Esoteric Christianity

The Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted by Michelangelo c. 1508 (click to enlarge)

 “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them , Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given…Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand…But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.”–Jesus, Bible, St. Matthew, 13, 9-17.”

“In proceeding to the contemplation of the mysteries of knowledge, we shall adhere to the celebrated and venerable rule of tradition, commencing from the origin of the universe, setting forth those points of physical contemplation which are necessary to be premised, and removing whatever can be an obstacle on the way; so that the ear may be prepared for the reception of the tradition of the Gnosis, the ground being cleared of weeds and fitted for the planting of the vineyard; for there is a conflict before the conflict, and mysteries before the mysteries…Let the specimen suffice to those who have ears. For it is not required to unfold the mystery, but only to indicate what is sufficient.”–St. Clement of Alexandria [Titus Flavius Clemens] (c. 150-215 A.D.), Stromateis, Anti-Nicene Library, Vol. XII, Bk. V, Ch. xl.


The object [of this book, Esoteric Christianity] is to suggest certain lines of thought as to the deep truths underlying Christianity, truths generally overlooked, and only too often denied.

If true knowledge, the Gnosis, is again to form a part of Christian teachings, the study of the Lesser Mysteries must precede that of the Greater. The Greater will never be published through the printing-press; they can only be given by Teacher to pupil, “from mouth to ear.” But the Lesser Mysteries, the partial unveiling of deep truths, can even now be restored, and such a volume as the present is intended to show…the nature of the teachings which have to be mastered.

This is the way of the Divine Wisdom, the true Theosophy. It is not, as some think, a diluted version of Hinduism, or Buddhism, or Taoism, or of any special religion. It is Esoteric Christianity as truly as it is Esoteric Buddhism, and belongs equally to all religions, exclusively to none. This is the source of the suggestions made…for the helping of those who seek the light–that “true light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (Bible, St. John, i, 9)

[Chapter 1: The Hidden Side of Religions]

Many, of not most, who see the title of this book will at once deny that there is anything valuable which can be rightly described as “Esoteric Christianity”. There is a widespread, popular, idea that there is no such thing as an occult teaching in connection with Christianity, and that “The Mysteries”, whether Lesser or Greater, were a purely Pagan institution. The very name of “The Mysteries of Jesus”, so familiar in the ears of the Christians of the first centuries, would come with a shock of surprise on those of their modern successors, and, if spoken as denoting a special and definite institution in the Early Church, would cause a smile of incredulity. It has actually been made a matter of boast that Christianity has no secrets, that whatever it has to say it says to all, and whatever it has to teach it teaches to all. Its truths are supposed to be so simple, that “a wayfaring man, though a fool, may not err therein,” and the “simple Gospel” has become a stock phrase.

It is necessary, therefore, to prove clearly that in the Early Church, at least, Christianity was no whit behind other great religions in possessing a hidden side, and that it guarded, as priceless treasures, the secrets revealed only to a select few in its Mysteries. But ere doing this it will be well to consider the whole question of this hidden side of religions, and to see why such a side must exist if a religion is to be strong and stable; for thus its existence in Christianity will appear as a foregone conclusion, and the references to it in the writings of the Christian Fathers will appear simple and natural instead of surprising and unintelligible. As a historical fact, the existence of this esotericism is demonstrable; but it may also be shown that intellectually it is a necessity.

The first question we have to answer is: What is the object of religions? They are given to the world by men wiser than the masses of the people on whom they are bestowed, and are intended to quicken human evolution. In order to do this effectively they must reach individuals and influence them. Now all men are not at the same level of evolution, but evolution might be figured as a rising gradient, with men stationed on it at every point. The most highly evolved are far above the least evolved, both in intelligence and character; the capacity alike to understand and to act varies at every stage. It is, therefore, useless to give to all the same religious teachings. Yet all types need religion, so that each may reach upward to a life higher than that which he is leading, and no type or grade should be sacrificed to any other. Religion must be as graduated as evolution, else it fails in its object.

