theology

Esoteric Secrecy

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about secrecy, privacy, and mystery in the context of the occult and esoteric religion. These three concepts come up a lot, from oaths of secrecy, secret societies, hidden mysteries, and so on. Let’s start by making some distinctions between those terms.

Secrecy is the act of not sharing information you have and others don’t. Some examples are the signs of recognition in Freemasonry and other secret societies, not revealing the name of your initiator, or not sharing your membership in¬†a particular order.

Privacy is about not sharing information you have, but other people also have it, or can reasonably assume it. What you do in the bathroom isn’t a secret, everybody knows what you’re doing, but we don’t share the details because it’s private.

Mystery is something that can’t be told, only experienced. We say that the Eucharist is a mystery, and I think that’s pretty apt. We can talk about the Eucharist all day long, but it’s the experience of it that can’t be relayed through a website or book. Of course, I might be biased ūüėČ

There was a time when it was very important for people who studied esoteric subjects¬†to¬†keep their interests a secret, but those days are largely gone. As a result, I believe most people think of secrecy in the occult more along the lines of privacy these days. It’s unlikely, in¬†most places, that you would lose your job for your esoteric beliefs, but there¬†could still certainly be social repercussions, and for that reason alone, sometimes leaving things unsaid is still a useful strategy. Of course, I believe there are also some things in ceremonial magic that can be psychologically and ontologically dangerous, and keeping those teachings for more advanced students is also prudent, but I’m not sure if actual damage from this is all that common. But your mileage may vary.

To paraphrase Dion Fortune, the real secrets of the occult can’t be told, they can only be experienced. In other words, mystery. For many, this is how secrecy is actually experienced in esoteric orders, and I think there’s some real value in this approach. There isn’t a lot of occult knowledge that you can’t find in¬†a few minutes of searching, but what good is reading a book of magic without¬†picking up a candle and actually doing it? You can read about the benefits of meditation for the rest of your life, but you won’t have any grasp of¬†it at all until you sit many hours in silence.

Of course, I’m a Gnostic, and not just a regular Gnostic, but one of those really deviant, hard-core, world-hating dualist kind (I’m only half kidding). As a Gnostic, I see another use for esoteric secrecy that I haven’t seen a lot of people talking about. If we take the Gnostic worldview seriously (and definitely if we take it literally), then there are forces at work in the world whose job it is to, at best, maintain the status quo, or at worst, forcefully preventing us from achieving our divine potential. These forces operate on a different level of “reality” than our normal consciousness, and as such, if we are to transcend their influence, we need to change how we¬†interact with the mundane world.¬†We literally need to do things differently than we are used to doing them. I propose one way to do that¬†is to strategically use secrecy as a magical¬†act in and of itself.

This idea isn’t yet fully formed, but the seed is there. What I’m thinking is that, as a ritual act of defiance against the rulers of this world, that we can use the tools of secrecy, privacy, and mystery to shield our actions from the demiurge and his minions. Online encryption, codes, secret signs of recognition, liturgy and ritual, or just plain keeping your mouth shut about some important things, these are just some of the ideas I’ve had on this so far. Talking about esoteric subjects online with your religion nerd friends? Try using PGP to encrypt your emails. Having coffee with your initiator?¬†Do a quick warding ritual. Just remember what the sphinx does: Know, Will, Dare, and Keep Silent.

sphinx bannerArtboard 1

There will be more to come on this I’m sure, but these are just my opening thoughts. Of course, like many ritual acts, these are more to work on our own consciousness than on the spirit world, but every time you do a small ritual act to make yourself more self-aware, this has a profound cumulative effect. If you try any of this out I would love to hear from you! Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

The Virtual and the Actual

My boss in the Church, Mar Thomas, did a lecture this past summer at the Church’s annual Conclave. His topic was Gnosticism: Ancient and Modern. You can watch part one of his lecture, which was just posted today, on the Church’s YouTube channel. He talks about the definition of Gnosticism, a subject that could be debated for the rest of time.

One point I’d like to tease out a bit is the difference between the “spirit vs. matter dualism” and the “actual vs. virtual” that His Grace describes in the video. I really like this distinction. It implies, or, at least I inferred, that there can be an actual/virtual split in all aspects of the Divine emanation, from the undifferentiated Fullness down to ourselves. Subject and object.

There is, however, a distinction you can point to. At some point the actual and virtual are different. Like ice and water, you won’t confuse the two. Each has its characteristics. I’ve only just started thinking about this, so I will probably have a lot more to say on the subject.

A Gnostic View of Soul and Spirit

I’m going to do some pointing at the moon for this post, so take it for what it’s worth.

There is, in my opinion, a distinction between the soul and spirit, when talking about the individual on the microcosmic scale. I don’t believe this is how most people treat the subject, however. Most people I encounter would, I suspect, use the two words to refer to the same thing: that part of us which is eternal. For me, this is only accurate when describing the Spirit, and I’ll tell you why.

St. Paul, one of the most Gnostic of the Biblical authors, refers to the three parts of a person in¬†1 Thessalonians 5:23 where he says: “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This mirrors the tripartite division of humanity as the Valentinians would have seen it: the hylic (people of matter), psychic (people of soul), and pneumatic (people of spirit). St. Valentinus’ teachings ultimately stemmed from those of St. Paul, so this stands to reason. While, on the one hand, St. Valentinus is referring to the people (the macrocosm), and on the other St. Paul talks about the individual (the microcosm), the concepts are two sides of the same coin. Humanity and the human have three parts. [1]

What we call the Spirit, or Sacred Flame, is that Spark of the Divine that unites all people with the transcendent Godhead. It is the awareness of the true reality of this Spark that we call Gnosis, or at least an aspect of it. The Spirit is eternal, unchanging, and, in typical everyday consciousness, occluded by the other parts of us. The work of the Gnostic is to clear the debris of a life lived in the physical world so that the light of the Sacred Flame can shine through and illuminate the world.

What, then, is the soul, if not all that? I believe the soul is the animating principle, that which gives us Earthly life. It is our thoughts and emotions. For almost all of us, the soul is a collection of patterned responses developed as we grow up. Through instinct and conditioning from the moment we are born to the world we create a persona that allows us to interact with the material world and the people and things in it. If you believe in the archons in some form, you could say that they (or the forces they represent) have created the world in such a way as to encourage the individual to build psychic (in terms of psyche) structures that block the awareness of the Spirit. I like to use the metaphor of a mirror. It’s made of glass, but there is a coating of reflective metal, often silver or aluminium, on one side. The mirror is the soul, but behind it sits the Sacred Flame.

The mirror reflects the world back to itself. It is very good at doing so. However, through spiritual practice designed to develop awareness, we can erode the silver coating on the mirror, little by little, until the Sacred Flame shines through. When our soul is as transparent as glass, that is the state to which we aspire. We call that Theosis. Gnosis is the awareness that there is a Sacred Flame burning behind the mirror, Theosis is the light shining through a transparent soul.

[1] It should be pointed out that I know of no modern Gnostic groups who believe in the kind of radical determinism that the Valentinian texts imply. The three divisions of humanity are seen as states of being, and are fluid. Individuals can move between these states through spiritual work and awareness, or lack thereof.

Photo credit: Holy Spirit dove window by hickory hardscrabble