Alchemy, Parzival, and Compassion
By Chevalier Emerys
There are some Martinist traditions that are familiar with the following questions and answers: Q: What is the Initiate’s goal? A: The conquest of the Adventurous Castle. Q: What does the Initiate expect to find in the Adventurous Castle? A: The sacred Vase, the liquor of which will quench his thirst for higher evolution.
Are we not reminded of the Holy Grail – that sacred receptacle that contains the liquor of rejuvenation and spiritual Gnosis? In fact, we cannot discuss alchemy and compassion without discussing the Grail! The Holy Grail, which, according to the early Wolfram von Eschenbach story of Parzival, was guarded by the Knights Templar, and of which it was said: They live from a Stone whose essence is most pure. If you have never heard of it, I shall name it for you here. It is called “Lapsit elixis”. By virtue of this Stone the Phoenix is burned to ashes, in which he is reborn. Thus does the Phoenix moult its feathers! Which done, it shines dazzlingly bright and lovely as before!…Such powers does the Stone confer on mortal men that their flesh and bones are made young again. This Stone is also called “The Grail”. Indeed the Grail is fundamental to both the alchemical process and our understanding of compassion itself.
We are confronted with alchemical imagery all throughout Parzival – even more so since the colors featured all over in Eschenbach’s book are black, red, and white. These are the three colors which every alchemical transmutation goes through. Initiates would be wise to recognize these associations in their initiatic traditions. And who is the hero within these Grail myths? It is the widow’s son Parzival – whose name means “to pierce between two valleys” and “the Parzuf (face) of God (El). This is a name representing balance and self Mastery – something which is emphasized in the initiations of most mystery schools, and certainly within every alchemical elixir. Furthermore, traditionally Parzival’s shield had a very significant blazon on it. It was composed of a white field with a red heart in the center. Are we to understand that in order to attain the Grail – that elusive stone or elixir, then we are to become like Percival and work through the way of the heart – the way of compassion? The esoteric tradition would suggest that is indeedthe case.
In Parzival our hero only attains the Grail after he lets go of the reins of his horse and trusts in God to lead him to the Grail castle. Then when he is there, our hero only attains the Grail after he asks the right question. This question requires him to let go of all preconceived ideas of what is socially acceptable, or what is politically savvy, and he has to act completely and holistically through his heart – with compassion. He must forget that it is not proper for a Knight to speak to a King, unless the King speaks to him first. Indeed, he must speak not as a famous knight of the Round Table, but rather as a humble soul who is seeking only to provide relief to another who is suffering. The suffering in the book Parzival is not only taking place within the Grail King, but the very land itself. We are informed in the Parzival myth that the Grail King received a wound which made it so that he was not alive, but he was not dead; he couldn’t sit, he couldn’t stand; he was not awake, but he was not asleep, etc. The Grail King was being torn by dualities, which was causing his sickness, and by extension, the sickness of the land. The Grail myth required a hero who could reconcile the dualities of life, and relieve suffering by compassion, which would bring about the Grail and ultimately the restoration of the waste land and the healing of the King – a story very reminiscent of the myth of Buddha and emphasized in the work of Lao Tzu. The hero in the Grail myth is Parzival, and it is only after he acts out of compassion by asking the sick Grail King, “what ails you?” that the Grail appears. As initiates, aren’t we charged with the same mission – to give up the personality we have constructed for ourselves, and act only as an unknown – and through the compassion of the heart? This is even more significant because we learn in Parzival that prior to the Grail appearing, the King had tried a variety of medicines that were meant to heal him, but which didn’t. It is said: “They lost no time in carrying the King into the presence of the Grail for any aid God would give him. But when the King set eyes on it, it came to a second affliction to him that he might not die…There is a bird called Pelican. When it has young it loves them to excess. Instinctive love impels it to pick through its own breast and let blood flow into its chick’s mouths. This done, it dies. We obtained some blood of this bird to see if its love would be efficacious, and anointed the wound to the best of our ability: but it helped us not at all.” In the middle ages the pelican was a symbol of Christ and Christ’s compassion towards humanity, however the pelican was also the name of an alchemical vessel. It is for this reason that the pelican pecking its own breast is still found on the aprons of some Rosicrucian and Masonic Orders. We also learn in Parzival that they tried to heal the King with an herb called “dragon wort”. Obviously in Parzival, the initial treatments with the “blood of the pelican”, symbol of an elixir from an alchemical vessel, and the “dragon wort” were ineffective in healing the Grail King from his ailment. Only the Grail does the job, with the assistance of Parzival’s compassion. It may be a surprise to some readers to learn that the word “Grail” originally comes from the ancient Sumerian word “GRA.AL”, which was a word describing the alchemical arts taught to mankind by the gods. So it is only with the alchemical art and compassion that the Grail King is healed and by extension the land itself.
