ibid., ch. ix.] The Apostles also approved of "veiling the Mysteries of the Faith", "for there is an instruction to the perfect", alluded to in Colossians i, 9-11 and 25-27. "So that, on the one hand, then, there are the Mysteries which were hid till the time of the Apostles, and were delivered by them as they were received from the Lord, [Page 70] and, concealed in the Old Testament, were manifested to the saints. And, on the other hand, there is ' the riches of the glory of the mystery in the Gentiles,' which is faith and hope in Christ; which in another place he has called the ' foundation'". He quotes S. Paul to show that this "knowledge belongs not to all", and says, referring to Heb. v. and vi., that "there were certainly among the Hebrews, some things delivered unwritten"; and then refers to S. Barnabas, who speaks of God, "who has put into our hearts wisdom and the understanding of His secrets", and says that "it is but for few to comprehend these things", as showing a "trace of Gnostic tradition". "Wherefore instruction, which reveals hidden things, is called illumination, as it is the teacher only who uncovers the lid of the ark".[Ibid., bk. V, ch. x ] Further referring to S. Paul, he comments on his remark to the Romans that he will "come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ, [Loc. Cit, XX, 29.]" a and says that he thus designates "the spiritual gift and the Gnostic interpretation, which being present he desires to impart to them present as ' the fullness of Christ, according to the revelation of the Mystery sealed in the ages of eternity, but now manifested by the prophetic [Page 71] Scriptures' [Ibid., xvi;ten, 25-26; the version quoted differs in words, but not in meaning, from the English Authorised Version ] .....But only to a few of them is shown what those things are which are contained in the Mystery. Rightly, then, Plato, in the epistles, treating of God, says: ' We must speak in enigmas; that should the tablet come by any mischance on its leaves either by sea or land, he who reads may remain ignorant'." [Stromata, bk. V, ch. x ]

After much examination of Greek writers, and an investigation into philosophy, S. Clement declares that the Gnosis "imparted and revealed by the Son of God, is wisdom. . . . And the Gnosis itself is that which has descended by transmission to a few, having been imparted unwritten by the Apostles". [Ibid., bk. VI, ch. vii] A very long exposition of the life of the Gnostic, the Initiate, is given, and S. Clement concludes it by saying: "Let the specimen suffice to those who have ears. For it is not required to unfold the mystery, but only to indicate what is sufficient for those who are partakers in knowledge to bring it to mind".[Ibid., bk. VII, ch. xiv.] 

Regarding Scripture as consisting of allegories and symbols, and as hiding the sense in order to [Page 72] stimulate enquiry and to preserve the ignorant from danger. [Ibid., bk. VI, ch. xv.] S. Clement naturally confined the higher instruction to the learned. "Our Gnostic will be deeply learned", [Ibid., bk. VI, x ] he says. "Now the Gnostic must be erudite".[Ibid., bk. VI, vii ] Those who had acquired readiness by previous training could master the deeper knowledge, for though "a man can be a believer without learning, so also we assert that it is impossible for a man without learning to comprehend the things which are declared in the faith". [Ibid., bk. I,ch. vi] "Some who think themselves naturally gifted, do not wish to touch either philosophy or logic; nay more, they do not wish to learn natural science. They demand bare faith alone. . . So also I call him truly learned who brings everything to bear on the truth — so that, from geometry, and music, and grammar, and philosophy itself, culling what is useful, he guards the faith against assault. How necessary is it for him who desires to be partaker of the power of God, to treat of intellectual subjects by philosophising".[Ibid., ch. ix. ]"The Gnostic avails himself of branches of learning as auxiliary [Page 73] preparatory exercise." [Ibid., BK. VI, ch. x. ] So far was S. Clement from thinking that the teaching of Christianity should be measured by the ignorance of the unlearned. "He who is conversant with all kinds of wisdom will be pre-eminently a Gnostic". [Ibid., bk. I, ch. xiii. ]" Thus while he welcomed the ignorant and the sinner, and found in the Gospel what was suited to their needs, he considered that only the learned and the pure were fit candidates for the Mysteries. "The Apostle, in contradistinction to Gnostic perfection, calls the common faith the foundation, and sometimes milk", [Vol. XII. Stromata, bk. V, ch. iv. ] but on that foundation the edifice of the Gnosis was to be raised, and the food of men was to succeed that of babes. There is nothing of harshness nor of contempt in the distinction he draws, but only a calm and wise recognition of the facts.

