I’ve just returned from six weeks of pilgrimage in Ireland. A mystical journey across a magical landscape filled with a lyrical language interpreted by metaphorical poetry. We communed with old friends and were introduced to new ones—both the living and the dead. As in the past, I was invited to view my spiritual travels through the alchemical worldview of W.B. Yeats. In a moment of synchronicity, we were privileged to see a recently discovered 8mm film of Yeats burial, presided over the local Anglican bishop. For some, this would have been an odd paradox given Yeats pan-Celtic yearnings. But for me, it beckoned me to lean in deeper to the intersection of alchemy and Anglicanism as seen through the lens of not only Yeats, but the likes of priests John Dee, John Donne, and George Herbert. Out of this came my musing about Jesus as a Spiritual Alchemist. While I imagine there’s a lot more to come from Active Imagination, I thought I’d start with something familiar like the prayer Jesus taught his followers.
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
But rescue us from the evil one. (Matthew 6)
Looking through the glass of a spiritual alchemist, here’s one interpretation of this prayer:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This prayer follows the first alchemist’ teaching, “as above, as below;” as it is in heaven, so it is on earth. The alchemist used Jesus as the model for how they would conduct their spiritual work—they called upon God to guide and assist them in the perfecting of their soul. For the alchemist, this was a four-step cycle, which was continually repeated throughout life. That four-step process can be found in the next line of the prayer; a metaphor from daily life that Jesus often used.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” Our bread, our sustenance, comes from the four elements: the “earth” where the seed is enwombed, the “air” from which the warm sun shines and where the heavenly clouds gathers, from which the rain “water” falls, and the “fire” of lightening from which the elements of the wheat and the water are united to make the bread. Alchemy is a mirror of the natural processes of life; nothing more, nothing less, and always as obscure.
The first step, Nigredo (symbolized by the Raven), the phase of chaos and darkness; the moment when our hopes and dreams are placed in the womb; always with the risk of not knowing the outcome. The second step, is Albedo (the Swan), the light shines on the seed and germination begins; maybe the heat will be just right, or too little, or too much The third step, is Citrinitas (the Peacock), the seed cracks through the soil and new life emerges; but maybe the seedling will burn up, or wither, or be eaten, or hopefully survive. And finally, Rubedo (the Phoenix), the wheat is harvested in use to make bread and feed the hungry. Think of Jesus’ teaching about the seed cast about the farmer, or the parable of the tares, or his words that the wheat must die and how they apply to our daily lives. The alchemist used all these same metaphors to describe their soul work; some probably before Jesus.
The purpose of the alchemist’s work is found in the next line of Jesus’ prayer. “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Alchemy is done for the sake of healing, first of our Self, and then others. To do so, alchemists must see the Christ in themselves, as well as everyone else, and everything. God is Present in all creation. God is Present in each of the four elements, as well as the one who harvests the wheat, bakes the bread, eats the bread, shares the bread, and receives the bread. The cycle is incomplete without each step and the alchemist’s work is never finished until each step has gone through its full course. Forgive us, because you have seen Your Self in us, and we have seen you in others—from forgiveness all healing can be manifest.
The final line of Jesus’ prayer can be tricky to interpret. “And do not bring us to the time of trial. But rescue us from the evil one.” Jesus said that if you sweep and clean your house of one demon, seven more will return. (Luke 11) In other words, instead of cleaning our house of our one demon, we need to make friends with it. In Carl Jung’s alchemical terms, our demon is our shadow and we need to embrace it. Our shadow can be frightening, but it also can be the one who brings healing. Jesus said that you will know him (the Christ) when he would be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent. (John 3:14) Paradoxically, the one who poisons is also the one who heals. Hence, the medical symbol of the caduceus. The time of trial is to deny that we contain both light and shadow. Our work, then, is not to rid ourselves of our shadow, but instead to work with our shadow as a form of healing our Self (two sides of the serpent). The alchemist strove to embrace the shadow by living a non-dualistic life; they worked to unite the opposites of light and shadow (both sides of the serpent), both internally and externally. They would make friends with their shadow by inviting it to sit in their circle of counsel. They would say to their shadow on daily basis, “today you will be with me in paradise.” The alchemist work was to comfort the shadow, quiet it down, and with God’s help, the shadow would become the alchemist’s ally and no longer an enemy (both sides of the serpent).
Not unlike the alchemist, Jesus’ teachings were hidden in secret metaphors; even the prayers he taught his followers. And the alchemist’s, not unlike Jesus disciples, spent their lives trying to unpack those mysteries. Guess that means I have plenty of grist for the alchemical bread I’m baking.