What is The Great Work?

Upon starting this blog a little mustard seed was planted in my mind, that germinated into a question. What exactly is this Great Work that I’m attempting? What will be my Magnum Opus? It seemed like a simple enough question at first, I knew the general outline of what it was I want to achieve. But as I meditated upon it, it quickly became apparent that this was no small feat to answer. Easy linear thoughts failed to capture my intent, nor could they coherently outline the end goal. How can one describe that which is ineffable? I want to know the truth about existence, how things came to be, the nature of consciousness, I want to glimpse that which Christ, Buddha, and so many other prophets tried to guide their disciples to. However, these vague platitudes hold very little applicable merit. Finding myself wanting, I instead set about researching the topic. What swiftly became apparent was that this is not just a personal failing, but a problem that some of the most prominent mystical thinkers have also buffeted up against. Their solution, allegory, myth, and symbol.

The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone (1771) by Joseph Wright

The first that comes to mind is that of Alchemy. Now Alchemy can be broadly split into two categories; Operative Alchemy, and Spiritual Alchemy. The former is a practical protoscience involving alembics and furnaces etc., the latter a lens by which we may attempt to speculate about and transform our lives. It is the Spiritual Alchemy with which we are concerned. In both cases, the goal is stated as obtaining or creating the Philosopher’s Stone, a substance that is a universal panacea, the elixir of immortality, and capable of turning lead into gold. The basic tenet’s (and please understand, I am truncating a whole tradition) by which the Philosopher’s Stone may be produced are “Solve et Coagula” or dissolve and reform, and “it takes gold to make gold”. In these basic parameters, we have our first symbol set by which we may begin to understand what the Great Work is and how we may go about attaining it. The Philosopher’s Stone clearly symbolises the end goal of our work and by its functions, we can deduce, at least in part, what we are actually seeking to attain. The ablation of all disease (you could possibly extrapolate this out to suffering in general), the conquest or victory over death*, and the transformation of the parts of us that are base and valueless into something valuable and divine. Further, we are presented with a modicum of the method by which we may achieve this. The breaking down and then rebuilding of parts of ourselves, and the introduction of that which is already divine.

*At a certain level, I think it is extremely difficult to escape the realm of symbol and this aspect of the Great Work is especially difficult to render in plain English.

The lightning flash of creation descending the Tree of Life from Kether to Malkuth

Now, I appreciate that this is not the most practical of advice. What the hell am I supposed to break down and rebuild anyway? This is where my bias enters into the fray (which I think is fair, the point of this post is to help explain the title of my blog). I have already embarked upon a process that professes to take an Aspirant at least somewhat of the way to completing the Great Work. This, as those of you who have read my previous posts will know, is “Kabbalah Magic and the Great Work of Self Transformation” by Lyam Thomas Christopher. This is a Golden Dawn derived curriculum of self-initiation. The Golden Dawn being a Rosicrucian, Hermetic Qabalistic magickal order. That is a lot of jargon, the keywords to pick out are Hermetic Qabalah. In order to unpick and explain exactly what Hermetic means would take a much larger essay than this. What is important to understand is Hermetic Qabalah with a “Q” is different to, but derived from Kabbalah with a “K” which is a closed Jewish mystical tradition. Qabalah is an emanationist tradition whose central symbol is the Tree of Life. Briefly, the Tree of Life consists of 10 spheres or Sephiroth (singular Sephirah), which descends from Kether (The Crown), the source of all things, the Godhead, down to Malkuth (The Kingdom), material reality. Each Sephirah represents an individual power or state of existence (also called an intelligence, which is worth meditating on). Alongside this, we have the Hermetic maxim “As Above, So Below…”, essentially meaning that consciousness is a reflection of the universe, the microcosm is a reflection of the macrocosm. So if we take that all of creation emanates from the source down through the 10 sephiroth to become our mundane waking reality, it follows that our consciousness emanates down from the same source to become our everyday egoic selves.

As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul…

-Hermes Trismegistus

So the Tree of Life gives us a symbolic road map back up to the Godhead. Going back to our Alchemical analogy, what we are breaking down and rebuilding is the parts of us related to the specific Sephirah as we ascend the Tree of Life. But how Luci do we commence this solve process? Ceremonial Magick. Specific grade work pertaining to the Sephirah we are working upon. At a certain point though, we complete the preparatory phase (what in the Golden Dawn was termed the outer order) the base metal of our being is taken to the point where “it takes gold to make gold”. This phase corresponds to the centremost Sephirah, Tiphareth (Beauty). We take the semi-refined version of ourselves, the best our poor wretched mortal minds can render and we ritualistically offer it up to the most high, the spark of creation that is ours and if we are successful that piece of Divinity meets us halfway. The Godhead stretches out a tentative hand and if we let it, leads us on up the Tree. I appreciate that my language as we have worked through this piece has steadily devolved into the territory of symbol, but, at least as far as this Neophyte can tell you, some of these processes are indescribable. This, as I see it, is the Hermetic Great Work spoken of so often in the western esoteric tradition. Also, it is enormously important to note that this is a seriously abridged description of the Great Work and implore those who have read this and found value to continue on and carry out their own researches.

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