Catherine MacCoun, and her book

On Becoming an Alchemist

- A Guide for the Modern Magician -

- a kind of book review -

by Joel A. Wendt

The last sort of book review I did was on Prokofieff's book: Anthroposophy and The Philosophy of Freedom, which was a terrible book.  It was difficult to read his book and hard to write the review (as well as engage in an examination of Prokofieff's method of thinking), but in the case of this book on modern Alchemy, and its author, there was much more pleasure.


Catherine and I were on the same Internet discussion list for a number of years, and I have enormous respect for her spiritual talent.  She is a wonderfully gifted writer, and superb logician - that is, her ability to reason is quite remarkable.  I was (and still am to some degree) in awe of her ability to pin down a subject matter and peal back (as it were) its logical flaws.  She is also (and here I am jealous) able to have intimate spiritual intercourse with many aspects of that sublime reality (the actual Beings), and one might assume that this makes of her work and her perceptions there in that world, something nearly perfect (I did so assume that for a long time).  Alas, as Prokofieff remarked to me one day, none of us are perfect, whether it is him, or me, or Rudolf Steiner or sorry to say, even Catherine MacCoun.

By the way, I will be calling her Catherine throughout, for that is always how I think of her.   She is not to me Catherine MacCoun, and not even really Catherine the noun (as she points out in her book, Angels are likely to call her Cathering, perceiving only her verbness).  I know her as an effect in my life - she has over the years verbed me from a distance in all the magical ways she describes in her book.

Because of something she did in her book, that involved me personally (although she didn't identify me by name), I need to confess right in the beginning that I have a bit of an attitude toward her and this work.  As much as I love her and this book, the reader of this kind of review needs to know that she more than mildly disrespected me, and this no doubt will have an effect on what I write.  The best way I can think of to deal with that is to confess it right here at the start, and then as the reader proceeds they will at least not be surprised by any bias that seems to linger over and around this review.

Basically, in her book, she used me as an example of a certain kind of problem in what she called the realm of Baggage Disclaimed.  She was writing of what I would call loose astrality, or that aspect of our inner life in which we seem to be moving in an upward spiritual direction, but carry with us a defect or flaw that expands horizontally into the false aspects of this astral world, thus limiting our ability to truly move upward or downward in the vertical spiritual direction of inner life and work.

Now I don't precisely disagree with her, although why she used an actual person (even without using their real name) as an example of this problem confuses me.  She nonetheless makes a choice here to use a real person (she called me "Hank" in the book), something not entirely necessary as far as I can tell.  Having made this choice to use a real person, she will now have to bear the consequences.  If you have questions about the direction I am taking here, just ask yourself: what she should have anticipated?  I knew her and admired her.  I'd asked her advice on many occasions.   I'm likely to find out about her book, and just as likely to get a copy and read it.   What did she expect to happen by using my story in her book as an illustration of someone who she describes therein as falling for a spiritual con job?

My guess would be that there is in that act something more for Catherine than for me.  If we apply her ideas about the arrows of time, and about how and why, we might see that how Catherine came to write about me the way she did is one thing, but only with this review (the response thus made necessary) do we get to why. 

By the way, the reason I don't fully disagree with her point in the book is because it was clear to me at the time that I was having a problem, yet the fact was that I shared this intimate matter with the discussion group in order to gain some help in working it out, only then to find years later that it has become an object lesson in her book.

That to me was a violation of the trust I gave in sharing these things, so now you can perhaps see part of why I come toward a review of her book with a bit of an attitude.  What is simultaneously funny is that she even recognizes elsewhere in her book that Internet discourse/intercourse is by its nature flawed and limited (since we are not anchored in the physical body, our astrality in Internet discourse more easily spreads out).   Knowing this should have perhaps made more cautious her approach to the judgments she made about me, and then publicly placed in her book, for her memory here of what happen on that discussion group is weak, and the reality behind the example therefore not quite as valid as she seems to believe.

She described the discussion group in her book as hermetic in nature, which is also clearly not entirely true, so that this subtle fib in her book then makes the whole matter even more humorous (and instructive as we shall see).  The fact was that most of us in that discussion group were students of Rudolf Steiner and the group itself had previously been named: Anthroposophia, before it became called The Ark.  Few there would have accepted at that time her characterization that it was a discussion group on hermetic science (and Alchemy), although her redefinition of this quality of the nature of the group is not completely unfair.  If the realm of ideas about the spirit can have a political-like texture, this action of redefinition of Catherine's is a kind of spiritual-political spin.

For example, we also often discussed the work of one Valentin Tomberg, the at one time anonymous author of Meditations on the Tarot: a journey into Christian Hermeticism, which fact to a degree makes that part of our discussion hermetic (one can also call Rudolf Steiner an alchemist, but it remains a stretch for Catherine to characterize the Ark the way she has).  It is thus a subtle fib to imply otherwise (or remove from offered evidence) that the reality was that many of our discussions centered on Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy, and that during the period in time in which that discussion group existed Catherine even wrote a remarkable, and mostly quite justified, examination of certain aspects of Steiner's work which was published on my website (and remains there to this day) under the title: Work on What Has Been Spoiled [].

In her book on Alchemy, she describes my problem in the following way:

For many years, I participated in a hermetic discussion group over the Internet.  One its most brilliant members was a guy I'll call Hank.  A gifted writer and scholar, Hank had the makings of a successful college professor.  Instead he had chosen, for reasons I don't fully understand, to become a social dropout.  He held a series of marginal jobs - assembly line worker, night watchman, nursing home orderly - punctuated by periods of unemployment.  None of these jobs afforded him any opportunity to exercise and be admired for his formidable intellect.  In Hank, the natural human desire to shine and impress was disclaimed baggage.

One day, Hank astonished us all by announcing his candidacy for President of the United States.  He went on to further reveal that he was the incarnation of the next Buddha and that his destiny was to lead the nation into a new spiritual age.  When another member of the group asked bluntly what in Hank's lackluster career had ever qualified him for such a task, Hank replied that the menial jobs where themselves proof of his exalted identity.  In the spiritual world, according to Hank, working on assembly lines is what bodhisattvas do with themselves until their Moment of Destiny arrives.

Part of what made this episode so embarrassing for those of us who witnessed it was that we could identify with it.  Though most of us had better sense than to parade our fantasies so publicly, it is a rare hermeticist who has not, at some point. entertained delusions of spiritual grandeur.  Very few people manage vertical travel without falling for this con at least once.

