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St. John the Beloved with the Grail Chalice

The Johannine Celtic Church
by Barry Dunford

There appear to have been two primary streamings of the Church of Christ as ordained by Jesus Himself. Firstly, the more historically familiar Petrine Church established by St. Peter which eventually developed into the Roman Catholic Papacy. Moreover, it appears that the claim of the Roman Catholic Papacy to the primacy of the Church of Rome is somewhat in doubt. The Petrine seniority of the ancient Church of Rome has been questioned by Charles Maitland in The Church in the Catacombs: a Description of the Primitive Church of Rome (1847): "The whole mass of ancient testimony, with a single exception, declares that the Apostles ordained Linus [a prince of the Celto-British royal lineage - BD] first bishop of Rome....the primitive church of Rome never pretended to claim St. Peter as its bishop....There is in the Roman calendar a festival, entitled 'St. Peter's chair at Antioch,' which has existed from the sixth century. There is also a feast of 'St. Peter's chair in Rome,' appointed by Paul IV., about the year 1550. The Antioch festival, which cannot now be expunged from the calendar, has deeply exercised the ingenuity of Romish writers. The seniority of Antioch was evident; Rome, as the younger sister, must forego her claim to the inheritance of the 'regalia Petri'."

Secondly, however, there was a lesser known primary Christic streaming established by St. John the Evangelist. To quote Benjamin Walker in his work Gnosticism: Its History and Influence (1983): "From the very beginnings of the new Church there was a body of doctrine stemming from John to whom, it was said, the true secrets of Christianity had been communicated by Jesus. This teaching was strongly tinged with gnosticism. The Apocryphon of John, or the secret book of John, purports to reveal the 'mysteries concealed in silence' that Jesus taught him. The book was cited by Irenaeus, and a version of it was also found at Nag Hammadi. Many gnostic schools claimed the canonical gospel of John as a work embodying their own doctrines, and used it as a primary source of their teachings....It presents a mystical rather than a historical Jesus, with concepts derived from Alexandrian philosophy." This Church of John and its followers, who have been called Johannine Christians, appears to have had roots both in the Middle East and Western Europe.

Interestingly, during the 1st century A.D., Alexandria was the founding centre of the Christian Coptic Church (principally based in Egypt, Syria and Ethiopia) which, although traditionally founded by St. Mark, had leanings towards the Johannine corpus mystica. The Copts monastic counterpart in western Europe, effectively the Celtic Church of Britain and Gaul, claimed its religious tenets were directly derived from the mystical teaching of St. John the Apostle. In Britain these Celtic monks were known as Culdees, from the gaelic Culdich, which has been translated as "certain strangers". They were also known by the Latin name Coli Dei (servants of God). The Celto-Coptic connection is noted by Mary Caine who says: "For Copt and Celtic Christian, Christ restated the ancient Mysteries. And though the later Church suppressed this belief, the monks of Glastonbury secretly perpetuated it....3rd century Coptic hermits settled in Ireland, and Glastonbury's recently-excavated hermit-huts bear the same stamp." (The Glastonbury Zodiac: Key to the Mysteries of Britain, 1978)

It seems there were two streams to the original Church of Christ as ordained by Yeshua/Jesus – an esoteric Johannine Church and an exoteric Petrine Church. This is outlined in an article entitled ‘The Grail – Alpha through Omega’ (Temple Doors 1998) by Maia and Simeon Nartoomid, who state: "The Johannine Church was ultimately founded when Yeshua bestowed the authority upon St. John the Beloved/Divine to establish a ‘hidden’ church; that is, one which would carry the mystery of the Christ in a manner which most souls incarnated on the planet in that age were not yet ready to receive. For the greater body of souls on the planet, the Christ ordained a church under Peter." It is possible that it was originally intended that at some future point in the destiny of humanity these two Christic consciousness streams should merge together into a synergic sacred unity to form what could be called the Christine Church. As yet this has still to come to fruition.

According to Godfrey Higgins, a 19th century antiquary, "The Christians had an esoteric and an exoteric religion." Commenting on the early Christian Church, he makes the intriguing observation: "At the time of which I now speak, the mysteries of the Gentiles were not entirely abolished, and mankind, educated in a respect for them, felt no objection to the principle of secrets or mysteries in religion; but now, since it has become the interest of the priests, or at least since they think it has become their interest, to disallow them, persons can see the absurdity of them. But I do not doubt that a secret system is yet in the conclave, guarded with as much or more care, or at least with more power, than the secrets of masonry. The priests know that one of the best modes of secreting them is to deny that they exist. Indeed, the heads of the church must now see very clearly, if they were to confess what cannot be denied, that (if the most learned and respectable of the early fathers of the church are to be believed) Christianity contained a secret religion, that the populace would not consent to be kept in the dark. But whether the secret doctrine be lost or not, it is a fact that it was the faith of the first Christian fathers, admitted by themselves, that there was such a secret doctrine." (Anacalypsis: or An Enquiry into the Origin of the Languages, Nations and Religions, 1836, vol. I). Was this secret doctrine based on an esoteric Johannine mystery tradition as distinct from the exoteric Petrine Church?

The Petrine and Johannine Christic spiritual streamings are further identified and differentiated in The Beginnings of Christianity: Essene Mystery, Gnostic Revelation and the Christian Vision (1991) by Andrew Welburn, where the author perceptively remarks: "The charge to Peter 'Shepherd my little sheep' confirms him as the guardian of the community. The additional presence of the Beloved Disciple, however, points to a parallel stream of Christianity, less a concern of the community than of individual vision....Such a Christianity cannot be organized, cannot be taken in hand by the guardians of the community. But nor does it, in the manner of radical Gnosticism, stand in contradiction to the community and its history. It is there, waiting for those who reach the necessary stage of spiritual individualization....The 'Johannine' Imagination is a further development out of, but not away from, the community. It has indeed been 'waiting,' and it asks a question of us. It asks whether a certain stage of development has been reached in the development of mankind, making possible the self-conscious spiritual vision the Imagination represents. Even the recognition of its possibility is itself a beginning, in accordance with the Johannine formula 'The hour is coming and now is...'."


