Christianity as Mystical Fact
II. The Mysteries and Mystery Wisdom
A kind of mysterious veil hangs over the manner in which spiritual needs were satisfied during the older civilizations by those who sought a deeper religious life and fuller knowledge than the popular religions offered. If we inquire how these needs were satisfied, we find ourselves led into the dim twilight of the Mysteries, and the individual seeking them disappears for a time from our view. We see that the popular religions cannot give him what his heart desires. He acknowledges the existence of the gods, but knows that the ordinary ideas about them do not solve the great problems of existence. He seeks a wisdom that is jealously guarded by a community of Priest-sages. His aspiring soul seeks a refuge in this community. If he is found by the sages to be sufficiently Prepared, he is led up by them, step by step, to higher knowledge in a way that is hidden from the eyes of the Profane, What then happens to him is concealed from the uninitiated. He seems for a time to be entirely remote from earthly life and to be transported into a hidden world.
When he reappears in the light of day, a different, quite transformed person is before us. We see a man who cannot find words sublime enough to express the momentous experience through which he has passed. Not merely metaphorically, but in a most real sense does he seem to have gone through the gate of death and to have awakened to a new and higher life. He is, moreover, quite certain that no one who has not had a similar experience can understand his words.
This was what happened to those who were initiated into the Mysteries, into that secret wisdom withheld from the people, and which threw light on the greatest problems. This secret religion of the elect existed side by side with the popular religion. Its origin vanishes, as far as history is concerned, into the obscurity in which the origin of peoples is lost. We find this secret religion everywhere among the ancients as far as we know anything concerning them; and we hear their sages speak of the Mysteries with the greatest reverence. What was it that was concealed in them? And what did they unveil to the initiate?
The enigma becomes still more puzzling when we learn that the ancients looked upon the Mysteries as something dangerous. The way to the secrets of existence led through a world of terrors, and woe to him who tried to gain them unworthily. There was no greater crime than the betrayal of secrets to the uninitiated. The traitor was punished with death and the confiscation of his property. We know that the poet Æschylus was accused of having reproduced on the stage something from the Mysteries. He was only able to escape death by fleeing to the altar of Dionysos and by legally proving that he had never been initiated.
What the ancients say about these secrets is significant, but at the same time ambiguous. The initiate is convinced that it would be a sin to tell what he knows, and also that it would be sinful for the uninitiated to hear it. Plutarch speaks of the terror of those about to be initiated, and compares their state of mind to preparation for death. A special mode of life had to precede initiation, tending to give the spirit the mastery over sensuality. Fasting, solitude, mortifications and certain exercises for the soul were the means employed. The things to which man clings in ordinary life were to lose all their value for him. The whole trend of his life of sensation and feeling was to be changed.
There can be no doubt as to the purpose of such exercises and tests. The wisdom which was to be offered to the candidate for initiation could only produce the right effect upon his soul if he had previously purified the life of his lower sensations. He was introduced to the life of the spirit. He was to behold a higher world, but he could not enter into relations with that world without previous exercises and trials. These relations were the crucial point.
In order to judge these matters aright it is necessary to gain experience of the intimate facts concerning the life of cognition. We must feel that there are two widely divergent attitudes towards that which the highest knowledge gives. In the first instance, the world surrounding us is the real one. We feel, hear, and see what goes on in it, and because we thus perceive things with our senses, we call them real. And we reflect about events in order to get an insight into their connections. On the other hand, what wells up in our soul is at first not real to us in the same sense. It is merely thoughts and ideas. At the most we see in them only images of sense-reality. They themselves have no reality, for we cannot touch, see, or hear them.