Damned with faint praise is the cliche', I believe.  The fact is that at least 90% of what she writes above is factually incorrect, and while I have kept the e-mails from those years, I am not here going to do a point by point rehash of what happen that long ago, seeking to justify my point of view.   As to the real facts of my biography, that she misinterpreted in the above ways, those can be found in my little booklet: Biographical Necessity: the confessions of a social philosopher and occasional fool (I'm sending her a copy about the same time I am writing this, although I would be surprised if she read it).

Rather I want to make some comments on why I think I was put on display in her book in this way - not so much me personally (I was just convenient), but rather what aspects of her as a human being that I have come to understand and which I think color the approach she makes in her remarkable book - an approach whose illumination I  hope will help the reader of this review better appreciate her work.

Catherine was raised a Catholic.  For some I need say no more, but let me anyway make this all more explicit.   There is in Roman Catholicism a kind of deep moral judgmentalism, and while (as in Catherine's case, and in the case of many others who I have known) one can eventually leave the Catholic Church (take the girl out of the Catholic Church), you can't really take the Catholic Church out of the girl.  The impression the Church makes goes deep into the psychology of its children (especially the women), and it would be a very rare individual who could pull that impression out all the way to its roots.

For example, Catherine and I had (on the Ark discussion list) a kind of argument at one time about the use of the word: appropriate.  She used it, and I asserted that it had no real useful meaning, although one could understand how people came to apply it.  The term requires the existence of some kind of standard, against which we measure or test another's actions.  My view was that as regards morals, there is no such real standard, such that we can define, in a kind of moral-social way, whether something is or is not appropriate.

We could, in certain circumstances, use the term in particular social-cultural contexts, in which there were clear rules of behavior established, and which varied from each individual and specific social-cultural context to any other such context.  In that sense something could be or not be socially appropriate to accord with a given specific context, but to imply a moral dimension to such behaviors was to make a grave error of thought. 

We should also not apply a universal quality to such so-called appropriate behaviors - they are simply too social-culturally specific and very much need a context.  For Catherine to have used the word to describe someone's contribution to the discussion list, was to assume we (as a very loose international association of individuals) could even unconsciously create a standard against which to measure our discussion group behavior.  Of course, she did not agree with me.

Judge not lest ye be judged.

It is true that the matter of bodhisattvas came up, and as well the problem of whether or not I might be a bodhisattva incarnation of the future Buddha (a kind of weird technical spiritual argument in any case, since it is either true or not, and in any event certainly not important in an ontological way).  The reality was that simply by having the problem (an intimacy I discussed on the list because my biography contains two egos in linear sequence with a change around the 31st year), which problem was examined by Rudolf Steiner in his works, I then shared my concerns, over the meaning of this event in my biography, on The Ark.   By the implications of this idea (two egos, one after the other, in one biography) as pointed out by Steiner in his book: From Buddha to Christ, it was possible I could be some unusual incarnation (I thought I was among friends in sharing this).  However, I clearly offended Catherine's sensibilities given that she had been an intimate student of the Tibetan Lama Choygam Trungpa for at least a couple of decades.  I know of this offense because of a personal e-mail she sent to me at that time.

While she didn't like what Steiner did with the idea of the Maitreya Buddha (Catherine described Steiner's version as a kind of Teutonic superman), I also had the sense that in her judgmental view only a true Buddhist (such as herself) had any right to speak about these matters of spiritual development.

The point of this is both to try to explain why she bothered to use a real person as an example in her book (the only instance she does this directly by the way - in other instances she tells as if stories), and to give some insight into a certain kind of background music in the conceptions she uses to characterize her understanding of various spiritual truths.  Her version of Alchemy contains a kind of perhaps too strong an undercurrent of Tibetan Buddhism, that is similar in kind to her: we didn't quite get the Catholic Church out of the girl characteristic.  She seems unable to fully stand outside herself in certain circumstances.

When we think, our background effects our thoughts.  The spiritual-cultural history of our biography influences how we associate one idea with another idea - and how we cognize (organize in thought) our experiences.  I'm sure I have such characteristics, whose nature is such that we (as writers and thinkers) can't actually see them very well.   They are somewhat invisible to us because we can't fully see ourselves.  We would have to spend far too much time in a self absorbed contemplation of our lives and its deeds, to find there the imprint of these characteristics.  Better to just be who we are, and leave to others to later sort it out should they have some insight.

In that sense what Catherine wrote about me is/was important to me, in spite of its flaws, and with the above and the below I am just returning the favor.

All the same, let me next move to some examples of the unaddressed and unnoticed aspects of Catherine's book that remains under the perhaps excessive influence of Tibetan Buddhism (overwhelming what she hoped to integrate into her views that was Christian), and perhaps to some degree the influence of a latent Catholic judgmentalism.

In my understanding of this highly developed Buddhist thought, what are called elsewhere (such as Steiner's works) the ethereal and astral worlds are worlds of illusion - of maya.  This seems to be a left over from very ancient perceptions of spiritual reality and corresponds to a problem Catherine recognizes when she speaks of grand unified conceptions of spiritual reality, and that even to try to derive such grand conceptions is to possibly make an error. 

Her most direct discussion of this comes under the section: What If Your Map Is Wrong, that is your map of what she calls the vertical world.  She writes there: "Even the most gifted seers come up with some pretty flaky notions when they misconnect dots in an effort to draw up a Unified Theory of Everything."  I find Catherine here fully joined to what the writer Ursula K. LeGuin spoke of when she wrote in her Earthsea books: Infinite are the arguments of mages.  Catherine is also, to my mind at any rate, in a number of such comments (even the most gifted seers) likely to be referring indirectly to Rudolf Steiner, and certainly arguing by implication with any mage/seer who presents a different view than hers.

There is a level of meditative contemplation that one can make of our conceptual and ideal world, that reveals a common error, which certain writers connected to Anthroposophy called: the pre-thought thought, or the pre-conceptions we bring with us.  While Catherine asks: What if your map is wrong, we need to ask: What if Catherine's map of maps is wrong?

