an Alchemical Quest


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Lecture 19
The Dream of the Cosmos
The Lunar and Solar Hero
The Great Work: Healing the Wasteland
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Voices of the Ancestors
A Unified Vision of Reality
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Lecture 12
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Rebalancing the Psyche: Integrating the Feminine Principle Body, Soul and Spirit
Lecture 11
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Love as the Pulse of the Cosmos: Reconnecting With the Divine Ground
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Seeing through the Veil: Reuniting Three Dimensions of Reality
Lecture 9
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Unexplored Dimensions of Consciousness
and The Visionary Experience
Lecture 8
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An Alchemical Quest
Lecture 7
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Healing the Heart: An Alchemy of Consciousness
Lecture 6
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The Sleeping Beauty - The Awakening of Instinct into Consciousness
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Rebalancing the Masculine and Feminine
Lecture 4
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The Dream of the Water: A Quest for the Numinous
Lecture 3
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The Evolution of Consciousness
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Jung's Septem Sermones ad Mortuos 
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The Relevance of the Visionary Experience to Culture  



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Lecture 8


University of Kent, February 25th 1999

Copyright © Anne Baring


Alchemy is about the creation of a relationship with the numinous. In a letter written in August, (20th)1945, Jung said that the main interest of his work was not concerned with the treatment of neuroses but rather with the approach to the numinous.
        We have grown so sick in our soul because we have lost the tradition of how to relate to the numinous. Alchemy has kept it alive for us through thousands of years.
        Alchemy is the process which transforms our understanding so that we can communicate with the numinous, so that we can respond to its longing to be known. It transforms our understanding from base metal into gold. It takes the prima materia of our consciousness which is so unconscious and creates a marriage between ourselves and this mighty energy of the life force. We are immeasurably enriched and transformed by this union, gaining a deep understanding of and relationship with life. Instinct can no longer act in a blind and unconscious way. Intellect serves life rather than trying to control it. Passion, while losing none of its power and intensity, is transmuted into a deep love of, a deep devotion to life that is inspired and guided by Divine Wisdom, the Holy Spirit eternally pouring forth the water of life.
        When I was twelve, I had an encounter with the numinous which gave me an experience of a dimension of consciousness that was utterly unknown to me. In the deep silence of space, I heard a voice speak to me. Those words opened the path of a personal quest. It has brought me here, to be with you tonight and I would like to share with you the story of the Dream of the Water.
----- A second encounter came through channelled messages received through a friend of my mother's. The messages began suddenly, one winter afternoon (February 1943) in New York when my mother, her sister and two friends had met to talk. Suddenly, although the sky was clear and blue outside, the window of the room was blown open by a tremendous blast of wind, accompanied by a roar of thunder. All cried out in fear and fell on their knees, awed by the feeling of a tremendous presence in the room with them. They were told to write down what they heard. Grieving over the slaughter in Europe, they asked what they could do to help the world and were told to follow their heart and deepen their understanding. They would be taught if they would listen.
----- These messages continued for some twenty years. They warned of a future catastrophe in preparation for the earth and said that this warning should be passed on to anyone who could hear it; if enough people could become aware of the danger and respond to the guidance trying to reach them from another dimension, the full force of the catastrophe could be mitigated or even averted. Repeatedly they urged us to follow the "Dream of the Water," and to find our way to the Holy Mountain. They also spoke of needing to look for a stone buried at the foot of a particular tree. At first my mother and her friends took these images literally and looked for a place of refuge from the impending catastrophe, even searching for years for a tree under which a special stone might be buried! Gradually it dawned on them that these images were metaphors for a state of being or state of consciousness which could be discovered and developed within ourselves. All this I absorbed and reflected on for many years. It was only when I began to study Alchemy and read of the "divine water" and the "water of wisdom" - the aqua sapientiae - that I realised they were referring to the potential revelation of divine wisdom that every one of us carries within our soul and to a process of transformation which would prepare us for that revelation.
----- At last, in this decade, when I came upon the image of the Tree of Life in the mystical tradition of Kabbalah, I knew that I had found that long sought Tree. I knew from the research for The Myth of the Goddess that the Tree of Life from earliest times was an image of the goddess. I realised that the Stone buried at the foot of the Tree of Life was an image of the lost feminine principle - known as the Shekinah in the kabbalistic tradition and Sophia in the Biblical one - and much later in medieval Europe as the Holy Grail. But it was also the "Stone of the Wise" - the philosophers stone of the alchemists. Over fifty years had passed between the first mention of the Tree and the Stone but I had never ceased to carry these images in my heart and to seek their meaning.
