The Alchemist’s Dream

Blue bowl

I’m sad that I don’t know the name of the potter who created this beautiful blue-glazed terracotta bowl, and I was even sadder when I accidentally broke it.  But now it’s a reminder of a spiritual insight: that our brokenness can become a source of beauty… 

This song is for anyone who’s going through a difficult time.  I’ve been struggling with all sorts of things recently – professional and religious identity, second-hand racism, homophobia, the practicalities of day-to-day life as a freelancer and single parent, and more besides.  Being an empath doesn’t help, because unless I’m very conscious and careful I find myself taking on everyone else’s pain and trauma, along with my own!

For those who aren’t familiar with alchemy, it’s an ancient science that sought to turn base metals – everyday metals like iron and lead – into gold.  The alchemist’s quest is a metaphor for life itself: the discovery of the magical Elixir that transforms the mundane into something beautiful.   This Elixir is no more and no less than the Deep Mystery that the members of the Magdalene Fellowship, in my book The Nineteen Songs of Remembering, refer to as ‘The Love beyond all names’.

So ‘The Alchemist’s Dream’ is a way of trying to see challenges and struggles in a different light.   It’s sometimes hard not to feel envious of those people who seem to ‘have it all’ – the ones who look as though they’re just breezing through life, with good health, a thriving business or a well-paid job, a loving family, and a comfortable home.  But what  if life was never meant to be easy?  What if it’s through the brokenness that we learn to shine, and through accepting pain that we realise our deepest potential?

The Alchemist’s Dream: song lyrics

Break us again, O Beloved!

For whenever you break us,

You gather us up with such infinite tenderness

That in some distant corner of some distant vision,

Our souls hear your innermost song in the silence,

And your hands will remake us

With a Love that we cannot express…


Yes, there are those who survive this lifetime intact,

Yes, there are those who hold firm and refuse to surrender…

But where is the magic and where is the rapture in that?

For we only become our true selves in the hands of the Mender.


Break us again, O Beloved!

For whenever you break us,

The heat of your flame sparks a melody in our veins,

And the songs that we sing start to echo your mystery,

Till some of the listeners find their own echoes…

And the places they take us

Are the places where power remains.


Yes, there are those who survive this lifetime intact…


Break us again, O Beloved!

For whenever you break us,

You mend every crack with the purest of molten gold;

Then the others who carry the scars of your mending

Can recognise us as their trusted companions,

And they’ll gather to wake us…

And a new story starts to unfold.


Yes, there are those who survive this lifetime intact…


Break us again, O Beloved!

For whenever you break us,

And mend us with gold, there’s a trace of your Love revealed;

Transformation is wrought by the cruellest of breaking,

And the deepest surrender, and the sweetest remaking…

Till they start to mistake us

For the Alchemist’s vision fulfilled…


Nothing remains of the people we were,

Nothing remains of the life we once knew;

Though our substance is clay, yet we shimmer with gold,

And we look at each other, and see only You…

So at last, in this lifetime, the Alchemist’s dream is fulfilled!


© Gemma Burford, 2017


Are you going alone into the darkness?


Image by Derek Shirlaw via

On Wednesday, I was interviewed by Dr Anna Baranowsky, CEO and President of the Traumatology Institute Canada, for the ‘What is PTSD?’ YouTube channel.   We didn’t want to stop talking when our time was up.  What interested Anna most was my idea of  Fellowships:  small communities of people who support one another, share inspiration, and create something together (whether it’s an artwork, a project, a collective spiritual experience, or just a deeper understanding of a topic).

Spoiler alert: This is what’s found, and lost, in the series of books that begins with The Reluctant Flame-Keeper.   Will it ever be found again?  That part is up to you.

I don’t think I was quite so articulate when I spoke with Dr Anna, although you’ll be able to see what I actually said in a few days’ time, when the video editing is done.  Like all  good tales, this one is evolving in the telling, which is seriously frustrating, because I’m trying to get my first novel out into the world and it keeps on shape-shifting.

One of  my lecturers once told me that writing a thesis was a bit like trying to stuff a live squid into a shopping bag, and I can vouch for the fact that a novel is the same.  Every time I think I’m nearly there, I get a new insight that turns the whole damned thing on its head.  I’m now coming to the conclusion that the current draft ends in the wrong place!

Meanwhile, here’s a short story I’ve written especially for the eclipse season.  Anyone with an interest in the sky, whether from the point of view of astrology or astronomy, will know that we have two eclipses coming up this month: a partial lunar eclipse on 7/8 August, and a total solar eclipse on 21 August.  So here’s an eclipse gift for all my blog readers.  I’m pretty sure that this story will find its way, in a modified form, into one of my books: it’s the condensed message of the entire trilogy, the ultimate spoiler.  But I didn’t want to hold on to it until I figure out what I’m doing with the books, in case it might be helpful for someone out there who feels alone and despairing.

