Aleister Crowley, Four Red Monks carrying a Black Goat across the Snow to Nowhere, 1928-30.
A classic example of a collective unit of individuals attached to occult ideas and practices with the rise and spread of occultism, along with the practice of a form of mystical spirituality, is the fraternal order of the Ordo Templis Orientis, ‘Order of the Temple of the East’, which is also referred to as the O.T.O. Established in 1896 by Karl Kellner and then succeeded by Theodor Reuss, who professed that the order was in possession of the innermost secret of all esoteric systems that lies at the foundation of all occult, mystical, and spiritual traditions. According to Reuss,
Our Order possesses the Key which opens up all Masonic and Hermetic secrets, namely, the teaching of sexual magic, and this teaching explains, without exception, all secrets of Naturem all the symbolism of Freemasonry and all systems of religion.
The leadership passed on in 1922 to Aleister Crowley, who incorporated many of his own personal occult ideas, approaches to ritual magick, yogic practices, and the mystic-religious philosophy known as ‘Thelema’. Within this fraternal framework, individuals attached to the branch of the order that accepted Crowley’s Thelemic renderings revealed in Liber Al vel Legis, or Book of the Law, have come to incorporate into their spiritual path of evolution a notion of Thelemic mysticism, which is designed to enable one to learn his or her unique True Will and achieve a sense of union with the All. The teachings fall under Crowley’s notion of ‘Magick’, which draws from various existing magical and mystical forms of conduct, such as yoga, ceremonial magic, the Hermetic Qabalah, the tarot, astrology, sex magick, and a eucharistic ceremony. Within this system of Thelemic mysticism the aim is for the initiate to discover and manifest their own Will as their grand destiny and path of action that operates in union with that which underlies all being. This Will does not spring from conscious intent, but from the interplay between the deepest self and the universe. Theoretically, at this point, the initiate acts in alignment with nature and the universe surrendering all forms of selfish resistance. An example of mystical pursuit that might lead the initiate into a state of union with the All can be largely defined by the Tree of Life. The initiate begins in Malkuth, which is the everyday material world of phenomena, with the ultimate goal being at Kether, the sphere of unity with the All. The ability to accomplish this requires a great deal of preparation and effort, which consists of thorough knowledge of the Hermetic Qabalah, meditation, the development of one's astral body in order to experience other spiritual realms, and the consistent invocation of certain spiritual beings.
According to Crowley’s teachings, the mystical path of the initiate will be highly individualistic. The two fundamental aspects of Thelemic mysticism are what Crowley called ‘The Knowledge of and Conversation with the Holy Guardian Angel’ and the ‘Crossing of the Abyss’. Crowley described the Holy Guardian Angel as one's silent Higher Self. In later writings, he insisted that it was an entirely separate and objective being. Whichever position is taken, the objective is to gain an intimate spiritual connection so that one's True Will can become fully manifested. After one attains Knowledge and Conversation with the Holy Guardian Angel, the adept may choose the Crossing of the Abyss, which in Crowley’s words,
Is extremely difficult to explain; but it corresponds more or less to the gap in thought between the Real, which is ideal, and the Unreal, which is actual. In the Abyss all things exist, indeed, at least in posse, but are without any possible meaning; for they lack the substratum of spiritual Reality. They are appearances without Law. They are thus Insane Delusions.
In Thelemic mysticism Choronzon is the ‘Dweller in the Abyss’ and the final obstruction. If he is met with the proper preparation, then he is there to destroy the ego, which allows the adept to move beyond the Abyss. If not, the mystic traveller must face total annihilation. Beyond the Abyss is Babalon beckoning the initiate if he or she passes Choronzon. If the initiate gives himself or herself to her, the symbol of this union is the pouring of the initiates blood into her graal, where he or she becomes impregnated in her, a state called ‘Babe of the Abyss’, and is reborn as a mystic dwelling in the ‘City of the Pyramids’. In the City of Pyramids dwell the enlightened Adepts who have destroyed their earthly egos and becoming their True Self without the self-sense of ‘I’.
Examining the Thelemic approach to mysticism illuminates various features that are integral to the teachings and practices of this occult order, and it becomes apparent that Thelemic mysticism shares much in common with the emic phenomenon of mystical spirituality. The most shared feature is the eclectic nature of ideas and practices that entail a sense of internalised authority. Although Thelemic mysticism is entwined with a collection of beliefs and rituals, which are understood by some Thelemites as being essential for the Thelemic community and also as constituting a genuine expression of a lineage and tradition, an epistemologically individualistic approach to one’s spiritual evolution is the cornerstone of Thelemic mysticism. This is turn echoes a reaction against institutionalised mass religion through the process of the individual seeking a personalised state of gnosis to achieve a sense of union with the divine ground underlying all being. The individualism that is so much a feature of the religion of mysticism stems from the statement of its primary aim as personal holiness, perfection or deification, and the consequent concentration upon inwardness and fulfilment of the individual’s spiritual potential.