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Shekinah - The Feminine Presence of God
By Theresa Ibis, Ph.D.
Originally Published in the Alchemy Journal volume on the "Feminine Face of Alchemy"
What is the role of the Feminine in the works of Alchemy and Kabbalah?
How do we recognize the Feminine powers at work within us?
And how can we nurture this relationship in our lives to manifest its full potency?
So often it is easy to overlook the role and presence of the Feminine in our work and our lives. Yet, Her role is so essential that nothing could come into being without the Feminine. This is true of the Masculine as well, but all too often our focus is skewed towards the Masculine at the expense of the Feminine. For those who have studied the path of Alchemy, however, an important role is ascribed to the Feminine. Two of the primary archetypes of alchemical symbolism, Sol and Luna, make this clear...Luna, the Feminine, is at least half of the equation. Luna represents the anima or inner feminine of the Alchemist. This Feminine archetype is linked to the elusive workings of our sub-conscious mind, our emotional impulses, our intuitive nature, and our ability to give birth to things in the world. But, is there a deeper, more occult role that the Feminine plays in the alchemical process? To answer this question, we can, as many Alchemists of the western path have done before us, look to the ancient teachings of Kabbalah for insights.
The interlinking between Kabbalah and Alchemy is so prominent that it is nearly impossible to decipher many of the older western alchemical writings without an intimate knowledge of Kabbalah. So, what role does Kabbalah ascribe to the Feminine? According to Kabbalistic philosophy, the role that the Feminine plays in the process of creation and transformation is venerated to such a pristine place that many Kabbalistic customs are derived from these teachings. To the Kabbalist, honoring the Feminine is of the utmost importance. To the Kabbalist, the role of the Feminine is clearly distinguished. In the Kabbalah, the name of this Divine Feminine is the Shekinah, which means ‘indwelling' and refers to the Presence or Soul of God that is with us in the world. In fact, whenever someone feels as though God is present, Kabbalists would say it is actually the Shekinah. This Shekinah, though, is not merely just an aspect of God, She is a Divine Being of Her own right.
Shekinah and Creation
To conceptualize the Shekinah and her role it is necessary to look to the stories of creation. This is because the very first act of creation is where the Shekinah emerges. Kabbalah teaches that before the beginning was the En Sof, the Source of all things. En Sof is everything and nothing...It is all potential yet nothing manifested...It has no beginning and no end...It is neither masculine nor feminine, and yet both at the same time. Alchemically speaking, one might see the En Sof as the One Mind, the One Thing, the Prima Materia, etc all rolled into One. Everything that you might say about the En Sof you can also say the exact opposite about it, so it is often difficult to talk about. In other traditions the En Sof is called the Tao, the Void, the Zero Point Field, God the Source. There is no place that the En Sof is not found, for it is infinite. Thus, in order to begin the process of creation, for the potential to become actual, the En Sof had to first withdraw from Itself to create a tiny vacuum. This withdrawal or contraction is called Tsimtsum in Kabbalah. Through this, a singular point, a primordial vessel was created, and into this vessel the essence of En Sof could flow and be concentrated to such a degree that creation burst forth in a Big Bang. It is this vessel, into which the concentration of the God essence flows, that is the Shekinah, the Feminine Womb or Birth Canal of Creation. Now, it is not accurate to say that the Shekinah was created, for she already existed within En Sof. Rather, as the En Sof withdrew, the Shekinah remained; She was the vessel. It is through Her that Light and Energy came into being, for before Her, there was only the potential of existence. Thus, the Shekinah represents the self-restraint that God/En Sof had to impose upon Itself in order to create the Universe, and She embodies the eternal quintessence that results from the flow of Source energy into Her. Thus, here we can see that the Shekinah is more all encompassing than the Luna archetype of Alchemy. She is more like the Mother of both Luna and Sol. But she is also more than an archetypal mother. In a sense, we might say that the Shekinah is the Quintessence itself.
