Christianity As Mystical Fact/Chapter IX
THE APOCALYPSE OF ST. JOHN
At the end of the New Testament stands a remarkable document, the Apocalypse, the secret Revelation of St. John. We have only to read the opening words to feel the deep mystic character of this book. "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants how the necessary things are shortly going to happen; and this is sent in signs by the angel of God unto his servant John." What is here revealed is "sent in signs." Therefore we must not take the literal meaning of the words as they stand, but seek for a deeper meaning of which the words are only signs. But there are other things also which point to a hidden meaning. St. John addresses himself to the seven churches in Asia. Not actual, material churches are meant; the number seven is the sacred number, chosen on account of its symbolic meaning. The actual number of the Asiatic churches was different. And the manner in which St. John arrived at the revelation also points to something mysterious. "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, saying, 'What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches.'" Thus, we have to do with a revelation received by St. John in the spirit. And it is the revelation of Jesus Christ. Wrapped in a hidden meaning there appears what Christ Jesus manifested to the world. Therefore we must also look for this hidden meaning in the teachings of Christ. This revelation bears the same relation to ordinary Christianity as was borne by the revelation of the Mysteries, in pre-Christian times, to the people's religion. On this account the attempt to treat the Apocalypse as a mystery appears to be justified.
The Apocalypse is addressed to seven churches. For the reason of this we have only to single out one of the seven messages sent. In the first of these it is said, "Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; these things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy highest love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the best works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; to him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God." This is the message addressed to the angel of the first community. The angel, who represents the spirit of this community, has entered upon the path pointed out by Christianity. He is able to distinguish between the false adherents of Christianity and the true. He wishes to be Christian, and has founded his work on the name of Christ. But it is required of him that he should not bar his own way to the highest love by any kind of mistakes. He is shown the possibility of taking a wrong course through such errors. Through Christ Jesus the way for attaining to the divine has been pointed out. Perseverance is needed for advancing further in the spirit in which the first impulse was given. It is possible to believe too soon that one has the right spirit. This happens when the disciple lets himself be led a short way by Christ and then leaves his leadership, giving way to false ideas about it. The disciple thereby falls back again into the lower self. He has left his "highest love." The knowledge which is attached to the senses and intellect may be raised into a higher sphere, becoming wisdom, by being spiritualised and made divine. If it does not reach this height, it remains amongst perishable things. Christ Jesus has pointed out the path to the Eternal, and knowledge must with unwearied perseverance follow the path which leads to its becoming divine. Lovingly must it trace out the methods which transmute it into wisdom. The Nicolaitanes were a sect who took Christianity too lightly. They saw one thing only, that Christ is the Divine Word, the Eternal Wisdom which is born in man. Therefore they concluded that human wisdom was the Divine Word, and that it was enough to pursue human knowledge in order to realise the divine in the world. But the meaning of Christian wisdom cannot be construed thus. The knowledge which in the first instance is human wisdom is as perishable as anything else, unless it is first transmuted into divine wisdom. "Thou art not thus," says the "Spirit" to the angel of Ephesus; "thou hast 'not relied' merely upon human wisdom. Thou hast patiently trodden the Christian path. But thou must not think that the 'highest' love is not needed to attain to the goal. Such a love is necessary which far surpasses all love to other things. Only such can be the 'highest' love. The path to the divine is an infinite one, and it is to be understood that when the first step has been gained, it can only be the preparation for ascending higher and higher." Such is the first of these messages, as they are to be interpreted. The meaning of the others may be found in a similar way.
St. John turned, and saw "seven golden candlesticks," and "in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire." We are told (i. 20) that "the seven candlesticks are the seven churches." This means that the candlesticks are seven different ways of attaining to the divine. They are all more or less imperfect. And the Son of Man "had in his right hand seven stars" (v. 16). The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches (v. 20). The guiding spirits, or daimons (cf. p. 87), of the wisdom of the Mysteries have here become the guiding angels of the churches. The churches are represented as bodies for spiritual beings, and the angels are the souls of those bodies, just as human souls are the guiding powers of human bodies. The churches are the imperfect ways to the divine, and the souls of the churches were to become guides along those paths. For this purpose they must themselves have for their leader the being who has in his right hand seven stars. "And out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength." This sword is also found in the Mysteries. The candidate for initiation was terrified by a flashing sword (cf. p. 18). This indicates the situation of one who wishes to know the divine by experience, so that the face of wisdom may shine upon him like the sun. St. John also goes through this experience. It is to be a test of his strength (cf. p. 18). "And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not" (v. 17). The candidate for initiation must pass through the experiences which otherwise man only undergoes at the gate of death. His guide must lead him beyond the region in which birth and death have a meaning. The initiate enters upon a new life. "And I was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death."