There is another relation to the world, A person who clings to the kind of reality described above will hardly understand it, but it comes to certain people at a certain moment in their lives. Their whole relation to the world is completely reversed. They then call the images that well up in the spiritual life of their souls truly real, and they assign only a lower kind of reality to what the senses hear, touch, and see. They know that they cannot prove what they say, that they can only relate their new experiences, and that when relating them to others they are in the position of a man who can see and who imparts his visual impressions to one born blind. They venture to impart their inner experiences, trusting that there are others round them whose spiritual eyes, to be sure, are still closed, but whose intelligent comprehension may be aroused through the force of what they hear. For they have faith in humanity and want to give it spiritual sight. They can only lay before it the fruits their spirit has gathered. Whether another sees them depends on his receptivity to what the spiritual eye sees. 1It was said above that those whose spiritual eyes are opened are able to see into the spiritual world. The conclusion must not on this account be drawn that only one who possesses spiritual sight is able to form an intelligent opinion about the results arrived at by the initiate. Spiritual sight is needed only for research. What is afterwards communicated can be understood by everyone who gives fair play to his reason and preserves an unbiased sense of truth. And such a person may also apply the results of research to life and derive satisfaction from them without himself having spiritual sight.
There is something in man which at first prevents him from seeing with the eyes of the spirit. It is not primarily within his horizon. He is what his senses make him, and his intellect is only the interpreter and judge of them. The senses would ill fulfil their mission if they did not insist upon the truth and infallibility of their evidence. An eye must, from its own point of view, uphold the absolute reality of its perceptions. The eye is right as far as it goes, and is not deprived of its due by the eye of the spirit. The latter only allows us to see the things of sense in a higher light. Nothing seen by the eye of sense is denied, but a new brightness, hitherto unseen, radiates from what is seen. And then we know that what we first saw was only a lower reality. We see that still, but it is immersed in something higher, which is spirit. It is now a question of whether we sense and feel what we see, The person who lives only in the sensations and feelings of the senses will look upon impressions of higher things as a Fata Morgana, or mere Play of fancy. His feelings are focussed only on the things of sense. He 8rasps emptiness when he tries to lay hold of spirit forms. They elude him when he gropes for them. In short, they are thoughts only. He thinks them but does not live in them, They are images, less real to him than fleeting dreams, They rise up like bubbles while he faces his own reality; they disappear before the massive, solidly built reality of which his senses tell him.
It is otherwise with one who has altered his perceptions and feelings with regard to reality. For him that reality has lost its absolute stability and value. His senses and feelings need not become dulled, but they begin to doubt their unconditional authority. They leave room for something else. The world of the spirit begins to animate the space left.
At this point a possibility comes in which may prove terrible. A man may lose his sensations and feelings of outer reality without finding a new reality opening up before him. He then feels himself as if suspended in the void. He feels bereft of all life. The old values are gone and no new ones have arisen in their place. The world and man no longer exist for him. Now, this is by no means a mere possibility. It happens at one time or another to everyone who seeks higher knowledge. He comes to a point at which the spirit represents all life to him as death. He is then no longer in the world, but under it, in the nether world. He is passing through Hades. Well for him if he sink not! Happy, if a new world open up before him! Either he dies away or he appears to himself transformed. In the latter case he beholds a new sun and a new earth. Out of the fire of the spirit the whole world has been reborn for him.
It is thus that the initiates describe the effect of the Mysteries upon them. Menippus relates that he journeyed to Babylon in order to be taken to Hades and brought back again by the successors of Zarathustra. He says that he swam across the great water on his wanderings, and that he passed through fire and ice. We hear that the mystics were terrified by a flashing sword, and that blood flowed. We understand this when we know from experience the point of transition from lower to higher knowledge. We ourselves had felt as if all solid matter and things of sense had dissolved into water, and as if the ground were cut away from under our feet. Everything which we had previously felt to be alive had been killed. The spirit had passed through the life of the senses like a sword piercing a warm body; we had seen the blood of sensuality flow.
