This article was originally published in Hermes magazine.
Few notions are more shrouded in mystery than that of initiation. In fact, such a statement is something of a tautology. Initiation is mysterious by nature. If initiation were something speakable or obvious, it would be common knowledge. In this case, however, there would be nothing to be initiated into. Precisely because initiation is not into something obvious, but rather into the mysteries, it may be worthy of sustained exploration. Initiation means “to enter,” or “to go in” (in + ire). Mystery stems from the Greek verb myein, which means “to shut.” The word is in fact a cousin of the English word “mute.” This etymology may refer to the unspeakability of the mysteries, or to their esoteric nature. Initiation into the mysteries, therefore, means to “to enter into what is shut.” It may be the mouth that’s shut (i.e. mute), or it may be the door to the temple (i.e. esoteric). We know factually that both are correct, since initiation into the mysteries whas both unspeakable and secret. In fact, I hope to show that these ultimately amount to the same thing.
A more thorough understanding of the meaning of esoteric will lay the groundwork for further exploration. An initiate of modern times, Rudolf Steiner, offers an exquisitely concise explanation of this question:
Esoterisch ist ein Begriff, wenn er im Zusammenhang mit den Erscheinungen betrachtet wird, aus denen er gewonnen ist. Exoterisch, wenn er als Abstraktion abgesondert für sich betrachtet wird.
Clearly, Steiner’s answer will be esoteric to anyone not literate in German. In the same way, secrets may be hidden in two ways: either they are concealed from sight, or they may be revealed before eyes that are not prepared to understand what they are seeing. Because the second method is far more foolproof than the first, we can assume that it is the more commonly employed. Naturally, this expectation presumes that the world is wisely-ordered, but I do not imagine any readers of this inquiry will be likely to contest that premise. After all, initiation presumes a cosmos that is shone through with wisdom because otherwise there would be nothing to be initiated into. In other words, if the world was merely a haphazard assemblage of pseudo-particles and probability fields, etc…as our physicists assure us, then talk of the esoteric and of initiation into the mysteries would have no meaning. Such a verdict would entail rejecting millennia of tradition and whispered descriptions of inner rites in favour of the theory du jour of contemporary scientists. I do not mean to discount the expertise or credibility of these men and women. Instead, in a scientific spirit, on the testimony of my own experience as well as the forceful prompting of inductive logic, I will assume that the more probable explanation is correct. To wit, that physics offers an exoteric description of a world which a science of initiation can complete by offering the esoteric understanding of it. Now is likely overdue a query into what those terms are meant to indicate. Steiner’s explanation may be roughly translated as following:
An esoteric concept is one that is considered together with the context of the phenomena from which it was derived. A concept is called “exoteric” when it is considered in abstraction from this context.
Let us reflect on the implications of this distinction. Take the concept “initiation” itself. It refers to an entry into something and also a beginning or a commencement. Exoterically, we might construe it as something that could simply happen to someone. This is, however, to conceptualise initiation as an abstraction, which is to say, to consider it in an exoteric mode. Esoterically considered, initiation, insofar as it relates to an entry, implies the exit from what it is not, and insofar as it relates to a beginning, implies on the one hand, the termination of what came before, and at the same time, the comprehensive sequence that is being commenced. This is how a written word can be comprehended at once despite that its letters are strewn about on the page, or how the spoken word can be understood in an instance despite that its syllables are smeared through time. This is how a piece of music can remain a single piece despite constantly changing. This is how a flower may persist in perennial metamorphosis through the seasons and yet still be a flower, despite that it spends most of the year as a seed or a shoot or a bud or a corpse. The essence transcends time, and conceals itself by appearing in space. This is how Christ, whom the Evangelist identified as the Word or Logos (John 1:1), could claim that “before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58) and also declare that “It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 21:6). It is how Jesus could die on the cross, be buried, and then rise again three days later finally to ascend to sit at the right hand of the Father (Mark 16:19). Indeed, Steiner argued in Christianity as Mystical Fact (1902), that Jesus Christ made manifest and played out on the stage of history, what before had remained “shut up” in the secret chambers of the mysteries. In other words, Jesus’ life presents a template for initiation. In fact, Steiner frequently described the process of initiation according to the archetypal images surrounding the Stations of the Cross. These included specifically the following seven stages: The Washing of the Feet, The Scourging, The Crowning with Thorns, The Bearing of the Cross, The Mystic Death, The Entombment, and finally, The Resurrection. Though from an exoteric viewpoint, each of these may seem to be just what it is, at the same time, each of them contains infinite depths that can be plumbed by contemplation of their esoteric context. In the interest of pursuing the general theme of initiation itself, however, I will refrain from entering further into these specific stages at the present time and reserve a more thorough explication of them for a future occasion at the eventual prompting by expressions of interest from any readers.
