A little bit on symbols and the Golden Dawn

RR et AC Rose Cross

Following on from my last but one post, I have been thinking again about symbols and how they work to connect us with the transpersonal. There is a lot written on symbols out there, and probably much remains to be written. This is because the gift that symbols give us, access to the inner reality they represent, can never be exhausted. Like the One, these gifts go on ‘forever’, that is they are actually beyond the conceptions and realities of time and space.

As I have mentioned before, the Rosicrucian magic of the RR et AC and similar traditions is more akin to exegetical interaction with scripture than a correctly performed, tick all the boxes, ‘traditional’ Grimoric ritual. RR et AC magic is designed to be creative. It is supposed to capture us, meaning our lower egos, allure us and entice us into a relationship with the mysteries that empower the magic itself. By this relationship we are remade and renewed in the service of the One.

Of course, RR et AC magic, and similar traditions, are not free for all spontaneous affairs. There are certain well defined hallmarks of tradition. These however are not defined by orthodoxy (commonly understand to mean right ‘understanding’ or ‘thinking’, but really referring to the correct way to praise the One). Nor are they defined by orthopraxy, which is concerned with the correct action, as no one these days thinks their Order has the one correct redaction of the rituals, and all others are lesser or incorrect. Do they?

Rather, as in a previous post, I believe our traditions are defined by a concept I call Orthometapraxy, that is a correct way of meta-action, ‘adjacent’, ‘beyond’, or ‘inner’ action. So while we recognise variants in the Qabalistic Cross for example, we understand that its correct use will have some interior action, intention and focus of connecting us with the highest divinity and linking, balancing and opening ourselves to it. The focus here is on the inner activity, the ‘meta’ aspect of this rather long word. So, for example, I do not claim the various inner workings in By Names and Images are ‘correct’, or ‘traditional’, only that in their principles they follow traditional themes and mysteries which help produce transformation and service. Other variants of the rituals, and even other inner workings would still be ‘correct’ if they produce the same transformation.

In my earlier post on this concept I gave an example which bears repeating here. At the most ‘meta’ level we can say that most or even all spiritual practices, if they are to be effective, have to follow the following basic pattern:

  • Firstly, they have to strengthen our boundaries of the ‘box’ of everyday consciousness; make us strong, know who we are – grounding is the typical way of doing this.
  • Secondly, they have to then focus on the reality of what is beyond the box of everyday existence – Goddess, God, the One Being, Mystery, and allow us to surrender to be guided by that power. The practice needs to guide and show us how to give over ourselves to the higher forces, or to ‘begin in the name of God’.
  • Thirdly, they have to at some point move us ‘out of our box’ of everyday life – a transition of consciousness, guided safely into something OTHER, something beyond our current ego identity. This may be a state of meditation, the touch of Goddess in a ceremony of communion, an interaction with an unknown aspect of ourselves. But it has to be something different, outside our normal frame of reference. And this interaction has to be undertaken in balance.
  • Fourthly, the practice has to return our consciousness into ‘the box’ and re-strengthen the boundaries with care. Our interaction and communion with the Other, the sacred will promote an expansion of the box, a change of who we think we are.
  • Finally, they have to give thanks to the One, the Mystery beyond the box and promote our gratitude towards the One, to encourage us to form and maintain good relationship with the Sacred powers.

Once we focus upon orthometapraxy rather than orthopraxy or even orthodoxy (yes there are some GD Orders who implicitly promote orthodoxy) and embrace this attitude we are moved to be more open to variants and changes within our tradition. Again, this does not mean wholesale making up as we go along, as I believe one of the key principles of orthometapraxy is that change to tradition comes from the tradition itself, not individual practitioner whims, fancies or lower self concerns. How we distinguish the two is a matter of personal activity and conscience.

With respect to symbols then, we can see this ‘meta’ concept clearly. Within traditional western spirituality a symbol can never be defined, can never be limited, and no one can say ‘this is what this means’. If I remember my university semiotics correctly, such defining is a function of a sign, not a symbol. A symbol on the other hand, is a gateway to the transcendent, the timeless worlds of truth, harmony and beauty.

In all the traditional western magical approaches a symbol is introduced to the initiate, often within a certain time frame or context, and the initiate forms her or his own relationship with it. There may be some minor explanation of the symbol, typically at the end of an initiation ceremony, but these are clearly seen as leg-ups, hints and ways for the initiate to start her own journey. Anyone who thinks “symbol A means xxx and nothing more” has missed the point of symbolism within magic entirely.  Even if we think sneakily to ourselves, “OK symbol A can mean more things, but really it’s about xxx”, we show our lack of understanding. As modern western folk accustomed to definitive meaning in our daily interactions and the heavy use of signs, we all at times slip into thinking we know a symbol, into treating it as a sign.

The relationship between a symbol and an initiate, particularly a new initiate, is sacred. It should grow and unfold slowly and deeply, almost as if the symbol and initiate were two lovers exploring their sexual embraces for the first time. It is a precious thing, and should not be intruded upon by attempts at definitions and ideas. Even if the initiate comes to the same understanding as previous initiates concerning the mysteries and function of the symbol, which is generally what happens, they need to come to this realisation and embrace themselves. It is the getting there, the acts of surrender and struggle with the symbol which changes and remakes the initiate. This is one of the reasons interpretations of symbols, and indeed the symbols themselves, were kept secret in western magic – to avoid intrusion on the sacred embrace between initiate and the symbol.

I therefore get a little irked when someone tries to ‘inform’ or even worse ‘enforce’ meanings upon symbols. I also get annoyed when the transpersonal nature of symbols are forced into personal meaning. I have seen this happen a bit in modern exoteric churches were the mysterious symbols of Christianity are viewed upon as almost an embarrassment and mysteries are seldom enacted or discussed. At more than one Stations of the Cross, that intense re-enactment of the mysteries of the Via Dolorosa, I have heard the station of suffering described, almost traditionally. Then however, a modern gloss is put over the description and the meaning of what the station means, regarding the personal  lives of the congregation, are described and recited. So we empathise with Jesus falling by personal talk about how our daily lives can feel like a struggle.

There is much noble intention here – a linking of the Way of Sorrows with our own lives – but a lack of understanding of ritual and mystery. Since this description is only one of an infinitude ways of relating to the Way, it is necessarily limiting for some, if not most folk. Since it focuses on the personal it hinders the transpersonal the Way points to. Also, it robs each member of the congregation from their own journey with the raw power and awesome nature of the Way. It is by direct, personal interaction with these symbols (which is not easy), not recitation of their meaning, that the personal is truly infused by Mystery.

The same approach is seen in a few Golden Dawn groups and other traditions, where symbols are prescriptively described, making them almost a sign. Now some symbols have in the past been used and even misused as signs, as ways of interaction and knowing if the members are of a certain grade, have a certain teaching etc. They have also been used as shorthand, referring to particular magical practices. However, testing someone on these symbols, looking for a certain prescribed meaning is almost insulting to the symbol. A symbol will reveal a range of meanings, a broad scope of depth, most of which – and here is the important point – cannot be described as the meaning is beyond verbal, emotional and intellectual comprehension. It is apprehended by another aspect of our beings. Looking therefore for a single ‘answer’ is limiting. One could quite easily have communed with the deeper meaning of the symbol, but be unable to describe it in the narrow contexts of the questioner. Right? 🙂