Category: Spiritual Alchemy


A while ago I did a post “Tolerance is a nasty word“.

I was totally sincere – “tolerance”, I felt, holds connotations of disdain and pained patience.  We should approach other cultures, I explained, with acceptance and celebration.

A friend pointed out that “tolerance” implies different things to different people, and in our changing world this word now means something incredibly positive.  It connotes peaceful and respectful co-existence, paves the way for pluralism, and begins a process of understanding leading to acceptance and true friendship.

My friend spends his time helping people learn how this word – tolerance – is put to its best possible use in a remarkable country, Oman.

While most of the world is familiar with Sunni and Shi’a, the Omani Muslims practice a branch of Islam called “Ibadi” – open and friendly expression of freedom of worship.

One American business man living with his family in Oman said he felt more free to worship there than in the US, “We can still call the school’s Christmas program a Christmas program!”

Sultan Qaboos, the hereditary ruler of Oman, has been steadily improving and educating his country since he came to power in 1970 – helping his people heal from the scars and ravages of colonialism which have given fuel to terrorist groups elsewhere in the Arab world.  With universal suffrage, vastly improved infrastructure, and a growing economy Omanis elect representatives to work on their behalf in Oman’s Consultative Assembly.

Sultan Qaboos and the people of Oman have definitely taken the expression of tolerance to heart.

From Director-General Irina Bokova of UNESCO:

In a world of diversity, tolerance is a prerequisite for peace. It is also a lever for sustainable development, as it encourages the construction of more inclusive and thus more resilient societies that are able to draw on the ideas, creative energy and talents of each of their members.

 

Alchemy of the Soul

Hildegard von Bingen Liber Divinorum OperumImage from Wikimedia Commons

Hildegard von Bingen, Liber Divinorum Operum
Image from Wikimedia Commons

(Originally published a couple years ago)

What is Alchemy?

Is it the concentrated pursuit of magical wealth or godless immortality unencumbered by ethics?

The history of alchemy is filled with a host of charlatans, tricksters, and confidence men, but is also filled with some of the most astounding intellectual men and women in history.  From the remarkable fourth century genius Hypatia to Sir Isaac Newton, from the great abbess Hildegard von Bingen to the more contemporary Dr. Carl Jung, those who have sought the pursuits of alchemy are a varied and surprising lot; intellectuals coupling profound faith with rigorous rational thought.

Although having its roots in ancient Egypt and the traditions of the Prophet Enoch, alchemy continues into today including spiritual leaders and theoretical physicists among its current practitioners.

Alchemy is rigorous observation, experimentation, and application of the principles of creation, with the singular purpose of constructively applying the information learned.  An alchemist wants to learn how and why the world is the way it is, so he or she can apply that knowledge and become a better person–specifically, one worthy of Divine Grace.

Recognized as the forerunner to modern scientific methodology and the hard sciences, alchemy involves observations and experiments impacting the Three Worlds:  the world of higher spirit or enlightenment (Alchemical Mercury), the underworld of drives and passions (Alchemical Sulfur), and our physical world (Alchemical Salt).  This model of physical and spiritual exploration has been followed all around the world since the most ancient of times; one reason Alexander conquered Egypt was so he could procure the mystical Emerald Tablet written by the first alchemist Enoch, and he brought scholars from across the world to learn its secrets.

In the ancient world not only was knowledge power, it was also a threat, so alchemists couched their observations and findings in mystical terms, rebuses, and code so only their students and colleagues could understand their work (Alexander Roob’s work The Hermetic Museum:  Alchemy & Mysticism is an excellent resource for the wealth of visual imagery, you can read more about the book here).  One of the most famous of these is the intellectual giant Jabir ibn Hayyan, whose works on alchemy were so indecipherable to outsiders, with all his codes and inside references, we still use his name to signify something we are unable to fathom–“gibberish.”

The pursuit of knowledge for the sake of becoming a being worthy of salvation was symbolized in the allegorical pursuit of gold (Western alchemy) or the miraculous Panacea (Islamic alchemy); creating gold, immortality, or the medicine which could heal all ills is a metaphor for the Universal or Ideal Man the alchemist wished to become.

Gold and riches could also be pursued, but from a perspective described best by Luke:  “But rather seek ye the Kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you (Luke 12:31).”

One of the most astounding of Muslim spiritual alchemists was Ibn al-Arabi, whose doctrine of the Perfect Man is still referenced by Sufis and alchemists alike and his pursuit of the Oneness of Being remains profound 800 years after its writing.  A current alchemist is Dennis Willian Hauck , author of several books on practical alchemy, a pioneer in the field of Consciousness Studies, a teacher in the Alchemy Study Program teaching the ancient arts of alchemy to modern students, and Steering Committee member for the International Achemy Guild.