Catherine on the Ark was deep, and purposeful, and apt to disappear for serious meditative work for weeks or months at a time.  The odd thing is that for all the spiritual insight and material she talked about, I don't remember her ever speaking of Alchemy.   So when I found out she had written a book on Alchemy I was quite surprised and wondered to myself: when did she take an interest in that approach.  This is not to say she has taken a flawed approach at all, by the way.  Rather I want to point out (with a story I hope she won't mind, because part of the culture of the Ark was not to share what went on there) my certainty that when she took up a subject, she seriously devoted herself to it.  She might even have been asked, or greatly helped, by discarnate human beings and other spiritual beings to do this work (see her discussion of Radiation at the end of her book).

What happened on the Ark was that on many occasions (even when the discussion list was called Anthroposophia) we took a careful look at specific matters discussed by Steiner in his many many lectures and books.  At one point the subject of the teachings of St. Ignatius of Loyola came up, especially in regard to the founding of the Society of Jesus and the relationship of the Jesuits to Steiner's work in Central Europe at the beginning of the 20th Century.  Steiner wrote and said a number of critical things about the limits and consequences of the meditation disciplines of the Jesuits.

What Catherine did was actually take up the practice of Loyola's meditations so that she could, based upon personal experience and study, speak to the efficacy of those meditations.  I don't know anyone who was willing to enter so fully into such matters in order to make a proper judgment as to their significance.

Once this research was done, Catherine was of the view that Steiner was misrepresenting, in his spiritual research, the effect of Loyola's meditation practices and instructions on the soul life of members of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.  There was some back and forth regarding this, until I suggested the possibility that what Catherine had studied was the original instructions of St. Ignatius (1491-1556), and what Steiner (1861-1925) lamented about was the effect on the souls of the meditations and instructions that were contemporary to him - that is, what the Jesuits were doing at that level of inner work at the time Steiner was teaching.  The Loyola teachings, I wondered, may have been altered.  My memory is that this is what was eventually concluded.  Both Catherine and Steiner were right.  What had happened is what frequently happens when the founder of a spiritual impulse dies - the students infect the work over time with their own weaknesses.  Loyola's original instructions became over time imbued with other meanings, and Catherine and Steiner were essentially not talking about the same things.

That is then a description of Catherine being Catherine, so I do not want the reader to doubt that once she decided to penetrate the teachings of Alchemy, she put her will to it fully, and with considerable ethical and scientific standards.  Alchemy in the sense of her use of it in this book is really a set of language conventions by which spiritual development and aspirations can be discussed.  The "Alchemists" knew something, and by burrowing into that tradition, Catherine has done something wonderful, in large part because she has so much authentic and deep spiritual experience upon which to rest her judgments.

At the same time we need and want to know whereof she speaks, and except for her memory of me from the list being a bit defective I could not (in the beginning of reading her book) exactly fault what is in there.  So maybe she doesn't always want to know the truth of a thing, and perhaps once having classified me in a certain way, she assumed that what she thought was valid enough to use me as an example in her book.  As Kurt Vonnegut said: so it goes

However, the result of this fib about the Ark made me wonder what other assumptions might enter into her work.

I have read many spiritual books, especially books of instruction on personal practices.  Catherine's book is by far the best I have ever read.  Yet, when she describes in her book that she approached a publisher, asserting that she knew both Tibetan and Christian Alchemy, and could combine them, I had to wonder just exactly how that might play out.  My conclusion on studying her book is that we have there something well connected to Tibetan Buddhism, and less well connected to true and modern Christian esotericism.

Partially this is due to something I first noticed with Catherine's contributions to the Ark.  One day I used the term: Goetheanism, in a post there.   She then related she was unfamiliar with this term.  Subsequent discussion revealed that while she was familiar with a lot of Steiner's writings and lectures, she was not at all familiar (in an experiential way) with his work on the metamorphosis of thinking, which was the subject of his first three books, and the cognitive foundation for everything else he did in life.

It would go too far to give a lot of details, but something concrete does need to be said here.  Goetheanism is a transformation of the thinking process, which introduces much more will and discipline into the cognitive activity, particularly with respect to the creation of images or mental pictures.  One learns to think quite deliberately and organically, that is, for example, to practice a disciplined thinking with nature, not just about nature.  This infusion of will forces into the thinking then over time evolves to what eventually is called: pure thinking (or what Steiner called thinking which has life it, sometimes also: living thinking.  We go beyond organic thinking, or thinking with, to thinking within and then thinking as.  We learn to think on our knees, so that it (the spiritual reality of the object of our thinking) can think in us.

Catherine's book shows no evidence of any familiarity on her part of this process by which ordinary thinking undergoes a metamorphosis through organic thinking to pure thinking, or what might be the implications for all fields of human knowledge, when this new mystery of thinking is applied in practice.

The Steiner student Dennis Klocek calls this metamorphosis of thinking alchemical, consisting of four stages in the form of a mandala related to the elements:  earth (freedom); water (phenomenology); air (silent practice) and fire (dialog).  I give a long discussion of this, and as well the moral nature of certain aspects of this metamorphosis, in my essay: In Joyous Celebration of the Soul Art and Music of Discipleship.  When one is deliberately moral in the formation of conceptions and ideas, in particular through sacrifice of the content of ones own thinking, while simultaneously inviting the co-working of the upper and lower vertical (Catherine's mode of expression of what Steiner called: the spiritual world), - this pure thinking then becomes fully awake in the spiritual world, although it knows this world not as realm of Beings, but as a realm of concepts and ideas - what I have taken to calling: the ethereal garment of Beings.

Pure thinking, by the way, is pure in three ways.  First it is free of any association with the sense world - that is the attention is not directed at the sense world, but rather fully directed at the conceptual-idea world, or what in Steiner's terms is the Ethereal World (remember that Tibetan Buddhism, as far as I understand it, seems to think this realm is maya).  It is also pure in the sense that it is only of concepts and ideas - there is no other content.  Lastly it is pure in the sense that its intention is selfless.  We do not engage in pure thinking in order to even move forward our own development, but rather solely for the benefit of others.  Pure thinking of this kind is directed at the expansion of human knowledge.  It is the through the consciously formed nature of the attention and intention that the will element enters into the thinking.

One of the experiences those who practice this new thinking mystery encounter is the effect of bringing what one calls a pre-thought thought to a phenomena of experience.  We have an experience, and we already have an idea about its meaning, and our thoughts organize themselves to accord with the point of view we bring toward the experience, such that we see the actual experience through a kind of ghost of a pre-thought thought.

