Written by Brendan, Sacristan at St Albans Liberal Catholic Church in Johannesburg, South Africa

O Thou Who givest sustenance to the Universe,

from Whom all things proceed,

to Whom all things return,

Unveil to us the face of the true Spiritual Sun,

hidden by a disc of golden light,

That we may know the Truth

and do our whole duty

As we journey to Thy sacred feet.

Traditional Christian sacramental worship hints at deeper things than are outwardly professed by all branches of the Church. “Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they, seeing, see not; and hearing, they hear not, neither do they understand” Christ told his disciples not long before his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Whatever little these disciples understood of his teachings they passed on. The early Church fathers preserved what they could and expounded upon the mysteries they had been taught, and some of their letters were copied and preserved. As living memory of Christ began to die out, numerous gospels were composed to give account of what could be gathered. Throughout the ages the Church continued to work with the ever-growing body of memories and writings of its scholars and saints. Jesus told his disciples “It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it.” and so the mystery cult of the Christ grew into a secret church, which eventually flowered into a great religion.

We are souls from the “Garden of Eden” and cast into the wilderness through incarnation. But, having a vague memory of our true divine nature, we are called to be gardeners, even in the jungle of the material world. As such, any tree or shrub we plant must be pruned to keep it healthy. So, too, the mustard plant that is the Church has continually been pruned through the ages, in an effort to free it of withered branches. But few among the gardeners are truly experts, and fallible as we are, sometimes things have been lost in the pruning, and sometimes diseased branches have been allowed to grow on too long. The mustard plant looks nothing like the seed from which it began, but it is still the same entity in essence, and though grown imperfectly, bearing scars of its time on earth, it is the same church planted by our Jesus, our master and our friend, our Guru-Dev.

Established formally in 1916 independent of the jurisdiction of the Pope, Liberal Catholicism is a branch in this mustard plant which grows towards the esoteric mysteries evident in Jesus’ teachings. Where the West uprooted its old pagan religions concerned primarily with the natural world and natural phenomena to plant instead religions of supernatural phenomena and soteriology such as Neo-Platonism, Paulicianism, Christianity, and Manichaeism, in the East, religions with the very same pantheon instead gradually revealed the light of dharma and the knowledge of karma and samsara, without the need for great g upheaval. As such, the Liberal Catholic branch of Christianity grows toward the East and in doing so, many, many teachings are found to be the same; analogous teachings, the  yousame truths cast in a different light, are found on what seem to be opposite poles of the religious experience.

Despite being automatically excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church by virtue of acting independently of the Pope, The Liberal Catholic Church still bears the four marks of the Church as expounded since at least the time of St Ignatius of Antioch: One, Holy Catholic, Apostolic Church. It is “one” in that it professes unity in the mystical body of Christ through communion. It is “holy” in that it is set apart from the world for God. It is “apostolic” in that the bishops of the Liberal Catholic Church trace their lines of consecration and succession in the manner set down by tradition to other bishops within the Old Catholic Church, and thereby to bishops within the Roman Catholic Church, and thereby through the entire unbroken line of bishops therein to the apostles, and to Simon-Peter, first vicar of Christ, to Jesus himself, through his words: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. In the view of the Church, maintaining this sacred apostolic succession of bishops from one generation to the next is what constitutes being on the vine planted by Christ.

The Liberal Catholic Church also preserves the seven sacraments characteristic of the Church. Handed down by ancient tradition as interpretations of vivid dispensations of grace through the Holy Spirit accorded by Christ in his deeds, they are baptism, confirmation, matrimony, absolution, holy unction, the eucharist, and ordination. These are the seven “tools” handed to the Church whose effectiveness is unconditionally guaranteed, not by the understanding, will, or purity of the people carrying them out, but by their being ministered correctly and sincerely. In this way, the mercy of Christ is available through the fallible ministers of his Church to people with a reverent and contrite heart.

It is in the seven sacraments preserved by the Church that the first glimpses of a deeper truth appear. St John’s Apocalypse reads “And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.” In other parts of the Biblical canon, seven lights are mentioned, seven archangels, and seven blessings too. In the Zoroastrian religion, the Amesha Spenta are seven emanations of Ahuramazda. In the Vishnu Purana, Lord Vishnu “enters into the seven solar rays which dilate into seven suns”. Catholic Christianity teaches the existence of seven “deadly sins”, ameliorated by seven “heavenly virtues”, and seven “graces of the Holy Spirit”.  There are seven days in a week, seven moving heavenly bodies visible to the naked eye, and seven alchemical metals of antiquity. In all this, a pattern of inference was drawn up by the Theosophical movement in the late 19th century, attempting to distil our understanding of these seven “qualities” into seven “rays’.

The first bishops of the Liberal Catholic Church were involved in theosophical circles and imputed these ecumenical findings into the Church as direct correspondences to the seven sacraments, as well as the iconography and sacramentals: such as the traditional six candles and single crucifix on the altar, the seven-decan Francsiscan Rosary, and many other seemingly quirky traditions preserved by the Church with only tenuously “orthodox” reasoning. As St Paul wrote: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Breathing new life into the ancient esoteric imagery of the Church, and carrying it further, the altar stone in a Liberal Catholic Church is set with seven small precious jewels and the Church is girded by seven crosses.

