REFLECTIONS on READING
or The Lesser Mysteries
by Annie Besant
(The Theosophical Publishing House, 1966).
In my review of two books on the life and role of Mary Magdalene, I ventured into the role of Jesus as well, and as I was doing so I kept running into ideas that seemed familiar.
Then it dawned on me, some of these key ideas I had read about, 40-some years ago, in a little book called Esoteric Christianity or The Lesser Mysteries by Annie Besant (Eighth Ed., The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, 1966).
I was a new Mormon at that time, and was given the book by my father, a Theosophist, who thought that some of the things I was telling him about my new religion sounded like things that Annie Besant was teaching about the deeper meanings hidden in Christianity in this little book.
So here I am today, almost 40 years later, and I have not thought about this little book for these last four decades. But, as I was recently reading Mary Magdalene, Bride in Exile by Margaret Starbird (Bear & Company, 2005) and The Mystical Life of Jesus, An Uncommon Perspective on the Life of Christ by Sylvia Browne (Dutton, 2006) I kept feeling like some of the major themes of both books seemed quite familiar and kept thinking I had encountered them before in Annie Besant’s (b. 1847- d.1933) Esoteric Christianity.
So, to investigate whether or not my memory was correct I obtained my city library’s only copy of this book by Besant, read it again, put slivers of paper to mark interesting thoughts into almost every page, and saw that in some instances I was very right, very similar things are being taught by Besant and either Browne or Starbird, or both.
In other cases I was not quite so right, the ideas were not quite as comparable as I thought they were. In a few cases there was no comparison at all.
One of those instances of there being no basis for a comparison was the major theme in both Browne and Starbird of the role of Mary Magdalene. Browne and Starbird both say she was married to Jesus and a leader in his movement. Besant, by contrast, never mentions Mary Magdalene. Not at all, even though she does cite both Christian scriptures and a Gnostic treatise by Valentinus, the Pistis Sophia, (page 96) that mention her.
Where the two modern books diverged from Besant's book, but not as totally as may be expected, was regarding the death of Christ. In the one case (Browne) he escaped death, just barely, and lived into his mid-80s. In the other case (Starbird) he died on the cross. Besant also assumes he died on the cross as the story is told in the New Testament, but in extreme old age. Not like Browne, who has him dying of natural caused in his mid-80s! Besant cites information obtained in a similar way as claimed by Browne. Her insights into the ancient past come from the clairvoyant seer, the founder of Theosophy, H. P. Blavatsky (page 89).
Blavatsky claimed to be in communication with Ascended Masters [a claim not made, and a term not used by Besant in this book, but a claim Blavatsky made in her opus “The Secret Doctrine” which I also read about 40 years ago]. Using this information from the well-informed ‘dead,’ Blavatsky said Jesus was “well-born but poor,” in 105 B.C.! (Page 90).
Browne has Jesus traveling the world for wisdom, Besant has Jesus traveling to Egypt only, and only after the Essenes have grown tired of him and booted him out. He was introduced to Persian and Indian mysteries at an Essene monastery (page 91) where travelers stopped on their way to Egypt. Egypt is where the sages of the east came to teach, and Jesus went there after he had sufficiently upset the Essenes, and learned from these eastern and Egyptian sages in that country.
It was in Egypt that Jesus “received the royal consecration which prepared him for the Royal Priesthood he was later to attain” (page 91), says Besant. In Starbird and Browne it was at the time of his anointing by Mary that he received this consecration making him the Christ, which means the Anointed one.
The love story embedded into the Christ story by Browne and Starbird somehow seems less likely if Jesus was very, very old at the time of his 3-year ministry. But love is not age-specific so maybe. . . . For sure, Browne’s version of a surviving Jesus having yet more children and living many more years in what is now France is incompatible with an extremely old Jesus. Or am I wrong in presuming that the effects of advancing age on Jesus would be just like the effects of advancing age on myself?
