Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), the Teutonic Philosopher, "Prince of all the medieval Seers," was born to a peasant family in the village of Alt Seidenberg, about two miles from Goerlitz in German Silesia. Although he received no formal education beyond learning to read and write, he was destined to discover the inner meaning of the Bible and the mystical heart of the spiritual life.
When a young boy, he spent long hours alone watching his parents' cattle in their pasture near the village. Amidst this solitude he beheld his first vision. He saw a great vault filled with riches, which he took to mean that occult powers were his to possess. He vowed never to use them for selfish purposes. Of the vision he said, "I can only liken it to a resurrection from the dead." From this time he began to read the Bible and the writings of Paracelsus from an esoteric perspective.
Although physically healthy, he was neither large nor robust, and in 1589 his parents apprenticed him to a shoemaker. Once, when tending the shop alone, a stranger entered and inquired about the price of some shoes. Boehme, aware of a remarkable look in the stranger's eyes, professed ignorance of the cost of the shoes, but the stranger, rather than searching out the shoemaker, told Boehme that though he was small of stature, he would become great among men and "cause much wonder in the world." Admonishing Boehme to remain faithful to his original vow, the stranger disappeared as mysteriously as he had come.
In 1599, at the age of twenty-four, Boehme became a master shoemaker and married a woman who loved and comforted him until he died. His family eventually included four sons and two daughters.
In the year 1600 Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake, both for daring to teach that the universe is infinite and for his general attack upon Christian dogmatism in every form. The same year also witnessed Boehme's second illumination. He had yet a third vision in 1610 in which he experienced the divine splendour of the whole of nature: "While in that state," he wrote later, "my spirit immediately saw through everything." Aurora, his first and largest book, was undertaken on January 27, 1612 and published later in the same year.
When Gregorius Richter, the local Lutheran pastor, read Boehme's account of the "Morning-Redness in the Rising of the Sun, that is, the Root and Mother of Philosophy, Astrology and Theology," he exploded in self-righteous fury. Rushing to the City Council of Goerlitz, he demanded that Boehme be banished from the town. Surprised and frightened, the Council capitulated and exiled Boehme, only to become ashamed of its decision against a man whose reputation, work and religious life were blameless. The Council rescinded its order the next day but only on the condition that Boehme cease writing forever. Shortly thereafter Boehme sold his declining shoe business and traveled often as a merchant to the large cities in the area, including Prague and Dresden. The inner impulse to share his insights with his fellow men became too strong to be suppressed, and the last decade of his life saw the publication of a number of his works, including On True Resignation, The Signature of All Things, On Regeneration, and the beautiful devotional dialogue Concerning the Supersensual Life.
Richter raged anew, denouncing Boehme from the pulpit and within his hearing. "Will ye," Richter shouted, "have the words of Jesus Christ" – a carpenter – "or the words of a shoemaker?" Boehme calmly answered, "Not I, the I that I am, knows these things, but God knows them in me."
When Abraham von Frankenburg published The Way to Christ, a collection of Boehme's writings, Richter's anger forced a new exile upon Boehme. He withdrew to Dresden without being allowed to take leave of his family. At about the same time, the emperor convened an array of eminent theologians, and Boehme was invited to join them and explain his views. His purity of soul and modest expression so moved the members of the convocation that they publicly expressed the privilege they shared in learning from him and judged themselves incompetent to rule on his orthodoxy. Doctors Gerhard and Meissner became his followers.
Vindicated by the best religious minds of his time, Boehme knew that his work was finished. He foretold the hour of his death, prepared himself, set his affairs in order, and died on November 17, 1624, saying, "And now, I'll take the road to Paradise" – an occult statement in accord with his esoteric theology. His enemies in Goerlitz prevented his burial until the power of Count Hannibal von Drohna forced it. The magnificent cross placed on his tomb was destroyed by his opponents. But his followers, often persecuted, kept his writings in print and saw that they came into the hands of those who appreciated their transcendent, spiritual character.
Boehme's writings form one symphonic whole, articulating central themes, embellishing them at many levels of meaning, returning to them and blending them into a unified vision of God, Man and Nature. His vast mystic and metaphysical system is expressed in metaphorical terms, often of his own creation, and in symbolic biblical language.
According to Boehme's Six Theosophic Points, the eternal Unground, "which exists and also exists not," manifests primordially as a will, "an ungroundedness to be regarded as an eternal nothing."
This first will, directed toward the Unground, beholds the abstract potentiality of spirit as a veil over It. When will turns away from itself, the veil becomes an unfigured luminosity.
"And thus," Boehme concludes, "one is free from the other, and yet the mirror is truly the container of the image." The Unground stands out of all relation to noumenal Nature, and yet contains it.
Pristine desire arises within this will and produces essences, the ground of being, by manifesting as the Heart, "for it is the Word of life, or its essentiality." The movement toward the Heart, "going within itself to the center of the ground" is called Spirit, "for it is the finder, who from eternity continually finds where there is nothing." These three – Will, Word and Spirit – are the "holy Tri-unity of God," Deity manifest against the absolute Unground, and the source of nature.
The power whereby nature evolves is Magic. "Magic is the mother of eternity, of the being of all beings," Boehme wrote in Six Mystical Points, "for it creates itself, and is understood in desire."
True Magic is not an entity, but rather the desiring or creative spirit of all being.
