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The Cross and the Grail
Esoteric Christianity for the 21st century
By Robert Ellwood
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 1997 Robert Ellwood
All rights reserved.
WHAT WE ARE SEARCHING FOR
For some two millennia two images have haunted the spiritual dreams of the Christian West: the Cross and the Grail. The Cross is a symbol of suffering, yet it is also sometimes ornamented with gems. It suggests the outward face of Christianity, whether in the public agony of Jesus on Calvary or in the sign exalted on the steeples of countless churches. The Grail is a symbol of festive abundance, yet at the same time is hidden, seldom seen, not always thought of as outwardly splendid. It points toward the esoteric dimension of Christianity: to that which is hidden behind the outer form, is sought by knights who already wear the Cross, and is found only by the purest of the pure.
If the Grail represents the esoteric side of Christianity, its significance lies not only in its being found by just the few, but also in that it is found not by having the right answers, but by asking the right question. The reason Sir Galahad was able to see the Grail was because he correctly asked, "Whom does the Grail serve?"
Perhaps the same question could be asked of the esoteric Christianity that the Grail symbolizes: Whom, or what purpose, does esoteric religion serve? There must be an inner side to a religion as old and widespread as that of Christianity. Does it matter if there is? Does it benefit the world in general, or anyone in particular? These are questions to ponder as you read this book.
Planet Earth is awash with religions and beliefs, and of those faiths, Christianity is the most prominent. About one-fourth of the Earth's people are Christian, at least in cultural background, and the faith remains vital. It has weakened now in its ancient stronghold of western Europe but is vigorous in the Americas and in newly-missionized areas of Africa and Asia. In the ex-communist countries, Christianity not only survives but can be credited for having exerted some degree of opposition to totalitarianism, in that it has represented the only aspect of life not completely controlled by the state. As usual, this picture is ambiguous; Christianity today, as in the past, is associated in some places with repugnant extremes of nationalism and anti-intellectualism. Yet it also gives expression to much that is positive, for example, the compassion of Mother Teresa and the advocacy for the poor in Latin America.
Indeed, Christianity is a religious world in itself, displaying a variety of forms as incredible as those of Hinduism: the colorful ritual of a Roman Catholic solemn high mass, the slow otherworldliness of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy, the deep silence of a Quaker meeting, the joyous babble of Pentecostal speaking in tongues, the dignified preaching of Presbyterianism, and much more.
Because of this ubiquity and influence, of all the religious images and thought-forms of power floating in the world today, none are of more importance than those of Christianity. Some love it, some hate it, many are merely indifferent to it, finding the faith outmoded and irrelevant to their lives. And yet the Christian faith flourishes in many hearts. Indeed, it may be argued that in the dawn of the twenty-first century, after the fall of so many of the idols that once haunted the twentieth, from fascism and communism to excessive belief in human progress, Christianity may attain a new burst of vitality.
The problem with Christianity for some people is that it is not easily comprehensible on levels that mesh with the rest of their lives. Its Scriptures seem to speak of another world and another age in which miracles happened regularly and prescientific views of the universe were taken for granted. How do you make sense of a world of camels, shepherds, and kings in a life in which the dominant nonreligious images are far more likely to be of cars, corporations, and congresses? Some will say that our fundamental human problems remain the same, and no doubt they are right. But language and image are important for communication; some way must be found to comprehend the words that bridge the centuries.
Evangelicals and other conservatives within Christianity proclaim that the words of Scripture are above culture and must be taken on their own terms, judging and negating the culture when need be. Liberals, on the other hand, contend that faith must be correlated with the best scientific and philosophical thought of each age and interpreted in terms sufficient to make it contemporary.
The esoteric approach of this book is somewhat different from either of these positions. It does not take the words of the faith—its biblical stories and its doctrines—to be necessarily true in a historical or scientific sense. Neither does it reduce them simply to whatever comports with the current secular scientific worldview, as though infallibility had moved from the Vatican to the laboratory and the university. Rather, this perspective takes the stories and doctrines to be archetypes and thought-forms that have a life and truth of their own, both because they are believed and because they correspond to universal truths—the "ancient wisdom"—known to profound mystics and sages of all times and embedded in some form in all the great religions. But these truths are inward rather than literal—manifesting more in the realms of the psyche than in the outer layers of the universe.