St. John the Evangelist by van Dyck, c.1620s

There was a tradition that during the reign of the Roman Emporer Domitian (81-96 A.D) some of the disciples of the apostle John visited Caledonia (ref. History of Paganism in Caledonia by Thomas Wise, 1884). This could have formed the basis of a Johannine Grail Church which incorporated the mystery teaching of St. John the Evangelist. As a result of a possible fusion between this Middle Eastern, probably Essene, group and elements of a pre-existing Druid magi, a Johannine Church may have developed through a monastic line which became known in Celtic Britain as the Culdees. In her book, Celt, Druid and Culdee, the author, Isabel Hill Elder, states: "John Colgan, the celebrated hagiologist and topographer, translates Culdich ‘Quidam Advanae’ - certain strangers - particularly strangers from a distance; this would seem an unaccountable interpretation of the name for these early Christians were it not for the statement of Freculphus that certain friends and disciples of our Lord, in the persecution that followed His Ascension, found refuge in Britain in A.D. 37." In support of this dating of an apostolic mission in Britain, the erudite Bishop Ussher (1580-1656) writes in Brittannicarum Ecclesiarum Antiquitates: "The British National Church was founded A.D. 36, 160 years before heathen Rome confessed Christianity." Moreover, according to the ecclesiastical historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c.264-340 A.D): "The Apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles."

Thomas Innes, in his Civil and Ecclesiastical History of Scotland (1853, Spalding Club), quotes the Scots historian, George Buchanan, as saying "the ancient Britons received Christianity from S. John’s disciples by learned and pious monks of that age." Innes further quotes David Buchanan, another Scots writer, who remarks that "those who came into our northern parts," i.e. Scotland, "and first made known unto our fathers the mysteries of heaven, were the disciples of S. John the Apostle." David Buchanan goes on to say that the Scots had received "their tenets and rites," that is, the doctrine and discipline of Christianity, "from their first apostles, disciples to S. John.". Furthermore, in A historical account of the ancient Culdees of Iona (1811), the author, John Jamieson, comments: "Tertullian, who flourished in this age [the 2nd century A.D], asserts, that the gospel had not only been propagated in Britain, but had reached those parts of the Island into which the Roman arms had never penetrated [the Highlands of Scotland - BD]. This perfectly agrees with the defence, made by the Culdees, of their peculiar modes of worship. For they still affirmed that they had received these from the disciples of John the Apostle."

Commenting on the Culdees, the Rev. Alexander Low, in his History of Scotland from the Earliest Period to the Middle of the Ninth Century (1826) remarks: "The religious orders of men among the ancient Scots were known by the name of Culdees, from cuil, or cel, a retreat, and De, God. As the defenders of their peculiar modes of worship observe, that they receive them from the disciples of St John, it is probable that it was a name given to those refugees, who had fled to places of safety in the north, which were inaccessible to the Romans during the Dioclesian persecutions, in the second or third century. The Culdee establishment approaches nearer to the simplicity of the church in ancient times, before the papal distinctions were introduced, than any church polity perhaps in the world….The Culdee establishment had now acquired a firm footing in the nation. Some of its members not only excelled in astronomy, poetry, and rhetoric, but also in philosophy, mathematics, and several other arts and sciences [which exactly correlates with the learned Druids as described by Caesar Augustus - BD]….It is among the Scottish Culdees, that we are to look for that pure pattern of Christian life, such as was exemplified in the African, Greek and Egyptian Anchorites."

The important connection between the legendary Josephian Mission to the British Isles, and the development of the Culdee fraternity is clearly shown in The Drama of the Lost Disciples (1961), by George F. Jowett who states: "It is interesting to note that the Bethany group who landed in Britain, was never referred to by the British priesthood as Christians, nor even later when the name was in common usage. They were called ‘Culdees’, as were the other disciples who later followed the Josephian mission into Britain. There are two interpretations given to the word ‘Culdee’, or ‘Culdich’, both words purely of the Celto-British language, the first meaning ‘certain strangers’, and the other as explained by Lewis Spence, who states that ‘Culdee’ is derived from ‘Ceile-De’, meaning, ‘Servant of the Lord’. In either case the meaning is appropriate. This title, applied to Joseph of Arimathea and his companions, clearly indicates that they were considered as more than ordinary strangers. The name sets them apart as somebody special. In this case, since they arrived in Britain on a special mission with a special message, we can fairly accept the title meant to identify them as ‘certain strangers, Servants of the Lord’.....In the ancient British Triads, Joseph and his twelve companions are all referred to as Culdees, as also are Paul, Peter, Lazarus, Simon Zelotes, Aristobulus and others. This is important. The name was not known outside Britain and therefore could only have been assigned to those who actually had dwelt among the British Cymri. The name was never applied to any disciple not associated with the early British missions. Even though Gaul was Celtic, the name was never employed there. In later years the name Culdee took on an added significance, emphasising the fact that the Culdee Christian Church was the original Church of Christ on earth….The name Culdee, and Culdich clung tenaciously to the Scottish Church, and its prelates, much longer than elsewhere."

According to the Book of Fenagh, a 16th century Irish manuscript, St. John was a Culdee. Moreover, Christine Hartley in The Western Mystery Tradition (1968) writes: "The first suggestion of the idea that St. John the Divine was a Kelt came from a paper given in the Scottish Lodge of the Theosophical Society in 1894....The opening of his Gospel is the natural opening of the Kelt who had come to Christianity. There is the basic Keltic certainty that in the beginning there was the Word - Logos - the Supreme Being - ‘the same was in the beginning with God’….Those first five verses separate St. John from the other Apostles. The three other Evangelists, be it noted, always speak of ‘the people’, but St.John invariably writes ‘The Jews’, as though they were to him foreigners." This author further notes: "In 1771 an anonymous Gaelic writer put forward the idea that Christianity was already upon Iona before the coming of Columba and that the Island was already dedicated to St. John 'for it was originally called I'Eion - the Isle of John - whence Iona'."

