The Theosophical Society in America

The Open Secret of the Esoteric Orders

Printed in the Summer 2013 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Gilchrist
, Cherry. "The Open Secret of the Esoteric Orders" Quest  101. 3 (Summer 2013): pg. 90-93, 120.

By Cherry Gilchrist

cherry gilchristI want to find an order, a real order!" We are driving along Nevsky Prospekt in St. Peters­burg, in the heady postcommunist days of the early 1990s. The man next to me is a music entrepreneur, Andrei Tropillo, known as "the midwife of Russian rock." Russia has exploded chaotically into a new era, to which the manic traffic and hectic trading evident all around us bear witness. Everyone wants to get rich and acquire a fast car and fashionable clothes. But while browsing in some of the more hushed, wealthy empo­ria, I have noticed signs of a different sort of interest creeping in. Glass showcases hold ceremonial swords and regalia. They are enigmatic and expensive, the attributes of high ritual. They speak of order, not the order on the streets or in government, which is sadly lacking, but the kind of secret or exclusive order that the rich, the famous, or the worthy may find or buy their way into.

Andrei is admired by the young and feared by the newly burgeoning music industry, who brand him a music pirate. He has cash to splash around and is cur­rently sponsoring a children's early music school, which I am also helping, hence our otherwise unlikely con­nection. Is his impassioned outburst a sign of genuine seeking, or is it simply expressing a desire to move into the higher echelons of society? It's not really up to me to judge his motivation, but I might be able to tell better if he asks me questions rather than just making a demand. After all, time-honored wisdom decrees that one should be above all receptive when in search of an authentic esoteric tradition. Andrei does not seem to be operating in this mold: as one of his interviewers says, he "loves talking ... He speaks fast. Sometimes furiously fast . . . It is almost impossible to break in with questions." 

Looking back on this episode now, which took place on the very street where teachers G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky ran esoteric study groups nearly eighty years earlier, Andrei's words still have an impact on me. Even if the rock king's motivations were mixed, it was a remarkable testimony to the impulse that con­tinues to spring up after decades of social repression. Nothing, it seems, can quell the desire to seek out the hidden orders that bring a different kind of majesty and vision into human life, something a political creed or a fleet of Mercedes can never provide. And Andrei recognized this. I could not necessarily have pointed him towards an authentic Russian order, but I might have been able to help him to search better if I'd man­aged to open up the conversation at that point. I have pondered his words since, and my thoughts here about esoteric orders are in some sense a response to how I might have tried to answer the questions that he never asked.

We could say that there are four essential compo­nents of an esoteric order. First, there is the implica­tion, from the word "order" itself, that it is methodically organized. The way the term is used in various com­mon contexts also sheds light on the nature of an eso­teric order, indicating that there is a hierarchy involved, whether it's between the orders of different life forms, as in biology, or by confirming the status of a member in terms of rank or grade, as in various social or profes­sional organizations. In addition, both for esoteric and various public orders of honor, there is a ceremonial nature, with the use of rituals and insignia as a part of its operation. Finally, in both cases again, there are spe­cial conditions for admission, which may be granted as an honor or as an acknowledgment of common status and purpose between the candidate and its members. 

So we can expect an esoteric order to be struc­tured and organized. It won't be a democracy, or offer membership to anyone who wants to join. We can also deduce that such "ordering" may involve rank, hierar­chy, ritual, instructions, training, and privileges. Furthermore, a specific esoteric order is not likely to be a completely self-contained organization, but will take its place within a wider spectrum. (I'll give an example of this from Sufism later in this article.) We can also see this principle at work in the broader span of human orders, in groupings such as the orders of chivalry, orig­inally constellated around knightly ideals, and spiritual others, constituted around religious practices. (These cannot be entirely separated from esoteric orders, and may share common origins with them.)

So taking all these factors into account, one should expect a degree of organized membership and cere­mony in an esoteric order. It may have a view of its posi­tion within a cosmic hierarchy, and will probably have some kind of internal hierarchy as well. As mentioned, democracy does not usually play a prominent role, even though harmony and cooperation may be found there. But with the idea of clearly defined roles and hierar­chy comes a sense of identity An esoteric order has a shape, a form, and a purpose. Esoteric orders may have elements in common, but each order is different, and no single one can include all others. Orders involved with magic will have a different kind of operation from those connected with spiritual teaching, for instance. Others perpetuating an esoteric tradition of prayer will not work in the same way as those concerned with trying to fight injustice through the inner planes. The notion of a "universal order," though well-meaning, misses the point. Nevertheless, there can be a more generalized sense of purpose that connects esoteric others, even though each one will have its own kind of work. If an esoteric order sees its place within a greater hierarchy of spirit, it can act by mediating between higher realms and human life. This, I suggest, is another key element of many, if not all, esoteric orders. 