Before developing this idea, however, let us again consider Christianity as a contemporary world religion. The question naturally arises: if esoteric truth can be found in all great religions, why should we choose to work particularly with this one? There is no absolutely compelling reason; on the other hand, why not? Surely Christianity was founded by a great Master and contains as fair a share of the ancient wisdom as do other religions; surely it lends itself as soundly as any other faith to esoteric interpretation and spirituality of practice. For one-fourth of the world's population, it is the most familiar religion. Further, Christianity can claim several unique and positive features in its teaching and historical role, from its affirmation of God's action and self-revelation in the midst of history and ordinary human life, to its role in many of the Western world's social reforms. So why not work with it?
ROMANTICISM AND CHRISTIANITY
One interesting claim to explore is that of the nineteenth-century clergyman and literary critic Stopford Brooke, cited in the Preface, that "Christianity is the most romantic of all religions." Romanticism, a literary and spiritual movement that began in the late eighteenth century, held that truth is best known and creativity is best expressed not through mere reason or facticity, but through imagination, feeling, freedom of expression, and introspection. Imagination, used in the highest sense of the word as forming mental images imbued with pure and powerful emotions to set against the mysteries of cosmos and self, was a way of knowing the inwardness as well as the surfaces of things. Stories, above all those which stretched the imagination through their treatment of the distant and the past or by moments of intense feeling, were exercises for the mind as well as ways of knowing.
From its beginning, European Romanticism had a special affinity for the Middle Ages, as reflected in the novels of Sir Walter Scott and many other Gothic writers. Romanticism was the key to the revival of interest in King Arthur, Camelot, and the Holy Grail, so well captured in Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King and Richard Wagner's Parsifal. In all such works, themes of the quest come through powerfully like a distant but persistent melody: themes of a summoning and engaging sense of wonder, of conflict and suffering that is not just wasted energy but profoundly meaningful. In the end, tragedy fades into visions of glory shining down castle walls or manifesting in the unimaginable treasure of the Grail, a glory keener than any sorrow and inducing joy greater than anything the material world alone can give.
In all these respects, Christianity is indeed very romantic. Here, in the life of its greatest hero, Jesus Christ, is the quest embodied. In his words and parables and disturbing presence, the magical feel of something more—the kingdom of heaven—lies shimmering just beyond ordinary sight, like glimpses of gold caught out of the corner of one's eye. His sector of the Path led him to death on the Cross and, beyond all hope, to resurrection—the extremes of desolation and unexpected joy. His was a life on all the edges, cutting to the core of both the greatest darkness and the most brilliant light of which human life is capable, ending in joy which could only be contained by bringing in heaven, too. It was a life rich with a quality of meaning and fulfillment to which most of us can only aspire.
Here, then, in the life of Christ are all the essential elements of the hero myth: his remarkable birth, his ordeal, his triumph, and his return home. Here is the Divine Father and the Great Mother (in Mary) and the dying/rising god. Here also is the romance of association with times and places that are the stuff of legend in our cultural tradition, from Byzantium to Camelot. The story of Christ presents images that help us to link our inner universes with the outer cosmos and interpret our human significance in terms of the Whole. Though we may not die on a Cross or return to life in this world after death, we do know suffering, and we live all our days in the shadow of death. To understand the correlation between our suffering and our ultimate fulfillment is faith. Faith is not merely a way of knowing; it is also a way of participating.
On a somewhat more mundane level, note that just as romantics were much concerned with human relations, whether in terms of eternal love between two persons or of the ideal structure of society, so Christianity also is profoundly concerned with love on all levels and with the nature of communities. It views the church ideally as a community of love which affirms and supports all persons within it. While often the reality falls far short of the ideal, churches continue to try. Today perhaps more than ever, amid these dark and mazelike times, people come to the church as much, if not more, for community, for ordinary everyday support in family and personal life, as for the sake of more recondite doctrines or experiences. Yet Christian community has an esoteric meaning of its own.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves, giving answers before we ask the correct questions. What are we looking for in these gray years, when so much hope is gone and so many visions are punctured? Do possible vehicles for hope and vision remain? How do we begin to find them in our current cultural quagmire?
We can start, I believe, by asking ourselves and our world, so silent about the really important things, for some way to look up and see the stars turning in their great arcs, making years and cycles that extend almost to infinity. For in the last analysis, what we want is a sense that our lives, like Christ's, have some kind of long-term significance—not only for others, but also for ourselves. We want to be in touch with a level of reality beyond ourselves—to gaze beyond the one-dimensional obscurity of the present and know ourselves, as Jesus knew himself, to be on a Path far longer and greater than the span of this one life. I his is the great Path, the Path through unimaginable worlds and ages on several planes that we have been following since we left our ultimate home. Those worlds are largely forgotten, but they have left traces in dreams and resonances that whisper almost without words deep within us. This Path will eventually take us Home again, and the whispers will turn to music.
