In his book Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, Titus Burkhardt writes of the chemical marriage: the marriage of gold and silver, which is symbolic of the integration and harmonization of one’s spirit and soul. In the mythic language of alchemy, the spirit is characterized as male and associated with the sun and gold, while the soul is characterized as female and associated with the moon and silver. In this alchemical ideal of the marriage of spirit and soul, the spirit descends to the soul and the soul rises to the spirit.
Exactly what the alchemists meant by “spirit” and “soul” is not completely clear; a defensible interpretation is that by “spirit” the alchemist refers to that aspect of our being that articulates with words, plans and sets goals, makes judgments – the part of our being that we call upon for self-governance, that we deem as the seat of reason and rationality. By soul, the alchemist refers to all the other aspects of our being including appetites, emotions, and the place of dreams and imagination. In modern neurological terms, the spirit would be associated with the neo-cortex and the frontal lobes in particular, while the soul would be situated in the much older, in evolutionary terms, limbic system and brain stem.
The notion that the spirit should descend to the soul is quite foreign to Western spirituality. Generally, in the Western tradition, the role of spirit is to ascend. The spiritual realm is upward, celestial. The spirit governs the being, not through cultivating the ascent (and assent) of the soul, but by the repression of body and soul. Self-control and control of one’s appetites, emotions, and thoughts are the spiritual goal, and complete control the spiritual ideal, in much of Western spirituality (and also in the so-called Aryan influenced aspects of the spirituality of India). Spiritual asceticism becomes a method of attaining this ideal. There are writings in these traditions that speak of the tremendous embarrassment felt by males in having a spontaneous erection – the ideal of complete control demanded the control of even that.
The notion of the chemical marriage is quite similar to the integration of yang and yin in Taoism. Taoism, which has many similarities to alchemy, poses as a spiritual ideal not the peaks, but rather the valley. Lao Tse writes of the “Valley Spirit,” and posits a spiritual ideal not of upward rising tongues of fire, but the downward flowing of water. For the Taoist, that which rises will inevitably descend. In the ascent of the mountain, spirit seeks to leave the mess and chaos (that is so characteristic of the soul) behind. The Valley, on the other hands, collects everything into itself. The waters from the turbulent mountain cascades are roiled and muddied. Taoist contemplation does not seek to wrest spiritual clarity from out these turbid waters, but simply to come to a quietness wherein the waters of themselves become calm and clear. Then the clear waters will mirror the peaks.
A prominent Western myth is that of St. George and the dragon. In alchemy, the soul is often associated with reptiles, and such reptiles as the snakes that wind in the Caduceus of Hermes and the dragon in China are favorable creatures. Whereas in much Western spirituality the spiritual goal is to kill the dragon, in the alchemical and Taoist systems, the ideal is cultivate the dragon, which is to say, to cultivate the soul.*
The soul is the realm of Eros, to bring yet another mythic system into the discussion. Eros brings great pleasure, but also great turmoil to our life. For one who seeks self-control above all else, Eros is a bit of a snake in the grass. For one obsessed by such self-control, Eros is a dragon. For one who seeks to cultivate the soul, Eros is much as the myths portrayed him/her, a lovely but troublesome part of our being — a bringer of pleasure and depth, but also of turmoil and obsession.
It is in relation to sexuality that Western spirituality, and particularly Christian spirituality, seems rather badly to fail. That a significant portion or the Catholic priesthood, who have vowed themselves to chastity, are found guilty of rather perverse sexuality, may well be viewed by that priesthood as just further evidence of what a horrid and powerful dragon they are fighting, but from the alchemical point of view (and the Freudian), it is simply a mistake. While Eros, and the soul as a whole, is complex and troublesome, nothing in the soul is intrinsically bad – there is no weed in the garden of the soul that does not have a proper place and role within that garden. And a weed in its proper place is not a weed at all, it is a flower.
And here we return to a metaphor suggested earlier — the soul as garden and the spirit as gardener. The spirit descends to the soul and cultivates it — finds the proper place for each aspect of the soul to flourish. A flourishing soul is a fulfilled soul, a deeply content soul. A content soul fills the spirit with joy. And this is the reward and value of this form of spirituality – soulful contentment and spiritual joy.
* Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life is the title of a book by Thomas More. More’s writing is deeply influenced by the psychologist, James Hillman. Hillman has waged something of a one-man crusade to bring our restless spirits back to the soul, gaining allies like More, the poet Robert Bly, and Phil Cousineau along the way. Cousineau’s book, Soul: Readings from Socrates to Ray Charles, is a particularly informative and enjoyable exploration of the soul’s realm. Hillman was influenced by Jung, who was highly influenced by alchemy. Paganism, nature religions, and religions of the Goddess also in their various ways work for the re-integration of spirit and soul.
Thomas Schenk: “If asked, I’d call myself a Space-age Taoist, Black Sheep Catholic, Perennial Philosophy Pantheist, Dharma Bum. In other words I am a kind of spiritual and philosophical mutt. I’m not out to change the world, for I believe the world has a much better sense of what it is supposed to be than I ever could. But I do try to promote the value of the contemplative life in these most un-contemplative of times. Thomas is also the author of the naturalistic spirituality blog Golden Hive of the Invisible.