A Christian Mystery School

These few words are the reflection of a long process of thought in my mind from my university days. It has been brought home to me when I have seen the state of parish life here in France and elsewhere, the question of cultural Catholicism or belonging without believing. I am brought to the exhortation of Christ “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces“.

The passage needs interpretation and reading in the context like all scriptural quotes. What I see most of all is that animals like dogs and pigs (the former being good pets and the latter being sources of food) cannot appreciate the spiritual meaning of the Eucharist, and would eat it like any ordinary food. This would also be true of some humans, and their indifferent uncaring attitude can often be discerned by their behaviour in church. This is particularly the case where church services are assimilated to popular entertainment and a level of banality that repels the more cultured and contemplative souls. There may be a bearing on the question of Jews and Gentiles, but Christ seems to have wanted to extend his Kingdom to the Gentiles as well as people like the Samaritans.

Traditionally, the Church has operated through parishes to minister to ordinary people in the cities and the countryside. The monastery is something requiring a particular kind of commitment from its adepts, as are the various teaching and humanitarian orders like the Franciscans, Dominicans and Salesians. More recently, there is the Benedict Option which I will soon be reading thanks to a dear friend who has sent me a copy from America. It arrived in the post today. I need to learn much more about Rod Dreher’s ideas so that I can be more constructively critical. The inspiration seems to be idea of adapting monastic tenets and practices for lay people living in alternative and intentional communities. My biggest concern is whether the community in question is run democratically or by the authority of the strongest personality. The implications of the latter can very quickly degenerate into sectarianism, especially when the “guru” has a disordered personality (eg. psychopathy or malignant narcissism). This will be true of any community, including the family consisting of a man, a woman and their biological or adopted children. Nothing can escape the worst of human nature.

Another model of Christian living comes to mind, that of the mystery school. There were many such mystery schools in antiquity, and many of them showed characteristic extremely similar to Christianity, especially the theme of a God giving himself in sacrifice and rising from the dead. Christianity has often been accused of plagiarising these themes of deities like Horus. My interest in this world was awakened by reading Dom Odo Casel’s The Mystery of Christian Worship (Das Christliche Kultmysterium). Dom Casel fought for the notion of Christianity being the perfect fulfilment of a long history of types and shadows in both Judaism and ancient Paganism. We perceive our faith as a history of salvation, a notion that is particularly strong in the Old Testament and the very notion of Tradition. I have wondered about the possibility of a “church of the future” in the form of an esoteric lodge or school, a little like the Freemasons or other societies suspected because of their keeping secrets away from the general population.

My studies of Romanticism brought me to an acute understanding of the eighteenth century and the effects of the Englightenment. It was a world that was as bleak spiritually as our own. People went to church paying lip service to the old “superstitions” but had a materialistic view of life. Churches crumbled because no one cared, and the same is happening today. The Industrial Revolution is paralleled today by the vertiginous advance of digital technology and “post-humanism”. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816 and we now have scientists finding ways of transplanting the head from one person onto the body of another – or building digital technology into a human body to produce some kind of Ubermensch.

As institutional Christianity’s salt lost its savour, a powerful esoteric movement built up over the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth. We are brought to think of Jakob Böhme and German pietism all the way to the fashions of the late nineteenth century expressed in various versions of theosophy and occultism. Whilst reading about C.S. Lewis, I discovered the philosopher Owen Barfield and his interest in Rudolf Steiner. This is where many of the late Romantic themes were going up to World War I and well into the 1920’s.

To some extent, this movement became a backdrop to movements like Modernism in the Roman Catholic Church and Higher Criticism in Lutheranism and Anglicanism. A few seemed to have materialistic sympathies, but most wanted a more mystical and personal experience of Christianity. This was certainly true of Fr George Tyrrell. Along with this multi-layered movement came an interest in esoterism as back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. According to this belief, not all of Christ’s teaching was addressed to the crowds of disciples and people in the synagogues and the Temple, but some were given behind closed doors. There are clues like the parables of the Kingdom and the explanations of what is given to ordinary people and what is taught to the initiated. On the other hand, Christ told the Pharisees that he taught nothing other than was publicly known. This apparent contradiction leads to some confusion.