Thus prepared, St. John is led on to learn the secrets of existence. "After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter." The messages to the seven spirits of the churches make known to St. John what is to take place in the physical world in order to prepare the way for Christianity. What he now sees "in the Spirit" takes him to the spiritual fountain-head of things, hidden behind physical evolution, but which will be realised, in a spiritualised age, in the near future, by means of physical evolution. The initiate experiences now in the spirit what is to happen in the future,—"And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald." In this way is described the source of things in the world of sense, in the pictures in which it appears to the seer. "And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold" (iv. 2-4). The beings far advanced on the path of wisdom thus surround the fountain-head of existence, to gaze on its infinite essence and bear testimony to it. "And in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come." It is not difficult to see that the four beasts represent the supersensible life underlying physical forms of life. Afterwards, when the trumpets sound, they lift up their voices, i.e., when the life expressed in sense-forms has been transmuted into spiritual life.
In the right hand of him who sits on the throne is the book in which the path to the highest wisdom is traced out (v. 1). There is only one worthy to open the book. "Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book and to loose the seven seals thereof." The seven seals of the book denote that human wisdom is sevenfold. That this is so is again connected with the sacred character of the number seven. The mystic wisdom of Philo designates as seals the eternal cosmic thoughts which come to expression in things. Human wisdom seeks for those creative thoughts; but only in the book, which is sealed with them, is divine truth to be found. The fundamental thoughts of creation must first be unveiled, the seals must be opened, before what is in the book can be revealed. Jesus, the Lion, has power to open the seals. He has given a direction to the great creative thoughts which, through them, leads to wisdom. The Lamb that was slain and that has bought its divinity with its blood, Jesus, who drew down the Christ into Himself and who thus, in the supreme sense, passed through the Life-Death-Mystery, opens the book (v. 9, 10). And as each seal is opened (vi), the four beasts declare what they know.
At the opening of the first seal, St. John sees a white horse, on which sits a rider with a bow. The first universal power, an embodiment of Creative Thought, becomes visible. It is put into the right direction by the new rider, Christianity. Strife is allayed by the new faith. At the opening of the second seal a red horse appears, ridden by one who takes away from the earth Peace,—the second universal power, so that humanity may not neglect, through sloth, to cultivate divine things. The opening of the third seal shows the universal power of Justice, guided by Christianity. The fourth brings the power of Religion which, through Christianity, has received new dignity.
The meaning of the four beasts thus becomes plain. They are the four chief universal powers, to which Christianity gives a new direction: War (the lion); Peaceful Work (the bull); Justice (the being with the human face); and Religious Enthusiasm (the eagle). The meaning of the third being becomes clear when it is said, at the opening of the third seal, "A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny," and that the rider holds "a pair of balances." And at the opening of the fourth seal a rider becomes visible whose name "was Death, and Hell followed with him." This rider is Religious Justice (vi. 6, 8). When the fifth seal is opened there appear the souls of those who have already acted in the spirit of Christianity. Creative thought itself, embodied in Christianity, shows itself here; but by this Christianity is at first meant only the first Christian community, which was transitory like other forms of creation. The sixth seal is opened (vi.); it is made evident that the spiritual world of Christianity is an eternal world. The people at large seem to be permeated by that spiritual world out of which Christianity itself proceeded. What it has itself created becomes sanctified. "And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel" (vii. 4). They are those who prepared for the Eternal before the coming of Christianity, and who were transformed by the Christ-impulse.
The opening of the seventh seal follows. It becomes evident what true Christianity is to be in the evolution of the world. The seven angels, "which stood before God," appear (Rev. viii. 2). Again these angels are spirits from the ancient Mysteries transferred to Christianity. They are the spirits who lead to the vision of God in a really Christian way. Therefore what is next accomplished is a leading to God: it is an "initiation" which is bestowed upon St. John. The proclamations of the angels are accompanied by the necessary signs during initiations. "The first angel sounded and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up." And similar things take place when the other angels sound their trumpets.
At this point we see that this was not merely an initiation in the old sense, but that a new one was taking the place of the old. Christianity was not to be confined, like the ancient Mysteries, to a few elect ones. It was to belong to the whole of humanity. It was to be a religion of the people; the truth was to be ready for each one who "has ears to hear." The old Mystics were singled out from a great number; the trumpets of Christianity sound for every one who is willing to hear them. Whether he draws near or not depends on himself. This is the reason why the terrors accompanying this initiation of humanity are so enormously enhanced. What is to become of the earth and its inhabitants in a far distant future is revealed to St. John at his initiation. Underlying this is the thought that initiates are able to foresee in higher worlds what is realised in the lower world only in the future. The seven messages present the meaning of Christianity to that age, the seven seals represent what was then being prepared through Christianity for future accomplishment. The future is veiled and sealed to the uninitiated; it is unsealed in initiation. When the earthly period is over during which the seven messages hold good, a more spiritual time will begin. Then life will no more flow on as it appears in physical forms, but even outwardly it will be a copy of its supersensible forms. These latter are represented by the four animals and the other seal-pictures. In a still later future appears that form of the earth which the initiate experiences through the trumpets.
