The Theosophical Forum – December 1941

THE MYSTERIES AND CHRISTIANITY — II — F. Chapman Clemeshaw

Now, we return to our subject of "The Mysteries and Christianity." Our study so far has helped us to realize that there is continuity and order in the affairs of men; so if we make the statement that Christianity is the latest expression of the Mysteries, it will not now sound amiss; nor will it need proving.

If we really understood the rituals and creeds of Christianity and also the inner meaning of the story as told in the Gospels, we should know as much as we can know of the Mysteries short of being initiated therein. It is the importance of really understanding these rituals and ceremonies of Christianity that we here stress, for therein are preserved for us an archaic language and an archaic symbolism, the full meaning of which can come only by much study; in fact, the full meaning can come only at initiation.

Such a study may now be undertaken, as some keys to its understanding have been given to us by our Teachers, and because the cyclical time has come again when the Ancient Wisdom may be publicly taught. In other words, the cyclical time has come again for a re-statement. All thinking people today realize the need for this re-statement. Please note, that the writer has borrowed this expression "need for re-statement" from a recent pronouncement of the Archbishop of Canterbury. This brings us to another point that should be emphasized, i. e., that the cyclical change that brought the Theosophical Society into being is affecting all in some degree. How quickly the Churches are moving toward a changed outlook may be known by those who care to keep themselves informed.

As an instance, that quotation from St. Augustine already used herein appears in an essay on the universality and antiquity of the Cross, in the "Winter, 1939-40" number of The Cathedral Age, (Pub. The National Cathedral Association, Mount Saint Albans, Washington, D. C). It is important that Theosophists keep themselves informed, for by so doing, they are the less likely to fall into the error of attacking men of straw and flogging dead horses!

The history of Christianity — as well as other religions — is the history of these constantly changing outlooks caused by the continuous stream of Egos coming again into incarnation; these differ among themselves and cause the changes. In other words, there are times when younger Egos must have their turn. If the view were taken that the Germanic tribes were what we have called younger Egos, then it would help us greatly to understand our own era; perhaps we might say that they are younger Egos intellectually, but not without their own appropriate virtues such as loyalty to their chiefs, warlike valor, and respect for women. It will be admitted that the seeds of our present European nations were planted at this time, those centuries that we are graciously pleased to call the "Dark Ages" were the embryonic time. We know little about those centuries and so call them "Dark" but were those who lived and loved and died therein less happy than we are today? The thoughts of men are by turn materialistic, philosophical, and religious, as already pointed out; consequently, the church is by turns materialistic, philosophical and mystical in its manner of presentation. But the church is not the cause of these varying conditions. It is an effect. Notwithstanding what certain writers and critics have maintained to the contrary. One good example of this constant change in the manner of presentation is the way that the crucifixion has been symbolized down the centuries. First the cross alone, generally a Greek cross, sometimes with the figure of "The Lamb as it had been slain" in the center.

After the council of 603 a. d. it was directed that the figure of our Lord should take the place of the symbolic Lamb.

Until the eleventh century the body of Christ was always regally clothed, crowned, and is shown with a rayed nimbus; the figure does not suggest hanging on a cross but is rather standing in front of a cross.

The piteous figure created by the Renaissance artists illustrates the change that was slowly taking place; the mysticism of the 13th was giving place to those tendencies that resulted in the skepticism of the 18th century only to end in the materialism of the 19th.

The cycle has turned, figures resembling those of the 11th century are re-appearing and are called "Modern!"

Now let us very briefly summarize the wealth of information to be found in our literature about the Mystery Schools or Colleges. Do not let us make the mistake of thinking of these schools or colleges as buildings or as what we moderns might be tempted to call a "plant!" They were schools or colleges in the sense of associations, with or without buildings as the case might be. No land or people has ever been without them, for the last four or five million years. Let us refresh our memories by mentioning the better known ones in the West. Beginning with Stonehenge; then Alesia and Bibracte in Gaul, Druidical centers destroyed by Caesar; Crotona, Eleusis, Samothrace, Byblos, Philae and Thebes.

What is meant by the word mysteries? The following from Masonic sources will give a good general answer:

By mysteries the educated reader will not understand merely doctrines or symbols, or even secrets as such, but a system of discipline and instruction in esoteric learning which was deemed too sacred and recondite for those who had not complied with the essential conditions. Every ancient country had its sacerdotal order, the members of which had been initiated into the mysteries; and even Jesus defended his practice of discoursing in parables or allegories, because that only to his disciples was it given to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of God, whereas to the multitude it was not given. . . .

. . . The early Christians and heretical sects had also their signs of recognition, and were distinguished like the initiates of the older worships, according to their grade, as neophytes (1 Timothy, iii, 6), spiritual and perfect.

