THE Theosophical Society has never prohibited Private Branches. If five Members-at-large can exist separately, they can exist together; for they are no worse off when organized than when not. It is conceivable, moreover, that there may be special circumstances where publicity is undesirable -as where there is exceptional local bitterness against Theosophy, or where the Charter-members are as yet too few or too ill-instructed to furnish papers and discussions of value to outsiders, or where want of intellectual capacity might excite derision in the community instead of respect. Another case is possible - where the Charter-members organize for the express purpose of providing open meetings, but temporarily hold only closed ones while studying and otherwise preparing themselves for fitness to edify visitors. In any one of these cases a provisional privacy is altogether legitimate.
But there is another case less commendable. It is where a group of Theosophists choose exclusiveness because they desire only those of their own set, or because they fear ridicule if know as F.T.S., or because they intend organization merely as a furtherance to their own intellectual culture or to the attainment of psychic power. The foundation of such a Lodge is timidity or selfishness, and on neither can a sound Theosophical superstructure be erected.
And what, in fact, has been the fate of Private Branches in the American Section? Five Charters to such have thus far been issued. Of these five Branches, two died quietly and soon, one surrendered its Charter, one is virtually extinct, and one is too recent formation to have a history. No one has contributed to the strength of the Society, to the extension of its teachings, or to the multiplication of its members.
There must be a reason for this. Nor is it hard of detection. The reason is simply that the essential idea of a permanently-closed Lodge and the essential idea of a Theosophical Branch are directly opposed. There is, indeed, a contradiction in the very words "Private Branch." A "Branch" is an offshoot of a parent tree, not underground but above ground. If you take away exposure to the sunlight and the air and the hardening forces of Nature, confining the young shoot to darkness and mystery and isolation, you not only deprive it of the very nourishment essential to its growth, but you perpetuate the interior forces which will ensure its decay. Nor only so. A "Private Branch" lacks the very marrow of Theosophical life - altruism. Theosophy is not a bank-deposit which one hoards in secret for contemplation and delectation; it is a purse of Fortunates, which fills up as fast as one empties it for the benefit of others. The true Theosophic spirit fixes its eye on the needs of a vast humanity in ignorance, knows that there is no other way to overcome ignorance and its consequences than by imparting truth, and queries how most efficaciously this may be done. The Theosophist thus animated joins the Society to help it, feels the want of sympathetic intercourse and of organized strength, exerts himself to form a Branch of the like-minded, projects work for it, values it because it makes possible a systematic outflow of knowledge and influence on the vicinage. He knows very well that, as the measure of his own Theosophic vitality is the degree in which he works and not merely meditates, so also it is with a Branch. In truth, a vigorous Theosophic spirit, filled with philanthropic earnestness to propagate truth, must feel somewhat repressed when discussing Cosmogony and the Seven Principles in a closely-styled Lodge, and have a suspicion of incongruity and discomfort. The spectacle of a snug and smug group gravely examining eternal verities which nobody else is allowed to hear of, verges somewhat on the ludicrous. This is one of the cases where a sense of humor keeps people out of the absurdities as well as out of errors.
It can never be too often repeated that real Theosophy is not contemplation or introspection of philosophizing or talk, but work, work for others, work for the world. We are told that the one fatal bar to progress is selfishness in some one of its Protean forms. It will never be overcome by thinking about oneself, but by not thinking about oneself. And as we have to think about something, the alternative is thought for others and how to help them. As the mind fills with such schemes and the hands take hold of them, self-interest is displaced and egoism fades out. Selfishness dies of inanition, and altruism grows because constantly fed. And all this time true progress goes insensibly on. The mind clears of prejudices and fogs, the spirit grows more sunny and cheerful, peacefulness settles over the whole interior being, and truth is seen with greater distinctness. For the great hindrance to evolution is decaying away.
This is equally true of a Branch. So long as it exists only for the improvement or entertainment of its members, the selfish principle is dominant, for selfishness is not the less genuine because applied to purposes in themselves high. Such a Branch does not expect to grow, it probably does not desire to grow, and it surely will not grow. What is there to make it grow? It lacks that essence of all life and growth which pervades everything vital. The opposite conception of a Branch, that of an organized force for the better propagation of truth, supplies just such a lack. Preparation of papers or discussion does not mean that mere exhibition of personal ideas, still less speculation on curious and recondite problems, but the arrangement in lucid language of those apprehensions of truth which the thinker believes to have intellectual or practical value. It is a gift to others, not a display of self. The life-principle of all Nature flows through the being, clarifying thought, vivifying motive, energizing speech. Then it flows without, warming dull or listless ears, arousing attention, exciting interest, stimulating inquiry. So the influence spreads, attendance increases, the Branch grows.
The history of open Branches demonstrates what might otherwise seem theory. As they have kept in view a missionary purpose and exerted themselves to make meetings interesting and instructive to outsiders, they have thriven. One Branch through years rarely adding a member to its small list, made its meetings open. In two years it enlarged between three and fourfold. Very naturally so. The fact of publicity becoming known, visitors drop in. Some suggestive topic pleases them, they attend again, feel an interest, then a charm, then a devotion. Then they join the Branch and invite others. Progress and prosperity follow.
While it would not be right for the T.S. to prohibit Private Branches, it would be wrong for it to look upon them as other than temporary and provisional, the missionary function being in abeyance only. Those who prepare the way for and those who organize Branch Societies would do well to lay stress upon the true conception of a Branch as a living, active, aggressive agency, not a proselyting scheme, but a means for circulating truth. Its outside effects are the main ones. If the members strive to benefit non-members, they will surely edify themselves. And between the energy of a Branch and its growth, there will always be a relation. Stationary membership almost certainly implies apathy, as an increasing one implies the reverse.
And, on the other hand, Branch members need to feel that public notice and Branch growth are only possible as meetings are made interesting. It is exactly so with the Churches. If the service is tame and the preaching imbecile, people will not go. Nor, perhaps, should they. Life is too short to be bored. The Oxford Don who passed his Sundays in the fields rather than in Church said that he "preferred sermons from stones to sermons from sticks"; and Theosophists, much more non-Theosophists, will choose an evening with books if the alternative is a Branch meeting which is lifeless, or where everything is left to chance, or where the intelligent are outraged with drivel. But where the leading speeches are duly and truly prepared, and the essayists worthy and well qualified, a state of things is brought about when attendants will seek to gain admission to further rights and benefits. Thoughtful contribution to open Branch discussions is as truly an aid to Theosophy as is sustentation of its periodicals or its work, and immediately tends to bring about that enlargement of the Society which we hope for as impressive to the public, conducive to our strength, and expressive of our advance.
Path, May, 1890