Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law
Where do we start in magick? Usually, when we look, there was a seeding in our childhood or early teens that over the years unfolded into various explorations and expanded conclusions. The point I always return to personally was something that happened when I was thirteen.
I’d been raised in a middle-class English family that was nominally Anglican, which, I felt, left me in the middle of the middle of the middle, as far as the English social structure was concerned. Anglicanism (the Episcopalian church is its US equivalent) rarely rises to energised enthusiasm, the best efforts of C.S. Lewis notwithstanding. Nominal membership in a nominal religion was, therefore, akin to a kind of applied agnosticism: the big questions could remain unexamined, since you had a kind of religious insurance policy in case of emergency. But the basic creed of people like my parents, which was “I suppose there must be something there,” didn’t address any of the critical enquiries a curiosity-stricken teenager might have had. I was, therefore, living an unarticulated question.
Classical music had begun to entice me, seeming much more complex, serious and multi-leveled than the pop music that I also appreciated. My high school had a music society that each summer, before the term finished in July, organised a trip to a concert in London. That year, it was a Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
I knew Gustav Holst’s suite The Planets, but not his other compositions. The work I was to hear on that program was his choral work, The Hymn of Jesus.
I found the program note a bit perplexing, since it quoted Metternich (not the correct source) as the person who’d noted the alliance of “sublime mysticism and nonsense.” I read that the words came from the apocryphal Acts of St. John, which had been excluded from the New Testament because of its suspect theology. I know nothing about the Apocrypha, so the Acts of St. John was outside my awareness. Holst, with a pupil, had translated the original Greek (I hadn’t even known scriptures came down to us in Greek) and produced a text from what I later realised was a Gnostic version of the Last Supper. Here, Jesus and his Disciples danced in harmony with the heavens.
The heavenly spheres make music for us
The holy twelve dance with us
All things join in the dance.
And so on. Was religion allowed to do this kind of thing, I wondered? It almost sounded like … well, fun. I’d assumed mysticism was an irrelevance practiced by benignly spaced-out old men, never having heard of Teresa of Avila or Hildegard von Bingen. Where, I was compelled to ask, did such stuff come from?
The music begins with two Sixth Century CE Latin hymns, Pange Lingua and Vexilla Regis, sung quietly and almost a capella. I vaguely remember wondering when “the real music” would start, and after a short pause it did. “Glory to Thee, Father,” is declared fortissimo, and soon the orchestra has entered in full. The piece is emphatic, it’s rhythmic, then rhapsodic, awestruck, then emphatic again. I wouldn’t have put it this way, not for many years, but once the piece ended, I had the foundation of a personal creed. The ‘answer’ to religious questions isn’t a formula, not is it a belief. It’s transcendence – in Thelemic terms, ecstasy.
Becoming involved with Thelema requires learning special terminology, particularly on the Qabalistic side. But once the terms and the techniques have become second-nature (which can take a while), what comes to the surface is ideas and feelings dating from before any formal initiation. Thelema takes those ideas and feelings, gives them context and direction, and aligns them with the current of the Aeon. But it can’t, and doesn’t need to, provide substitutes for them. “…nor do I demand aught in sacrifice,” says Liber AL (I, v. 58), and that applies here as much as anywhere else. There’s no requirement to alienate ourselves from our roots.
While Thelema does involve a radical shift of the spiritual context and the experiential parameters, it’s often mistakenly assumed to displace all prior religious ideas. But Crowley, in the Book, was instructed: “Behold! the rituals of the old time are black. Let the evil ones be cast away; let the good ones be purged by the prophet! Than shall this Knowledge go aright.” (II, v. 5). We continue making use of things that serve our purposes.
I tried a few years ago to read the whole of the Apocryphal Acts of St. John, but didn’t find it to my taste. Holst, a man who knew his way around the elements of alchemy, and also the hymns of the Vedas, had found the real nugget in the text, and set it with near perfection. That performance many years ago cracked open a doorway for me, and without understanding what I was doing, but with some hope and relief, I quietly slipped through it. And, I realise, never went back.
Love is the law, love under will,
Hyn of Jesus