On this journey, we would like to locate a community of seekers like ourselves with whom to share the travel. We yearn for the guiding wisdom of people who are in but not entirely of the present and who are here to do two things: survive with their souls intact and do all they can to help. We would like to be part of a brilliant and inspiring fellowship like that of the knights of the Round Table or the companions on the Grail quest, committed to sublime chivalric values and seeking together realities on the frontiers of human vision. Or we would like to be as those in the church's many orders and communities of faith, blessed with humility and living for service and not for themselves alone. We would like a community that is not only seeking and doing, but also has answers, however humbly expressed, and above all is committed to sharing love and support with us and our families. In these days of divorce, single-parenting, and the virtual demise of the old-fashioned extended family—stifling and yet so reliable and supportive—we yearn for anything that can even partly take the place of what we have lost. One reason religion remains alive in America today is because it offers virtually the only institutions that can begin to take the place of the extended family. We are looking for communities of faith that take the role of the family seriously.
Yet we also yearn for something that will caress our hearts as we wander through the modern spiritual wasteland: a practice—prayer, meditation, chant, ritual—able to lift us out of the flat plane of the present into a deeper, richer kind of consciousness, rooted in the fullness of the past and the wider circles of the universe. We want the rhythm of ritual, which has a different vibration from that of the mundane world around us.
Finally, for our minds as well as our hearts, we wish for a teaching and a worldview that unites self, community, practice, and universe into a meaningful whole—one that shows us why the world is as it is and then points us upward toward the moon and stars.
Above all, we desire to know that we are on the Path in the fullest sense of the word. We want to walk in a way that combines all three of the above: community, practice, and teaching. We inwardly crave a way that comes from somewhere and is going somewhere. We would like to be able to say as confidently as the Jesus of St. John's Gospel, "I proceeded and came forth from God; I came not of my own accord, but he sent me" (John 8:42). We seldom have this confidence, yet there is that in us which wants to ask: Where is the Father, the parent from which you came and I came? (John 8:18).
There is something within me which yearns to know that I have come from somewhere and am going somewhere, on more than just the biological level. I am a unique constellation of ideas, impulses, and dreams, yet I sometimes find it hard to interpret this ephemeral sense of self even to those nearest and dearest. Somewhere within me is a place known only to myself. It spreads before my inner eyes bright under the sun, a landscape strewn with star-fields of my favorite flowers. Beneath them are caverns even I have only partially explored, my trembling hands holding a torch that casts shadows greater than its light. But out of these fields and caverns come much of what I am and do, including those things that others—and sometimes even I—find hard to understand. Is there a Path to walk inwardly as well as outwardly? There is, and it can be expressed through esoteric Christianity.
This is not to say that Christianity, as it is now outwardly expressed, is a perfect religion. All historically conditioned religions are limited by place, time, and culture. They all have learned much, but have much more to learn, before the end. Perhaps the time will come when each of them, including Christianity, will be superseded, their task in history complete. In my own view, Christianity needs to express more profoundly the interrelatedness of life and the full meaning of universal compassion, especially as those virtues are practically expressed in harmlessness and vegetarianism. Further, Christianity needs to relinquish its false spirit of exclusivity and the urge to judge the faith of others. It should re-frain from confusing the right expression of faith with the expression of faith in the right words.
Yet on the level of esoteric Christianity, many of these shortcomings can be corrected. The romantic forms of the faith remain wondrous and capable of being comprehended on several planes. Esotericism always points beyond its visible symbols, knowing that none of them fully contain all truth but can only allude to it. It is therefore right to encourage those drawn to Christianity to remain with it, learn it from the inside out, and let it be a vehicle for esoteric understanding. The potential for this kind of learning and experience to occur exists in Christianity as completely as in any other faith.
THE NATURE OF THE PATH
This world is made up of the drama of human life and human history. Behind it is the evolution of souls; behind these, the experience of the One; and behind all these, joy, ananda, bliss, peace, which is the true state of the One: hard to penetrate, hard to know by those of us still on the Path, yet nonetheless accessible.
The principle of this Path is to intuit—even to know—that our personal inner geometry of stars and shadows was formed over eons of experience on many worlds and is a legacy we must treasure until we finally arrive Home on the day all hearts share their secrets. At that time, all love will be consummated amid the unutterable wonder of knowing all others as we are known. All pilgrimages will come to rest, and all gathered riches will be enhanced a thousandfold through sharing in the giving and receiving of the final feast. And for each traveler, the end will come in its own time, for the Path is neither long nor short by human reckoning.
Excerpted from The Cross and the Grail by Robert Ellwood. Copyright © 1997 Robert Ellwood. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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