Originally printed in the Fall 2011 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Smoley, Richard. "From the Editor's Desk." Quest 99.4 (FALL 2011):122
When you think about it, "initiate" is a peculiar word. In some occult literature, like the Initiate trilogy written in the 1920s and '30s by the Theosophist Cyril Scott, it denotes someone extremely advanced. And yet "initiate" means "beginner," someone who has just started something.
We might find a clue to this apparent contradiction in Buddhism, which speaks of the novice as a srotapanna, or "one who enters the stream." The image points to a key aspect of initiation: the fact that it opens one up to a stream of spiritual influence offered by a tradition.
What does initiation entail? To speak from my own reflection and experience, there are three basic levels. They may be conferred in formal rituals—of an organization known or unknown—although I suspect that at least in some cases no ritual, or only the most basic type of ritual, is involved.
The first could simply be called the initiation of responsibility. It marks a point at which the individual stands forward and freely agrees to accept the task of his or her own personal evolution—in Buddhist terms, entering the stream. Most people, however wise, educated, or successful, have not made any such commitment. They will develop and grow as the random circumstances of life permit. But the initiate at the first level makes this commitment to work upon self-development. In return he or she is (metaphorically) implanted with a kind of seed crystal that forms the core of the awakening self. Life starts to shape itself around this crystal and serves as a means of purging the initiate of the dross of his character.
This process of purification continues for a long time, years or more likely decades, and probably there are few initiates alive on earth who are not continuing to undergo it. But after the individual has reached some level of maturity, the time comes for a second initiation—the stage when he now takes on the additional responsibility of a task or line of work that he is uniquely able to pursue, such as healing, art, or social action. This is not necessarily a trade or profession in the ordinary sense, although it may well jibe with one's work in daily life. One could call this the initiation of vocation.
Having started on this line of work, the initiate then pursues it both for self-development and in service to a higher purpose. Inevitably the individual will make mistakes, will do some things well and others badly, and will suffer from lapses of judgment or even ethics. But they are part of the process of learning. If the initiate is made of good material (and the very fact of initiation suggests that he is), he will sort through his mistakes and learn the necessary lessons from them.
The third is the stage of mastery. This is not a matter of acquiring amazing mystical powers or superhuman capacities. But it does show that the individual has acted upon the responsibility he took on in the first initiation and developed the skills required in the second. He is not necessarily finished with these tasks, but he has acquired enough ability to work creatively and from his own initiative. He is now enabled to stake out new ground and expand humanity's range of knowledge.
While I am not a Freemason, these stages seem to correspond to the three levels of Blue Lodge Masonry: Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason. Some of those who have been raised to these levels (as Masons would put it) may be able to see the correspondences and could even explain some of the mysteries of these stages from details of the Masonic rites.
Theosophical literature (for example, The Secret Doctrine 1:206 and The Mahatma Letters, chronological edition, 189), speaks of seven stages of initiation, and you could spend a good deal of energy trying to figure out whether the additional four levels are superadded to these three or simply represent a finer subdivision of the same stages. (Another Theosophical scheme, discussed by Raul Branco in this issue, speaks of five initiations.) In any case, I myself suspect that there are many further levels that are not accessible or even comprehensible to someone living on earth. As Theosophy teaches, the process of evolution is virtually infinite, always with further to go and higher beings to learn from. Initiates, then, are well-named: however advanced they may be, they are still in a sense beginners.
Is self-initiation possible? The answer appears to be no. If you are entering a spiritual stream, it is a stream that already exists and there must be someone to introduce you to it. While many people have had spontaneous experiences of illumination, these are probably better described as moments of awakening or enlightenment than as initiation per se. And while some say they have received initiations on the inner planes, such cases seem highly prone to self-delusion, not to mention fraud. Even so, only a fool, I think, would state categorically that inner-plane initiation is impossible.
Finally, is initiation necessary for spiritual advancement? Again the answer seems to be no. The range of human experience is too vast, too well endowed with spontaneous awakenings and self-discovered insights, to suggest that formal initiation is always required for progress on the path. For some, it is not only valuable but necessary. Others do perfectly well without it. Why? The answer to this mystery no doubt lies in the uniqueness of the human individuality and the wide scope of circumstances that are needed to help it flourish.