For more information on the history of alchemy and resources for today, please visit:

The Alchemy Website on Islamic Alchemy

Alchemylab History of Alchemy

Crystalinks History of Alchemy

Ed Reether’s The Nature and History and the Great Art of Alchemy

Islamset.com on A History of Muslim Pharmacy:  Arab Alchemy During the Fourth/Tenth Century

Medievalists.net on Islamic Alchemy and the Birth of Chemistry

The Mystica Encyclopedia on Alchemy

The Positive Path

Sacred-Texts.com on The Theory and Practice of Alchemy, from The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall

And a couple pinterest boards, here and here

Much more than the hopeless pursuit of the impossible by those without social graces, alchemy is a systematic and rigorous path of self-improvement.  The gold refined is the soul, a soul to be cleansed and readied for the purification of Grace:  a pursuit surely among the best of sciences.

Almost 10,000 people came to this year’s Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Saying it was huge would be something of an understatement.

It was wonderful and astounding, to see so very many people in one place – from so many varied backgrounds, ethnicities, and religious disciplines.  And all these wildly different people shared one thing:  every one respected and celebrated everyone’s right to follow their personal and unique path of spirituality.

Everyone is different, and all these 10,000 people met to celebrate and honor that difference.

One of the groups at Parliament, Pacifica, is made of volunteers inspired by the teaching of Imam Fethullah Gulen, from Turkey.  These folks choose to follow a path called Hizmet (or the “Gulen Movement”).   Hizmet is “service” in Turkish, and the Hizmet or Gulen Movement is inspired by Imam Gulen’s teachings on charity and love in the Qur’an.  Imam Gulen teaches that when a person is touched by God, it becomes his or her privilege to serve the Creator, and Hizmet groups set up schools, hospitals, emergency relief services, and other volunteer organizations worldwide – helping those in need regardless of the recipients’ religious affinity.  One of the many groups I met at this year’s Parliament united by a common bond of selfless service, I was particularly struck by Hizmet work in bringing education to those most desperately in need.

Here’s a short video from their presentation, sponsored by the peacebuilding initiatives of Pacifica Institute:

In addition to all their wonderful bridge-building efforts, another thing I like about Pacifica is their dervishes.  These young men, most 8 to 14 years old, work hard under the watchful eye of their teacher to show respect and appreciation for the best parts of Dervish Sufi tradition.  Historically the whirling is done to a two-step beat, and the dancer is asking for an inkling of the mystical presence of God.  I asked one of my friends in the troupe, a dancer named Hakan, how he could possibly keep from getting sick during the spinning.  “My teacher told me it helps to look at my thumb, and refuse to think of anything else,” he told me.  “I just look at my thumb and keep going.”  These young kids are wonderful to watch.

Dalai LamaIt was sad news – we were told the Dalai Lama could not make this year’s Parliament of World Religions after all, due to serious health concerns.  Sad because we would miss hearing him speak, certainly, but upsetting because of his illness.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with my daughters years ago.

The Dalai Lama had done something – spoken somewhere, responded to a serious concern, or something else – it doesn’t matter what he had done but it gave me an excuse for me to tell my daughters I thought he was wonderful.

“Why is he so special?” one of my daughters asked.

“Do you know anything about the Dalai Lama?” I asked.  The answer was, “Well, he sure smiles a lot.”

“The Dalai Lama is amazing because, unlike us, he keeps coming back after he dies so he can keep helping other people.”

“That’s reincarnation.  We don’t believe that,” another daughter said.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.  “He does.  He was so good that he had a chance to go to heaven, and he chose instead to keep being reborn so he could keep helping other people.”

“But we don’t believe in reincarnation,” she insisted.

“No, we don’t.  But the Dalai Lama does.  And each time he comes back his followers find him, help him remember who he is, and then he spends the whole rest of his life doing everything he can to help us – all of us – be better people.  He doesn’t need us to agree with his beliefs, he’s super nice anyway.”

My daughters’ eyes grew really big.  “That’s so cool!”

The Dalai Lama continues to be among the greatest and gentlest of men, whose strength flows from a place of heartfelt compassion for all.  As Christians we may not believe in reincarnation, but the point is the Dalai Lama does; he wears out each life caring for others, and keeps returning to do it again.

I love the Dalai Lama, and now my children do, too.

Fethullah Gulen, named one of the most influential Muslims in the world by Time Magazine, recently shared his views on the “Cancer of Hate” which ISIS represents.  He outlines six tools to remove this cancer:  denounce violence and resist victimhood, appreciate Islam (and religion in general) holistically and unite with peacebuilders of all faiths and backgrounds, actively promote the universal human rights of dignity life and liberty, actively promote education of the sciences humanities and arts, support religious education and dispel twisted religious ideologies, and strengthen/support equal rights for women and men.  ISIS is not a tool of religion but a cancer of hate.  Read the full article here:  http://pacificainstitute.org/2015/08/27/fethullah-gulens-article-on-the-wall-street-journal-against-violent-extremism/.