The three aspects of Deity each give birth to the others, and magic is the creative potency which arises in their mutuality and which causes all things to come into being. "In sum: Magic is the activity in the Will-spirit." Thus the material, moral and spiritual aspects of manifest existence have their origins in Magic.
Manifest nature contains two qualities, called in their ethical aspect good and evil, though both are in reality the eternal will. The good quality draws toward the heart of Deity, and the wrathful quality away from Godness (Gottheit) toward differentiation. In his commentary on Aurora, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin notes, "By the word 'wrath,' the author understands the eternal power itself, as separated from love, justice and light." The wrath of God, exemplified in numerous biblical tales, is the eternal power of will called forth and channeled through the reflected wills of men when they have turned away from universal love, impartial justice and inner illumination.
The Tree of Life is therefore also the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and "the fruit which grow on this tree signify men." Man has inclinations toward both good and evil. When he is drawn toward the world of manifestation, evil predominates; but when he responds to the vitalizing sap within the tree, good elevates him toward Deity, which is the sap itself. The majority of humanity is "now half dead" and "knoweth but in part," though nature "hath at all times guided and instructed wise, holy, and understanding men" who "always in their writings and teachings have been a light to the world."
Philosophy, Astrology and Theology are the three branches of knowledge which constitute the Aurora, symbolized in the Tree of Life. Philosophy treats of divine will, the nature of Deity, the archetypes of all things and the good and wrathful qualities in nature. Astrology, "according to the spirit and sense, and not according to speculation," shows the powers of nature, the stars and the elements, and how they affect all creatures. Theology explains the nature of the Christ principle, how it constitutes a kingdom at war with the wrathful kingdom of the transient world, and how men become inhabitants of one or the other kingdom.
The spiritual, sidereal and terrestrial worlds are placed in mutual relationship and are unified through correlations and correspondences by the deific power radiating through abstract forms or matrices into grades of objectivity. In The Signature of All Things Boehme taught:
The six days of creation symbolize the "six forms of the working power" in nature whereby the visible world comes to express the "divine corporeality by which all things are generated and come to form a being," i.e., the cosmos. They have their rest and synthesis in the seventh, which overbroods but never directly informs either divine substance or terrestrial matter. The six powers which it sends forth are "the divine sound . . . wherein all the other forms are manifest."
Nature can be understood in terms of seven properties.
Saturn represents the desire-energy of a matrix, which draws from the free will of eternity, and which becomes a harmoniously ordered energy, the image of eternity. This condition is represented by Jupiter. Saturn allows the eternal to manifest as essence, and Jupiter signifies the potency of sensibility. Mars represents the manifestation of desire-energy as a fiery power, the origin of feeling and hence of pain. It is also the origin of love-desire and therefore is the principle which can aspire to unity with the eternal, or separation from it. Sol symbolizes the "light of nature" whereby the other planets are beheld. Venus is the beginning of corporeality and gives rise to false or terrestrial desire. Mercury is the symbol of discrimination, the separator of all thought and awareness. When awakened, it is holy and divine but it can kill as easily as it creates. Luna is "the amassed essence" of corporeality. The spiritual artist knows how the 'planets' are to be brought together, the combinations in which their influences are poisonous and those in which they mutually rejoice and blend their potencies into a divine exaltation.
Perhaps Boehme's greatest teaching regarding the spiritual path is in his Dialogue Concerning the Supersensual Life. A Disciple asks his Master, "How may I come to the supersensual life?" The Master answers:
Nothing then can harm one, for one becomes like all things. But "If thou wilt be like all things, thou must forsake all things." To desire some one thing or another is to establish a bond with it, and this bond separates one from the rest of nature while allowing that one thing to affect and modify one's own nature. The only desire which leads to the supersensual life is desire of Christ, the Heart of Deity, for in that one surrenders one's will to the original will of being.
When the Disciple asks, "What is it that I must thus leave?" the Master answers that all partial loves must be given up for the love of Christ, for "there is a certain greatness and latitude of heart in love, which is inexpressible." In that love, "he can have no want of spiritual friends and relations, who are all rooted with him together in the love which is from above."
The disciple, taught that the wisdom of the world is folly when compared with divine wisdom, asks how the light of the inferior wisdom is to be used. The Master replies that "there are in thy soul two wills, an inferior will, which is for driving thee to things without and below, and a superior will, which is for drawing to things within and above." These two are set against one another in the unregenerated man. Similarly, the soul has two eyes, which find their image in the eyes of the physical form.
Just as we "must learn to distinguish well betwixt the thing and that which is only an image thereof," we must sacrifice the inferior will to the divine will of which it is the image. Then the two eyes can merge in a unity of vision in which we behold "with the eye of eternity things eternal" and "with the eye of nature things natural, and both contemplating therein the wonders of God, and sustaining also thereby the life of the outward vehicle or body." In the words of The Gospel According to Matthew, "The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light."
Having instructed the Disciple that "All is in the will," the Master warns:
The illumined soul, in death as in life, transcends the conditions of place and time, for its light is the primordial light which veils the mystery of that Unground beyond deity.
Despite virulent opposition, the teachings of this man of vision who penetrated to the universal core of Christian thought, rapidly spread across Europe and England. They pointed the way to a perception of truth and devotion to the divine which transcended the dogma and intolerance of the churches, cut through the superstitions and embellishments of theology, and opened the book of triple Nature where the Eternal ceaselessly inscribes its inner characters.