On Initiation

9 02 2009


Or: Why the Church is the way it is right now

Recently I was reading neo-pagan John Opsopaus’ essay on Pythagorean theology, particularly the section on theurgy. Those who have been with me for several years know that I have written on theurgy before, and a lot of the content of Opsopaus’ essay was not new to me. However, it does gather a lot of ideas that would take some time to find in many other sources. I highly recommend it.

What I want to address this time is the idea of initiation that he describes in the last part of work. Opsopaus describes a series of initiations in the ancient world that a Christian cannnot help associate with our own rites of initiation. In these ceremonies, the initiate or desmos prepares himself for the entrance of a god into his soul. This includes ritual washing, the use of lights and smoke, and other material rites that prepare the soul with union with the Divine. After the service, the symbolic death and burial of the initiate, he “is transformed into a Theios Anêr (God-Man), one of the Perfected or Immaculate Beings (Akhrantoi), who by Their very presence on earth bring grace to humanity and to all of Nature”. Comparisons to baptism and Christian theosis here are not very far-fetched.

I do not pretend of course to be the first to make such observations. One only need to look into Dom Odo Casel’s kultmysterium to find such comparisons elsewhere. What came to mind while reading this was the very idea of initiation itself. According to Opsopaus, such theurgic rituals were rare and undertaken by the few. This was perhaps the context behind baptism in the early Church as well; one can wonder why such a figure as St. Ambrose was not baptized until late adulthood in spite of his piety and erudition. If people saw the rituals of Christian initiation as pagan initiates saw their own rites, it is perhaps no wonder that they were so rare when compared to their uses today. And it is no wonder that in such texts as the Shepherd of Hermas, it says that if a man sin after baptism, he has but one penance.

Of course, with the rise of Constantine, baptism increasingly became a sine qua non of membership into the Christian commonwealth. Indeed, baptism seems to have gone from being a Christian version of theurgic initiation, to a religious rite in which original sin was washed away and you were brought into the “Christian body politic”, to the purely initiatory ceremony that it is in many places today in which you are welcomed into the assembly of the “People of God”. (AG was very amused by what I said when I heard that a couple that I know had allowed their child to live six months on earth before she was baptized. “How can they have left the baby under the power of the devil for so long?”, I quipped.) Nowadays, it seems, in many places infant baptism has lost any idea of the supernatural, as the removal of the exorcisms from the new rite seems to highlight.

All of this of course means that many have seen an incongurity between the significance of baptism in the early Church and what is expected of baptized Christians in the modern Church. This for example was the real force behind the rise of Jansenism, not the obscure treatises of St. Augustine on grace or a tendency towards prideful perfection. Reading the history of the early Church, it seemed a lot of what the contemporary Church was doing was casting its pearls before swine. The triumph of the anti-Jansenist forces ultimately lies in the fact that we no longer see that they would have a point. If baptism is what is was meant to be, why was it being taken so lightly?

That doesn’t stop us from complaining about the state of the faithful in the Catholic Church today. Indeed, the divide between various positions in the Church basically has to do with what it means to be a Christian. The most liberal Christians, the Charles Currans and the Schillebeeckxs of the world, are basically in continuity with the anti-Jansenist Jesuits of 17th and 18th century France: easy attrition, cheap grace, an all-merciful God. Those of us who are “more orthodox” refuse to let the people off the hook so easily in their contracepting and indifferentist ways. The task lies in finding the path that we must pursue to not go down the slippery slope of cultic indifference. A lot of times, what we consider to be “strict” and “orthodox” may just be the tip of the iceberg. We may all be playing the same game; we are just splitting different hairs.



3 responses

13 02 2009
Andrea Elizabeth

Cleansing and purification from sin and death- the tomb; and a physical and spiritually illuminating entrance into the body of Christ – the womb. We must be born again.

(what is this, four posts in a row – I hope I’m not overstaying my welcome.)

12 02 2009

Interesting. If people saw the rituals of Christian initiation as pagan initiates saw their own rites, it is perhaps no wonder that they were so rare when compared to their uses today. And it is no wonder that in such texts as the Shepherd of Hermas, it says that if a man sin after baptism, he has but one penance.

I am surprised to read that allowed as a possibility. Many more-liberal sorts of liturgical scholars suggest as much. It was my time in Orthodoxy, with her language of “illumination” at baptism that caused me to wonder if the right was ever seen as a proper initiation. Reading Schmemann’s “Of Water and the Spirit” caused me to wonder as much again.

Ancient Jews-following-Messiah would have seen a parallel with their own Mikvah rites: cleansing rites performed often from childhood on. With the Christian idea of “one baptism” and a growing Gentile community with few or no Jewish connections, the idea of initiation seems to have taken on a different depth from the pagan community. So the question is what did the early church see here – “ritual cleansing”, preparation for ministry or initiation?

9 02 2009

That’s non-sense. There were never any un-baptised Christians. (Not that many weren’t martyred before completing the catechumenate which lasted three years … but what this man’s saying is simply not true). As for Ambrose, he lived in the fourth century, and was baptised as an adult because the heresy that Your sins after baptism are not forgiven was widespread in that century (not before, not after): e.g.: St. Gregory, in the fourth century, was the first one in history to purposefully delay his Baptism until adulthood, though his parents were Christians. The same goes for St. C-tine, St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, etc. — but these examples are from the 4th century, not earlier. And the reason for he heresy lies on an interpetation of Scripture, not on a common background with paganism.

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