The Great Work

The legacy of modern times tends to place the development of psychic powers as the aim or even the goal of the Great Work. Such a degraded notion of a spiritual path places personal or material improvement at its very centre. Initiation, however, is central to the Great Work and is the aim, not the goal. Yet even initiation has been reduced to the personal sphere.

Great Work: Ordo Astri SymbolThe confusion of the spiritual with the personal is very deeply ingrained; however we express the Great Work most will see it as a noble ideal and will pay it lip service only. Their real motives for doing what we call a Great Work are no more than the aspirations of ordinary men and women. They hope for magical powers that will help them gain advantage, get their own way and do what they imagine is their ‘True Will’. Or otherwise, if they do not even believe in magical powers as such, they will hope to develop latent powers of some kind, psychological or otherwise—a key of all knowledge and power that will help them effortlessly achieve what are in reality completely profane ambitions.

Any statement of the Ideal of the Great Work often involves ‘service’. Primarily, such service, given freely without hope of reward, is the service to truth. And before truth can be served, we must place the seeking of truth as central to our aims, over and above any personal considerations whatsoever. However, there is a personal and a cosmic side to the Great Work but these can never be truly separate things. On the personal level, there is a need to know Reality. This entirely evades the average person, for they will imagine they already know what ‘reality’ is. No one can ever know Reality in its entirety, but we can extend our knowledge so that whatever we knew before is revealed as merely contingent or incidental. When such an extension reaches to the supra-human level then it is part of what initiation is in the true sense of the word. This involves development of the highest intellectual faculties—though it must be noted that ‘intellect’ here must not be thought of as involving the acquisition of ordinary knowledge. It would be useless then to try and describe what Reality is, as no words can convey it, nor any symbol—though symbols, if we approach them in the right way can convey knowledge more directly than language, which is also symbolism of a kind, but indirect.

Great Work: Immortal Stone

The immortal stone is one such symbol. It is called a ‘stone’ for good reasons. This can be actual or physical, as incorporated into sacred architecture, or otherwise built into the rites of initiation and the sphere of the practitioner. The Sri Yantra is an example of such a ‘stone’ symbolised geometrically, and the omphalos symbolises the true world centre or heart of all. The stone is also considered to be ‘substance’, which is frequently confused with matter (materia) in the conventional sense of that word. Technically, substance is emanation from the principal, which corresponds to the true state of affairs. In the words of St. John, I: 1, in the Latin version:

In principio erat verbum.

This is translated in the King James and other English Bibles as, “In the beginning was the Word”. However, this is not correct. The Word is the principle, or in the Greek, arche. In other words, the translation has degraded the meaning so that it implies a causal ‘beginning’, whereas a beginning can at best be an analogous term for that which has neither beginning nor end, because it is with spirit. The verse continues to say that the Word (Greek logos) “was with God” and “the Word was God”. The Greek version gives theos or ‘divine’, which is translated as the noun ‘God’. The translation also places this in a past tense, again implying a state of affairs that existed, whereas the true state of affairs always exists. Similarly, among the obfuscations of modern magick, the Greek word aeon is frequently misconstrued as a period of time, whereas its proper meaning is that of ‘eternity’. Thus all spiritual conveyances of old languages such as Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Arabic and indeed to an even worse extent, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, have been reduced to the phantom of ‘matter’ and considerations of corporeal time and space subject to the confusion of numerical measures and assignments.[1]

In order to comprehend anything of the Great Work of initiation, a person must cleanse their mind of all materialistic preconceptions. They must be prepared to learn a new language that involves a contemplative apprach to symbolism. This means learning to think in a different way from that which we have learned through the conditioning of culture, environment and so-called education. This will not be acquired effortlessly through some vague ‘intuition’.

Great Work: Eternity

We obtain a better sense of the value of eternity or immortality when we grow older. If we have given enough time to contemplation then we will also certainly grow at least a little wiser. While in our youth we live in a kind of blissful ignorance concerning the true state of affairs. We cannot help having a delusionary sense that we are already immortal, or as immortal as we want to be. The question of soul survival is nonetheless quite simple. Do we want to be extinguished after mortal death, to suffer the dispersion and oblivion that is called the ‘second death’, or do we want to continue, perhaps forever? Curiously, if we believe that only oblivion awaits the end of our short-lived mortal existence then that negates any meaning or purpose to the life we are having; everything will be cancelled and be as nothing.[2] However, that is what most people now believe and so from the initiated point of view the thoughts, actions and aspirations of most human beings are useless and saddening, for they are only possible where there is more or less total ignorance of spiritual realities.

The cosmic aspect of the Great Work is that initiates of the present time, now very few in number, play a part in preparing what will come after the decline and fall of the present race, which is now well in progress. In terms of time we are referring to a future age, but there are possibilities that reach far beyond any such terrestrial concerns; such concerns are modified by the restrictive conditions of the human state at the present time, which is very degenerate. Time, in any case, only exists in the corporeal state. There are infinite modes of being and of existence in the supra-human realm.


1. This is explained in depth by René Guénon in Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, and other of the collected works [Sophia Perennis].
2. This is especially true of deeds or actions that have no substance, as we have defined that word.

From Nu Hermetica (work in progress)
© Oliver St. John 2021

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