A big part of the needed discipline then becomes learning to will that a thought die - to sacrifice our point of view, our sense of ourselves as already knowing the meaning of the experience.   This is the Christ essence of our own will in action in thinking - this sacrifice.  Only then when empty of a past created thought content, can new content of the experience’s true conceptual nature be raised out of the experience (blessed are the poor in spirit - empty of thought content - for theirs is the kingdom of heaven - the realm Catherine calls the upper and lower vertical).

Following her own approach, she does seem to face several particular conceptual problems in a fairly straightforward fashion, but you could say that my personal idea-aesthetic had a bit of a hard time with several of these - for example, such as the problem of good and evil and its relationship to the human will.

For example, she says there is in reality no evil.   Everyone wants to do a good, that is something that is good from their perspective.   No one wants to do evil - that is not how they think of what they are doing.   Nor are there in her view any evil invisible beings among the citizens of the vertical above and below - the spiritual above and below.  In this way she dismisses the concept of evil from her version of the alchemical lexicon.  This is a kind of odd approach, given how much the culture of the West uses this particular conceptual structure: the idea of good and evil.  Also, it is hard to appreciate a lot of what Christ teaches via the Gospels, without this idea in the background.

She does speak of two Beings, one she describes as Absolute Truth and the other Absolute Facts, suggesting these approaches are dangerous and a bit out of balance.  My idea-aesthetic sense of her approach to the problem of good and evil is that it leans a bit too far in the direction of Absolute Truth (i.e. there is only good, and that from the perspective of the doer - of the individual will).  She sort of skips over problems toward which other deep spiritual teachers in the cultural West give a lot more attention and care.  

Like all of us who wander into these fields of human concern (the meaning of spiritual disciplines of various kinds), she brings her own (to borrow her terms) disclaimed baggage.  None of us are perfect, and our approach to things will be colored by those matters toward which we are still involved in a kind of self-deception.

My own experiences (certainly not as deep and rich as hers) of the upper and lower vertical have suggested to me that my understanding of much that can be understood here is in large part determined by what I bring with me.   These realms have a kind of plastic or malleable or adaptive quality, such that they often mirror without judgment or disagreement what we bring.  If I am not careful, I will mostly see what I've already thought.  Recall above where I spoke of the ghost of the pre-thought thought.  In my case the dominate tendency concerns my ideas about the teachings of Christ as related through the writers of the Four Gospels.   I strongly tend to think the world of experience in the terms and symbolisms of Christ's teachings.

This Christ-content of thought can in fact become an idol, which is another way of describing a pre-thought thought.  One way around this is what seems typical of the cultural East, which is to dismiss as basically irrelevant the content of thought.   This approach lingers in Catherine's description of Mindfulness Meditation in the appendix, where the attention is on the breath and not on the thought content at all.  Steiner, for example, considered breath-related yoga work as atavistic - meaning it was too much of the past of the soul, and that the soul had evolved beyond such work, and modern teachings needed to be born out of a perception of the present reality of the soul (see the work on the evolution of consciousness by many Steiner students).

Steiner's discovery was that one can work with the content of thought the same way a potter works with clay on the wheel, although experience shows that one is not "sculpting" thought alone.  Different thoughts have specific relationships with other thoughts according to the nature of their content.  Which is why the thought of good often cannot be separated from the thought of evil, any better than up cannot be thought without the implication of its corollary: down.  Language, grammar, syntax, and the inner aspect of meaning hidden in concepts and ideas, can all be studied.  What Rudolf Steiner called the thought world (the ethereal world)  functions according to laws, the highest of which involve a kind of moral aesthetic.

When we read, for example, our study of an author's use of language and the formation of conceptions and ideas, can be discovered to accord with a definite place in the landscape of ideas (its organic thinking aspect) and with a definite tone or color in the moral-aesthetic realm (the pure thinking aspect).  We read, and we learn to "feel" (perceive) where and how their thought content is harmonious or dis-harmonious with the substance of the thought-world itself - the ethereal garment of spiritual beings.

Earlier I mentioned my understanding that Tibetan Buddhism's idea was that both the ethereal and the astral worlds were worlds primarily of illusion, and I take this to be felt by them to be true because it is clear that our ego strongly influences what we experience in the astral and the ethereal (place and tone and color as noted above then are egoistic in such a view).  As a consequence, only when we are free of the ego (according to this kind of Buddhism) have we achieved the desired spiritual maturity (enlightenment).  Since the astral and ethereal realms are egoistic, they are then flawed (according to this view).

The problem comes about because their idea of the ego is still too influenced by the idea of the ego as it was in the primordial past.  Christ has changed the ego, and it no longer has the nature Eastern wisdoms tend to assume.  This change is ongoing - continuous and evolutionary.  You could say this evolution of the Ego or the “I” am is the meaning of the Creation.

As a consequence of what I experience (perceive-feel) of the thought content therein, I can't help finding in Catherine's otherwise remarkable book that there is a lot of Catherine there (such as relates to her experiences of Tibetan Buddhism and the latent Catholic judgmentalism) , and not as much scientific objectivity as she implies is possible through the hermetic or alchemical approach to matters spiritual.  She frequently states some of her ideas in an almost absolute way (something she cautions against), such as there is no real evil, as everyone wants to do "a" good, and no one really wants to do "evil".

To the extent that her spiritual experiences - her meetings with the Beings of the upper and lower vertical - might confirm this, I suspect rather that they are accommodating her occasional efforts to step outside the latent Catholic judgmentalism, but that if you put the question to them about good and evil in a non-Cathering fashion, they would find a point of view in which the idea of evil is important.

What does it mean to exclude the idea of evil from the discussion of spiritual development?  Well one thing it does is lessen the meaning of morality.   Where all individuals do "a" good, there is no real moral compass, and if we read her book carefully we find that the "moral" is not all that important.  I mostly think this is something convenient for her, because by eliminating a discussion of the problem of good and evil in the way she has, she (in a way) gets to have her cake and eat it too.

Yet, part of this situation is that the idea "good" has no meaning without its sister, the idea "evil".  While the Beings of the upper and lower vertical may not need such a conception, human beings still do, if they want to be active and oriented in the human world.

For example, I am deeply familiar with the works of two other writers who use the word hermetic in describing their spiritual field of interest: Franz Bardon, author of Initiation into Hermetics; and, Valentin Tomberg, the previously anonymous author of Meditations into the Tarot: a journey into Christian Hermeticism.

