Trying to get back into a routine is rough when you’ve been out of it for so long. Between the job changes, house moves, seclusionary period of religious vows, and then a glut of partying and celebration at the end of 2017, I’m sure some of my readers can sympathize. None of that excuses me, of course, from what I should be doing, but a trial’s a trial, after all.
One morning this week was the first in a long time I’ve made myself sit down, meditate, and recite some prayers. Not many, given my lengthier commute than what I had back a few years ago, and given that I need to reconfigure my sleep schedule to allow for more awake time in the morning before work. But, yanno, it was enough for this morning. Admittedly, the prayers take some getting used to again, reciting them with the same focus, the same intent, the same clarity I recall I once had. But then, any skill left unused for too long dulls faster than an overused knife, so it’ll just take practice and repetition and applying myself. After a few days, I started to get that…silent Ring, that echo of the Hymns of Silence, back into my words. So even if it doesn’t take too long to sharpen myself, it still takes time.
Briefly, I considered maybe if I wasn’t doing enough, if I wasn’t incorporating enough elements to give myself that proper atmosphere. You know of what I speak, dear reader: that misty-shadowy-monochrome-occult, evidently-powerful, clearly-mystical ａｅｓｔｈｅｔｉｃ that we all idealize and fetishize in our Work. That perfectly-framed instagrammable/snapchattable/sharable #nofilter dark-room bones-and-herbs-strewn-about #tradcraft altar look that often sticks in our minds as both breathtaking and inspirational. So, while in the middle of a prayer, holding my book in one hand, I reached for the incense with the other—
I stopped myself. No, incense was not what I needed. What I needed was prayer, and that alone.
A few weeks ago, while trying to find an appropriate time for a feast day of Hermes Trismegistus, I recalled a specific astrological alignment used for…something Hermetic. After scouring through the Corpus Hermeticum and other Hermetic texts, I eventually stumbled upon what I was looking for in the Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, but there was another bit of text that, although unrelated to what I was looking for, stuck out to me and reminded me of the simplicity called for in spiritual works, especially that of prayer.
From the Asclepius (chapter XLI; Copenhaver translation, p92):
As they left the sanctuary, they began praying to God and turning to the south (for when someone wants to entreat God at sunset, he should direct his gaze to that quarter, and likewise at sunrise towards the direction they call East), and they were already saying their prayer when in a hushed voice Asclepius asked: “Tat, do you think we should suggest that your father tell them to add frankincense and spices as we pray to God?”
When Trismegistus heard him, he was disturbed and said: “A bad omen, Asclepius, very bad. To burn incense and such stuff when you entreat God smacks of sacrilege. For he wants nothing who is himself all things or in whom all things are. Rather, let us worship him by giving thanks, for God finds mortal gratitude to be the best incense.”
Let me unpack this by means of a parallel lesson I learned back in high school. Say you’re the subject of a king, and the king is coming to your village to pay a visit and hold court. All the local lords and nobles are coming, and all the subjects (high- or lowborn) are expected to present something to the king. What they present are not gifts; gifts, after all, are seen as a kind of favorable charity, but how could a subject give a gift to his king? The king already has a right to whatever his subjects own; a gift implies the bestowing of something that the receiver does not already have. No, it is absurd for a subject to give his king a gift; what the subject offers is tribute. Tribute is something given (yet not a gift) as well as an act of expressing admiration, gratitude, and respect to someone. A craftsman giving a delicately crafted timepiece, a farmer giving the best of his year’s fruit, a herdsman giving the fattest of his personal flock, an artist giving a fully-decorated manuscript are all things that can be considered tribute in this context; these are acts or offerings of their own labor, their own work, their own hands with which they express thanks to their king, who enables them to do everything.
Of course, you can’t just offer any old thing as tribute. No, it should be the finest example of what can you can produce, the most rarefied exemplar of skill and labor, and that which is suited to the tastes and needs of the king receiving tribute, as well as exemplifying the natural ownership of the king over his domain. In other words, proper tribute shows our respect to those above us that we are grateful for their support, patronage, guidance, and protection in the means that they themselves strive to attain.
In this case, Hermes Trismegistus is suggesting that prayers of gratitude are tribute to God, and anything else is simply extra and, moreover, sullying the pure act of prayer. After all, God is both transcendent and immanent of the world we live in; God already contains all things, all incenses and oils and blood-offerings and flowers. Why should we bother with these things then? Hermes would claim that to offer incense in prayer to God would be like offering fish to the ocean, or like giving a king a tributary offering of cattle, including all the shit and piss and vomit they make. It’s not that these things are unhelpful or without use to us, but they are of little worth to a king, and are so beneath him as to be offensive. Hermes says that there is nothing physical we could offer to God, because everything physical is already part and parcel to him.