Concerning the Culdees, Christine Hartley says: "Side by side with the worship of the Old Gods came the little known sect of the Culdees. They are believed to have been the direct descendants of the old Druids and to have been the bridge by which the gap between the old dispensation and the new was finally crossed....That the Culdees were to some extent the successors of the Druids is a reasonable theory in view of the fact that the largest Culdee settlements were found where the Druids are known to have been most strongly entrenched....their stronghold in Scotland was Iona....In the course of years the western Mystery Schools of the early ages were absorbed into the Christian rite, but equally naturally some of their own teaching remained."

The primary seat of learning for the Celtic Culdee church was to be found at the Abbey of Dull, in Perthshire, central Scotland. It is believed to date from around 700 A.D and continued for six centuries until it was supplanted, in 1311, by the Abbey of St. Andrews, on the east coast of Scotland. There is an ancient tradition that the Culdee Abbey at Dull was located on an earlier religious site dating from the 1st century A.D. Its founder was said to be a certain Mansuetus, a member of the Caledonian royal lineage, who was reputedly baptised by Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury.


A sanctuary stone marking the
Abbey Lands at Dull, Perthshire

William F. Skene, Historiographer Royal for Scotland, says that the Culdee Church was founded on a Johannine tradition, through the missionary work of St. Patrick, who had studied with his uncle, St. Martin of Tours, in ancient Gaul. In his work The Highlanders of Scotland (1902 edition) Skene states: "The church of the northern Picts and northern Scots, to which the name of Culdee was afterwards given, and which owed its origin to St. Patrick….emanated from the church of Gaul, a church always opposed to that of Rome, and claiming a descent from the church of Ephesus, and its founder, St. John the Evangelist; and it was under the teaching of St. Martin of Tours that St. Patrick framed the system of church government which he afterwards introduced. The principal writer from whom any information regarding the Culdee church is to be derived is the Venerable Bede, and we accordingly find that writer imputing to the Culdee church certain peculiarities in its outward form and government which he implies not to have existed in other churches."

Furthermore, in The Ecclesiastical Antiquities of the Cymry: or the Ancient British Church (1844), the Rev. John Williams, M.A. comments: "Truly the succession of bishops was in possession of the British communion in the time of Irenaeus, about A.D. 169, or he, who expressly appealed to it against the pretensions of heretics and in favour of the claims of Catholicism, would never have included the Christian Celts indiscriminately within the pale of true churches….Irenaeus evidently identifies the creed and traditions of the British Church with those of the East….This will account for the fact that in aftertimes they referred their traditions to St. John, and swore by his gospel....In the fifth century, a succession from their favorite Apostle St. John, was introduced among the Christians of Cymry."

In The History of the Culdees: the Ancient Clergy of the British Isles A.D.177-1300 by Rev. Duncan McCallum (1855) we find: "It is certain that Culdees introduced Christianity into the island in the third century....In the north, the Culdees quoted the apostle John as their authority for departing from the dogmas of the Church of Rome....The Culdees changed not the terms used by the Druids, the ancient priests of the Celtae. Their language being a dialect of the Celtic, which is a descriptive language, no other terms could be chosen more appropriate; for instance, clachan, which was the druidical edifice for worship, and clachan was the proper name of the building in which the Culdees worshipped....Seats of learning, or colleges, were called Cathair-Chuldich, - the seat or chair of the Culdees. These were many. Wherever was a clachan, there was a cathair-chuldich, as a parochial school is adjacent to every parish church in Scotland." The Culdee colleges or seats of learning which were styled "Cathair Culdich" (the Chair of the Culdees) are of particular interest when one considers the possible origin of the Christian orientated Cathar fraternity, based in France around the 12th century. The close similarity between the names Cathair and Cathar may be significant especially when the spiritual philosophy of the Cathars was believed to revolve around a secret book attributed to the Apostle John. Like the Culdees, the Cathars of France were also deemed to be a threat by the Church of Rome which systematically suppressed both Christ orientated orders.

The Celtic Culdee connection with the Middle East is commented on by the French oriental scholar, Henry Corbin, in The Imago Templi in Confrontation (1974) who states: "The primitive Celtic Church, prior to Romanization, is represented by groups of monks known as Culdees….The groups of companions called by this name seem, moreover, to have played a much larger role in Scotland than in Ireland….these autonomous groups of hermit brothers correspond to what we know of the original structure of the Celtic Church….these Coli Dei [Culdees] had a role to play on the Celtic side analogous to the role attributed on the eastern side….to the canons of the Holy Sepulchre, the spiritual descendants of the Essenes. The appeal to a distant Celto-Scottish filiation parallels the appeal made to affilitation with the builders of the Temple of Solomon and the community of Jerusalem. It is as if the double line of descent, Hierosolymitan and Scottish, linked, Ab origine symboli, the Church of James and the Celtic Church in the trials and misfortunes from which the Temple knighthood have to rescue them." Corbin continues: "The Coli Dei are also included in the spiritual line of descent from the builders of the Temple of Solomon, the line of the Essenes, the Gnostics, even the Manichaeans and the Ismailis. They were established at York in England, at Iona in Scotland, in Wales, and in Ireland; their favourite symbol was the dove, the feminine symbol of the Holy Spirit. In this context, it is not surprising to find Druidism intermingled with their tradition and the poems of Taliesin integrated to their corpus. The epic of the Round Table and the Quest of the Holy Grail have likewise been interpreted as referring to the rights of the Coli Dei. It was, moreover, to the time of the Coli Dei that is assigned the formation of the Scottish knighthood whose seat is typified by the mysterious sanctuary of Kilwinning, under the shadow of Mount Heredom in the extreme north of Scotland."