But a new life had appeared. We had risen from the nether-world. The orator Aristides relates this: “I thought I touched the god and felt him draw near, and I was then between waking and sleeping. My spirit was so light that no one who is not initiated can describe or understand it.” This new existence is not subject to the laws of lower life. Growth and decay no longer affect it. One may say much about the Eternal, but words of one who has not been through Hades are “mere sound and smoke.” The initiates have a new conception of life and death. Now for the first time do they feel they have the right to speak about immortality. They know that one who speaks of it without having been initiated talks of something which he does not understand. The uninitiated attribute immortality only to something which is subject to the laws of growth and decay. The mystics, however, did not desire merely to gain the conviction that the kernel of life is eternal. According to the view of the Mysteries, such a conviction would be quite valueless, for this view holds that the Eternal as a living reality is not even Present in the uninitiated. If such a person spoke of the Eternal, he would be speaking of something non-existent, It is rather this Eternal itself that the mystics seek., They have first to awaken the Eternal within them, then they can speak of it. Hence the hard saying of Plato is quite real to them, that the uninitiated sinks into the mire, 2“The sinking into the mire” spoken of by Plato must also be interpreted in the sense referred to in the previous note. and that only one who has passed through the mystical life enters eternity. And it is only in this sense that the words in Sophocles’ Fragment can be understood: “Thrice-blessed are the initiated who come to the realm of the shades. They alone have life there. For others there is only misery and hardship.”
Is one, therefore, not describing dangers when speaking of the Mysteries? Is it not robbing a man of happiness and of a most precious part of his life to lead him to the portals of the nether-world? Terrible is the responsibility incurred by such an act. And yet ought that responsibility to be evaded? These were the questions which the initiate had to put to himself. He was of the opinion that his knowledge bore the same relation to the soul of the people as light does to darkness. But innocent happiness dwells in that darkness, and the mystics were of the opinion that that happiness should not be sacrilegiously interfered with. For what would have happened in the first place if the mystic had betrayed his secret? He would have uttered words and only words. The sensations and feelings which would have evoked the spirit from the words would have been absent. To accomplish what was lacking, preparation, exercises, trials, and a complete change in the life of sense would be necessary. Without this the hearer would have been hurled into emptiness and nothingness. He would have been deprived of what constituted his happiness without receiving anything in exchange. One may also say that nothing could have been taken away from him, for mere words would have changed nothing in his life of feeling. He would only have been able to feel and experience reality through his senses. Nothing but a life-destroying premonition would have been given him. This could only have been construed as a crime. 3What was said about the impossibility of o imparting the teachings of the Mysteries has reference to the fact that they could not be communicated to those unprepared in the same form in which the initiate experienced them; but they were always communicated to those outside in such a form as was possible for the uninitiated to understand. For instance, the myths gave the old form in order to communicate the content of the Mysteries in a way that was generally comprehensible.
The foregoing does not altogether apply to the attainment of spiritual knowledge in our time. Today spiritual knowledge can be conceptually understood, because in more recent times man has acquired a conceptual capacity that formerly was lacking. Nowadays some people can have cognition of the spiritual world through their own expées conceptually.
The wisdom of the Mysteries resembles a hothouse plant that must be cultivated and fostered in seclusion. Anyone bringing it into the atmosphere of everyday ideas brings it into air in which it cannot thrive. It withers away to nothing before the caustic verdict of modern science and logic. Let us, therefore, divest ourselves for a time of the education we gained through the microscope and telescope and the habit of thought derived from natural science, and let us cleanse our clumsy hands which have been too much occupied with dissecting and experimenting, in order that we may enter the pure temple of the Mysteries. For this a truly unprejudiced attitude is necessary.
The important point for the mystic is at first the soul mood in which he approaches that which he feels as the highest, as the answers to the riddles of existence. Just in our day, when only gross physical science is recognized as containing truth, it is difficult to believe that in the highest things we depend upon the keynote of the soul. It is true that knowledge thereby becomes an intimate personal concern. But this is what it really is to the mystic. Tell some one the solution of the riddle of the universe! Give it to him ready-made! The mystic will find it to be nothing but empty sound, if the personality does not meet the solution half-way in the right manner. The solution in itself is nothing; it vanishes if the necessary feeling is not kindled at its contact. A divinity may approach you: it is either everything or nothing. Nothing, if you meet it in the frame of mind with which you confront everyday matters; everything, if you are prepared and attuned to the meeting. What the divinity is in itself is a matter that does not affect you; the important point for you is whether it leaves you as it found you or makes a different man of you. But this depends entirely on yourself. You must have been prepared by a special education, by a development of the inmost forces of your personality for the work of kindling and releasing what a divinity is able to kindle and release in you. Everything depends upon the way in which you receive what is offered you.