The word compassion comes from the Latin “com”, meaning “together” and “pati”, meaning “suffer”. Therefore true compassion is “suffering together”, or shifting our consciousness outside of ourselves and into the realm of another- because in the end, isn’t it true that we are the other? In the Oneness, we must love our neighbor as ourself because our neighbor is ourself! By feeling another’s pain, we are able to lose all sense of selfishness, and act as a tool of healing. By so doing, we align ourselves with the consciousness of God – which is the consciousness of all regeneration in Nature itself. Let us also not forget that the word “compassion” has within is the word “compass” – a word meaning both “to understand, “to design”, and to “navigate”. The compasses are a significant tool to the Freemasons as a symbol of spiritual enlightenment, as this instrument draws a circle. The circle is a symbol in which a line comes in contact with itself…and isn’t this what occurs when we feel compassion? No true elixir can be made in alchemy without compassion for others who may be suffering. When we make an elixir, it is to help heal another’s suffering.
Returning to the story of Parzival, our hero furthermore encounters a hermit by the name of Trevizrent, who reveals the Grail history to him. The name “Trevizrent” means “the threefold knower” – a title which means the same thing as “Trismigistus.” The word “hermit” comes from “Hermes”. Therefore, the very character who reveals the Grail tradition in Parzival, is in fact the ancient Archetype of Hermes Trismigistus. Hermes is most notably famous for being considered the founder of alchemy, and the composer of his famed “Emerald Tablet” – the instructions on how to attain the Philosopher’s Stone. It is no coincidence that alchemical instruction was said to be on this Emerald Tablet, and the Grail is sometimes described as a cup that is carved from a giant emerald.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly in Parzival, when our hero attains the Grail, and is made a new Grail King, Trevizrent the hermit reveals to Parzival: “through your own effort, you have changed God’s law.” What a statement! It suggests that the enlightened initiate is a co-creator with God – an Agent of Omneity. By walking the middle path, acting through our hearts, utilizing Hermetic laws, and removing all vestments tied with our ego, we in turn become the King in possession of the Grail. Our thirst becomes quenched for higher evolution. The adventurous castle is conquered, and the waste land is healed. Let us pay attention as initiates! Let us continue this quest to restore the wasteland – for it is THE quest for the incoming Age of Aquarius – the age of the chalice bearer.
So if we know that the Grail is tied not only to alchemy, but more importantly to compassion itself, do we see this same motif in other alchemical symbols? The answer is yes, not only is it found in other alchemical symbols, but it is found in the most widely known alchemical symbol: that of turning lead into gold. Gold, in alchemical symbolism, was associated with the heart, which is found in qabbalistic symbolism as being represented by the sephiroth Tiphereth on the Tree of Life. So from a qabbalistic standpoint, we turn lead into gold when we enter the sphere of Tiphereth, or the heart – which is activated by compassion. This sephiroth, or sphere on the qabbalistic tree, not only represents the compassion of the heart and gold, but it also represents the sun. The sun, from the most ancient mythologies, has always been used as a symbol for the external expression of God. The sun shines on all – both the bad and the good, and never ceases to provide its light. When we practice compassion, aren’t we becoming like the sun itself? Aren’t we shining our light? When we practice compassion, aren’t we becoming a symbol of the manifestation of God as well? If we truly are made in God’s image, then isn’t this our destiny – to learn to become walking compassion?
I want to say something about the difference between compassion and sympathy. Sympathy is an emotion we feel when we see someone who is having a tough time, and we feel bad for them. It involves a separation between us and them, in which we feel sorry for them, but we are happy that we are not in their situation or that we are not them. Compassion, on the other hand, is recognizing that we are them – and as they suffer, we suffer. We know that their suffering comes from a lack of awareness, and that we can only know the tragedy of their situation because at some point, in some life, we have been through the same kind of suffering. As such, we can have compassion for anyone – including our enemies. We have to know that the only reason why people do bad things is because they are suffering and don’t know any better or any other way to solve their situation. The only reason we know that some ways are “not the way to go” is because we have been there ourselves at some point and have found out what is and is not the best way to go. This is why Lao Tzu says, “what is a good person but a bad person’s teacher; what is a bad person but a good man’s job?” By acting out of compassion we help to raise everyone from the base lead of ignorance to the spiritual gold of understanding. This is true alchemy. The alchemist, with compassion, takes something of a lower nature and transmutes it into something higher and more valuable. If we are to truly be alchemists, then we too must learn how to turn lead into gold, and transmute our world with the active agent of compassion. Compassion is the only thing that allows us to connect, allows us to evolve, and ultimately allows us to live in harmony in this world. Without compassion, the world becomes a wasteland, selfishness becomes dominant, and society and the land itself suffers without relief.
Who is courageous enough to don the shield of Parzival – the shield of the heart and of compassion, and journey into the wasteland in a quest to heal the injured Master within each suffering person, and by extension heal the wasteland as a whole? The world needs knights such as these, as we now live in a wasteland, and if we do not heed the call, then who will? If we do not transmute our wasteland, then who will? It is our destiny to heal suffering, and it is the mission of the coming age. As alchemists, we must transmute the lead into gold, and become golden ourselves through the process. Then, and only then, will we discover that we are the true Grail Guardians, and the world itself will be restored to balance.