Saturday, 20 February 2016

Mysticism, the Occult and human spirituality


Lent 2016: Day 11

The death yesterday of Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, coincides with a Lenten post I'd been planning about occultism and its place in Mankind's quest for the spiritual.

Heading to Luton Airport on Thursday, I spotted a stately home on the top of a ridge, overlooking the Midlands main line. The house, which must have pre-dated the railway, had a particularly fine sweeping view, and the owners must have been displeased at the appearance of trains rushing through the valley below. I was suddenly minded of 'Mount Prospect', seat of Lord Mount Prospect, eponymous subject of a short story by John Betjeman. For Lord Mount Prospect, you see, was an Ember-Day Bryanite.

Like any other sect, the Ember-Day Bryanites (a delicious invention of Betjeman's) history begins with a fevered individual's epiphany in which God has spoken unto him, a group of followers emerge, a brief flowering, then disappearance into obscurity and oblivion.

Cults and sects claiming to bear secret mysteries only to be unfolded to adepts have come and gone. Man likes mysteries, they are at the core of storytelling - a most human of traits.

The acquisition of secret knowledge - in contradiction to Christian teaching, which holds that the Bible holds all received truth - was once a risky endeavour. With the Holy Inquisition riding forth, as Umberto Eco points out in The Name of the Rose, people with unorthodox views would indeed hide them and engage in secret rituals.

From Foucault's Pendulum it was but a short jump to the Gnostics, Albigensians, Templars, Rosicrucians, Illuminati and Freemasons - and here we are in Dan Brown territory. Humans are always attracted to mysteries. Holy Blood, Holy Grail, upon which the Da Vinci Code draws, has them all - the bloodline of Christ, temporal power and wealth to be gained by those who Know.

To start a cult, come up with a belief systems rooted in a mystery, hide it well, and then market it. Scientology is a great example thereof. Steeping oneself in mystery does indeed provide comfort, but the danger is that the feeling of comfort slows down spiritual growth, or points it into blind alleys.

In today's world with instant online access to an endless amount of information, it is difficult to hide religious mysteries. In any case, in the Western world, the Church has ceased hunting down, interrogating and punishing heretics. There is no need for hiding. The occult - knowledge of hidden secrets - might appeal to our inherent desire for mystery - but essentially an obstacle to spiritual growth. Searching for meaning in secret symbols attracts those with an inclination towards restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests.

The human search for higher meaning, for spiritual enlightenment can unfurl itself unhindered, not sequestered in catacombs but reach for the brightness of truth, elusive though that might be. Spiritual growth depends on openness to learn, to acquire positive insights that are common across cultures and faiths. Wikipedia allows us to read about many hermetic cults and occult belief systems; all of a sudden it becomes easy to learn what drove them, and what notions they have at their core. It is also worth testing hypotheses, scientific, pseudo-scientific, philosophical or medical, against the arguments of sceptics (or even skeptics). I find skepdic.com a useful source of evidence-based counter-arguments to many far-fetched theories.

We are on a spiritual quest, an evolutionary journey from zero to one; we are aware that we perceive and that awareness should grow, within our lifetimes - and beyond - but we must keep searching.


This time last year:
How do we see God?

This time two years ago:
Who needs a Leica with a Noctilux lens when you can do this?

This time three years ago:
Fides quaerens intellectum

This time five years ago:
To the Devil with it all! - short story, Part II

This time six years ago:
Building the bypass as the snows melt

The time eight years ago:
Two weeks into Lent

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