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.

On Simplicity in Constructed Speech and the Occult

I’ve been interested in linguistics since at least middle school, when I took my first foreign language class.  It was a semester-long course in Japanese in my sixth grade, but unfortunately, the teacher had to leave back for Japan one or two months before the semester was actually over.  To fill out the rest of the semester, the school had another teacher come in and teach us the basics of Latin, for some reason.  For me, it was an awesome twofer!  That one semester started off a lifelong interest in languages, much to the chagrin of my mother, who wanted me to stick with Spanish or French because there’d be more money in that.  (I still do need to learn Spanish, of course, but for entirely different reasons than either of us would expect.)

However, my interest in linguistics didn’t just stop at learning languages and the methods of communication involving grammar and syntax.  I experimented with making a number of experimental constructed languages, also known as “conlangs”, and developed a number of writing systems for each of them.  Some of those writing systems eventually became used as ciphers for English, and one of those I developed back in high school eventually became my personal cursive/shorthand script which I still use to this day.  Creating languages and writing systems for a variety of ends has always been a hobby of mine, and it’s one that’s shared across many people of different streaks and creeds.

Chances are, dear reader, that you’ve encountered at least one conlang in your time.  Klingon as spoken in the Star Trek fandom; Orwell’s Newspeak from 1984; the elvish languages of Quenya or Sindarin, the Black Speech of Mordor, and the dwarvish language of Khuzdul created by Tolkein in his Middle Earth; the script of the Atlanteans from the Disney movie of the same name; the list goes on.  Plus, not all conlangs are meant as artistic projects for fantasy worlds.  There are a number of constructed languages, such as Esperanto and Lojban, which are intended as actual languages to be used by people on a day-to-day basis, often to encourage lofty goals of world peace or better and more logical cognition.  The conlang community has done some pretty interesting experiments when it comes to linguistics, and it’s always held an appeal for me and several of my good friends.

And yes, dear reader, there are conlangs in the occult world, as well.  The number of mystical or magical writing systems is just the start of it.  There’s the obvious Enochian of John Dee, which should be apparent to pretty much everyone, but there’re other constructed languages lesser-known across occulture.

One conlang is one I’ve known of for years and years now: toki pona.  As far as conlangs go, this is a special one marked for its simplicity.  Unlike other languages both natural and constructed, toki pona has only 120 words (when I first learned it, it only had 118).  A single word can have dozens of meanings, all semantically related depending on how it’s used.  For instance, consider the word “moku”.  This word refers to something related to consumption or digestion: to eat , to drink, to swallow, to ingest, to consume, to digest, food, meal, snack, something edible, etc.  In a sense, each word is a semantic category clarified by its use in a sentence, and not a single meaning.  The grammar is likewise very simple with only a handful of possible constructions (though, of course, with endless variations).

Why such a simple language?  The creator of the language, Sonja Lang, designed the language to be an experiment in testing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which can best be summed up as “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”.  Although strong forms of this hypothesis are generally believed now to be false, it’s still being researched to see how much language influences the way we behave and the way we think.  Lang (or, as known in the toki pona community, jan Sonja or “Sonja-person”) designed the language to be as simple as possible, even combining the semantic meanings of “good” and “simple” into the same word, so as to encourage a mindset and worldview focused on simplicity and dressing things down to a basic, simple means of existence.  The canonical example of this is that there is no word for “friend” in toki pona, but the way one communicates this is with the construction “jan pona”, literally “good person”.  A person who is good, especially to you, is known as a friend.  Thus, some constructions become illogical; a “bad friend” would be “jan poka ike”, literally “bad good person”, but a thing can’t really be good and bad at the same time.  Thus, if a person is bad to you, they probably shouldn’t be your friend.

One of the side effects of having such a linguistic structure is that toki pona is heavily dependent on context.  While you can take a paragraph of English text from any particular source, you can be fairly certain in a short time of what that paragraph is talking about and what kind of text it came from, be it chemistry, physics, literature, law codes, instruction manuals, comic books, or so forth.  Because of the generalized nature of toki pona, it’d be much more difficult to do the same, since unspoken (or previously-spoken) context plays such a huge role in toki pona.  Thus, toki pona utterly lacks finesse and nuance in words, and relies completely on context and (sometimes) lengthy constructions in order to describe something completely.  Then again, to describe something completely kinda defeats the purpose of toki pona.  The purpose is to communicate simply and to think simply; this is to speak well, literally “toki pona”.  To introduce more complexity than absolutely needed is unhelpful and makes what would normally be clear absolutely unclear, which is speaking poorly, literally “toki ike”.

