The New Age And Albertus Magnus
The occult New Age movement is not easy to define. The New Age refers to various non-traditional religious groups which differ widely from one another. However, they share enough common ideas and behavioral patterns to enable us to speak of them as a whole. A good description of the New Age is a movement that "emphasizes the holistic view of body and mind, alternative or complementary medicines, personal growth therapies, and a loose mix of theosophy, ecology, oriental mysticism, and a belief in the dawning of an astrological age of peace and harmony . . . it includes New Age ideas such as monism and pantheism, preferring intuition and direct experience to rationality and science" (Rev. James J. LeBar, Cults, Sects, and the New Age, Huntington, Indiana, Our Sunday Visitor, 1989, p. 152).
Not long ago, I chanced to see, in a friend's house, a New Age catalog which startled me by its bizarre character. With permission, I borrowed the catalog in order to study it in depth. Thus, a very odd world what has been called The Pagan Way came into closer and sharper focus.
I examined this 1999 list of books, and a cool professional publication greeted my eyes, with its slick paper and striking, colorful artwork. The descriptions of the books ran to nearly a hundred pages, while the prices were competitive. Reading the blurbs became a disturbing and revealing experience, for they presented a complex panorama of ideas and practices totally opposed to my deepest convictions.
The major subjects and preoccupations of this catalog of both old and very new books are: alchemy, astrology, the Kabbala, tarot cards, divination, and ceremonial magic (the real magic of sorcery and dealing with dubious spirits, not the stage magic of pleasing a crowd by sleight-of-hand tricks). Other topics dealt with runelore, numerology, the crystal ball, and healing mind/body through occult means, or by herbal lore and yoga. Here are some representative titles: The Book of Black Magic; Gnostic Tarot; A Book of Pagan Rituals; The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Surprisingly, there were only a few books on witchcraft.
These volumes are on sale, presumably, to serious, committed occultists and astrologers, to professional as well as amateur magicians, alchemists, etc. A deadly seriousness hangs over all these New Age books and their descriptions. A sinister solemnity of darkness rises from these clean white pages where, incongruously perhaps, one can also read words like "Hardcover, $22.95," and "Illustrated. Bibliography. Index. Large format. 1991. 240 pp." But one listing included this note: "Especially designed to be read by candlelight." (Surely one of the most suggestively haunting statements ever seen in a catalog!) I sensed, while reading through such material, an eagerness and delight in harking back to forbidden, shadowy studies and to pagan rites of yore, held in Faustian chambers or under a silvery moon in meadows where the whippoorwills call.
Meandering among the atavistic pages of the catalog, I was struck by the total assurance and self-confidence of those who write, and read, such esoteric books. No doubts seemed to trouble them. The plain assumption is that by reading these books and doing what they urge, one can get absolutely certain knowledge about the cosmos, human nature, one's own future (through the channel of predictive astrology), and about one's "past lives" by exploring reincarnation. The various occult arts, it is assumed, will provide reliable knowledge and power.
The New Age writers reveal, moreover, a weakness for the grandiose phrase and concept, a penchant for dramatic prose, a liking for the self-important insight. Magic is often spelled "Magick" (for the initiated). They love, too, unnecessary capitalization of key words and important ideas. Thus, in one short description of The Tower of Alchemy, the following words were put in capitals: "the Hermetic Art"; "the Path of Liberation"; "the Higher Mysteries"; "the Great Work." The great work, or magnum opus, is alchemy itself, I believe, or occultism in general.
We read, quite matter-of-factly, of mysterious ideas like esoteric circles, the Higher Self, the Sangreal, glyphs, and transpersonal planets. It is difficult for an uninformed layman like myself to grasp such arcane mysteries (except the Sangreal, or Holy Grail. But even here, their understanding of the Grail is not mine). Perhaps the New Age writers many of them women of the present day use high-flown language to help convince themselves that what they're doing is cosmically important.
The leading author in the catalog, the one who stands out with the most titles above his name (24), is Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), an English occultist and ceremonial magician. Crowley's writings are described factually with little hint of the bizarre and controversial life he led. However, Colin Wilson, in his long treatise The Occult, A History (1971), has much to say of Crowley, who liked to call himself "the Beast of the Apocalypse."
