THE PREPARATION OF THE SECRET FIRE The Secret Fire, as well as being refered to as the ‘first agent’ — which we can understand as the first active factor, the first element necessary for the process to happen. It is a hidden fire, an inner heat. It is the invisible energy
The power of prayer lies in its ability to soften and attune us, so it is again related to receptivity. The second aspect of purification follows on from this and is a more active expression. It is simply commitment — commitment that follows a choice to actually do something. Obviously, here it’s not just a casual choice, like going for a drink or a walk; it is something more. It is a choice we have to make for ourselves. There is one consolation, though. The size of the choice we make always relates to the size of the purpose involved and choosing always releases energy. We choose, then the thing begins to move, quicken and flow.
Commitment here is also about recognizing the qualities we need to stay with the process once it has begun. Alchemists have emphasized these in terms of forbearance and patience, recognizing, as we shall, that we are tempered within the process itself, as part of the journey. We shall need all our resources as well as our humour on the journey — and we shall need to side-step self-pity, too. But most of all what we need is to be ‘one-pointed’: we need to keep our concentration. The process in an inner space it can be all too easy to take for granted. ‘Oh yes, it’s going fine,’ we say — and then we blow it. We come out of it, seduced by something incidental that passes as quickly as the distraction it creates, leaving us trying to get back into it again. As Thomas Norton affirmed, no doubt from experience:
“The mind must be in harmony with the work, and the work must be above all else.”
THE PREPARATION OF THE SECRET FIRE The Secret Fire, as well as being refered to as the ‘first agent’ — which we can understand as the first active factor, the first element necessary for the process to happen — is also called the Ignis Innaturalis; in other words, it is not simply fire as we would literally think of it. It is described as:
Dry water that does not wet the hands, a fire burning without flames …
It is a hidden fire, an inner heat. It is the invisible energy that sustains matter —and in us it is the energy or fire we build up in ourselves by being contained, by not leaking it out. So it is an ‘unnatural fire’, and the discipline it requires doesn’t come easily. Its nature is of a different kind and it recalls another key alchemical saying: `Nature can overcome nature.’ Like a taste, the secret fire has to be acquired. It has to he prepared, it has to be created — and its secret is in the act of will we make every time we decide, for instance, to work. The nature we overcome is whatever prevents us from doing that. As as result of this, the fire that brings us in to ourselves is a fire of meditation and contemplation, literally a ‘dry water’ and ‘a fire burning without flames’. We can also think of it as the heat that comes through a healer’s hands.
This fire is related to the Kundalini-fire
So it is an energy in the body as well as a state of mind. Meditation and contemplation are the active ingredients here: they bring us to a more central part of ourselves and allow a deeper energy to come into being. This, then, is the fire.
Take a moment to connect to the feeling of fire, or fieriness, in you. Where do you feel it in your body? Then see it. What does it look like? How do you feel towards it? What do you need to allow it more? Ask it.
Meditation and contemplation — an active opening up, mulling over and reflecting — are vital to any creative work, including this. We can’t really enter into the alchemical process without them — and in themselves they assist us every step of the way. They help us towards where we need to go now, which is into the flask itself: what alchemists call ‘the closed body of the house’. They help us to be still, to centre and to concentrate, and they help us to regain our balance when we lose it, clearing us of everything we take in from the outside, quietening and recharging us within. They give us back a sense of the shape and weight of ourselves, of our edges and the boundaries of our skin. So let’s go inside now, and take another step in.
Wisp already winter mist at the height of summer The ravens circling around the barren fallow field.
`In the midst of life, there is death.’ Alchemy, as its etymology suggests, begins in darkness. We have had a first sight of it already with the prima materia – and now it goes further, much further in and down into the night, a Dark Night. So the black fecund earth of prima materia, also referred to as antimony and described as nigrum nigrius nigro ea black blacker than black’), is taken forward here into a full-scale descent of the mind. This is the first stage of the Lesser Work: nigredo.
This descent, this dying, points inward into the body — inward and back into the physical ground of our being. Alchemists have a saying: ‘No generation without corruption.’ Or we could say no birth, or rebirth, without death. Death first. The essence of nigredo is a blackening and a putrefying, which is why it is also referred to as calcinatio (calcine: ‘to burn’) and mortificatio (literally, ‘to mortify’). It concerns primarily the death of the Old King or ego which he symbolizes (see p.32) and it takes place under Saturn, which, you will remember, for earlier alchemists was the furthest planet from the sun. Saturn as a planet is associated with lead — the nigredo is the lead. Saturn is also associated with the intellect or mind, as well as with form and structure.
So we are entering into a death of the mind in a place that is farthest from the sun — far from light and seemingly from hope, as the provocative illustration of the king suggests. Here the king, who in legend is called King Gold, is surrounded by a gang of alchemists in monks’ cowls with their clubs raised, poised to strike.