Cross purposes: Who are the Rosicrucians?

The world is a better place, it seems, if viewed through a pair of Rosicrucian-tinted spectacles. You may have seen their ad – on a poster or in newspaper at home or abroad – promising to improve your memory, develop your will-power, overcome bad habits and enrich your spirit by unlocking the secret wisdom of the ages.

And that's what just one of the Rosicrucian groups can manage. Add the other 20 or so groups which lay claim to the ancient and mystical name and the possibilities are presumably endless.

This weekend, two of the main Rosicrucian sects are celebrating their 100th anniversary. Not that they put it that way, since the members of the Rosicrucian Fellowship purport to trace their antecedents back to a set of secret manifestoes first published in 1610 revealing truths about the Rosy Cross – the symbols of female and male intermingled – which were "concealed from the average man" but which could bring fulfilment and salvation to the tutored adept.

And the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC) goes one better, claiming that its hidden knowledge goes back through secret doctrines of Jesus Christ and Pythagoras to the ancient gnosis of an Egyptian Pharoah – which is why AMORC has a Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum at its headquarters in San Jose.

The Rosicrucian Fellowship has its headquarters down the road at Mount Ecclesia, in Oceanside, so California will be the centre of both sets of celebrations this weekend. But the Rosicrucian network spreads its tentacles wide, over all five continents, and there are even events this week in Bath and Wantage.

For all their concern about tracing lineage, however, it is possible to find beneath the umbrella of modern Rosicrucianism just about any belief, philosophy or superstition you might care to name – pantheism, reincarnation, alchemy, psychic power, astral out-of-body travel, telepathy. There are Cosmic Ray Coincidence Counters and Sympathetic Vibration Harps. And you can corral just about any historic hero – Plato, Dante, Descartes, Newton – into secret membership of the movement (unbeknown, of course, to the dull minds of conventional historians).

Many people believe this stuff. AMORC claims to have 95,000 members across the world. It is said to spend $500,000 a year just on printing and postage to its devotees in 150 countries. Its headquarters include a museum, a temple, a planetarium, an art gallery and a library from where they publish the periodical Rosicrucian Digest.

The 100th anniversaries they are both celebrating mark the date when their respective founders were initiated in to the Rosicrucian order in Europe. The man behind AMORC, one H. Spencer Lewis, claimed he was received into the order in Toulouse in 1909, while the Fellowship's creator, Max Heindel, is said to have been selected by the Elder Brothers of the Order up a mountain in Germany. Both Americans claim they were then mandated to bring the secrets of the Crux Rosa to the US.

The two men established very different organisations. The Fellowship describes itself as "an international association of Christian mystics". And though it largely spreads the word through correspondence courses it organises itself into churches embracing much conventional Christian doctrine – even if a few of its beliefs (in, for example, the non-divinity of Christ) set it apart from conventional Christianity.

AMORC, by contrast, eschews the Christian origins of Rosicrucianism, extrapolating it backwards almost two millennia before Christ. Its followers are encouraged to set up an altar which it calls a "telesterion" at home containing images of Egyptian deities like the Sun-God Amun-Ra. "We are not a religion," says its UK Grand Master, Sven Johansson, "but like many New Age organisations we provide the tools for people to find their own spirituality by teaching them how to meditate, practice self-healing and lead a life that will bring fulfilment and happiness.

"We have traditions, of which we don't have any proof, and which it is not necessary to believe, which help with that. But we are not like many who call themselves Rosicrucians who are just quasi-religious organisations some of whom, dare I say, are a little bit wacky."

This is not an accusation from which his own organisation has been exempt. Recently a whistleblower named Pierre S. Freeman wrote a book called The Prisoner of San Jose which claimed that AMORC had exposed him to 24 years of indoctrination and mind control. AMORC members have flooded the internet to denounce Freeman as crazed.

Delusion is an attribute in plentiful supply in the world of Rosicrucianism. "No current Rosicrucian group can trace its organisational forbears back to the original manifestoes of 1610-1616," says Professor Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, the director of Exeter University's Centre for the Study of Esotericism, and author of the definitive history of the subject, The Western Esoteric Traditions.

Rosicrucianism, like theosophy and other movements of the early 20th century, dissatisfied with the new hegemony of science but disillusioned with traditional Christianity, anticipated the New Age religions of today. The retread Rosicrucians – Lewis and Heindel – were ahead of their time, which is why they can celebrate their centenaries this weekend.

For them science has provided too many answers. And when it comes to the questions of spirituality, the demands and disciplines of conventional Christianity have proved less attractive than searching for arcane secrets which they hope will reveal a meaning to life that his hidden from the rest of us. We can only hope they enjoy the chase.

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