----- Like Theseus following the thread of Ariadne through the winding entrails of the labyrinth I have always followed the images and ideas which I felt were guiding me, attracting me to something beyond my present understanding. The Dream of the Water haunted me and the quest for its meaning led me to a first encounter with Alchemy through my study of Medieval and Renaissance history at university. Then to a journey to the East where I discovered the image of the Holy Mountain in Hindu mythology and in the teaching of Sri Ramana Maharshi. Later, it led to Jungian analysis and my training as an analyst. During this time, I met Jules Cashford and together we were drawn to write The Myth of the Goddess. Then, through a fascination with the image of the Shekinah, I was led to alchemy once again and to the dawning of a totally different understanding of life which may truly be called the Dream of the Water.
----- I discovered that many alchemists were kabbalists. My quest led me not only to alchemy but to the mystical tradition of Kabbalah which had once been called "The Voice of the Dove," and to explore the world wide mythology of the feminine aspect of God. In my view it is the rejection and loss of the feminine aspect of the divine in Judaism, Christianity and Islam that has led to the present ecological crisis and to the dissociation between mind and soul in the modern psyche. During the last four thousand years, as an effect of the emphasis of religious teaching on spirit and its neglect of matter, a deep fissure has come into being between spirit and nature. Alchemy is the art of bridging this fissure.
----- Alchemy is the art which unites our two natures: the king and the queen, the red and the white, sol and luna. It is the science which reunites us with the invisible ground of being which is the foundation of the phenomenal world. The Sacred Marriage is the age-old image of this mysterious union. 4000 years ago in the courtyards of the great temples on the banks of the Nile the Sacred Marriage of goddess and god was celebrated. The theme of the Sacred Marriage has come down to us in fairy tales like Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty, and in the Biblical Song of Songs.
----- At the heart of alchemical symbolism is metallurgy, or the art of transmuting metals, and the Egyptians were renowned for this skill. The word 'alchemy' comes from the Arabic word al-Kimia which to some commentators means "the preparation of silver and gold." For others that it means 'black earth'. The great obelisks which stood gleaming in the courtyards of these temples were once covered with electrum which was an alloy of silver and gold. But certain Egyptians knew how to apply this science to the soul; they discovered how to make an alloy of its two basic elements - the fiery gold of the masculine element and the volatile silver of the feminine one. The earliest alchemical texts were Egyptian and the sacred art of alchemy was transmitted to later cultures principally from the area around Karnak or Thebes in the south and Alexandria in the north.
----- The second theme at the heart of alchemy also has its roots in Egypt. This is the theme of death and regeneration - focussed on the great Egyptian myth of the daily journey of the sun-god into darkness and his return with the dawn. This ancient myth underlies the alchemical image of the death of the old king and his regeneration as the young king. The Am Duat or Book of the Netherworld tells this great story. The ram-headed god Atum - the dying sun - stands in his barge as it makes the descent into the underworld. At the prow stands the goddess Isis - the great magician - to protect and guide the sun-god. The boat becomes a serpent, able to move on land or in water. Isis can speak the magic words that allow him to pass the great serpent Apophis who is cut into 7 pieces. Midnight, the seventh hour, is the hour of transition from darkness to light. The King ascends on his barge as Chephri, the newly born sun. As the sun at the zenith he is called Re. It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of this myth.
----- It was transmitted to or appeared in Greek and Roman mythology as the journey of the hero into the underworld and his overcoming the great serpent/dragon/monster (Apollo, Hercules, Aeneas). Through the journey into the underworld and the encounter with the great dragon or serpent the hero assimilates the mighty powers of the underworld (the unconscious sphere of instinct) and gains insight, wisdom and the ability to heal.
----- A third great myth which, like the sacred marriage, was yearly dramatised in the temple courtyards of Abydos, in Egypt, tells how Osiris was murdered by his brother, Seth and how Isis, his wife and sister, went in search of the dismembered pieces of his body and restored him to life by fanning his dead body with her wings. So this myth tells the story of the union or reunion of the two aspects of the royal value, the union of sun and the moon, brother and sister, king and queen and the eternal regeneration of the god who personified the life force.
----- There is another aspect to this myth. Egyptian culture was focussed on the Ba soul of the deceased - the eternal, divine element that would enable the man or woman to live on after the death of the physical body in the Fields of the Blessed - the Fields of Ra. The rites of regeneration which celebrated the rebirth of the god Osiris also celebrated the return of the soul to the divine realm known in Egypt as the Fields of Ra - the starry ground of the cosmos.
----- The fourth theme of alchemy is the quest for a priceless treasure which is like a golden thread shining through the mythology of many ancient cultures. In Egypt it was Isis's quest for Osiris; in Sumeria Gilgamesh's quest for the Herb of Immortality; in Greece the quest is for the Golden Fleece; in the New Testament for the Pearl of Great Price; in 12th century France for the Holy Grail. Alchemy gives it many names: the Elixir of Life, the Philosopher's Stone, the Heavenly Balsalm, the Divine Water, the Quintessential Gold. Of the Water, the alchemists said: "This Divine Water makes the dead living and the living dead; it lightens the darkness and darkens the light."
