As Within, So Without: the Alchemy of Good and Evil
November 2, 2020, Unitarian Universalist Church of Saco & Biddeford, Maine
In ancient Greece, the temple consecrated to the god Apollo at Delphi greeted travelers with the carved maxim at its entrance: “Know Thyself.” Those who sought the wisdom of the Oracle within the temple would be reminded of this each time they entered. Honestly, sometimes I wish this was still a thing at churches, or any public space! This is clearly going to be my future public works project when we can enjoy public life again. Who among us couldn’t stand to be reminded every now and then that often, it’s our own lack of self-knowledge that leads to some of our most regrettable decisions?
Now, the subject of good and evil always requires us to recognize that humanity is capable of deep cruelty, abuse, and atrocity; some of us here may, indeed, have experienced these very things at the hands of others. Each of us has within us the potential to be both oppressor and oppressed, even with the social identities at play that put some people more often in the position of one of those roles or the other. Each of us has experienced pain, whether emotional or physical, that was inflicted on us by another person or another group of people. This is a reality.
And at the same time, whatever our experiences or wounds, whatever our grief or sorrow, church is not a tool for us to use as a spiritual bypass to ignore the healing of that pain, even if it’s hard. Sorry to say, but we ministers don’t usually host worship in order to tell the people of our congregations that “we’re all doing just perfect! No work or self-reflection needed here, see you all next week!” Our literal job is to provide our people with spiritual fuel for your journey… and that presumes your journey—of self-discovery, of spiritual growth, of doing the work of justice in the world—isn’t over yet.
And sometimes, one of our more difficult tasks is to hold up a mirror to ourselves and to our congregations, and be frank with one another: “this is who we are right now; but is this who we want to be?” Those times can come as part of a ministerial transition; in fact, this is the sort of work congregations are regularly advised to do during interim ministries, but times of great national stress can also spark the desire to look inward. At best, this work is transformational. We help one another notice what we’ve been failing to notice for a long time; we recognize a community in our congregation who’s underserved and for whom we can be doing more, and that commitment becomes a tentpole of the ministry of the church. We can heal from old institutional wounds or systemic practices that, over many years, have created more harm than health. This is how we lay the groundwork for moving forward together, as a community.
But on the other end of possibilities, this work can become an exercise in denial or scapegoating. A new minister might become a lightning rod for community angst, or fingers might be pointed at “that one member who keeps starting fights.” We might blame this internal strife on the audacity to hang a Black Lives Matter banner, when in fact the cause is some members’ discomfort with conversations about racial equity. The culprit, in our mind, might be the shrinking endowment line item in the budget; but in reality, the trouble could be the congregation’s failure to notice an embezzling treasurer who happens to be well loved in the church. And in these instances, when our hypothetical community turns on itself in an effort to purge the evil in its midst, that community may be left in tatters once the dust settles. These types of—I’ll call them “spontaneous ecclesiastical combustions” because truly, they often do appear spontaneous—are evidence of our personal and communal shadow sides acting out.
Those of you familiar with Jungian psychology may already know the term “shadow side.” It’s tempting to describe it as a “dark side,” with the connotation of darkness as evil; but in fact, the shadow isn’t evil at all; but it is a hidden mirror image of our conscious self. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who originated the term, worked long ago in a specific context and although much of his work—like that of his mentor, Sigmund Freud—was problematic and has since been reassessed in the field of psychology, it was in many ways still formative to how we, especially those of us who grew up in the dominant culture, think about our own consciousness. As such, these concepts still have use, even if we question the scientific merit of Jung’s or Freud’s specific conclusions. Think of Jung’s “shadow” as being like the basement of the house of our psyche: the stuff that’s in there is still stuff that we own, that’s in our house. We still have that ancient rocking chair from Grandma down there, and maybe a box full of our old tax filings. Chances are, we’re not even aware of the whole inventory of what’s down there, and we’re not inclined to find out. The stairs are rickety, there are spiderwebs on the ceiling (which is way too low for comfort), and on top of that, we’re not even sure whether the light switch even works. Why even bother plumbing around in that dark, cluttered abyss? It’s probably haunted anyway.
