By Frater Entelecheia
One of the great advantages of religious ceremony is that it mixes both dogmatic and creative elements. The dogma comes from the script of the ritual, the authority behind it, and the sedimented tradition it represents. The creative dimension comes from whatever aesthetic touch is brought to the ceremony, either by the individual ritualists or the community. We tend to think of the dogmatic aspect as appealing to more conservative types and the creative aspect as appealing to more liberal or artistic individuals, but the truth is that most human beings desire both at least in some measure.
Those such as myself who were raised in the Roman Catholic Church experienced the interplay of both of these approaches. Roman Catholic churches tend to be cavernous with high, vaulted ceilings. Some of the more extraordinary ones can feel like being in forests of stone with light streaming in. My own church was far more humble, but I remember always being impressed by the stained glass windows. Even now I’m very attracted to color in religious ceremonies, and most of my occult art tends to use a lot of color. I also remember the smell of church being comforting, as well as the coldness of the marble font and the water in it. In short, it was as much an engrossing sensory experience as it was an experience of the liturgy of the Church.
People have known about the connection between beauty and religious awe for a long time. Just look at the cathedrals of Europe: multi-million dollar projects that would take more than a lifetime to complete, done again and again over more than a thousand years. Though what exactly is the connection between aesthetic experience and religious experience? What are we missing when we fail to emphasize the importance of beauty?
I take my cue here from the great poet and Kantian philosopher Friedrich Schiller, who in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man declared the experience of beauty to consist in the feeling that arises when our powers are in harmony with one another. For Schiller there were two fundamental powers of the mind: the sense-drive and the form-drive. While the sense-drive serves up sensual content, the form-drive applies concepts to it. You could think of this as something like the roles played in experience by Nuit and Hadit.
Typically the sense-drive and the form-drive are in conflict in various ways. For instance, we struggle to understand the world presented to us by our senses. Human history and current events show us that ignorance and hubris are the norms. Schiller would describe this as the sense-drive and form-drive being at odds with one another. While attempting to solve some practical problem, we can begin to experience a sense of futility, like our intentions aren’t really at home in things. This gives rise to alienation. When we make a breakthrough, the futility and alienation give way to elation.
However, in the experience of apprehending something beautiful, being gives itself up in such a way that it feels like the ideal medium for the expression of human spirit. Schiller referred to this as “silent stone” becoming “significant stone”. Dead matter is suddenly seen as something alive and vibrating with possibility. If you’re an artist, paint and tone, for instance, are no longer obstacles to your vision but rather the ideal vehicles of expression. In other words, matter becomes artistic medium. Precisely who or what is being expressed can feel mysterious at this moment as nature takes us by the hand and leads us to heights that transcend mere subjective intention. The sense of authorship or ownership is effaced in a way not unlike the effacement of the ego when one crosses the Abyss to join the universal life.
In this natural coming together of sense and form, it is as though the material world were made by a mind like ours, for a mind like ours. At this moment, according to Schiller, the mind naturally begins to “play”. Simply put, sense and form begin to fuck. One can think of this on analogy with Nuit and Hadit coming together to form the Child in the core of our own beings. The Sun card in the Thoth tarot deck adequately captures the resulting joie de vivre.
Schiller is at pains to emphasize that the estimation of beauty is merely the image of our powers reconciled, not that actual reconciliation itself. This is likely why the experience of beauty (whether it’s natural beauty or artistic beauty) tends to make us yearn positively for the future. Think of the last time you finished a great book or saw a film that particularly moved you. You may have experienced the feeling that your life had to change somehow, though it was unclear precisely how it was supposed to change. Beauty offers us a promise of a better future—one in which our expectations or our intentions match what is—though the details of this future are left indeterminate. Art is not a self-help book. We are thrown back upon our own resources to figure out how to change our own lives for the better. This is why Schiller believed beauty was the image of freedom deferred.
But we can say in general what this future should be like. Human beings seem to instinctually know that the natural abode of the divine is what is beautiful. The greeting of earth and heaven which represents the indwelling of spirit is outwardly beautiful. This is why eternal truth is revealed in beauty. This is why the New Jerusalem in Revelation is described as made from precious stones of many colors. That the final dwelling place of God with human beings at the completion of time should be exceedingly beautiful is only natural, because that is the only configuration matter could take that would be a suitable home for God.
From a more practical point of view, we might say beauty excites in us the possibility of being gods in our own worlds. Beauty is an invitation to recreate the first chapter of Genesis in which God refashions matter into a beautiful home for human beings. Remember that the Hebrew word for house is Beth. Beth is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is associated with Atu I, the Magus. Of this card, Crowley says it “represents the Wisdom, the Will, the Word, the Logos by whom the worlds were created.” (Book of Thoth, p. 69) Beauty is exciting us to retrieve from within that same force which orders the cosmos, to enter into proper alignment with it, and to speak and act in a way which brings the world around us into balance and expression. To be in alignment with this force is to do our wills. Speech which enchants silent stone into significant stone is incantation. Beauty is an invitation to do magick.
Crowley describes magick as “the art of life itself” and with good reason. Magick is the union of microcosm and macrocosm, the “greeting of earth and heaven” which is the ostensible goal of the Gnostic Mass itself. But as we have seen, there is a tradition of viewing both the experience of beauty and the goal of artistic production in similar terms. Crowley also describes magick as “the Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with Will.” While not all individuals have the gifts to excel at art in the narrow sense, each of us is endowed with an individual will which is merely a particularization of that energy which drives the production and reproduction of the cosmos. To know that will and to remove any obstacles to its expression is both the duty and the unique pleasure of every individual. This is identical with the transformation of one’s life into the meaningful and beautiful abode or “house”. We are considering magick now not as a mere collection of rituals but rather as a way of life. The experience of beauty is an invitation to follow that way.
Nonetheless, magick in the narrow sense can be the center from which this progressive transformation of one’s world takes place—but only if we are careful to perform our rituals rightly with as much beauty as joy. From this perspective, Gnostic Mass is not merely a religious ceremony but rather an invitation to the congregants and the ritualists to change their lives somehow, on their own terms, to make them more beautiful in any ways they can. It is not a mere metaphor for sex, but rather a suggestion that all life is ritual sex—or could be viewed that way—and that there is worth in doing it well and not poorly. We should take as much care when we do ritual as we would take care of our own appearance when we know we will be in the presence of the beloved. In this way, Gnostic Mass is transformed from a mere public observance and into an opportunity to inspire all of us to make our lives temples for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Frater Entelecheia is an O.T.O. member who lives in Seattle, Washington.
Enjoying the articles? Support the Thelemic Union and help us keep our site running, ad-free, and hacker-free by pledging $1+ on Patreon:
Thelemic Union is open to all articles that are relevant to Thelema in some way. Send your submissions to thelemic[dot]union[at]gmail[dot]com
2 thoughts on “Why Beauty is Essential to Magick and Life”