From The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal: Its Legends and Symbolism (1909) by A.E. Waite, we learn: "The Abbé Gregoiré affirmed that our Saviour placed His disciples under the authority of St. John, who never quitted the East and from whom certain secret teachings were handed on to his successors, the Johannine Christians, leading after many centuries to the institution of the Templars....The last asylum of St. John was Ephesus, which was a great house of theosophical speculations, and though the pivot and centre of the fourth gospel is that the Word was made flesh, that composite and wonderful text bears all the marks of being written in a Gnostic atmosphere....The notion that he communicated something, and that this something remained, is so recurring, and amidst so many divided interests, that it is hard to reject it as a fiction; it is hard even to say that no Knight Templar sojourning in the East did never, in late centuries, hear strange tidings....the Secret Tradition connected more closely with the Church side of Christianity at a Johannine point of contact....There are strange indications of sources behind the Gospel according to St. John. Behind the memorials of the Gnosis there are also indications of a stage when there was no separation as yet of orthodox and heretical schools, but rather an union in the highest direct experience, as if mysteries were celebrated, and at a stage of these there was the presence of the Master. But the presence of the Master was the term of experience in the Graal. I leave therefore the Johannine tradition, its possible perpetuation all secretly within the Church and its possible westward transition, as a quest so far unfinished for want of materials."

Elsewhere, A.E. Waite further relates: "When Origen denied in all truth and sincerity that Christian Doctrine was a secret system he made haste to determine the subsistence of an esoteric part which was not declared to the multitude, and he justified it not only by a reference to the more arcane side of Pythagorean Teaching but by the secrecy attaching to all the Mysteries. The question arises therefore whether the disciplina arcani, which is referred usually to the Eucharist, because to all else it must be foreign, may not be imbedded in that Tradition of St. John the Divine concerning which we have traces certainly....The Traditions concerning the Beloved Disciple are numerous in the Christian Church, and on the thaumaturgic side they issue from the evasive intimation of his Gospel that he was to remain on earth until the Second Coming of the Saviour. From his ordeal of martydom he came forth therefore alive, according to his Legend, and so he remained, in the opinion of St. Augustine, resting as one asleep in his grave at Ephesus. St. Cyril also testifies that he never died....That which did actually survive was the Tradition of his Secret Knowledge, the implicit of which is that he who reposed on the breast of his Master did not arise and go forth without an intimate participation in the Mysteries of the Sacred Heart....When I have spoken of the Johannine Tradition in previous sections it must not be understood as referring to a specific external community, such as that which has been described in the past as Johannine Christians." Waite also comments: "It is necessary to posit the existence of a single primordial Book, then the SANCTUM GRAAL, LIBRE GRADALIS, or MISSA DE CORPORE CHRISTI contained these elements....No Grail writer had ever seen this Book, but the rumour of it was about in the world. It was held in reserve, not in a monastery at Glastonbury, but by a Secret School of Christians whose position in respect of current orthodoxy was that of the apex to the base of any perfect triangle - its completion and not its destruction. There was more of the rumour abroad than might have been expected antecedently, as if a Church of St. John the Divine were planted somewhere in the West, but not in the open day." (The Holy Grail: The Galahad Quest in the Arthurian Literature, 1933). Could this hidden Grail text relate to a secret Book of St. John the Apostle which was said to be a central feature in the spiritual worship of the Cathars?

Identifying the roots of the Celtic Church with the medieval Grail mythos, Francis Rolt-Wheeler says: "The Legend of the Holy Grail, in its origin and in its development, is essentially Christian....It is agreed by all writers and keepers of holy legend that Joseph of Arimathea had naught to do with the apostles. The Christic teachings and certain particular rites, given him by Jesus in spirit-visitation, were exclusive. He was divinely ordered to leave Palestine immediately after his liberation, bearing with him the Holy Grail and holding in memory the Mysterious Words, rightly to fulfil his light-bearing mission on the border of the western world. Such a mission, mystic and spiritual, could not be realized in the Orient; to the present writer, this seems a point too often overlooked by commentators on the Legends of the Grail. In order that the mysticism of the Holy Grail might flower and fruit, it was essential that Joseph escape all legalistic influences: as much the rabbinic jurisprudence of Jerusalem as the canonical jurisprudence of Rome. Neither among the Jewish nor the Latin peoples was such a mystic development possible; it needed the special nature of the Celtic race, whose soul is a harbourage of Mystery. It is often asked why the Holy Grail should have travelled so far, finally to home in Brittany; in the south-west of England, and in Wales. The answer is of the simplest. These are the countries of the Celtic race. Moreover, in these countries shone the light of the Celtic Church, as ancient as that of Rome, known as 'The Church of the Holy Spirit' and, later, 'The Church of the Grail'."

Rolt-Wheeler continues: "The regions of the cult of the Grail and of its Questing are all in ancient Celtic territory. Even the place-names are Celtic, though Gallicized by the trouvères. Thus, from south to north, the regions run: the Celt-Iberic Pyrenees (Mont Salvatch on the Spanish slope, Montségur in France); Béarn (Oleron); Saintone (Saintes); Brittany (Merlin, Lancelot and the Forest of Broceliande); la 'Bloie Bretagne' and the Realm of Logres, Cornwall and Somerset (Glastonbury, Camelot, Arthur and the Round Table); Wales (Corbenic, the Castle and the Holy Grail, and Caerdoil); the saintly island of Iona; Northumbria (St. Albans) and Scotland (Holyrood). The demarcation is clear. Although the Celtic Church, after many centuries of bitter strife with the Church of Rome - mysticism defending itself against dogmatism - was officially dissolved by papal decree in 850, it continued to exercise a powerful influence during the centuries of chivalry. Many of the Legends of the Round Table - including the Quest of the Holy Grail - are unintelligible without the Celtic key....It is undoubted that the origin of the Legend of the Holy Grail is in Palestine. It is no less evident that the cult of the Grail and the Quest of the Grail belong in the Celtic countries of the West. The miraculous incidents that accompany the travels of the Guardians of the Grail do in no sense alter the historical fact that the Legend was developed and made real in a Celtic atmosphere and not otherwhere."