Thus the initiate prophetically goes through what is to happen. And the Christian initiate learns how the Christ-impulse interposes and works on in earthly evolution. After it has been shown how all that is too much attached to perishable things perishes to attain true Christianity, there appears the mighty angel with a little book open in his hand, which he gives to St. John. "And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey" (x. 9). St. John was not only to read the little book, he was to absorb it and let its contents permeate him. What avails any knowledge unless man is vitally and thoroughly imbued with it? Wisdom has to become life, man must not merely recognise the divine, but become divine himself. Such wisdom as is written in the book no doubt causes pain to the perishable part of man, "it shall make thy belly bitter," but so much the more does it make happy the eternal part, "but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey."
Only by such an initiation can Christianity become actual on the earth. It kills everything belonging to the lower nature. "And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified." By this is meant the followers of Christ, who are ill-treated by the temporal powers. But what is ill-treated is only the mortal part of human nature, which they will afterwards have conquered. Thereby their fate is a copy of the prefiguring fate of Christ Jesus. "Spiritually Sodom and Egypt" is the symbol of a life which cleaves to the outer and is not changed by the Christ-impulse. Christ is everywhere crucified in the lower nature. When the lower nature conquers, all remains dead. The dead bodies of men lie about in the public places of cities. Those who overcome the lower nature and awaken the crucified Christ hear the trumpet of the seventh angel, "the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever" (xi. 15). "And the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of his testament" (xi. 19).
In the vision of these events, the initiate sees renewed the old struggle between the lower and the higher natures. For everything which the candidate for initiation formerly had to go through must be repeated in one who follows the Christian path. Just as Osiris was threatened by the evil Typhon so now "the great dragon, that old serpent" (xii. 9) must be overcome. The woman, the human soul, gives birth to lower knowledge, which is an adverse power if it is not raised to wisdom. Man must pass through that lower knowledge. In the Apocalypse it appears as the "old serpent." From the remotest times the serpent had been the symbol of knowledge in all mystic wisdom. Man may be led astray by this serpent,—knowledge,—if he does not bring to life in him the Son of God, who crushes the serpent's head. "And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him" (xii. 9). In these words we can see what it was that Christianity wished to be:—a new kind of initiation. What had been attained in the Mysteries was to be attained in a new form. For in them too the serpent had to be overcome, but this was no longer to take place in the old way. The one, primeval mystery, the Christian mystery, was to replace the many mysteries of antiquity. Jesus, in whom the Logos had been made flesh, was to become the initiator of the whole of humanity, and humanity was to be his own community of Mystics.
What was to take place was not a separation of the elect, but a linking together of all. As each grows up to it so does he become a Mystic. The good tidings are announced to all, he who has an ear to hear hastens to learn the secrets. The voice of the heart is to decide in each individual case. It is not that one person at a time is introduced into the Mystery-temples, but that the word is to be spoken to all, to one it will then appeal more strongly than to another. It will be left to the daimon, the angel within each individual, to decide how far the latter may be initiated. The whole world is a Mystery-temple. Not only is salvation to come to those who see the wonderful processes in the special temples for initiation,—processes which give them a guarantee of eternal life, but "Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." Even if at first they grope in the dark, the light may nevertheless come to them later. Nothing is to be withheld from any one; the way is to be open to all.
The latter part of the Apocalypse describes clearly the dangers threatening Christianity through anti-Christian powers, and the final triumph of Christianity. All other gods are merged in the one Christian divinity: "And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof" (xxi. 23). The secret of the Revelation of St. John is that the Mysteries are no longer to be kept under lock and key. "And he saith unto me, Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand."
The author of the Apocalypse has set forth what he believes to be the relation of his church to the churches of antiquity. He wished to express in a spiritual mystery what he thought about the Mysteries themselves. He wrote his mystery on the isle of Patmos, and he is said to have received the "Revelation" in a grotto. These details indicate that the revelation was of a mystery character.
Thus Christianity arose out of the Mysteries. Its wisdom is born as a mystery in the Apocalypse, but a mystery which transcends the limits of the old mystery world. The separate Mysteries were to become one universal one.
It may appear to be a contradiction to say that the secrets of the Mysteries became manifest through Christianity, and that nevertheless a Christian mystery is to be seen again in the spiritual visions of the writer of the Apocalypse. The contradiction disappears directly we reflect that the secrets of the ancient Mysteries were revealed by the events in Palestine. Through these there became manifest what had previously been veiled in the Mysteries. There is now a new secret, namely what has been introduced into the evolution of the world by the appearance of the Christ. The initiate of ancient times, when in the spiritual world, saw how evolution points the way to the as yet hidden Christ. The Christian initiate experiences the unseen effects of the manifested Christ.
- An explanation of the meaning of the number seven may be obtained in An Outline of Occult Science (see advt., front page).
- The meanings of the Apocalyptic signs can only be given quite shortly here. Of course, all these things might be much more thoroughly explained, but of this the scope of this book does not allow.