Next comes the question: In what way do religions seek to quicken human evolution? Religions seek to evolve the moral and intellectual natures, and to aid the spiritual nature to unfold itself. Regarding man as a complex being, they seek to meet him at every point of his constitution, and therefore to bring messages suitable for each, teachings adequate to the most diverse human needs. Teachings must therefore be adapted to each mind and heart to which they are addressed. If a religion does not reach and master the intelligence, if it does not purify and inspire the emotions, it has failed in its object, so far as the person addressed is concerned.

Not only does it thus direct itself to the intelligence and the emotions, but it seeks, as said, to stimulate the unfoldment of the spiritual nature. It answers to that inner impulse which exists in humanity, and which is ever pushing the race onwards. For deeply within the heart of all–often overlaid by transitory conditions, often submerged under pressing interests and anxieties–there exists a continual seeking after God. “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” (Bible, Psalm, xlii, 1) The search is sometimes checked for a space, and the yearning seems to disappear. Phases recur in civilization and in thought, wherein this cry of the human Spirit for the divine…this yearning of the human Spirit for that which is akin to it in the universe, of the part for the whole, seems to be stilled, to have vanished; none the less does that yearning reappear, and once more the same cry rings out from Spirit…So much is it an integral part of humanity, that man will have some answer to his questionings; rather an answer that is false than none. If he cannot find religious truth, he will take religious error rather than no religion, and will accept the crudest and most incongruous ideals rather than admit that the ideal is non-existent.

Religion, then, meets this craving, and taking hold of the constituent in human nature that gives rise to it, trains it, strengthens it, purifies it and guides it towards its proper ending–the union of the human Spirit with the divine, so “that God may be all in all.” (Bible, I Cor., xv, 28)

The next question which meets us in our inquiry is: What is the source of religions? To this question two answers have been given–that of the comparative mythologists and that of the comparative religionists. Both base their answers on a common basis of admitted facts. Research has indisputably proved that the religions of the world are markedly similar in their main teachings, in their possession of Founders who display superhuman powers and extraordinary moral elevation, in their ethical precepts, in their use of means to come into touch with invisible worlds, and in the symbols by which they express their leading beliefs. This similarity, amounting in many cases to identity, proves–according to both the above schools–a common origin.

But on the nature of this common origin the two schools are at issue. The comparative mythologists contend that the common origin is the common ignorance, and that the loftiest religious doctrines are simply refined expressions of the guesses of primitive men, regarding themselves and their surroundings. Animism, fetishism, nature-worship, sun-worship–these are the constituents of the primeval mud out of which has grown the splendid lily of religion. A Krishna, a Buddha, a Leo-Tze, a Jesus, are the highly civilized but lineal descendents of the whirling medicine-man of the savage. God is a composite photograph of the innumerable Gods who are the personifications of the forces of nature. And so forth. It is all summed up in the phrase: Religions are branches from a common trunk–human ignorance.

The comparative religionists consider, on the other hand, that all religions originate from the teachings of Divine Men, who give out to the different nations of the world, from time to time, such parts of the fundamental verities of religion as the people are capable of receiving, teaching ever the same morality, inculcating the use of similar means, employing the same significant symbols. Sun-worship, and pure forms of nature-worship were, in their day, noble religions, highly allegorical but full of profound truth and knowledge. The great teachers–it is alleged by Hindus, Buddhists, and by some comparative religionists, such as Theosophists–form an enduring Brotherhood of men who have risen beyond humanity, who appear at certain periods to enlighten the world, and who are the spiritual guardians of the human race. This view may be summed up in the phrase: “Religions are branches from a common trunk–Divine Wisdom.”

This Divine Wisdom is spoken of as the Wisdom, the Gnosis, the Theosophia, and some, in different ages of the world, have so desired to emphasize their belief in this unity of religions that they have preferred the eclectic name of Theosophist to any narrower designation.

