Christianity As Mystical Fact/Chapter II
THE MYSTERIES AND THEIR WISDOM
A kind of mysterious veil hangs over the manner in which spiritual needs were satisfied during the older civilisations 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 observation. We see how it is 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 which 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 places hidden from the eyes of outward observers. What then happens to him is concealed from the uninitiated. He seems for a time to be entirely removed 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 questions. 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 nations is lost. We find this secret religion everywhere amongst 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 discover that the ancients looked upon the Mysteries as something dangerous. The way leading to the secrets of existence passed 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 listen. 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 the senses. 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 meaning 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 lower life of his sensibility. 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 tests. The relations thus gained were the condition of initiation.
In order to obtain a correct idea on this matter, it is necessary to gain experience of the intimate facts of the growth of knowledge. We must feel that there are two widely divergent attitudes towards that which the highest knowledge gives. The world surrounding us is to us at first 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 reality. They themselves have no reality, for we cannot touch, see, or hear them.
There is another way of being connected with things. A person who clings to the kind of reality described above will hardly understand it, but it comes to certain people at some moment in their lives. To them the whole connection with the world is completely reversed. They then call the images which well up in the spiritual life of their souls actually real, and they assign only a lower kind of reality to what the senses hear, touch, feel, 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, though as yet closed, may be opened by the power 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 which their spirit has gathered. Whether another sees them, depends on his spiritual eyes being opened or not.
There is something in man which at first prevents him from seeing with the eyes of the spirit. He is not there for that purpose. He is what his senses are, 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 realise and feel what we see. One 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 entirely directed towards the things of sense. He grasps emptiness when he tries to lay hold of spirit forms. They withdraw from him when he gropes after them. They are just "mere" thoughts. 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 is standing in his reality; they disappear before the massive, solidly built reality of which his senses tell him.
It is otherwise with one whose perceptions and feelings with regard to reality have changed. For him that reality has lost its absolute stability and value. His senses and feelings need not become numbed, but they begin to be doubtful of their absolute 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 any new reality opening up before him. He then feels himself as if suspended in the void. He feels as if he were dead. The old values have disappeared and no new ones have arisen in their place. The world and man no longer exist for him. This, however, is by no means a mere possibility. It happens at some time or other to every one who is seeking for 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 dwindles away or he appears to himself transfigured. In the latter case he beholds a new sun and a new earth. The whole world has been born again for him out of spiritual fire.
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 to be 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 then feel 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 is dead which we felt before to be alive. The spirit has passed through the life of the senses, as a sword pierces a warm body; we have seen the blood of sense-nature flow. But a new life has appeared. We have 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 speak of 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 merely desire 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 is not present as a living reality in the uninitiated. If such an one spoke of the Eternal, he would be speaking of something non-existent. It is rather the Eternal itself that the Mystics are seeking. 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, and that only one who has passed through the mystical life enters eternity. It is only in this sense that the words in the fragment of Sophocles 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 the best part of his life to take him to the portals of the nether-world? Terrible is the responsibility incurred by such an act. And yet ought we to refuse that responsibility? These were the questions which the initiate had to put to himself. He was of 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 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 feelings and emotions which would have evoked the spirit from the words would have been absent. To do this preparation, exercises, tests, and a complete change in the life of sense were 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 one could take nothing away from him, for mere words would change nothing in his life of feeling. He would only have been able to feel and experience reality through his senses. Nothing but a terrible misgiving, fatal to life, would be given him. This could only be construed as a crime.
The wisdom of the Mysteries is like a hothouse plant, which must be cultivated and fostered in seclusion. Any one bringing it into the atmosphere of everyday ideas brings it into air in which it cannot flourish. 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 busy with dissecting and experimenting, in order that we may enter the pure temple of the Mysteries. For this a candid and unbiassed attitude of mind is necessary.
The important point for the Mystic is at first the frame of mind in which he approaches that which to him is the highest, the answers to the riddles of existence. Just in our day, when only gross physical science is recognised as containing truth, it is difficult to believe that in the highest things we depend upon the key-note of the soul. 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 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 approaches 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 which does not affect you; the important point for you is whether it leaves you as it found you or makes another 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. What is brought to you depends on the reception you give to it.
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, situated between birth and destruction, merely manifests an appearance, a feeble and uncertain image of itself. If we try to grasp it with our understanding, it is as when water is tightly compressed and 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 accidents 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 neither 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 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 same 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 to-day, what is here to-day will die to-morrow. Nothing endures or is a unity, but we become many things, whilst matter wanders 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 rightly come into 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 something else. Sense-perception only led us astray, because we do not know real being, and mistook for it that which is only an appearance."