All three authors, Browne, Starbird and Besant, assume something important has been lost from Christianity over time. This is how Besant describes this loss on her page 99:
That Mighty One who had used the body of Jesus as His vehicle, and whose guardian care extends over the whole spiritual evolution of the fifth race of humanity, gave into the strong hands of the holy disciple who had surrendered to Him His body the care of the infant Church. Perfecting his human evolution, Jesus became one of the Masters of Wisdom, and took Christianity under His special charge, ever seeking to guide it to the right lines, to protect, to guard and nourish it. He was the Hierophant of the Christian Mysteries, the direct Teacher of the Initiates. His the inspiration that kept alight the Gnosis in the Church, until the superincumbent mass of ignorance became so great that even His breath could not fan the flame sufficiently to prevent its extinguishment.
Note her mention of a fifth race of humanity, when she mentions race it is not what is today’s usage of that word but she is describing the evolutionary cycles through which humanity is traveling, via reincarnation, until they become filled with the Christ, recognizing the Hidden God within themselves, thereby finding themselves in the Kingdom (see pages 98 and 99).
Besant, on her next two pages, goes on to explain that it was Jesus’ inspiration that caused the bright lights of history’s leaders in ethics, religion, and science to burn in our history, bringing us to our modern day. He also inspired and inspires the beauty in the master painters’ and master composers’ works of art. He inspired and inspires mystic upon mystic granting them the great spiritual insights their souls long for. And even now (page 100). . .“He is seeking through the Churches for some who have ears to hear the Wisdom, and who will answer to His appeal for messengers to carry it to His flock:”. . . This is the very calling that both Browne and Starbird claim to have heard and are responding to.
Since we have now mentioned reincarnation, it should be made clear that Besant believes it to have been an accepted fact in the early Christian movement. Browne believes the same. Besant explains why reincarnation is necessary from a larger perspective than Browne indicated. On her page 166 Besant explains one of the functions of the lower of the three divisions of a human being’s “spiritual body.” As if explaining the claim of Paul to have ascended into the third heaven, Besant explains on her page 165 that “Initiates”
. . . “are well aware that those who pass beyond the first heaven need that truly spiritual body as their vehicle, and that according to the development of its three divisions is the heaven into which they can penetrate.”
The lowest of the three divisions of the spiritual body is the “Causal” body, and it plays a defining role in reincarnation as explained on page 166:
The lowest of these three divisions is usually called the Causal Body, for a reason that will be only fully assimilable to by those who have studied the teaching of Reincarnation—taught in the Early Church—and who understands that human evolution needs very many successive lives on earth, ere the germinal soul of the savage can become the perfected soul of the Christ, and then, becoming perfect as the Father in heaven, can realize the union of the Son with the Father. It is a body that lasts from life to life, and in it all memory of the past is stored. From it come the causes that build up the lower bodies. It is the receptacle of human experience, the treasure-house in which all we gather in our lives is stored up, the seat of Conscience, the wielder of the Will.
On page 168 she returns to reincarnation as a theme and in a footnote explains that by the seventeenth century when the King James Version was being translated:
. . . All idea of the pre-existence of the soul and its evolution had long faded out of Christendom, save in the teachings of a few sects regarded as heretical and persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church.
This immediately brings to mind the Cathars, and Besant shows on her page 78 that she is aware of them as part of a longer discussion of mystics and their insights. Around the Church:
. . . there also sprang up many sects, deemed heretical, yet containing true traditions of the sacred secret learning, the Cathari and many others, persecuted by a Church jealous of her authority, and fearing lest the holy pearls should pass into profane custody.
