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Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Great Work is a Thing Not a Catch Phrase

Amongst contemporary occultists it's pretty common for the words “Great Work” to come up randomly in every day use. It makes sense, The Great Work is a central and important theme in the Western Mystery Tradition. It's also pretty self-affirming. Referring to things we do as “the Great Work” makes it sound epic and important. It makes what we're doing sound like it has validity and meaning.

Unfortunately some of the quotidian use of the term belittles the meaning. Again, that feeling of importance makes people want to use it. We live in a world where we're encouraged to repurpose things to whatever our own personal interpretation of them is. Where we're told that we're special and so everything we do is special. So it doesn't matter what something means, or what it's purpose is all that matters is that we feel good and empowered by it. Right? No. That's bullshit and makes our lives full of weak sauce. As I've said in a bunch of previous posts though, that sort of attitude is kind of at the center of the motivation for a lot of people who claim to be magicians but neither do nor really believe in magic as a real and effective force in the world.

When people say things like “your particular Great Work” and mistake Great Work as a synonym for True Will it reflects not understanding at least one of the concepts. Another common one around magical groups is for senior members to say things like “we really did the Great Work today!” or “You all really contribute to the Great Work!” when they want to thank other members for sweeping the floor or washing glasses. As an officer of an OTO lodge, I will take a second and stress that it's super important for people to sweep the floors and wash dishes, or make food, or do all the other non-glamorous tasks associated with putting on lodge events, but, in most cases, it doesn't really connect to doing the Great Work. It connects to being a helpful participant in a community that provides support and friendship, and sometimes, guidance or inspiration. (In a way...this could bring it back doing the Great Work,but we'll talk about that in a minute.)

The Great Work is the process of perfecting the self through a series of refinements that deconstruct and rebuild the self, but this process only becomes the Great Work when your refinement starts refining and perfecting the world and people around you as well. Alchemy creates medicine in the sense that the result of alchemy improves the alchemist and world around the alchemist. The same way the perfection of the material undergoing the alchemical processes is reflected in the alchemist performing the process he also projects that process into those around him.

The Western Mystery Tradition involves this idea of improving the world through the work of the initiate in several of its various strands. The Kabbalah has the Tikkun Olam, or reparation of the world. The Kabbalist improves his soul so that he is able to find sparks of divinity within the depths of the world and free them through proper application of the observance of the laws of the Torah. The idea is to bring about the Messianic age by bringing the world closer to the state intended at the creation. So again, the Work involves making ourselves better so that we can make the world better.

Even grimoiric magic hints at this idea. We usually think about the grimoires as explaining ways to get spirits to go do stuff for us. But, a handful of sources reference creating redemption for the spirits by allowing them to work with us to do things in line with the divine order. So even in this case, while we're getting things done to help us and improve our lives, we're also reordering occult forces within the universe to reestablish the divine Harmony.

Throughout the Western Mystery Tradition we see this trend of engaging in actions which improve ourselves and the world around us. This is what the Great Work is. It's not just some random words. It's not just a way for us to feel good about what we're doing. It's what gives the work we do importance, the fact that it accomplishes something that has an impact bigger than ourselves. We shouldn't belittle that by taking meaning away from the words that describe this importance.

So sweeping the floors? Maybe it can support the Great Work. If you're doing initiations, or ritual work that helps improve you and the other people around you then you might be doing the Great Work, especially if you and the others involved take the work out into the world and make a difference beyond your group. Sweeping the floors and doing the dishes helps make that possible. So it's still support that's necessary. You're still doing something useful. Unless sweeping the floors is teaching you something or engaged as a transformative experience it's probably not the Great Work. But we do a lot of things that aren't the Great Work. We wake up in the morning, take a piss, shower, eat breakfast, brush our teeth, probably not doing the Great Work with any of that. But if we didn't do those things we couldn't do the Great Work.

When we know what we're doing we can focus on doing it more completely. When we recognize that value isn't just about what we call things but about what they do we can do what we need to do without trying to make it into something more epic than what it is.