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The Way of Initiation

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Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

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The Way of Initiation



The highest point in an occult school, of which it is possible to speak in a book for general readers, is Initiation. One cannot give public information concerning all that lies beyond, though the way to it can always be found by one who has previously pressed forward and penetrated the lower secrets and mysteries.

The knowledge and power which are conferred upon a man through Initiation could not be obtained in any other manner excepting in some far distant future, after many incarnations, on quite another road and in quite another form. He who is initiated today experiences something which he would otherwise have to experience at a much later period and under quite different circumstances.

It is right that a person should learn of the secrets of nature only so much as corresponds to his own degree of development, and for this reason alone do obstacles bar his way to complete knowledge and power. People should not be trusted with the use of fire-arms until they have had enough experience to make it certain that they will not use them mischievously or without care. If a person, without the necessary preparation, were initiated today, he would lack those experiences which, in the normal course of his development, would come to him in the future during other incarnations and would then bring with them the corresponding secrets. At the door of Initiation these experiences must, therefore, be supplied in some other way, and in their place the candidate has to undergo the preliminary teaching. These are so-called “trials” which have to be passed. These trials are now being discussed in various magazines and books, but, owing to their very nature, it is not surprising that quite false impressions about them are received. For those who have not already gone through the periods of Probation and Enlightenment have seen nothing of these trials, and consequently cannot appropriately describe them.

Certain matters or subjects connected with the higher worlds are produced before the candidate, but he is only able to see and hear these when he can perceive clearly the figures, tones, and colours, for which he has been prepared by the teachings on Probation and Enlightenment.

The first trial consists in obtaining a clearer comprehension of the corporeal attributes of lifeless things, then of plants, of animals, of human beings (in the way that the average person possesses them). This does not mean what is commonly called “scientific knowledge;” with that it has no connection, but it has to do with intuition. What occurs is usually that the Initiate discloses to the candidate how the objects of nature and the essence of living things reveal themselves to the spiritual and mental hearing and sight. In a certain way these things then lie revealed — naked — before the beholder. Attributes and qualities which are concealed from, physical eyes and ears can then be seen and heard. Heretofore they have been enwrapped as in a veil, and the falling away of this veil for the candidate, occurs at what is called the Process of Purification by Fire. The first trial is therefore known as the “Fire-Trial.”

For some people the ordinary life of every day is a more or less unconscious process of initiation by means of the Fire-Trial. These persons are those who have passed through a wealth of developing experiences, and who find that their self-confidence, courage, and fortitude have been greatly augmented in a normal way — who have learned to bear sorrow and disappointment, from the failure of their undertakings, with greatness of mind, and especially with quiet and unbroken strength. Those who have gone through such experiences are often initiates, without knowing it, and it needs but little to open for them the spiritual hearing and sight — to make them clairvoyant. For it must be noted that a genuine Fire-Trial is not merely intended to satisfy the curiosity of the candidate. He would learn, undoubtedly, many unusual things, of which others, devoid of such experiences, can have no idea; but yet this knowledge is not the end or aim, but merely the path to the end. The real aim and object is this — that the candidate shall acquire for himself, through this knowledge of the higher worlds, a greater and truer self-confidence, a higher and nobler courage, and a perseverance, an attitude of mind, altogether different from what he could have obtained in the lower world.

After the Fire-Trial a candidate may always turn back; but because he has been through it, he will resume his life, strengthened in all his spiritual and physical relations, and in his next incarnation he will continue to seek for initiation. In his present life, at all events, he will prove himself a more useful member of society, will be of greater service to humanity than he was before, and in whatever position he may find himself, his firmness, prudence, and favourable influence over his fellows will have greatly increased.

But if, after coming out of the Fire-Trial, he should wish, to continue in the occult school, he has then to be instructed in a certain writing system which is used by those in the school. Occult teachings are written in this occult writing-system, because what is really occult can neither be perfectly spoken of in words or our ordinary speech, nor set forth in the ordinary ways of writing. Those who have learned from the Initiates endeavour to translate the teachings of Occultism as best they may into terms of ordinary speech.