Francis Rolt-Wheeler also observes a nexus between the Celtic Grail mythos and the Knights Templar: "Many passages in the Legends of the Round Table show a parallelism with the Knights Templar, even as the Divine Comedy of Dante is mainly an esoteric study of the Religions of the Light....The symbol of Light was an accepted proof of heresy. It was also an accepted symbol of opposition to the Roman Church. Roger Bacon was imprisoned by the Church for having a medallion of the Sun in his possession. Spiritual Alchemy was under a ban because of 'the Rising Sun'. The 'Radiant Sun' of initiatory fraternity was a hidden and secret sign....Many of these correspondences and these parallelisms turn on a Celestial Paradise, a New Jerusalem, a Spiritual Chivalry and an Innermost Sanctuary of Sanctuaries. These are of the esoterism of the Holy Grail, and also of the Knights Templar, who claimed their right to continue as a Spiritual Chivalry in Heaven, and who had a Mass of their own in an Inner Sanctuary. A further link is found in the comparison of the Holy Grail to the Spiritual or Interior Church, of which the External Church was a veil. With the Religions of the Light, the Knights Templar sought to raise Christianity from the mire in which it wallowed during the Middle Ages....the Liturgy in La Queste del Saint Graal is not Latin. It is Oriental, and hence at this period, in heated opposition to Rome. Phrases are taken from the Gospel of St. John - a Gospel hated of the Church - and it was a formal accusation of heresy in the trials of the Knights Templar that they used this Gospel....Here, then, is neither identity nor succession between the Quest of the Holy Grail and the Knights Templar, but the spiritual content is the same. The spirit of the Quest is found in the works of the Knights Templar; the faith and ardour of the Templar is found in the Quest of the Holy Grail." (Mystic Gleams from the Holy Grail, c.1940s)

An intriguing connection between the european Knights Templar and the eastern Coptic priests is recorded by Dr. Karl Roessler in his History of Freemasonry (1836, Leipzig). Roessler states: "We find in the Instructions of the Chevalier d’Orient where are celebrated the foundation of the Knights Templars and the spread of their teachings in Europe the following declaration on the matter is given: ‘Eighty-one Masons under the leadership of Garimonts, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, went, in the year 1150, to Europe and betook themselves to the Bishop of Upsala [Sweden] who received them in very friendly fashion and was consequently initiated into the mysteries of the Copts which the Masons had brought with them; later he was entrusted with the deposit of the collection of those teachings, rites and mysteries. The Bishop took pains to enclose and conceal them in the subterranean vaults of the tower of the ‘Four Crowns’ which at that time, was the crown treasure chamber of the King of Sweden. Nine of these Masons, amongst them Hugo de Paganis, founded in Europe the Order of the Knights Templars; later on they received from the Bishop the dogmas, mysteries and teachings of the Coptic Priests, confided to him." Dr. Roessler also says: "Scotch Templars were occupied in excavating a place at Jerusalem in order to build a temple there, and precisely on the spot where the temple of Solomon – or at least that part of it called the Holy of Holies – had stood. During their work they found three stones which were the corner stones of the Solomon temple itself. The monumental form of these excited their attention; this excitement became all the more intense when they found the name Jehovah engraved in the elliptical spaces of the last of these stones – this which was also a type of the mysteries of the Copt – the sacred word which, by the murder of the Master Builder, had been lost, and which, according to the legend of the first degree, Hiram had had engraved on the foundation stone of Solomon’s temple. After such a discovery the Scotch Knights took this costly memorial with them, and, in order eternally to preserve their esteem for it, they employed these as the three corner stones of their first temple at Edinburgh’."

The Templar Johannine connection is further highlighted in Secret Societies and Subversive Movements (1924) by Nester H. Webster: "Dr. Ranking, who has devoted many years of study to the question, has arrived at the conclusion that Johannism is the real clue to the Templar heresy. In a very interesting paper published in the masonic journal Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, he observes that 'the record of the Templars in Palestine is one long tale of intrigue and treachery on the part of the Order,' and finally, 'That from the very commencement of Christianity there has been transmitted through the centuries a body of doctrine incompatible with Christianity in the various official Churches....That the bodies teaching these doctrines professed to do so on the authority of St. John, to whom, as they claimed, the true secrets had been committed by the Founder of Christianity. That during the Middle Ages the main support of the Gnostic bodies and the main repository of this knowledge was the Society of the Templars'." Furthermore, writing about the Johannine Templar tradition in a paper presented to the Folk-Lore society in 1917, D.F. de l'Hoste Ranking, relates: "This tradition asserts that the Patriarch Theocletes, the sixty-seventh successor of the Apostle St. John, transmitted in AD 1118 his powers as Grand Pontiff of the Johannite 'Christians' to Hugo de Payens [founder of the Knights Templar], whom he also appointed his successor. These Johannites (I will not call them Christians) were a gnostic body, otherwise known as Nabatheans, Nasoroeans (Nusari), Mandoeans, or Sabians....my suggestion is that the Graal Legend was the central legend of the Templar rite - a rite of Eastern origin....that the hidden meaning of the Graal itself was the Johannite church."

Further historical background on the Johannine Celtic mythos and the development of a western mystery tradition is provided in The Flaming Door: A Preliminary Study of the Mission of the Celtic Folk-Soul by means of Legends and Myths (1962) by Eleanor C. Merry who writes: "The spiritual impulse of the old Celtic Mysteries, working throughout in a more or less concealed manner, and meeting, through the missionary work of the Irish monks in middle Europe with the Johannine 'gnostic' Christianity, gave rise, in the fourteenth century, to the foundation of the secret school of Christian Rosenkreuz, the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, also called 'John Christians'....In the Gospel of John we find something quite different. The Mother of Jesus, Mary-Sophia, is to be united with the beloved disciple: 'Woman, behold thy son!' John takes the divine Wisdom of the world into his heart. And the last words from the Cross are: 'It is finished.' What is finished? Not the mission of Christ, because its fulfilment is hardly begun. But the 'contraction' of the whole spiritual Universe into the material creation of man and the Earth - that was finished. The 'expansion' was to begin; the redemption of the divine Wisdom by man was to begin. The Book of Revelation looking far into the future was its first-fruits."

