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“Paracelsus: Selected Writings”

Reading metaphysical texts from the Renaissance period is challenging, and the challenge is often compounded when the text is alchemical and symbolic in nature. For this reason, I approached this text with a little trepidation. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it much more accessible than I had expected.

In order to better understand the text, some basic biographical information may be helpful.

Paracelsus (1493/4 – 24 September 1541), born Theophrastus von Hohenheim (full name Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim), was a Swiss physician, alchemist, and astrologer of the German Renaissance.

He was a pioneer in several aspects of the “medical revolution” of the Renaissance, emphasizing the value of observation in combination with received wisdom. He is credited as the “father of toxicology”.

He also had a substantial impact as a prophet or diviner, his “Prognostications” being studied by Rosicrucians in the 1700s. Paracelsianism is the early modern medical movement inspired by the study of his works.

(Source: Wikipedia)

I won’t spend a whole lot of time discussing Paracelsus’ medical writings from this book. But I will mention that he seemed to practice a form of holistic healing, treating the body and the spirit at the same time to promote optimal results. This is an idea which I personally embrace. I think spiritual and emotional unease manifests in physical ailment, and vice versa. Anyway, that is all I want to say regarding the medical aspects of this text.

The alchemical selections in this book I found fascinating. Paracelsus explains alchemy as the symbolic purification of the human soul.

Man must bring everything to perfection. This work of bringing things to their perfection is called “alchemy.” And he is an alchemist who carries what nature grows for the use of man to its destined end.

(pp. 92 – 3)

For the Great Physician created the ore but did not carry it to its perfect state; He has charged the miners with the task of refining it. In the same way He enjoined the physician to purify man’s body . . . from which purification man emerges as indestructible as gold.

(p. 94)

Paracelsus believed that the next phase of human evolution would include an embrace of the mystical arts. He saw the next generation of humanity as one that would embrace spirituality and turn away from worldly trappings.

Know that man makes great discoveries concerning future and hidden things, which are despised and scoffed at by the ignorant who do not realize what nature can accomplish by virtue of her spirit . . . Thus, the uncertain arts are in such a state that a new generation must come, full of prophetic and sibylline spirit, which will awaken and direct the skills and arts.

(p. 132 – 3)

He then goes on to assert that God’s power is hidden within nature, and that it is in nature where humans must search for divine power.

For God has given His power to the herbs, put it in stones, concealed it in seeds; we should take it from them, we should seek it in them. The angels possess wisdom in themselves, but man does not. For him wisdom lies in nature, in nature he must seek it. His harvest is stored up in nature. Through nature God’s power is revealed to man, through nature he enters into his Father’s heritage, in wisdom and in the arts.

(p. 164)

Finally, in the era of Twitter and social media, where people are wont to write whatever they want with little or no thought, Paracelsus reminds us of the divine power of the written word.

The Scripture says: the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life . . . That is to say, the spirit which bears nothing but the truth in itself. If a man adheres solely to the truth in his writings, it is not mere letters that he writes; it is the spirit that he sets down in its truth, the spirit that is invisible in itself and that must come to us through the written or spoken word . . . But if a man does not write the truth, he writes lies; and the letter that is a lie kills. Therefore let any desirous of writing be careful to keep always to the truth, that he may kill no one. For to kill is forbidden under the penalty of forfeiting eternal life.

(pp. 165 – 6)

I realize that this book is not for everyone. But if you are interested in the metaphysical, it is worth reading. You can certainly see the influence Paracelsus had on later thinkers in the area of mysticism.

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Monstress: Issue #13

It has been quite a while since the last publication in this series, which is acknowledged by the writer and artist.

It’s been a very long break. Maybe too long, but I hope you’ll agree that we used the time wisely to bring you another arc filled with Sana’s extraordinary art, and a story that brings you deeper into Maika’s increasingly perilous quest.

Yes, it was worth the wait. The artwork is stunning and intricately beautiful, while the writing and storytelling are as impeccable as ever. I personally feel that women are doing the most creative work in this genre right now, and Marjorie and Sana exemplify the beauty and complexity that creative women are bringing to the world of graphic storytelling.

There are a couple short but powerful political quotes in this installment that I want to share.

In politics one must be supremely…flexible.