The relative value of the contentions of these two opposed schools must be judged by the cogency of the evidence put forth by each. The appearance of a degenerate form of a noble idea may closely resemble that of a refined product of a coarse idea, and the only method of deciding between degeneration and evolution would be the examination, if possible, of intermediate and remote ancestors. The evidence brought forward by believers in the Wisdom is of this kind. They allege that the Founders of religions, judged by the records of their teachings, were far above the level of average humanity; that the Scriptures of religions contain moral precepts, sublime ideals, poetical aspirations, profound philosophical statements, which are not even approached in beauty and elevation by later writings in the same religions–that is, that the old is higher than the new, instead of the new being higher than the old; that no case can be shown of the refining and improving process alleged to be the source of current religions, whereas many cases of degeneracy from pure teachings can be adduced; that even among primitive peoples, if their religions be carefully studied, many traces of lofty ideas can be found, ideas which are obviously above the productive capacity of the individuals themselves…

Still pursuing our inquiry, we come next to the question: To what people were religions given? And here we come at once to the difficulty with which every Founder of a religion must deal, that already spoken of as bearing on the primary object of religion itself, the quickening of human evolution, with its corollary that all grades of evolving humanity must be considered by Him. Men are at every stage of evolution; in one place there is a highly developed and complex civilization, in another a simple state. Even within any given civilization we find the most varied types–the most ignorant and the most educated, the most thoughtful and the most careless, the most spiritual and the most brutal; yet each of these types must be reached, and each must be helped in the place where he is. If evolution be true, this difficulty is inevitable, and must be faced and overcome by the divine Teacher, else will His work be a failure. If man is evolving as all around him is evolving, these differences of development, these varied grades of intelligence, must be a characteristic of humanity everywhere, and must be provided for in each of the religions of the world.

We are thus brought face to face with the position that we cannot have one and the same religious teaching even for a single nation, still less for a single civilization, or for the whole world. If there be but one teaching, a large number of those to whom it is addressed will entirely escape its influence. If it be made suitable for those whose intelligence is limited, whose morality is elementary, whose perceptions are obtuse, so that it may help and train them, and thus enable them to evolve, it will be a religion utterly unsuitable for those men, living in the same nation, forming part of the same civilization, who have keen and delicate moral perceptions, bright and subtle intelligence, and evolving spirituality. But if, on the other hand, this latter class is to be helped, if intelligence is to be given a philosophy that it can regard as admirable, if delicate moral perceptions are to be still further refined, if the dawning spiritual nature is to be enabled to develop into the perfect day, then the religion will be so spiritual, so intellectual, and so moral, that when it is preached to the former class it will not touch their minds or their hearts, it will be to them a string of meaningless phrases, incapable of arousing their latent intelligence, or of giving them any motive for conduct which will help them to grow into a purer morality.

Looking, then, at these facts concerning religion, considering its object, its means, it origin, the nature and varying needs of the people to whom it is addressed, recognizing the evolution of spiritual, intellectual and moral faculties in man, and the need of each man for such training as is suitable for the stages of evolution at which he has arrived, we are led to the absolute necessity of a varied and graduated religious teaching, such as will meet these different needs and help each man in his own place.