This “shadow,” our psychic basement, is where we put away the things we don’t want to acknowledge as part of our conscious, awake, decision-making, “best” selves. Our fears, our hates, the things we’re worried are secretly, deep down, part of us: it’s all down there in our unconscious shadow basement. The things we observe others doing, whether it’s something we wish we could do, or something we despise and judge, or something that we’re afraid we, too, are capable of? If we have a strong reaction to it, something that matches it may well be hidden somewhere in our shadow basement. This includes many of the things we deride in others as selfish, lazy, ignorant, undignified, mean, or even evil.
But the process of addressing this mess in our basement really isn’t as easy as turning on the lights, doing a full Marie Kondo process, and getting rid of everything that fails to spark joy.
The things we own, but aren’t necessarily aware of, can still have a hold on us. Imagine a full tea service complete with cups and saucers that you inherited from a beloved aunt but haven’t thought about for years, yet if someone told you it was in your basement, you couldn’t bear the thought of selling it or donating it. This is how the contents of our shadow work, and sometimes our attachment to those contents can start running our behavior without our knowing it. You may have heard the saying from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: “what we resist, persists.” The trauma we stuffed down deep, the secret resentment we have for a friend who seems so easily able to succeed, the fear of our own failures—all of these things can trip us up in our ability to make wise, discerning, and moral choices.
So if we’re not even aware of it, how do we get out of this conundrum of being constantly thwarted by our own unconscious clutter and debris? How do we turn from evil toward good, if even our conscious choices for good are driven by feelings we might secretly hate?
It might sound surprising to hear that alchemy, that oft-maligned magical practice from the Middle Ages, might have some answers—or at least, some ideas for how to answer that question.
I’m not talking about trying to turn literal lead into gold here—not in the least because I don’t want you touching lead unprotected, that stuff’s toxic!—but what I am talking about is transmutation: the extracting of grand potential in the least of substances. In fact, even many alchemists treated the idea of “transmuting a base metal into gold” as an analogy for a more spiritual goal. Historically, the grand aim of alchemy was to perfect the human soul through transmutation: to reconcile and unify what were thought to be natural opposites within the cosmos and the self. Light and shadow, good and evil, fire and water, heaven and earth, were all viewed by alchemists and magicians as forces to be unified through a process of breaking apart those opposites and joining the pieces together to create something new. Even things which were in the Middle Ages thought to be binary polarities, such as “masculine and feminine,” were believed by alchemists to be something ultimately reconcilable; that is, not as binary as we thought. Of course, we now know that masculinity and femininity, far from being immutable opposites, are merely two points among many within the spectrum of light that is gender.
It’s worth thinking: what other constructs might we make an alchemical concoction from, once we break down those binaries and put together a new picture?
The alchemical process of solve et coagula, the dissolution and the joining together, was believed to be brought about through careful calculation, assiduous effort, and maybe a little consistently applied magic. By “magic,” I mean the power of our intention and focus, coupled with our use of tools and specific actions, to create change in the world around us. In magical circles, this idea is often described as “as above, so below,” or “as within, so without;” what happens on one plane of reality affects the whole of reality. This idea is nothing woo-woo or mythical: in fact, most of us here have probably practiced it! If you’ve ever worked hard to pick up a new habit, learn a new skill, or attended psychotherapy sessions, you’ve been involved in precisely this kind of magic. If the work you did in therapy changed your ability to handle upheavals in your life, you have practiced “as within, so without.” If the way you behave with your church community has inspired you to behave differently in the rest of the world, that’s the magic!
I do want to stress here that I’m not putting forward navel-gazing as a substitute for the practice of showing up for justice, equity, and solidarity. I’m only emphasizing that “evil,” repressed bad behavior, and ego-driven fear and contempt is not to be found solely outside our walls; it’s within us too. This interior pain that lives in our shadow self needs to become conscious in order to be addressed. Until then, it can do great harm. Think of the mistakes we all make with our behavior as individuals, when someone starts knocking over the boxes in our own psychic basements. Imagine what that might look like on a larger scale, or a more collective scale.
