The Rose and the Cross, or How to Be a Rosicrucian
I don’t remember where I first heard the term “Rosicrucian.” In fact, it almost seems as if I’ve always been aware of Rosicrucianism: which is not possible. However, I do recall the first time I actively sought some concrete information about the mysterious brotherhood. It was probably 1984 or so, and I went to the Mayflower Bookshop in Berkley, Michigan and asked for a book on the subject. The proprietor directed me to Rudolf Steiner’s Rosicrucian Esotericism, transcripts from a series of lectures delivered in 1909. It was not, at least at the time, a lot of help. Steiner was still addressing an audience in the Theosophical Society, so any information about Rosiucrucians had to be sifted out of the Buddhistic-Hindu jargon favored by Theosophists. Quite simply, I did not have the experience or knowledge to perform this task. Gathering such would take a while.
Nevertheless, in the ensuing years I slowly absorbed quite a bit of Rosicrucianism, though there were many dead-ends and side-trails leading nowhere along the way. Because the Brotherhood never appeared following the publications of their three manifestos, Fama Fraternitatis RC (1614), Confessio Fraternitatis (1615), and The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (1617), admirers and occult enthusiasts over the next years (and centuries, to be honest) were able to reimagine, interpret, and appropriate the Rosicrucian brand in what manners they saw fit (Umberto Eco roasts them wickedly in Foucault’s Pendulum). Quasi-Masonic orders made use of the Rosicrucian ethos (and inherent Christianity) and Scottish Rite Freemasonry even adopted the imagery of the Rosicrucians for the ritual of the 18th degree, the Rose-Croix, as did the symbolist writer and impresario Joséphin Péladan (1858–1918) with his famous Salon Rose-Croix.
But all this confusion didn’t stop me from trying to unpack the mystery.
I kept plugging away with my Rosicrucian fascination. I even took part in a study group on The Chymical Wedding in the early 1990s. The members were mostly Anthroposophists along with one lonely Theosophist/Hermeticist. It was a fun study, but people (Anthroposophists are hardly alone in this regard) tend to interpret what they encounter with their own agendas and pre-conceptions. The Anthropops in the group, for example, would try to find correspondences between what they found in the CW with Steiner’s thought. At the time, “phenomenology” was just a word to me, a word I didn’t really understand, and I had yet to slog through graduate school and the various ideologies masking as the interpretive lenses of feminism, Marxism, Deconstruction, and so forth—and I was years and years away from turning to what I’ve called agapeic criticism (which is the centerpiece of this book) as a way to approach texts.
In truth, it wasn’t until I was working on my dissertation (later published as Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England) and writing a chapter entitled “The Rosicrucian Mysticism of Henry and Thomas Vaughan” that I at last discovered the core of Rosicrucianism. What the Vaughans (Henry a poet and Paracelsian physician, his twin brother Thomas an Anglican priest and alchemist) taught me is that God, Nature, and Scripture (or God, the Cosmos, and Art) are inextricably related, like the DNA strand of Reality. This appears both in Henry’s contemplative Metaphysical poetry and Thomas’s often bombastic writings on Natural Philosophy (which are habitually howlingly funny). This ethos also appears in the writings of the German Rosicrucian and physician Michael Maier (1568–1622) and the Vaughans’ own countryman, the physician and Rosicrucian apologist Robert Fludd (1574–1637–I have a chapter on Fludd, “Dei Gloria Intacta: The Wisdom of God in Robert Fludd’s Mystical Philosophy” in The Submerged Reality).
These Rosicrucians and the writers of the manifestos (the Lutheran pastor Johann Valentin von Andreae foremost among them) were not the philosophical oddities that what E.P. Thompson has called “the enormous condescension of posterity” has branded them. Instead, I think they could best be described as a kind of traditionalist, or, better, as adherents of a Radical Orthodoxy avant le lettre. That is, they rejected Cartesian dualism and the scientific materialism that arose from it.
Then it all clicked. This is also the core of Steiner’s Rosicrucianism, as it is at the center of Valentin Tomberg’s Christian Hermeticism. They, like their antecedents, held that the world of the spirit can never be absent from the world of matter; in fact, they are not separate worlds, but the same world, though it ranges from the most subtle to the most substantial. They likewise held, with Goethe, that the reunification of art, science, and religion is crucial to a worldview that accurately reflects Reality. It is also what Henri de Lubac argues in Surnaturel (1946), and what a sophianic encounter with the world discloses. The Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, that is, got everything exactly wrong.
I guess that makes me a Rosicrucian.
So this Rosicrucian journey led me by a long and circuitous route to publishing a new edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. It never would have occurred to me to undertake this project, but a few years ago, a good friend of mine, Don Nagy (who contributed a superb article on Percy Bysshe Shelley as Orphic poet in the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination) told me he’d like to see what I would have to say about the text—but I had no idea it would turn into an entire book! Oddly enough, I met Don in graduate school in a course on 17th century literature, so maybe the 17th century has been speaking to me for a long, long time.
But that’s how it is with the Brotherhood.
Michael's latest book is Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.