There is yet another reason why esoteric teaching is desirable with respect to a certain class of truths. It is eminently the fact in regard to this class that “knowledge is power.” The public promulgation of a philosophy profoundly intellectual, sufficient to train an already highly developed intellect, and to draw the allegiance of a lofty mind, cannot injure any. It can be preached without hesitation, for it does not attract the ignorant, who turn away from it as dry, stiff and uninteresting. But there are teachings which deal with the constitution of nature, explain recondite laws, and throw light on hidden processes, the knowledge of which gives control over natural energies, and enable its possessor to direct these energies to certain ends, as a chemist deals with the production of chemical compounds. Such knowledge may be very useful to highly developed men, and may much increase their power of serving the race. But if this knowledge were published to the world, it might and would be misused, just as the knowledge of subtle poisons was misused in the Middle Ages. It would pass into the hands of people of strong intellect, but of unregulated desires, men moved by separative instincts, seeking the gain of their separate selves and careless of the common good. They would be attracted by the idea of gaining powers which would raise them above the general level. and place ordinary humanity at their mercy, and would rush to acquire the knowledge which exalts its possessor to a superhuman rank. They would, by its possession, become yet more selfish and confirmed in their separateness, their pride would be nourished and their sense of aloofness intensified, and thus they would inevitably be driven along the road which leads to diabolism, the Left Hand Path whose goal is isolation and not union. And they would not only themselves suffer in their inner nature, but they would also become a menace to society, already suffering sufficiently at the hands of men whose intellect is more evolved than their conscience. Hence arises the necessity of withholding certain teachings from those who, morally, are as yet unfitted to receive them; and this necessity presses on every Teacher who is able to impart such knowledge. He desires to give it to those who will use the powers it confers for the general good, for quickening human evolution, but he equally desires to be no part to giving it to those who would use it for their own aggrandizement at the cost of others.

Nor is this a matter of theory only, according to the Occult Records, which give the details of the events alluded to in Genesis vi, et seq. This knowledge was, in those ancient times and on the continent of Atlantis, given without any rigid condition as to the moral elevation, purity and unselfishness of the candidates. Those who were intellectually qualified were taught, just as men are taught ordinary science in modern days. The publicity now so imperiously demanded was then given, with the result that men became giants in knowledge but also giants in evil, till the earth groaned under her oppressors and the cry of a trampled humanity rang through the worlds. Then came the destruction of Atlantis, the whelming of that vast continent beneath the waters of the ocean, some particulars of which are given in the Hebrew Scriptures in the story of the Noachian deluge, and in the Hindu Scriptures of the further East in the story of Vaivasvata Manu.

Since that experience of the danger of allowing unpurified hands to grasp the knowledge which is power, the great Teachers have imposed rigid conditions as regards purity, unselfishness and self-control on all candidates for such instruction. They distinctly refuse to impart knowledge of this kind to any who will not consent to a rigid discipline, intended to eliminate separateness of feeling and interest. They measure the moral strength of the candidate even more than his intellectual development, for the teaching itself will develop the intellect while it puts a strain on the moral nature…

So much of theory we lay down as bearing on the necessity of a hidden side in all religions. When from theory we turn to facts, we naturally ask: Has this hidden side existed in the past, forming a part of the religions of the world? The answer must be an immediate and unhesitating affirmative; every great religion has claimed to possess a hidden teaching, and has declared that it is the repository of theoretical mystic, and further of practical mystic, or occult, knowledge. The mystic explanation of popular teaching was public, and expounded the latter as an allegory, giving to crude and irrational statements and stories a meaning which the intellect could accept. Behind this theoretical mysticism, as it was behind the popular, there existed further the practical mysticism, a hidden spiritual teaching, which was only imparted under definite conditions, conditions known and published, that must be fulfilled by every candidate. St. Clement of Alexandria mentions this division of the Mysteries. After purification, he says, “are the Minor Mysteries, which have some foundation of instruction and of preliminary preparation for what is to come after, and the Great Mysteries, in which nothing remains to be learned of the universe, but only to contemplate and comprehend nature and things.” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, Bk. V, Ch. xi)

This position cannot be controverted as regards the ancient religions. The Mysteries of Egypt were the glory of that ancient land, and the noblest sons of Greece, such as Plato, went to Sais and to Thebes to be initiated by Egyptian Teachers of Wisdom. The Mithraic Mysteries of the Persians, the Orphic and Bacchic Mysteries and later Eleusinian semi-Mysteries of the Greeks, the Mysteries of Samothrace, Scythia, Chaldea are familiar in name, at least. Even in the extremely diluted form of the Eleusinian Mysteries, their value is most highly praised by the most eminent men of Greece, as Pindar, Sophocles, Isocrates, Plutarch and Plato. Especially were they regarded as useful with regard to post mortem existence, as the Initiated learned that which ensured his future happiness…