With this comes the sense of offering service. At this point, we can leave the more intellectual forms of definition behind and turn to something more vision­ary: Chapter twenty-one of the book of Revelation sets out a schema of the Holy City, whose twelve gates and walls, studded with twelve jewels, can be seen as a template for twelve orders, twelve types of work that lead their members in and out of the Holy City and the presence of the divine. This vision has certainly been a direct inspiration for some orders based in a Western or Christian tradition. For example, a group with which I studied used the twelvefold schema of the Holy City to formulate twelve basic types of orders. They were classified as Teachers, Prophets, Magicians, Lawgiv­ers, Traders, Artists, Craft Workers, Life Tenders, Warriors, Perpetuators, Priests, and Explorers. Each of these could be seen as essential functions of human work and service, with an esoteric core. There are also said to be twelve orders within Sufism, and on a visit to a Sufi tekke (center) in Turkey, I learned from the elders there that these orders give gifts to one another, both in recognition of the relationship between them and in celebration of their difference.

In a more general sense, such service as esoteric orders perform may be primarily on a worldly level with a spiritual component, or may be seen entirely as a service of a higher degree. For instance, an order might see its role as that of furthering contact between human beings and angels on the inner planes, or it might have a clear external focus, such as the Order of Knights Hospitaller (Knights of St. John), formed in the Middle Ages to "aid and succor the pilgrim" on journeys to the Holy Land. An order should usually have an avowed aim, in the same way that an intention for any ritual should be dearly formulated. However, the implemen­tation of its aim may encompass both esoteric and exo­teric work. The Knights Hospitaller, along with their colleagues or rivals, the Knights Templar, whose job it was to defend in more military style, were both reputed to have esoteric teachings and spiritual aspirations at their core of their external endeavors. The Knights of St. John are still in existence today in Britain, and judg­ing by the chapels, ceremonies, and initiations that it still maintains, it keeps something of that esoteric fla­vor, as well as offering almshouses to the poor and wonderful service to the sick under the banner of the St. John's Ambulance service. So when using the term "esoteric" in conjunction with an order, it's worth keep­ing in mind that its work may span both inner and outer worlds, the spiritual and the everyday.

This highlights another feature of others: through their intention to carry out a task, which they perceive to be of benefit to the universe, they offer their mem­bers the chance to belong to something bigger than themselves. And in every order that does have an eso­teric or spiritual level to its work, membership means the chance of entry into another level of consciousness. It may also include acceptance of the realm of higher beings or forces, and thus too the opportunity to sense their presence in a more direct way. If, on the other hand, an order appears to be purely self-serving, as a means to confer status, or simply for members to scratch one another's backs, then it is unlikely to be genuine. It may be a harmless organization that has fossilized or something covert to foster dubious privilege. If you come into contact with an order, check out whether it is both a gateway to higher realms and a means of offering something to mankind. 

Remember that such service doesn't necessarily have to be in a material form. The significance of prayer may be relevant here; Sister Wendy Beckett, a nun who is both a contemplative hermit and a renowned expert on art history, says that prayer is simply "to stand unprotected before God"; a moment of naked, painful awareness in the depths of a night is a kind of prayer, and it marks us out as human. (See her book Sister Wendy on Prayer.) We can thus see a possibility that humans may choose to further this vital, precious rela­tionship with the divine through the work carried out in esoteric orders; prayer takes many forms. And it also shows how a close relationship may exist between the more esoteric orders and those (for example, of monks and nuns) which exist within the context of specific reli­gions, such as Buddhism and Christianity.

The question of how national orders of chivalry fit into today's world and also relate to esoteric orders would take far longer to explore than space permits here. Again, the boundary isn't fixed, and one type of order may change into another over time, or present a public face while offering an esoteric kernel of wisdom at its heart. Ceremony and service are key features of even the most well-known, publicly scrutinized orders. In Britain, for instance, the New Year's Honors list is always eagerly awaited to see who will receive an OBE, or Order of the British Empire, or will be admitted to another order, each with its special robe and insignia. The orders of Russia are even more elaborate (see The Orders of Russia by V.A. Durov). Surprisingly, many of these seem to have been carried forward into the cur­rent Russian Federation, though older rules for admis­sion requiring a candidate to own several hundred serfs have been abandoned! Overall, such orders of chivalry seem to embody a nation's ideals of honor and service to the people, and are based far more on merit nowa­days than on decaying notions of aristocratic entitle­ment. So it could be said that they carry something of the spirit of esoteric orders, even if they don't act in the same way. 

