This text is inspired by and adapted from the chapter on Radiation in “On Becoming an Alchemist” by Catherine MacCoun.
The gesture that transforms an ordinary magician into an alchemist is the willing sacrifice of all that has previously been attained. To achieve this gesture, two things are necessary: a strong personal desire and the means of fulfilling that desire. (There is no magic in renouncing what you don’t especially want or believe you can get). Should you decide to do so, it will be for a motive that is difficult to imagine until it actually arises. In this renunciation lies the philosopher’s stone, because you have to attain it before you can understand what it’s good for.
The choice to be made is not between black magic and white, selfish and unselfish motives, but between arbitrary magic and sacred magic. You will see from the Matrix of Alchemical Procedures that ‘Arbitrary Magic’ is the materia prima of this phase in the alchemical process. Its symptoms are apparent loss of magical powers or the will to do magic, and a sudden onset of humility. To abet, you must surrender. The product of transmutation is Sacred Magic. Arbitrary magic is a fruit of sovereignty. As Aleister Crowley said: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” You have learned to act on the authority of your own spirit without relying on any other source of confirmation or justification. You can bear not knowing whether you are good or bad, right or wrong. You have taken full possession of your human freedom. ‘Arbitrary’ here simply means that your magical deeds speak completely for themselves. You don’t defend your magic, you just do it.
When you renounce the power to manifest your personal will, you do so because you have come to desire something better still: the will of the Whole. The joining of human will to the cosmic will is sacred magic. Nobody can say what the cosmic will is. When we open up to experiencing it, the upper intention centres—word, thought and ideal—bow their heads in humility, spilling their reverence into the heart. This is how the heart becomes the philosopher’s stone.
Renunciation is not a once-and-forever done deal. It is a mysterious inner event that cannot be willed or forced, just as one cannot will or force the cosmic will to reveal itself. When renunciation occurs, it is at once a gift from and to the divine, a single gesture that moves both from and to. That mutuality is the hallmark of sacred magic. And to claim that it has happened is taboo, because it violates the integrity of that necessary humility.
Catherine MacCoun calls this ‘final’ phase of the alchemical process “radiation”, where most alchemical texts call it “coagulation”. This is because, she says, subjectively this stage is a lot more like falling apart than like coming together. “The sun doesn’t enjoy the benefit of its own heat and light, because all of its energy is radiating—moving outward. It is giving away every last bit of itself. Subjectively, the “I” of the sun—its core—is absolutely dark and absolutely cold. You can only radiate if you have forsaken the desire for every conceivable pleasure the spiritual life has to offer. You don’t get to feel bliss, to celebrate or even know about your own achievement. The attainment of the philosopher’s stone instead feels like a loss.
Nobody can remain in a constant state of radiation. It requires an inner alignment that is all but impossible to sustain. A very slight inward shift can suddenly render the whole thing unbearable. Then we have to cycle back through one or more of the other six phases for repairs. What can become permanent, though, is the reorientation of one’s will: the commitment to sacred magic. That commitment opens up the possibility of being overtaken by the divine will, the possibility of radiation, even if the divine rarely chooses to actualise it. You have given the Divine permission—without which it cannot and will not happen.
In a mature alchemist, every other phase of the process has a radiant quality. You can radiate from within a state of calcination, fermentation, separation. In one who has abandoned every strategem to protect or secure themselves, vulnerability becomes radiant.
Radiation comes especially through the eyes. The alchemist is a “beautiful beholder”. To know the will of the Cosmos is to look at any created thing and see what the creative force was going for in creating it. Every created thing longs to be seen as it truly is, in the beauty of its suchness. To truly see in this way requires the bravery that comes of thorough calcination, the longing that comes of long dissolution, and the toughness that comes of separation. You can truly see only after the blindness of many dark nights of the soul and the spirit, having thoroughly transmuted your own instincts.
Alchemical magic is the voluntary cooperation of whatever is properly seen with the one who sees. Transmutation is only achieved with the permission of whatever is being transmuted. If we desire that any phenomenon manifest what is truest and best in its nature, our magic will likely succeed, for this is what all phenomena most desire for themselves. Nature aspires to the sublime. The art of alchemy lies in recognising what “truest and best” means to the object of one’s endeavour. It is an act of direct perception that occurs only when the senses are informed and transformed by the divine. The way to transmute anything is to encourage it to be fully as it is.