Plutarch has told us about this education, and of the greeting which the mystic offers the divinity approaching him: “For the god, as it were, greets each one who approaches him with the words, ‘Know thyself!” which is surely no worse than the ordinary greeting, ‘Welcome!” Then we answer the divinity in the words, ‘Thou art” and thus we affirm that the true, primordial, and only adequate greeting for him is to declare that he is. In that existence we really have no part here, for every mortal being, during its existence between birth and death, merely manifests an appearance, a feeble and uncertain image of itself. If we try to grasp it with our understanding, it is like water which, when tightly compressed, runs over merely through the pressure, spoiling what it touches. For the understanding, pursuing a too definite conception of each being that is subject to chance and change, loses its way, now in the origin of the being, now in its destruction, and is unable to apprehend anything lasting or really existing. For, as Heraclitus says, we cannot swim twice in the same wave, neither can we lay hold of a mortal being twice in the same state, for, through the violence and rapidity of movement, it is destroyed and recomposed; it comes into being and again decays; it comes and goes. Therefore, that which is becoming can never attain real existence, because growth neither ceases nor pauses. Change begins in the germ, and forms an embryo; then there appears a child, then a youth, a man, and an old man; the first beginnings and successive ages are continually annulled by the ensuing ones. Hence it is ridiculous to fear the one death, when we have already died in so many ways, and are still dying. For, as Heraclitus says, not only is the death of fire the birth of air, and the death of air the birth of water, but the change may be still more, plainly seen in man. The strong man dies when he becomes old, the youth when he becomes a man, the boy on becoming a youth, and the child on becoming a boy. What existed yesterday dies today, what is here today will die tomorrow. Nothing endures or is a unity, but we become many things, whilst matter plays around one image, one common form. For if we were always the same, how could we take pleasure in things which formerly did not please us, how could we love and hate, admire and blame opposite things, how could we speak differently and give ourselves up to different passions, unless we were endowed with a different shape, form, and different senses? For no one can very well enter a different state without change, and one who is changed is no longer the same; but if he is not the same, he no longer exists and is changed from what he was, becoming someone else. Sense perception only led us astray, because we do not know real being, and mistook for it that which is only an appearance.4Plutarch’s Moral Works, On the Inscription EJ at Delphi, pp. 17-18.
Plutarch repeatedly described himself as an initiate. What he portrays here is a condition of the life of the mystic. The human being achieves a degree of wisdom by means of which his spirit sees through the illusory character of sense life. What the senses regard as being, or reality, is plunged into the stream of becoming; and man is in this respect subject to the same conditions as all else in the world. Before the eyes of his spirit he himself dissolves; his entity is broken up into parts, into fleeting phenomena. Birth and death lose their distinctive meaning and become moments of appearing and disappearing, like any other happenings in the world. The highest cannot be found in the connection between development and decay. It can only be sought in what is really abiding, in what looks back to the past and forward to the future.
To find that which looks backward and forward means a higher stage of cognition. This is the spirit, which is manifesting in and through the physical. It has nothing to do with physical becoming. It does not come into being and again decay as do sense-phenomena. One who lives entirely in the world of sense carries the spirit latent within him. One who has pierced through the illusion of the world of sense has the spirit within him as a manifest reality. The man who attains to this insight has developed a new principle within himself. Something has happened within him similar to what occurs in a plant when it adds a colored blossom to its green leaves. True, the forces causing the flower to grow were already latent in the plant before the blossom appeared, but they only became a reality when this took place. In the same way, divine, spiritual forces are latent in the man who lives merely in his senses, but they only become a manifest reality in the initiate. In this consists the transformation that takes place in the mystic. By his development he has added a new element to the world as it had been. The world of sense made him a sense man, and then left him to himself. Nature had thus fulfilled her mission. What she is able to do with the forces operative in man is exhausted; not so the forces themselves. They lie as though spellbound in the merely natural man and await their release. They cannot release themselves. They vanish into nothingness unless man seizes upon them and develops them, unless he calls into actual being what is latent within him.
