In depth psychology, we often use the language and images of alchemy metaphorically to describe human growth. Bear with me, then, as I use the language of modern and medieval sciences to describe a process that lends soul-making meaning to scientific method.
As I’ve indicated before, calcination is the first operation of alchemy. Calcination is the thermal treatment process of applying a low, constant heat to a substance in such a way that decomposition occurs. The substance never comes to the melting or boiling point, and does not roast, either; the heat is that low and constant.
In addition to causing decomposition of a substance, calcination may also cause phase transition or the removal of a volatile fraction. A phase transition is when an element or compound transitions from a liquid phase to a gas phase. Vaporization is a phase transition. You can see how these processes work in the diagram below.
In chemistry and physics, volatility is the tendency of a substance to vaporize. The volatility of a substance is directly related to its vapor pressure. At a given temperature, a substance with a higher vapor pressure vaporizes more readily than a substance with a lower vapor pressure.
Some substances, such as dry ice, can change directly from the solid state to a vapor without becoming a liquid. They are sublimated, a different process of transitioning from one state to another.
The requirements for transitions are innate to the substance. Put another way, the nature or quality of the substance itself demands the circumstance under which it can be transitioned and transformed.
I think you see where we are going, here, don’t you? Isn’t it likewise true that one’s own nature requires a certain amount and type of influence before dismemberment, disintegration, and decomposition can occur? It may take a long time of calcinating before you enter a transitional stage that leads to transformation. Perhaps you’re the sort who doesn’t transform under low, constant heat; you may be the dry ice type, a person who doesn’t collapse into a puddle before transforming, but instead goes straight to falling apart.
In any case, there are a variety of experiences that shake us to our footings. “Violence, loss, grief, catastrophe, privation, illness, despair, envy, fury, and ecstasy induce altered states that dismember by delinking the personality from its habitual moorings” (The Book of Symbols, p. 766). One of us is undone by depression and despair; another by envy. A friend is shaken to her bones by grief and loss; a neighbor by a long illness. Anger drives one person to stumble and then finally fall apart, while another is transitioned by ecstasy. Wouldn’t we like to be able to choose which states produce our transitions? I, for one, would much rather be transformed by ecstasy than catastrophe!
Live Like a Pilgrim
Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose the means of our transitions and transformations. What changes us is proportionate to our own nature. In his second letter to the Christians at Corinth, St. Paul described the process of change in spiritual language:
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh—for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds—casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; and having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled (2 Corinthians 10:3-6).
I love these verses, because they show God fighting on behalf of God against God-like structures. Paul is saying that it requires a mighty, gargantuan force to pull down the huge structures of experience, habit, training, and ego that separate us from God. The obedience of Christ is the willingness to go straight to the cross, to sacrifice everything and hang, suspended, between heaven and earth, to be one’s highest Self, in answer to the call of the Transcendent.
Paul is telling us that our work is to destroy fantasy and illusion in order to come home to the essentials, to a deep knowledge of absolute truth and love. God is love, and “love is all you need,” but so much separates us from love that we need TNT to blow all our structures into smithereens so we can finally arrive at a destroyed state.
The destroyed state is a transitional state. By whatever process it is brought, it is a state between what we were, and what we will become. You may pitch a tent there, but don’t get too comfortable; it will change. Though you abide in a place for 30 years, as I did in my marriage, you won’t stay there. Everything changes: you can count on that. Live like a pilgrim.
Hour of Lead
I like the language of science. I like that we can predict that at so much heat, after so much time, a liquid will transform into a gas. The words for these processes say just what they mean, yet also elegantly describe what we all experience at one time or another in our lives: the low, low, long, slow heat of reduction.
Calcination is slow, and has a low feeling to it. Calcination is like depression. One loses life, zest, and passion and begins to live in a twilight of indifference, going through the motions. We are like a homeless man, slumped against the bricks of a restaurant wall as patrons dine and laugh only a few feet away. We become mute witnesses to the pleasures and joys of others. There was a time when we longed for what they have, but longing requires focus and aim. Longing consumes energy. Exhausted, we lie down on the pavement with the homeless man. Who cares?
An indifferent shrug of the shoulders has a whiff of sulfur to it. An oppressive state of leadenness has overcome us, a time that Anne Morrow Lindbergh called the “hour of lead” after her infant son was kidnapped and killed. This leadenness is heavy and ponderous. It is black and magenta, like a bruise. It has a caustic sort of bitterness to it that erodes one’s substance ever so slowly. It smells of biting brimstone, which is sulfur—an element essential to all life.
Ronnberg, Ami & Kathleen Martin (Eds). (2010). The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images. Cologne, Germany: Taschen.