Love Is A Verb

Delivered as the keynote address for the screening of the documentary “Love Is A Verb” at the Salt Lake City Public Library on February 23 this year, I was also asked to share it again last night at the farewell ceremonies for a special group of Iraqi exchange students sponsored by the State Department.  They were saying goodbye to their host families in Helena, Montana; those 12 high school kids really give me a lot of hope for Iraq’s future.

*****

Several years ago 2 dozen men changed, in the blink of an eye, how an entire country viewed one quarter of the world’s population. Of course, I’m speaking of the tragic events of 9/11 wherein 3,000 American civilians were killed in moments.
In my shock at the devastation, I joined in with the rest of our country as we were led by a panic-stricken media to hate everything Muslim. We were reminded incessantly on the news of all the terrible things Muslims did and represented, and that they saw every westerner as an embodiment of all which is evil. Muslims and Muslim-owned businesses were targeted for destruction, people who looked Muslim or had “Muslim-sounding” names were bullied, and terrible things were done to Muslims in America under the guise of justice or retribution.
Luckily, this did not sit well with me. My own faith is one of the many Christian churches born during a spiritual revival in the early days of this nation’s history; at that time many of these new Christian communities were mistrusted and harassed by their neighbors because of misunderstandings and apparent strangeness. I also remembered that the media is not picky with its targets – even a young John F. Kennedy had to defend his Catholic faith as he began his run for Presidential office. Rather than be swept by the tide of fear I wanted to learn, and I decided to approach this faith with the same respect I hope others would use to examine my own.
I read the Qur’an, I read the Hadith, and I spoke with my neighbors who were Muslim. I emailed Imams, sheikhs, scholars, and laity from many paths of Islam, and from all around the world, asking questions about what they truly believed. The picture which emerged was astounding.
Islam as it is practiced today is a beautiful rainbow of faith, built on many of the same principles as my own beliefs. Muslims love their children and want to do good in the world – in the Qur’an it says, “And if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” (Qur’an 5:32) This and many other things I learned flew right in the face of popular media portrayal.
Wanting to share what I discovered, I came to the tradition of Asma al-Husna, or the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God. These are not names like “Roger” or “Mary”, but they are traits of divinity which help us appreciate God and the best portions of ourselves – names like Forgiving, Healer, and Knower. And I began the 99 Names Project to share my growing understanding and appreciation, wherein I am building glass sculptures responding to each of these Most Beautiful Names of God from my Christian perspective.
One of the first groups I contacted as I began my education is an organization of Turkish-American volunteers based in South Salt Lake called Pacifica Utah. They were very kind and immediately welcomed me, inviting me to all sorts of activities. After a while it dawned on me this was the weirdest of clubs – they seemed to exist solely to find excuses to be nice to their neighbors. They hosted visits from peacemakers of all walks of life and every faith; the attendees were a mix of every label imaginable, and all were equally welcome. And they were all eager to answer my questions.
Pacifica is one of many organizations which have spontaneously developed as a direct result of good-hearted people reading and listening to the teachings of Fethullah Gulen. This unassuming guide simply teaches the deepest truths of the Qur’an, which include such ideas as: All people are equal and deserving of respect; Faith is best expressed through kind and thoughtful action; Our differences make us unique but should never hide the fact we are all of the same family; The promise of Democracy is wonderful because it allows everyone a voice in an egalitarian environment; and Science and Religion have no reason for conflict because all truth comes from the same ultimate Source.
The people who hear Gulen’s words take on themselves the beautiful burden of the humble faithful – they wish to go about making the world a better place and serving their fellow beings without any regard to the nationality, religion, or ethnicity of those they serve. They call themselves the Gulen movement, or Hizmet which is Turkish for service. In a world of hidden agendas and ulterior motives, it can be disconcerting at first to work with people whose only desire is to do something truly worthwhile for another.
Where there is a disaster they are there with blankets and food, where there is mistreatment they show up with medicine, where there is need they build a hospital, where there is ignorance they build a school. Fethullah Gulen does not govern anyone or direct any efforts, he simply continues to share the truth of what he knows, and those who are able do good wherever they are. There is a beautiful truth in this, common among all faiths but so often lost to our jaded sight – when God answers prayers, many times it is by the hands of the good-hearted and faithful.
Named as one of the most influential Muslims in the world today by Time Magazine, Fethullah Gulen teaches Islam as Muhammed intended; from the Hadith: The doors of goodness are many…enjoining good, forbidding evil, removing harm from the road, listening to the deaf, leading the blind, guiding one to the object of his need, hurrying with the strength of one’s legs to one in sorrow who is asking for help, and supporting the feeble with the strength of one’s arms – all of these are charity prescribed for you. Even a smile for your brother is charity. (Fiqh-us-Sunnah, Volume 3, Number 98)
Compassion, charity, and love are the highest aspirations shared by the major faiths of the world. In my experience, these most pleasant traits are lived routinely by members of the Gulen or Hizmet movement, who share their belief and faith without pretense or pretension and show that love truly is a verb.
–Andrew Kosorok, 17 August 2015

Love Is A Verb YouTube Channel

League of ExtraordinariesThe 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions will be convening in Salt Lake, October 15 through 19.