Early in life, Aleister Crowley inherited 30,000 pounds and never seemed to hold a job. He was an alcoholic and a heroin addict who, because of his attraction to magic, flamboyant gestures and a succession of mistresses, was ordered out of Italy by Mussolini in the Twenties. Some of Crowley's writings were pornographic and in 1923, at a farmhouse in Sicily, he had presided, with a few disciples, over rites of "sexual magic," bestiality, and animal sacrifice. The sex magic was probably plain old sex with mystic ritual thrown in. Later, France expelled him in 1929 for notorious conduct, while his two chief disciples were not permitted to enter Britain. In 1930, this unsavory person was banned from lecturing in Oxford. In fact, from 1910 on, Crowley had been attacked in the British press, justly according to Wilson, who also comments, "As a Satanist, he was doing rather well." He had opened a Satanic Temple in Britain around 1913, and many female aristocrats frequented it.
Throughout his life, Aleister Crowley exercised a strange power over his disciples and followers, especially over women. Leah Hirsig became his devoted mistress, yet Crowley twice deserted her, the second time because a rich American lady, Dorothy Olsen, became fascinated with him. At this time, Crowley's money was running out. According to Wilson, there were always "women eager to become his scarlet woman," though some of these left him. Two of the mistresses went insane after leaving him, though they were neurotic even before meeting Crowley, whose powerful personality helped to push them over the edge. Another woman, a Gertrude S., stabbed "the beast" with a carving knife.
A very loyal and devoted disciple was Norman Mudd, who had known Crowley at university but then left for South Africa. Mudd could not forget "the beast," and 15 years later, he came to Sicily after giving up his position as professor of mathematics, and presented his life savings to Crowley, begging to be taken back as a disciple. Later, Mudd became Leah's lover, though Crowley didn't mind. Crowley eventually deserted Leah and Mudd. The pathetic Norman Mudd committed suicide in 1934 by drowning, putting stones in his clothing, as Virginia Woolf did. Crowley also possessed an uncanny ability to get people to support him in a style he liked. Karl Germer of New York was Crowley's main financial support from the mid-1920s until his death in 1947.
Crowley lived on, with no sense of direction, into the Forties, "a thin old gentleman dressed in tweeds." He ought to have gotten a job, years before. Wilson writes, "From the beginning to the end of his life, Crowley possessed a rather silly arrogance, a lofty theatrical view of his own value that seems to derive from Oscar Wilde and the aesthetics of the nineties."
To consider how occultists themselves view Aleister Crowley is interesting. Though some revere him for being a great initiate and magician, like Kenneth Grant and other Crowleyites, the impression I get is that Crowley is simply too extreme for many students of esoteric magic. After all, he used to defecate on carpets. In Quest for Dion Fortune, author Janine Chapman, herself an occultist who has loved the ancient beliefs about the pagan gods, expresses reservations about Crowley. She thinks Crowley was a bad influence on young people and was immune to positive human values (p. 155), and that he could not identify with any heroic person (such as St. Francis or Wellington), nor anyone with a noble or altruistic nature. These observations, though true, only begin to deal with the enormity of Crowley's behavior.
However, on pages 100-101 of her book, Janine Chapman and two women she is interviewing all forcefully agree that Crowley tried to use women, tried to dominate them; he liked to put women down. Colin Wilson certainly reinforces this view by writing that Crowley actually filed sharply his front teeth, the easier to bite women more effectively!
Yet Crow1ey, despite his wildcat life, the manipulation of others, easygoing morals, love of phallic prose, his sorcery and other satanic ritual activities, is now a highly-respected occultist and expert on the Tarot deck of cards. He is handled very smoothly and discreetly by this catalog as one who speaks the truth on arcane matters dear to the New Age. He apparently satisfies that Age's craze for esoteric "knowledge." This man evokes either horror or devotion.
It might be of interest to Catholics and other Christians to see how the catalog deals with a notable Catholic saint Albert the Great, of Cologne (1200-1280), the teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas. According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia of 1967, St. Albert the Great, Dominican friar and sometime bishop of Regensburg, now a Doctor of the Church, was skilled in natural science and all branches of philosophy and theology. St. Albert studied at the University of Paris and later taught there, after receiving a bachelor's degree in theology and a master's in the same subject. He undertook to explain all branches of knowledge, including logic, metaphysics, rhetoric, mathematics, ethics, astronomy, politics, and economics. This 20-year program, "one of the marvels of medieval scholarship," earned him the honorific title Doctor Universalis. For three years he was also a faithful provincial of the German Dominicans. He attained considerable prestige, especially in Germany, and was declared a saint in 1622.