One of the most important reasons for not rejecting Christianity, despite it having been “jammed” by power-hungry churchmen, is that it seeks to protect and strengthen the weak in the face of the strong and wealthy of this world, a kind of “socialism”. Who else is concerned for the ignorant, the poor and the sick without financial compensation in return? It marked moral limits of human competition and the elimination of the weakness to allow the strong to prosper without carrying the weight of “useless eaters”. It is the very antithesis of modern capitalism and the old Nazi ideology, the survival of the fittest of Darwin.

The other profound dimension of Christianity is the Mystery, the notion of keeping Christ incarnate in spite of his Resurrection and Ascension, outside of time and bringing the world of time into contact with eternity. This is made possible through the sacramental life of the Church and her life of prayer using forms of service similar in essentials to those of the Jews, the recitation of the Psalms in particular. This notion of Christianity inherits everything from the old Temple, but also from the mystery schools. Among these mystery schools were the Gnostics, from which some were reasonably orthodox Christians, and others had quite wild positions based on philosophical dualism (the opposition between matter and spirit). It is not all bad even though some elements lead to doubtful beliefs and practices.

I first heard of Jakob Böhme (1575 – 1624) through reading Berdyaev. He was a philosopher, mystic, and Lutheran theologian. Berdyaev wrote many things under Böhme’s influence, and there is this interesting piece on the internet, Etude I. The Teaching about the Ungrund and Freedom. It was also in reading German Romantic philosopher (or about them) that I would learn that Schelling, Schlegel and Novalis were inspired by Böhme, and Hegel called him the “first German philosopher”. We will be quite surprised when we discover Böhme’s fidelity to his Lutheran tradition, but yet a marked departure from some of the tenets of the Reformation. He had a marked view on Christian esotericism and some have called him a founder of Christian theosophy, though the term was only coined much later. All the word actually means etymologically is a contraction of the Greek derived words philosophy and theology. Modern Theosophy was promoted by Helena Blavatsky, and inspired the Liberal Catholic Church of James Ingall Wedgwood (1883 – 1951) and Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854 – 1934). The Liberal Catholic Church is still going, and I visited their parish in Paris in about 2006. The Theosophical Society was very popular in its early days, but the internet is parsimonious with recent information. That world has never really appealed to me even if my curiosity has been provoked on occasions.

Christian esotericism was also represented in Holland, England and France during the Renaissance period. There are some remarkable books written about esotericism and alchemy. I know little about alchemy, but I do know that the word is Arabic, reminding us of the ancient Islamic culture. The word alcohol also came from Arabic. There was a constant aspiration to find a spiritual world through symbols and earthly elements like fire and water. At the basis of all this lies the idea that matter can be transformed and spiritualised. In such a context, the transsubstantiation of bread into the body of Christ and wine into his blood at Mass takes on another meaning entirely.

Emanuel Swedenberg (1688 – 1772) is a fascinating figure in the reaction to the Enlightenment in the company of William Blake and the early Romantics of Jena. Like many inspired souls of that era, he was a scientist and a philosopher. He also travelled widely. Blake followed Swedenborg for a time until they disagreed. Swedenborg had mystical and psychic gifts. The American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson was influenced by him as was Charles Baudelaire. Like Novalis at the end of the century, he was an engineer and designed Sweden’s first salt mines. For his time, his scientific and technological knowledge was phenomenal. It is easy to dismiss Swedenborg for his unorthodoxy, but which of us would come anywhere near his achievements? He experienced states of altered consciousness including revelations from Christ about the understanding of Scripture. He is another historical character I need to learn more about. There are Swedenborgian churches to this day, sometimes called The New Church.

Another interesting development is the Martinist Order, founded by Papus in 1891. Superficially, it seems to have a lot in common with Freemasonry. However it is more specifically Christian. One distinguished initiate was René Guénon, who ultimately converted to Sufism, a contemplative form of Islam, and died in Egypt. The Order knew its heyday in the early twentieth century, especially in France. There is still an Ordre Martiniste in France to this day. I don’t have the impression that they are involved in any great conspiracies! They seem to be concerned for a mystical form of Christianity that is difficult to find in parishes. I might have been tempted at one time, but there seems to be a lot of quite elaborate and artificial secrets and ceremonies that are quite foreign to me. Orders are quite exacting about their filiation and legitimacy, when I think that they are not necessary for the essential of transmitting knowledge. Excesses are not unknown like the notorious Ordre du Temple Solaire, whose “guru” incited all the members to commit suicide! The sectarian temptation is never far away. However, I don’t believe that Martinism is a sect. 

