The Blooming Staff: On the Papal World-Tree, or, An Esoteric Meditation on the Papacy

Next Sunday, a new show premieres on HBO — “The Young Pope.” The show stars Jude Law as an ultraconservative Archbishop of New York who is elected to the Papacy, and who embarks on a traditionalist mission reminiscent of Pope Benedict XVI’s, if Benedict had been a narcissistic New York chain-smoker with visionary dreams and an American nun played by Diane Keaton as his close advisor. Jude Law’s Pope is essentially the polar opposite of Pope Francis, and has more in common with the fictional Pope Hadrian VII, the main character of Frederick Rolfe’s 1904 decadent novel Hadrian the Seventh. Here’s a taste:

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yFMDVH4lqSU[/youtube]

Apostolic Succession and Occultism

Glitzy, decadent, and conspiratorial portrayals of the Papacy might not seem to have much in common with the contemporary occult scene. Outside of conspiracy theories about the Pope and invaders from outer space, there is not much precedent in contemporary occultism for a meditation on the role of the Papacy.

Image of an episcopal consecration by Claude Bassot (1580-1630)
Image of an episcopal consecration by Claude Bassot (1580-1630)

Yet the notion of apostolic succession does hold an important place. In the literature, we find countless discussions about the apostolic lineages of “wandering bishops,” about the valid succession (or lack thereof) of the clergy of various strands of French Gnosticism and Liberal Catholicism, and, up until the late twentieth century — crossing debates about apostolic succession with Aeonic theory — carefully argued treatises on the legitimate apostolic succession of the clergy of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica.

Understandably, the modern O.T.O. has more or less argued that such a lineage, whether true or not, is unnecessary to the validity of the E.G.C.’s New Aeonic liturgies, and that the only lineage that matters is the succession from Aleister Crowley (see, for example, the statement that the E.G.C.’s “ecclesiastical powers are founded on a spiritual succession from the Master Therion and the constituent originating assemblies of O.T.O., rather than on Christian Apostolic Succession” on the O.T.O.’s US Grand Lodge website).

The Office of Pontifex Maximus

Such discussions provide one starting point for an esoteric examination of the Papacy. Tau Apiryon, in his “The Role and Function of Thelemic Clergy in Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica,” spends a considerable amount of time discussing the meaning of the title “Pontifex Maximus” for both the Catholic Pope and the modern Thelemite.

Emperor Augustus dressed in the robes of the Pontifex Maximus.
Emperor Augustus dressed in the robes of the Pontifex Maximus.

Apiryon believes that the apostolic succession contains spiritual successions from the ancient Jebusite Order of Melchizedek, from Moses (questionably labeled here as both a Hebrew and Egyptian priest), and from Jesus and the apostles. But it was through the syncretization of the Christian episcopacy with the Roman religious system — specifically, through the assumption by the Bishop of Rome of the Roman religious title Pontifex Maximus — that the apostolic succession acquired the spiritual successions of the ancient pagan world. Apiryon writes:

We may never know whether Pope Damasus I was actually appointed Pontifex Maximus of the Roman Church. Nonetheless, that mantle fell squarely upon his shoulders and those of his successors. Having either actually or effectively absorbed the Sol Invictus cult, the apostolic succession of the Roman Catholic Church has, since the time of Damasus, conveyed the spiritual successions of nearly all of the pre-Christian pagan/solar faiths of the Roman Empire. … Thus, the “apostolic” succession, though considered within the exoteric Christian community to begin and end with Jesus, actually embodies the spiritual successions of the entire Western religious heritage: Christian, Judaic, and Pagan.

Tau Apiryon’s purpose in detailing the spiritual meaning of the apostolic succession here, specifically the universal spiritual role of the Pope, the Pontifex Maximus, is of course to establish that the episcopacy of the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica unites “virtually all of the various spiritual successions of the Western religious tradition in service to the Law of Thelema.”  Whether or not this is true is debatable — indeed, many occultists have pointed out the potential flaws in this reasoning (Crowley’s probable lack of an episcopal consecration; the broken or unbroken nature of the lineage; whether the proper form of episcopal consecration is carried out within the E.G.C., etc.).

For the traditional Roman Catholic, however, it wouldn’t really matter whether or not a valid apostolic lineage has been maintained within the Thelemic clergy. This is because, since such clergy — as well as the clergy of most non-Catholic Christian denominations — are not in communion with the See of St. Peter, they do not actually hold a full apostolic succession from Jesus and the apostles, let alone the “spiritual successions of nearly all of the pre-Christian pagan/solar faiths of the Roman Empire” through the Pontifex Maximus. Unlike traditionalist Catholics, I do not believe that lack of communion with the Pope invalidates the sacraments and spiritual lineages of non-Catholic clergy; I just mean to state that the succession thus inherited is limited in an important way.

