Thursday, December 23, 2010


"Faith is crumpling and throwing away everything, proposition by proposition, until nothing is left, and then writing a new proposition, your very own, to throw in the teeth of despair." - Mary Jean Irion, Yes, World: A Mosaic of Meditation

This was the message that I received this morning from It was so interesting to read that I stopped and really listened deeply to what it might be saying. The part I liked best was the phrase, "throw in the teeth of despair." What a great image. But I didn't quite agree with the "throwing away everything." There is much to be learned and gained from the wisdom and experience of the past - from others, and from my own journey.

Instead of throwing it all away, I keep thinking of the word alchemy. I spent a little time looking it up this morning, and learned some fascinating things. First, a brief version of the definition:
"Alchemy, derived from the Arabic word al-kimia (الكيمياء, ALA-LC: al-kīmiyā’), is both a philosophy and an ancient practice focused on the attempt to change base metals into gold, investigating the preparation of the "elixir of longevity", and achieving ultimate wisdom, involving the improvement of the alchemist as well as the making of several substances described as possessing unusual properties."

Second, the way the process is viewed in four (or three) steps in the creation of a magnum opus, or great work:
"Magnum opus...The Great Work; mystic interpretation of its four stages:
nigredo (-putrefactio), blackening (-putrefaction): corruption, dissolution, individuation...
albedo, whitening: purification, burnout of impurity; the moon, female
citrinitas, yellowing: spiritualization, enlightenment; the sun, male;
rubedo, reddening: unification of man with God, unification of the limited with the unlimited.
After the 15th century, many writers tended to compress citrinitas into rubedo and consider only three stages."
I could draw parallels between some of those four stages and what has happened to me in the past few years.

The third thing of significance: "Carl Jung reexamined alchemical symbolism and theory and began to show the inner meaning of alchemical work as a spiritual path." This sounds like the action of the Holy Spirit in cooperation with our spirit:  grace and transformation.

And fourth, the use of alchemy in literature, including the Arthurian legends and even in Harry Potter. The one I recall best is Grimm's Rumpelstiltskin, with the words "spinning straw into gold." And that is how I feel about the experiences of the past four years. The aftermath has left me with a lot of straw, and I am trying to spin it into gold, with God's help and direction. Not literal gold, but something more precious. Katie's Endowment for Cancer Research, Katie's Comforters Guild, speaking, writing, various creative endeavors all have an element of alchemy in them. The alchemy is taking the difficult experiences, and the scars they have left, and allowing the transforming power of God - the Holy Spirit, grace - to turn that "straw into gold," burn the dross away, and leave something of lasting value and beauty.

Alchemy. I like that.


Mary Potts said...

I like it too, Karen. You absolutely ARE spinning straw into gold with all of your generous acts that other people benefit from.

Alchemy and the transmutability of elements is part of the thread in a novel I liked very much called "The Book of Mercy". It's an interesting read if you have the time.

Peace to you.

Allegra Smith said...

Alchemy has been since I can remember a favorite word. When I was teaching cooking I used to tell my students that while baking was chemistry, cooking was alchemy. I do believe that with all my heart. There is magic to be made in the kitchen when only your heart and your experience guides you to feed those you love.

Baking requires a precision of weighing even the water used, while a drop more of chicken juice as I call it, would never make that much of a difference in a sauce. And alchemy is what happens when people of like spirits raise a glass to toast the good fate that brings them together :)

Thank you to you and Gregg (and David) for being a part of our lives.

Elizabeth said...

Along with your many other talents and accomplishments, Karen, I would add brilliant philosopher.

Karen said...

Me too. It's a perfect word for what you are doing with your life in the aftermath of loss. "Straw to gold" is the perfect word picture, and your life is a testimony to your desire to make your pain amount to something useful. You have been such a help to me. Here's to a new year of God's work in us.

Laurie Brandriet Keller said...

You write beautifully. What goes on inside of you to generate such words is amazing. You are making the most of all that's been handed to you ... your strength is an inspiration. Merry Christmas to you and yours. xoxo.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully said. Peace to your heart this Christmas.

sophie...^5 said...

You are on a path, the right path for you and it feels/sounds like it's working. I hope that your connections to the world around you are making your path more clear. Carry on and we shall follow.

sophie...^5 said...

You are on a path, the right path for you and it feels/sounds like it's working. I hope that your connections to the world around you are making your path more clear. Carry on and we shall follow.

Tracey Axnick said...

Once again, I'm astounded at your wisdom, and how beautifully, yet simply you state the profound.