Friday, March 25, 2011


I’ve been reading a lot of writings by and about Medieval and Renaissance alchemists and magicians. I was struck by something in Johannes Trithemius’ “Apologia”, which is a defense of his “Stenographia” and “Polygraphiae”, two works on cryptography that were viewed as demonic by the Church. He insists that his works are not demonic at all, and within the purview of Church doctrine. He deliberately hides the truths in his writing as codes, so that average folk won’t be able to discern their meaning.

Whether Trithemius’ writings are truly “occult” or not (I think the conclusion is that they are, especially since Agrippa was one of his students), the idea of hiding truths from “common people” is the thing of interest.

Since we are talking about “occult” things (and occult means “hidden”), you might think I’m re-stating the obvious. So, I think I should back up and talk about why this is of interest.

In recent years, a new theory of religion has emerged, suggesting that religion is a form of “terror management”. The unknown is frightening, especially the final unknown of what happens after we die. On the simplest level, we could say that believing in a beneficent being that will make sure we are happy after we die as long as we follow a set of rules is a comfort to many people.

Go beyond that—and consider that the God of the Western world is often fearful. We are warned that there are dire consequences for making certain choices, choices that God wouldn’t want. (Whatever those are—you often find that those choices are the ones that those giving the warnings wouldn’t make themselves). God Him/Her/Itself is something to be feared.

This leads to confusion and contradiction in most believers. How can a God who loves us also be so strict about punishing us for transgressions? Why would God “save” people in one form of religion and not another?

Welcome to the conundrum that is “popular” religion. This doesn’t just exist in the West; there are plenty of believers in the Buddhist faith that believe Buddha is a god, and that they will experience ill luck or a bad life if they don’t follow certain rituals. Et cetera.

Now, go visit a monastery or contemplative community. Talk with those who have renounced the world, or read their writings, and you will get a much less contradictory view of religion. The more you pursue your path, the more you realize that God isn’t a “person” at all—it is a personification of a Mystery. I run the risk of oversimplification here, but the bottom line is that “popular” religion is much different from “contemplative” religion. This is not news, and I’m sure I’ve blogged about it before.

What about all those rules? They’re designed to keep a social order within a specific community. Some modern communities like to borrow those rules. Some are obvious, like don’t kill or steal. Others don’t seem suited to the modern community—which is a problem if you’re Christian, since most churches take an all-or-none view of their rulebook, the Bible.

In any event, believing that “God” is the rule-maker, and trying to minimize your anxiety about the unknown, you may choose to simply go along with what you’re told the rules are, bending the smaller ones here and there because, hey, you’re human.

Now we turn to the occult. Just as your catechism class doesn’t teach you what the contemplatives will teach you, your Church is not likely to look kindly on occult philosophy—especially since it more or less says that most “rules” can go out the window (not that there are no guidelines for dealing with life successfully). As I mentioned in my last post, the Church was not necessarily opposed to the occult teachings; its problem was that the “untrained” would not know the difference between what is angelic and what is demonic. There was also the danger that magicians would use magic for material ends, and to control others (what Walker calls “transitive” magic).

Two things to think about here. First—occult ideas not only stand on the fringes of religion, they also stand on the fringes of science, without entirely belonging to either camp. Modern medicine and psychology are outgrowths of alchemy. But most religious clergy AND scientists today would reject occult teachings, either because they could lead to the “demonic”, or because they are “irrational”. The second thing to think about is the birth of religious literalism. Whatever other doctrinal issues existed prior to the 1500s, Biblical literalism became an issue AFTER that time, when you had both the printing press and the translation of the Bible into languages like English. Oh yes, and that minor event known as the Protestant Reformation. The authority of the text became primary, and the Church had the same objection to the masses being able to read the Bible that Lao Tzu had to letting the masses read the law—they would read it out of context.