Eleanor Merry continues: "John gazes with Eagle-vision into the infinite future evolution of the world, and writes of the past: 'It is finished.'....John crosses over from past to future, because he has the secret of the Creative Word which continues: 'I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.' He sees the future because he has understood the Beginning. He is united with the divine Wisdom Sophia-Mary, whose symbol, from the Father, is the Dove. The Eagle of vision becomes the 'Dove of the Eternal'. John, through the 'John Christians', carries into the future the Mysteries of the Word from East to West. Out of this there arose what became known in the ninth century as the Wisdom of the Grail, whose Knights had the emblem of the Dove on their armour. But first, as already stated, it had to be united with the stream of the Celtic Mysteries of the West, brought Eastward to Europe by the pupils of St. Columba. And this union is already foreshadowed in the words of the daughter of the West, Bride: 'My garment' (Western Mysteries) 'shall be laid on the Lord of the World.' And so there came about, in the fourteenth century [concurrent with the ostensible demise of the Templar tradition - BD], not only the ripe fruit of the meeting of these two aspects of the old Mysteries as the esoteric teaching of the Rose and the Cross, but in this secret Brotherhood all other aspects as well were drawn together to form a nucleus of teaching which has survived beneath the surface of civilisation into our own time, and will be able to make itself known little by little."

In The Sign of the Dove (1983) by Elizabeth van Buren, the author observes: "There are several instances recorded in the Bible story which might be indicating that the church which Peter was to represent, was not the true church....The future materialism of the Church of Rome, and its lack of understanding of Christ's spiritual message, are being prophesied in these verses [from the Canonical Gospels - BD], as well as its future denial of the True Church. Moreover, the theme of John as the head of the esoteric church, is depicted in the story of the discovery that Christ has risen. When the Magdalene goes to the tomb and finds it open, she runs to call Peter and 'The disciple whom Jesus loved'. They hurry to the sepulchre, and it is the unnamed disciple who out-runs Peter and arrives there first. (St. John 20:2) It has been suggested recently that the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead is related to St. John, that is, that Lazarus and John are one and the same person....There are legends dating from the 4th century which speak of Mary Magdalene fleeing from the Holy Land and going to France, bearing the Grail with her. Accompanying her were said to be Joseph of Arimathea, Martha, Lazarus and others. Joseph of Arimathea is supposed to have gone from France to Glastonbury in England, where he founded an early Christian church....Caesar Baronius, librarian of the Vatican in 1596, wrote in his 'Annales Ecclesiastici' of his discovery in the Vatican Library of a most ancient manuscript which told of the voyage of a company of our Lord's friends, who travelled in an old boat which had been abandoned by its master and was without oars or sails. Baronius dated the arrival of this boat in France as 35 A.D....The coming of Lazarus and his sisters to the West was not only to convert the people to Christianity, but to perpetuate the old Mystery religion. Lazarus, as John, was the head of the secret church of Christ, which possessed knowledge that was only for initiates. It was the same knowledge that had been cherished by those such as the Celts, whom the exoteric Church was to condemn as pagans in later times."

Lazarus being ‘raised up’ in a cave suggests an esoteric mystery initiation. According to the German mystic, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), when Jesus raised up Lazarus, the soul of John the Baptist returned to dwell in the body of Lazarus and subsequently he became known as St. John the Divine, author of the Fourth Gospel and the Revelation. The implication is that "he whom the Lord loved" was both Lazarus and John. The dual identity of Lazarus and St. John is confirmed by the researches of Robert Eisler, Ph.D., in The Enigma of the Fourth Gospel (1938), who observes: "The whole story is told in the Fourth Gospel as clearly as it could be done without immodesty by him ‘who wrote that’, i.e. by Lazarus himself whose account the Evangelist professes to ‘know to be true’.....Lazarus is dead, but John is very much alive. It is he who adds his witness to the testimony of the dead man, whose witness ‘he knows to be true’." Furthermore, Professor William Brownlee, a Biblical scholar, states: "From internal evidence in the Fourth Gospel.…the conclusion is that the beloved disciple is Lazarus of Bethany." (Whence the Gospel according to John, 1972)

Elizabeth van Buren also writes in The Secret of the Dove: "In 'The Secret of Mont-Ségur' we learn that there is a book in existence, a book that had been guarded and preserved by the Cathari, a manuscript which lies in a leaden casket in the depths of a cavern....The manuscript is called 'The Book of Love'....This manuscript is attributed to St. John the Divine, and is said to contain: '....sublime teachings, marvellous revelations, the most secret words confided by our Lord Jesus Christ to the beloved disciple. Their power would be such that all hatred, all anger, all jealousy would vanish from the hearts of men. The Divine Love, like a new flood, would submerge all souls and never again would blood be shed on this earth.' It is said that this book will be found, at a 'pre-ordained time, by a predestined person'. Furthermore, it states in 'The Secret of Mont-Ségur', that this predestined person, 'a being of perfect candour, innocence and absolute purity', will be 'UNDER THE SIGN OF THE DOVE'. It is not generally known that the Dove was the symbol most revered by the Cathari...Indeed, the Cathari were called the 'Faithful of the Dove', the 'Friends of God'....The Dove symbolized the Comforter, the One who would bring peace to the world one day. In the ancient Mysteries the Dove was the symbol of the third person of the Creative Triad, the Trinity....If one accepts that the precious treasure of the Cathari was the Lost Gospel of St. John, it should be noted that the true name of the Dove is Ionah or Iönas (Jonah). John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, was called Ioannes, and the Apostle of Love, author of the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse, was called Ionnes, in Greece. So, for the Cathari the Dove might have been, not only the symbol of the Paraclete or Holy Ghost, but also the emblem of 'The Book of Love' itself, written by Ionnes, John the Divine." As previously mentioned, could this be the hidden Grail text alluded to by A.E. Waite?