If we shouldn’t offer physical things to God, then what should we offer? Hermes says simply: “let us worship him by giving thanks, for God finds mortal gratitude to be the best incense”. Just as subjects to a king offer tribute to express their gratitude towards and to show their abilities fostered by their protecting lord, we offer prayer of gratitude with our intellect and own internal divinity to show God, who gave humanity its intelligible nature by means of the Logos, our respect and thanks to him. We recognize our place and nature in the world, a unique intersection between the purely physical universe and the purely spiritual cosmos, and we remember our divine origins in God’s own being; we express thanks and gratitude, not to appease or placate God’s wrath, but to grow closer to him and his domain so as to rise above mere matter.
That’s another reason why Hermes abhors the use of incense in prayer to God. If we’re to ascend above this mortal coil so as to retake our divine essence and birthright, then why should we let those very same mortal, physical, doomed things continue to hold us down? As Hermes and Poemander say in the very first book of the Corpus Hermeticum (book I, chapters 20—21; Salaman translation, pp21—22):
[Poemander] continued, “If you have remembered, tell me, why are those who are in death, worthy of death?
[Hermes] replied, “Because the grim darkness is the first origin of one’s own body, from which darkness arose the watery nature, from which darkness the body is formed in the sensory world of which death drinks.”
“You have observed correctly”, he said. “But why does he who has remembered himself go to the Father, as the Word of God says?”
I replied, “Because the Father of all is constituted out of light and life, whence Man has been begotten.”
Poimandres then said, “The truth is: light and life is God and Father, whence Man is begotten. If, therefore, you realize yourself as being from life and light, and that you have been made out of them, you will return to life.”
Death and ignorance of the divine are intrinsic to physical existence and physical things, and of the things that are not physical, the opposite is true. Thus, to mix physical things in acts meant to focus on that which is purely divested of them (i.e. matters of God) introduces a measure of death and ignorance into them. Thus, not only is it sufficient to simply pray to God, but anything more taints such a pure act.
So, no. I didn’t need to light incense to pray. I never have, and I never will. Such prayer to God, performed with the full intent of prayer, is a complete and sufficient act unto itself that no addition could ever make more or better than my present, attentive, intentive, and intelligible Speech saying the divine Words.
Now, I will qualify this: there are times when incenses, oils, tools, and other physical materia matter for spiritual works or sacrifices to the gods, but note the context of difference here. With offerings to the theoi, for instance, it is proper to offer wine, olive oil, incense, and burnt offerings; they find these things pleasing, and to an extent they are either part of this world or part of the cosmos close to us where these things are useful and appreciated. Magical ceremonies involving the planets, them being physical-spiritual forces in our world, make use of colors and metals and incenses and herbs and whatnot to make their presence stronger here on Earth. But when we talk about prayer to God, who is completely above all and encapsulates all within himself? It’s a different set of rules and contexts, where there is nothing physical to do or appreciated, and the inclusion of physical things only acts as a distraction and delay. In a sense, it’s highly parallel to what the Buddha taught about meditation: you don’t need incenses or bells or Lululemon pants or overpriced crystals or ridiculously over-engineered sitting cushions. All you need is meditation, nothing more; nothing else will help you meditate than simply meditating. In the same vein, Hermes Trismegistus teaches in the Asclepius that nothing else will help with praying to God than simply praying to God.
And, to finish that off, what was the prayer that Hermes Trismegistus offered after his rebuke to Asclepius? This, which serves as an example of the type of intellectual reflection and deep gratitude Hermes Trismegistus propounded:
We thank you, supreme and most high God, by whose grace alone we have attained the light of your knowledge; holy Name that must be honored, the one Name by which our ancestral faith blesses God alone, we thank you who deign to grant to all a father’s fidelity, reverence, and love, along with any power that is sweeter, by giving us the gift of consciousness, reason, and understanding:
consciousness, that we may know you;
reason, by which we may seek you in our dim suppositions;
knowledge, by which we may rejoice in knowing you.
And we who are saved by your power do indeed rejoice because you have shown yourself to us wholly. We rejoice that you have deigned to make us gods for eternity even while we depend on the body. For this is mankind’s only means of giving thanks: knowledge of your majesty.
We have known you, the vast light perceived only by reason.
We have understood you, true life of life, the womb pregnant with all coming-to-be.
We have known you, who persist eternally by conceiving all coming-to-be in its perfect fullness.
Worshiping with this entire prayer the good of your goodness, we ask only this: that you wish us to persist in the love of your knowledge and that we never be cut off from such a life as this.
With such hopes and such prayers, let us now turn to putting it to practice with dedication.
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This is an excellent piece of writing on a vital subject. Thank you also for including the chunks of Hermetic texts – as someone who is just now dipping his toes into the Hermetica, seeing relevant chunks of that or related texts is an encouragement to push past the mental brambles of day-to-day life and actually read it.