----- The city of Alexandria was the centre of alchemy in Hellenistic times. The writings of Zozimus and newly discovered manuscripts show that from earliest times alchemy was understood as the art of psychic transformation rather than the literal transformation of metals into gold. The symbol of the alchemical gold was the circle. In images and symbols which have their origin in Egypt, the alchemical quest describes the process which transmutes what we are into what we are capable of becoming; transmutes us from base metal into gold, bringing us from a state of ignorance and fragmentation into one of enlightenment and wholeness. It gradually opens our eyes and our heart to an incandescent vision of reality. Alchemy sets this supreme quest in the context of a sacred marriage between the solar and lunar aspects of our soul: a union between our head and our heart, between the king and the queen, our rational consciousness focused through thinking, and our instinctive consciousness focused through feeling.
----- Finally, there is the theme of the divine individual who is personified for the whole culture by Pharoah (later by Christ) as the "son" drawing divine power from the goddess Isis or Hathor (later God the Father). Her power is symbolised by the uraeus or cobra on her brow (as well as on Pharoah's) - image of the immense power of the life force which is transmitted from the divine ground personified by the goddess to the individual who personified and embodied the royal value for the whole culture. (Hathor was identified with the starry river of the Milky Way). The whole culture drew divine power through Pharoah who sat on the lap or throne of the goddess. This image of divine son-ship was carried forward to the alchemist as the "son" of Divine Wisdom.
----- If we turn to Sumerian culture we find the great lunar myth of the descent of the goddess Inanna into the underworld, her three-day crucifixion there and her rescue or "resurrection" with the help of Enki, the god of wisdom. Behind these myths is the story of the incarnation of spirit into matter, its crucifixion or immolation there and its ultimate release or return to the light. This pouring forth of spirit into manifestation is held in the image of the Anthropos ( see Jung) as well as in the image of the dismembered Dionysus of Greek mythology.
----- From later Babylonian culture came the myth of the rescue of the lost element of divinity - the descent of Ishtar into the underworld to awaken her sleeping son Tammuz and bring him back to the upper world so that the life of the earth could be regenerated. In Greece we find the Eleusinian myth of Persephone's rape into the underworld and her return at the insistence of her mother, Demeter who threatened to destroy the life of the Earth if her daughter was not restored to her. This myth carries through to the Gnostic myth of Sophia in the early centuries of Christianity and was eventually transmitted to familiar and well-loved fairy tales like the story of the Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.
----- Turning to early Greek culture we find in the Pre-Socratic philosophers the idea that the "All is Alive" The "All" is full of daemons or invisible beings who are the agents of the invisible life force. In the sixth century BC. the Greek philosopher Parmenides (see booklist Peter Kingsley) founded a long line of shaman/healers who used incubation rites to make the journey into the divine realm. Apollo, "Lord of the Lair," was the god who presided over of these hidden rites of incubation - a god of healing and revelation.
----- Parmenides spoke of himself as "One who Knows" and tells the story of his journey through the yawning gates of the Underworld to his encounter with the goddess Persephone who transmitted to him the teaching he was to give to mortals on his return to their world. We can connect this image of the goddess with the later image of Divine Wisdom in alchemy who is the hidden teacher in the art of self-transformation.
----- The mythology of DESCENT (rather than ascent) to the divine comes from Egypt, Babylonia and Greece and was transmitted to the later alchemists. The path of initiation is through a descent into darkness. The light is found in the darkness. "Visit the interior of the earth," the alchemists said.
----- The early Greek philosophers, in particular Pythagoras and Parmenides, were links in an a very ancient initiatory chain of men and women. They were alchemists who knew how to make the descent into the underworld and the return. All true alchemists were healers and shamans. They brought through from their encounter with the numinous the laws for the right ordering of society, the right ordering of the human being - soul and body. They were also lawgivers. Everything was related to everything else by a system of correspondences that could be learnt and applied.
----- This tradition of incubation rites and direct communion with another dimension of reality was lost or obscured with Plato who discarded the tradition of shamanic experience as the direct way to Wisdom. The West began to lose the older participatory consciousness and the sense of the sacredness of everything. Philosophy became intellectual discussion instead of incubation and an encounter with the gods. The tradition of the earliest Greek philosophers was carried from Alexandria into the Egyptian desert and kept alive there for centuries by a small group of alchemists until their knowledge was transmitted to the Arab and Persian worlds. The later Arab alchemists transmitted the Greek and Egyptian inheritance to the medieval culture of Europe, particularly through the medium of the Moorish culture of Spain. The emphasis of this strand of alchemy was on medicine and healing and the study of the body. Immense learning of Arab alchemists. Their work was known to medieval alchemists like Roger Bacon and Albert the Great, and to later alchemists - Nicolas Flamel, Paracelsus, Gerhard Dorn. Alchemy in all these different aspects laid the foundation for the modern sciences of chemistry, biology and physics on the one hand and psychology on the other.
----- These different streams came together and created the knowledge of the sacred art of self-transformation that is the major theme of alchemy: the preparation of an immortal or subtle body, and the rescue or bringing forth of a divine element in man - the quintessential stone, gold, divine water or elixir, or flower of immortality.