The mysteries most familiar to classical readers are the Eleusinia, which appear to have descended from the prehistoric periods. Pococke declares them to have been of Tartar origin, which is certainly plausible, and to have combined Brahmanical and Buddhistical ideas. Those admitted only to the Lesser Mysteries were denominated Mystae, or veiled; those initiated into the Greater Mysteries were epoptai, or seers. Socrates was not initiated yet after drinking the hemlock he addresses Crito: "We owe a cock to Aesculapius." This was the peculiar offering made by the initiates on the eve of the last day, and thus sublimely asserted that he was about to receive the great apocalypse. (Mackenzie: Migrations of Symbols)

As already said the Eleusinia were divided into two parts, the Greater and the Lesser. The Lesser Mysteries were celebrated at Agrae, in Attica, about the beginning of March; every fifth year the Greater Mysteries were celebrated at Eleusis about the time of the autumnal equinox. Now, here is another point, (See Dr. G. de Purucker, THE THEOSOPHICAL FORUM, Dec. 15, 1929):

But there were Mysteries still greater, about which nothing was openly said. We only know from bare hints that they existed.

These bare hints were given by Greek and Roman writers. The need for secrecy was that there were wise men and foolish men in those days as there are today. The injunction to cast not pearls before swine, was needed then as now. "Swine" or dogs, sounds harsh, but it was part of the Mystery jargon of the Near East, and simply meant outsiders. The following quotation from Dr. G. de Purucker's Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy must complete our brief review:

Even in the days when early Christianity had superseded the degenerate and corrupt religions of the Mediterranean countries, even then, fallen as the Eleusinia were from their former high state, yet they were considered so highly that initiations still took place in them. They were actually finally stopped on the initiative of the Pagans themselves, the school closed by an order of the Christian Emperor Justinian in Constantinople, but closed on the petition of the so-called Pagans themselves. The truth is that the Mysteries were not overcome by Christianity, but fell because of intrinsic degeneracy. Can we imagine what those men must have felt in the day when they saw that which was dearer to them than life closed and ended by their own will, invaded and degraded by degenerate rites and beliefs, and, doubtless, also by the Christian fanatics?

This happened in 529 a. d., and when we remember that Christianity had received official recognition in the time of Constantine some 200 years earlier, we may realize how the Eleusinia were beloved by the people of those days. The following quotation is from THE THEOSOPHICAL FORUM, Aug. 15, 1932: "When the Mysteries finally disappeared in the West, the Christian Church took over some of the ritual or ceremonies of the Less Mysteries, and a few of the doctrines or teachings of the Greater." As Christianity at that time represented a reform movement, they naturally eliminated the degenerate rites already referred to. When we add to this the statement that some of the early Popes were initiates (S. D. I, p. 311) and that Origen, Synesius, and Clement of Alexandria had been initiated at Eleusis (S. D. I, p. xliv), and that Paul is also recognized as an initiate, we have the historic link between the Mysteries and Christianity.

What is the connection between the Gospels and the Ancient Mysteries? The gospels are manuals of initiation and were written by the Epoptae or initiates of the Alexandrian Schools to help those small groups of earnest people who had set their faces against the evils of the time. Or more fully:

The Christian Scriptures, that is the Christian New Testament, taken altogether, are an esoteric manual: a secret manual of instruction and of edification for the earliest Christians, for the earliest adherents of the primitive Christian Church; and these secrets tell in allegorical, in mythological (if you look into the old Greek sense of the word) form what any great Seer or Sage, any World-Savior, any great and noble-hearted man who gave up his life for his fellows, underwent in the schools of mystical training.

In other words, they form that particular manual of initiation in true but symbolic imagery in the initiatory cycle as it was followed in Palestine, in Syria, and in the countries of the Hither Orient. — (Questions We All Ask, xv, Jan. 7, 1930)

It should be emphasized that what has been said about the Gospels is equally true of the sacred writings of other religions. They too are manuals of initiation, and that is why there is such a striking resemblance among them. (See Isis Unveiled, Vol. II, p. 537). So we see that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, though necessarily preserved and taught as history, are dramatic presentations of events in the soul life of each of us, events that must be experienced by all sooner or later. This is a statement that mystical Christians today will accept, a statement that the few have accepted all down the centuries.

The Gospels, then, are the basis of the Christian Mysteries; their teachings are presented dramatically in the Mass. All instructed Catholics see in the prayers and ceremonies of the Mass a pictorial re-presentation of the life of Jesus from the incarnation to the resurrection. The Church, as a whole, may be regarded as an exoteric school of religion (the Less Mysteries in fact), and the different orders therein regarded as esoteric schools for the practice of Yoga, such as Bhakti-yoga, or what would be called Salvation by love or devotion in Christendom; Karma-yoga, or Salvation by Works; Hatha-yoga or Salvation by self-imposed austerities. (See THE THEOSOPHICAL FORUM, March, 1940). How far some of these Orders may have lost the right to be considered as schools of Yoga, we do not undertake to say; it is the fact of their existence and of their relationship with the past that concerns us. Those who undertook these austerities were but human, and as the history of monasticism shows, they had their periods of decline followed by periods of reform, that always started from within.