The Pope as a Universal Religious Figure

Of course, all of this proves that there is a religious figure that “actually embodies the spiritual successions of the entire Western religious heritage: Christian, Judaic, and Pagan” — the Pope. The Papacy, as is clear from the vast popularity and spiritual influence enjoyed by Pope Francis (and the pop cultural relevance of a fictional Pope played by Jude Law), is the only global institution to potentially embody a universal religious authority — even beyond the confines of Christianity. There is a reason the Catholic Pope becomes the Pontifex Maximus of the “Enigma Babylon One World Faith” of the Antichrist’s “Global Community” in the evangelical Christian apocalyptic fantasy series Left Behind. The Pope offers the possibility of universal, one world religion, and indeed the Catholic Church (before the Second Vatican Council) traditionally preached the necessity of uniting the world beneath the banner of Catholic Christendom.

But what of service to the Law of Thelema? Even in the New Aeon of Thelemic occultism, one figure understood the importance of the Papal prerogative — Frater Achad. One legend surrounding Achad’s 1928 conversion to Roman Catholicism, related by Lon Milo DuQuette in his introduction to Achad’s Q.B.L. or the Bride’s Reception, suggests that Achad converted to Rome in order to bring the Law of Thelema to the Catholic Church. The fact that this story is almost certainly untrue aside, it does convey an important point. In order to be a universal, rather than a merely partitive religious tradition, Thelema really would have to unite all the “various spiritual successions of the Western religious tradition,” which is why Crowley consistently claimed the succession of pre-Aeon of Horus religious and occult groups such as the O.T.O., the Gnostic Church, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and more. It is why Crowley also launched several quixotic campaigns to be recognized as the “World Teacher” of the Theosophical Society, and to gain control of groups like the American AMORC.

The Pope and the Universal Brotherhood

The World's Parliament of Religions at the Columbian Exhibition.
The World’s Parliament of Religions at the Columbian Exhibition.

However, there is one group that really does claim to unite all of the spiritual heritages — exoteric and esoteric — of all organized and unorganized groups throughout the world. The influence of this group is the real reason Frater Achad joined himself to the See of St. Peter in 1928, and it finds its intellectual underpinnings in the World’s Parliament of Religions at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, one of the first historical moments of true interfaith dialogue and communication to occur in the modern age. This group is the Universal Brotherhood — also known as the Integral Fellowship, the Mahacakra, the Great Circle. It is the group for which Frater Achad served as Mahaguru or leader from the early 1930s to his death in 1950.

In his closing address to the Parliament of Religions, Dr. Merwin-Marie Snell — comparative religion scholar, director of the Scientific Section of the Parliament, and founder and first Mahaguru of the Universal Brotherhood — asked, “Can the religious federation of humanity be regarded as within the limits of a rational and legitimate hope?” Dr. Snell himself answered, “This question has already been answered before all the world. The ideal of universality has been in the world, however well or illy we may think it to have been carried out. The standard of organic union has long been unfurled, whatever we may think of the beauty of its blazoning.”

Where can this “ideal of universality” be found? According to Snell, in the Papacy:

O white-robed Pontiff of eternal Rome! thee do we hail as the living embodiment of our enrapturing dream. Thou hast handed on from generation to generation the sacred torch of cosmic thought; thou hast kept alive the flame of cosmic love. Thy name is inherited from prehistoric mysteries; thy mission is the preservation of the heritage of doctrine which unites the best thought of the flower of the Aryan and Semitic nations; thy home is amid the traditions of universal empire; we dare to see in thy triple crown the symbol of a unity in which Jew and Christian and pagan can alike participate; and we hail thee once more as the apostle of cosmic unity, the king of the first great brotherhood of the world. Hail to thee! and hail still more to the divine Master who taught and crowned thee! (Snell, “The Future of Religion,” The Open Court, a Quarterly Magazine, Oct. 5, 1893)

Revolutionary Ultramontanism

Hugues-Felicité Robert de Lamennais (1826); portrait by Jean-Baptiste Paulin Guérin
Hugues-Felicité Robert de Lamennais (1826); portrait by Jean-Baptiste Paulin Guérin.

Surprisingly, there is some precedent for this idea in the history of Roman Catholicism. Felicite Lammenais, the French radical cleric, published a journal called L’Avenir in the first half of the nineteenth century. This journal advocated a revolutionary Ultramontanism — a concept that seems improbable, if not impossible, at first blush. Ultramontanism was the predominantly nineteenth century movement that supported the absolute authority of the Papacy and the rights of the Church over the temporal authority of the national powers, culminating in the declaration of Papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council. Major theorists of Ultramontanism, like Joseph de Maistre, saw the Pope as the only figure capable of standing above the petty struggles of Napoleonic-era nationalism and colonialism.

