Noli foras ire, in te ipsum redi: in interiore hominis habitat veritas. ~ St. Augustine
Rene Guenon has written extensively on the conditions and facts of initiation, but hardly enough on what occurs after initiation. I offer, here, some thoughts on initiation, and bring up the question of its necessity and sufficiency. Unless a man prefers to be tossed around in life like Brownian motion, the final cause is always the most important. Hence, the first topic will revolve around an understanding of the goal of initiation, followed by the requirements and availability of initiation, and finally some more practical and less theoretical issues.
The Goal of Initiation
I will discuss this in terms of the dominant European spiritual tradition since most readers will be familiar with that perspective. Briefly stated, a man needs to follow certain moral norms, participate in religious rites, and adhere to a creed. Then, at death, he will be judged, and “sent” to a place that, as a matter of justice, is his proper punishment or reward. The highest reward is the vision of God in Heaven. This is the exoteric view, since everything is expressed and understood extrinsically, analogously to human and material affairs.
From the esoteric point of view, the same teaching is understood symbolically. The exoteric mind can only “picture” the teachings, i.e., he “sees” them as similar to the physical world of persons and things, although operating in a “spiritual” world. The esoteric mind, on the other hand, also “sees” these teachings, but he sees interiorly. This is quite different from the philosopher or theologian who want to conceptualize the teachings and deal with them rationally.
Esoterically, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory are states of being, that are experienced now, not post mortem. The path is to travel through these states, from the lowest to the highest, in this life. The vision of God, or the Supreme Identity, is the highest point on that path, when all possibilities have been realized and all worlds transcended. Moral norms are the means to become aware of the states of one’s being; the resistance to them reveals something about oneself. The state a man is in is not imposed upon him by a judge, but it is where he belongs by justice, since his state is the result of his own efforts.
This, then, is the goal of initiation; while it provides the initial spiritual impulse, the ongoing support of the organization is even more necessary. The path is arduous; the initiate will discover unpleasant facts about himself; boredom, fear, and anxiety will tempt him to falter. But, this is the greater battle that initiates need to fight.
The Conditions of Initiation
Guenon points out that a valid initiation requires
(1) An unbroken chain of initiation whose originary source was supernatural
(2) An attachment to one of the true Traditions
These requirements are difficult to meet currently in the West, at least in regards to an authentically Western tradition, although various Oriental groups have set up bases in Europe and North America over the last couple of generations. Pre-schism Christianity satisfied both conditions and there were clearly initiatic organizations in the Middle Ages, and most likely, remnants still existing today.
In any case, it is important to point out that initiation is not simply open to anyone. There is an extended period of preparation necessary, even if it is primarily and intellectual preparation. The spiritual literature abounds with the difficulties that seekers experience when looking for an initiation. For example, in the Pythagorean group, the seeker had to be silent for several years; Sufi groups may require 1001 days of menial tasks prior to initiation. In my opinion, Guenon fails to emphasize this enough.
Furthermore, applicant himself has to satisfy certain conditions and be free of certain physical defects. These may seem arbitrary and unjust to today’s egalitarian spirit, but there are valid reasons for them, as Guenon discusses in Perspectives on Initiation. There is no point to mention them all here, especially since they may vary from group to group, but there is one that may surprise readers.
Priestly ordination is an example Guenon uses, even if today it no longer seems to qualify as a valid initiatory path. St Thomas Aquinas pointed out that effeminacy in speech, mannerisms, or posture would disqualify a man from becoming a priest. This requirement would offend most Christians today although it is certainly consistent with the Traditional ideal of a virile priesthood. Nevertheless, the fruits of a feminized church are too obvious to mention.
First of all, there is the question of whether initiation is sufficient to lead a man along the true spiritual path. Well, Guenon provided us the example of Inayat Khan, who took initiations with multiple orthodox Sufi groups. Yet, he still deviated from orthodox tradition when he formed his own group. It eventually became associated with the Human Potential Movement in North America and his grandson is the current leader of the group Mr. Khan founded. Why it is unorthodox is another topic.
If initiation is not sufficient, is it necessary? This is more subtle than it appears. It is certainly necessary to understand the goal of the initiatory path, the means to accomplish it, and the metaphysical teachings underlying it. Yet the chain is both human and superhuman. As such, initiation may be made possible through superhuman or preternatural means. For example, Tomberg claimed to be guided by long deceased Hermetists. This is outrageous only If one regards this world as a closed system.
It must be pointed out that any teachings from such an initiation applies only to the person receiving it and is not binding on anyone else. There are too many cases to mention of men or women who receive a minor revelation and through ego inflation go on to found new religions. Ultimately, orthodox traditional teachings must be the one and only touchstone.
On a more practical level, Guenon does not make clear the distinction between a valid and a licit initiation. A valid initiation is performed by a person with the power to confer it, but a licit initiation is performed by a person with the authority to confer it. Ideally, an initiation is both valid and licit, that is, it falls under the jurisdiction of a traditional spiritual form. Nevertheless, there are certainly cases of groups under the leadership of someone with a valid initiation, but illicit since it operates independently of a legitimate spiritual authority. Some of the figures that intrigued Julius Evola may have been of this nature.
Although there are dangers in such groups, this is mitigated is one understands the goal of initiation and true metaphysics. The dangers may, in fact, be offset by the opportunities gained to make the teachings operative rather than only speculative. Given the concrete conditions a man seeking spiritual gnosis finds himself today, that may be the best, or only, possibility for him. If he starts from Smalltown, USA, a valid and licit initiation may be like a first class plane ticket to the bright lights of Hollywood. Yet, as we pointed out, and will do so again, there is no guarantee the plane will arrive safely.
Some of us may have to be content with a blue-collar initiation, more like a bus ticket to St. Louis. In any event, it is better than staying home.