Bardon is a teacher of what he calls magic, who has no peer on a practical level, although students of his thought should keep in mind that he has mostly concerned himself with powers, not with qualities of soul and being.  Working mostly with the four elements as the secret entrance to the study of powers (the elements being the lowest level of the spiritual before it becomes material), he seems to warp this truth in a direction that makes no distinction between the higher elements of the spiritual,  a distinction which Tomberg's work on the Tarot describes as the difference between Bios and Zoe, or the lower aspects of the life (or manifestation) force and the upper aspects of the same (see Arcanum 11: Force).

Both Bardon and Tomberg use the symbolism of the Tarot, but to quite different ends.  The problem of good and evil is discussed in both, with Bardon recognizing that good and evil are a "human" conception.   For Tomberg (who Catherine in her bibliography describes as having produced the one book she would have, if she had no other) the problem of evil is discussed thoroughly in the Arcanum 15 The Devil.  I am of the view that Catherine's treatment of this problem is, for her, one of those flaky notions she dismisses in others.

Catherine has used the symbolism of Western Alchemy, bringing to that work her own reference points as to what is important for one to know who wants to do magic (after all, the subtitle to her book is: A Guide for the Modern Magician), and the fact is that a lot of what she describes as the result of a ripening on ones alchemical path concerns the ability to do magic (as she defines it).  Although the ultimate magical act, which she calls Radiation, has disappointed a few readers (they don't quite get it that if you plug into reality in the right way, "you" individually don't do anything magical anymore, while at the same time you get to co-participate in a whole lot of wonderful magical doing, because you've learned to align yourself with something greater and wiser - see my ideas in my works on the distributed nature of God).

To further place Catherine's book within a broader perspective and context, compare it for a moment to Rudolf Steiner's book: Knowledge of Higher Worlds and How to Attain It.

In Steiner's approach, he is advocating that self development serve a particular purpose, which is not magic at all.   Rather Steiner is showing how to so mold the forces of soul and spirit in a way such that it becomes possible to become a scientist of the realms of the invisible - of what Catherine has called the lower and upper vertical.  Whereas Steiner wants to discover and convey knowledge of higher worlds, Catherine's work is about self development, without any direction beyond that, except that a by-product of that self development, following her version of alchemical symbolism, is a kind of magical-spiritual existence.

We can perhaps see here other lingering elements in Tibetan Buddhism born in the former Bon religion that existed in that region of the world before the teachings of the Buddha entered in and transformed it.  Bon was a quite definite magical religion, so we should not be surprised that Catherine has produced something similar, for Tibetan Buddhism has not shed all that was once a rich aspect of the Bon religion.

It will also help to note that Alchemy in Western Culture was just one of many iterations of what  might, in Christian terms, be called a sequence of thematic variations of the Kings stream of wisdom.  When the Son aspect of the Trinity incarnated 2000 years ago, two groups were noted by the Gospel writers to be in attendance: Shepherds and Kings.

In my book The Way of the Fool: the conscious development of our human character; and the future of Christianity - both to be born out of the natural union of Faith and Gnosis, I take up the subject of this change in Western spiritual life brought about by the Incarnation.  The Kings were of the old mystery traditions as existed prior to this Event, and they came to the Birth in order to reveal their recognition of its significance, and also to show through the symbolism of their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, that they were going to sacrifice their prior preeminence as teachers of wisdom for the new developments that were to take place in the future via the Disciples in response to the Acts of Christ.

Spiritual life in the West, in its Christian sense, then divided itself between what was the stream of the Shepherds and the stream of the Kings.   The former has produced over time many of the Christian forms of institutional religion, while the wisdom stream of the Kings became heretical in relationship to the first dominant Christian religion, Roman Catholicism.  The Shepherds stream was meant to develop in the soul various qualities of Faith, which today have too often degenerated into systems of vain belief (a whole other problem).   We also have then this Kings stream, in which direct experience or Gnosis is emphasized, and which appeared in a sequence of systems the Roman Church kept trying to destroy: the Essenes; the Gnostics; the Manicheans; following which such matters became for a time dark.  Rudolf Steiner's research on this point suggests that Initiation, or what in the cultural East is called Enlightenment, became impossible in the West during the deepest dark of the dark ages.

When the process that many recognize as the evolution of consciousness (something Catherine never mentions) underwent a deep change around the 14th Century, Kings (initiate) wisdom once more became possible.  The first aspect of this was the Marseilles Tarot,,which was shortly followed by Alchemy; then Rosicrucianism; then Romanticism and Transcendentalism; until the 20th Century when the Anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner appeared, followed by Tomberg's (a former student of Steiner's) Christian Hermeticism (a kind of step backwards or away from the knowledge-spirit of the Age: science).

Tarot, Alchemy and Rosicrucianism all had to hide themselves from the Roman Church in systems of symbolism, until such time as the Church was no longer socially able to kill and torture its opponents.  Thus the Romantics and the Transcendentalists became free during the later phases of the Enlightenment to offer deep alternative approaches to spiritual development.

Catherine has dipped into this stream of unfolding and inwardly continuous Kings wisdom, and chosen Alchemy as the particular symbolism in which to place her own self knowledge and understanding.  To make this clear: She picked out of the middle of a living sequence (the Kings stream of wisdom) a certain stage (Alchemy) of its development, and this has produced certain consequences for her work.

Tomberg, when still writing as an anthroposophist, wrote this (I've just picked a couple of quotes - the entire essay is important) in his essay: Indian Yoga and Christian Occultism (from his book: Early Writings):

... Christianity, not as a philosophical or theological teaching, but as an active spiritual force in the world, proceeds from the idea that evil has penetrated into the world and that error, sickness and death are its results.  Therefore it can not be Christianity's task to retreat from that realm, but rather to conquer the evil which has given cause for error suffering and death. ...

... The Alchemy of the Middle Ages is merely one especially conspicuous example of the working of the Christ impulse in man.  There are many such examples.  In all of them the main thing is that they give expression in various ways to the principle of the Washing of the Feet.  This principle is actually the spiritual-moral foundation for any true Christianity.  It is especially the basis of Christian Rosicrucianism. ...