Ultramontanism was particularly active in the anti-clerical environment of post-revolutionary France, which allowed for L’Avenir‘s Ultramontanism to take on a subversive aspect — the Papacy as the one institution able to unite people beyond national lines, against corrupt temporal powers, and in support of religious freedom. “God and Liberty” was the journal’s motto. Of course, Lammenais’ ideas were crushed by the Pope himself, who was bemused at best by the idea of enforcing true religious liberty and going up against the powerful national governments of the mid-nineteenth century. Lammenais eventually left the Church, became a Christian socialist, and was elected a deputy for Paris during the period of the French Second Republic.

Occult Ultramontanism

Lammenais’ ideas were radical, heterodox, and idealistic. But they didn’t go away. Like many subversive ideas that were before their time, Lammenais’ revolutionary Ultramontanism went underground and became a part of the colorful esoteric scene of the French occult revival. Ideas like Lammenais’ allowed figures as significant as Éliphas Lévi to foresee a coming universal age in which the Pope would rule over a spiritual empire of diverse religious perspectives, united through the office of a universal pontiff:

When the spirit of understanding shall have spread over the whole earth, a time will come when the Gospel spirit shall be the light of nations … For one day all nations shall be one nation, all thrones be subject to one throne … This King shall reconcile the East with the West and the North with the South; he will endow the peoples with true liberty, for he will immoveably establish the pillars of justice … There will be then only one religion in the world, and the universal pontiff will declare from the pinnacle of supreme authority that Jews, Mohammedans, Buddhists, &c., are Christians ill-instructed, of whom he is none the less father and head. He will bless them and convene them to the great council of the nations; he will throw open to them the inexhaustible wealth of prayers and indulgences, and will really and truly bestow his benediction ON THE CITY AND ON THE WORLD. (Éliphas Lévi, The Mysteries of Magic, 279)

And notorious Catholic occultist Josephin Péladan, decadent writer and founder of L’Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique du Temple et du Graal, could exclaim:

God must be for us the ideal that we shall have loved; and eternity will be the realization of our will … I will deny all collectivity … I will deny the work of blood, I will deny military glory, I will deny nationality … I will deny the heredity of the power and the titles … I shall proclaim humanism and the dogma of individuality. I shall renew the doctrine of Enoch, in kissing before the whole world the mule of the Pope, the sole power I shall ever recognize. (Josephin Péladan, dedication to Curieuse!, 1885; cited in Tobias Churton, Occult Paris)

The Pope and Universal Reformation

Arms of Pope Julius II, early 16th century. This "Papal oak" was said by Mercurius to be the potential "world-tree" and the perch of the alchemist's phoenix. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1918.
Arms of Pope Julius II, early 16th century. This “Papal oak” was said by Mercurius to be the potential “world-tree” and the perch of the alchemist’s phoenix. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Of course, Lammenais, Lévi, and Péladan were only drawing on a long and deep esoteric tradition of aligning an ideal Papacy with a Universal or Hermetic Reformation. Renaissance figures like Tommaso Campanella, who argued for the Pope’s role in creating a universal City of the Sun — before spending decades in the dungeons of the Inquisition, and shifting his aspirations to the King of France — and Giovanni Mercurio da Correggio — who declared himself to be the reincarnation of Hermes Trismegistus, and wrote On the Oak of Pope Julius, or On the Philosopher’s Stone, which describes “the pope’s oak” as a “world tree” upon whose upper branches the phoenix (associated here with the philosopher’s stone) is perched — would utilize the idea of the Papacy for their schemes of building Hermetic utopias.

More recently, and less esoterically, mainstream Catholic theologian Karl Rahner articulated a role for the Pope reminiscent of his status with regard to the Eastern Catholic Churches — a central spiritual authority who ensures a plurality of religious rites, rather than enforcing a Latinization of all perspectives.  Rahner’s book The Shape of the Church to Come includes this possibility in a manifesto of ideas for the transformative potential of the future Church.

Alas, Rahner’s book was released in 1974. Later Popes like Benedict XVI have not exactly embraced the radical, pluralistic potential of the office of St. Peter, though Benedict, like Jude Law, did embrace a plurality of Papal clothing styles.

Yet Pope Francis signals some new possibilities, if not the potential of a Universal World Reformation on Hermetic and occult lines. Already he has embraced the liberating and transformative power of grassroots popular movements — probably the closest thing in today’s political and social sphere to the “Rosicrucian furor” of the early modern period. Perhaps the possibility of a universal Pontiff, who upholds both “God and Liberty,” is not as implausible as we might think.

If you enjoyed this article, check out my new personal blog, The Light Invisible, for more pieces on Christian esotericism.


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