As Mariam sings to Yeshua in The Song of the Mourner: You shall not go alone into the darkest night /  Our love surrounds you, though we’re hidden from your sight…’


DAUGHTER OF THE ECLIPSE by Gemma Burford, 2017

Please share this story freely under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC-BY-NC-SA): this means you can share it, translate it, and make and share derivatives, as long as you (a) credit me as the original author, (b) don’t make a profit from it, and (c) make sure that everyone you share it with has agreed to the same terms.

`I am calling you in, calling you downwards,’ she tells me.  `Come and find your twin soul!’

`Who are you?’ you ask, shivering with fear.

`I am Ceridwen, the Dark Goddess, known to some as Kali.  I’m calling you away from the ‘life’ that you’ve constructed by following the officially approved plan, back to the original plan for your incarnation; the true plan, the one that was written long before you were birthed into this life.  Come away with me now, and descend into a deeper darkness than you imagined possible.’

`No!’ you say. `I won’t go!  I don’t do darkness!  I am a child of Light, and you are evil!’

`Ah, I know you don’t want to go!  Haven’t I tried everything to shatter this illusion of yours?  Haven’t I called to you every day, in the aftershock of violence, trauma, heartbreak, bereavement, and all the thousands of small losses that happen in between?  I have never given up on you, I’ve kept on calling, in the hope that one day you’ll accept my invitation to come down to the Underworld with me and learn who you truly are.  But for all these years, you’ve resisted.  You’ve clung to your self-made fictions with all your strength.  Today, at last, you must surrender.’

She is pulling off all the masks that you crafted so carefully, and wear daily, one on top on another on top of another.  The mask of the Dutiful Daughter, the A-Star Student, the Reliable Employee, the Successful Career Woman, the Loving Wife, the Good Mother, the Unselfish Charity Worker, the Devoted Carer… off they all come, one by one.

The weight of all these masks has grown heavier and heavier as the years have gone on; but that doesn’t mean that you were ready to take them off.  What if there’s nothing underneath?  Or what if there’s only a small, shrivelled, useless creature?

She drags you, sobbing and screaming, down the spiral staircase into a place of utter darkness.

“This is the place of initiation,” she says.  ‘But now, at last, I understand your resistance.  You were never meant to come here alone, to endure the darkness without support.  Where is your Fellowship?’

‘My Fellowship?’

`Yes; where are your sisters, your brothers, your mentors, and your wise elders?  Where are the healers, wordsmiths and craft-workers who will hold you at the centre of their web of Deep Love?  They were supposed to be here, waiting for you, keeping the circle strong and safe around you, as you journey through the darkness to find your soul.  Didn’t you call them in?’

`But…nobody told me about this place.  Nobody said I had to call anyone in.’

Ceridwen sighs, and the earth itself trembles with her sighing.  `Now I understand it.  The old legend is true, after all.  You’re one of those.

`What do you mean, one of those?’

`You’re one of the children of the Eclipse: the sons and daughters of the broken Fellowship.    The Demiurgos warned me of this, long ago; they told me that one day, their powers of greed and ambition would finally succeed in breaking it.   But I refused to believe it.  The Fellowship had survived, underground, through generation after generation of Burning Times.  They called them heretics at first, and then witches; they burned them in their millions.  But the Fellowship still clung on, through a thousand years of persecution.  I never imagined I’d see a day when the Demiurgos would eclipse the Old Ways entirely, and even I, Ceridwen, would be forgotten.’

`Is it my fault, then?’ you ask.  `Was there something I should have done differently?’

`Don’t blame yourself,’ Ceridwen says.  ‘It was never your fault.  They warned me long ago about the two world wars, and the colder, slower, more pernicious wars that would follow; they told me of the tide of materialism and self-interest that would slowly come in to wash away the debris, and of the technologies that they would devise to steal human minds away from their twin souls.  They said they would work their greatest enchantment yet: transforming Art into Entertainment.  They laughed in my face as they told me their plot: to distort and pervert the image of Deep Love so much that everyone would imagine that their `twin soul’, or ‘soulmate’, was another person in another body, and imagine themselves doomed either to wander the wasteland in search of their missing half, or to wait forever to be rescued.’

`Yes,’ you say slowly, ‘that is what they teach us, from our earliest childhood.  We’re led to believe that someday our prince will come, or that we must go out and seek our princess if that’s the way our brains are wired; and that when we find that one special person, they’ll have the power to repair what’s broken in us, and weave back what’s torn.  Are you saying that’s not going to happen?’