... Today, when many writings on occult themes bring much knowledge to men, it is necessary that every European who has an interest for true spiritual life carefully consider the choice between the ideals of Indian Yoga and the ideals of the more deeply penetrating Christian spiritual direction - between "self-liberation" and "Washing the Feet".

Catherine's book, for all its wisdom, seems more oriented toward "self-liberation" or self-development.  There is for Catherine no evil in the world that needs to be transformed.  She does recognize the need to transform the lower will forces, but her process does not involve our own activity , but rather a surrender to the Beings of the upper and lower vertical, who transform these will forces through their own loving activity (fermentation), while we are essentially passive.  She would have us remain unconscious (have no knowledge) of the presently hidden elements of our will.  For a serious discussion of an alternative and more mature and conscious approach to dealing with the unconscious elements of the will, look to my writings in my book: American Anthroposophy, in the Chapter: The Mystery of Macro and Micro Evil and the relationship of the Shadow (the threefold double complex) to the American Soul.

This approach of Catherine’s is, to my view, something more oriented toward certain latent ideas lingering again in the conceptions of Tibetan Buddhism (“self-liberation”).  On the other hand, she might have been able to realize the counter-ideas “Washing the feet") if she had been more deeply affected by Christian esotericism in its most modern form: Anthroposophy.

The spirit (for her) realizes itself in a process, in which any good for others is mostly magical in form and nature.  Her system (and I suspect she would not recognize it as a "system") is in a way closed, which in part means it is logically rigorous and inwardly consistent.  Recall that I said above that one of the remarkable features of her personality, as a member of the Ark, was her ability to sort of out-rational another person. 

Yes, she has in many places left what might be called loop-holes.  She knows that stuff she says won't apply to everyone, and that individuals will have to adjust what she says in terms of their own practice.  She also knows how true intuition produces surprises and wonders.  But these loop-holes do not truly confront the difficulty.

Above Tomberg wrote: "every European".  Catherine is an America, and even in my book: American Anthroposophy, I noted a number of reasons why America is not, in the totality of the world order, in any way like the cultural Center (Europe) or the cultural East (Asia).  Americans are different - are of the cultural West, and one writing of spiritual matters in America has to be awake to this.  We could say that Americans have a different gesture of soul, such that we are more adapted to living life fully on the earth and at peace (to a degree) with scientific and cultural materialism (see my writings for details).

Catherine has seeded her book with some recognition of this need, such as noticing the Calvinist character of our work ethic.  But having asserted in a kind of smug way that: Even the most gifted seers come up with some pretty flaky notions when they misconnect dots in an effort to draw up a Unified Theory of Everything, she suggests, by implication, that her "system" stands above all other resolutions within conceptual thought.  No flaky notions in Catherine's work, no sir.

Tibetan Buddhism, along with a lot of other spiritual systems out of Asia (the cultural East) has woven into its conceptual formulation a lot of memories of the deep spiritual Past, as well as an undercurrent that suggests everything is cyclic and nothing fundamental ever really changes.  For example, the Tibetans routinely create and then destroy marvelously beautiful sand mandalas, I suspect in part to remind everyone of the idea of impermanence (the cycles of endless change on the wheel of life).  In this continuous state of impermanence, there is again no evolution of consciousness - no slow development of the ego from an ancient condition to a new one.

One of the relevant matters that has to be recognized is that whatever the nature of the spiritual experiences of the seer or clairvoyant or individual with, as Catherine puts it, an ability to separate the subtle from the gross and to travel easily in either or both the upper and lower vertical - when they are done with that activity, the rendering into language of one's experience still remains a cognitive activity outside spiritual perception itself.  Experience always eventually becomes clothed in concepts and ideas, otherwise no one would bother to speak or write - that is to use words.

It is this cognitive activity that Rudolf Steiner sought to, and was able to, make scientific in his works on introspective epistemology.   What this means is that there exists a realm of human activity where cognition (the creation of concepts and ideas) and spiritual activity and perception co-exist.  Catherine recognizes this when she notices that in terms of a Christian version of the perception of order in the upper vertical, the human being is a member of the 10th Hierarchy; and, that the human being plays such a unique role that members of the vertical dimension are quite interested in our various doings, which include this creative (naming) cognitive activity.

Yet, she sadly un-notices this in her descriptions of mindfulness meditation, where the attention is mostly on the breathing, and hardly at all on the content of thought.  Meditation practices among anthroposophists are always on a theme - the specific elaboration of a particular thought content, which as a practice produces quite different fruits and sequences than do the practices of mindfulness meditation.

To gain a better understanding of this new cognition (inspired by Steiner), one really needs to come awake to its wide-ranging influence in many disciplines of human knowledge, such as education, philosophy, medicine, agriculture, dance, care of those with special needs, natural science (chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology etc), the evolution of consciousness, social science, psychology, history, and so forth - the new cognition is slowly transforming our understanding of the world across a very broad front.

While Catherine would be reluctant (I believe) to confess to having folded into her system such subtle melodies of thought as are more latent in Tibetan Buddhism (but not in fully modern aspects of what some call esoteric Christianity), I am convinced they are there.  She saves herself the problem of dealing with a lot of questions regarding the deeper differences between the cultural East and the cultural West, mostly by ignoring the contrary points of view, which from her latent Catholic judgmentalism is described simply as: flaky notions.

The fact is she has not understood the work of Rudolf Steiner, nor did she even trouble to really understand where I was coming from when I confessed on the Ark my own confusions.  What did she miss by this?

An aspect of her own choices is that she picked (isolated), out of the living succession of Kings wisdoms, Alchemy.  Alchemy was born before Rosicrucianism and before Anthroposophy.  If we consider the possibility that the stream of the Kings wisdoms is an organism itself - something that grows and develops, with each succeeding iteration becoming more and more able to express something only slowly able to manifest through human beings, we can perhaps notice a matter of importance.  Steiner called this the Christ Impulse - these slowly manifesting organic transformational becomings of Western occultism: Tarot, Alchemy, Rosicrucianism, and then the precursors to Anthroposophy - romanticism and transcendentalism.

Tomberg noted, in his essay which I quoted above, that: ... The Alchemy of the Middle Ages is merely one especially conspicuous example of the working of the Christ impulse in man.  There are many such examples.  In all of them the main thing is that they give expression in various ways to the principle of the Washing of the Feet.  This principle is actually the spiritual-moral foundation for any true Christianity.  It is especially the basis of Christian Rosicrucianism. ...

