The Great Work

Colorized version of the Flammarion woodcut of a missionary looking through the horizon that which lay beyond it.

A few months ago I became fascinated by alchemy because of an episode (three episodes, actually) of Astonishing Legends. The episodes were about the Count of St. Germain. Now, to be clear, I do not think the Count is immortal. I do not think he had discovered the elixir of life. I think it is far more likely that he was a type of showman that moved in influential and powerful circles. For fun, I like to think he was the Doctor, and that Stephen Moffat missed an opportunity when he wrote “The Girl in the Fireplace.”

I’m already getting off topic.

The Count was actually my gateway to Western alchemy, and I became interested in the history alchemy. I was similarly interested in discussions of Chinese alchemy when I took a class on Religions of China and Japan while completing a religious studies degree. And while I think alchemy is interesting from a history-of-science-and-medicine standpoint, I think the symbolic language and concepts in alchemy are very powerful. Alchemy can be a useful metaphor for personal and spiritual growth.

In my religious studies class, we learned that Chinese alchemy started favoring spiritual refinement and development because, in a very practical sense, many early alchemists ended up poisoning themselves. But from that came theories of herbs and energy in Chinese medicine—and many blends of tea! In the West, alchemy led to early chemistry and medicine. It flourished in the early Muslim world. Indeed, the word alchemy is derived from Arabic: al-kīmiyā. One major difference between alchemy and modern chemistry, however, is the spiritual component. Chinese alchemy went on to refer to the refinement of the soul with the possibility of immortality. Western alchemy focused more on material goals of immortality and wealth—though prayer was still a strong component of Western alchemy.

I find the spiritual side of alchemy very intriguing: the idea that our bodies (or the self) are a container into which we put elements (ideas, concepts, theories) with the intention of refining ourselves, to reach greater understanding, enlightenment, or further discerning truth and reality. Granted, this includes the a priori assumption that an objective truth or reality exists outside of us—something that I think we must actually assume in order to move forward in any type of work. Science itself assumes that natural laws are knowable and stable; if they are not, we have no ability to measure and observe because they can shift or change. Likewise, if we want to refine ourselves and our understanding of life and reality, we have to assume such refinement is possible, which means there must be something outside the self to measure against. For some, that is the natural sciences, for others, God or spirituality. It can be ideals, dogma, or a code, but self-improvement is predicated on a rubric.

The interesting thing is that we often refine our rubric as we go . . . or at least, this INTP does. It’s kind of an INTP thing. I have come to refer to this attempt to understand reality and refine myself as The Great Work. In alchemical terms, the great work (or magnum opus) is the search for the philosopher’s stone. The philosopher’s stone is something you create (or another has created). The philosopher’s stone can lead one to immortality. Or, in the hermetic (and more metaphorical traditions), it is the pursuit of spiritual and intellectual transformation. It is individuation.

For my purposes, The Great Work is my attempt to understand reality and refine myself toward that understanding. It is the attempt to figure out if God is really there. It is the attempt to find that which brings me to life . . . that inspires me to move . . . that brings purpose and meaning. I struggle with all of these things. I joke that on my worst days, I’m a Nihilist; on my best, I’m an Existentialist.

This may not actually be a joke.

In my life, I have consumed many things that actually poisoned my attempt to refine myself. At times, these were consumed without much choice in the matter. But how we continue to refine ourselves is the key. I believe we can continue to move forward, though sometimes it may be hard.

And so, I may from time to time write about this journey, this Great Work. I will continue to research alchemy, to mine it for useful and essential elements to help bring together this artistic metaphor. I may try out theories as I develop them. This search may take years, and I may abandon the alchemy metaphor at some point. But, for now, this metaphor helps me create a framework for my search. It helps me organize thoughts, and allows me to embody them in a way that has previously been a struggle.

But the most important thing, at the moment, is that it is helping me to keep moving, to keep searching, and to keep hoping.


One thought on “The Great Work

  1. I love the artwork you found for this post; it depicts your quest, particularly within the framework of alchemy, beautifully! I’m glad that this framework helps you keep moving, searching, and hoping. Wasn’t it Josef Pieper who said that humans cannot be stationary, that living as a human means experiencing a continual journey of change?

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