All of this helps to show how orders may evolve and change their emphasis. This is natural and healthy, and in any case, esoteric or purely spiritual work will eventually find its way into the world and into the lives of ordinary people, if it is effective. The techniques of visualization, so popular now in areas from psychother­apy to weight loss, emerged into the light of day at least partly through the work of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in the late nineteenth century. In those days such practices were kept secret, and they took time to reach the outside world; even when I joined a Kabbalah group (not directly related to the Golden Dawn) in 1970, a type of visualization known as "path working" was something special, to be attempted only in a closed group, and under careful instruction. So in such a case, once the work has reached the outside world, an order could say, "Job done. Now, what's next on the agenda?"

This leads on to the question of secrecy, always a controversial issue. Some argue that secrecy is to safeguard powers so great that they could destroy the world if wielded by the uninitiated. The British magi­cian Gareth Knight, in his introduction to Dion For­tune's book Esoteric Orders and Their Work challenges this melodramatic interpretation, and argues that with modem means of communication, secrets tend not to last for long anyway. He is at pains, however, to indi­cate that there should be some safeguards, both for the psychological well-being of participants and for the work itself. I would agree that some degree of secrecy is necessary; researching into alchemy taught me that the sealed vessel of transformation cannot be exposed too early. (See my book Explore Alchemy, previously pub­lished as The Elements of Alchemy) If opened prema­turely, the precious substance that is being distilled may leak away, and disasters such as terrible explosions can occur. Both creative and esoteric work need protection while the process is in operation. Close-quartering your work does of course bring its own dangers, especially if it cannot be checked by others, or held to account for the effects it creates, but without an element of contain­ment, it cannot develop properly.

The level of secrecy in an order may vary, from one where even the name may not be whispered abroad to another which makes many if not most of its transac­tions transparent. Again, this can change: the Free­masons in the U.K., for instance, responding to public opinion, have taken pains to be more open about their work. In Bath, where I used to live, public invitations to view their meeting hall and to ask questions about Masonic beliefs and practices were very popular. (Not necessarily a comfortable experience for the members, though; I overheard some very trying exchanges cen­tered on Dan Brown–style accusations of fraud and conspiracy.)

To summarize, one way to discern the value and sin­cerity of an order that you are considering joining is to ask questions of the following kind: 

  • What is its main purpose or intention? Do I feel attuned to that?
  • Does it have a reliable structure, but one that is not overburdened with protocol?
  • Is the order aligned with a spiritual vision or reli­gious affinity that I can share?
  • Does it have an appropriate sense of discretion or secrecy?
  • What are its conditions for membership? Do I fit them, and do I agree with them?
  • Does it seem to be ethical in its dealings?


You may not be able to ask all of these questions directly, and finding the answers you need may depend on your own observations and investigations. But bear in mind that no order will be entirely tailor-made to one's personal notions and inclinations. Leaving behind the baggage of one's cherished whims is inevitably a part of joining an organization that operates on a big­ger scale. If you want to feel part of a greater endeavor, then something of the personal must be dropped to experience that. It's a question of balance: an order should honor individual difference and not expect a member to act purely as a cog in a machine. But if the order seems perfectly suited to your tastes, then be very suspicious!

And if you are searching for an order, as Andrei Tropillo was, you may find one in a place you would never think to look. Some years ago, I was having a chat with the cleaner who came to work each week in our house in Bristol. We were on friendly terms but, I thought, didn't have a lot in common. Then the con­versation took an unexpected turn, as she told me she was about to be initiated into a women's order, called the Glades. Its roots were said to lie in medieval times, when women would meet secretly in forest clearings at night. She was trying to learn what she needed for the ceremony, and confessed that she was afraid that she might forget her lines when the initiation took place! At that time, I had researched far and wide into women's traditions, but had no idea that an order like this existed, let alone that I would encounter a prospec­tive member in my own home. Even now, some twenty years later, it would be unlikely that I'd come across the Glades, as there is still little information about the group in the public domain or on the Internet. It was like a prod reminding me that the subject of orders may come up in curious ways and unlikely places, whether that is a street in postcommunist Russia or beside the kitchen sink.


Cherry Gilchrist has studied esoteric traditions for over forty years, and has written extensively about these in books such as The Elements of Alchemy, The Circle of Nine, and The Tree of Life Oracle. She is particularyy interested in wisdom found in traditional cultures and mythology, and after may trips to Russia wrote Russian Magic, published by Quest Books. Cherry lives in the U.K. and is a writing tutor for the universites of Ocford and Exeter.