People from every faith and walk of life will be coming, and some of the speakers look truly amazing.  In addition to the Dalai Lama several personal heroes will be speaking, including Dr. Tarik Ramadan and Dr. Arun Gandhi, with hundreds of presentations on everything from Secular Humanism to Wicca, and lots in between.  It will be an exciting week.

For more on the 2015 Parliament, check this out.

We hear the shrill cries all the time, but it’s rare that we hear the reasoned voice of a Muslim moderate.  I came across this article in the New York Times from Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish scholar and religious leader.  It strikes me how much his words echo what our founding fathers might say in similar circumstances:

Turkey’s Eroding Democracy

Over a year ago, I was asked to write a short piece about The 99 Names Project for The Fountain Magazine, a US-based arts and humanities magazine.  I did, they were super nice, and I didn’t hear back.  Then yesterday a friend emailed me to tell me they had published my bit, with some truly wonderful editing.  Although only the first two paragraphs are available without a subscription, they were cool enough to include the full audio of the article, read by a truly wonderful narrator.

Please check it out here.

Flammarion's Universum Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Flammarion’s Universum
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Tolerance.

Tolerance.

It sounds palatable.  Or, at least it’s been used by so many nice, well-meaning people we believe the word is palatable.

But it’s terrible.

Why?

When we tolerate something, we approach the thing from the perspective that we can’t stand it, or we wish it wasn’t there, or we’d rather it didn’t exist, we judge it harshly, or we hate it – but we’re willing to push down our rising gorge to assert our human dignity.  We throw a blanket over our disdain and hatred, so we can show how enlightened we are.  But the disdain and hatred are still there – and with “tolerance” we grit our teeth and endure it.

And the word “tolerance” somehow makes this acceptable.

Hatred and disdain will fester and breed like a rotting fungus when it’s covered and we pretend it’s not there.  Until at some future point we notice the lumps under the blanket are moving and swelling, and regardless of our worthy intent we can no longer pretend – and the festering putrescence erupts.

I know that’s graphic and gross, but this sad attempt at Homeric simile serves to illustrate my point – if we choose to ignore something by calling it a different name and claiming our behavior is enlightened, the thing is still there, and it can grow while feeding off our hypocrisy.

So what’s the alternative?

Respect.  Appreciation.  Admiration.  Celebration.

My neighbors and friends are different from me and unique.  Each one has his or her own history and life stories to share, and I can grow richer through enjoying their experiences.

With our kids growing up we did not want them to respond to difference with fear, derision, or hatred.  That’s not something for which there’s a switch, so we had to do something else.

We came across a wonderful calendar, which celebrated a different holiday from around the world for every day of the year.  Any day the kids wanted, we could look at the calendar and find something to celebrate – we made cookies for this holiday, paintings for that, an impromptu concert or picnic in the living room.  Each of us would try to find something out about the culture or the holiday and share it with the others – this was in the dark days before the internet, so the research could be tough.  One resource I like today is Earth Calendar, and there are many others.

One of my heroes is Rumi.  He taught, as he put it, the “religion behind religion”.  He recited stories and poems illustrating virtues celebrated by every faith around the planet, and his words still help folks from every background imaginable to find their own unique path.  His words help us become more the person we wish to be.

Another is Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr.  His book Islamic Art and Spirituality helped me develop as a Christian artist.  Another hero is Mother Theresa, another is Gandhi, another is Desmond Tutu.  Of course, the Dalai Lama – a wonderful person who has chosen to be continually be reborn rather than accept enlightenment, because he wants to help us be happier, too.

I am not Muslim, Catholic, Hindu, or Buddhist, but I celebrate these remarkable people and the wondrous lessons their lives continue to teach.

I doubt that would happen if I merely “tolerated” them.

Today is Religious Freedom Day in the US.  There will probably not be any speeches, picnics, or classroom celebrations.  However, that does make today a good excuse to kick tolerance to the curb and embrace difference.

I enjoy finding new things to respect, appreciate, admire, and celebrate about my friends and their histories, beliefs, and backgrounds.  Aside from making the world a much less boring place, the light of the sun seems to burn a little brighter and the stars seem happier when we celebrate, rather than merely endure.

I choose to celebrate.

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