Every effort goes with mistakes
as fire goes with smoke.
Therefore one should not give up
the work that corresponds with ones nature
because it is full of defects.
The Great Work or Magnum Opus in Latin, is an alchemical name for the process which leads to the creation of the philosopher’s stone. It has been used to describe personal and spiritual transmutation attached to laboratory processes and chemical color changes, used as a model for the individuation process in psychology, and as a device in art and literature. It makes a ready model for the hard work of examining the self and improving it, which was my intention in exploring alchemy.
The alchemists often repeat that the entire work is only one process, requiring only one simple action. This action is named with different terms depending on the point of view one takes. It is called purification, washing, cleaning, warming, cooking, distilling and so on. Some alchemists put all those terms in a seemingly chronological order.
The magnum opus had a variety of symbols ad colors attached to it. The above symbol is the illustration of squaring the circle, used in the 17th century to represent the great work. Birds like the raven, swan, and phoenix could be used to represent the progression through the colors. The four basic stages were paired with a color; nigredo with black, albedo with white, citrinitas with yellow, rubedo with red. The symbolic language was meant to convey information, but to receive and understand this information it requires a different mindset than most people have in our modern society. It is not meant to be a quick process, for one thing, but it also requires a level of personal honestly, self examination and discipline that people often find difficult today.
Even in the beginning, in the Great Work was considered to be performed on the alchemist as well as the the materials he worked with. The Philosopher’s Stone is seen as the manifestation of universal spirit, present in all creation, and thus also in the alchemist himself.
“Almost everybody who has heard about the philosopher’s stone and its power, asks where it can be found. The philosopher always answers twofold. First, they say that Adam has taken the philosopher’s stone with him from Paradise, and that it is now present within you, within me, and within everybody, and that the birds of far countries has taken it with them. Second, the philosophers answer that it can be found in the earth, in the mountains, in the air and in the river. Now what way should one seek? To me, both ways; but each way has its own way.” (Michael Maier, 1617).
The necessity of having the alchemist properly prepared before engaging in the work is one reason for the symbolism and allegory. Mystery is important in alchemy. It serves a double function. Of course it protects the powerful knowledge from misuse by the uninitiated and unethical. But perhaps more importantly, it promotes a state of mind conducive to creative thinking, excites the senses to greater sensitivity and awakens the soul to nature.
In the words of Albert Einstein “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the art of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eye are clos
To preserve the mystery and all it represents requires a strength of character that must be developed before all things for the alchemist. But before one can build the strength of character to keep the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone one must be of sound body and mind. There are real reasons that alchemy developed a deep relationship with both physical and mental healing.
So how does a person begin the work? In many of the same ways people ordinarily begin to work on improving themselves. Firstly making a determination to do so. Then making an honest and careful assessment of the state of one’s body and mind. In undertaking the great work you will need focus, determination, physical energy and mental stamina. You will need discretion, honesty and openmindedness. You cannot be impatient. You cannot avoid the unpleasant when it raises its ugly head. But these things are far from unachievable and they are indeed part of the Great Work. To explore the higher levels of yourself and the universe you just need to climb slowly and carefully and take the lessons of the lower levels into your nature. Many have taken this path before and found the rewards well worth the effort.