Last night I went to a lecture and book signing by Louis Sahagun, author of a biography of Manly Palmer Hall called Master of the Mysteries. Sahagun is a journalist at the Los Angeles Times and was working night duty on September 2, 1990 when the call came in that Hall had died at 89 years of age. Knowing nothing about the man, Sahagun looked him up in the files, finding little until he got back to the 1930s and 40s when he stumbled onto stacks of clippings. He wrote a brief obituary that didn’t begin to touch on the accomplishments of this internationally known metaphysician and occult scholar who eventually was a victim of extreme elder-abuse and probable murder.
Sahagun became fascinated by Hall’s story, was given access to several archives, interviewed dozens of people who had known Hall, and examined the police and medical reports on what is still an open suspicious-death investigation.
Hall is of interest to those of us in the Tarot world for his creation of what’s known as the Knapp-Hall Tarot deck, first published in 1929 by artist J. Augustus Knapp, illustrator of two of Hall’s first books, including the famous The Secret Teachings of All Ages (the latest edition is in its 16th printing).
I want to talk here about the conversation I had with Louis Sahagun about the cult status of spiritual teachers. During his research Sahagun discovered an amazing but flawed human being—someone who married disastrously, fell behind the times and finally succumbed to the machinations of a conman. Despite this, Sahagun felt that he had found a man of immense talents and great personal integrity who warned against putting teachers on a pedestal. It is apparent that Hall’s scholarship left something to be desired (he had only a 6th grade education but a photographic memory), but it’s hard for many to accept that Hall could have been less than perfect. Sahagun was struck by the number of followers who seemed to do nothing with their lives but slavishly espouse the teachings. On the other hand, hundreds of people—mostly in the arts—creatively integrated Hall’s metaphysical principles into their work—making it their own. These included such diverse people as an L.A. mayor, a governor of California, Elvis Presley and Bela Lugosi.
Personally, I’ve been struck by the number of people who discover lies, misconduct or incorrect facts in the lives and work of their heroes and respond by either completely rejecting the teacher and work or by rejecting any evidence of a problem. Typical is a comment about the book from someone who regularly attended Hall’s lectures: “I wasn’t aware of any controversy surrounding Mr. Hall’s death either…. It was natural causes—and I suppose natural causes for an author to claim controversy.” This person has no desire to examine the evidence before claiming that the biographer must be lying.
When writing my biography of four original members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses, I believed it vitally important to examine their flaws as well as their strengths. How are we to learn from someone’s story if we don’t see how that person navigated the difficulties of life? How can we evaluate a work if we aren’t willing to explore what’s true and what isn’t and what ‘works’ and what doesn’t? It’s important to realize that everyone is human. Just before I completed the biography, an acquaintance sent my text involving a different spiritual teacher, now deceased, to that person’s organization. I received a phone call asking me to remove quotes from letters that included accusations of an affair with someone he later married. It was felt this might harm the public perception of him as a great and good man. I ask, how are we ever to develop discrimination if we believe that spiritual teachers are somehow more perfect than the rest of us or that everything they write is Divine Truth?
The way I see it, there are three unacknowledged magical “initiations.” The first is when we come across a teaching or practice and have to determine if it contains a truth or way to which we want to commit ourselves. The second initiation is when we discover we’ve been betrayed by ‘lies’ and we have to decide to leave or continue the work. The third initiation is when we discover that the lie itself contains a greater truth. The second initiation is betrayal and until we have confronted betrayal and moved through it we will never encounter the third initiation. We experience these three initiations all the time, although a fourth is proposed that takes us beyond the world of truth and lies.