The symbols or signs of the secret script are not arbitrarily invented or imagined, but correspond to powers which are active and efficacious in the world. It is through these symbols or signs, that one learns the language of such matters. The candidate immediately sees for himself that these symbols correspond to the figures, tones, and colours which he has learned to perceive during the periods of Probation and Enlightenment. He now understands that all which went before was only like learning how to spell; and that only now does he begin to read in the higher worlds. All that appeared to him before as separate figures, tones, and colours, is now revealed to him as a Perfect unity, a coherent harmony, and now, or the first time, he attains a real certainty in observing and following the higher worlds. Hitherto it was not possible for him to be sure that what he saw had been clearly or correctly perceived. Now, too, it is possible, at last, that a correct understanding, in the spheres of the higher knowledge, can begin to arise between the candidate and the Initiate. For no matter how close the connection between the two may be, no matter what form their intercourse may take in ordinary life, the Initiate can only communicate to the candidate, on these planes, in the direct form or figures of the secret alphabet.

Through this occult speech the student also learns certain rules of conduct for life, certain duties and obligations, of which, before he knew nothing whatever. When he learns to know these, he is able to perform actions which have a significance and meaning such as the actions of one who is not initiated can never possess. The only point of view from which he is now able to look upon things, the only plane from which he can now make manifest his deeds, is that of the higher worlds. Instructions concerning such deeds can only be read, or understood, in the secret script.

Yet it must be emphasized and clearly apprehended that there are persons who, unconsciously, have the ability or faculty of performing these actions, notwithstanding that they have never been in an occult school. Such “helpers of humanity and the world” proceed blessedly and beneficently through life. There are certain fundamental reasons, which cannot be here discussed, why they are in possession of seemingly supernatural gifts. The difference between these persons and the pupils of an occult school is only that the former act unconsciously, but the latter with a full knowledge, insight, judgment, and understanding of the entire matter in hand. The candidate wins by training, what has been bestowed, upon his fellow by a Higher Power, for the good of humanity. One should: freely and openly honour these favoured ones of God; but one should not, on their account, consider the work of the occult schools unnecessary or superfluous.

Now that the student has learned the “Mystery language,” there yet awaits him another trial. By this he must prove whether he can move with freedom and certainty in the higher worlds. In ordinary life a man will be impelled to actions by outward motives and conditions. He works at this or that because certain duties are imposed upon him by outward circumstances. It need hardly be mentioned that the occult student must in no way neglect any of the duties connected with his ordinary life because he is working in the higher worlds. None of his duties there can constrain him to treat with inattention or carelessness any one of his duties in the lower world. The father will remain just as good a father to his family, the mother just as good a mother, and neither the officer nor the soldier, nor anyone else, will be detained from their necessary duties because they happen to be students in an occult school. On the contrary, all the qualities which make men capable are increased to a degree of which the uninitiated can form no idea. That this may not always appear to be the case in the eyes of the uninitiated is merely due to the fact that he has not always the ability to correctly judge or criticise the Initiate. The deeds of the latter are not always entirely intelligible to the former. But, as we have said before, this only happens in certain cases.

For him who has arrived at the so-called “Steps of Initiation,” there are now duties to be performed to which no outer stimulus is given. He will be moved to do these things by no external pressure, but by those rules of conduct which have been communicated to him in the mystery-language. In this second, trial he must prove that, led by such rules of conduct, he can act from inner promptings just as firmly as an officer performs his obligatory duties. For this purpose the teacher will set before the pupil certain definite tasks. The latter has now to execute some deed in consequence of observations made from the basis of what he learned during Probation and Enlightenment. He has to find the way to what he is now to perform, by means of the mystery-language, which by this time is familiar to him. If he discerns his duty and executes it correctly, he has endured the trial, and he recognises the success which attends the fulfilment of the task by the changed manner with which the spiritual eyes and ears now apprehend the figures, tones, and colours. The occult teacher tells him distinctly how these must appear after the consummation of the trial, and the candidate must know how he can effect this change. This trial is known as the “Water-Trial,” because in consequence of its performance taking place on the higher planes, that support which would otherwise have been received from outward conditions is now taken away. One's movements are like those which are made in water by someone who is learning to swim. He feels no support under his feet. This practice must be often repeated until the candidate attains absolute poise and assurance.

These trials are also dependent upon a quality which is produced by the experiences in the higher worlds. The candidate cultivates this quality to an extent which, in so short a time, he could not possibly reach while developing in the ordinary way, but could only attain after many incarnations. In order to bring about the change here mentioned, the following is the principal necessity: The candidate must altogether be guided by what has been proven to him by the cultivation, of his higher faculties, by the results of his reading in the secret ciphers.