Vladimir Solovyov (1853–1900) is reputed to have said:

“Although empiricism and rationalism rest on false principles, their respective objective contents, external experience, qua the foundation of natural science, and logical thought, qua the foundation of pure philosophy, are to be synthesized or encompassed along with mystical knowledge in ‘integral knowledge’.

I can’t seem to  find the source, and I am wary of the claims of theosophy, but this idea seems to converge to some extent with German Romantic philosophy. We can call it mystical knowledge, imagination or some other form of yearning. The quote needs a lot of thought, and above all the context that I am presently unable to find. The problem with Theosophy as far as I can see it is that it “multiplies” entities, becomes extremely complex and leaves me with a sense of “overload”. It is also a reflection of its era, the late nineteenth century rather than the more sober approach of the late eighteenth. I feel quite discouraged from going into it – and, of course, there are unsavoury and unscrupulous individuals who will gladly separate the gullible from their money!

Is anything possible outside parishes and traditional monasteries? My own instinct is to proceed from study and reflection, individually and in small groups. There is no need for secrets and rituals other than reciting or singing the Office together – one thing a group can do together without belonging to the same institutional Church. I do believe that a grounding in humanist culture is very important to maintain the balance of intuitive belief, imagination and reason. Early theosophy certainly reflected such a cultural background, as I can imagine with Madame Blavatsky and Swedenborg. Many aspects converge. I tend to be wary of modern movements.

Why secrecy in esotericism? Secrecy provokes curiosity and it is understandable how it can be so successful in building up an in-house identity and sense of belonging. Mystery doesn’t always mean something that is secret or withheld from the profane world. In theological terms, mystery is understood to mean a truth that is beyond human reason, not against reason but above it. I learned many things on reading Uberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, the story of the medieval monastery and murder mystery, with the motive of guarding the big secret of the labyrinth library – the book by Aristotle that defends humour! I am a natural sceptic.

I refer readers to the book of Dom Casel that I mentioned above and its first chapter – The Mystery and Modern Man. Casel summarises the notion of mystery in these words:

The mystery means three things and one. First of all it is God considered in Himself as the infinitely distant, holy, unapproachable, to whom no man may draw near and live…. And this all-holy one reveals His mystery, comes down to His creatures and reveals Himself to them; yet once again in mysterio, that is to say, in a revelation by grace to those whom He has chosen, the humble, the pure of heart.

For St. Paul μυστήριον is the marvellous revelation of God in Christ…. Christ is the mystery in person, because He shows the invisible Godhead in the flesh

Since Christ is no longer visible among us, in St. Leo the Great’s words, ‘What was visible in the Lord has passed over into the mysteries.’ We meet His person, His saving deeds, the working of His grace in the mysteries of His worship. st. Ambrose writes: ‘I find you in your mysteries’.

The content of the mystery of Christ is, therefore, the person of the God-man and His redeeming act for the salvation of the Church; it is through this act that the Church is integrated into the mystery.

Dom Casel bathed in the Benedictine tradition of the monastic life, and we are drawn back to the notion of the Benedict Option (which I am now in a position to read). I think there needs to be some openness to studying phenomena like Swedenborg and theosophy, because there are important intuitions to sort out from what seems more difficult to digest. Much has been achieved by individual scholars who would meet in groups to compare notes, share friendship and pray together. Some of the more subtle expressions of theosophy rode on the cultural piggyback of the Renaissance and Romantic Sehnsucht and love of nature.

I see a tremendous amount of potential for such study groups in which friendship can draw people together and encourage a spirit of prayer and communion. I think that a Mystery School at this level would be ideal together with a careful opening to the outside world. I keep working on it – and I have so much to read, and progress is so slow.

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11 Responses to A Christian Mystery School

  1. Ryan says:

    Are you familiar with the work of great Anglo-Catholic occultist writer of weird tales, Arthur Machen?