Plutarch often describes himself as an initiate. What he portrays here is a condition of the life of the Mystic. Man acquires a kind of wisdom by means of which his spirit sees through the illusive character of sense-life. What the senses regard as being, or reality, is plunged into the stream of "becoming"; and man is subject to the same conditions in this respect as all other things in the world. Before the eyes of his spirit he himself dissolves, the sum-total of his being is broken up into parts, into fleeting phenomena. Birth and death lose their distinctive meaning, and become moments of appearing and disappearing, just as much as 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 (i.e. the spirit) backwards and forwards is the first stage of knowledge. This is the spirit, which is manifesting in and through the physical. It has nothing to do with physical growth. 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 him. Something has happened within him as in a plant when it adds a coloured flower to its green leaves. It is true the forces causing the flower to grow were already latent in the plant before the blossom appeared, but they only became effective when this took place. Divine, spiritual forces are latent in the man who lives merely through his senses, but they only become a manifest reality in the initiate. Such is the transformation which takes place in the Mystic. By his development he has added a new element to the world. The world of sense made him a human being endowed with senses, and then left him to himself. Nature had thus fulfilled her mission. What she is able to do with the powers 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 fade away to nothing unless man seizes upon them and develops them, unless he calls into actual being what is latent within him.
Nature evolves from the 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 changing being with physical reality, but he also perceives within him the forces from which the physical reality arose. These forces are not what change, for they have given birth to the changing world. They are within man as a sign that there is more life within him than he can physically perceive. What they may make man is not yet there. He feels something flash up within him which created everything, including himself, and he feels that this 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 animating the Mystic after initiation. He feels the Eternal and 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 is within me." Thus did the Mystic experience his birth into the Divine.
The Mystic called the power that flashed up within him a daimon. He was himself the product of this daimon. It seemed to him as though another being had entered him and taken possession of his organs, a being standing between his physical personality and the all-ruling cosmic power, the divinity.
The Mystic sought this—his daimon. 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. But I cannot accomplish it in the gross 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 when once it was completed, its result was that the initiate stood as a rock, rising from 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 gave deep understanding 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." From such statements we see clearly that there were higher revelations for the Mystics about the nature of things than that which popular religion was able to impart. Indeed we see that the daimons, i.e., spiritual beings, and the gods themselves, needed explaining. Therefore initiates went back to beings of a higher nature than daimons or 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 about the eternal nature of such gods as these? How could the Zeus of popular imagination be eternal if he bore within him 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. In contrast to this, we form our conception of the gods in a freer and somewhat arbitrary manner. The control of the outer world is absent. Reflection teaches us that what we conceive as gods is not subject to outer control. This places us in logical uncertainty; we begin to feel that we ourselves are the creators of our gods. Indeed, we ask ourselves how we have arrived at a conception of the universe that goes beyond physical reality. The initiate was obliged to ask himself such questions; his doubts were justified. "Look at all representations of the gods," he might think to himself. "Are 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 (B.C. 575-480) drew attention to this fact with a crude logic. We know that the older Greek philosophers were entirely dependent on the wisdom of the Mysteries. We will afterwards prove this in detail, beginning with Heraclitus. What Xenophanes says may at once be taken as the conviction of a 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 shape their bodies as their own bodies were constituted. Horses would create gods in horse-form, and cattle would make gods like bulls."
Through insight of this kind, man may begin to doubt the existence of anything divine. He may reject all mythology, and only recognise 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 were it to say: "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 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 destined 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 towards the gods of the people. He did not deny them, or say they were illusion; 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 comes from a higher source than these gods. 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 man 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 not show you anything divine. Saturate your imagination with religious feeling, and you may be able to create images which you may take to be gods, but your reason will pull them to pieces, for it will prove to you that you created them yourself, and borrowed the material from the sense-world. So long as you look at outer things in your quality of simply a reasonable being, you must deny the existence of God; for God is hidden from the senses, and from that reason of yours which explains sense-perceptions.
God lies hidden spellbound in the world, and you need His own power to find Him. You must awaken that power 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 his life was 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 exalted that love to its climax, 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. He slumbers within them. We are able to awaken Him; if we are to give Him existence, we must deliver Him by the creative power within us.
The candidate now looks unto himself. As latent creative power as yet without existence, the Divine is living in his soul. In the soul is a sacred 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 allows herself to be impregnated by nature, she will give birth to the divine. God is born from the marriage of the soul with nature,—no longer a "hidden," but a manifest god. He has life, a perceptible life, wandering amongst men. He is the god freed from enchantment, the offspring of the God who was hidden by a spell. He is not the great God, who was and is and is to come, but yet he may be taken, in a certain sense, as the revelation of Him. The Father remains at rest 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 the Divine. 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 creates his god, but that he first prepares himself to recognise the god created by 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. Their father may be seen and touched, having the life of sense. The Divine Son alone is begotten of the hidden, eternal, Divine, Father Himself.
- It is 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 belongs only to the investigator. If he afterwards communicates what he has discovered, every one can understand it who gives fair play to his reason and preserves an unbiassed sense of truth. And such an one may also apply the results of research to life and derive satisfaction from them without himself having spiritual sight.
- "The sinking into the mire" spoken of by Plato must also be interpreted in the sense referred to in the last note.
- What is said about the impossibility of imparting the teaching 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.
- Plutarch's Moral Works, On the Inscription EJ at Delphi, pp. 17-18.
- Plutarch, On the Decline of the Oracles; Cicero On the Nature of the Gods.