The Alchemist’s Beaker
Over the last two centuries, many in the West have felt a spiritual void within their own Western Christian faith heritage. To supplement that perceived lack, they have looked to the East. The allure of Oriental spirituality has captured the imaginations of many. We can think of the Eastern influence on the American Transcendentalist, or the 1960s counter-cultural movement, or the influence of Schopenhauer on European intellectual thought, or the ubiquitous presence of meditation and yoga in everyday culture, or the various New Age spirituality iterations which often have an Eastern flavour to them. There can be no doubt that the influence of Eastern mysticism on the West has been great. Within our own Unitarian movement, there are many (now and historically) who have identified with Eastern spirituality in one way or another. And yet, I am also aware of the many spiritual leaders who have cautioned against Westerners over-identifying with Eastern religious movements. To quote the Dalai Lama – ‘I always tell my Western friends that it is best to keep your own traditions. Changing religions is not easy and sometimes causes confusion. You must value your tradition and honour your own religion’. Or even the pioneer of East-West spirituality, Alan Watts, said, ‘Western people need to exercise a great deal of discrimination and caution, in adopting Eastern disciplines and ways of life.’ Or, Ram Dass, who said, ‘I have always said that often the religion you were born with becomes more important to you as you see the universality of truth.’
The contention would be something like: as westerners we are rooted into the landscape of ideas as they find expression in the West. We have Western psyches, we think and respond intuitively, and resonate with most naturally those philosophies and religions which have their roots here in the West. If you take the history of Christianity, although obviously Christianity began in the Middle East, it now has (for the most part) an overwhelmingly Western flavour. In all Christian denominations here in the West, when they speak and explore their faith, they do so as Westerners, with Western questions, and a Western bias. Everything is framed through Western preoccupations. I would hazard a guess that the reason Eastern spirituality seems to surface as much as it does within our own Unitarian movement, is a physiological compensation for the fact that our own Unitarian Christian heritage is one of the most Western expressions of Christianity that exists, emanating as it did out from a European enlightenment/rationalistic base. Many have argued then, that to sate our natural thirst for more esoteric, mystical, holistic, nature-aware longings for a deeper kind of spirituality, we should resist the call of the East, in its various expressions, and instead look to the mystery traditions within our own Western context. And I’m referring in particular, of course, to the Western Alchemy tradition.
Okay, so I don’t know if any of you have ever looked at an alchemical text before, but they’re filled with symbols and obscure terminology, and appear to be exceedingly inaccessible. One would be forgiven for thinking them pure nonsense. For after all, what is alchemy? It’s strange, reclusive old men in laboratories, on a fool’s errand, trying relentlessly to turn lead into gold. Or at best, it could be thought of as the precursor to modern chemistry. The argument could be made though, that really these alchemists are not simply concerned with manipulating matter (to get rich quick), that’s really just the surface manifestation of what they’re doing. Rather the alchemical processes act as metaphors for the process of transforming the human soul. By looking at alchemy in this way, it becomes relevant again to our Western contemporary age for anyone on a journey of becoming, or on a spiritual path. It emphasises that such journeys are a process. So, to spell it out a bit, we have our beaker, our container, which is us, our bodies, our whole self. And within our beaker, we have various components, various bits of matter you could say. One piece is our kind of mediating self, that’s in there, and other pieces might be interests of ours, or beliefs of ours, or even things that it would be quite difficult to express in words, certain sensations, or images from our childhood, or certain impressions, or dreams; some of this we’re kind of aware of, but a lot of it we aren’t. We are not consciously aware of everything in our beaker.
Of course, chemistry today is very exact science. Chemists know what elements and compounds they’re manipulating. For alchemy there is a great unknown, for every piece of matter being manipulated there are imperfections therein, other unknown elements peppered in. If that’s it, if we’re just our beaker, and continue to move through life with the various lone inert components therein, there just bumping along, not a lot will change. Change comes when we subject the beaker to the white-hot flame, and give it sufficient time to ferment. And what is that white-hot flame? It could be a lot of different things - it could be an intentional active process of engaging the material within our beaker. Or, probably more likely, it’s something outside of our control, like conflict, or death, or some kind of social pressure, or perhaps kind of being forced into a position that puts us face to face with something outside of our comfort zone.
This process can also be facilitated by the skilled spiritual practitioner, or the therapist, or the insightful friend who is able to direct our thinking, or even add new content to our beaker, to bring about a positive, transformative reaction. And what they add is not necessarily (on the surface of things) evidently a positive thing in and of itself; it could be confrontational, it could be a call to face that which you most fear, or it could illuminate a reality kept in shadow, or it could be some kind of image or idea which triggers ultimately something transformative. And just as the beaker can metaphorically represent the individual, so also it could be used to represent a relationship, or a family, or a church community, or the nation, or even the world. And as a spiritual leader, as a preacher, this is my process of discernment, to listen, and to intuit, and try to be aware of the alchemical process in full swing, the content within the church beaker bubbling away upon the white-hot flame of life. And then, with careful consideration, with full responsibility, to take new matter, and to pour it in.
Being in that church beaker is not for everyone. It can be difficult, but it can also be nourishing. It can be too much, and it can be exactly what we need. Sometimes it’s appropriate for a chapter in our lives, but not for others. It is undoubtedly a challenge for some in religious communities to be under spiritual leadership; for some it is no longer suitable, and no longer speaks to where they find themselves in life. And so, the beaker bubbles away, and the alchemist speaks of the first thing to emanate forth - a black, putrid froth. These are throes of melancholy. But in time, in the dawn, the blackness clears, a new day breaks, a new consciousness. Then the opus magnum is finished, there is the new, emergent integration, a completeness, a wholeness… A chemical wedding. The philosopher’s stone.