What succeeded Alchemy in time, namely Christian Rosicrucianism, also used a seven-fold representation of practices, but instead of the Alchemical exercises or processes of: Calcination; Dissolution; Separation; Conjunction; Fermentation; Sublimation; and, Radiation, Christian Rosicrucianism gives us the Seven Stages of the Passion of Christ: Washing the Feet; the Scourging; the Crowning with Thorns; the Carrying the Cross; the Crucification; the Death, and the Resurrection.  Instead of seven self-development processes, Christian Rosicrucianism reveals seven life trials that arise in the biography via the degree to which one strives to act morally (to learn to love - to follow in His - Christ's - steps) in life.

What one eventually comes to is a realization that John the Baptist told us something quite important when he said: "The one coming after me, I'm not big enough to carry his sandals.   He will baptize you and holy breath and fire."  The fire is the life trials and the holy breath concerns what happens in a fully awake and transformed thinking.

One of the matters not generally understood today, by occultists of most Paths, is that with the Incarnation of Christ, Love replaced Magic.  It makes a difference then that having allied herself with Tibetan Buddhism and the lingering whisper therein of the ancient Bon (magical) religion, Catherine was unable to relate to Anthroposophy, which was expressly not magical, but rather deeply aligned with the stream of natural science.   Most anthroposophist still don't get what Steiner did, so Catherine is not alone in missing the point of Rudolf Steiner's work.

Something now needs to be said about what Anthroposophy then adds to the organism of the Kings stream of wisdoms - what is beyond what Alchemy brought, and then further beyond what even Christian Rosicrucianism brought.  It might be worthwhile to form the picture that a kind of weaving together is at work - that the Kings wisdoms are meant in the near future to join with the Shepherds wisdoms.   The details of this process are elaborated in my book: the Way of the Fool: the conscious development of our human character; and the future of Christianity - both to be born out of the natural union of Faith and Gnosis.

Anthroposophy is mainly a New Way of Thinking.  It represents a cognitive capacity of the soul that did not even exist at the time Alchemy came into the world, for Anthroposophy's true precursors lived in the Romantics and the Transcendentalists - for example, Emerson and Coleridge were anthroposophists before Steiner was even born.  This New Way of Thinking does not want to remain esoteric or secret.   It does not want to hide behind any kind of special Christian or Tibetan gnosis.  Because this is being born out of Christ's Love into the world, it seeks expression not just for small groups with specialized spiritual practices, but rather to ultimately bring something that belongs to everyone.   It concerns two matters that are mostly unknown in the present, and which are meant to be far more widely known in the future than ever would have been the case with Alchemy or Christian Rosicrucianism.

This has to do with New Gospels - gospels of the true Second Coming of Christ in the realm of the human inwardness where human thinking takes place.   The New thinking Mystery is presently mostly for the purpose of telling the next story related to Christ's work of Love in the world.   For not only was there in the 20th Century the beginning of a true Second Coming of Christ, there was as well the initial enactments of the practice of a Second Eucharist in the Ethereal.  More on these matters can be found in my writings, but here we are actually seeking to place Catherine's book within the total organism of all that flowered in the world following the Incarnation 2000 years ago, and this leads us in a slightly different direction.

So then, what are we to make of her book, which I would contend is not only unique, but a quite remarkable addition to the literature of modern spiritual life, easily on a par with Steiner, Tomberg and other giants of the cultural West (such as Owen Barfield).

As long as we understand that not all those concerned or experienced in the realms of the spiritual would agree with Catherine's more macro-systematic conceptions (the meaning of good and evil, the problem of time, the nature of thinking and so forth), there is at the core of this book something truly amazing.

To gain an insight into this, let us suppose that something of the genius of spirit that left behind historically what we know of as the lives of the Italian renaissance painter Raphael, and the German romantic poet and writer Novalis, lives in our dear Catherine.   This is a hypothetical by the way and not meant to be taken to be literally or exactly true.  Its purpose is to suggest qualities of being that are appearing in the present, which qualities need an unusual metaphor (supposed prior lives) to fully express. 

This next is how I understand her.  It will certainly be incomplete, and thus not entirely accurate so the reader should take it with the proverbial grain of salt.

Born in this life into a Catholic family in America, she becomes naturally clairvoyant after or around the suicide of her mother when she is in her late teens.  Possessed of remarkable skills with language and with reason, and a very artistic yet rigorous temperament, she (as did many in the '60's and ' 70's in America) ran from her fading Catholicism eventually into the arms of Tibetan Buddhism (the Lama Choygum Trungpa), in search of an understanding of not only her spontaneous clairvoyant experiences, but a human need to have a logically valid spiritual conception or world view.  One of the attractions, by the way, of Tibetan Buddhism is its non-theistic approach.  It does not have a supreme God in the same way the monotheisms (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) of the cultural West do.

Blessed (or cursed) with these deeply felt spiritual experiences, she still has to make systematic her understanding of existence.   She studied much, and while she encountered Rudolf Steiner, she was not drawn to him (read her Work On What Has Been Spoiled, for more of the latent Catholic judgmentalism).  In spite of the vicissitudes of life and the lingering death of a dear loved one (Hanna's story), she wants to contribute to modern spiritual culture.  To so contribute is a kind of biographical necessity - not so much a compulsion, as a necessity so as to not become spiritually constipated by not letting what she is learning pass through her soul.  We receive gifts of the spirit so as to pass them on, not to keep them as treasures for ourself.

For a long time she sublimates this impulse, finding a career as an editor and ghost writer for many, including those who write books in the self-help genre.   She even writes a lovely romantic novel (published originally in 1990 and then republished in 2006 with a different title: Beyond the Abbey Gates, that takes place in the middle Ages, in which certain spiritual matters and questions are part of the sub-text - thus making it far more than a bit of light reading).

Ultimately in the language of classical Alchemy she finds her primary paints, as it were.  So she surrenders to this necessity to pass on what she has learned and composes for us the painting of self-development which is contained in this book.  Every page is filled with the colors of poetic expression that are able to lift the meaning of our most ordinary experiences into the heights of spiritual wisdom.  Like any painter (in this case one who uses language alone) she combines the primary paints or words into thoughts (new colors), and these thoughts then into complex ideas (colored shapes and forms) in multiple and unique ways.