`What you view as love is impossible,’ says Ceridwen.  `The idea that two broken people could come together, heal each other, and save each other from the darkness?  That’s not how it works.  You can’t save another broken person.  Brokenness plus brokenness just equals more pain.’

`But…who will save me, then?’ you ask.

`Has nobody ever told you?  Your task, as a human being, is to initiate yourself into wholeness.  This is what Jesus was trying to teach: not that you only needed to believe in His resurrection in order to be saved, but that you should trust in your own capacity to resurrect yourself, overcome fear, and do as He did.  His resurrection was real, but it was also a parable: he did it for you, to show you exactly what you have to do.  You must die to the everyday world, let go of everything you ever hoped or dreamed or believed or loved, and go down into the darkness of the tomb; then I, the Dark Goddess, will lead you through the Labyrinth until you find your own soul at the centre of it, and emerge as a whole person.  This is the Divine Reunion, and if you can’t achieve it for yourself, you’ve no hope of finding someone else to do it for you.’

`Then Jesus Christ is my twin soul?  Is that what you’re saying?’

`No, that’s not it at all.  You aren’t listening.  I’m saying that your `twin soul’ is no more and no less than the part of yourself that you’ve been trying to suppress, because someone, somewhere, once told you it was wrong to be that.  When you face that shadow, you’re on the path to becoming Christed, as Jesus was.  He was a powerful healer, wordsmith and craft-worker for many years; but it was only after His death and resurrection that he became the Christ, the Anointed One, who understood My deepest mysteries.  But I completely understand your fear.  It’s hard, unbelievably hard, to go through an initiation with no Fellowship around you.  It would be easy to lose yourself utterly, and even get to imagining that there’s never going to be any way out of the Labyrinth.’

`This is why some people end their lives,’ you say.  ‘They feel trapped; they imagine that there’s no way out.’

`To be a daughter or son of the Eclipse is no easy thing.  When you travel through the darkness, it’s the Love beyond all names that helps you to reunite your soul and body, which hold all the power of your emotions, dreams and memories, with your mind and spirit, which give you the ability to make plans and take action to turn those dreams into realities.  And without a Fellowship, how will you get even a glimmer of the delicious bliss that’s the Love beyond all names?  Oh, I can’t believe that the Fellowship has been lost everywhere, even now.  I’m certain there must be places where it still survives; the places that don’t interest the Demiurgos because there’s not much profit to be made there, like the high mountains, the impenetrable forests, the parched deserts and the frozen tundra.  But none of that helps you in the least.  You can’t just travel half-way across the world and steal someone else’s traditions.  You’re one of the unfortunates who’s been born into a time and place where the Fellowship has been broken, and you’ll just have to do the best you can with that.’

`So… I must face the darkness by myself?’

`Either face it by yourself, or learn to restore the Fellowship, and then call in your sisters, brothers, mentors and wise elders to go on ahead and hold a safe space for you.  The choice is yours.’

`I don’t know how to restore it,’  you admit.  ‘I went to the church, the temple, the mosque and the synagogue, I went to social things at work, and made friends online, and joined the clubs and societies that interested me.  But I never found that Deep Love that you’re talking about.  I made a lot of friends, on the face of it; but I’d never dream of asking even one of them to go ahead of me into the darkness, and wait there for me.’

`Even if you knew, and they knew, that you would do the same for them when they called?  Can’t you open your heart to the possibility of reconnecting with people at that level?’

`I wish I could.  But I don’t know where to start.  I don’t even know what Fellowship means.’

`My sister Brighid will give you the blueprint,’ she says.  ‘As the Healer, she lights the flame of the hearth for the Circle of Witnessing; as the Wordsmith, she lights the flame of the altar-candle for the Circle of Inspiration; and as the Craft-Worker, she lights the flame of the forge for the Circle of Co-Creation.  This is the work of your Fellowship.  These three circles are, in reality, spirals; because even as the members of the group sit together in circle, they’re constantly expanding their power and awareness.  And at the point where these three spirals meet, the Love beyond all names will begin, in time, to bubble up like a sacred spring or to burn like a flame, or perhaps both.’

`Do you believe that we could really create something like that?’

`Haven’t you realised yet that you can create anything you choose?  But that’s only the beginning.  The true work of the Fellowship is to learn the mysteries of Reunion: to bring the Fire and the Water together, to interweave the secrets of the Masculine and Feminine at the turning-points of the year.  Then there are two more steps beyond that.’

`Are you saying there must be one Fellowship for women, and another for men?’