A possible link between a Middle Eastern Johannine tradition and the European Cathars is suggested in The Treasure of Mont Segur: The Secret of the Cathars (1987) by Walter Birks and R.A. Gilbert: "There is a persistent tradition of an inner teaching which is associated with the 'beloved disciple' who has been given the name John but who could not possibly have been the son of Zebedee. (The Gospel called John has, as we have seen, been 'edited' in a catholic sense.) This teaching, 'the real Gospel', must have been transmitted by some sort of apostolic succession down through the ages." Writing about the Cathars, the authors observe: "But in themselves was the treasure, the power to transmit the apostolic succession, the seed perhaps of a higher form of Christianity to be revealed when the world is ready to receive it." In a personal reminiscence, from the same work, Walter Birks writes: "From the Lebanon northwards to the Turkish border stretches a range of mountains known as the Jebel Ansariya or Alawite mountains which has been for over a thousand years the home of the Nosairi sect....A number of scholars, notably Massignon, have contended that the Nosairis are really Christians who have been obliged to cloak their faith under a semblance of Moslem heterodoxy in order to escape persecution....The remoteness and inaccessibility of much of the area has meant that ancient beliefs and ceremonies have lingered on there....The two most important symbols in Nosairi religion (at least in its 'Northern' form) are Light, and the cup or chalice which contains the sacramental wine, in drinking which the worshipper says, 'I drink to the Light'. This symbolism of the cup led me to tell my host [a Nosairi leader] the legend of the Holy Grail. When I had finished he said, 'I am going to reveal to you the greatest secret of our religion, but you must never disclose that it was I who told you. This Grail you speak of is a symbol and it stands for the doctrine which Christ taught to John the Beloved alone. We have it still'....There is a Nosairi prayer, 'Deliver us from these human forms and reclothe us in light among the stars.' There is a mystical element in Languedocian Catharism which does not seem to owe anything to Bogomils or Paulicians. It is apparent in this imagery of Light and the stars, which is also such a notable feature of Nosairi imagery."

Writing about the spiritual explosion in the Middle East during the third century, following on from the advent of Christ, Robert Temple, in his work, Icons and the Mystical Origins of Christianity, 1990, writes: "This is the period in which we see the proliferation of philosophical societies, religious cults, gnostic groups, various exoteric and esoteric schools such as the Therapeuts and the school of the Essenes from which came John the Baptist and possibly Christ....This spiritual tradition was, as we shall see, also that of the Christian Fathers, whose desert communities, founded in the third century, are but one link in a mystical chain of schools that stretches back to Pythagoras and the Mystery Religions. It linked with Christianity in the Egyptian desert, was later connected with Mount Athos and, after the fourteenth century, also passed into Russia where it was still to be found at the beginning of the twentieth century in the tradition of the startzi or 'elders'....After the fourth century the spiritual essence of the Christian mystery was gradually overlaid by the institutionalisation of the Church as a social and political organisation....Secret Christianity did not disappear with the advent of state Christianity but it had to retreat into areas where, as far as possible, it would not provoke the wrath of heresy hunters nor compromise itself through well-intentioned misunderstanding. These are among the reasons why the origins of Christianity are so obscure. We forget that we know little about the actual events of the life of Christ and the few people who knew him other than the incomplete accounts given by the Evangelists who wrote them almost a century after they had occurred. Esotericism is a truth hidden and yet which is available for anyone who truly seeks it. At certain times, such as the present spiritual crisis through which humanity is passing, it briefly becomes more generally available....the esoteric tradition reappeared in the art of icon painting in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries."


Icon of Christ in St. John's Kirk, Perth, Scotland

Finally, in The Glastonbury Zodiac: Key to the Mysteries of Britain, the author Mary Caine writes: "St. Columba (the dove) plunged into the sea from Ireland to bring Christianity to Iona, an island of great Druidic sanctity already, long before he came. Hebrideans placated a sea-god called Shoni (Johnny!) who is likely to pre-date Christian St. John. It was however Johannine Christianity that Celts took to their hearts: his apocalyptic seership and cosmological outlook was so much their own that he has been supposed by some to be a Celt or Gaul from Galatia, a suspicion deepened by his traditionally slender, poetic, fair-haired representations in the catacombs and other early paintings." Mary Caine also comments on "the greatest polarity of all - one whose tensions have been felt all through the Christian centuries, and which still wrack us today - the Lion of Rome versus the Unicorn of the secret Johannine church of the future. The once and future Church is indissolubly connected with Arthur, the once and future king....Offbeat Christians have thus seen John as the Church of the Future, destined at last to supersede the Petrine Rock, one whose enlightenment would eclipse the blind faith of Peter's. Others have seen the two as co-existent. Peter's church as the triumphant Lion, John's as the elusive Unicorn. The rare moments when the two have co-existed in amity, they argue, have produced high points of civilisation; our royal arms supporters are an idealistic symbol, not often operational. Prester (Presbyter) John's kingdom was a secret place, much sought, seldom found. But there are signs that in these apocalyptic days the secret understanding, the clairvoyant perception of the Johannine vision is coming into its own. The sceptical, questioning man of the dawning Aquarian Age needs to know, whether by normal or paranormal means, what it is all about; the blind unquestioning faith of the Piscean age is no longer adequate. Is the day of the Church of John almost here?"

In conformity with the trinitarian nature of reality, it seems likely that there are three mystical aspects of initiation leading to a state of "Christ consciousness". Firstly, the baptism of water as practised by John the Baptist, secondly, the baptism of fire by the holy ghost ("the spirit of truth") as revealed at Pentecost and, thirdly, the baptism of light or love as portrayed through the personalised initiation of the Beloved Disciple (Lazarus/John), who was 'raised from the dead' (unconscious). The latter facilitates the higher Christic induction into the realms of conscious revelation (which St. John the Evangelist experienced on Patmos) and which is also made manifest in the conscious "I AM" affirmations of Jesus as recorded in the metaphysical Gospel of St. John the Beloved.


