This is the second post in a short series about Charles Williams and the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. You can read the first post, about A.E. Waite, here.
Charles Williams, a devout but skeptical Anglican, began reading the works of A.E. Waite when he was in his 20s, probably around 1909. It is certainly that a fairly early work of Waite’s, The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail (1909) had a big impact on Williams. We know Williams was reading Waite’s works at least as early as the nineteen-teens, when he started keeping an Arthurian Commonplace Book with notes on the King Arthur story. Williams and Waite began corresponding in 1915; Williams sent Waite a copy of The Silver Stair (1912), then Williams visited Waite at his home twice.
We have very little documentary evidence relating to those first two years of their friendship. It appears that the two men read many of each other’s works and met for at least two important conversations. The result was that Williams decided to join Waite’s society.
Williams was initiated into the Fellowship on 21 September 1917. He took the ceremonial name “Frater Qui Sitit Veniat,” which means, in context, something like “Let he who is thirsty come.” He purchased the complicated vestments, memorized the rituals, and participated in the lofty liturgy with dignity and solemnity. He wrote to a friend that most members read their parts off of cards, but that he always memorized the rite so as to participate most fully and seriously.
While the length and extent of Williams’s involvement with the F.R.C. are still under investigation, it is clear that he attended meetings regularly for ten years, memorized the rituals, climbed rapidly up the grades, and was initiated into some of the higher stages. He read many of A.E. Waite’s books, even after leaving the F.R.C., and continued to cite from Waite in writings all his life. Most significantly, he served as “Master of the Temple” for two separate six-month periods: essentially functioning as the high priest of these secret rites for a year of his life.
The influence of the occult generally and the F.R.C. specifically can be seen in all of Williams’s writings. Some signs are obvious: The Greater Trumps, for instance, is about the Tarot cards. There is a Black Mass in War in Heaven. There is a rather Waitean (or perhaps anti-Waitean) sorcerer in All Hallow’s Eve who engages in several nasty supernatural practices, including fashioning an eidolon or false body in which he brings back the souls of two dead women. Portals, grades, sacral objects, pentagrams, hidden meanings, powerful words, and ceremonial rituals abound throughout Williams’s works.
Even in the highly theological Arthurian poetry, mysteries, magic, secrets, and operative words abound. Taliessin practices magic in “The Queen’s Servant.” Saying, “Know by Our sight the Rite that invokes Sarras” (l. 40), he makes roses and golden wool appear in the air, then weaves them into a garment for a freed slave. In this poem, the magic spell is a “blessing” (l. 56), an act of holy “Art-magic spiritual” (l. 62).
What did Williams really believe about magic? Did he ever actually practice incantations, spells, and so forth, during his years in the F.R.C.? Well, remember that Waite split the Order over the question of magic: Waite desired to pursue the path of mysticism, not magic. Therefore, it is unlikely that anyone in the F.R.C. was performing obviously “magical” rituals. And Waite’s Fellowship was Christian, albeit syncretistic, so he certainly would not countenance the performance of a black Sabbath.
However, there is an historical distinction between goetia or “black” magic and magia or “white” magic (thanks to Stephen Barber for a conversation about this). It is possible that some members of the F.R.C. practiced elements of “white magic,” or at least that many of their rituals and practices would look an awful lot like magic to the ordinary 21st- (or even 20th-) century Christian. Fortune-telling, for instance, or at least some kind of divination with Tarot cards, continued in Waite’s Fellowship.
And Williams? In his forward to Witchcraft, Williams explains that he “saw the magical dimension as not necessarily other than the world we already know”—which suggests a possible real-life application of magic outside of the poetry. Yet he “came to regard magic as repulsive and corrupting [and consistently used] his extensive knowledge as a source of symbolic imagery for the evil in the mind of man” (Brewer 65). Magic is usually (although not always) a symbol for evil throughout his novels. All of this suggests that Williams probably did not recommend the actual practice of magic by Christians.
One more point about the influence of the F.R.C. on Williams Later on, in 1939, Williams (with some reluctance, or show of reluctance) founded his own fellowship: the Companions of the Co-Inherence. While it was a looser, clearly Christian group, it had many surprisingly Rosicrucian elements about it. One writer (Willard) claims that Williams’s Order still survives to this day.
Several questions remain.
First, Williams was never in the Order of the Golden Dawn, but only the F.R.C., yet the majority of writers on Williams have been confused on this point, stating that he was in the O.G.D. Why does this confusion persist? Mainly because Williams himself SAID he was in the Golden Dawn. Why did he say that, if it wasn’t true? There are [at least] three possible reasons:
* He was faithfully keeping his oath of secrecy to the F.R.C. He never spoke the name of the actual society he joined, thus maintaining fidelity to his vows even after he left.
* The Golden Dawn was more prestigious than the F.R.C. and Williams wanted to overemphasize his connection with Yeats, Underhill, and others, to bolster the impression that he was a great magical poet among other great magical poets, sharing their secret knowledge, wielding with them great spiritual power.
* Williams hated schisms. He wrote the East-West schism of 1053-1054 out of his poetic, mythologized church history in the Arthurian poems. Perhaps he wanted to emphasize continuity with the earlier Order, rather than the schismatic distinctives of the particular, localized Fellowship he actually joined.
Second, how could a good Anglican Christian participate with good conscience in an occult secret society that practiced divination, astrological prediction, and the channeling of energies? I do not yet have a full answer to that excellent question, but I have some speculations.
* Waite’s Fellowship was a Christian group. As strange as that may seem to some of my readers, especially those of the American Evangelical or Reformed traditions, that was the claim. Waite called himself a Christian, believed in the person and work of Christ, and organized his rituals all around the goal of knowing God better. We may believe he was mistaken in thinking that there was a “Secret Tradition” that contained more revelation than the Bible, but he at least thought he was forwarding the work of the Church and the sanctification of his members by his rituals.
* Someday in the future, I’ll be posting a summary of an excellent book called Modern Alchemy by Mark Morrisson. It explains some connections between the occult and science in the period 1890-1935. Put simply, and applied to this question of Williams and Waite: many people thought during that time that what had previously been called “magic” would prove to have a scientific basis. To quote Arthur C. Clarke: “Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.”
* Williams had a totalizing, holistic imagination. He always worked to unify ideas, rather than to categorize, taxonomize, or dissect them. He would be far more likely to focus on similarities than differences. Hence he would have sought to discover which of those elements of the occult harmonized with Christianity, and vice versa.
Third, why did he leave? Willard writes that “No one knows why he stopped attending” (273). Well, no. But one may guess. I have my own theory, as I’m sure others have theirs (which I would love to hear).
My theory is that Williams learned all there was to learn in the F.R.C.—all the hidden knowledge, all the holy secrets, all the facts and fancies and systems of symbolic imagery—and discovered that this gnosticism had no substance. Or, to put it another way, that what lay at the deep root of all these supposed “secrets” was, quite simply, only—only!—public Christian doctrine after all. He learned all there was to learn, and found he had known it all along.
That is my theory. Please share yours.