Add to the mix the fact that most people have very materialistic aims—to make money, have a nice house, have a nice car, have some worldly prestige. Nothing wrong with this per se, but combined with a lack of understanding of either themselves or the nature of Consciousness, and it might not be difficult to imagine why “occult” knowledge is preferred to remain “occult”. There is less of a danger of being possessed by any outside demons (though their existence has been assumed since at least the 12th century in Catholicism, and long before that in some form), and more of a danger of being possessed by the inner ones.

The occult spiritual path is designed to bring a direct experience of the Mystery, and to bring the magician knowledge. It has to be approached with full understanding of oneself, and with humility. One does not have to deal with demonic evocation to be a magician, but one does have to be aware of their own demons. And we all have them, regardless of religion or non-religion. They are part of the mind. If one isn’t willing to do the work involved to prepare, then it should be left alone.

The secrets of the occult are the secrets of the Unconscious. It doesn’t take much to recognize the power of the Unconscious. Just think of a time when you were coolly moving along, and someone said something to you that made you burst into tears or get very angry and lash out. On a larger scale, think about serious addictions or obsessive behaviors that control the person, rather than the other way around. Whether it’s the personal or collective Unconscious, it still affects everything you do. It is good to explore it, albeit carefully.


LibrarianDave227 said...

Very well constructed, very informative and interesting. Is it possible to be spiritual and religious. I would like to think I can live in both worlds. But after reading this I tend to think more spiritual then religious. Thanks Brigid for making these great observations.

Chimp said...

Hey Brigid.

Do you believe "direct experience of the Mystery" is possible (and if so, why)?

"It has to be approached with full understanding of oneself,"

But that is impossible, on any terms I imagine, but certainly if you have no direct experience of the Mystery in the first place(unless it is not included in "oneself")?

"If one isn’t willing to do the work involved to prepare . . ."

What do you consider that to entail?

"It is good to explore it (unconscious), albeit carefully."

I think this might be overstated. I mean, I wouldn't advocate powerful measures like drugs or intense phobia immersion without some caution, but we have so many built-in safeguards against doing serious harm as a result of uncoscious exploration.

On the other hand, some of us don't really have the luxury of careful exploration, as our unconscious inundates us, and we have no choice but to reckon with it. It happened to me, almost ten years ago, and I still don't really have a handle on what is going on.

Brigid N. Burke said...

Hello, Chimp--

Good questions. I think the "Mystery" can be directly experienced--often without warning--but almost impossible to describe in a meaningful way. I've had my own experience of the "Mystery", and if I try to describe it to people, the general response is "so"? It sounds like nothing at all when you describe it. But it also comes down to how you define "Mystery". I think of science as having lots of answers about how things work, but it doesn't remove the "Mystery"--if you contemplate how everything is, how many layers, and how much is beyond your comprehension--that, to me, is the Mystery.

"Full understanding" may be overstated, because I think you are correct--we never fully know "ourselves". That said, a certain awareness of our own tendencies--the ones we often project onto others--is important to have. If someone believes all their weaknesses are someone else's fault, they probably should proceed in such matters with caution. In any spiritual path, it's the blind spots that get us.

What the "work" entails probably depends on the person. There does need to be a commitment to self-discovery, whatever that turns out to be. I was once told that magical initiation involved getting rid of "baggage"--as one progresses through the levels, more and more baggage is dropped, making you much less encumbered when you cross the Abyss. But exactly what that means will vary from person to person.

If you've been inundated by your unconscious, then that's a tough thing indeed--you would have to decide if you want to (or if it's possible) to gain some kind of control, or to simply flow with it. That hasn't happened to me, so I don't think I'm qualified to comment. I do agree that most people have a lot of safeguards built in--there are times when I think I have too many. Like the $500 deadbolts on my house doors--they do the job, but they're probably overkill. That said--you hear a lot about people reaching out and experiencing something like "possession", because they are too vulnerable and don't realize it.

No easy answers--but I think there would be no journey (and maybe no life) if it were all that simple.