The method of the Less Mysteries is described in the following from the Glossary of The Key to Theosophy:

[The Sacred Mysteries] were enacted in the ancient temples by the initiated Hierophants for the benefit and instruction of candidates. . . .

In short, the Mysteries were in every country a series of dramatic performances, in which the mysteries of Cosmogony and nature in general were personified by the priests and neophytes, who enacted the parts of various gods and goddesses, repeating supposed scenes (allegories) from their respective lives. These were explained in their hidden meaning to the candidates for initiation, and incorporated into philosophical doctrines.

and this from THE THEOSOPHICAL FORUM, August, 1932:

The dramatic part belonged in old days to the Less Mysteries, and the teaching or training to the Superior or Higher; and the dramatic was used only as a help for those who needed, as it were, a ritualistic or ceremonial observance in aiding to concentrate their thoughts.

One age gives rise to the next, as already said. Listen to this from De Sacrificio Missae:

Since human nature, says the Council of Trent, does not easily lift itself to the meditation of Divine things without some outside help, our good Mother, the Church, in conformity with the discipline and the tradition of the Apostles, has established certain rites and made use of ceremonies: blessings, lights, incense, priestly vestments, and numerous other similar means, to bring out the majesty of the Divine Sacrifice, and to incite through these exterior signs of religion and piety to the contemplation of the sublime mysteries which lie hidden therein.

So we see that the dramatic method of teaching was taken over by the Christians. Over and above their rituals and ceremonies there were the liturgical dramas, the earliest that has come down to us dates from the 9th century, the Morality Plays, Miracle plays, and processional spectacles, and most important of all, the mystery or Passion plays such as that of Oberammergau, which is carried on to this day. Older popular festivals were never lost, but were incorporated and refined. In this connexion, H. P. B. makes the following comment in speaking of the "Punch and Judy boxes," as she calls them, which contain little figures representing Joseph, Mary and the Angel, and another one showing the Infant Jesus in the manger. These were carried around Southern Russia and Poland during the Christmas season:

We remember the three king-Magi represented by three dolls in powdered wigs and colored tights; it is from recollecting the simple, profound veneration depicted on the faces of the pious audience, that we can the more readily appreciate the honest and just remark by the editor, in the introduction to the Eleusinian Mysteries, who says: "It is ignorance which leads to profanation. Men ridicule what they do not properly understand. . . The undercurrent of this world is set toward one goal; and inside human credulity — call it human weakness if you please — is a power almost infinite, a holy faith capable of apprehending the supremest truths of all existence." (Isis Unveiled, II, p. 120)

Precisely, but as we are just past the most materialistic and skeptical part of our cycle, and of our century cycle too (as the writer thinks) it is now the fashion to deny to our own era all intuition, all mysticism, all esoteric knowledge; we like to talk about anthropomorphism, soporifics and of all religious drama or ritual as mummery. Certainly "Men ridicule what they do not properly understand." It is a mistake to suppose that the creeds and dogmas that have come down to us need to be re-written or discarded; they need to be understood; for ceremonial and sacramental Christianity is a prolongation of the Lesser Mysteries. For the many, these Lesser Mysteries are as much needed today as they were in the past; they are worthy of our sympathetic study in that they embody all that preceded them.

How about the Greater Mysteries? If it was true 1800 years ago that there were Mysteries about which nothing was openly said, and that we only know from bare hints that they existed, would it not be true today, both in Christendom and elsewhere?

By hints gathered here and there, we may know that the Roman Catholic Church has its "Inner Church," for as H. P. B. says (quoting Higgins) "we have the esoteric religion of the Vatican, a refined Gnosticism for the cardinals, a more gross one for the people." ("The Esoteric Character of the Gospels," p. 240). The Greek Church has its "Society of Om," the Protestant world its Masonry and other Secret Societies, from which much may be learned by study; but these things do not help the rank and file, for these necessarily impart their knowledge under an oath of secrecy. So the Ancient Wisdom is again being publicly taught because this is the correct cyclical time so to do, but this is not being done without exciting both secret and open opposition.

History repeats itself: Buddha incurred the opposition of the Brahmans by imparting knowledge held too closely by them; Jesus incurred the opposition of the Doctors of the Law by doing the same; H. P. B. brought upon herself persecution for the same reason. But this will pass.

The Ancient Wisdom, now called Theosophy, will in time reunite Christendom in yet another "re-statement." The core of it is, and ever has been the same; its outward expression will be rich in that it will embody all that has preceded it, this time from both East and West. It will still be called Christianity, or so the writer believes, but there will be an "Inner Church," or Inner Group called the "Theosophical Society."


The Theosophical Forum

THEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE