Monasticism and Esotericism – A Symbiotic Relationship

The underground status of many esoteric orders, and the religious perspectives of many occultists today, are such that the notion of establishing relationships between the world of esoterica and the mainstream religious world is nonsensical at best, offensive at worst. Yes, many orders do have a religious arm or related esoteric faith that they themselves founded or absorbed — the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica of O.T.O., the Ecclesia Gnostica Spiritualis of the Monastery of the Seven Rays/La Couleuvre Noire, the Liberal Catholic Church and the Theosophical Society, to give but a few examples. As detailed in a previous post, Dion Fortune’s Threefold Way of Western Esotericism especially recognizes the importance of a relationship between the Orange Ray of the Hermetic path and the Purple Ray of mystical devotion, and her own Guild of the Master Jesus’ place in the Society of the Inner Light modeled this understanding for the esoteric community.

But what all of these examples have in common is the relative obscurity of both the esoteric order and the religious tradition to which it is connected. This is the world of episcopi vagantes, private consecrations, and Gnostic wisdom. This is not the mainline religious world, and most average religious folk have just as little access to these devotional paths as they do to the esoteric paths to which these faith traditions are connected. Essentially, what we have in the current era are religious organizations designed specifically for occultists — the connection between the esoteric path of a given religion and its more mainstream expressions has been entirely lost.

This is not to cast judgment on the followers of one or another esoteric religious movement. Many folks who are a part of these movements are sincere in their devotions, and certainly many people have been burned by mainstream religion, especially Christianity, in our Western culture. But something is certainly lost by the disconnect between esoteric movements and the mainstream churches — for esotericists, the accumulated wisdom and logistical capacities of the churches; for mainstream religionists, the esoteric side of their own religious traditions.

As I have explained before, this was not always the case — at least until the advent of the Theosophical Society in the late nineteenth century. At one time, most esotericists practiced mainstream religion outside of their occult interests — indeed, many esotericists were in fact clergymen of exoteric churches. And the Rosicrucians of the early modern era were specifically devoted to the Universal Reformation of all of Christendom, not the founding of a secret church for adepts.

In this post, I would like to draw on the work of some fantastic scholars of esoteric and religious history to put forward two historical examples of strong relationships between esoteric movements and mainstream religious communities — specifically, between esoteric movements and monastic communities. And then I would like to propose a change in the way esotericists view mainstream religion more generally.

The Florentine Platonists and the Camaldolese Order

Saint Romuald
St. Romuald, the 11th century founder of the Camaldolese Order.

The first flowering of esotericism in the early modern West was the Florentine Platonist movement of Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and other luminaries of Renaissance Italy. And this movement was connected to a specific monastic order of the Roman Catholic Church from the very start — the Camaldolese Order, founded by St. Romuald in 1012. Today, a small number of Camaldolese monks remain in their historic hermitage in the Tuscan hills, while American representatives of the order live in Big Sur, California in the monastery of New Camaldoli.

According to historian Dennis F. Lackner, there were “links between the Camaldolese order and Renaissance Platonism over four generations (from the early Quattrocento to the early Cinquecento)” (16). Indeed, “the Camaldolese played a central and hitherto unrecognized role in the conception, establishment, teachings and wider influence of the Platonic Academy of Florence” (Lackner, “The Camaldolese Academy: Ambrogio Traversari, Marsilio Ficino and the Christian Platonic Tradition,” 16).

The Holy Hermitage of Camaldoli, high in the mountains of central Italy.

The primary common source between the Camaldolese order and the Renaissance Platonists were the Church Fathers of the East. As Lackner explains, “the Camaldolese eremitic tradition, established in the eleventh century by Saint Romuald of Ravenna, had close links with the ascetic tradition of the Greek Fathers. This spirituality, manifest in the lives and writings of the Egyptian Desert Fathers, John Cassian, John Climacus, Dionysius the Areopagite and the Cappadocian Fathers, exemplified the Christian Platonism of the early Church. A central theme in the desert spirituality which Romuald brought to the Appennines [the site in Italy of the Camaldoli hermitage] was the theology of the mystical ascent, the scala perfectionis” (16-17).

Lackner continues, “From their earliest years the Camaldolese … conserved a kind of Christian-Platonic theology of the ladder, with roots in the Christian East, which propounded a model of man’s gradual divinization through celestial love” (17).

With this common spiritual source in mind, it was natural that the Camaldolese order and the Renaissance Platonists would develop numerous connections: “on the one hand Camaldolese hierarchs found in Florentine Platonism a kindred spirituality. On the other hand, the Renaissance Platonists saw in the Camaldolese life the embodiment of Platonic principles … In the age of Ficino, Platonic philosophy and Camaldolese spirituality, so long associated through ascetic practice and mystical theology, again converged at S. Maria degli Angeli in Florence” (17-18).

Cristoforo Landino, a close associate of Ficino, had a cousin who was a monk at the Angeli. Landino’s Disputationes Camaldulenses, set in the late 1460s, “was the first published Platonic dialogue of the Renaissance” (27-28). In this dialogue, the hermitage of Camaldoli is the setting, with the character of Ficino discussing Platonic concepts and ideas with his fictional interlocutors. Lackner explains that “whether or not the interlocutors in the Disputationes ever met at Camaldoli, the theme of Camaldoli as a site for the propagation of the ancient theology is surely significant” (28).

Marsilio Ficino himself preached in the church of S. Maria deli Angeli on every single day of the month of December 1488. Furthermore, throughout “the late 1480s and 1490s Ficino delivered numerous Platonic commentaries in the Camaldolese church or cloister … he was accustomed to give Platonic declamationes or sermons” (32).

As Lackner suggests, “when Ficino expounded Plato’s Phaedrus at the Camaldolese monastery in the 1490s and spoke of the chariot of the soul ascending into heaven on the wings of divine love, the monks in his audience must surely have heard resonances of the Desert Fathers, of the ladder of Romuald, and of their own General’s translations of Climacus and Dionysius” (33).

Meanwhile, the library of the Angeli was full of works of Platonism and Hermeticism, containing copies of Ficino’s translations of Plato, Plotinus, and Iamblichus, and early translations of the Corpus Hermeticum. The monastery also possessed a collection of the Orphic Hymns, possibly in Ficino’s translation. Copies of Ficino’s own work in the library included De Christiana religione, Theologia Platonica, De vita, and his commentaries on Plato.

Lackner concludes his article on the links between the Camaldolese and the Florentine Platonists by vividly invoking their context and suggesting that the connection between the two groups produced far-reaching effects in the early modern religious world:

Grounded in the Benedictine rule and recitation of the Psalms, and following a strict observance, a number of Camaldolese houses produced martyrs, saints and hermit confessors whose lives of prayer and work present a marked contrast to the splendid ostentations of the humanist courtiers. And yet somewhere, in a remote cell in the Apennine forests, the two worlds met … the order embodied a living bridge between the mystical philosophy of Platonism and faith in Jesus Christ. … While the doctrines of the Florentine Platonists struck a resounding chord among the Camaldolese, the mystical spirituality of the Camaldolese informed and enlivened the Florentine Platonists. This meeting between Platonism and monastic mysticism determined the direction of Camaldolese reformers in the next century, who themselves, in turn, profoundly influenced the Catholic Reformation. (44)

The Stella Matutina and the Community of the Resurrection

Community of the Resurrection
The House of the Resurrection at Mirfield.

Fast forward a few centuries to the splintering of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. As is well known, the most successful and long-lasting of the successor organizations to the Golden Dawn, the Stella Matutina, was led primarily by Dr. Robert Felkin — a committed occultist as well as a devout Anglo-Catholic. Dr. Tony Fuller’s excellent Ph.D. dissertation, “Anglo-Catholic Clergy and the Golden Dawn,” explains the connections between Felkin, the Stella Matutina, and the Anglo-Catholic movement far better than I could do here. But I do want to highlight one connection that is very relevant to our examination of the symbiotic relationship between esotericism and monasticism — the close relationship between the Anglican Community of the Resurrection and the Stella Matutina order.

Besides the fact that Dr. Felkin frequently made retreats to the CR house at Mirfield, many early members of the Community were also initiates of the Stella Matutina. Because of the secrecy of the order, of course, it is difficult to locate exact lines of influence between the two groups — but a general spiritual kinship does exist between them. From Dr. Fuller’s thesis:

Although the formation of the Community of the Resurrection, and its immediate predecessor, the Society of the Resurrection, along with such irregular Anglican monastic establishments as Aelred Carlyle’s community of Benedictines on Caldey Island, were concurrent with or consequent to the formation of the Golden Dawn, these and other communities drew on the same influences, with their Romanticist theme of attempting to regain the spiritual inspiration and achievements of the past. (250)

Indeed, much of Fuller’s dissertation is spent examining one intriguing question — “The question of exactly what it was which motivated so many talented, dedicated and mainly Anglo-Catholic, clergymen to supplement the orthodox teachings and devotions of their church with a system of magical beliefs and practices” (282).