Let’s bring this back to my life as a magician, shall we?  Why would a Hermetic magician, immersed in a cosmos full of complexity and correspondences and nuance and detail, at all be curious or appreciative of such a simplistic, simple language?  What good would a language that doesn’t even have a good means of describing numbers above 5 (and was never originally designed to have a words for numbers beyond “one”, “two”, “none”, and “many”) serve a person whose fundamental influences include the great mathematician-philosophers of the Mediterranean?  With an utterly small phonemic gallery of sounds somewhere between that of Japanese and Pirahã, how can I be served by such a language when my own Work requires subtle and exact descriptions of barbarous words of the gods?

It’s simple.  Complexity and nuance often doesn’t serve us all the time, and it helps to see things in a simple way.  toki pona helps to see the forest for the trees and not be overwhelmed by the individual leaves, especially if you’re nowhere close enough to actually enter the forest.  It’s a common-enough problem in occulture that we end up theorizing and extrapolating everything to an ungainly degree, insisting on artificial divisions of particular subsets of styles of magic, based partially on Aristotelian impulses for binning things and partially on the influence of fantasy divisions of magic into the occult.  However, if we end up theorizing and complicating things to the point where we can’t actually do the Work, then we’ve fucked ourselves over and paralyzed ourselves from getting anywhere.  For all the education, training, research, and meditation that goes into a ritual, the rite itself is the simple execution of a series of actions that may or may not have a particular result.  It’s the things we feel, the things we see, the things we experience in its most basic, vulgar form that direct, inform, and destroy our theoretical models.  After testing, the models should always be adapted to fit the data, as the data can only be interpreted in but so many ways to yield but so many models.

toki pona is a philosophical language, but it’s not philosophical in the sense of the great φιλοσοφοι or the rabbis of old.  Those who speak toki pona aren’t much interested in drawing the finest distinctions between abstract concepts, the division of a speck of dust’s width between two things.  We explain what happened in the simplest, barest of terms available to us to get rid of confusion and complexity and just come out with it.  To abstract away, justify, or obfuscate is really the same sort of action, much as how exaggeration and extreme modesty are two sides of the same coin of lying.

So, how would I be using toki pona as an occultist?  I mean, to those who’ve been reading my blog for a bit, I’ve already talked about this all before.  (I actually only remembered that I wrote a post just like the present one over two years ago on the same topic with many of the same points.  Herp derp.)  After giving it some thought, and after having gone through a few more experiences in the time since the prior post, I think my original idea from two years ago is still good: using toki pona for “the description of a desired state or outcome”, how things should be at their core.  I can talk about the planetary influences of the choirs of angels all day long and how they impact the sensations of my individual fingertips at different times of the day until the celestial cows come home, but it doesn’t change the fact that all I’m doing is emitting air and sound, especially when the topic is so theoretical and strained that it’s hard to make sense even in a well-described language like English or Greek.

I find that, as I get older and a bit more experienced (however little experience a few years can make), I get less and less interested in theory.  Sure, I will always keep researching and understanding different models of reality, and I’ll keep learning correspondences and the theory behind magic, but as I keep coming in contact with it, it gets dry and boring without the moist nourishment of action to apply it all.  Besides, it’s only in the application and results of this stuff that I get to see what theory is valuable and what isn’t; by testing these theories, not all of which should have been preserved from the ancients, I get to separate the wheat from the chaff and throw out the useless junk from the useful gems.  Invariably, as I understand the theories better, my rituals get simpler and more powerful, but only because of the work that’s already gone into them.  And, should I deign to go full-steam-ahead with the complexity and decoration and embellishment of a full Solomonic shebang, it’ll be even more powerful, but the need for that is limited at best and nonexistent at worst.

Simplicity works.  That said, simplicity is the highest form of elegance, and it’s working toward that elegance that takes much time and effort.  It’s a poor choice to separate out things at the start, when it should be by proof of demonstration that we come to know what’s necessary and what’s unnecessary, what’s able to be separated out and what’s able to be coupled together, what can be kept and what can be forgotten.  toki pona helps with that in a few ways.  I don’t expect to rewrite Agrippa’s Three Books in toki pona, but it will help in affording me another internal viewpoint to understand some of the things I do.