The Shekinah plays another very important role in the story of creation, and in particular in the Great Plan of humankind. It is believed that in man's fall to a denser, less perfect state of being in the physical, the Shekinah stayed with us as we separated from God or were exiled from the ‘Garden'. Thus, the Shekinah, once again, was voluntarily removed from God/En Sof in order for us to have our experience. She has always stayed with us, wherever we were exiled or isolated or shut out, the Shekinah was always there in exile and isolation with us. Thus, the Shekinah is also in Malkuth, the Kingdom, the Salt of the Earth, the final step of creation where the energies funnel into the physical world that is our home. It is for this reason that Kabbalists often refer to Malkuth as the Bride. For the ultimate Plan and driving desire of the Universe is for the Bride, the Shekinah, to reunite with her Bridegroom, the Creator. So, the Shekinah, in addition to being the Soul of God is also the Soul of the World.
There is another aspect to the Feminine that is central to Kabbalistic teachings, and is best described through the pattern of the Tree of Life. On this Tree of Life there are three pillars, the Pillar of Force (usually depicted on the Right), the Pillar of Form (usually depicted on the Left), and the Pillar of Balance (the middle pillar). The Pillar of Force is traditionally seen as the Masculine energy, with Chokmah, the Divine Father, Sol, at its top. This pillar deals with expansion, limitless flow of energy, generosity, force, initiative, potency, and movement. The Pillar of Form, on the other hand, is usually ascribed to the Feminine energy, with Binah, the Divine Mother, Luna, at its top. This pillar deals with contraction, limitation, containment, form, crystallization, receptivity, stillness, patience, and discipline, all of which reflects the functions of the Shekinah in the first act of creation. The Pillar of Balance mediates between the two polar energies and is ultimately what is needed to bring about the Union of Masculine and Feminine, Sol and Luna. These three pillars of the Tree of Life can also be likened to the Three Essentials of Alchemy.
Here again, the Shekinah plays a very special and multi-faceted role in the Kabbalistic teachings. For, it is the Shekinah that is ascribed by Kabbalists to be the Middle Pillar of Balance that unites the opposites, just as the soul allows for the opposites of body and spirit to unite, so too does the Shekinah play this role for us. Indeed, the Shekinah is the Soul of Man, what Kabbalists call the Neshamah, for She has given a portion of Herself in order for each human to come into being in this world. In giving of Herself to humans, in this state of physical density and isolation, the World Soul becomes shattered. This shattering can be metaphorically grasped in considering what might happen to a glass alembic or flask when too much pressure is put upon in the alchemical works. Thus, the Shekinah represents the ultimate archetype of selfless sacrifice. All Her sacrifices have been for the benefit of creation so that humankind may experience this life in order to fulfill its destiny and purpose. Kabbalists, therefore, pay great respect and gratitude to the Shekinah for Her sacrifice and service by taking up the mantle or the quest to reunite the Shekinah with the Creator.
The Celestial Alchemical Wedding
What role can we as Alchemists and Kabbalists play in this effort to reunite the Shekinah with Her Divine Mate? Kabbalistic and Alchemical philosophy say that this union can onlyhappen with our involvement, because She is in us. By purifying, making whole, and mastering our own soul, we help to heal the shattering of the World Soul. Then, we must go beyond the self and reach out in service to others to ultimately help all of humankind heal their souls. Piece-by-piece we bring the World Soul back into a state of wholeness that can then be lifted up to an exalted state for reunion with God. This, in essence, is the Great Work of Alchemy. As we awaken the Fire within us, purify our bodies and souls, raise our vibration, we are in essence awakening the Shekinah within and freeing Her from the bonds of Malkuth (the dense, leaden physical form). Once released, Her burning desire to reunite with the Creator (which at our level of awareness is mirrored by our own desire for union with our own soul) leads to an ascension up the Tree of Life, also experienced as the Kundalini rising. Ultimately, before the union can take place, the Kabbalist/Alchemist must pass through the gates of death in order to come face-to-face with God. In Alchemy this death takes place at the Fermentation stage of the work, in Kabbalah it happens upon ‘Crossing the Abyss'. This is a spiritual death, rather than a literal physical death, though it is certainly no small matter and takes much discipline, courage, faith, and willingness to completely surrender to the Supreme Being.
