On the Simplicity of Divine Prayer

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.

49 Days of Definitions

So I’ve recently been compiling all my notes, lore, and some of the most important rituals I use into a single text that, eventually, I’d like to send to be published.  Basically, I’m writing up my own grimoire for a modern Hermetic magician, and though I admit I’m still fairly new in my work and young as a magician (and a human, for that matter), I feel like I’ve got enough to at least get started, like an outline or something.  But seeing how I’m casting my eye on the possibility of having apprentices or even teaching my own set of classes, I figure having a core text written by me can help out those who might follow me.  It’ll be interesting, for sure, but I need to have something to provide besides giving teenagers some translations of Renaissance texts, however interesting that may be.  So, I figure I may as well provide some of the things I learned and started with.

One of the things that Fr. Rufus Opus starts off with are something he calls a set of aphorisms, more properly called the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”.  Those who are familiar with the Corpus Hermeticum (which, dear reader, of course you are or should be by now and you can read online here) will recognize the two names immediately, with Hermes Trismegistus being that thrice-great god-mage-prophet who founded the path of Hermeticism and Asclepius being his disciple, in addition to Hermes’ son Tat.  In this case, the Definitions would be presented from Hermes to Asclepius as another sort of Corpus Hermeticum, either a distillation of it, an addition to it, or something extra alongside it.  The Definitions are preserved only in an Armenian text from the 6th century AD, but likely originate in the 1st century, about the same time or earlier than the Corpus Hermeticum.

You can probably find the aphorisms online or elsewhere; the book The Way of Hermes contains an English translation, and you can easily find a PDF of it online (at least as of this writing).  The Definitions are a set of 49 more-or-less short but dense explanations of various parts of Hermetic philosophy, a little longer than the Kybalion but much more true to classical Hermeticism than that New Thought/Theosophical amalgam of early 20th century occult thinking.  Although it’d be nice if the aphorisms were broken down into seven groups of seven, they’re not; instead, the Definitions are broken down into 10 groups, some having as few as two aphorisms and some as many as seven.  The aphorisms themselves are pretty dense, and each deserves contemplation both on their own as well as with the other aphorisms, and it’s been a while since I reviewed them.  Like Alan Moore’s Promethea series, every time I go through them, I always pick up something new or something blatantly obvious stands out to me that wasn’t there before, and Fr. Rufus Opus himself said that these aphorisms should be regularly reviewed.

Since we’re at the tail end of another Mercury retrograde period, which is good to review old work, why not take this time to get a 49 day blog project going?  For each of the next 49 days, I’ll be posting one of the Definitions along with my explanation and contemplation of each, how I consider it and how I can apply it to my life and practice.  Feel free to join in with your own interpretations and contemplation; each of these definitions has a lot of meaning packed into each other, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s read these or has contemplated on them or similar concepts before.  I’ll probably start next Tuesday, November 12 to give me a few days to prepare and get the next few days sorted out (I’ve got another weekend trip set up this week), but in the meantime, find those aphorisms for yourself and take a look.  That’ll be 49 days of my interpretation of an ancient Hermetic text, lasting through the rest of 2013; you can consider it my Advent calendar Christmas present to you all.

They call me “Ol’ Snake-arms”

I like to consider myself a fairly responsible young male adult (whatever the fuck that means), generally speaking.  I mean, I graduated high school with top marks, went to a good university for computer science and engineering, got a respectable job with the federal government, and am progressing slowly in my quest for cosmic apotheosis and power.  I make a car payment and have finished paying the vast bulk of my nontrivial college loans in two years, and am generally doing well in the world.  Life is good, dear readers.

Of course, because I’ve been such a good student, son, colleague, and laborer, I’m taking a few more liberties with my life than I have before.  For instance, I got my first piercings (all three of them on my ears) about eleven months ago in late January last year, and got my first tattoo back in October.  Well, the thing about me is that I like balance, so I couldn’t just have the one tattoo on just my left arm, so I went ahead and got a second tattoo in a similar style done on my right.  A few weekends ago in November, I got the rod of the healer god Asclepius, the asclepian, on my right.

The caduceus (left forearm, two snakes with wings) is the wand of Hermes, and has its origins in the staves used by heralds in ancient Greece.  Mythologically, Hermes was given a golden wand as a magic implement and cowherding crook by Apollo as a symbol of their friendship, but was later merged with the symbol for heralds which was a staff with white ribbons tied on it.  Over time, the ribbons became snakes, wings were added to show Hermes’ divine nature, and the symbol eventually became the astronomical/astrological glyph for the planet Mercury.  The symbol generally refers to commerce, deception, trickery, language, trade, travel, and magic.

The asclepian (right forearm, one snake) is the staff of Asclepius, though its origins are debated.  Asclepius was the founder of medicine in Greek mythology, a son of Apollo, and had such skill that he was able to even revive the dead; since this was against the natural order of things, Zeus had him killed, but established him as the constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, placed near Libra and Scorpio.  A special breed of non-poisonous snake associated with the god and was used in healing rituals, and also were allowed to live and breed in temples to Asclepius.  A related symbol is the nechushtan from Hebrew mythology, the bronzed serpent on a staff that Moses made at the Lord’s direction to heal the Israelites from poison while walking in the desert.

I wanted the tattoos to have a kind of art nouveau, art deco, hieroglyphic look, with the caduceus looking more arcane or stylized and the asclepian more natural and earthy.  The two were always designed as a pair, the caduceus on the left forearm and the aslcepian on the right, and were designed by one of my college friends.  The only modifications I really made to the designs were the size of them so that they’d fit proportionally, but the sun disk (dotted circle with hexagram) on the asclepian was a last-minute change I added myself to the design, since the asclepian looked a little off without it.  The sun disk more closely associates the symbol with the sphere of the Sun, since Apollo is the father of Asclepius, and gives the staff a more ethereal look that I can dig.

In healing the tattoos, I used two balms I made from beeswax, olive oil, and miscellaneous herbs.  I used herbs associated with Mercury for the caduceus, and herbs associated with the Sun for the asclepian.  I rubbed the balms into the tattoo as it was healing (after the initial peeling phase finished) while reciting the Orphic hymns to Hermes and Asclepius, respectively, and holding my planetary talismans of Mercury and the Sun.  I had them introduced to the angels governing those spheres and the gods associated with the symbols, as well, and both Hermes and Asclepius were highly pleased with the work.  They’ve both left a good imprint on my aura and astral self, which I’m totally okay with.  The caduceus has already been gone over once, and shouldn’t need touching up again for a good few years; I’m headed back to Wild Style in a few weeks to get the asclepian touched up, and maybe get something else done (another tattoo? another piercing?).

Also, it’s annoyingly common for people to mix up the two symbols: the asclepian is the proper symbol of medicine, seen on many ambulances, hospitals, and professional health organization logos, though the caduceus is also seen on many commercial health logos and healthcare products.  The caduceus is also used for American military medics, which is more a symbol of their speed of service than the kind of service they do.  Having these tattoos on my forearms is kinda helpful for correcting people; whenever people get them mixed up, I can now clothesline them with the proper arm.