"I swear to you that if you do this work properly, you will one day have a river of flowing gold" - Zozimus.

----- The image of Divine Wisdom is one of the presiding images of alchemy. For thousands of years the great matrix of relationships that underlies the phenomenal aspect of life was personified by the image of the Great Mother and later by specific goddesses like Hathor in Egypt. The Bronze Age image of the goddess was reflected forwards into the later image of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, the Shekinah of Kabbalah and the Anima Mundi of Plato and Plotinus, still later into the Holy Grail of medieval legend. The feminine archetype has always been associated with the image of nature and the image of soul - not soul as a dimension of our own consciousness but soul as the cosmic sea of being and the invisible matrix of relationships to which we belong, of which we are a part. In our modern secular culture we have completely lost this ancient concept of soul but alchemy kept it alive and carried forward the ancient participatory consciousness characteristic of earlier cultures.
----- I would like to read you this beautiful passage from the Aurora Consurgens (Marie-Louise von Franz, Bollingen) about Divine Wisdom:

"She it is that Solomon chose to have instead of light, and above all beauty and health...For all gold in her sight shall be esteemed as a little sand, and silver shall be counted as clay...And her fruit is more precious than all the riches of this world, and all the things that are desired are not to be compared with her. Length of days and health are in her right hand, and in her left hand glory and infinite riches. Her ways are beautiful operations...and her paths are measured and not hasty, but are bound up with stubborn and day-long toil. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her, and an unfailing light...He who hath found this science, it shall be his rightful food for ever... Such a one is as rich as he that hath a stone from which fire is struck, who can give fire to whom he will as much as he will and when he will without loss to himself."

