Temet Nosce

Piecing together the puzzle of mythology and the human condition

My Long Alchemical Engagement: Part 1: Digging In the Dirt

Posted on April 16th, 2014 by Thomas Ryan

Chamber of Reflection

“Chamber of Reflection” by Joseph Adams

Certain Masonic lodges include a preliminary mini-ritual preceding the initiation of an Entered Apprentice. In it, the candidate is seated at a desk in a small room called a Chamber of Reflection, an allegorical representation of an ancient initiatory cave. He is instructed to solemnly contemplate certain things of importance relating to the degrees which he may thereafter receive. The chamber is decorated with an assortment of strange, ominous objects and markings, one of which is an acronym formed from the archaic word for sulfuric acid, vitriol. The letters stand for the Latin, Visita interiora Terrae, rectificandoque, invenies occultum lapidem, meaning “Visit the interior of the Earth, and rectifying it, you will find the hidden stone.” This clearly shows an influence of the alchemical mystery on Masonic ritual, but puts it in the psychological context which Carl Jung found so useful. The “hidden stone,” or Philosopher’s Stone, represents illumination, or psychological healing. To “visit the interior of the Earth” means to search within oneself. Thus, the acronym V.I.T.R.I.O.L. is to Freemasons what the aphorism Know Thy Self was to the ancient Greeks.

Just as the alchemical process begins with digging in the dirt to collect the necessary elements, self improvement begins with introspection. When one encounters the same emotional problems over and over again, it is sure to have its genesis somewhere in the past. Understanding what happened and how it wounded you is the first step to healing the wound. Anything less just creates a scab waiting to be ripped open again. One must dig down inside oneself, find the source of one’s pain, and bring it to the surface where something can be done about it.

This is the point where I find myself now. Shall we have some music to work by?

Author as boy with father

Portrait of the author as a young boy, with his father

For me, it all started with childhood abuse. From the time I could first form memories, I was beaten and told I was stupid, ugly, and worthless. Everywhere. At home my father was a mad, ruthless drunk. My mother would set him upon me like an attack dog if I did anything of which she didn’t approve, starting with disagreeing with her. If I ever daydreamed out loud about what my adult life might be like, at any mention of a wife, my father would interrupt by taunting, “Who would have you?” At school I was an easy target, a geek, a faggot, anything they decided I was. Even in church (which was the same place as school for the first few years) I was written off as “Tom Trouble,” locked inside an empty room until I finished the homework I couldn’t understand, and pushed into fights by “friends” for their amusement. No place was safe. There was no refuge, except within my own mind, wherein I firmly held the conviction that I was being treated unjustly. I’ll say this for my Old Man: along with all the horrible things he taught me to believe about myself, he also taught me to question authority, and I started by questioning his. Still, the innocent child who should have been loved was instead left with perpetually open psychological wounds and no understanding of what real love should be.

Some people I’ve known in my adult life have noticed me go stone-faced when someone jokes about beating a child. Some have noticed me turn over every bill in my wallet and every coin in my pocket to a charity against domestic abuse. This is the reason why.

cartoon turtle

The last surviving doodle from high school: five incarnations of my cartoon turtle alter ego. (Yes, the damn thing had hair. Stay focused.)

During my freshman year of high school, I started noticing girls. Honestly, I noticed them moreso with my heart than with…you know…other parts. Perhaps that speaks to how much hungrier I was to be loved for real than to “sow my oats,” so to speak. But I had no frame of reference for what I was supposed to do about it. I started futilely trying to understand the word “love” by looking it up in the dictionary. Meanwhile, a few upperclassmen began to joke that I resembled a turtle when I walked down the hallway with my backpack slung over my shoulder. It became the running gag. I figured being mocked was better than being beaten, so I rolled with it. I developed the idea into an imaginary character of my own creation, manifested in absent-minded doodles and obsessively drawn comic strips, and it became a source of desperately needed security. I withdrew into a cartoon world where this anthropomorphic turtle had become my alter ego, clever where I was confused, protected where I was vulnerable, cool where I was awkward. I became so good at living inside this daydream that I failed at everything else. I wasn’t even informed enough to know what a GPA was, but I discovered that mine was 0.03 when it was already too late. Despite the fact that I was drawing every day, I even failed Art. Then, with about two weeks to go before summer vacation, I cracked. I put my head down in the middle of Biology class, sobbing, and couldn’t stop. By the time I was sitting in the counselor’s office, I was fine. Couldn’t even remember why I had been crying. In hindsight, my best guess is that it had something to do with my parents’ divorce, which was just starting around the same time. The counselor’s offer to disappear into a mental health ward seemed like an enticing vacation away from everyone and everything around me, so I took it. In the five weeks I spent locked inside the hospital, I heard stories from other patients that made me ashamed to feel sorry for myself.

Author as teenager

Portrait of the author as a skinny teenager contemplating his navel

The next school year, something in me was very different. I don’t know that it was a conscious decision, but I stopped taking abuse from anyone. I even stared my father down. But I was oversensitive and overprotective. That turtle shell had become figuratively real, and in some cases, literally. I made sheet metal armor to wear underneath my pants because the bullies had taken to sneaking up behind me and jamming their knees up into my thigh, just to watch me hop around in agony. Instead, I took satisfaction in watching them hobble around with a sore knee. Then they started tipping my books out of my hands so they could watch me scramble to collect everything off the floor. It got to the point where if anyone so much as bumped me in the hallway, I’d look around for the most likely perpetrator, jump on him, and start swinging. I didn’t care whether I had attacked the actual offender, I didn’t care whether I got the hell beat out of me–which I invariably did–all I cared about was making it clear that I wouldn’t take it lying down anymore. And the message got out. Pretty soon, people feared me more than they messed with me.

But it all lasted far beyond the need for it, even until now. I learned to keep my armor on at all times, lashing out at anyone who made the smallest offense against me. And all I ever protected was that wounded boy somewhere underneath, unknowing of love. Any love that ever came to me only cascaded around my armor like rain off an umbrella, never making it down to where it was needed. It has now become more hindrance than help, and I’m drowning underneath waves of pain and panic, trying to figure out how to get this armor off.

This clip from one of my favorite movies, Excalibur, is one of the most inspiring and poignant moments in the film. Perceval, of legend the most innocent knight of the order of King Arthur’s Round Table, has been wandering the wastelands for ten years in search of the Holy Grail, which is said to be capable of restoring health and life to his wounded king. But the Grail doesn’t exist on the material plane, and can only be found within the realm of Spirit. It isn’t until Perceval is forced to shed his knightly armor that the moment of enlightenment comes to him, and he is able to bring the Grail from the spiritual realm into the physical.

In doing this, he symbolically sheds his ways of war and conflict in order to come to an understanding of grace and peace. He is no longer a warrior. No longer a hero. Just a man. And as he says, he has nothing left but Hope.

This is the same transformation I must undergo. My wounds are protected by an armor of learned behavior that has been built up and tempered over decades, and they won’t be healed until I can rid myself of it. My alchemical process now has a clearly defined mission.

About Thomas Ryan

Tom Ryan is a Freemason of both blue and red lodges, including the Silas Shepherd Lodge of Research. He is the founder and primary author of TemetNosce.org.

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