Returning to the topic at hand, initiation into the mysteries can be understood as “the entry into what is shut,” or “the beginning of what is unspeakable.” If Steiner’s teaching is correct, which I believe it is, we must also presume that initiation has been transformed since ancient times, and that now it is as “Jesus saith…I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). If anyone adheres to “perennialist” notions and doubts that consciousness could evolve, let him only consider the profound impact that the transition from oral to written culture would undoubtedly have exerted on the manner by which meaning was experienced, perceived, and communicated. The Word is more thoroughly crucified in writ than in speech. This difference will be more thoroughly illuminated presently. Suffice it at first to have introduced the notion of meaning dying into matter and to have offered grounds to take seriously the notion of an evolution of consciousness and a concomitant change in the nature of initiation.
In the ancient cultures, the divine was drawn down into the temple. In the corresponding initiation, that temple was the neophyte’s body. This preparation was accomplished by the help of an hierophant, who invoked in the neophyte a subliminal state of consciousness–the notorious three-day temple sleep. The rite of Baptism serves as a vestigial symbol of a traditional method of inducing this temple sleep. Namely, the neophyte was submerged in water until his consciousness was all but extinguished. By inviting this fugue, the neophyte had prepared himself to be enthused by the ancient gods, the vestiges of whose transcendent wisdom persisted when the neophyte returned to his body and became, therefore, an initiate. Little more can be said of the secret proceedings for they were mysteries and therefore, “shut.” The more public phenomenon of oracles, however, present the same essential principles on display as well as their decadence over the course of history. Broadly construed, ancient initiation consisted in drawing down divine powers. But these ancient springs of inspiration gradually began to dry up: as Plutarch wrote, “silence has come upon some and utter desolation upon others.” This desiccation of the original wells of knowledge constitutes the historical path of the evolution of consciousness.
It is said that “all roads lead to Calvary” and history is no exception. The dying mystery wisdom received its consummation and rebirth in Christ’s death. In other words, the Cross marks a turning point in time alone as well as the familiar space-time of external events, for Christ’s death on the Cross is also the crux of the evolution of consciousness. To the anterior side, a divine being descended into incarnation. This summed up all of the mystery wisdom to that point. To the posterior side, Christ ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father; an apotheosis that heralds the age to come. As the inflection point between these two epochs is the three day temple sleep of entombment bounded by the Death on one side and Resurrection on the other. Steiner referred to this moment as “the turning point in time.” We find ourselves on the yonder side of this fulcrum of history. For us, therefore, the path to initiation, which is a theosis, is by way of the Logos. Moreover, the knowledge conferred is of the Logos. And the light of consciousness that sustains the undertaking is also the Logos. These three aspects represent “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” of which Christ affirms “I AM.” St. Athanasius captured this phenomenon in the famous phrase “God became man so that man might become God.”
As Steiner indicated, an exoteric conception might suppose that the pertinent events surrounding Jesus’s ministry, death, and resurrection could be considered as discrete and atomic occurences of the distant past. But the esoteric approach must concede that, surrounding the historical sequence of events were great tempestuous cataclysms of meaning. I will attempt to explain this by analogy. If I place a mustard seed on the table before me, the exoteric consciousness will represent the thing as a little ball-bearing sized “idol in Newtonian space,” to quote Owen Barfield (Saving the Appearances, 1967). But esoteric consideration will reveal the speciousness of mundane perception, since “mustard seed” is inconceivable except for the infinite nexus of conceptual relations that it constitutes. It descended from a mustard plant, so it implies seasons of light, warmth, and rain to nourish it. It is spherical. In this respect, it shares in esoteric kinship with the sun and stars throughout the universe. It is a living thing that implies the evolution of the green Earth and all of its ancestral forebears, as well as all the generations that may spring forth from it: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a kernel of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). Indeed, it proclaims the Gospel for those with ears to hear. More accurately, it seeks a mouthpiece to enunciate this glory. I will return to this distinction presently.