----- Alchemy is about discovering the treasure of relationship with the divine ground of spirit. As we grow towards it, it comes to meet us. The longing for this relationship has to be acute, sustained and lived in everyday life as well as in the imagination. One of the keys to alchemy is the immense creative power of the imagination. "Imagination is the star in man - the celestial and super-celestial body" (Ruland the Lexicographer). It is through the imagination that we make contact with the invisible dimension of being - the mundus imaginalis.
----- The evolution of life on this planet has been a very slow gradient of ascent from unconscious matter to conscious spirit. The whole of humanity suffers because the increase of consciousness is so slow and laborious. Alchemy accelerates the psychic process which transforms the life spirit in us from an unconscious to a conscious state, revealing to itself, as it were, the divinity hidden within the outer form. It transmutes human consciousness from base metal into gold.
----- Alchemy defines three stages in the Great Work of transforming the soul and giving birth to a fully enlightened consciousness:

The Lesser Work: The formation of the White Stone. "The separation of the soul from the body." The birth of a new quality of consciousness. There are two stages of the Lesser Work.

1. The Nigredo
This is the state of blind suffering and ignorance before the dawning of awareness. The alchemists also called this state the unio naturalis meaning the state where we live from day to day, responding to events as they happen; where we believe we have control of our lives but are the victims of complexes and archaic instinctual habits which control us. It is the state where the king is in a kind of unconscious incestuous union with the queen; where our surface consciousness is unconsciously controlled by instinctual drives. The spirit is not awake in us, not free, but is the prisoner of archaic habits of behaviour and rigid belief systems. This muddled, unconscious, incestuous state - the unio naturalis - the alchemists also called the prima materia which is the psychic state that we start with. The Nigredo was symbolized by the raven. It is also associated with the helpless despair of depression which can recur throughout the process of transformation.
----- The melancholia and suffering of the alchemist reflected the anguish of the life force undergoing the travail and pain of being transformed: the alchemist suffers the process of transformation. The life force in him suffers, dies, rises again.

"The king's son calls from the Deep and says: "Whosoever shall rescue me and bring me to dry land, him will I reward with everlasting riches."

2. The Albedo - the second stage of Lesser Work.. "The spiritualisation of the body." symbol - the white rose, lily.
----- The Albedo signifies the dawning of the light of a new consciousness in the soul. The alchemists compared it to the gradual whitening of the sky after the obscurity of night. It is the stage of transforming the prima materia of the initial psychic state by repeated washings, cleansings, purifyings, burnings, repeated immersions in water that are part of the process which aims to free the gold of the life spirit from the rust or verdigris which cover it. The alchemists called themselves washerwomen and cooks. The Albedo is the stage when the soul is beginning to become conscious of the hidden spirit who is the secret agent of the whole transformational process. It is beginning to work with this spirit, to listen for its guidance, to recognise and transform its negative, destructive voice, to discover and heal its wounds, to fall in love with it and respond to it with trust and devotion. The symbol of the Albedo is the dove of the Holy Spirit and the white stone.
----- The danger of this stage is the attempt to "overcome" the body by repressing the instincts. Christianity fell into the trap of believing that the cultivation of the spirit required the mortification of the flesh or the sacrifice of the life of the body. The "devil" became the projected image of the vilified instinctuality of the body.