Even the well-prepared candidate, the learned and trained pupil, could only hope to advance step by step in the profound truths unveiled in the Mysteries. This appears clearly in his comments on the vision of Hennas, in which he also throws out some hints on methods of reading occult works. "Did not the Power also, that appeared to Hermas in the Vision, in the form [Page 74] of the Church, give for transcription the book which she wished to be made known to the elect ? And this, he says, he transcribed to the letter, without finding how to complete the syllables. And this signified that the Scripture is clear to all, when taken according to base reading; and that this is the faith which occupies the place of the rudiments. Wherefore also the figurative expression is employed, 'reading according to the letter', while we understand that the gnostic unfolding of Scriptures, when faith has already reached an advanced state, is likened to reading according to the syllables . . . Now that the Saviour has taught the Apostles, the unwritten rendering of the written (scriptures) has been handed down also to us, inscribed by the power of God on hearts new, according to the renovation of the book. Thus those of highest repute among the Greeks dedicate the fruit of the pomegranate to Hermes, who they say is speech, on account of its interpretation. For speech conceals much. . . . That it is therefore not only to those who read simply that the acquisition of the truth is so difficult, but that not even to those whose prerogative the knowledge of the truth is, is the contemplation of it vouchsafed all at once, the history of Moses [Page 75] teaches; until accustomed to gaze, as the Hebrews on the glory of Moses, and the prophets of Israel on the visions of angels, so we also become able to look the splendours of truth in the face. ' [lbid., bk. VI, lh. Xv]

Yet more references might be given, but these should suffice to establish the fact that S. Clement knew of, had been initiated into, and wrote for the benefit of those who had also been initiated into, the Mysteries in the Church.

The next witness is his pupil Origen, that most shining light of learning, courage, sanctity, devotion, meekness, and zeal, whose works remain as mines of gold wherein the student may dig for the treasures of wisdom.

In his famous controversy with Celsus attacks were made on Christianity which drew out a defence of the Christian position in which frequent references were made to the secret teachings. [Book I, of Against Celsus is found in Vol. X of the Ante-Nicene Library. The remaining books are in Vol. XXIII. ] 

Celsus had alleged, as a matter of attack, that Christianity was a secret system, and Origen traverses this by saying that while certain doctrines were secret, many others were public, and that this system of exoteric and esoteric teachings, adopted in Christianity, was also in general use among philosophers. The reader should note, in [Page 76] the following passage, the distinction drawn between the resurrection of Jesus, regarded in a historical light, and the "mystery of the resurrection".

"Moreover, since he [Celsus] frequently calls the Christian doctrine a secret system [of belief], we must confute him on this point also, since almost the entire world is better acquainted with what Christians preach than with the favourite opinions of philosophers. For who is ignorant of the statement that Jesus was born of a virgin, and that He was crucified, and that His resurrection is an article of faith among many, and that a general judgment is announced to come, in which the wicked are to be punished according to their deserts, and the righteous to be duly rewarded ? And yet the Mystery of the resurrection, not being understood, is made a subject of ridicule among unbelievers. In these circumstances, to speak of the Christian doctrine as a secret system, is altogether absurd. But that there should be certain doctrines, not made known to the multitude, which are [revealed] after the exoteric ones have been taught, is not a peculiarity of Christianity alone, but also of philosophic systems, in which certain truths are exoteric and others esoteric. Some of the hearers of Pythagoras [Page 77] were content with his ipse dixit; while others were taught in secret those doctrines which were not deemed fit to be communicated to profane and insufficiently prepared ears. Moreover, all the Mysteries that are celebrated everywhere throughout Greece and barbarous countries, although held in secret, have no discredit thrown upon them, so that it is in vain he endeavours to calumniate the secret doctrines of Christianity, seeing that he does not correctly understand its nature". [Vol. X. Origen against Celsus, bk. I, ch. vii. ]

It is impossible to deny that, in this important passage, Origen distinctly places the Christian Mysteries in the same category as those of the Pagan world, and claims that what is not regarded as a discredit to other religions should not form a subject of attack when found in Christianity.