Nature evolves from the most imperfect to the perfect. She leads beings, through a long series of stages, from inanimate matter through all living forms up to physical man. Man looks around and finds himself a changeable being with physical reality; but he also senses within himself the forces from which this physical reality arose. These forces are not the changeable, for they have given birth to the factor of change. They are within man as a sign that there is more life within him than he can physically perceive. What can grow out of them is not yet there. Man feels something flash up within him which created everything, including himself; and he feels that it is this which will inspire him to higher creative activity. This something is within him; it existed before his manifestation in the flesh, and will exist afterwards. By means of it he became, but he may lay hold of it and take part in its creative activity.
Such are the feelings that animated the ancient mystic after initiation. He feels the Eternal and the Divine. His activity is to become a part of that divine creative activity. He may say to himself: “I have discovered a higher ego within me, but that ego extends beyond the bounds of my sense existence. It existed before my birth and will exist after my death. This ego has created from all eternity, it will go on creating in all eternity. My physical personality is a creation of this ego. But it has incorporated me within it, it works within me, I am a part of it. What I henceforth create will be higher than the physical. My personality is only a means for this creative power, for this divine that exists within me.” Thus did the mystic experience his birth into the divine.
The mystic called the power that thus flashed up within him his true spirit, his daimon. He was himself the product of this spirit. It seemed to him as though a new being had entered him and taken possession of his organs, a being standing between his sense personality and the all-ruling cosmic power, the divinity.
The mystic sought this true spirit. He said to himself: “I have become a human being in mighty nature. But nature did not complete her task: this completion I must take in hand myself. Yet I cannot accomplish it in the crude kingdom of nature to which my physical personality belongs. What it is possible. to develop in that realm has already been developed. Therefore I must leave this kingdom and take up the building in the realm of the spirit at the point where nature left off. I must create an atmosphere of life not to be found in outer nature.”
This atmosphere of life was prepared for the mystic in the Mystery temples. There the forces slumbering within him were awakened, there he was changed into a higher creative spirit-nature. This transformation was a delicate process. It could not bear the untempered atmosphere of everyday life. But once completed, its result was that the human being stood as a rock, founded on the Eternal and able to defy all storms. But it was impossible for him to reveal his experiences to any one unprepared to receive them.
Plutarch says that the Mysteries provided “the deep- est information and interpretation of the true nature of the daimons.” And Cicero tells us that from the Mysteries, “when they are explained and traced back to their meaning, we learn the nature of things rather than that of the gods.” 5Plutarch: On the Decline of the Oracles; Cicero: On the Nature of the Gods. From such statements we see clearly that for the mystics there were higher revelations about the nature of things than what popular religion was able to impart. Indeed, we see that the daimons, that is, the spiritual beings, and the gods themselves needed explaining. Therefore initiates went back to beings of a higher nature than daimons and gods, and this was characteristic of the essence of the wisdom of the Mysteries.
The people represented the gods and daimons in images borrowed from the world of sense reality. Would not one who had penetrated into the nature of the Eternal doubt the eternal nature of such gods as these? How could the Zeus of popular imagination be eternal since he bore the qualities of a perishable being? One thing was clear to the mystics: that man arrives at a conception of the gods in a different way from the conception of other things. An object belonging to the outer world compels us to form a very definite idea of it. Compared with this our conception of the gods is freer, even somewhat arbitrary. The control by the outer world is absent. Reflection shows us that what we set up as gods cannot be externally verified. This places us in logical uncertainty; we begin to feel that we ourselves are the creators of our gods. Indeed, we ask ourselves: What led us to venture beyond physical reality in our life of conceptions? The mystic was obliged to ask himself such questions; his doubts were justified. “Look at all representations of the gods,” he might think to himself. “dre they not like the beings we meet in the world of sense? Did not man create them for himself by giving or withholding from them, in his thought, some quality belonging to beings of the sense world? The savage lover of the chase creates a heaven in which the gods themselves take part in glorious hunting, and the Greek peopled his Olympus with divine beings whose models were taken from his own surroundings.”