The Greater Work - the formation of the Red Stone: the creation of the "body of light." The reunion with the body and the union of body, soul and spirit. This stage is reflected in the Christian image of the Assumption of the Virgin - the raising of matter to spirit or the realisation that matter is spirit. In the view of Jung, for more than 1000 years alchemy prepared the ground for the dogma of the Assumption.
----- The integration of spirit, soul and body - recognising the body as an epiphany of spirit. The body has to know this and become aware of its divinity. Treated with respect and reverence. There is apparently no awareness in Christianity of the sacredness of the body, nor, not surprisingly, is there any in our culture. The body is the cosmos in miniature - as above, so below - carrying divinity in every cell.
----- The alchemists likened this final stage of the Rubedo to resurrection and to the reddening of the sky at dawn as the sun begins to rise, irradiating and warming the earth. Red-gold is the colour of the Rubedo and the red rose and the red stone are the symbols of the completion of the Greater Work.
----- The completion of the alchemical Great Work brings the experience of the full revelation of divine spirit as the quintessence of the soul and of the unity of matter and spirit. It is the awakening to the presence of the divine as guide, companion and friend, the formation of a relationship with the divine, and the final transformation of both king and queen so there is no longer conflict and enmity between them. The Rubedo announces the full awakening of the heart, and the creation of the body of light - the subtle or resurrection body. Body, soul and spirit are unified and transfigured in this experience. As a triune whole, they in turn are united with the divine ground of being - what the alchemists called the unus mundus. Joseph Campbell observed that spirituality is the bouquet, the perfume, the flowering and fulfilment of a human life, not a supernatural virtue imposed on it. Another symbol of the Rubedo is the phoenix; life is regenerated from the ashes of the old, unconscious life.
----- These phases often blend imperceptibly into each other and they are repeated over and over again in a process known as the circulatio as the three-fold union of body, soul and spirit proceeds, for there is not one awakening, but many, not one illumination but many. "Little by little and from day to day he will perceive with his mental eyes and with the greatest joy some sparks of divine illumination." (Gerhard Dorn)
----- The gradual creation of the treasure of reunion with spirit was an experience of great suffering on the one hand and illumination, wonder, and inexpressible joy on the other as the light of a new consciousness dawned. "No-one," the alchemists said, "may accomplish this work except through affection, humility and love, for it is the gift of God to his humble servants."
----- As they watched the matter of their own psychic life transform itself in the mirror of the alchemical retort, the alchemists experienced the immense mystery of what they were witnessing. They realised that they were assisting spirit in its own process of transformation, bringing itself to consciousness over aeons of earth time, leading its creation back to the source, the ground of being. They had revealed to them in a gradual process of illumination, the innate divinity of nature and all life processes; they saw that one divine spirit was at work in all forms of life and in human consciousness as well. They sought to bring to birth in themselves the hidden spirit that needed to be rescued from its buried, unrecognised state. In accomplishing this they became the sons of Wisdom, inheritors of the true philosophical gold. And they became the ministers, not the masters of the stone.
----- Every mystical tradition says that at the core of our being, we are one with the divine. We are one with the immensity we contemplate. And it teaches that the eye of the heart can only open gradually to awareness of this divine reality. The ground has to be well prepared to hold the numinosity of this vision and this preparation requires much time for contemplation as well as a deep participation in the life of the world. No aspect of life may be excluded. Each person's path is unique. There is no one way that is right for all. These words attributed to Christ give the quintessence of this experience.

"To the man who has re-membered himself, it can be said - Though he be a man in the world, yet is he higher than the whole region of the Treasure and shall be exalted above the whole of it. Though he be a man in the world, yet shall he be King with Me in My Kingdom; he is a man in the world, but a King in the Light. Though he be a man in the world, yet is he a man who is not of the world. Amen I say unto you; that man is Myself, and I am that man." From the Gnostic Pistis Sophia

*----- *----- * ----- *

----- Alchemy draws us beyond current definitions of masculine and feminine to relationship with the Ground of our being. This invisible yet immanent Holy Spirit is the flow of life in our veins, the flux and flow of our thoughts, our instincts and our bodily processes. It is an invisible matrix of relationships to which our lives, our souls, our bodies belong. What does it wish to accomplish through us? How can we learn how to communicate with it, to respond to its longing to be known?

----- What I have learned in the last fifty years is that:

Alchemy is an extraordinary process of transmutation, a return journey to the unseen dimension of spirit with the help and guidance of spirit.
Alchemy will take each one of us as far as our longing can reach.
Alchemy attunes our being to a hidden order of reality.
Alchemy restores the lost relationship between the human and the divine.
Alchemy reveals that we are at all times and in all places in the Being of God, and more than this, it reveals that we ARE the Being of God. There is nothing beyond or outside this Being. There is only one life which is the life of the cosmos and the life of each and all. We all help each other to attain to this realisation.
There is no death for consciousness nor does the matter of the body really die. Our purpose on this planet is to know this truth, and live this truth with every breath.

----- This, I believe is the revelation of the Dream of the Water.

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