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Perhaps especially to be commended is his Grail story, “The Great Return” (1915):

      https://archive.org/details/greatreturn00machuoft

      He just (largely) come out of copyright in most places this year, and lots of his works are scanned in the Internet Archive and transcribed at Project Gutenberg – one can even see what one makes of volunteers reading some of them aloud in free audiobooks at Librivox.org and variously on YouTube (though not “The Great Return” as far as I can discover).

  2. Timothy Graham says:

    What one wants is to get at the philosophical kernel in Theosophy / Anthroposophy, Steiner et al (and to leave the husk behind, the esoteric beings and terminology). Goethe seems to me to be the crucial link here, his qualitative notion of science in particular, .e.g his theory of light vs. Newton’s, his idea that one should see through the phenomena and study it in its wholeness, instead of extracting one bit of the phenomenon and replacing the phenomenal with abstract signs and mathematical relations as if these were the “real” bit. I think that there is something good to be extracted from this lot, but it needs to be done without imbibing too much of their mythology. Although they would say something similar about my Christian beliefs, I suspect.

    • I think you have a point here, Timothy. Some have argued that Christianity can only recover its credibility in a demythologised form, without the symbolism, only texts to be read literally. We think of Harnack (Tyrrell’s adversary) and Bultmann. If you go far enough, you end up with secularism and materialism. That’s not an accusation levelled against you, but an idea I read into your comment. We seem to take this attitude in regard to theosophy. Do we reject it whole because of the glitter and popular appeal stuff? To what extent can we demythologise it and harvest the “good stuff”? There is value in the symbolism and the externals, but we do need to get a view of the whole so that we don’t get distracted. The same can be said of orthodox Christianity. There is also the problem with Newton’s method that “truth” or “foundation” isn’t always accessible to the rational faculties via the senses, but can only be approached via symbol and imagination – the Romantic theory (ies) of knowledge.

      Where does all that leave us. Faced with something unfamiliar, I can only take it in bit by bit, otherwise I become saturated. Imagine going to India and to a worship service in a Hindu temple. We need to “catechise” ourselves about the elements that are accessible to reason (through reading books about Hinduism and the way they pray) just as we use catechesis to initiate new Christians preparing for Baptism. Symbols have to be as linked to reason as to the imagination and emotions. Before someone comes to something so unfamiliar, their curiosity needs to be provoked. The idea of penetrating secrets is always appealing psychologically. Another is beauty and “eye candy” as the Americans say. One point I am coming to put forward is that we don’t have to show off and persuade people to “join us”, but rather be ourselves and live this balance between faith and reason, beauty, imagination and everything else.

      One thing about New Age is that we hear a lot about it. It seems to have gone out of fashion somewhat. It is so intangible and always far from where we live. Plenty of people write about it, but few are able to establish a visible and viable community based on those ideas. Some intentional communities are concerned for environmentalism and veganism with a surprising degree of intolerance for other ideas.

      This is a really hard one to get around. Christianity from the beginning was designed equally for monotheists and pagans. Monotheistic Christianity is essentially Calvinism and pagan Christianity is theosophy and the more flamboyant manifestations of Catholicism and Orthodoxy – so there has to be a balance.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Tangentially, but perhaps relevantly:

    https://www.spectator.co.uk/2018/03/the-joy-of-evensong/

    I do not (so far as I recall) know the Rev. Dr. Arnold (and do not know ‘about’ him, either): his immediate predecessor, the Rev. Dr. Michael Piret, was one of my predecessors as President of the Lewis Society and curator/warden of the old Lewis house, The Kilns, a Herbert scholar who also edited Dickens’ children’s book, The Life of Our Lord.

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I have discovered some of my ancestors were Swedenborgians! My impression is that Boehme and Swedenborg are difficult as well as voluminous writers, but that finding overviews and interpretations is not easy, as there are perhaps particular dangers of misinterpretation, whether by ‘appropriaters’ or others.

    I read an interesting paper by Stefan Rossbach about, among other things, Descartes apparent Rosicrucian connections (it was a sort of background to his book, Gnostic Wars: The Cold War in the Context of a History of Western Spirituality (Edinburgh UP, 1999), with which I have never yet caught up).

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