Still writing against Celsus, he declares that the secret teachings of Jesus were preserved in the Church, and refers specifically to the explanations that He gave to His disciples of His parables, in answering Celsus' comparison of "the inner Mysteries of the Church of God" with the Egyptian worship of Animals. " I have not yet spoken of the observance of all that is written in [Page 78] the Gospels, each one of which contains much doctrine difficult to be understood, not merely by the multitude, but even by certain of the more intelligent, including a very profound explanation of the parables which Jesus delivered to ' those without,' while reserving the exhibition of their full meaning for those who had passed beyond the stage of exoteric teaching, and who came to Him privately in the house. And when he comes to understand it, he will admire the reason why some are said to be' without,' and others ' in the house.' [Vol. X. Origen against Celsus, bk. I, ch. vii. ]

Still writing against Celsus, he declares that the secret teachings of Jesus were preserved in the Church, and refers specifically to the explanations that He gave to His disciples of His parables, in answering Celsus' comparison of "the inner Mysteries of the Church of God" with the Egyptian worship of Animals. " I have not yet spoken of the observance of all that is written in [Page 78] the Gospels, each one of which contains much doctrine difficult to be understood, not merely by the multitude, but even by certain of the more intelligent, including a very profound explanation of the parables which Jesus delivered to ' those without,' while reserving the exhibition of their full meaning for those who had passed beyond the stage of exoteric teaching, and who came to Him privately in the house. And when he comes to understand it, he will admire the reason why some are said to be' without,' and others ' in the house.' [Vol. X. Origen against Celsus, bk. I, ch. vii. ]

So also, in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Chap, xv, dealing with the episode of the SyroPhoenician woman, Origen remarks: "And perhaps, also, of the words of Jesus there are some loaves which it is possible to give to the more rational, as to children, only; and others as it were crumbs from the great house and table of the well-born, which may be used by some souls like dogs".

Celsus complaining that sinners were brought into the Church, Origen answers that the Church had medicine for those that were sick, but also the study and the knowledge of divine things for those who were in health. Sinners were taught not to sin, and only when it was seen that progress had been made, and men were "purified by the Word", "then, and not before, do we invite them to participation in our Mysteries. For we speak wisdom among them that are perfect".[Origen against Celsus, bk. Ill, ch. lix. ] Sinners came to be healed: "For there are in the divinity of the Word some helps towards the cure of those who are sick. . . . Others, again, which to the pure in soul and body exhibit the ' revelation of the Mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest by the Scriptures of the [Page 80] prophets,' and ' by the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ,' which 'appearing' is manifested to each one of those who are perfect, and which enlightens the reason in the true knowledge of things". [Origen against Celsus, bk. Ill, ch. Ixi. ] Such appearances of divine Beings took place, we have seen, in the Pagan Mysteries, and those of the Church had equally glorious visitants. "God the Word", he says, "was sent as a physician to sinners, but as a Teacher of Divine Mysteries to those who are already pure, and who sin no more".[Ibid., ch. Ixii. ] "Wisdom will not enter into the soul of a base man, nor dwell in a body that is involved in sin;" hence these higher teachings are given only to those who are "athletes in piety and in every virtue".

Christians did not admit the impure to this knowledge, but said: "Whoever has clean hands, and, therefore, lifts up holy hands to God .. . let him come to us .... whoever is pure not only from all defilement, but from what are regarded as lesser transgressions, let him be boldly initiated in the Mysteries of Jesus, which properly are made known only to the holy and the pure". Hence also, ere the ceremony of Initiation began, he who acts as Initiator, according to [Page 81] the precepts of Jesus, the Hierophant, made the significant proclamation "to those who have been purified in heart: He, whose soul has, for a long time, been conscious of no evil, especially since he yielded himself to the healing of the Word, let such a one hear the doctrines which were spoken in private by Jesus to His genuine disciples". This was the opening of the "initiating those who were already purified into the sacred Mysteries".[Origen against Celsus, bk. Ill, ch. Ix. ] Such only might learn the realities of the unseen worlds, and might enter into the sacred precincts where, as of old, angels were the teachers, and where knowledge was given by sight and not only by words. It is impossible not to be struck with the different tone of these Christians from that of their modern successors. With them perfect purity of life, the practice of virtue, the fulfilling of the divine Law in every detail of outer conduct, the perfection of righteousness, were — as with the Pagans — only the beginning of the way instead of the end. Nowadays religion is considered to have gloriously accomplished its object when it has made the Saint; then, it was to the Saints that it devoted its highest energies, and, taking the pure in heart, it led them to the Beatific Vision. [Page 82] 

The same fact of secret teaching comes out again, when Origen is discussing the arguments of Celsus as to the wisdom of retaining ancestral customs, based on the belief that "the various quarters of the earth were from the beginning allotted to different superintending Spirits, and were thus distributed among certain governing Powers, and in this way the administration of the world is carried on". [Vol. XXIII. Origen against Celsus, bk. V, ch. xxv. ]

Origen having animadverted on the deductions of Celsus, proceeds: "But as we think it likely that some of those who are accustomed to deeper investigation will fall in with this treatise, let us venture to lay down some considerations of a profounder kind, conveying a mystical and secret view respecting the original distribution of the various quarters of the earth among different superintending Spirits". [Ibid., ch. xxviii. ] He says that Celsus has misunderstood the deeper reasons relating to the arrangement of terrestrial affairs, some of which are even touched upon in Grecian history. Then he quotes Deut., xxxii, 8-9: "When the Most High divided the nations, when he dispersed the sons of Adam, He set the bounds of the people according to the number of the [Page 83] Angels of God; and the Lord's portion was his people Jacob, and Israel the cord of his inheritance". This is the wording of the Septuagint, not that of the English authorised version, but it is very suggestive of the title, the "Lord", being regarded as that of the Ruling Angel of the Jews only, and not of the "Most High", i.e., God. This view has disappeared, from ignorance, and hence the impropriety of many of the statements referring to the "Lord", when they are transferred to the "Most High", e.g., Judges, i,19.

Origen then relates the history of the Tower of Babel, and continues: "But on these subjects much, and that of a mystical kind, might be said; in keeping with which is the following:' It is good to keep close the secret of a king,' Tobit, xii, 7, in order that the doctrine of the entrance of souls into bodies (not, however, that of the transmigration from one body into another) may not be thrown before the common understanding, nor what is holy given to the dogs, nor pearls be cast before swine. For such a procedure would be impious, being equivalent to a betrayal of the mysterious declarations of God's wisdom ... It is sufficient, however, to represent in the style of a historic narrative what is intended to convey a [Page 84] secret meaning in the garb of history, that those who have the capacity may work out for themselves all that relates to the subject". [Vol. XXIII. Origen against Celsus, bk. V, ch. xxix. ] He then expounds more fully the Tower of Babel story, and writes: "Now, in the next place, if any one has the capacity let him understand that in what assumes the form of history, and which contains some things that are literally true, while yet it conveys a deeper meaning. . . ." [Ibid., ch. xxxi ]

After endeavouring to show that the "Lord" was more powerful than the other superintending Spirits of the different quarters of the earth, and that he sent his people forth to be punished by living under the dominion of the other powers, and afterwards reclaimed them with all of the less favoured nations who could be drawn in, Origen concludes by saying: "As we have previously observed, these remarks are to be understood as being made by us with a concealed meaning, by way of pointing out the mistakes of those who assert. . . ."[Ibid., ch. xxxii ] as did Celsus.

After remarking that " the object of Christianity is that we should become wise",[Ibid., ch. xlv. ] Origen proceeds: "If you come to the books written after [Page 85] the time of Jesus, you will find that those multitudes of believers who hear the parables are, as it were, ' without,' and worthy only of exoteric doctrines, while the disciples learn in private the explanation of the parables. For, privately, to His own disciples did Jesus open up all things, esteeming above the multitudes those who desired to know His wisdom. And He promises to those who believe on Him to send them wise men and scribes. . . . And Paul also in the catalogue of 'Charismata' bestowed by God, placed first 'the Word of wisdom', and second, as being inferior to it,' the word of knowledge,' but third, and lower down, 'faith'. And because he regarded 'the Word' as higher than miraculous powers, he for that reason places 'workings of miracles' and 'gifts of healings' in a lower place than gifts of the Word". [Vol. XXIII. Origen against Celsus, bk. V, ch. Xlvi]

The Gospel truly helped the ignorant, "but it is no hindrance to the knowledge of God, but an assistance, to have been educated, and to have studied the best opinions, and to be wise". [Ibid., chs. xlvii-liv. ] As for the unintelligent, "I endeavour to improve such also to the best of my ability, although I would not desire to build up the Christian [Page 86] community out of such materials. For I seek in preference those who are more clever and acute, because they are able to comprehend the meaning of the hard sayings". [Vol. XXIII. Origen against Celsus, bk. V, ch, Ixxiv. ] Here we have plainly stated the ancient Christian idea, entirely at one with the considerations submitted in Chapter I of this book. There is room for the ignorant in Christianity, but it is not intended only for them, and has deep teachings for the "clever and acute".

It is for these that he takes much pains to show that the Jewish and Christian Scriptures have hidden meanings, veiled under stories the outer meaning of which repels them as absurd, alluding to the serpent and the tree of life, and "the other statements which follow, which might of themselves lead a candid reader to see that all these things had, not inappropriately, an allegorical meaning".[Ibid., bk. IV, oh. xxxix.] Many chapters are devoted to these allegorical and mystical meanings, hidden beneath the words of the Old and New Testaments, and he alleges that Moses, like the Egyptians, gave histories with concealed meanings". [Vol. X. Origen against Celsus, bk. I, ch. xvii and others. ] "He who deals candidly with histories" — this is Origen's general canon of interpretation — "and [Page 87] would wish to keep himself also from being imposed on by them, will exercise his judgment as to what statements he will give his assent to, and what he will accept figuratively, seeking to discover the meaning of the authors of such inventions, and from what statements he will withhold his beliefs, as having been written for the gratification of certain individuals. And we have said this by way of anticipation respecting the whole history related in the Gospels concerning Jesus". [Vol. X. Origen against Celsus, bk. I, ch. xlii. ] A great part of his Fourth Book is taken up with illustrations of the mystical explanations of the Scripture stories, and anyone who wishes to pursue the subject can read through it.

In the De Principiis, Origen gives it as the received teaching of the Church " that the Scriptures were written by the Spirit of God, and have a meaning, not only such as is apparent at first sight, but also another, which escapes the notice of most. For those [words] which are written are the forms of certain Mysteries, and the images of divine things. Respecting which there is one opinion throughout the whole Church, that the whole law is indeed spiritual; but that the spiritual meaning which the law conveys is not known to all, but to those only on whom the grace of [Page 88] the Holy Spirit is bestowed in the word of wisdom and knowledge". [Vol. X. De Principiis, Preface, p. 8.] Those who remember what has already been quoted will see in the "Word of wisdom" and "the word of knowledge" the two typical mystical instructions, the spiritual and the intellectual. 

In the Fourth Book of De Principiis, Origen explains at length his views on the interpretation of Scripture. It has a "body", which is the "common and historical sense"; a "soul", a figurative meaning to be discovered by the exercise of the intellect; and a " spirit," an inner and divine sense, to be known only by those who have "the mind of Christ". He considers that incongruous and impossible things are introduced into the history to arouse an intelligent reader, and compel him to search for a deeper explanation, while simple people would read on without appreciating the difficulties. [Ibid., ch. i. ]

Cardinal Newman, in his Arians of the Fourth Century, has some interesting remarks on the Disciplina Arcani, but, with the deeply-rooted ingrained scepticism of the nineteenth century, he cannot believe to the full in the "riches of the glory of the Mystery", or probably never for a moment conceived the possibility of the existence [Page 89] of such splendid realities. Yet he was a believer in Jesus, and the words of the promise of Jesus were clear and definite: "I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also. At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you". [S. John, xiv, 18-20. ] The promise was amply redeemed, for He came to them and taught them in His Mysteries; therein they saw Him, though the world saw Him no more, and they knew the Christ as in them, and their life as Christ's. 

Cardinal Newman recognises a secret tradition, handed down from the Apostles, but he considers that it consisted of Christian doctrines, later divulged, forgetting that those who were told that they were not yet fit to receive it were not heathen, nor even catechumens under instruction, but full communicating members of the Christian Church. Thus he states that this secret tradition was later "authoritatively divulged and perpetuated in the form of symbols", and was embodied "in the creeds of the early Councils". [Loc. cit., ch. i, Sec. Ill, p. 55. ] But as the doctrines in the [Page 90] creeds are to be found clearly stated in the Gospels and Epistles, this position is wholly untenable, all these having been already divulged to the world at large; and in all of them the members of the Church were certainly thoroughly instructed. The repeated statements as to secrecy become meaningless if thus explained. The Cardinal, however, says that whatever "has not been thus authenticated, whether it was prophetical information or comment on the past dispensations, is, from the circumstances of the case, lost to the Church".[Loc. cit., ch. i, Sec. Ill, pp. 55, 56. ] That is very probably, in fact, certainly, true, so far as the Church is concerned, but it is none the less recoverable.

Commenting on Ireneeus, who in his work Against Heresies lays much stress on the existence of an Apostolic Tradition in the Church, the Cardinal writes: "He then proceeds to speak of the clearness and cogency of the traditions preserved in the Church, as containing that true wisdom of the perfect, of which S. Paul speaks, and to which the Gnostics pretended. And, indeed, without formal proofs of the existence and the authority in primitive times of an Apostolic Tradition, it is plain that there [Page 91] must have been such a tradition, granting that the Apostles conversed, and their friends had memories, like other men. It is quite inconceivable that they should not have been led to arrange the series of revealed doctrines more systematically than they record them in Scripture, as soon as their converts became exposed to the attacks and misrepresentations of heretics; unless they were forbidden to do so, a supposition which cannot be maintained. Their statements thus occasioned would be preserved as a matter of course; together with those other secret but less important truths, to which S. Paul seems to allude, and which the early writers more or less acknowledge, whether concerning the types of the Jewish Church, or the prospective fortunes of the Christian. And such recollections of apostolical teaching would evidently be binding on the faith of those who were instructed in them; unless it can be supposed that, though coming from inspired teachers, they were not of divine origin". [ Ibid., pp. 54, 55. ] In a part of the section dealing with the allegorising method, he writes in reference to the sacrifice of Isaac, etc., as "typical of the New Testament revelation": "In corroboration of this remark, let it be observed, [Page 92] that there seems to have been ["Seems to have been" is a somewhat weak expression, after what is said by Clement arid Origen, of which some specimens are given in the text. ] in the Church a traditionary explanation of these historical types, derived from the Apostles, but kept among the secret doctrines, as being dangerous to the majority of hearers; and certainly S. Paul, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, affords us an instance of such a tradition, both as existing and as secret (even though it be shown to be of Jewish origin), when, first checking himself and questioning his brethren's faith, he communicates, not without hesitation, the evangelical scope of the account of Melchisedec, as introduced into the book of Genesis". [ Ibid., p. 62. ]

The social and political convulsions that accompanied its dying now began to torture the vast frame of the Roman Empire, and even the Christians were caught up in the whirlpool of selfish warring interests. We still find scattered references to special knowledge imparted to the leaders and teachers of the Church, knowledge of the heavenly hierarchies, instructions given by angels, and so on. But the lack of suitable pupils caused the Mysteries to be withdrawn as an institution publicly known to exist, and teaching was [Page 93] given more and more secretly to those rarer and rarer souls, who by learning, purity, and devotion showed themselves capable of receiving it. No longer were schools to be found wherein the preliminary teachings were given, and with the disappearance of these the "door was shut".

Two streams may nevertheless be tracked through Christendom, streams which had as their source the vanished Mysteries. One was the stream of mystic learning, flowing from the Wisdom, the Gnosis, imparted in the Mysteries; the other was the stream of mystic contemplation, equally part of the Gnosis, leading to the ecstasy, to spiritual vision. This latter, however, divorced from knowledge, rarely attained the true ecstasies, and tended either to run riot in the lower regions of the invisible worlds, or to lose itself amid a variegated crowd of subtle superphysical forms, visible as objective appearances to the inner vision — prematurely forced by fastings, vigils, and strained attention — but mostly born of the thoughts and emotions of the seer. Even when the forms observed were not externalised thoughts, they were seen through a distorting atmosphere of preconceived ideas and beliefs, and were thus rendered largely unreliable. None the less, some of the visions were verily of heavenly [Page 94] things, and Jesus truly appeared from time to time to His devoted lovers, and angels would sometimes brighten with their presence the cell of monk and nun, the solitude of rapt devotee and patient seeker after God. To deny the possibility of such experiences would be to strike at the very root of that "which has been most surely believed" in all religions, and is known to all Occultists — the intercommunication between Spirits veiled in flesh and those clad in subtler vestures, the touching of mind with mind across the barriers of matter, the unfolding of the Divinity in man, the sure knowledge of a life beyond the gates of death.