Fuller essentially concludes that the many Anglo-Catholics, including those who maintained a cross-membership in both the CR and the Stella Matutina, saw in Golden Dawn spirituality an extension of the incarnational and sacramental theology of the Catholic tradition. Rather than a secretive occult practice diverging from the orthodoxy of their Catholicism, these initiate-priests saw their esoteric work as supplementing and even embodying the theological ideas they maintained in their exoteric tradition.

One example among many of these figures is Father Charles Fitzgerald, who perhaps uniquely among the Anglo-Catholic Stella Matutina members in fact published theological material in Christian sources showing clear influence from the esoteric tradition. I have detailed one of Fitzgerald’s modified banishing rituals in a previous article. According to Dr. Fuller, “Father Charles Fitzgerald … was a member of both the Anglo-Catholic Community of the Resurrection and the Stella Matutina” (291). Later on, Fr. Fitzgerald would be one of the representatives of the order to travel to New Zealand, contributing to the formation of the influential Whare Ra temple there.

Among others, there was also Father Timothy Rees, a brother of the CR and later Bishop of Llandaff. Like Father Fitzgerald, “Father Rees was also a member of the Amoun Temple of the Stella Matutina in which he was initiated in July 1909, just three years after joining the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, then a small body of only twenty-three priests” (301). The fact that multiple brothers of the CR, out of a body of less than two-dozen, were also initiates of the Stella Matutina, shows the close relationship between the two groups at this time.

It should be clear by now that esotericism is entirely compatible with exoteric religion, and that indeed many devout Christians — even priests and monks — have practiced esoteric or Hermetic spiritualities. But I also want to suggest that something important is gained by relationships as close and intimate as those detailed here between the Florentine Platonic Academy and the Camaldolese Order, and between the Stella Matutina and the Community of the Resurrection. By upholding such connections, members of the esoteric communities were able to maintain their contact with the wider church and society, avoiding the kind of solipsistic spiritual individualism that has stricken many expressions of contemporary occultism. As I have argued elsewhere, the quest for Universal Reformation is an integral part of the Western Esoteric Tradition, and losing sight of it impoverishes our understanding and practice of the tradition.

On the other hand, losing the connection with esoteric movements also impoverishes exoteric religion — which can become fundamentalistic, worldly, and unspiritual without the constant infusion of mystical and magical perspectives explored in speculative esotericism.

Furthermore, the connection between a magical order and a monastic order is especially fruitful, as the model for Western esotericism is essentially Rosicrucian — active, embedded in social concerns, in the world but not of the world. The monastic orders provide the mystical serenity and spiritual reflection necessary to avoid the kind of worldly conspiracy thinking, obsession with titles, ranks, and lineage, and overly intellectualized spirituality that tends to overwhelm occultists when they lose their connection to religious devotion (the “Purple Ray” of Dion Fortune’s Threefold Way).

Ultimately, as occultists like A.E. Waite understood, esotericism should be the mystical heart of exoteric religion, the Hidden Church in the midst of the Church Militant. Not only is esotericism compatible with exoteric religion, both are necessary to practice in tandem in order to maintain a healthy, politically active, and mystically balanced, spirituality. As Waite wrote about the relationship between esotericism and exoteric religion:

It is not that there are new doctrines, but there is another quality of life; thereby the old symbolism has been so interpenetrated that the things which are without have become the things which are within, till each seems either in the power of the grace and in the torrent of the life … I desire, therefore, to make it plain that the Secret Church Mystic which exists and has always existed within the Church Militant of Christendom does not differ in anything from the essential teaching of doctrine — I mean Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus; that it can say with its heart what it says also with its lips; that again there is no change or shadow of vicissitude; but in some very high sense the ground of the essentials has been removed. The symbolum remains; it has not taken on another meaning; but it has unfolded itself like the flower from within. Christian Theosophy in the West can recite its Credo in unum Deum by clause and by clause, including in unam sanctum catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam, and if there is an arriere pensee it is not of heresy or Jesuitry. Above all, and I say this the more expressly because there are still among us — that is to say, in those circles generally — certain grave misconceptions, it is necessary to affirm that the path of the mystic does not pass through the heresies. (A.E. Waite, “The Hermetic and Rosicrucian Mystery”)

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