From Iamblichus, the great theurgist of the third and fourth centuries A.D., much may be learned as to the object of the Mysteries. Theurgy was magic, “the last part of the sacredotal science,” and was practiced in the Greater Mysteries, to evoke the appearance of superior Beings. The theory on which these Mysteries were based may be very briefly thus stated: There is ONE, prior to all things, immovable, abiding in the solitude of His own unity. From THAT arises the Supreme God, the Self-begotten, the Good, the Source of all things, the Root, the God of Gods, the First Cause, unfolding Himself into Light. From Him springs the Intelligible World, or ideal universe, the Universal Mind, the Nous, and the incorporeal or intelligible Gods belong to this. From this the World-Soul, to which belong the “divine intellectual forms which are present with the visible bodies of the Gods.” Then come various hierarchies of superhuman beings, Archangels, Archons (Rulers) or Cosmocratores, Angels, Daimons, Powers, etc. Man is a being of a lower order, allied to these in his nature, and is capable of knowing them; this knowledge was achieved in the Mysteries, and it led to union with God. In the Mysteries these doctrines are expounded, “the progression from, and the regression of all things to, the One, and the entire domination of the One,” and, further, these different Beings were evoked, and appeared, sometimes to teach, sometimes, by Their mere presence, to elevate and purify. “The Gods,” says Iamblichus, “being benevolent and propitious, impart their light to theurgists in unenvying abundance, calling upwards their souls to themselves, procuring them a union with themselves, and accustoming them, while they are yet in body, to be separated from bodies, and to be led round to their eternal and intelligible principle.” For “the soul having a twofold life, one being in conjunction with body, but the other being separate from all body,” it is necessary to learn to separate it from the body, that thus it may unite itself with the Gods by its intellectual and divine part, and learn the genuine principles of knowledge, and the truths of the intelligible world. “The presence of the Gods, indeed, imparts to us health of body, virtue of soul, purity of intellect, and, in one word, elevates everything in us to its proper nature. It exhibits that which is not body as body to the eyes of the soul, through those of the body.” When the Gods appear, the soul receives “a liberation from the passions, a transcendental perfection, and an energy entirely more excellent, and participates of divine love and an immense joy.” By this we gain a divine life, and are rendered in reality divine.

The culminating point of the Mysteries was when the Initiate became a God, whether by union with a divine Being outside himself, or by the realization of the divine Self within him. This was termed ecstasy, and was a state of what the Indian Yogi would term high Samadhi, the gross body being entranced and the freed soul effecting its own union with the Great One. This “ecstasy is not a faculty properly so called, it is a state of the soul, which transforms it in such a way that it then perceives what was previously hidden from it. The state will not be permanent until our union with God is irrevocable; here, in earth life, ecstasy is but a flash… Man can cease to become man, and become God; but man cannot be God and man at the same time.” Plotinus states that he had reached this state “but three times as yet.”

So also Proclus taught that the one salvation of the soul was to return to her intellectual form, and thus escape from the “circle of generation, from abundant wanderings,” and reach true Being, “to the uniform and simple energy of the period of sameness, instead of the abundantly wandering motion of the period which is characterized by difference.” This is the life sought by those initiated by Orpheus into the Mysteries of Bacchus and Proserpine, and this the result of the practice of the purificatory, or cathartic, virtues.