But why all this strict adherence to ritual and sacramentals? In the spiritual New Age, surely this isn’t necessary? Surely, if the truth is that attachment is what traps us in samsara, religion itself becomes another attachment? These sentiments are generally accepted as true within the Liberal Catholic community, that we live, die, and are reborn into the bondage of this world, because of attachment to the world. Statues, icons, incense, and vestments are all material. Rituals are not roads to salvation or moksha.

Being ensnared here, we must first use what is available to us, before we can abandon religion entirely. Just as Jesus called highly fallible and unloved men to be his disciples “but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world”, so too the Church must carve transcendent beauty into material stone, gild wood with the faces of saints or bodhisattva, burn incense as holocaust, and priests must “put on the new man” in clothes that look out of place in any other setting. The material is conformed to reflect back to us the ideals of the immaterial. Beneath this outer layer of material, the next is the emotional, that which literally motivates physical action. Music and chant are the vehicles to stir the emotions toward the transcendent. This allows us to delve a layer deeper, into the abstract world of the mental, where the meaning of the sacred geometry of the church and text of the epistle can now be understood in context. Finally, another layer is reached, the ineffable world of the intuition, wherefrom the axioms are derived for the mental world outside it. It is here that the divine mystery is truly experienced, and on this level that Jesus speaks in the gospels. But without these anchors through the layers of the mental, emotional, and physical, it is difficult to keep focus on the divine and begin to unwind the kundalini to release us from the bonds of sin, or karma.

Like the religions of dharma, Christianity proclaims that only absolute freedom from the bondage of sin is what will liberate us into salvation. It is obvious to both religions that this is hardly possible in one mere lifetime. The idea of a “purgatory” after death has been taught in Catholicism, but is rejected in Eastern Orthodoxy. The Liberal Catholic Church takes up the teaching of the early church father Origen: that souls must reincarnate, and this agrees with Eastern teachings. But nevertheless, souls can wander in and out of incarnation, trapped in the undertow of samsara without any progression on their own. This is why a divine teacher is a necessary mercy. Just as a true guru can remove the karma of his disciples, so too does Jesus take on the penalty of sin for his followers. His sacraments are the means by which we commune with him and offer our sins to him while he offers us a part in his life. The central sacrament of this age is the holy eucharist, whereby it is believed that a priest causes the underlying substance of bread and wine to be united with the underlying substance of the body (divine essence) and blood (divine life) of Christ. Instead of us making an offering of a lamb to a wrathful god, God makes an offering of Himself to us, which, when taken by any sincere and contrite heart (whether Christian or not), removes the weight of venial sin, which in the view of the Liberal Catholic Church, is akin to very, very slowly unwinding the kundalini, thereby raising the consciousness gradually over the course of a lifetime. Yogic practices are thought by many to achieve this much faster, but require discipline of the mind and the intimate guidance of a highly skilled teacher. In this sense, the church aims to be a school not only for initiates, but also for slow learners. In this vein it is accepted that most of us will fall short of salvation and so in one version of the closing prayers in the vestry, the priest supplicates with his altar servers “… may we serve Thee in this life, and in all our lives to come”.

Christianity offers a vision of God who is one in three persons by various descriptions: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; or, the Creator, the Word or thought that proceeds from the creator, and the expression or Breath that proceeds when the word is spoken; or, the great Self, the Image of the self begotten when He contemplates His own existence, and the Love that emerges between the two; or, undifferentiated spirit as pure conscious Will, the first individualised Soul, and the Life force of the universe. There is an uncanny parallel in the description of the Trimurti or threefold-image of God offered in Hinduism: Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu, and Lord Brahma. The exact descriptions differ in details which are not worthy of the transcendence of the truth they share. From the Milk Ocean (Lord Shiva, infinite potential, all things and nothing) proceeds Lord Vishnu (who incarnates in various avatars for our salvation) and from his navel proceeds Lord Brahma (whose shaktis inspire and employ). And so follows the method of creation. By the will of the Father, the Word or “Logos” speaks the universe into existence through the Breath/Life or “Pneuma/Zoe”. The Old Testament contains in its opening verses “… and God said let there be light, and there was light”. The opening text of the Gospel of John explains this in more detail: “In the beginning was the Logos (Word), and the Logos was God, and the Logos was with God”. In Chrisitian tradition, most hymns end with a “doxology”, glorifying the Holy Trinity in some measure of rhyme and verse. A favourite Liberal Catholic hymn, from one originally dedicated to Lord Shiva, ends with:

Almighty Father, Maker and Destroyer,

All-glorious Son, our Master and Our Friend,

Spirit of Man, Inspirer and Employer,

We worship Thee in glory without end.

The Liberal Catholic Church, in the kind of humility that should come from a faith with 2000 years of history, does not claim for itself the exclusive legitimacy of the Church on earth, nor does it claim to have the whole deposit of faith alone, nor does it claim for Christianity a monopoly on salvation. The way of the cross is one way to the divine Logos who will meet us when we are ready to make the journey into liberation.

May the Holy Ones, whose pupils you aspire to become, show you the light you seek, give you the strong aid of their compassion and their wisdom. There is a peace that passeth all understanding; it abides in the hearts of those who live in the eternal; there is a power that maketh all things new; it lives and moves in those who know the self as one. May that peace brood over you, that power uplift you, till you stand where the One Initiator is invoked, till you see his Star shine forth. Amen.

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