Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Starting my October talk in Toronto, I quoted Oliver Cowdery. Today he’s a largely forgotten figure, but in the 1830s he had almost equal status with Joseph Smith in founding early Mormonism. Writing in about 1834, he noted with wonder how the world had existed for the vast span of six thousand years, a figure that he felt should stagger the imagination of any thinking person.
Cowdery was using the chronology of the Bible still accepted by fundamentalists. His Scottish contemporary, Hugh Miller, was still two decades away from publishing his groundbreaking study of the timescale of real geology, Testimony of the Rocks, though the theories of Lamarck and Georges Cuvier about different eras of animal life had already been published in the early 1800s. Darwin, who didn’t discover evolution but figured out a means (natural selection) to explain how different life-forms developed over the aeons, published The Origin of Species in 1859.
The first reasonably accurate calculation of the distance to a star, 61 Cygni, was made by Friedrich Bessel in 1838, and afterwards it began to be appreciated just how physically immense the universe might be. By the 1850s, the term ‘light-year’ was adopted, and it became necessary to accept that as we gaze out at the stars, what we are seeing occurred years in our past. Fast-forward to the 20th Century, when better instruments and telescopes enabled us to discover other galaxies, and it became further necessary to realise that we are recording information about events that occurred millennia in the past.
My own father was born in 1905, and as a boy he knew elderly people who had been alive when Cowdery was, so it isn’t an immense leap to think ourselves back to those times. Still, the 19th Century marked a massive shift away from the scale of things Cowdery and his contemporaries had assumed. Previously, the six thousand years might not have been accepted by all scientists, but most tended to think in terms of thousands of years, not millions. We mostly still do – a million is a number our brains don’t grasp very well. But we accept that the known scale of existence dwarfs our ability to conceive of it.
The relevance to Thelema and Qabalistic philosophy isn’t hard to see. Initiation into the mysteries involves shifting from a psychological perspective equivalent to the Cowderian cosmos, and into the one that science was compelled to accept by the time Aleister Crowley began aggravating complacent people, in the early 1900s. That is, we didn’t simply shift the physical coordinates of our understanding, but were pushed into embracing a viewpoint that was orders of magnitude greater than the one where we started. From a psycho-spiritual conception where we could imagine ourselves organising all the information into a coherent, comprehensible whole, we ended up being overcome by the vastness.
My talk was about the sephiroth beyond Tiphereth, the central, Solar sphere on the Tree of Life. It’s in Tiphereth that we grasp – in outline anyway – how we’re truly the creators of our own life-experience, and that beyond what we think of as the defining fringes of our consciousness is a vastness that’s as daunting as the emerging immensity of time and space was to the Victorian era. The increasing influence of this sense of vastness is a crucial part of the experience of the next sephirah, Geburah, as we pare down our preoccupations and attitudes to their core; just as it is the inspiration for the rich experience of Chesed.
To Chesed is assigned the function of memory, and so the recollection of past lifetimes. The classic occult perspective is to see such lives as actual, but they could equally be viewed as symbolic. We have all come out of history, even if we don’t perceive it as personal history: a few generations ago our forefathers and foremothers thought and felt as Cowdery did at his Midwestern writing desk, and that perspective and the wrenching need to shift it impacted our own world and times. Knowing all that we have been is essential work in Chesed because when the next spiritual crisis dawns, we are required to relinquish all of it into the (in)famous Abyss, in the passage to Binah. The passage is doomed if we hold anything back.
Analogies can only be pushed so far in spiritual work, and eventually we end with something that defies verbal parallels. The key thing in the journey from magical practitioner to a truly initiated Adept to, ultimately, a Master of the Temple, lies in increasingly reaching out beyond the safely knowable to the shores of That which seeks to know us. Perhaps the analogy I’ve used here is easier to grasp if we work in reverse, back to a cosmos that had appreciably tinier dimensions and duration, and a personal God who’d started it all one morning. To the thinking mind, the concept is now indigestible.
But then, the Mysteries themselves are so. Whatever we can take into ourselves, there’s always a further shore and a greater Unknown beyond it.
Nor, so it’s said, is there any conceivable ending.
Love is the law, love under will.