These virtues were necessary for the Greater Mysteries, as they concerned the purifying of the subtle body, in which the soul worked when out of the gross body. The political or practical virtues belonged to man’s ordinary life, and were required to some extent before be could be a candidate even for such a School as is described below. Then came the cathartic virtues, by which the subtle body, that of the emotions and lower mind, was purified; third the intellectual, belonging to the Augoeides, or the light-form of the intellect; fourth the contemplative, or paradigmatic, by which union with God was realized. Porphyry writes:

He who energizes according to the practical virtues is a worthy man; but he who energizes according to the purifying virtues is an angelic man, or is also a good daimon. He who energizes according to the intellectual virtues alone is a God; but he who energizes according to the paradigmatic virtues is the Father of the Gods. — (G.R.S. Mead, Orpheus, p. 59)

Much instruction was also given in the Mysteries by the archangels and other hierarchies, and, Pythagoras, the great teacher who was initiated in India, and who gave “the knowledge of things that are” to his pledged disciples, is said to have possessed such a knowledge of music that he could use it for the controlling of men’s wildest passion, and the illuminating of their minds…

Some of the symbols used are explained by Iamblichus, who bids Porphyry remove from his thought the image of the thing symbolized and reach its intellectual meaning. Thus “mire” meant everything that was bodily and material; the “God sitting above the lotus” signified that God transcended both the mire and the intellect, symbolized by the lotus, and was established in Himself, being seated. If “sailing in a ship,” His rule over the world was pictured. And so on. On this use of symbols Proclus remarks that “the Orphic method aimed at revealing divine things by means of symbols, a method common to all writers of divine lore.”

The Pythagorean School in Magna Graecia was closed at the end of the sixth century B.C., owing to the persecution of the civil power, but other communities existed, keeping up the sacred tradition. Mead states that Plato intellectualized it, in order to protect it from an increasing profanation, and the Eleusinian rites preserved some of its forms, having lost its substance. The Neo-Platonists inherited from Pythagoras and Plato, and their works should be studied by those who would realize something of the grandeur and the beauty preserved for the world in the Mysteries.

The Pythagorean School itself may serve as a type of the discipline enforced. On this Mead gives many interesting details, and remarks: “The authors of antiquity are agreed that this discipline had succeeded in producing the highest examples, not only of the purest chastity and sentiment, but also a simplicity of manners, a delicacy, and a taste for serious pursuits which was unparalleled. This is admitted even by Christian writers.” The School had outer disciples, leading the family and social life, and the above quotation refers to these. In the inner School were three degrees–the first of Hearers, who studied for two years in silence, doing their best to master the teachings; the second degree was of Mathematici, wherein were taught geometry and music, the nature of number, form, color and sound; the third degree was of Physici, who mastered cosmogony and metaphysics. This led up to the true Mysteries. Candidates for the School must be “of an unblemished reputation and of a contented disposition.”

The close identity between the methods and aims pursued in these various Mysteries and those of Yoga in India is patent to the most superficial observer. It is not, however, necessary to suppose that the nations of antiquity drew them from India; all alike drew from the one source, the Grand Lodge of Central Asia, which sent out its Initiates to every land. They all taught the same doctrines, and pursued the same methods, leading to the same ends. But there was much intercommunication between the Initiates of all nations, and there was a common language and a common symbolism. Thus Pythagoras journeyed among the Indians, and received in India a high Initiation, and Apollonious of Tyana later followed in his steps. Quite Indian in phrase as well as thought were the dying words of Plotinus: “Now I seek to lead back the Self within me to the All-self.”

Among the Indians the duty of teaching the supreme knowledge only to the worthy was strictly insisted on. “The deepest mystery of the end of knowledge…is not to be declared to one who is not a son or pupil, and who is not tranquil in mind.” (Shvetashvatarophanishat, vi, 22) So, again, after a sketch of Yoga we read: “Stand up! awake! having found the Great Ones, listen! The road is as difficult to tread as the sharp edge of a razor. Thus say the wise.” (Kathopahishat, iii, 14) The Teacher is needed, for written teaching alone does not suffice.

The “end of knowledge” is to know God–not only to believe; to become one with God–not only to worship afar off. Man must know the reality of the divine Existence, and then know–not only vaguely believe and hope–that his own innermost Self is one with God, and that the aim of life is to realize that unity. Unless religion can guide a man to that realization, it is but “as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.” (Bible, I Cor., xiii, 1)

–Annie Besant, Esoteric Christianity, London, 1901, pp. 1-22.