The philosopher Xenophanes (575-480 B.C.) drew attention to this fact with ruthless logic. We know that the older Greek philosophers were entirely dependent on the wisdom of the Mysteries. We will later prove this in detail, basing it on Heraclitus. What Xenophanes says may without question be taken as the conviction of the mystic. It runs thus:
“Men, who picture the gods as created in their own human forms, give them human senses, voices, and bodies. But if cattle and lions had hands and knew how to use them like men in painting and working, they would paint the forms of the gods and give shape to their bodies like their own. Horses would create gods in horse-form, and cattle would make gods resembling cattle.”
Through insight of this kind man may begin to doubt the existence of anything divine, He may reject all mythology and only recognize as reality what is forced upon him by his sense perception. But the mystic did not become a doubter of this kind. He saw that the doubter would be like a plant saying: “My crimson flowers are null and futile, because I am complete within my green leaves. What I may add to them is only adding illusive appearance.” Just as little also could the mystic rest content with gods thus created, the gods of the people. If the plant could think it would understand that the forces which created its green leaves are also intended to create crimson flowers, and it would not rest till it had investigated those forces and come face to face with them. This was the attitude of the mystic toward the gods of the people. He did not repudiate them or say they were futile, but he knew they had been created by man. The same forces, the same divine element, which are at work in nature, are at work in the mystic. They create within him images of the gods. He wishes to see the force that creates the gods; it does not resemble the popular gods; it is of a higher nature. Xenophanes alludes to it thus: “There is one god greater than all gods and men. His form is not like that of mortals, his thoughts are not their thoughts.”
This god was also the God of the Mysteries. He might have been called a hidden God, for the human being could never find him with his senses only. Look at outer things around you: you will find nothing Divine. Exert your reason: you may be able to detect the laws by which things appear and disappear, but even your reason will show you nothing divine. Saturate your imagination with religious feeling, and you may be able to create images which you take to be gods; but your intellect will pull them to pieces, for it will prove to you that you created them yourself and borrowed the material from the sense world. As long as you look at outer things simply in your capacity of a reasonable being, you must deny the existence of God; for God is hidden from the senses and from that intellect of yours which explains sense perceptions. God lies hidden, spellbound in the world, and you need his own power to find him. That power you must awaken in yourself.
These are the teachings which were given to the candidate for initiation. And now there began for him the great cosmic drama with which he was closely bound up. The action of the drama meant nothing less than the deliverance of the spellbound god. Where is God? This was the question asked by the soul of the mystic. God is not existent, but nature exists. And in nature he must be found. There he has found an enchanted grave. It was in a higher sense that the mystic understood the words “God is love.” For God has infinitely expanded that love, he has sacrificed himself in infinite love, he has poured himself out, fallen into number in the manifold of nature. Things in nature live and he does not live in them. He slumbers within them. He lives in man, and man can experience his life within himself. If we are to give him existence, we must deliver him by the creative power within us.
The human being now looks into himself. As latent creative power, as yet without existence, the Divine lives in his soul. In the soul is a place where the spellbound god may wake to liberty. The soul is the mother who is able to conceive the god by nature. If the soul be impregnated by nature she will give birth to the divine. God is born from the union of the soul with nature — no longer a hidden, but a manifest god. He has life, perceptible life, moving among men. He is the spirit freed from enchantment, the offspring of the spellbound God. He is not the great God, who was and is and is to come, yet he may be taken, in a certain sense, as his revelation. The Father remains in the unseen; the Son is born to man out of his own soul. Mystical knowledge is thus an actual event in the cosmic process. It is the birth of a divine offspring. It is an event as real as any natural event, only enacted upon a higher plane.
The great secret of the mystic is that he himself creatively delivers his divine offspring, but that he first prepares himself to recognize him. The uninitiated man has no feeling for the father of that god, for that Father slumbers under a spell. The Son appears to be born of a virgin, the soul having seemingly given birth to him without impregnation. All her other children are conceived by the sense world. Here the father may be seen and touched, having the life of sense. The divine Son alone is begotten of the hidden, eternal Father - God himself.