Working in Dark Light: Magic on the Via Negativa

I have recently been going down a spiritual rabbit-hole regarding how we as magicians might use contemplative practice. Having spent a lot of years exploring the use of meditative states within yogic and Buddhist traditions, I have also (via that mighty Trappist Thomas Merton) started looking at the way in which deeper internal states were being articulated within Abrahamic mystical traditions. Via his exploration of St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Merton dives headlong into the mystical depths of spiritual practice.

Nightside Cistercian

The early stages of most spiritual journeys are often filled positive, affirmative statements aimed at locating meaning and exerting control. Those walking the paths of more orthodox religious expression might speak of Cataphatic theologies or the Via Positiva in which we aspire to affirm the promises of faith and the joys of our newfound purpose. I’m pretty sure we magical heretics also have our own version of this. While we may be sceptical about the big promises of father/mother gods, we may well experience the rebellious sugar high of our newfound antinomianism. Having gained our hard-won freedom from the conditioning of family and culture, we often get busy with the project on greater understanding, greater control and endless amounts of information. This of course very cool, knowledge is power and knowledge of the previously forbidden can be truly liberating! But is it enough? Is it enough to sustain the long haul of becoming through initiation and countless cycles of alchemical refinement? 

Many of us are drawn to magical or Pagan spiritual traditions because they offer a more balanced and integrated way of engaging with the dance between darkness and light. Whether via those deities that express the destructive aspects of life or the wheel of the year itself, we are forced to articulate and explore the aspects of life that many of us (if given the choice) would choose to ignore. While part of us might shy away from the challenge of such work, the deeper parts of our soul seems to recognize the need to engage with the dynamic tension present within life. The balancing of darkness and light is key to the alchemical work we are engaged in. I really like the quote below and the mention of the emerald vision brings to mind our own internal work with the darker aspects of reality: 

“The passing from the ‘black light’ from the ‘luminous night’, to the brilliance of the emerald vision will be a sign…of the completed growth of the subtle organism, the ‘resurrection body’ hidden in the physical body.” 
Henry Corbin
The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism 

So often it is our encounter with the world and the other that challenge any simplistic notion of control. For the freshly minted magician it’s an easy mistake to make, as much as we might place a high value on spiritual autonomy, it is not the same as an imagined utopia of hermetically sealed isolation. Yes our personal Great Work often leads to an increased sense of our separateness as part of our refined sense of self-awareness, but we still remain within the world with all the connections and context that this entails.  The complex mess of our world means that we eventually have to confront the dryness of our meditation, our emptied rituals and our unanswered prayers.

The way of the Via Negativa is one in which our words run dry and the work becomes truly gritty. We may to struggle to describe our work and it may feel easier to say what it is not. We are those who die before death so that we can fully become what the mundane world can’t handle.

Vastness Without, Vastness Within

The early visibility of the path dims and we feel that are operating as much by touch and instinct as we are with planned intentions. This may be the place where silence becomes our friend/enemy we may need to find those contemplative tools that allow us to sail its seas. Mystery may become our watchword as we feel the gravitational pull forwards into goodness knows what!

We may sense vast spaciousness within the self; the orthodox may describe this as ‘not self’ but we are the magicians who are often called to cross desert places in search of wisdom. This realm of dark light is where the unconscious bleeds in and our art and ecstasy often reveal more about who we really are than our well-devised narratives. In the desert our uncertainty can be treasured and when treasured these ‘WTF?’ moments become the fuel for our unfolding. 

In the desert the light pollution of our self-story gets turned down and in this silence we look upwards. It’s unsurprising that magicians spend so much time staring up at the stars. This is the realm in which we encounter distant sparks in a vast darkness. In looking we are filled with the dread and awe that reflect our internal world and the journey we must take.

Steve Dee

Autumn leaves – reviews by Steve Dee

The Night Journey: Witchcraft as Transformation (second edition)
by Yvonne Aburrow

Most of the books that I have read on Witchcraft in the last five years have tended to be either focused on history (e.g. Ronald Hutton’s The Witch) or the spookier reimagining of its Traditional, non-Wiccan manifestations.  In contrast The Night Journey offers something different in its radical re-visioning of initiatory Wicca as a path of personal and political liberation.

I first encountered Yvonne’s writing in their excellent All Acts of Love and Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca which I experienced as a vivid attempt at bringing inclusive and Queer perspectives to forms of Paganism that may have become stuck in our ableist and heteronormative views of human expression. This new work feels like an expansion of Inclusive Wicca; a conscious fleshing-out that provides a deeper, more theological appreciation of what Witchcraft has to offer as a contemporary religious path.

Yvonne has been an initiate of Gardnerian Wicca for almost 30 years and this work represents a distillation of their thinking regarding how Wicca can speak to the challenges of the 21st century. The structure of the book covers a range of themes regarding the validity of Wicca as a religious path and the way in which its initiatory structure helps manage issues such as ego-inflation and spiritual burn out. 

The first section of the book, “Between the Worlds”, moves beyond a simple “how to” book and provides a rich theological reflection on how Wicca provides a living process of shared ritual work via which a relationship with divinity can be evolved. They provide a nuanced engagement with how Pagan magical paths can address our deepest psychological need for contrast and polarity, whether these are between darkness and light or silence and sound. Yvonne has a background in academic religious studies and this feels very present in her deep description of how her own spirituality and beliefs have evolved within the framework that Wicca has provided.

For Aburrow, Witchcraft is an innately Queer path. The Witch is one who inhabits “a liminal zone between the worlds”. This path offers us a shimmering multiplicity of sexual and gender expressions and the Witch by their very definition bends, shapes and adapts. Their theology is unapologetically one of immanence and this is one of the unique features that they believe Wicca (and Paganism more widely) has to offer in the spiritual marketplace. 

In many ways Yvonne’s writing has many parallels with that of Starhawk in very consciously seeing the Witch as an adversarial figure that “endangers the status quo”. Aburrow explores the more Left-Hand Path adversarial dimensions of the Witch path, not as a preoccupation with Gothic aesthetics, but as the outlaw-tricksters who are “the eternal outsiders, the eternal critics”. The Night as the realm of dreams and the Sabbatic journey represents a need to work with ecstasy, wildness and even our own madness as a means of empowering our activism.

The second section, “Bringing it all back home”, provides us with an engaging set of reflections on Yvonne’s experience of running a coven, and these insights regarding ritual forms and working with power in leadership hold relevance across many spiritual paths. How do we seek to work towards more flattened hierarchies while retaining our awareness of the power that we hold via experience and time within a tradition?

Yvonne explores the differing ways that people learn and how we support people in plugging into an egregore while also allowing them to retain the rich individuality that will ultimately add to a tradition and allow it to evolve. For Aburrow, the ability to co-create and change is at the heart of their magic and their self-description as “a relational polytheist” evokes for me the image of a shared cauldron into which people bring their own unique contributions towards a common goal. 

Toward the book’s conclusion, Yvonne returns to the theme of liberation in the longest essay “Challenging Oppression” in which they ask us to consider the implications of our Paganism:

“I became a Witch, a Pagan a Polytheist because I believe all life is interconnected, interwoven, interpermeable.”

If such connection is central to our religious identity, then it has to have implications for our ethics and how we pursue liberty at both a personal and collective level. Yvonne’s work is unapologetically anti-oppressive and anti-racist. Well-meaning inaction is no longer viable. In order to move forward we have to face the implications of racism and colonialism and it is inevitable that such unlearning will be deeply uncomfortable. The chapter also provides some really helpful reflections of the complexities of cultural appropriation and how we might integrate wider traditions in a slow, respectful syncretism.

The Night Journey never promises to be an easy one! As you would expect it can be both disturbing and challenging. At times I felt almost overwhelmed by the concentrated punch of Aburrow’s insights and I consciously chose to slow down to allow a more healthy process of digestion! Thankfully Yvonne provides a series of helpful reflective questions and exercises at the end of each chapter to allow us to consider the implications of these issues in our lives. The brew in this cauldron is a potent one and I could imagine myself spending a year and a day working with these chapters so as to allow the type of reflection, soul searching and deep change that Yvonne’s work is promoting.

Highly recommended.

Buy the second edition of The Night Journey: Witchcraft as transformation here at http://www.shop.doreenvaliente.org/


The Biscuit Volume 1, Issue 1

For me there are few things more Punk Rock than a zine (short for magazine or fanzine). Although having their origin with 1940s sci-fi, for me they really took off as an art form during the heady, DIY culture of Punk and the myriad subcultures that it spawned. Zines at their best are a dynamic cut and paste that juxtaposes art, poetry and philosophy in a way that allow the reader a truly multifaceted take on the topic at hand.

This first edition of The Biscuit produced by Three Bones Society (www.threebonessociety.com) captures brilliantly the joyous chaos of a true zine. The contributors to this maiden edition are drawn from a rich intersect of visual artists, esoteric practitioners, psychotherapists and hedge-philosophers so there is little risk of boredom!

The Biscuit is the brainchild of Eric K Lerner, who is obviously a person of bold ambitions as this first edition is nothing less than a Queer-Feral reclamation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. The whole zine is an attempt to pull back Nietzsche’s work from the hands of fragile egotists and to place his powerful vision back within the current of the post-Christian esoteric tradition. Thus Spake… is the necessary antidote for our materialism and safe complacency: 

“He strives to penetrate the reader’s very being like a virus that takes over the host’s physical essence. His language may bloom within the reader on a subconscious level as a trigger to reinvent him/herself as a higher being.”

David Rankine kicks things off with a concise but unsurprisingly erudite reflection on how Zarathustra has impacted upon Crowley and the evolution of Thelema. Rankine rightly argues that an appreciation of Zarathustra’s message is key to illuminating the Thelemic ideal that “every man and woman is a star”. Sean Woodward’s striking poetry and artwork similarly brings a vivid magical voice to the party.

The Biscuit is full of dynamic and iconoclastic visual art: Tightrope by Charlotte Rodgers provides us with a dancing bone creature whose toppled cruciform calls us to boldly embrace spiritual autonomy: “Thou has made danger thy calling: Therein there is nothing contemptible….” The woodcuts of Thomas van der Krogt, the collage of Vanessa Sinclair and the Gnostic icons of Dolorosa de la Cruz all provide visual sustenance that is both provocative and playful.

A good zine never promises linearity, and The Biscuit unapologetically shunts us between Ron Athey’s gritty performance art cut-ups and Eric K Lerner’s reflection on the challenges of translating Nietzsche from the German: “Gott Todi Ist” is as likely to be rendered “God death is” as it is the iconic “God is Dead!”

Given my own bent as a Queer therapist I greatly enjoyed Vanessa Sinclair’s psychoanalytic reflection on the parallels between compulsion to repeat and Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return i.e. through repeating patterns we often create the space for deeper, more subtle reflection. This edition ends on a bang as Paul Bee Hampshire provides us with a joyful “Zarathustra-the Sequel” and without spoiling the ending we get to see Zee grappling with the complexities of Queer theory ☺

Zines are rarely for the fainted hearted, but this is one of those really great ones that manages to convey more in 45 pages than many a dusty tome.

Highly recommended.

Steve Dee


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