Besant names many mystics in a historical tour showing that spiritual truths are ever being revealed at various times to various persons. But she has sober observations about these individual lights both before and after the history tour of mystics. On pages 75-76 she observes there were two streams of spiritual knowing in play, one of Mystic-learning dealing with the Mysteries, hence disciplined, and the other:
. . . was the stream of mystic contemplation, equally part of the Gnosis, leading to the ecstasy, to spiritual vision. This latter, however, divorced from knowledge, rarely attained the true ecstasies, and tended either to run riot in he lower regions of the invisible worlds, or to lose itself amid a variegated crowd of subtle superphysical forms, visible as objective appearances to the inner vision—prematurely forced by fastings, vigils, and strained attention—but mostly born of the thoughts and emotions of the seer. Even when the forms observed were not externalized thoughts, they were seen through a distorting atmosphere of preconceived ideas and beliefs, and were thus rendered largely unreliable. None the less, some of the visions were verily of heavenly things, and Jesus truly appeared from time to time to His devoted lovers, and angels would sometimes brighten with their presence the cell of monk and nun, the solitude of rapt devotee and patient seeker after God.
Among Besant’s list of mystics she admires is my friend Ruysbroeck (page 79, my spelling was Ruisbroec, but it is the same person as I discuss elsewhere on this site). Besant does not include many female mystics, their writings were not readily available in her day.
Then after her description of the mystics of history from the time of the early Church to almost the present, she again observes, not critically but wistfully, on pages 81 and 82:
Yet, as we salute reverently these Children of the Light, scattered over the centuries, we are forced to recognize in them the absence of that union of acute intellect and high devotion which were welded together by the training of the Mysteries, and while we marvel that they soared so high, we cannot but wish that their rare gifts had been developed under that magnificent disciplina arcani.
On page 82 she also decries the iconoclasts and their current followers: “temples and images are necessary for men” she writes. I would agree. Having been raised in the Calvinist tradition as a youth in the Netherlands, it was a positive revelation to see the impact of art and color in a church when I first visited a Catholic cathedral. Also, one of the facets of Mormonism I really appreciated was its separate worship possibility in temples, sanctuaries closed off to the world, places of refuge for a harried soul to go to and recuperate.
Starbird says Christ's death was not an act of Divine redemption but an unfortunate re-enactment of the very ancient sacrifice of the king after the celebration of the anointing by an important royal priestess in a semblance of a hieros gamos or divine marriage ceremony. Besant also suggests his mission can be understood by studying the mysteries taught in religions contemporaneous with and coming long before Christ, but does claim his death to be a voluntary sacrifice for the benefit of mankind.
In her chapter on the “Mythic Christ” she essentially suggests that the parallels with the mythic dying and resurrecting gods and their virginal origins were hung on Jesus by those desiring to raise him to equality with these other gods. Besant will forgive me, I’m sure, for thus condensing, mangling, and trivializing her well-reasoned and frankly interesting chapter. My take from this is that perhaps she would see what Starbird does in her book as illustrating this mythification process as continuing even now. Besant putting the entire ministry and key happenings with Mary’s anointing, the last supper, etc., in Jesus’ 90s, makes the love story between himself and Mary less likely and less appealing, and certainly would preclude his moving to France and living and teaching many more decades. Besant has him returning to earth in his refined body and teaching for 50 more years, teaching just his inner circle of devotees to ready them for moving into the world (page 95).
But Besant, like the two modern authors, claims that the modern Christian view of a sacrifice to satisfy the wrath of God for human sin is a wrong and destructive interpretation. Besant explains the Law of Sacrifice and the associated law of derived lives in her chapter on "The Atonement” as the keys to understanding the voluntary sacrifice that this God-man (as he is labeled by Browne also) made of himself to aid the evolution of humanity. And it worked for a time, until his message eventually became so garbled as to lose its meaning, almost, except for those few “who have ears to hear” in every age
This is quite similar in tone to Browne’s claims about the original Christian message and how it was changed, but Browne has the change beginning with Paul’s story of a self-sacrificing God who takes upon himself the penalties for human sin. Besant has no problem with Paul, in fact she hails him as a key to understanding that there was indeed a deeper mysticism in original Christianity, a knowledge reserved for those who had proven themselves after their initiation through professing belief and baptism. This is a part of her first two chapters, the first of which establishes that all religions have a gradation of teachings, with some initiatory and other thresholds that have to be passed before being allowed to become part of the circles that can be exposed to the deeper teachings.
The second chapter does an excellent job proving this is also the case for Christianity, using both the testimony of scripture, especially Paul’s writings, and that of the earliest Church fathers, who were rather open about this state of affairs. She cites Clement and Justinian and Origen as being quite adamant on this point. When I first read this book, it was these chapters, and their quotations speaking of unwritten, but spoken instructions using symbols and allegories to believers who had proven themselves inside veils, as it were, that enthused me as a new Mormon. Why? Because just before reading this book I had passed my final requirement to then be allowed into the higher teachings of that religion as they are offered in their temples around the world.
What made the Besant book’s first two chapters appealing, in part, forty years ago when I was first introduced to Mormon temple worship was the warning that accompanies the temple ceremony. The warning is just a friendly reminder that what is seen and heard in a temple is (1) symbolic, and (2) is not to be discussed outside the temple with anyone, and is not to be written down. This is very much in harmony with what Annie Besant teaches about early Christianity and how it preserved an inner tradition orally for tried members only. She establishes this as historical fact in her first two chapters.
Even when she introduces such rarified ideas as different heavenly levels with keys of knowledge obtained through sacraments for passing between levels, these notions also somehow supported my Mormon beliefs. It was all good, through the first two chapters.
But then came the chapter on the historical Christ, and the chapter on the atonement, and I fell off her wagon---back then. But now, almost four decades later, having shed my religion on theo-ethical grounds, I find the exact facets of Besant’s work that put me off before now have become attractive!
The way I fell away is something Besant discusses generically at the start of her chapter two. There she discusses the modern (at her time, but she refers especially to the mass exodus of church members in the last 40 years of the 19th century) falling away from Christianity as a rising awareness of the inadequacy of an angry, intolerant God who requires a bloody sacrifice to cool the heat of his anger.
I think it is interesting [to me anyway] that the more Mormonism began to align itself with normative, literal and conservative Christianity, the more appalled I became at the notion of a God requiring the sacrifice of his firstborn Son to pay for sins he could not tolerate in a crop of children he allegedly was Father to. How could I love a God who is holding His nose when he points it in my direction, covering his nose with a handkerchief soaked in Divine/human blood that takes away the stench of my sinfulness?
Of course this particular sensitivity came after my growing realization that there was something wrong with the Mormon view of women during its covert campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment. But some time after that I began to realize that the very fundament of Mormonism is much like normative Christianity, and Mormonism is trying to become ever more aligned with that rather primitive religion with its centeredness on a divine blood-sacrifice to assuage the wrath of an intolerant God.
Mormonism softens this. It basically says Christ’s sacrifice wiped out Adam’s transgression and its pall over humanity, so there is no “original sin” problem as St. Augustine has it, a problem that makes us all evil.
We are not all evil, in fact we come into the world unsullied according to Mormon belief. As grown-ups we all fall short in our attempts to be and do good. I know that. The point was that we need to strive continually. Each of us has to work out our own salvation to the extent that we can do so, trusting that Christ’s sacrifice would make up the difference between what we could do and what was needed. It was a nice halfway house between salvation by grace and works, one of those literalist Christian controversies that serves no purpose except to dismay thoughtful people on both sides of the argument and cause them to turn from the faith.
Even though Mormonism tread this middle ground, it is still grounded on the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice, and that this sacrifice was a requirement to fulfill a law that all sin must be paid for at some point in time and Christ’s suffering, especially in the Garden of Gethsemane, is paying the penalty for sinners who repent. The Mormon view is therefore in no wise compatible with Besant’s version of what the atonement was and is all about. Besant’s view is best stated on her page 223. I just like this version, she has a whole chapter on the subject of "The Forgiveness of Sins:”
The sense of “forgiveness,”then, is the feeling which fills the heart with joy when the will is tuned to harmony with the Divine, when, the soul having opened its windows, the sunshine of love and light and bliss pours in, when the part feels its oneness with the whole, and the One Life thrills each vein. This is the noble truth that gives vitality to even the crudest presentation of the “forgiveness of sins,” and that makes it often, despite its intellectual completeness, an inspirer to pure and spiritual living. And this is the truth . . . .
But we have gotten ahead of ourselves. What do we make of the fact that Jesus’s teachings were non-unique in the ancient world? What do we make of the fact that the mythical experiences of others’ gods seem to have become historical experiences of Jesus? Starbird says it is a carrying forward of the experiences of other, older gods.
Besant says that the mythology was purposely laid over Christ’s experience to make that experience universal and symbolic because it illustrated a reality underlying our being both personal and cosmic. She does this in her "Mythical Christ” chapter after explaining the mythic meaning of signs such as the Virgin and the Lamb, attached to Jesus to symbolize his cosmic role but not to be taken literally. Besant, like Starbird, connected the Jesus story to many older and contemporaneous myths, making this summary observation at the end (pages 116-117 ):
Why have these legends mingled with the history of Jesus, and crystallized round Him, as a historical personage? These are really the stories not of a particular individual named Jesus but of the universal Christ ; a Man who filled a certain office and held a certain characteristic position towards humanity ; standing towards humanity in a special relationship, renewed age after age, as generation succeeded generation, as race gave way to race. Hence He was, as are all such, the “Son of Man,” a peculiar and distinctive title of an office, not of an individual. The Christ of the Solar Myth was the Christ of the Mysteries, and we find the secret of the mythic in the mystic Christ.
Besant’s introduction to her “The Mystic Christ” chapter speaks of “Masters of Wisdom” who dispense a “hidden teaching” to those who are prepared to receive such "secret doctrine.” Her description of these Masters in her previous chapter (page 98) is very similar to Browne’s description of the brotherhood/sisterhood of advanced souls, her “Mystical Travelers” of whom Jesus is one, if not the One, according to Browne’s chapter by that title. This is Besant’s version, which is strikingly similar in concept to Browne’s, and to some extent also Starbird’s vision of the Christ’s role in declaring the Kingdom among us:
The historical Christ, then, is a glorious Being belonging to the great spiritual hierarchy that guides the spiritual evolution of humanity, who used for some three years the human body of the disciple Jesus; who spent the last of these three years in public teaching throughout Judea and Samaria; who was a healer of diseases and performed other remarkable occult works; who gathered around Him a small band of disciples whom He instructed in the deeper truths of the spiritual life; who drew men to Him by the singular love and tenderness and the rich wisdom that breathed from His Person; and who was finally put to death for blasphemy, for teaching the inherent Divinity of Himself and of all men. He came to give a new impulse of spiritual life to the world; to re-issue the inner teachings affecting spiritual life; to mark out again the narrow, ancient way; to proclaim the existence of the “Kingdom of Heaven,” of the initiation which admits to that knowledge of God which is eternal life; and to admit a few to that Kingdom who should be able to teach others. Round this glorious Figure gathered the myths which united Him to the long array of his predecessors, the myths telling in allegory the story of all such lives, as they symbolize the work of the Logos in the Kosmos and the higher evolution of the individual human soul.
Whew! That is a wrap!
What predecessors is she talking about? She suggests there has always been an acknowledgment in the Solar myths of an aspect of God, the Logos, descending into matter. John’s gospel reflects Plato, and Plato reflects Hindu theology/cosmology. Christ was a “Divine Teacher,” one of a number, who once again returned this knowledge to earth. Just as there have been others in this role, there will continue to be others in this role, but Christ seems to have a special place among them (my interpretation of Besant's chapter on “The Historical Christ”).
She speaks in the above quote about the progress of each individual soul. In that context, elsewhere she mentions self-discipline in thought and action as necessary to preparing one to receive the mysteries, and then one must also add to that “endurance,” “tolerance,” “faith,” and “balance.” On page 123 Besant continues to outline the development of the candidate into approaching being like Christ. This requires developing the intellect together with moral sensibilities, which makes for Intelligence. Added to intelligence must be Love. Finally Will comes into play, and Intelligence, Love and Will are what makes a person’s Spirit the Image of God.
So this evolution takes place on two scales, the cosmic and the individual, with the latter mirroring the former. On page 124 Besant makes the cosmic aspect involve the Second and Third personages of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit draws formless matter together in the universe and the Logos then sacrifices itself by putting on that matter, limiting itself, and this is what allows Saint Paul to say correctly about Christ, now addressing the cosmic Logos however, that “in him we live and move and have our being.” [Not a quote used by Besant, but she refers to it indirectly.]
The Holy Spirit entering Matter yet unproductive, “virgin,” prepares that matter for the entry of the Logos (discussed on page 125). This is the cosmic story, and it gets all mixed in with the individual history of the Christ. But that is OK since it parallels the cosmic tale. It is symbolic, not to be taken literally in every detail.
All of us, according to page 127, are clothed in the material given form by the Holy Spirit and our souls are made of the stuff that is the life of the Logos voluntarily infused into matter. Our destiny is to grow up to be as He is, and since we live in a cocoon spun by the Logos’s sacrifice, we are–at the cosmic scale– dependent on the sacrifice of the Logos for our very existence, now and forever. Besant explains how Christ’s life story is illustrative of this cosmic story, but at the personal level. She then suggests there is yet a third layer to this Christ story, it is also the story of each of our souls and what we must do and endure in order for us also to reach the “Son of Man” stage of being.
The remainder of this chapter reiterates these outlines with more personal examples and then reaches her conclusion on pages 132-133 which includes the observation that Christ lives in each of us and . . .
The Christ of the human heart is, for the most part, Jesus seen as the mystic human Christ, struggling, suffering, dying, finally triumphant, the Man in whom humanity is seen crucified and risen, in whose victory is the promise of victory to everyone who, like Him, is faithful through death and beyond—the Christ who can never be forgotten while He is born again and again in humanity, while the world needs Saviours, and Saviours give themselves for men.
I believe after reading these arguments, the nature of the atonement that Besant will teach in the next chapter is already becoming clear.
Both Browne and Starbird say that the atonement was not about wiping out sin vicariously for those who professed belief. In so many words, it led to a different teaching regime for his inner circle, in Browne’s case with Christ still alive but removed from his native land, in Starbird’s case this teaching of the inner circle continued with Christ in his new form.
Besant spends the first few pages of her chapter on “The Atonement” discussing how normative Christianity has it all wrong. On her page 135 she writes this about the crude notions in normative Christianity that purport to be based on Paul’s explanation of the atonement but are “an unintelligent reading of a few profoundly mystical texts:”
For the texts that tell of the identity of the Christ with His brother-men have been wrested into a legal substitution of himself for them, and have thus been used as an escape from the results of sin, instead of as an inspiration to righteousness.
She cites Catholic and Protestant authorities alike who teach this crude substitutionary doctrine and the idea that Christ drank the cup of the “wrath” and “fury” and “hatred and contempt” of God (pages 136-137). On page 138 she speaks of Christianity being under “the burden of a doctrine . . . destructive of all true ideas as to the relations between God and man.” Well said.
It is easy to be critical of others. It is harder to substitute something better. But Besant does so, starting on page 139 where she introduces The Law of Sacrifice.
We have already discussed the self-sacrifice of the Logos in limiting its life to vivify matter so that we can dwell on it and in it and have souls made of the Divine Nature: God in us! This Besant now re-explains, suggesting that the cosmic case is repeated and reflected in the individual case of the Christ’s life, and our own life eventually. But Christ has not been alone in making such sacrifices (page 139):
The Law of Sacrifice underlies our system and all systems, and on it all universes are builded. It lies at the root of evolution, and alone makes it intelligible. In the doctrine of the Atonement it takes a concrete form in connection with men who have reached a certain stage in spiritual development, the stage that enables them to realize their oneness with humanity, and to become, in very deed and truth, Saviours of men.