Nationally speaking, our last four years of being governed by a failed business mogul who bullied his way into office through sexism, racism, and misogyny, has been a collective shadow moment for the United States as a country that has failed to reckon with its own racist past, its embrace of predatory capitalism, and its disdain for bodies that aren’t cisgender, abled white men. Donald Trump is nothing if not this country’s raging white, masculine, capitalist id, given power and a 24/7 microphone. But our shadow need not be quite so obvious to still be harmful. Psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck describes the everyday banality of the unacknowledged shadow and writes,
“[Those I call evil] are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity. They worry about this a great deal. They are acutely sensitive to social norms and what others might think of them. They dress well, go to work on time, pay their taxes, and outwardly seem to live their lives above reproach…they are continually engaged in sweeping the evidence of their evil under the rug of their own consciousness…It is only one particular pain they cannot tolerate: the pain of their own conscience, the pain of the realization of their own…imperfection.”
I’m sure this description is conjuring to mind some archetypes for some of us. For example, conservative Christians who continue to insist on the righteousness of meeting in person, spreading the virus while calling themselves “pro-life.” But one of the important things to remember is that at times, that could describe anyone here: we all have moments we aren’t proud of and don’t want to inspect closer. We all have times we’ve made mistakes, missed the mark, done harm. Most of us could name many specific instances that make us get itchy with shame. These times don’t make us irredeemable people. These failures, these disappointments, don’t banish us beyond love and warmth and friendship. But Fr. Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest and ecumenical teacher, tells us quite pointedly: “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”
What puts us in danger is our own inability to venture down those rickety stairs into the basement and reckon with the feelings we’ve disowned, that we imagine aren’t part of us. When we believe that mistakes, imperfections, harmdoing, are all things we would surely never do or intend, couldn’t possibly have done because our intentions were good, we get embroiled in defensiveness when someone points out that in fact, we just did that. And that stuff in our psychic basement remains hidden away. And the more stuff is down there unaddressed, that paves the way for a spontaneous ecclesiastical combustion in the near future. The darkness down there isn’t inherently dangerous; but the things that could be lurking within it frighten us. But when we look at that psychic basement with the lens of an alchemist for whom even the basest, rudest material may be transmuted to gold, there is so much material for us to work with.
As we go through the boxes of our psychic basement, we’re sure to unearth some weird-looking candelabras, love letters from exes that make us cringe, maybe even some dried-up hairballs from our cats. The beauty of knowing ourselves—as the Oracle at Delphi might have advised—is that when our unconscious comes to consciousness, when our shadow comes to light at last, we don’t need to be ashamed of it; we can see it with the eyes of love. How and why did it originate? Did it keep us safe? Keep us motivated? Do we fear losing it because if we let it go, we may be losing a part of ourselves? And, most importantly: is it still serving us?
Each of these things we unpack is a piece of our own being, something we can’t remove with the surgical precision of a scalpel. To grow and move forward, the precision we’re after is that of the practiced magician whose tool is the solvent of the psyche, and who understands that the transformation of our inner world can create change in the outer world. When brought to consciousness and assured of our love, the contents of our basement gradually lose their power to drive our choices without our knowledge, and this allows us to choose differently. What can we do to love even this part of us, to be a radically Universalist God within our own spiritual universe and find love and compassion even for this shameful feeling, this horrible experience, this painful reminder of a past we’d rather forget?
This is the alchemical solve et coagula—the dissolution and coming together—that births a new, whole, healed self from our divided consciousness.
What divisions within yourself are longing to be seen, brought together, made whole?
What parts of yourself do you fear are beyond even the reach of the Love that holds all?
Those divisions, those parts, are what need your attention now. Within the alchemical container of your own margins, it’s time to reconcile these fractions, these breaks.
The world within the shadow is not merely something to be ignored, shunted aside; it’s something to meet and welcome with radical acceptance, to embrace and to acknowledge, with all the complexity we know exists. There is no monochrome here; every facet is beautifully colored, beautifully made.
This radiant spectrum, infinitely lovable, is already part of you; it’s just waiting for you to turn around and notice.
Turn, sovereign being, and know thyself.
Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams, editors, Meeting the Shadow: the Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature
M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie
Richard Rohr, A Spring Within Us: A Book of Daily Meditations