Like Steiner, who described ideas as complexes of concepts, Catherine instinctively recognizes how to tell a story from life, and weave (color) those ideas with her deep personal wisdom gained from many hard years of experience.

Once read thoroughly, this is a book that can sit at our bedside, to be opened at any seeming random place when we are so inspired.   There really is magic here.  We dip into it, take a taste out of the magic of that spontaneous moment, and are quite likely to find just what we need then to hear (or read) before we enter into the realm of Morpheus and sleep. 

Buy many copies of this book and give it to all your best friends, and most especially your worst enemies.

Owen Barfield, in his books Poetic Diction and History in English Words, pointed out that the poet's task was to give birth in language to those new meanings by which the fermentation of the culture or history of ideas advances civilization.   In the 1990's I wrote a short unpublished essay called: Social Alchemy, in which I expressed the idea that with the language of Alchemy we ought to be able to create a new way of speaking to each other in which the individual spiritual could be expressed in a communal way, enabling us to understand each other at our depths.  We need, I wrote, to find the language which allows us to speak of our individual inner life, and to do this without judging each other's moral life or manner of spiritual understanding.

Catherine's book takes a giant step in this direction, and is a great blessing for all of us.  Wherever its language usages become common and then shared, will then become a social situation that more and more grows in the most healthy spiritual way possible.  In her ideas of the upper and lower vertical, in the concept of Baggage Declaimed, in all the ways and examples by which she illuminates a modern meaning for such terms as Calcination; Dissolution; Separation; Conjunction; Fermentation; Sublimation; and, Radiation; she gives to all of us a vocabulary by which we can communicate to each other the richness of our personal and individual paths of spiritual development.

We are blessed to be in a world where such poetic and artistic genius, coupled with a rigorous mind and a vital and rich life of spiritual experience, has been able to create/find many of just those forms of expression that make it possible for us to bridge with, language*, the seeming empty separation between different souls and hearts.

We also need to appreciate, that for all the discussion above where I question certain elements of her book, her actions in creating this book, and in giving it the style that she gives it, - this action is one of deep love for the reader.  This love flows over every page, for she is concerned with us receiving a spiritual understanding of ourselves that takes its shape such that we do not see ourselves as missing something.  Rather over and over again she helps us find something in ourselves already.  This love of hers for her readers is the source of the beauty that lives in this book.  She has not written this book as a mere exercise in spiritual self-expression.   She has written this book for us.

One last remark on this theme of Catherine's spiritual biographical course:

When we were in the last years and months of the Internet discussion group the Ark, Catherine went to Monaco, to participate in Ramadan.  In her book on Alchemy she describes a part of this experience briefly.  She confessed on the Ark that God had in effect suggested she go, something not surprising to those of us who knew her there (again, see her remarks on Radiation in her book for a better appreciation of this).  One aspect of this is quite remarkable, especially given Catherine's discussion in her book of the arrows of time, and that the Past gives us a how the Present comes to be, while it is the Future that reveals the why.  One year later, after Catherine has returned from Monaco, comes 9/11/2001.

As we on the Ark struggled to make sense, especially of the spiritual dimensions of 9/11, Catherine was there, with the rigor of her logic and the grace of her experience, to help us walk through a powerful minefield concerning the nature of the Religion of Islam.  She thought then that she would produce a book, to be called Ramadan Diaries, which I now for many years have hoped would build a healing bridge between Islam and Christianity.

I don't know if she still struggles with this.  I know from my own work as a writer that such a large theme will require that she endure all manner of trials, which are necessary for her to find the right melodies and themes in order to even begin to build such a healing bridge.  It may be that such cannot even be begun, much less accomplished in this moment of historical time. Although, if there was one person on the planet that might be able to do this, I would certainly expect that Catherine could be that person.

Thank you Catherine, for all that you have already done, and for whatever you may yet do ...

with love, me.

*       *       *

*my poem, the gift of the word, at one time called Speech:

the gift of the word (speech)

- wants and needs to be read out loud,

with an occasional rush of sound -

Speech, / Words, letters, sounds, / heard by both the inner ear and the outer.

Letters, sounds, words, / linked invisibly to ideas and thoughts.

Ideas, thoughts, letters, sounds, words, / a woven tapestry of meaning,

carried by Speech, / sometimes with grace, / but most often just carelessly.

Meaning, / a weaving of thoughts, sounds, words, letters and ideas,

spoken into the air and left there, / abandoned.

Words, spoken and heard. / Meaning intended. / But what is heard?

That which is heard is also intended. / Two intentions, two purposes, two meanings.

How difficult then communication, / suffering as it does the contrary pulls of multiple intentions, purposes and meanings.

I speak, you listen. / I mean, you grasp. / Somewhere in this delicate dance of words, sounds, letters, thoughts, ideas and purposes; / understanding is sought after.

Perhaps. / Sometimes.

Voice. / Speech reveals the unspoken. / Anger, fear, pride, arrogance, true humility.

The ear of the heart hears what is hidden in voice.

Posture, gesture. / Speech is more than sound. / The eye hears things the ear cannot, just as the ear sees things the eye cannot.

One mind. / Two minds. / Speech a bridge of woven light between two minds, and sometimes, although rarely, / between two hearts.

Speech, rich and full of flavor, / a light bridge, / joining two separate beings.

Speech denatured, / No sound, no gesture, no posture, no voice.

Speech reduced to lines of dark on light. / Written. / A treasure map in code spilled across a page.

Words, letters, ideas, thoughts, sounds, / reduced to marks upon a parchment. / Speech dying.

Yet, / even in death, murdered by pen or pencil mark, / some essence of Speech still.

Meaning embalmed. Understanding buried. / Until read.

Reading. / Words, sounds, letters, thoughts, ideas, meaning, purposes, intentions,

Speech resurrected in the silence of another mind.

Speech. / Light bridge dying into print, / reborn when read in the inner quiet of another soul.

Speech, / The Spoken Word. / Writing, / The Word entombed. / Writing read, / The Word resurrected.

That this is so, / that human beings live in such an exalted state having Speech, this is Grace.

The spoken word, the written word. / Things so ordinary, so taken for granted, so pregnant with possibility.

The emptiness between two souls is always / chaste, virgin, pure, / waiting for Grace, for the bridge of light, / for Speech.

the gift of the word (Speech) was written on Epiphany, Jan. 6, 1997,

in about a third of an hour