A brief investigation of the crucial term of the present study—“Logos”—is in order, however, before I proceed. Forthwith I will employ the body of the Greek alphabet to incarnate this meaning. My reason is the same as that for which I presented Steiner’s untranslated German text above. Namely, it may serve to bring to light the nature of our own understanding, which cannot comprehend anything to which its comprehension is inadequate, but which possesses the potency to continually transcend its prior compass of knowledge. Λóγος is, of course, among the untranslatable words of Greek. The Latin translation substitutes for, and thereby curtails the meaning of, λóγος with the word “Verbum,” while most English translations employ the word “Word” to the same effect. It is tempting to imagine one knows what “word” means, and that one has therefore understood the text. It is unlikely, however, the writer of the John Gospel would not likely have bothered to compose the work in the first place, nor would the latter have been preserved with careful fidelity through so many centuries and hand-written transcriptions, if it had so little significance. The alternatives to discounting the Evangelist’s message out of hand are either to assume that the writer is, in the context of the John Gospel, employing “word” differently than we ordinarily employ it, or that language itself is greater than we ordinarily suppose. Likely both are true to some extent. The meaning Λóγος, however, in Greek spans such English terms as “definition,” “account,” “reading,” “speaking,” “intelligence,” and “the ordering principle of all creation.” I have come to the conclusion that the best translation of λóγος is “meaning.” As meaning is to the express word, so is the esoteric to the exoteric. Thus we might even say that “word” emphasises the exoteric aspect of language while λóγος indicates the esoteric one, but it is still the same word. As a result, someone who awaits initiation into the mysteries in the form of new information or propositions will be disappointed: “Neither shall they say Lo here! or, lo there! for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). Exoteric perception bewitches us into imagining that objects can be understood in isolation. Put another way, it deceives us into imagining that an entity is something other than its meaning. Esoteric perception, however, does not fall into the delusion of extrinsicality. No meaning does not imply every other one. Esoterically, therefore, we can concur with Heraclitus “the Obscure” and say, “οὐκ ἐμοῦ, ἀλλὰ τοῦ λόγου ἀκούσαντας ὁμολογεῖν σοφόν ἐστιν ἓν πάντα εἶναί,” which is “Who hearkens not me but to the Λóγος will say: ‘All is one’” (Fragment 50). This is because all expression is particular but its root is common, else nothing would be intelligible in the first place.
The reader may have felt himself beginning to stumble on an apparent difficulty. Given the connection of λóγος to speech, wouldn’t the notion of the mysterium as “the mute,” or “the unspeakable” seem to present an internal contradiction? No, in fact, because λóγος is not any particular speech, but is rather the power that lends life to speech as such—the meaning which offers itself for crucifixion upon the matter of syllables and phonemes. Thus, nothing spoken could itself be the Λóγος, and anything spoken would not be it. Readers who recognise a likeness to the first line of the Tao Te Ching will not be surprised to know that C. S. Lewis opted, in The Abolition of Man (1943), to refer to the λóγος as “Tao” rather than “Word” to preempt just the perennial temptation to encompass exoterically what is esoteric in its essence. The Λóγος, born from God, dies into what is expressed. But it can be quickened to new life in the modern initiate consciousness that is able to complete the exoteric aspect of expression with its esoteric context. A mystery formula for this is:
Ex Deo nascimur.
In Christo morimur.
Per Spiritum Sanctum revivissimus.
That is, “Out of God we are born, in Christ we die, through the Holy Spirit we are resurrected.” As breath is to the word, so is the Holy Spirit to Christ, the Logos. Speech fashions, forms, and sculpts the breath that it may serve as a suitable vessel of communication. Similarly, the Spirit bears the very Logos which first informed it; the Logos which did not create itself, but was born from God for the sake of drawing all things back to Himself. This he accomplished by entering the darkness to permeate it with light, and uniting with death so as to transform it to new life. Thus, the Holy Spirit revivifies the Word that was sacrificed for perception by sense, entombed in the matter of expression.
King David lent halting and intuitive expression to the word-like nature of Creation before the mystery wisdom was renewed in Christ:
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech, and night after night they reveal knowledge. (Psalm 19:1-2)
The Psalmist, however, echoing Plutarch’s lamentation in On The Obsolescence of the Oracles, continues in the next line to indicate their vacuity
There is no speech nor language; their voice is not heard.
The skies, like the oracles, have grown silent. In Plutarch’s notorious enunciation, “Great Pan is dead.”
Such would have to be the verdict of anyone without esoteric insight. But I hope that the study till now may allow us to form a different picture. The skies and nature gods are mute, “shut up.” They no longer possess their own organs of articulation. And yet they still reveal knowledge, only they do now through us as their mouthpiece. The means of expression are myriad and likely bounded only by our ingenuity and creative impulse. Poets, artists, alchemists, and philosophers attempt to lend their spirit to be sculpted by the Logos of creation which they may then announce. As the larynx forms the breath into words, so the world imparts its mysteries to the mind that is both silent and active. Steiner, for instance, developed an art-form called “Eurythmy” in an effort to make manifest this invisible creativity inherent in both speech and cognition. Eurythmy, therefore, is to be understood as visible speech; the dancer embodies the invisible forms that phonemes assume in the body of the air. The reader is encouraged to carry this exploration further either in her own meditation or in conversation. It is my hope that I have initiated a topic worthy of contemplation.