She cites Hinduism and Zorastrianism and Christianity as supporting this description on page 140, and I do recall liking this description of the atonement and the potential Divinization of humans way back the first time I read this book, even though I realized it was partly heretical.
On page 141 she also says something I recall quite vividly from my readings of long ago, she explains how . . .“the Law of Sacrifice should be the law of being, the law of the derived lives.” I recall decades ago pondering this, since she describes it as the phenomenon we see at work daily, each life form we know, including ourselves, partake of the bodies of other beings and minerals daily, whether animal or vegetable beings. We derive our lives from other beings who perish so that we may live. This is the law of derived lives, and it is a crude illustration of the loftier law Besant is describing. Or is it? Either way it is just the way things are in the universe, period.
Besant connects the fact that we higher life forms as we die in turn feed with our constituents the lower life forms, and thus the cycle of life is maintained. She likens this to the very highest life forms, such as the Logos, taking on limitation by combining with and restricting itself in matter, and allowing us to partake of it's self in the form of our souls. It is all a part of the grander scheme. Interesting, fascinating, and not at all offensive I believe.
The remainder of this fascinating chapter painstakingly explains how all of this works, and how any human may become a Saviour of men through daily love-filled, non-self-seeking thoughts and acts of sacrifice. This "Saviours of men" idea is very comparable to Browne’s "Mystic Traveler” concept, men and women who work to promote spirituality wherever they may find themselves.
It is quite a wondrous chapter, and attempts to explain from its loftier perch what the language of Christian scripture means where it appears to be teaching a vicarious self-sacrifice for others. Besant explains that it is a misinterpretation of the fact that (page 156). . . “in every Christ that rises, all humanity is lifted a step higher and by His wisdom the ignorance of the whole world is lessened.”
So what then of the resurrection? That and the ascension is the subject of her next chapter and these aspects of Christ’s experience will also be our experience at some point in time. That is the message of this chapter in a nutshell, although it goes into great detail on the mechanics of laying down one’s life and picking it up again. The new body is changed from the old body. And there are a number of “layers” that make up the spiritual body and the soul. Besant puts this information into a context in which it all makes sense, but that context is too complex to reconstruct here.
I will put an end to this review with five more, short, and generally independent observations:
(1) Besant’s description of prayer and why it works, and why strong desire works just like prayer to bring about real responses, is reminiscent of Carl G. Jung’s ideas on a collective unconscious shared between all humans and how, perhaps, the linkages through that connecting fabric leads to seemingly serendipitous occurrences. The oft-observed phenomenon of the teacher coming along just as the pupil is ready, is such an occurrence. Besant gives other examples, but her point is that our heart-felt needs are broadcast on a fabric connecting us all, and if we are receptive, we can be moved to respond to such a need in another, someone close to us or a total stranger.
(2) I do recall from about forty years ago in her chapter on “Sacraments” being fascinated by her description of sacraments as keys that unlock doors and allow us to pass sentries controlling the movements of individuals in the heavens so that no one unprepared will move into a higher place in the heavens than they can endure.
(3) Starbird might like Besant's description of the marriage sacrament as a symbolic representation of a “dual-faced unity. God and the Universe are imaged in Marriage: thus closely linked are husband and wife.” (Page 252) I can just see Starbird raising her eyebrows upon reading this and saying, “Yes! Now take it to its logical endpoint, Annie, surely Christ was married to underscore and symbolize this very fundamental truth!”
Actually there is something very troubling about Besant likening to male to God, spirit, and the female to material in the universe which is in turn animated and organized by God, by spirit. But we can forgive her. After all, Besant lived during a more patriarchal time and always used “man" as meaning “humanity.” Human evolution generally had not yet reached the stage of recognizing the female as being as fully human as the male, so what can one expect? Surely the women's movement raising everyone's awareness concerning this preposterous notion serves as a sign of the continuing evolution of this fifth human race. Besant must regret her words by now and must be proud of her human race’s heightened awareness. I am sure that, wherever she is, she had her consciousness raised right along with the rest of us. We are all part of the same fifth race of humanity, whether we are living here on this earth or living elsewhere.
