In preparation for a children’s book I am writing, I have been forced to do a lot of research on the mystery cults of ancient Greece, especially the Eleusinian Mysteries. I have been overwhelmed with the psychic power of these myths. Walking through the sanctuary of Eleusis, I felt so awesomely the truth that the myth of the Mater Dolorosa, Demeter, carries for the lost daughter, Persephone. It is a story much like the Christian one. Someone has to die and enter the dark Underworld and wait to be resurrected again on the earth. The Great Mystery of initiation of Eleusis cloaked in metaphorical and physical darkness resembled the ceremony of the Holy Light we celebrate at Pascha. The feelings of the congregants must have been the same: to purify themselves in order to descend into death and emerge joyous and triumphant. I feel Demeter’s pain parallels the Virgin Mary’s as she quietly sobs for her dead child. Certainly the mystery of Eleusis was this: that the bitterness of death can be overcome by love. That even though we are all forced to die, we can return, in changed form, to reunite with the love that we lost.
The myth of Persephone has so many common strands with the Christ story that one begins to wonder—what if all myths are the same? What if they all spring from the human breast? Their truth is universal but is twisted as Jung noted by the collective unconscience into native threads a particular group of people colored in culture and time?
When I as a modern citizen of the world visit these ancient places of worship, it is not easy to shake off the goose bumps of prickling reflection: if faith in these mystery religions lasted for over two thousand years, there must have been truth to them. Maybe religions like fashions and civilizations serve their purpose and then are cast off or changed. Maybe the one we believe in today, Christianity, will also fade eventually and be eclipsed by another version of the monomyth? On the dry desiccated rock of the Telesterion of the sanctuary in Eleusis, only ruins remain of the glory of what the Mysteries were, but its skeleton tests my faith in Christ because it surfaces the relativity of faith. The altar stone of the Anaktoron has become a stumbling block of faith for me.
And then on my Instagram feed I read a quote from St. Seraphim Rose of blessed memory:
“Christ came to enlighten mankind. There are various religions outside His revelation where the followers are sincere—not just practicing demon worship—and where the soul is really trying to get through to God. I would say that before the people have heard of Christ, these religions are fine as far as they go, but they will not get you to the goal. The goal is eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven, and God came in the flesh to open this up to us” (“God’s Revelation to the Human Heart”).
Here is the answer: Christ Himself. The push over the stumbling block is the person of Christ. Consider that only in the person of Christ did God Himself become incarnate to harrow hell and give us the mechanism to escape death. That mechanism is called Love, divine love. Something that the human mind and heart cannot fathom. Out of all the religions you can take stock of, only the Christian one puts LOVE front and center, beginning and end. The igoumena in charge of the Church near the Potter’s Field in Jerusalem (the cursed place where Judas threw the 30 traitor coins) pointed to the epigram embroidered over the altar “A W.” Do you know that what stands for?” she asked me in the quiet but forceful way nuns have, “It stands for AGAPO. This is the essence of what Christ is.” You cannot know Christ without knowing how to love as He did. Sure, Demeter and Buddha suffered; they felt very deeply the sorrow of the human condition. But it was only Christ who out of his love for humankind gave of the very depths of Himself—His very blood, His heart, His bones—because He loved us.
Indeed, the only key to break the dark bonds of hell and death is that golden one of love. Love that is expressed in sacrifice and self-sublimation for others.
Like Father Seraphim Rose said, there are indeed religions that have sought God in a true way. We cannot reproach them for this. I think the ancient Greeks even with all the foibles and foolishness of the gods were on the right track. (Read the pre-Socratics and there might just be an argument that Christianity was an upspring from those thinkers and not Judaism). We do not know why God in His Wisdom chose to reveal Himself through his Son where and when He did. Maybe the time was right? This is a mystery unfit for human understanding. But one thing I know, had He revealed Himself to the ancient ones, I know they would have put aside the truth as they knew it to accept the greater truth that is Christ.
Still, there is something that tingles within the subterranean caverns of my being when I walk the Sacred Way. I half wish I could become a mystes of that secret Mystery. The power in that truth is still palpable. I too would have walked the long road from the Dipylon to the Telesterion. I too would have waited in darkness for the hierophant to appear in radiant light from the darkness of Hades; I would have tasted the barley cake and drank of the kykeon. I too would have wailed the loss of the Kore. And then I would have been born into a new century, shaken off my chiton and bathed in the Light of Truth, that the Lord Jesus Christ is One forever and eternal. Glory be to Him.