Should he, during these experiences, attempt to introduce any of his own opinions or desires, or, should he diverge for one moment from the laws and rules which he has proved to be right, something quite other than that which is meant will occur. In such cases the candidate loses sight of the coal for which these matters are undertaken, and the result is only confusion. He has, therefore, manifold opportunities, during these trials, for the development of self-control, and this, indeed, is the principal quality needed. Those trials are, therefore, much more easily endured by those who, before initiation, have gone through a life which has enabled them to acquire command of themselves. Those who have developed the characteristic of following their higher principles and ideals without thought of personal honour or desire, who discern always the duty to be fulfilled, even though the inclinations and sympathies are too often ready to lead them an. other way, are already, in this midst of everyday life, unconscious initiates. They need but little to enable them to succeed in the prescribed trials. Indeed, one may say that a certain measure of initiation, thus unconsciously acquired in life, will be absolutely necessary before entering upon the second trial. For even as many who during youth have not learnt to write or spell, find much difficulty in learning to do so during later years, so it is also difficult to develop, merely from a knowledge of the higher worlds, the necessary degree of self-control, if one has not already acquired a certain measure of it in the course of ordinary life.

The things of the physical world do not alter, however we may desire them to do so, but in the higher worlds our wishes, inclinations, and desires are causes that produce effects. If we desire to bring about particular changes in these worlds, we must hold ourselves in absolute control, we must follow the right principle, must entirely subdue the personal will.

There is an attribute which at this stage, of initiation has to be especially considered, — quite a healthy and sure faculty of judgment. Attention must be directed to the education of this faculty during all the previous stages, and in the course of them it must be proved whether the candidate has developed this quality sufficiently to make him fit to tread the path of true knowledge. Further progress is now only possible for him if he is able to distinguish illusion, superstition, unsubstantial fancies, and all manner of such things, from the true realities. At first, this is much more difficult to accomplish upon the higher stages of existence than upon the lower. Every prejudice, every cherished opinion regarding these matters, in whatever connection, must vanish away. Truth alone must guide. There must be perfect readiness to surrender at once any existing opinion, idea, or inclination, when the logical idea demands it. Absolute certainty in the higher worlds is only to be obtained when one never obtrudes one's own opinions.

People whose mode of thought inclines them to phantasy, prejudice, and so forth, can make no progress on the occult way. In truth, it is a glorious treasure that the occult student shall attain. All doubt as to the higher worlds will be taken away from him. In all their law they will reveal themselves to his gaze. But so long as he is blindfolded he cannot win these heights and compensations. It were, indeed, unhappy for him if his phantasies and superstitions ran away with his intellect and reason. Dreamers and people inclined to phantasies are as unfit for the occult path as are superstitious people; for in dreams, phantasies, and superstitions lurk the most dangerous enemies on the road to knowledge. But because upon the gateway which leads to the second trial are written the words, “All prejudices must fall away;” because the candidate has already seen upon the portals that opened to him in the first trial, the words, “Without a normal common sense all your efforts are in vain,” — yet it is not necessary to think that the capacity for inspiration and enthusiasm, and all the poetry of life, is lost to the student of Occultism.

If he be now sufficiently advanced, a third trial awaits the candidate. No aim, no boundary lines, are here set for him. All is left entirely in his own hands. He finds himself in a condition where nothing causes or induces him to act. He must find the way of his own accord and from within himself. Conditions or people who might have stimulated him to action are no longer there. Nothing and nobody can give the strength which he now needs, but he himself alone. If he should not find this strength within himself, he will very soon find himself standing where he was before; but it must be remarked that very few of those who have endured the previous trials will fail at this point in finding the necessary strength. Either they will have turned back already or they can endure at this point also. The only thing necessary is the ability to make a resolution quickly. For here, in the truest meaning of the phrase, one must find oneself. In all matters one must quickly resolve to hear the suggestions, the inspirations of the spirit. One has no time for doubt or delay. Every moment of hesitation would add to the proof that one was not yet ready. All that hinders one from hearing the voice of the spirit must be boldly conquered. It is entirely a matter of proving one's presence of mind, and it is this attribute to which attention must be paid during all the foregoing stages of development. All temptations to act, or even to think, which hitherto assailed a man, must now cease; but in order that he may not slip into inaction, he must not lose his hold upon himself. For only in himself can he find that one sure centre-point on which he can depend. No one, without further familiarity with the subject, should feel an antipathy to this principle of self-rejection. For him who has endured the trials already described, it indicates the most perfect felicity.