What are the qualities that we must cultivate within ourselves in order to succeed at this alchemical process? Here again, we can learn from the Shekinah, the Feminine face of Alchemy. For, according to Kabbalah, it is the Shekinah that we need to learn to work with intimately in order to awaken Her within us and rise to unite with the Creator. We cannot succeed at Alchemy without mastery of the Feminine aspects within ourselves and the path. Too often we are so focused on the action or the task at hand that we are not even aware of the subtle yet essential roles the Feminine is playing in the process. For example, in the distillation of a solution, were it not for the vessels that contain the solution and its vapors, it would not even be possible to isolate the three essentials. The distillation apparatus itself, the vessel, is the Feminine. Furthermore, the discipline, patience, and concentration it takes on the Alchemist's part to stay focused during the distillation process, so that the subtle energies can be coherently harnessed, also involve the Feminine qualities.
Perhaps another look at creation stories from both Kabbalah and Alchemy can help to demonstrate the qualities of the Feminine that are needed. Imagine a single spark of light, a seed of creation, an idea ushered forth from the One Mind. This spark comes to hover above the waters of the firmament, the Prima Materia. But this spark, this fire, cannot come into direct contact with the waters or it will be extinguished, for they are opposites. So, it hovers just above the surface of the unformed waters. And as it hovers, its intense heat penetrates into the waters and warms them. As it continues to give off its radiant heat and light, the once cold and dark waters become warm, even hot, and a steam begins to form on the surface. A third thing has been created by the proximity of the two, containing a mixture of both aspects within it. This process continues until a thick blanket of steam forms and begins to surround the fire as well, until finally, this thick blanket of steam created from part water and part fire, that fills the air or the space between, allows for or becomes the medium by which the spark and its energy can be conducted into the waters. The steam or air mediates the transfer of energy and creative power of the fire into the waters. As this conduction happens and the energy enters the waters, it moves through like a flash of lightening, generating light, sounds, vibration, electricity. These expressions of energy form and shape the waters, creating something out of the Prima Materia, out of the One Thing. This mediator, the steam, the air, the spirit (mercury) allows the fire or consciousness (sulfur) of the One Mind to connect with the waters or material (salt) of the One Thing and creation happens.
The important thing to recognize here is what is required in this process - patience, persistence, stillness, and restraint - in order for the steam to develop, for the mediator to be drawn out. If spurious other thoughts from the Mind had interfered it would act like a wind blowing across the surface and clearing the steam away so that it could not become thick enough to mediate the conductive power of the fire. The occult lesson is: one must not pollute this process with thought. Nor can it be rushed. One can only be still and wait patiently and quietly, while focusing on the One Thing (the still waters) and the original spark or idea from the One Mind (the fire).
The qualities involved here are primarily the domain of the Feminine. It is the Feminine that teaches patience rather than seeking immediate gratification. It is the Feminine that requires silence and stillness for the spirit to be drawn out. It is the Feminine that gives self-restraint so that the fire does not try to go directly into the waters and be extinguished. It is the Feminine that is willing to bear the process of waiting for the gestation and pregnancy to take its full course before new life can be born. It is the product of the Feminine, the air or spirit, that mediates this birth like a midwife. It is the Feminine that beckons us inwards and demands discipline to perfect the art and our creations. If we shun the Feminine, we deny ourselves the glory of attaining the Holy Grail. If we indulge in vice and darkness we create shadows within and chase the Shekinah away, or at least block her light from our consciousness. The grace of the Feminine's gifts must be earned and are often hard fought. Yet her rewards are sweet and well worth the effort. When we pay homage to the Shekinah by purifying our soul and cleansing ourselves from the dross or ‘sin' of our being, then She will show us Her face. Therefore, it is crucial that we each honor the Sacred Alchemical Feminine so that she will be with us to mediate our transformations and creations. Without the Feminine there can be no Alchemy.
BELOW AN ILLUSTRATION OF THE TREE OF LIFE WITHIN KABBALAH'S SYSTEM: