1 June 1906, Paris
Christian initiation has existed since the founding of Christianity. Through the Middle Ages and in our own time it has remained the same among a number of religious Orders as well as among the Rosicrucians. It consists of a spiritual training which culminates in certain identical and invariable symptoms. The Brotherhoods where, in profound secrecy, this training used to be given, are the home of all spiritual life and religious progress.
In certain respects the Christian initiation is more difficult of attainment than the initiation of ancient times. It is bound up with the essence and mission of Christianity which came into the world at a time when man had descended most deeply into matter. This descent was to imbue him with a new consciousness, but the struggle involved in rising from the depths of materialism demands greater effort and renders initiation more difficult. That is why the Christian masters demand intense humility and devotion of their pupils.
The Christian initiation has always consisted of seven stages, four of which correspond to four of the Stations of Calvary. The stages are: —
- The Washing of the Feet
- The Scourging
- The Crowning with Thorns
- The Bearing of the Cross
- The Mystic Death
- The Entombment
- The Resurrection
The Washing of the Feet is a preparatory exercise of a moral character, relating to the scene where Christ washes the feet of the disciples before the Easter Festival (St. John 13): “Verity, verily I say unto you, the servant is not greater than his Lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.” Theology gives a purely moral interpretation to this act and looks upon it merely as an example of the profound humility and devotion of the Master to His disciples and His work. The Rosicrucians also held this view but in a deeper sense, relating the story to the evolution of all beings in Nature. The scene is really an allusion to the law that the higher is a product of the lower. The plant might say to the mineral: I am above you since I have a life which you have not; yet without you I could not exist, for the substances which nourish me are drawn from you. The animal again might say to the plant: I am above you, for I have feeling, desires, the capacity for voluntary movement which you have not; but without the food which you provide, without your leaves and fruits I could not live. And man should say to the plants: I am above you, but to you I owe the oxygen which I breathe. To the animals he should say: I have a soul and you have not; yet we are brothers and companions, involved in the great process of evolution. The esoteric meaning of the Washing of the Feet is that Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, could not exist without the Apostles.
The neophyte who meditates on this theme for months and years has a vision of the Washing of the Feet in the astral world during sleep. Then he is ready to pass to the second stage of the Christian initiation.
The Scourging, — At this stage man learns to resist the scourgings of life. Life brings sufferings of all kinds — physical, moral, intellectual, spiritual. Life is felt to be a dreadful and incessant torture. The disciple must endure it with perfect equanimity of soul and heroic courage. He must cease to know physical or moral fear. When he has become fearless, he sees, in dream, the scene of the Scourging. In another vision he sees himself in the Christ Who is scourged. Certain symptoms in physical life accompany this event. There is an intensification of the life of feeling, a wider sense of life and of love. We have an example of heightened sensibility transferred to the world of intelligence, in the life of Goethe. After lengthy osteological studies of the skeleton of man and of the animals, as well as comparative embryological research, Goethe came to the conclusion that the intermaxillary bone must exist in man. Before his time, science denied the existence of this bone in the upper jaw of man. Goethe himself says that he was overcome with joy and a kind of ecstasy when he actually discovered the intermaxillary bone in the human jaw, adding that it was one of the most wonderful experiences of his life. During his Italian journey he again had the same experience. He was looking at a fragment of a sheep's skull, and another idea came to him — an idea still more significant in regard to human evolution — that the human brain, the seat of intelligence, the centre of voluntary movements, is a development and a metamorphosis of the spinal marrow, just as the flower is a culmination and synthesis of root and stem. What faculty was it that enabled Goethe to make these marvelous discoveries which by themselves deserve to make his name immortal? It was his sublime intelligence on the one hand, but also his intense sympathy with all living beings and the whole of Nature. Such sensitiveness is a refinement and an extension of the forces of life and love. It corresponds to the second stage of Christian initiation and is the recompense for the trial of the Scourging. Man acquires a feeling of love for all beings and this gives him a sense of living in the heart of Nature herself.
The Crowning with Thorns, — At this stage man must learn to brave the world morally and intellectually, to desist from anger when all that is most dear to him is being attacked. The capacity to remain aloof when everything is tumbling about our ears, to say “Yea” when the rest of the world says “Nay” — that is what must be acquired before the next step can be taken. This gives rise to a new symptom, namely a dissociation, or rather the power of a momentary dissociation of three faculties which, in man, are united: the faculties of willing, feeling and thinking. We must learn to separate and to re-unite them at will. So long, for example, as some outer event carries us away with uncontrolled enthusiasm, we are immature, for such enthusiasm comes from the event, not from ourselves, and we may even exercise a shattering influence of which we are not master.
The enthusiasm of the disciple must have its well-spring in the depths of his inner life. He must therefore be able to remain impassive in the face of any event, no matter how catastrophic. That is the only way to reach freedom. The dissociation of feeling, thinking and willing produces in the brain a change that is symbolised by the Crown of Thorns. If this test is to be passed without danger, the powers inherent in the personality must be sufficiently intense and in perfect equilibrium. If the disciple has not reached this stage, or if he receives wrong guidance, the change in the brain may lead to insanity. Insanity is nothing but an involuntary separation of these faculties without the possibility of their re-union by dint of the inner will. The disciple brings about the separation by an act of conscious volition. A flash of his will re-establishes the link between the organs and the activities of soul. In the lunatic, the cleft may be incurable and produce a physical lesion in the nerve-centres.
In the course of the stage in the Christian initiation known as the Crowning with Thorns, there arises the phenomenon known as the Guardian of the Threshold — the appearance of the lower double of man. The spiritual being of man, composed of his impulses of will, his desires and his thoughts, appears to the Initiate in visible form. It is a form that is sometimes repugnant and terrible, for it is the offspring of his good and bad desires and of his karma — it is their personification in the astral world, the Evil Pilot of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. This form must be conquered by man before he can find the higher Self. The Guardian of the Threshold which has been a phenomenon of astral vision from times immemorial, is the origin of all the myths concerning the struggles of Heroes with monsters, of Perseus and Hercules with the Hydra, of St. George and Siegfried with the dragon.
The premature appearance of the astral world and the sudden apparition of the Double or Guardian of the Threshold may lead a man who is not fully prepared or who has not taken all the precautions necessary for the disciple, to madness and insanity.
The Bearing of the Cross refers, symbolically, to a virtue of the soul. This virtue which consists in a sense of having ‘the world on one's conscience’ as Atlas bore the world on his shoulders, may be called a feeling of indentification with the whole Earth, or in the words of oriental occultism the cessation of the feeling of separateness.
In general, and above all in modern times, men identify themselves with the body. (In his Ethics, Spinoza says that the basic and fundamental idea of man is the idea of the body in action.) The disciple must cultivate the idea that in the sum-total of things, his body in itself is of no more importance than any other body, whether it be the body of an animal, a table or a piece of marble. The self is not bounded by the skin; it is united with the great organism of the universe as the hand is united with the rest of the body. The hand alone would be as dust and ashes. What would the body of man be without the soil on which he rests, without the air he breathes? It would die, for it is but a tiny organ of the Earth and the air. That is why the disciple must sink himself in every other being and identify himself with the Spirit of the Earth.
Goethe has given a marvelous description of this stage at the beginning of Faust. The Spirit of the Earth to whom Faust aspires, appears before him and speaks these words:
“In the tides of life, in Action's storm,
A fluctuant wave,
A shuttle free,
Birth and the Grave,
An eternal sea,
A weaving, flowing
Thus at Time's humming loom 'tis my hand prepares
The garments of Life which the Divinity weaves.”
To identify oneself with all beings does not mean that the body is to be despised. It must be borne as some exterior object, even as Christ bore His Cross. The Spirit must wield the body as the hand wields the hammer. At this stage the disciple is conscious of the occult powers lying latent in his body. In the course of his meditations, the stigmata may even appear on his skin. This is the sign that he is ripe for the fifth stage, where, in sudden illumination, the Mystic Death is revealed to him.
The Mystic Death, — In the grip of the greatest of all suffering the disciple recognises that the world of the senses is illusion. He is actually aware of death and of descending into the world of shades, but then the darkness breaks and a new light — the astral light — shines out. The veil of the temple is ‘rent in twain.’ This light has nothing in common with the physical light of the sun. It rays forth from the inner being of man. The impression it makes is wholly unlike that made by outer light. The following comparison will give us some idea of what is meant. We imagine that we are leaving a turbulent city behind us and entering a dense forest. The noises gradually cease and the silence becomes complete. We finally begin to be aware of what lies beyond the silence, to pass the zero point at which all external sound has ceased. And now sound arises again for the inner ear from the other side of existence. Such is the experience of the soul of one who enters the astral world. He is then in contact with the inverse quality of the things with which he was familiar, just as in arithmetic, beneath the zero point, we enter into the growing series of negative numbers.
Thus do we need to lose all in order to regain all, and this applies to our own existence. In the moment of losing all we appear to die to ourselves and it is in the world around us that we begin to live again.
Such is the Mystic Death. When a man has passed this stage, the time has come for the next:
The Entombment, — Man feels that he is freed from his own body and is one with the planet. He is one with the Earth and finds himself again within the planetary life.
The Resurrection, — This is a sublime experience, impossible of description unless it be within the walls of the sanctuary. The last stage of Christian initiation transcends all words and all analogy fails. At this stage man acquires the power of healing. Yet it must be realised that he who possesses it, possesses at the same time the inverse power to bring about disease. The negative invariably goes in hand with the positive. Hence the tremendous responsibility attaching to this power which may be characterised by the saying: The creative word issues from the soul aflame.