Love (conscious) Conquers Death (unconscious)
Rosslyn Chapel, Scotland, courtesy of sacredsites.com

This third mystical aspect of Christic initiation may be illustrated by the following example of Christian iconography. Commenting on a 15th century icon "The raising of Lazarus" (Novgorod School), Richard Temple, an authority on Christian iconography, makes the pertinent observation: "Lazarus does not represent the physical impossibility of a dead man stepping out of the tomb, but the possibility of spiritual resurrection from spiritual death. It is interesting that, while Lazarus seems to be the centre of the action, he is not the source of light but the vehicle through which it is manifested. He looks, with an expression of joy and wonder, at the comparatively understated figure of Christ who is the initiator of the events and the real centre and source of light in the icon." (Icons and the Mystical Origins of Christianity)


"The Raising of Lazarus" (Novgorod School)

The central human role played by Lazarus (John) in the Christ drama is clearly identified by Valentin Tomberg in his treatise Covenant of the Heart: Meditations of a Christian Hermeticist on the Mysteries of Tradition (1992). Tomberg explains: "Lazarus was the spiritual friend of Jesus, just as Mary was a friend in the soul-sphere and Martha in the sphere of outer events and daily life. And the service he rendered Jesus was of a spiritual kind. This is to say that he took part in the most essential core of Christ's work - his death and resurrection. The participation of Lazarus in the work and the way of Jesus Christ went beyond mere believing acceptance and understanding; it went so far as to actually go through an experience which was not, of course, identical, but analogous to the experience of death, entombment, and resurrection that Jesus Christ underwent. For when the future apostles stood perplexed before the enigma of Christ's words: 'A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me....because I go to the Father' (John xvi, 17) - there was one who knew from his own experience the going and the returning, and therefore was in a position to understand the mystery of the Way, the Truth, and the Life which was revealed through Jesus Christ. In Lazarus earthly humanity possessed a kind of 'organ' for the mystery of Christianity, so that it could be understood - and not remain forever an unknown and unknowable miracle."

Tomberg further comments: "The search for the Grail, now become legend - together with Rosicrucianism, which is surrounded by a forest of symbolism - both testify that there has always existed a striving for a conscious participation in the logic of the Logos, a quest for a Christian initiation. And it was Lazarus, the special friend of Jesus Christ, who was called to be the first Christian initiate, thereby laying the foundations and forming the starting point for the entire history of Christian initiation....the sickness of Lazarus was not to bear witness to the transience of nature, as every natural sickness does, but to the reality of the divine Word-made-flesh, who is Lord over life and death, i.e. who is the resurrection. The sickness of Lazarus was not merely a going away, but a departure in order to return; it was a dying in order to be reborn. Now it is just this act of dying - to the world in order to live and to work in the world out of forces and motives of action - which is not of this world. This is exactly what has always been regarded as the essence of initiation. An initiate was always looked up to as one 'twice-born'. However, what was experienced in the pre-Christian mysteries as a cultic process of consciousness was, in the sickness, death, and raising of Lazarus, a real and complete event embracing spirit, soul, and body - an event which was simultaneously human destiny and divine grace....The event of the death and raising of Lazarus was an initiation carried out by Jesus Christ as initiator."

Returning to the important relevance of Christian iconography in spiritual revelation, Richard Temple relates: "Icons exist to convey the highest cosmological, philosophical and theological ideas. They were brought into being and developed a thousand years ago and more in order to provide insight into the esoteric traditions and scriptures from which grew what we call Christianity....In the icons of St. John the Evangelist we again find the figures placed within the cosmic landscape and, as ever, it is here that we must search for the meaning that lies beyond the suggestion that the landscape represents the island of Patmos. Since the background tells us that the event portrayed takes place in the spiritual world, we will find its principal meaning exclusively in that psychological context and we will make no concession to the idea of an actual geographical location. Similarly, we will not consider the event as having happened in historical time. What kind of time exists in icons? In the rational world the horizontal line of time going from the past to the future is the only time that our literal minds can conceive. But in the spiritual world only 'now', a phenomenon independent of linear time, is real. Our earthly time, consisting of hours, days and years, is measured by the diurnal rotation of our planet on its own axis together with its rotation around the sun. Linear time is, for us, a uniquely subjective phenomenon relative only to our planet and its relationship to our sun. Beyond the solar system, our time, and the factors by which we measure it, have no meaning. Consequently the 'historical' factor in religion becomes irrelevant on the cosmic scale. 'Now', that is, the present moment, can be thought of as the entry of eternity into time and the only time that exists in icons therefore is the 'eternal present'." (Icons and the Mystical Origins of Christianity).

Is it now time for humanity to disengage from a fear-induced preoccupation with the "past" and move forward into a love-based appreciation and conscious awareness of the eternal present with the unlimited future potential which issues forth from it. According to the Johannine Gospel, "Before Abraham was, I AM" (John Ch.8, v.58).

In her essay entitled Easter - the Legends and the Fact (1938), Eleanor C. Merry concludes: "If one were to imagine what could be the secret relationship of Christ to the Earth, I think we would have to say that He descended out of Eternity into Time, and puts His seal upon Time by blessing it with the power of resurrection in every moment...'Behold, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world'." In terms of Cosmic timing we have been told that, "One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (2.Peter, ch.3, v8). Interestingly, in an early Gnostic text, the Pistis Sophia, is written, "a day of the Light is a thousand years in the world." Further, "Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead [unconscious] the third day" (Luke ch.24, v.46) .

As humanity enters the third millennia (cosmic day of resurrection) of the Christian era, will conscious revelation finally prevail on earth truly ushering in the "New Jerusalem"? And what part might be played by the Blessed Celtic Isles of Avalon - the Holy Land of the West.

"....the secret gospel of St. John is hidden, and not lost. Someone must find it when the time has come...Someone must find the Book, in spite of the forces of darkness, some man among men....The rest remains mysterious, like all things under the sign of the Dove."
(The Secret of Mont-Segur,
Paris 1952, by Ramond Escholier and Maurice Gardelle)

© Copyright 2004 Barry Dunford. All rights reserved. PERMISSION FOR USE: No part of this article may be published without the permission of the author Barry Dunford

Barry Dunford is the author of The Holy Land of Scotland: Jesus in Scotland and the Gospel of the Grail (revised and expanded edition 2002).

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