`Yes, this, for most people, is how it must be; without separation they can’t experience the joy of Reunion.  Most women find their deepest healing and wholing in a group of women, as the Fellowship of the Magdalene was in days gone by; and most men, in a group of men, like the Fellowship of the Nazarene.  But there’s also a third way, for those who have been pushed across the rainbow bridge to transcend the binary concept of gender, and have felt the pain of separation in other ways.  The Fellowship of the Rainbow is for anyone who is willing to be male sometimes and female at other times, to be both at once or to be neither, to tear off the label: to acknowledge in every gathering that the ultimate Reality, the Love beyond all names, is above and beyond all polarities.  But not everyone is called to that work.’

`There are three Fellowships, then, brought together at specific times of the year?’

`Sometimes two, sometimes three; but yes, they must be brought together on the shortest night, the longest night, the two nights in the year that are in perfect balance with the day, the eve of the thawing-time, the eve of the blossoming-time, the eve of the first harvest, and the eve of leaf-fall.  These are the eight Vigils before the High Holy Days, in which each Fellowship shares its insights, and the waters of the Sacred Spring are warmed by the Sacred Flame, and everyone learns a little more of the Mystery of Reunion.’

`I – I think I understand,’ you say.  ‘Will you tell me the second and third steps?’

`In time, if you master the first one.  Have you made your choice, then, child of the Eclipse?’

`Lead me out of here, Great Goddess of the Underworld,’ you reply.  ‘I have made my choice: I refuse to face the darkness alone.  Send your sister Brighid to me, and let me learn her ways.  I will restore the Fellowship, whatever it takes, and send my brothers, my sisters, my mentors and my wise elders out into the darkness ahead of me, and do the same for them when they call.’

`As you wish,’ says Ceridwen, as she begins to lead you up the spiral staircase, towards the light, towards the world that you know.  ‘But I will come back for you in a year and a day.  Down into the darkness you will go, and on that day there will be no second chance.  With or without your Fellowship, you must journey on to seek your soul.’

`May I put my masks back on, please, before I go out into the world?’ you ask her.

She laughs.  ‘I have burned your masks.’


If you are feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone else, there is hope.  There is help available via the Prevent Suicide website, including a free online chat facility.





The remedy for deep fear is Deep Love


There are so many people out there trying to spread fear, hatred and division.  We notice the violent ones, who make grand gestures and kill a lot of people in a short space of time, but we often don’t notice the ones who work in more subtle ways.

Much of today’s politics is based on fear.  Fear of those people who don’t look like us, or that culture that doesn’t do things the way we do them, or that guy who wants to change the system, or that group that calls itself by a different name and seems to be worshipping a different kind of Divinity.

That’s because fear is a natural human emotion.  It’s evolved to keep us alive, which is usually agreed to be a good thing.   So it’s easy for politicians to exploit it – to appeal to our primitive survival instincts, rather than our higher consciousness that keeps trying to wake us up and tell us the truth: There is no ‘us and them’.  

As I wrote in a poem when I was a teenager at the Drielandenpunt, where the borders of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands all meet – countries that were once at war, but have now turned the site into an international peace park:

And should we speak of ‘them’ at all,

as ‘them and me’, or ‘them and us’,

or should we speak of us and us?

Why all this fuss?

A name is just a name…


And as one of my characters has explained it more recently in my forthcoming novel, The Nineteen Songs of Reunion:

“Although the fluttery feelings don’t go away, they’re easier to dismiss when I’m in the middle of a story.   It’s after the others have gone to bed that I feel the anxiety most, and wish hardest that I could be with Aelfric, and wonder what’s happening and whether he’s in terrible agony, or might even be dead.   

But then, in an instant, I remember the great truth I learned on the night when Aelfric was attacked: that the remedy for deep fear is Deep Love.  Instead of fretting, I give myself over to praying, letting myself be caught up and held and embraced by the Love that has no beginning or end – the Love beyond all names.  It isn’t about my love for Aelfric any more, as a soul in a body; but love for the great Soul that rises in Aelfric and in all of us.  

I sing new songs and pray new prayers that the world has never heard before, and  Terithien wakes from his sleep, and stares at me with wide eyes.  He shakes Orla awake and begs her to light a candle and take up her ink-pot, quill and vellum – for he can’t read or write – and capture all my words so that he might learn them by heart.”


This is my prayer for all of us affected by people’s attempts to spread terror: that we remember, as the members of the Fellowship learn to sing in `The Song of the Healer’, You are the Love beyond all names. 

God, Goddess, Allah, Mungu, Engai Brahma, Jehovah: these are just our feeble human attempts at naming something which is far, far bigger and more beautiful than we can ever dream of.

Muslim, Christian, Pagan, Druid, Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Jew, Zoroastrian, atheist, agnostic, spiritual wanderer, or whatever other names we might come up with: we are all seekers, chasing sparks of that Divine Love and trying to fan them into flames.

We can’t let ourselves be distracted from our quest by people who don’t understand it, and think that ‘those people’ over there are ‘the enemy’.   A name is just a name…