Mishkan ha-Echad

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Asceticism in the Golden Dawn

Every so often the topic of asceticism is brought up, and some wonder how it applies to the Golden Dawn, and if there is any official policy on it. Some wonder whether or not they may have to give up the recreational use of illegal drugs, or perhaps even alcohol or caffeine, or abstinence from sex and other worldy pleasures.

For the latter topic of sex, the relationship of MacGregor and Moina Mathers is an interesting topic of debate, but it seems clear that Mathers, while perhaps choosing a life of sexual abstinence with Moina, did not encourage others to do likewise, and seemed to defend Crowley when others were judging his worthiness on the basis of his sexual promiscuity (among other things).

While there was no official policy on one's private sex life (after all, it was supposed to be private, and Mathers was a staunch defender of such), we may potentially gleam some insight to what might have been considered an "unofficial policy", stemming from the Cromlech Temple, which many of the Golden Dawn members, Mathers included, were members (and leaders) of:

"Thou shouldst call nothing common or unclean. That man or woman who seeks a good or fancied good, be it what it may, even if it be merely sensual lust (which to him or her seems the best thing), is all unknown to himself or herself seeking the Master; the soul is young, the ideal is low and primitive, but nevertheless it is an ideal - by degrees other ideals will be substituted for the lower ones. [...] Nothing is common or unclean - the sacrifice he asks of thee is the sacrifice of thy prejudices, thy limitations, in order that thou mayest feed his sheep, above all his lambs."

The above quotation from one of the Cromlech Temple Aura Papers (via Chic Cicero's article By the Holy Light of the Sun: The Magical Workings of the Cromlech Temple in Hermetic Virtues Volume II, Edition I [i.e. Issue 5]) gives what appears to be a very noble and liberal outlook on matters, asking that no matter, even "sensual lust", be condemned, but that instead compassion be offered to them, seeing those we might dismiss and judge as younger brothers and sisters, less evolved, but not inferior - lambs to the sheep of those who are "in the know" (within the Sun Order and the Golden Dawn).

However, another Cromlech paper (Aura XXIII) discusses the dangers of sex, which include the potential of the formation of astral bodies that certain evil spirits may inhabit. Caution is asked of the Neophytes of the Sun Order, therefore, to ensure they do not unwittingly give rise to this phenomenon.

It seems apparent that ascetic practices in relation to sex, despite the prevailing Victorian attitude (see here for an example), were not a requirement in any form in the original order, and most modern incarnations of the Golden Dawn would agree. I know of no group that currently asks that members abstain from sex, unless only to suggest a period of abstinence (and general fasting) for a few days prior to initiations, and as a form of development of Will. Usually such matters are not requirements, however.

But what of other ascetic practices? When it comes to illegal substances, a member may be asked to refrain from using such, but this will be an individual Order and temple policy. Many will just require that no member show up to temple under the influence of any intoxicating substance, primarily alcohol and illegal drugs. This is a common sense approach, and ensures the safety of all others present, as well as limiting the potential for disruption.

Outside of temple, what one does with one's body is up to the individual, but like all things in the Golden Dawn, balance is key. I can think of no better way to illustrate this than by sharing this passage from Westcott, from Flying Roll No. II:

"Before even strength of will, you will must have purity of body, mind, intellect and of emotion if you hope for magical power.

The spiritual powers will flourish only as you starve the animal soul, and the animal soul is largely dependent on the state and treatment of the animal body. The animal man is to be cared for and protected, kept in health and strength, but not petted.

Be moderate in all things human. Extreme ascetic habits, are to you here, a source of another danger, they may lead only to a contemplation of your own Heroism, in being abstinent. To be truly ascetic is indeed to submit to discipline and to curb unruly emotions, thoughts and actions. But, who is a slave to his animal soul, will practice vice in a Forest; while he who restrains himself among the crowds of a city, and passes through a busy life unpolluted, shows more resistance and suffers severer discipline, and shall obtain greater reward."

It is general health advice in modern times to ensure moderation, and this applies to food, exercise, sex, TV, and many other elements beside alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and illegal (or, in some countries, legal) substances. In keeping with this, the Golden Dawn generally suggests moderation and balance, and does not advocate asceticism.

For more of my thoughts on asceticism from a Gnostic perspective, check here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

On the subject of sexual desire being just as worthy a path to the Divine as anything else, the words of the 16th-century kabbalist Elijah de Vidas (The Beginning of Wisdom, "Gate of Love," ch. 4) are relevant: "One having no passionate desire for a woman is likened to a donkey or even worse, the reason being that from what one experiences sensually, a person must proceed to understand the service of God."

De Vidas, in the same passage, cites a parable in the name of 13th-century kabbalist Isaac of Acre. A common man once saw a beautiful princess step out of the bath and said out loud that he wished she were his so they could make love. Overhearing him, the princess said, "In the cemetery this will be the case!" She meant that only in death could a princess and a commoner be equal and have anything to do with each other. But being somewhat simple, the man thought she was instructing him to meet her secretly in the cemetery. So he went and sat there, thinking single-mindedly of his desire for the princess. Of course, she never showed up, but the man continued to sit and contemplate her beauty day after day, until at last he came to focus single-mindedly on the love of God and transcend all sensual concerns. In time he became a beloved holy man whom others would seek out.

Anonymous said...

This is an often overlooked topic, in my opinion, within the GD (or esoteric studies in general).

In some circles of esoteric study being an Ascetic is encouraged. Most of this I think comes into the Western traditions through the influence of groups like the Theosophical Society in the later 19th and early 20th Centuries. While there were some early examples of this asceticism in traditional Western esoterics (the Pythagorean Brotherhood comes to mind), the general concensus was to live in the world around you rather than to denigh the self. Moderation, as you so point out was the main emphasis from the Greeks particularly which influenced the WMT.

The issues of sex and food in relation to magick often come up, and I think that you hit the nail on the head by saying that even in these, moderation is the key. There will be times when fasting (preparing for a ritual or initiation, etc.) is called for, and even encouraged. Once these periods are finished, then the person goes back to their normal daily routine or life (having sex and eating what they normally would eat).