Simplicity, Language, and Ceremonial Magic

Simply put, never the twain shall meet.

I’ve got a big thing for linguistics, writing systems, and conlangs (constructed languages, like Star Trek’s Klingon, Tolkien’s Quenya, Disney’s Atlantean, etc.), which all have their definite place in ceremonial magic.  The mystical scripts I use to call spirits, the barbarous names of invocation, the seed syllables and chants and mantras, and having to translate works from one language into another are all part of the Work, if for nothing else than to get more information and context on a given topic or act.  As a hobby, though, it’s just plain fun.  When I was really little, I used to think there’d be a little goblin or tiny person in each person’s head, and when someone would speak to them in a foreign language, the tiny person would translate it into English for processing, or out of English into the other language for them to speak.

What?  I was a kid, like I said; it was a phase and I grew out of it.

There’s one conlang in particular I’ve liked for a while: Toki Pona.  It’s a minimal language, with only 120 words to use and an exceedingly simple grammar.  I’ve known about it for a number of years now, and still can translate the grammar in my head though many of the words escape me.  (I need to relearn this language, if only for the fun of it.)  It’s almost reductionist in how to say things: since there’s no word for “friend”, you need to describe what “friend” means (usually, a person who’s good to you).  English, with its huge vocabulary, can say things in one or two words what Toki Pona might take five or more: “enemy combatant” might be reduced to “a fighting person who’s bad towards you/your land”. That said, often enough the simplicity in making these statements and in communicating them makes up for its simplistic vocabulary.  It helps that there’s still a live and active Toki Pona community, too, both in forums and on IRC (though the original attempts at a Toki Pona book appear to have fallen by the wayside years ago).

One idle day, I was thinking about writing a short text about or of magic in Toki Pona, thinking it might be an interesting exercise.  I had to cut it off early on, though, primarily due to time restraints but also because of how daunting a task that would be.  Even though Toki Pona (literally meaning “good talk” or “simple talk”, since “good” and “simple” are the same word and simplicity is seen as good) is such a simple language, magic (or at least the kind of magic I work with) is decidedly not.  Given that it’s hard to describe “humans” as separate from “humanoid”, and how simple religious texts written in Toki Pona are largely unclear, talking about sephiroth and angels, the specifics of calling down elemental forces to charge objects or events, or how the placement of planets can affect the progress of a life or task is pretty much right out.  The size of the text would probably multiply tenfold, and would require dozens of pages just to lay out the first principles to describe what means what.

I mean, can’t we also see this happening anyway even in English texts?  I regularly bust out ancient Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, and Latin words and phrases to describe certain things or call them by their proper names.  Hell, it’s almost a trope that magicians use arcane languages, written and spoken, to achieve their ends, or at least to keep things a trade secret from the profane and vulgar.  When describing these ideas and forms, or Ideas and Forms, you almost have to introduce complexity and specification that defy simplicity; at least in ceremonial and qabbalistic terms, the only thing that can be accurately described as simple is the One, who is divinely simple; at that point, however, it doesn’t make sense to make any distinctions, where everything is One and One is All, and all language can be done away with anyhow.  After the One becomes (at least superficially) Many, already there’s so much complexity that 120 words just won’t cut it.

Toki Pona, as a conlang, has restrictions that normal language users don’t have.  Direct borrowings are very frowned upon, the one exception being proper names of people and places (which themselves have to undergo proper tokiponization to follow the phonetic rules of Toki Pona).  Invention of new words is right out; I recall the commotion when the inventor of the language added two words (from 118 to 120).  Hell, even ASL has a trick to point to an arbitrary space to use as a label for some object or referent, while (to my knowledge) Toki Pona has only one pronoun for such a thing (which can often be confusing even with proper context).  Given all this, I don’t think Toki Pona and ceremonial magic mix particularly well except for one important use: the description of a desired state or outcome.  This conlang is fantastic for describing how things are at their core, with as little subjectivity and as much clarity as possible.  Making sigils written from Toki Pona would be fantastic, as would describing statements of intent or will to be realized and manifested.  I haven’t used Toki Pona for that, but it seems like a very good application for it in magic.

What about you?  Do you know anything about Toki Pona?  Have you used conlangs or ritual languages in your work for specific ends, or do you do it all in your mother tongue?  What about written magic?