Time and time again, one finds references to alchemy, often in conjunction with the spiritual path. What, exactly, is alchemy and what does it have to do with the spiritual journey.
On a literal level, it is all about the quest for gold. Medieval alchemists kept trying for the right combination of metallic elements that would produce gold.
On a much more subtle level, alchemists had as their motto: “As above, so below.” They believed that if they could ever figure out what process was involved in producing gold, then they could apply those same principles toward producing psychological wholeness and spiritual unfoldment.
The alchemists had a profound effect on medieval spirituality. For example, Notre Dame and Chartres cathedrals, among many other cathedrals, were designed in accord with alchemical principles. Another future posting will explore these connections in detail.
What the alchemists came up with – when stripped of some of their arcane symbolism – was a system of spiritual growth that is common to the deepest insights of all world religions. The alchemists spoke of six stages of personal transformation that are common to all spiritual paths.
Stage one does not seem to be a stage at all. It begins with feeling lost. At this stage of the soul’s evolution, all certitudes vanish. Old formulas do not seem to give answers anymore. One feels lost, a stranger in a strange land, oftentimes a religious orphan.. This is a time for raw, naked trust, for faith, for hope.
The second stage, one that comes after this Dark Night of the Soul, is referred to by the alchemists as the “rise of Apollo.” Here an individual begins to get in touch with ones essence. One is now able to separate the dross from the gold, the authentic from the inauthentic. The world looks very different from before. Priorities are often turned upside down. One feel “reborn.”
The “immaculate” stage comes next. Here the person is able to penetrate not just to ones essence but to the essence of the universe. “God” is felt as a tangible reality, albeit a transcendent one. The person sees beyond forms to the immaculate essence of things. This stage is symbolized by the Virgin Mary or any other heavenly goddess.
Stage four is “betrothal.” Here one must not remain a spiritual virgin, so to speak, but enter into a spiritual marriage between one’s immaculate core and the other parts of the soul and of the personality.
Like any earthly courtship, this is often an awkward process. For example, it is extremely difficult for most men to “own” their feminine side. It is likewise a struggle, almost counterintuitive in nature, for a woman to “claim” her masculine tendencies.
The same, of course, goes for embracing one’s “shadow.” None of us likes to face the dark side of our personality, yet alone actually embrace this part of us. After all, we all have a certain public image that we would like to maintain of ourselves!
People who come through this fourth stage always emerge humbled, chastened, non-judgmental toward others. After all, we have faced and embraced the “not-yetness” of ourselves.
The fifth stage is called “affirming ones being.” Some force within- some would call it the “devil”- attacks us from within. We are, paradoxically, often attacked from without as well. This is a time for great courage and for resoluteness. We need to embrace the Christ within, the inner Buddha, as our true self, the face that we had before we were born.
The final stage is the materialization of spirit (incarnation) and the spiritualization of matter (resurrection). Just as we have begun to sense the higher stages of evolution, we realize that we are called, ultimately, to bring heaven to earth. Well, not really. For the universe has always been holy; it is just that now we see it in all of its charged grandeur. The task, then, becomes one of doing ordinary things in a holy manner, rather than doing holy things instead of the ordinary. The whole universe is seen for what it is: a manifestation of the face of the divine.
Next posting: Psychic Gifts and Spiritual Maturity
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