In seven words, this sums up the problem with our current political situation. There is no longer flexibility, and both sides of the political divide have become so polarized and hostile that nothing meaningful gets accomplished anymore. It has turned into an all or nothing game, where staunch opposition is considered a sign of strength. But Taoist thought tells us otherwise. Flexibility and the ability to move with the current instead of against it is a sign of true strength in a leader.

The people just want to feel safe…and believe their government is behind them.

If I had to try to identify the dominant paradigms in today’s society, I would have to say they are fear and a sense of insecurity. And while I believe that much of this fear and uncertainty is manufactured by the media with the intent of keeping people glued to the screen, the feeling is real and affects almost everyone to some extent. This is why people are turning to governments for safety and security, and why they are willing to sacrifice freedoms and humanitarian values in the vain attempt to allay their fear. Sadly, though, I suspect that they will find neither, and in the end will look back with regret on the choices they made.

Anyway, I’m glad that Monstress is back on the shelves. I look forward to the next issue.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 37” by Lao Tzu

Tao never makes any ado,
And yet it does everything.
If a ruler can cling to it,
All things will grow of themselves.
When they have grown and tend to make a stir,
It is time to keep them in their place by the aid of the nameless Primal Simplicity,
Which alone can curb the desires of men.
When the desires of men are curbed, there will be peace,
And the world will settle down of its own accord.

Wow! When I read this passage this morning, I was struck by how pertinent it is to our current paradigm. Our reality is dominated by complexity, the antithesis of simplicity. This global complexity only serves to fuel desire: desire for more wealth, desire for newest technology, even, ironically, the desire for simplicity.

How can we escape this situation and return to Primal Simplicity? I don’t think there is a simple answer. Complex problems require complex solutions. For myself, I have been meditating regularly, trying to live consciously and scale back, and minimizing my exposure to news hype and social media. Another thing I have been attempting to incorporate into my life is something I heard Anderson Cooper talking about on the 10% Happier podcast. Cooper said he has stopped multitasking and instead practices “monotasking.” It was so counterintuitive to the dominant thought of most people, myself included at the time, that it struck me as the obvious slapping me in the face. We think that multitasking will help us manage our time more efficiently, but it doesn’t. It only adds to the complexity that is overwhelming our society and our selves. We can all stand to simplify.

I am getting ready to go out for breakfast with my family. I will not look at my smartphone during that time. I will simply sit, eat, and share time with the people I love.

Thanks for stopping by, and please feel free to share any suggestions you have on how to move closer to simplicity.

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“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley: Creating Our Own Gods and Demons

This was my third reading of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. What struck me on this reading was just how rich this text is and how many layers of symbolism and metaphor is woven in to the story. As pages of my journal filled with notes, I realized that I faced the daunting task of narrowing down all my thoughts to a short blog post. After some deliberation, I decided to focus on the concept of humanity creating gods and demons.

The first thing to point out is how Shelley uses the term “creature.” It is specifically the product of the creative process, particularly from the mind. A creature, therefore can be anything which we as creative beings consciously create.

It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally at the panes, and the candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

(p. 34)

Throughout the text, I noticed that the creature is depicted as both godlike and demonic. That is because the things that our minds create can be both positive and negative, and often a combination of both. The issue becomes whether we allow the creatures of our minds to elevate us spiritually or drag us down to our lesser natures.

I will first provide an example of the creature as godlike, as a being described as both omnipotent, invincible, and in control of the future.

But to me the remembrance of the threat returned: not can you wonder, that, omnipotent as the fiend had yet been in his deeds of blood, I should almost regard him as invincible; and that when he pronounced the words, “I shall be with you on your wedding-night,” I should regard the threatened fate as unavoidable.

((p. 132)

The other thing I would like to point out regarding this passage is the tone of the creature’s proclamation. It almost sounds like how God speaks in biblical text. God speaks, and what he says comes into being.

Next we will look at a passage where the creature is depicted as demonic, particularly associated with Satan. Here the creature embodies Lucifer’s characteristics of persuasion and eloquence.

He is eloquent and persuasive; and once his words had even power over my heart: but trust him not. His soul is as hellish as his form, full of treachery and fiend-like malice.