Glancing down the centuries we find no time in which Christendom was left wholly devoid of mysteries. "It was probably about the end of the 5th century, just as ancient philosophy was dying out in the Schools of Athens, that the speculative philosophy of neo-Platonism made a definite lodgment in Christian thought through the literary forgeries of the Pseudo-Dionysius. The doctrines of Christianity were by that time so firmly established that the Church could look upon a symbolical or mystical interpretation of them without anxiety. The author of the Theologica Mystica and the other works ascribed to the [Page 95] Areopagite proceeds, therefore, to develop the doctrines of Proclus with very little modification into a system of esoteric Christianity. God is the nameless and supra-essential One, elevated above goodness itself. Hence 'negative theology', which ascends from the creature to God by dropping one after another every determinate predicate, leads us nearest to the truth. The return to God is the consummation of all things and the goal indicated by Christian teaching. The same doctrines were preached with more of churchly fervour by Maximus, the Confessor, (580-622). Maximus represents almost the last speculative activity of the Greek Church, but the influence of the Pseudo-Dionysian writing was transmitted to the West in the ninth century by Erigena, in whose speculative spirit both the scholasticism and the mysticism of the Middle Ages have their rise. Erigena translated Dionysius into Latin along with the commentaries of Maximus, and his system is essentially based upon theirs. The negative theology is adopted, and God is stated to be predicateless Being, above all categories, and therefore not improperly called Nothing [query, No-Thing]. Out of this Nothing or incomprehensible essence the world of ideas or primordial causes is eternally [Page 96] created. This is the Word or Son of God, in whom all things exist, so far as they have substantial existence. All existence is a theophany, and as God is the beginning of all things, so also is He the end. Erigena teaches the restitution of all things under the form of the Dionysian adunatio or deificatio. These are the permanent outlines of what may be called the philosophy of mysticism in Christian times, and it is remarkable with how little variation they are repeated from age to age". [Article on "Mysticism".— Encyc. Britan.]

In the eleventh century Bernard of Clairvaux (A.D. 1091-1153) and Hugo of S. Victor carry on the mystic tradition, with Richard of S. Victor in the following century, and S. Bonaventura the Seraphic Doctor, and the great S. Thomas Aquinas (A.D. 1227-1274) in the thirteenth. Thomas Aquinas dominates the Europe of the Middle Ages, by his force of character no less than by his learning and piety. He asserts "Revelation" as one source of knowledge, Scripture and tradition being the two channels in which it runs, and the influence, seen in his writings, of the Pseudo-Dionysius links him to the Neo-Platonists. The second source is Reason, and here the channels are the Platonic philosophy [Page 97] and the methods of Aristotle — the latter an alliance that did Christianity no good, for Aristotle became an obstacle to the advance of the higher thought, as was made manifest in the struggles of Giordano Bruno, the Pythagorean. Thomas Aquinas was canonised in A.D. 1323, and the great Dominican remains as a type of the union of theology and philosophy — the aim of his life. These belong to the great Church of western Europe, vindicating her claim to be regarded as the transmitter of the holy torch of mystic learning. Around her there also sprang up many sects, deemed heretical, yet containing true traditions of the sacred secret learning, the Cathari and many others, persecuted by a Church jealous of her authority, and fearing lest the holy pearls should pass into profane custody. In this century also S. Elizabeth of Hungary shines out with sweetness and purity, while Eckhart (A.D. 1260-1329) proves himself a worthy inheritor of the Alexandrian Schools. Eckhart taught that "the Godhead is the absolute Essence (Wesen), unknowable not only by man but also by Itself; It is darkness and absolute indeterminateness, Nicht in contrast to Icht, or definite and knowable existence. Yet It is the potentiality of all things, and Its nature is, in a triadic process, to come to [Page 98] consciousness of Itself as the triune God. Creation is not a temporal act, but an eternal necessity, of the divine nature. I am as necessary to God, Eckhart is fond of saying, as God is necessary tome. In my knowledge and love God knows and loves Himself". [Article "Mysticism". Encyclopaedia Britannica. ] 

Eckhart is followed, in the fourteenth century, by John Tauler, and Nicolas of Basel, "the Friend of God in the Oberland". From these sprang up the Society of the Friends of God, true mystics and followers of the old tradition. Mead remarks that Thomas Aquinas, Tauler, and Eckhart followed the Pseudo-Dionysius, who followed Plotinus, lamblichus, and Proclus, who in turn followed Plato and Pythagoras. [Orpheus, pp. 53, 54. ] So linked together are the followers of the Wisdom in all ages. It was probably a "Friend" who was the author of Die Deutsche Theologie, a book of mystical devotion, which had the curious fortune of being approved by Staupitz, the Vicar-General of the Augustiman Order, who recommended it to Luther and by Luther himself, who published it A.D. 1516, as a book which should rank immediately after the Bible and the writings of S. Augustine of Hippo. [Page 99] Another "Friend" was Ruysbroeck, to whose influence with Groot was due the founding of the Brethren of the Common Lot or Common Life — a Society that must remain ever memorable, as it numbered among its members that prince of mystics, Thomas a Kempis (A. D. 1380-1471), the author of the immortal Imitation of Christ.