With continuing effort from those who have gone before, and those here now, we will help each other in this fifth race of humanity grow spiritually, male and female, separately and together, to become what Christ showed us we can become through example: one with God.
(4) Starbird, who has experienced the rejection of her arguments based on gematria by her contemporaries, would definitely agree with pages 256 and 257 of Besant, which describe how deeper truth is hidden in plainer tests prepared for the world as Revelation:
It is generally given in a peculiar form, in which the outer history, or story, or song, or psalm, or prophecy, appears to the superficial or ignorant reader to be the whole book; but in these deeper meanings lie concealed, sometimes in numbers, sometimes in words constructed on a hidden plan---a cypher, in fact---sometimes in symbols, recognizable by the instructed, sometimes in allegories written as histories, and in many other ways. . . . The elaborate explanation of texts of the Bible, with which the volumes of patristic literature abound, seem fanciful and overstrained to the prosaic modern mind. The play upon numbers, upon letters, the apparently fantastic interpretations of paragraphs that, on the face of them, are ordinary historical statements of a simple character, exasperate the modern reader, who demands to have his facts presented clearly and coherently, and above all, requires to have solid ground under his feet. . . . Yet the men who wrote these exasperating treatises were men of brilliant intellect and calm judgment, the master-builders of the Church. And to those who read them aright they are still full of hints and suggestions, and indicate many an obscure pathway that leads to the goal of knowledge, and that might otherwise be missed.
(5) So here we are at the end of this review. In my review of the Browne and Starbird books I took sides and said I liked the Starbird treatment of the life and meaning of Mary Magdalene better. That is no doubt because like Besant says, I am a 'modern' who requires "solid ground under his feet" (her pages 256-257):
He declines absolutely to follow the light-footed mystic over what seems to him to be quaking morasses, in a wild chase after dancing will-o'-the-wisps, which appear and disappear with bewildering irrational caprice.
Guilty! If the caprice were only rational, I too could believe. Starbird is very rational, and not particularly bewildering or even capricious. Perhaps Besant's vote would be cast for Browne, a fellow "light-footed mystic?"
So here I am now, some forty years after first having read this little book by Besant. My religious views have changed considerably since that first reading, and I must admit that I see more merit in this book now than I did before. But I am still a 'modern' to a self-disturbing extent, and am simply not convinced of the cosmic and heavenly assertions being made by Besant.
This returns me to my divided mind: I am intellectually not convinced there is anything of me that survives my death. At the same time my intuition just smiles this superior smile at my intellect and says "you really do know better."
Besant says the intellect is part of what survives, hence the need to exercise and develop it. But in a cutesy comparison on her pages 164 and 165, a comparison that she says is too simplistic but not misleading, she hints that the different aspects of our being are like vessels to carry us to different places. We can take carriage or a train on land, or a boat if travel is over water, or a balloon if air travel is required (Besant wrote this book at the beginning of the twentieth century). So it is with the facets of our being, each is best used in some places and not in others. The intellect is what allows us to function on this plane and it is still important in the first of the heavens. Both our desires (our Desire Body as she explains it, in which I suppose my intuitive side is located) and our knowledge and reasoning ability (our Mental Body which contains out intellect as she explains it) go with us into this next level of existence, she says.
That is disconcerting. But, I can't wait to see how my intellect copes with being somewhere that it does not believe exists!
OK, OK, I can wait, but it should be fun and I am definitely looking forward to it! More than fun, if my intellect is in a place which it says "Does not!" exist, and of which my intuition says "Does so!" -- well, I may finally become fully integrated, internally and achieve peace-of-mind!
Either way, it is all good.
Go Back to Book Reviews Home Page
Go Back to 2009 Yearbook Home Page
Go Back to ThoughtsandPlaces.Org Home Page