And in this, as in the other stages before mentioned, for many people, everyday life itself can be an occult school. People who have reached the point of being able, when suddenly confronted with some task or problem demanding immediate action, to come to a swift resolution, to act without delay or personal consideration, have, indeed, undergone their Occult schooling in everyday life. The situation which one wishes to suggest is one in which a successful action is impossible unless the person concerned grasps the whole matter and acts at once. He is quick to act when misfortune is in sight, when a moment's hesitation may produce a catastrophe; and he who possesses the qualities which can be developed into a permanent attribute of such a kind, has already evolved, unknown to himself the degree of ripeness necessary for the third trial. For, as already remarked, at this stage it all depends upon the development of presence of mind.

In the occult schools this trial is known as the “Air-Trial,” because while undergoing it the, candidate can support himself neither upon the firm ground, nor any external cause, nor that which he has learned in Probation and Enlightenment from the figures and tones and colours, but solely upon himself.

If the occult student has endured these trials, he is then permitted to enter “the Temple of the Higher Wisdom.” All that can be further said upon this subject can only be given out in the smallest hints and suggestions. That which has now to be performed has been so often put into words that many say that the pupil has here to take an “oath,” promising to betray nothing that comes from the teacher. Nevertheless these expressions “oath” and “betrayal” are in no way appropriate, but are only misleading... It is no matter of an oath in the ordinary sense of the word, but is rather an experience that comes at this stage. Here the candidate appreciates the true value of the occult teachers, and their place in the service of humanity. At last he begins to understand the world correctly. It is not so much a matter of “withholding” the higher truths now learned, but much more of upholding them in the right way and with the necessary tact. That about which one learns to “keep silence” is something quite different. One gains possession of this fine attribute in regard to many things of which one had previously spoken, and especially in regard to the manner in which one has spoken of them. Yet it would be a bad Initiate who did not place all his mystical experiences, as adequately and as far-reachingly as possible, at the service of humanity. The sole obstacle to communication in such matters is the misunderstanding of the person who receives it. Above all, the higher secrets do not allow themselves to be spoken about promiscuously, but to none who has passed the steps of development above described, is it actually forbidden to speak of these matters. No one is asked for a negative oath, but everything is placed on one's own responsibility. What one really learns is to find out within oneself what should be done under all circumstances, and the “oath” means nothing more than this, that one is found qualified to be entrusted with such a responsibility.

If the candidate is found fit, he is then given what is called, symbolically, “the draught of forgetfulness.” This means that he will be initiated into the secret knowledge enabling him to act without being continually disturbed by the lower memory. This is absolutely necessary for the Initiate, for he must possess full faith in the immediate present. He must be able to destroy that veil of memory which extends itself round humanity more and more thickly with every moment of life.

If one judges of something which happens to one today, according to the experiences of yesterday, one is subjected by so doing to a multitude of errors. Of course, it is not intended that the reader should think that one ought to renounce all the experience acquired in life.

One ought always to keep it in mind as firmly as possible. But as an Initiate, one should retain the ability for judging every fresh experience from outside of oneself, unclouded by all bygone experiences. One must be prepared, at every moment, that a new thing or being shall bring to one a new revelation. If one judges the new by the standard of the old, one necessarily falls into error. For this very reason, the memory of past experiences is useful, for they make one capable of seeing the new. If one had not gone through a certain experience, one would probably not have seen at all the attributes of this or that being or thing; but such experiences ought only to enable one to discern the new and not by any means to cause one to judge it by the old. In this way the Initiate obtains certain definite qualities, and by means of these many things are revealed to him while they remain concealed from the uninitiated.

The second draught which is given to the Initiate is the “draught of remembrance.” By receiving this he becomes capable of keeping the higher secrets ever-present in the soul. Ordinary memory would not be sufficient to ensure this; one must be absolutely at one with the higher truths. One must not merely know them, but be able, as a matter of course, to manifest and administer them in living actions, even as an ordinary man eats and drinks. They must become one's practice, one's inclinations, one's habits. It must be unnecessary to think of them consciously (in the usual sense of the word); they must become a part of oneself and express themselves through one's very being; they must flow through one, even as the life-currents run through one's organism. So must we make ourselves as perfect in a spiritual sense as nature has made us in a physical.

Last Modified: 05-Jun-2020
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