Who Was A.E. Waite?
A.E. Waite was an American and Freemason active in numerous occult and spiritual circles at the beginning of the 20th century, and the author of one of the most popular encyclopedias used in Freemasonry. The recent Midnight Freemason post Occult Profiles: A.E. Waite gives substantial background on his biography and esoteric study. Suffice to say for our purposes that he was a brilliant, well studied man who was also deeply flawed. Robert Johnson put it best, saying A.E. White was:
“a prolific collector of degrees, a soul looking for a way back to the source through the Mystic Quest–and also, a buffoon”Occult Profiles: A.E. Waite
What does “Secret Doctrine of the Union” mean?
The Secret Doctrine of the Union was Waite referring to a certain strain of thought through various Mystery Schools. Some traditions believe that man and spirit is separated from deity, and that the goal of moral & spiritual development is to come back into union with deity. The secret doctrine of the union is then the spiritual methods and secrets taught across many traditions to aid in doing this.
Waite isn’t talking specifically about Freemasonry but a collection of many esoteric schools. Presumably people who adopt the union as their goals may use Freemasonry as one way to approach this though.
The divine union is God resident in the consciousness. The progress towards divine union is, in the first instance, the realization of our dependence on God and the importance of the relations which subsist between the Creator and the creature. This is the gateway of moral law, except through which it is impossible to enter this road, and which yet is nothing more than the gate.Studies in Mysticism and Certain Aspects of the Secret Tradition, A.E. Waite
Waite’s Encyclopedia Entry
I believe Waite invented this term (secret doctrine of the union) as his way of naming the idea, because he wrote about it several times, but it does not appear referenced in many other sources. The quoted material is taken from the New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, presented with commentary to help clarify what he is saying, as I find some of his writing to be fairly opaque.
There is a sense – though partial and external – in which the life of sacramentalism is a life of sorcery, for man appears to be sustained, developed and advanced as if under terms of enchantment. He is as one who is given, for example, a white stone, who is told that it is the Bread of Angels, and he receives it as Angels’ Bread. He is given the natural pageantry of a highly colored world, full of tinctures and emblazonment; it is offered to him as reality; he has accepted it as reality accordingly for myriad of years.
To begin, Waite compares sacrament and ritual to sorcery. Man is sustained by it, but in a spiritual way. It appears like sorcery because it is as surprising as giving someone a rock, telling them it is bread, and the person actually being able to survive on it! The world of ritual and sacrament is a “highly colored world” and comes with many outwardly visible trappings, which on the surface, many men accept for long periods of time.
And finally, since the sphere of Ritual is also a sphere of sorcery, on proceeding to initiation he is given the symbol ABRACADABRA, with the secret variants and substitutes thereof, and is told that it is the True Word.
The reference to the True Word here is notable; candidates are given some kind of secret, or things which can be substituted for it. These secrets are akin to sorcery themselves. The word ABRACADABRA has uncertain origins, but what it originally meant is less important than what spiritual practitioners think it means and how they apply it. Probably the best description of this word is “I will create as I speak“. If a person had such a secret, and they could create a form of spiritual reality as they spoke, this would indeed be powerful.
In a deeper aspect, however, we know that sacraments – which are neither two only nor seven, but a thousand times ten thousand, a multitude which no man can number – are outwards signs of inward grace and channels for the communication of grace.
Here, Waite is clearly referring to a great collection of different schools and esoteric traditions. When using the term sacrament he is sweeping in all of those different traditions, and unifying them under the notion of ways to experience and communicate grace.
An immanent reality testifies beyond the glorious pageant of the outward world; we have seen that he who is properly prepared to eat a crust of bread may partake – with Paracelsus – of all the stars and all the heavens; while some of the Instituted Mysteries which work in Ritual convey to those who can receive the hidden gospel of the soul’s path in God, from the life of separation to the mystical life of union.
Waite means here that the surface of the ritual and the secrets isn’t the reality. The “glorious pageant” of the outward world refers to the exoteric view of the world, what any person can see with their own eyes.
Earlier, he referred to a white stone as being “Angels’ Bread”. Here it comes up again, and to be “properly prepared to partake to eat a crust of bread” means to understand the ritual for its esoteric / inner meaning, in contrast with the outward pageantry. If a person can do this, they can partake of all of the stars and heavens, which I read to mean understanding the wider universe esoterically. Paracelsus was a 16th century philosopher and alchemist who was very influential on Rosicrucianism, one of the many esoteric traditions that Waite was familiar with and that he would have been referring to with this passage.
The next part of this sentence is the crux of the entire thing: some of the mysteries are teaching a path for the soul, from a life of separation to the mystical life of union.
Greatest among all the Instituted Mysteries working in the open world are those of the Greek and Latin Rites; but there are Secret Orders which convey their Divine Message under less heavy veils.
Finally, Waite indicates that some of the Mystery Schools from the Greeks & Latins were the earliest and greatest (in some sense) but he re-clarifies that there are many others, varying in their level of secrecy.
- A.E. Waite; A New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry (Combined Edition)
- A.E. Waite, Studies in Mysticism and Certain Aspects of the Secret Tradition