What connection could such a towering, respectable figure of the academic world have with occultism and the New Age? But strange are the quirky turns of history. The Catholic Encyclopedia also writes of Albert: "Even in his own lifetime, incredible legends were circulated, attributing to him the power of a magician or sorcerer. In later generations such legends were multiplied and spurious treatises were circulated under his name."
The 1999 catalog we have been looking at offers for sale three books attributed to St. Albert the Great. How does the scholarly saint fare at the hands of the modernist New Agers? Ambiguously. One of these three works is The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus, Best & Brightman, eds., Oxford University Press, $22.95, 176 pp. In this book's description, the "secrets" of Albertus Magnus are listed under five headings: Herbs, Gemstones, Beasts, Planets, and Marvels of the World. In each category, the herb, stone, etc. is associated with its magical or astrological properties.
Now, our catalog states in its listing of this book: "Albertus Magnus (d. 1279) is known as one of the foremost alchemists of the 13th century." Is Albertus really being called an alchemist here? Perhaps, but the words "is known as" create ambiguity. Again, there's ambiguity in these words of the catalog: "According to one account he [Albertus] is purported to have created the Philosopher's Stone, delivering it, shortly before his death, to his student St. Thomas Aquinas." These words are carefully neutral and non-committal; nonetheless, the impression is left that the mysterious Albertus was an alchemist who dabbled in the occult.
However, the catalog also notes, "In order to attract readers, it was not uncommon for magical texts of the 16th century to take on the name of a notable figure. Such is the case with The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus, whose secrets are, in fact, a compilation from a number of sources by an anonymous author who was, according to editors Best and Brightman, probably one of Albertus Magnus's followers. Though it "pretends to be a product of his experimental school among the Dominicans at Cologne, . . . it has a more colloquial voice than that of Albertus Magnus." Thus the book belongs to the magical culture of the 16th century, not the 13th. This illuminating and responsible passage seems to relieve Albert of any authorship of the text in question.
But our catalog lists two other alchemical books, and each is attributed to a "Frater Albertus." No further mention is made of St. Albert the Great, yet the impression is again made by attribution of name that he was an alchemist. The New Agers are still perpetuating the myth that Albert was a magician, astrologer, and alchemist. I realize that alchemy can be looked upon as early chemistry, and perhaps as an innocent, though naive, quest, and that astrology in the 17th century was at least practiced by legitimate astronomers, if only to make a little money by casting horoscopes. However, the suggestion that Albert was a magician is another matter, a serious charge not to be laid at anyone's door without convincing evidence.
There are difficulties and dangers when following the path of gnosticism and occultism. It is significant that occultists themselves are wary and critical of their own occult arts. Janine Chapman, in her book on the magician Dion Fortune, warns her readers of the risks involved in pursuing secret, arcane studies. She writes, "To study something that is as obscure as the Kabbalah, it's difficult not to become unbalanced." Another occultist agreed with her, adding that many people fail, because they lose balance and use the powers they gain for the wrong purposes, for self-gain, not for the good of others. Chapman went on to say, ". . . when you're studying something that so few people study, it's difficult to know how to integrate your own personal life into the rest of the world. I think a lot of other occultists have not been able to do that well." The point was also made that if you touch pitch, you'll get dirty, which is why these particular people, though involved in esoteric studies, would not consort with Crowley.
Here are Janine Chapman's blunt and forceful words near the end of her book:
In December of 1974 I had an experience that caused me to walk away from my study of occult and magical subjects. The experience happened in connection with the Golden Dawn system of initiation, which I was following on my own. I experienced an almost total disintegration of personality as well as the destruction of most of the structures of my personal and public life . . . I was a long time recovering, and when I did, I was no longer the same person I had been.
Mr. Edward O'Brien, Jr. is an assistant professor of philosophy and literature at Delaware Valley College, Doylestown, Pa. He has also taught for Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y. and Rider College in Trenton, N.J. Mr. O'Brien has written articles for Crisis, Fidelity, New Oxford Review, the Wanderer and HPR.
© Ignatius Press 2000.
© Ignatius Press 2000.
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