In the fifteenth century the more purely intellectual side of mysticism comes out more strongly than the ecstatic — so dominant in these societies of the fourteenth — and we have Cardinal Nicolas of Cusa, with Giordano Bruno, the martyred knight-errant of philosophy, and Paracelsus, the much slandered scientist, who drew his knowledge directly from the original eastern fountain, instead of through Greek channels.

The sixteenth century saw the birth of Jacob Bohme (A.D. 1575-1624), the "inspired cobbler", an Initiate in obscuration truly, sorely persecuted by unenlightened men; and then too came S. Teresa, the muchoppressed and suffering Spanish mystic; and S. John of the Cross, a burning flame of intense devotion; and S. Francois de Sales. Wise was Rome in canonising these, wiser than the Reformation that persecuted Bõhme, but the spirit of the Reformation was ever intensely anti-mystical, and wherever its breath [Page 100] hath passed the fair flowers of mysticism have withered as under the sirocco.

Borne, however, who, though she canonised Teresa dead, had sorely harried her while living — did ill with Mme. de Guyon (A. D. 1648-1717), a true mystic, and with Miguel de Molinos (1627-1696), worthy to sit near S. John of the Cross, who carried on in the seventeenth century the high devotion of the mystic, turned into a peculiarly passive form — the Quietist.

In this same century arose the school of Platonists in Cambridge, of whom Henry More (A. D. 1614-1687) may serve as salient example; also Thomas Vaughan, and Robert Fludd the Rosicrucian; and there is formed also the Philadelphian Society, and we see William Law (A.D. 1686-1761) active in the eighteenth century, and overlapping S. Martin (A. D. 1743-1803), whose writings have fascinated so many nineteenth century students.[Obligation must be here acknowledged to the Article "Mysticism", in the Encyc. Brit., though that publication is by no means responsible for the opinions expressed.]

Nor should we omit Christian Rosenkreutz (d. A.D. 1484), whose mystic Society of the Rosy Cross, appearing in 1614, held true knowledge, and whose spirit was reborn in the "Comte de [Page 101] S. Germain", the mysterious figure that appears and disappears through the gloom, lit by lurid flashes, of the closing eighteenth century. Mystics too were some of the Quakers, the much-persecuted sect of Friends, seeking the illumination of the Inner Light, and listening ever for the Inner Voice. And many another mystic was there, "of whom the world was not worthy", like the wholly delightful and wise Mother Juliana of Norwich, of the fourteenth century, jewels of Christendom, too little known, but justifying Christianity to the world.

Yet, as we salute reverently these Children of the Light, scattered over the centuries, we are forced to recognise in them the absence of that union of acute intellect and high devotion which were welded together by the training of the Mysteries, and while we marvel that they soared so high, we cannot but wish that their rare gifts had been developed under that magnificent disciplina arcani.

Alphonse Louis Constant, better known under his pseudonym, Eliphas Levi, has put rather well the loss of the Mysteries, and the need for their re-institution. "A great misfortune befell Christianity. The betrayal of the Mysteries by the false Gnostics — for the Gnostics, that is, those [Page 102] who know, were the Initiates of primitive Christianity — caused the Gnosis to be rejected, and alienated the Church from the supreme truths of the Kabbala, which contain all the secrets of transcendental theology .... Let the most absolute science, let the highest reason, become once more the patrimony of the leaders of the people; let the sacerdotal art and the royal art take the double sceptre of antique initiations, and the social world will once more issue from its chaos. Burn the holy images no longer; demolish the temples no more; temples and images are necessary for men; but drive the hirelings from the house of prayer; let the blind be no longer leaders of the blind, reconstruct the hierarchy of intelligence and holiness, and recognise only those who know as the teachers of those who believe". [The Mysteries of Magic. Trans, by A. E. Waite, pp. 58 and 60.]

Will the Churches of today again take up the mystic teaching, the Lesser Mysteries, and so prepare their children for the re-establishment of the Greater Mysteries, again drawing down the Angels as Teachers, and having as Hierophant the Divine Master, Jesus? On the answer to that question depends the future of Christianity. [Page 103]



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