When thou dost rise above thyself
and let God hold his sway:
Then present in thy spirit is the ascension,
for ever and for aye.
*[Angelus Silesius, “The Cherubinic Wanderer”]
Thursday, May 3, 2018
The Gospel of St. John, Lecture 2: The seven stages of Christian initiation
Rudolf Steiner, Berlin, February 26, 1906:
Last time I spoke about the first twelve chapters of the Gospel of St. John. We saw that the Lazarus miracle represents the initiation of a man into the spiritual world. Every sentence of the John Gospel directs one to the higher world. When we make it alive in us, we come to know the Christian initiation. Those who know other forms of occult training and are aware that there are other paths of initiation, also know that he who seeks the path today will be led along different ways. These are known to most of you. Those who have already some contact with spiritual life know that there is an esoteric side to our spiritual scientific strivings. The Christian initiation has similarities with other ways of initiation, but today this path can no longer be followed. He who would tread it must be led by the hand of an experienced teacher, but in view of our modern normal mode of life, it is questionable whether this path is still open. Let us again call to mind the Lazarus miracle in connection with the Christian initiation.
We will start from the normal state of sleep. What happens when a person sleeps? In man we have the physical body, etheric body, astral body, and ego. What happens occultly, when a person sleeps? The physical and etheric bodies remain in bed. The astral body, together with the ego, rises out and floats over them in the form of a ring, in the case of an undeveloped personality, and later, in the form of the physical body. The astral body is not inactive. It has something to do. When the person is awake, the astral body penetrates and interweaves the physical body. When it is outside, it works on the physical body, protecting and caring for it. The relation of the astral body to the physical body is like that of a workman to his machine, but with the difference that in this case the workman is in the machine, he ensouls the various parts, and makes them move. This resemblance of worker to machine applies even better when the person lies asleep. The astral body then works from outside. What does it do? It makes good the damage suffered by the physical body during the day. So one can see the disadvantages for people who sleep badly. Beings belonging to the third elemental kingdom have an influence on the astral body; beings belonging to the second elemental kingdom get at the etheric body; and those belonging to the first elemental kingdom get access to the physical body to destroy it. Only when the astral body works on the physical body during sleep are these destructive processes made good.
Just to know this does not have any influence. When, however, a person begins to work on his spiritual development he must also create the necessary conditions for the astral body to work upon the physical. Meditation influences the work of the astral body upon the physical and etheric bodies during the night. Only beneficent beings must be allowed access to the human being ... He who seeks initiation must achieve the utmost calm. This includes the avoidance of all stimulants, especially alcohol. Other requirements for any higher striving are control of thought, a morally blameless life, the effort not to be swayed to and fro by every feeling, be it pain or joy, but to maintain balance in the soul. This makes it possible for good beings to be active when the astral body works on the physical and etheric bodies during sleep.
In the initiation described in the John Gospel, the astral body, together with the etheric body, leaves the physical body. This latter remains as though dead. This is what is meant when it is said that Lazarus lay three days in the grave. The Lazarus miracle is thus the scene of an initiation. The astral and etheric bodies need to be led back into the physical body. This the master brings to pass. The disciple is now an ‘arisen one’ who can remember the experiences in the higher worlds. This is possible for everyone. However what, in the old days, was a process lasting three and a half days takes place in a different manner today. The experience is the same, but it is achieved by different methods.
The pupil of the Christian initiation has to undergo seven trials. They were not only physical but spiritual experiences.