(p. 145)

Near the end of the tale, Victor Frankenstein warns Walton about the dangers of creation, about how when we use the power of our minds to create our gods, we inevitably also end up creating our own personal demons.

Sometimes I endeavoured to gain from Frankenstein the particulars of his creature’s formation; but on this point he was impenetrable.

“Are you mad, my friend?” said he, “or whither does your senseless curiosity lead you? Would you create for yourself and the world a demoniacal enemy? Or to what do your questions tend? Peace, peace! learn from my miseries, and seek not to increase your own.”

(p. 146)

This parable in Frankenstein is an important one and pertinent to our times. Many of us allow the news, social media, and the plethora of mental distractions to create imagined threats, monsters, and demons that plague our minds. What we imagine ultimately becomes our reality. We should learn from Frankenstein’s mistake and not let ourselves create our own demons which will inevitably destroy ourselves and our world.

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The Power of Words in “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

It’s been a while since I published a blog post. I’ve been quite busy with work and travel (went to Spain, which was “fantastico”). Anyway, amid the craziness and busy-ness, I managed to read The Book Thief. My daughter had loaned it to me, saying that she loved the book and felt I would love it too, which I certainly did. I had seen the film, but as usual, the book was WAY better than the movie.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the narrative voice, which is the voice of Death. Omniscient narrators are nothing new, but Death as a character certainly provides a unique vantage point from which to tell a tale, particularly one set in Nazi Germany during WWII. The narrator exudes a strange sense of detachment and sadness, which if you are the Grim Reaper is probably how you would need to be. You would need to detach yourself enough to reap souls, but it would be cruel to do so without some feeling of sadness at the many lives cut short.

While this story is so rich and offers much to explore, I’d like to focus on the power of words as presented in the text.

As a writer, I am keenly aware of the power that words have. They are symbols that evoke images, sway opinions, enlighten, and mislead. When people say that the pen is mightier than the sword, what is actually meant is that words are the most powerful weapons anyone can wield.

Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. “I will never fire a gun,” he devised. “I will not have to.” Still, he was not rash. Let’s allow him at least that much. He was not a stupid man at all. His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible.

He planted them day and night.

He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany. . . It was a nation of farmed thoughts.

(p. 445)

The protagonist, Liesel (the book thief), loves books. But at the height of her despair, she has an epiphany where she fully grasps the power of words as tools to spread evil.

She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half.

Then a chapter.

Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better.

What good were the words?

She said it audibly now, to the orange-lit room. “What good are the words?”

(p. 521)

Words, like swords, are double-edged. They can cause immeasurable suffering, but can also heal the deepest wounds. This is why when I see people throwing words around on 24-news stations or on social media, I cannot help but feel concerned. If people would only pause and consider before reacting with words, we would avoid a lot of pain and conflict.

We all need to choose our words more carefully. I, for one, will try to be vigilant regarding how I use these powerful tools, and hopefully I can use them to advance society and humanity.

Thanks for taking the time to read my “words.” Cheers!

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“Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Six Pillars of Nonviolent Resistance” by Maria Popova

mlk

I subscribe to the Brain Pickings newsletter, and while I do not always have time to read all the thoughtful essays, I am spiritually and intellectually stimulated each time I do. This week’s installment included an article about Martin Luther King, Jr. entitled “An Experiment in Love: Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Six Pillars of Nonviolent Resistance and the Ancient Greek Notion of ‘Agape’” which I figured would be appropriate to read this morning for MLK Day.

Popova begins the essay by pointing out the spiritual traditions and philosophies that influenced King.

Although Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968) used Christian social ethics and the New Testament concept of “love” heavily in his writings and speeches, he was as influenced by Eastern spiritual traditions, Gandhi’s political writings, Buddhism’s notion of the interconnectedness of all beings, and Ancient Greek philosophy. His enduring ethos, at its core, is nonreligious — rather, it champions a set of moral, spiritual, and civic responsibilities that fortify our humanity, individually and collectively.

Popova then begins exploring the key tenets in King’s essay “An Experiment in Love,” which I have not yet read in its entirety, but suspect I will have to soon. The first quote that really struck me concerns how we treat those we oppose.

Nonviolence … does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.

This single sentence perfectly captures my present sentiment. I recently had to cut myself off from much of social media because of the toxicity that permeates it these days. I get the sense that social media has become a tool for people to denigrate those they disagree with through snarky tweets and memes that depict the opposition as objects to be feared or ridiculed. Social media, instead of bringing us closer together, has helped drive a wedge between us, and I refuse to expose myself to this any longer.

The other passage that resonated with me concerns physical and spiritual violence.

Nonviolent resistance … avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.

This tenet applies to the social media toxicity I mentioned earlier, as well as the divisiveness we are experiencing in the aftermath of a most contentious election. There is so much hatred and fear and anger and distrust directed at “the others,” that it has resulted in a violence that manifests physically and spiritually. We have found ourselves in a terrible place and as a society we need to move past it.

If our civilization is to survive, we need to transcend the “us and them” mentality and begin to see ourselves as one people, regardless of our differences. We do not have to agree with everyone, but we need to begin respecting everyone and treating everyone with dignity. If we don’t, we will cease to advance.

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“Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living” by Krista Tippett

becomingwise

I picked this book up while at the Faith in Literature conference, where I was fortunate enough to attend two conversations with Krista Tippett, as well as a luncheon with her. She was so inspiring that I could not pass on the opportunity to acquire an autographed copy of her book. It was promptly placed at the top of the “to-be-read” pile.

The book is basically a collection of her thoughts along with snippets of conversations with spiritual thought leaders, activists, writers, and poets from her radio show, “On Being.” She divides the book into five main sections: Words, Flesh, Love, Faith, and Hope. There is so much wisdom in this book, that it is impossible for me to do it justice, so I will just share a few passages and my thoughts on them. The first one concerns the power of stories.

They touch something that is human in us and is probably unchanging. Perhaps this is why the important knowledge is passed through stories. It’s what holds culture together. Culture has a story, and every person in it participates in that story. The world is made up of stories; it’s not made up of facts.

(p. 26)

I had a professor in college who specialized in Irish literature, and I remember him telling me that stories mattered. That has stayed with me throughout my life. There is power in stories and poems. They convey something about the human experience that cannot be expressed in a spreadsheet or a graph. It saddens me when I talk to people who say they never read fiction or poetry, because they don’t have the time or they only want to read “factual” books. These individuals miss out on something unique to the human experience, a communal sharing that our society desperately needs.

Growing up, I connected to the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s and did my best to carry the torch of social change. But after a while, I became disillusioned, and Krista captures what it is that has changed between the 60s and today.

A comparison was made with the 1960s, another moment of social turmoil, including many assassinations. A journalist said that he thought the difference between the 1960s and now was that even though there was incredible tumult and violence, it was at the very same time a period of intense hope. People could see that they were moving toward goals, and that’s missing now.

(p. 156)

It is hard to remain hopeful when we are bombarded with negative stories via social media and network news stations. I really make an effort to stay positive, but sometimes I can’t help feeding in to the hype. One of my short-term goals is to try to be more positive and hopeful.

I have always been fascinated by both science and mysticism, which is why the following quote resonates with me.

Both the scientist and the mystic live boldly with the discoveries they have made, all the while anticipating better discoveries to come.

(p. 186)

What I love about science and mysticism is that they both seek to illuminate the hidden mysteries of existence. There was a time when the mystical arts and the sciences were aligned. That changed for a while and the two were at odds. But lately, I see the paths converging again, and I think that it will ultimately be the unification of the scientific with the spiritual that will usher in the next stage of human evolution and ultimately save us from ourselves.

With all the negativity, divisiveness, and hostility that I have seen this past year, this book was exactly what I needed to shift my perspective back to the positive. Too often my cynicism kicks in, but Krista reminds me that there is always hope and that we should never stop striving to improve ourselves and the world around us. I want to close with one more quote that really captures the importance of this book, which I hope you will read soon.

Our problems are not more harrowing than the ravaging depressions and wars of a century ago. But our economic, demographic, and ecological challenges are in fact existential. I think we sense this in our bones, though it’s not a story with commonly agreed-upon contours. Our global crises, the magnitude of the stakes for which we are playing, could signal the end of civilization as we’ve known it. Or they might be precisely the impetus human beings perversely need to do the real work at hand: to directly and wisely address the human condition and begin to grow it up.

(p. 14)

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