Those who had undergone them knew that real experiences are possible outside of the body. At the first stage the pupil experiences how man has become what he is. This was achieved through a train of thought as follows: The plant must have a mineral soil. Minerals are of lower rank than plants. But the plant must bow down and say “To thee, O stone, though thou art lower than me, I owe my existence, my life”. The animal is of higher rank than the plant. It breathes oxygen and exhales carbon dioxide. The plant exhales the oxygen. The animal must say to the plant “To thee, O plant, I humbly bow, for without thee I could not live.” The same relation exists between the higher ranking human being and the lower kingdoms. He too must say to them “If you were not there, I should not be.” One must completely fill oneself with this feeling and bow oneself in all humility. Out of deeply felt experience of gratitude, one must be able to bow down before what is lower than oneself. This is the washing of feet, the first stage of a Christian initiation. Christ bows down before the disciples and washes their feet. What is here experienced represents a symbol of the higher world. He who is able to live spiritually in the higher world, who has achieved this deep feeling that Lazarus had, he experiences the washing of feet in the higher world. He who experiences humiliation in the physical world goes through the washing of feet in a higher world. This is the sign that he has reached the first stage on the way to initiation. In his body, this is expressed by the feeling that all his muscles are newly strengthened. When the muscles become steeled after the feeling of humiliation, this signifies the first stage of initiation.
The second stage of the Christian initiation is the scourging and smiting. One must learn to bear calmly what formerly hurt one — to take upon oneself the suffering of the world. This too finds expression in the higher world. The strength acquired by the soul is symbolized as scourging and real blows. Then one day one feels a sort of prickling or stinging all over the body — a sign that one has stood the test. This is a real experience that a person goes through when he follows this path. The great mystics experienced it. Such a person has reached the second stage.
The third stage is the crowning with thorns. At this stage one does not only bear pain but also contempt from one's fellow men. One has to win the fortitude to bear the feeling of obliteration, when there is no one there to give one courage and strength except oneself — when one is considered entirely worthless, and yet one remains inwardly upright. Thus must it be experienced. This is felt in the spiritual world as the crowning with thorns. One sees oneself with the crown of thorns. Pains in the head will be felt in the physical body. Changes take place in the brain, something that later also becomes noticeable in the waking state.
The fourth stage is the crucifixion. Through this a person learns to feel his own body as a foreign object, something like a piece of wood. He no longer connects his ego with his body. In the spiritual world he sees himself with the cross on his back. With this the fourth stage is reached. Physically the stigmata appear. In the case of certain saints this is no myth. It indicates that they have reached the fourth stage. Such saints are bearers of the cross.
If a person has got as far as this he comes to the fifth stage. This is the mystical death. The whole world appears as if covered with a veil. Everything around has lost its old value. While a person feels himself thus lost in darkness, suddenly the veil is rent and he begins to see the ultimate spiritual and original aim. He gazes into a quite new world. At the same time he learns to recognize what lies at the bottom of the human soul. He becomes a second person by the side of himself and looks down on his lower self, which is separated from him. His body is the mother that he sees standing below him, and the transformed lower self is the disciple who bears witness that Christ lives. Now the higher self can say to the lower self “Behold thy mother!” (John 19:27)
When a person has gone through this fifth station he can progress to the sixth stage, the burial and resurrection. Everything pertaining to this planet becomes the body of the Christian mystic. He feels as though the whole earth was part of him. He has ceased to be a separate being. He is one with the whole life of the earth. Through burial he is inwardly bound with it. The grave becomes the source of his experience — man and animal, plant and rock around him become transparent. He has lost his own separate life, the higher life of the whole Earth ...
The seventh stage is known as the ascension into heaven. It signifies that he is completely taken up into the spiritual world.
The John Gospel is a description of this Christian path of initiation. He who takes it as an account of an external happening does not understand it. It can only be comprehended if one has lived through it inwardly. This is what Angelus Silesius means, when he says:
As no creature can see the sunlight unless its eyes are opened, so no one can understand the mystery of Golgotha if they have not inwardly experienced it. Once one has come to such an inner experience, one can appreciate why the reckoning of time is divided into before and after Christ.
Christianity attains its real meaning when it is followed as an inner path. The John gospel is a document which can be lived sentence by sentence. If one has lived it, one knows that external criticism does not apply. All criticism vanishes, and every doubt disappears, if one knows that what is written is to be lived through and through. Every line can be lived inwardly. The Christian spirit has to be experienced in the depth of the soul. He who saw for himself how everything took place knows that he speaks the truth and says so. For he is the risen Lazarus.