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The Rose of Paracelsus

Insolent vaunt of Paracelsus, that he would restore the original rose or violet out of the ashes settling from its combustion…

—De Quincey: Writings, XIII, 345.

Down in his laboratory, to which the two rooms of the cellar had been given over, Paracelsus prayed to his God, his indeterminate God—any God—to send him a disciple.

Night was coming on. The guttering fire in the hearth threw irregular shadows into the room. Getting up to light the iron lamp was too much trouble. Paracelsus, weary from the day, grew absent, and the prayer was forgotten. Night had expunged the dusty retorts and the furnace when there came a knock at his door. Sleepily he got up, climbed the short spiral staircase, and opened one side of the double door. A stranger stepped inside. He too was very tired. Paracelsus gestured toward a bench; the other man sat down and waited. For a while, neither spoke.

The master was the first to speak.

I recall faces from the West and faces from the East,” he said, not without a certain formality, “yet yours I do not recall. Who are you, and what do you wish of me?”

My name is of small concern,” the other man replied. “I have journeyed three days and three nights to come into your house. I wish to become your disciple. I bring you all my possessions.”

He brought forth a pouch and emptied its contents on the table. The coins were many, and they were of gold. He did this with his right hand. Paracelsus turned his back to light the lamp; when he turned around again, he saw that the man’s left hand held a rose. The rose troubled him.

He leaned back, put the tips of his fingers together, and said:

You think that I am capable of extracting the stone that turns all elements to gold, and yet you bring me gold. But it is not gold I seek, and if it is gold that interests you, you shall never be my disciple.”

Gold is of no interest to me,” the other man replied. “These coins merely symbolize my desire to join you in your work. I want you to teach me the Art. I want to walk beside you on that path that leads to the Stone.”

The path is the Stone. The point of departure is the Stone. If these words are unclear to you, you have not yet begun to understand. Every step you take is the goal you seek.” Paracelsus spoke the words slowly.

The other man looked at him with misgiving.

But,” he said, his voice changed, “is there, then, no goal?”

Paracelsus laughed.

My detractors, who are no less numerous than imbecilic, say that there is not, and they call me an impostor. I believe they are mistaken, though it is possible that I am deluded. I know that there is a Path.”

There was silence, and then the other man spoke.

I am ready to walk that path with you, even if we must walk for many years. Allow me to cross the desert. Allow me to glimpse, even from afar, the promised land, though the stars prevent me from setting foot upon it. All I ask is a proof before we begin the journey.”

When?” said Paracelsus uneasily.

Now,” said the disciple with brusque decisiveness.

They had begun their discourse in Latin; they now were speaking German.

The young man raised the rose into the air.

You are famed,” he said, “for being able to burn a rose to ashes and make it emerge again, by the magic of your art. Let me witness that prodigy. I ask that of you, and in return I will offer up my entire life.”

You are credulous,” the master said. “I have no need of credulity; I demand belief.”

The other man persisted.

It is precisely because I am not credulous that I wish to see with my own eyes the annihilation and resurrection of the rose.”

Paracelsus had taken it from him, and was toying with it.

You are credulous,” he repeated. “You say that I can destroy it?”

Any man has the power to destroy it,” said the disciple.

You are wrong,” the master responded. “Do you truly believe that something may be turned to nothing? Do you believe that the first Adam in Paradise was able to destroy a single flower, a single blade of grass?”

We are not in Paradise,” the young man stubbornly replied. “Here, in the sublunary world, all things are mortal.”

Paracelsus had risen to his feet.

Where are we, then, if not in Paradise?” he asked. “Do you believe that the deity is able to create a place that is not Paradise? Do you believe that the Fall is something other than not realizing that we are in Paradise?”

A rose can be burned,” the disciple said defiantly.

There is still some fire there,” said Paracelsus, pointing toward the hearth. “If you cast this rose into the embers, you would believe that it has been consumed, and that its ashes are real. I tell you that the rose is eternal, and that only its appearances may change. At a word from me, you would see it again.”

A word?” the disciple asked, puzzled. “The furnace is cold, and the retorts are covered with dust. What is it you would do to bring it back again?”

Paracelsus looked at him with sadness in his eyes.

The furnace is cold,” he nodded, “and the retorts are covered with dust. On this leg of my long journey I use other instruments.”

I dare not ask what they are,” said the other man humbly, or astutely.

I am speaking of that instrument used by the deity to create the heavens and the earth and the invisible paradise in which we exist, but which original sin hides from us. I am speaking of the Word, which is taught to us by the science of the Kabbalah.”

I ask you,” the disciple coldly said, “if you might be so kind as to show me the disappearance and appearance of the rose. It matters not the slightest to me whether you work with alembics or with the Word.”

Paracelsus studied for a moment; then he spoke:

If I did what you ask, you would say that it was an appearance cast by magic upon your eyes. The miracle would not bring you the belief you seek. Put aside, then, the rose.”

The young man looked at him, still suspicious. Then Paracelsus raised his voice.

And besides, who are you to come into the house of a master and demand a miracle of him? What have you done to deserve such a gift?”

The other man, trembling, replied:

I know I have done nothing. It is for the sake of the many years I will study in your shadow that I ask it of you—allow me to see the ashes and then the rose. I will ask nothing more. I will believe the witness of my eyes.”

He snatched up the incarnate and incarnadine rose that Paracelsus had left lying on the table, and he threw it into the flames. Its color vanished, and all that remained was a pinch of ash. For one infinite moment, he awaited the words, and the miracle.

Paracelsus sat unmoving. He said with strange simplicity:

All the physicians and all the pharmacists in Basel say I am a fraud. Perhaps they are right. There are the ashes that were the rose, and that shall be the rose no more.”

The young man was ashamed. Paracelsus was a charlatan, or a mere visionary, and he, an intruder, had come through his door and forced him now to confess that his famed magic arts were false.

He knelt before the master and said:

What I have done is unpardonable. I have lacked belief, which the Lord demands of all the faithful. Let me, then, continue to see ashes. I will come back again when I am stronger, and I will be your disciple, and at the end of the Path I will see the rose.”

He spoke with genuine passion, but that passion was the pity he felt for the agèd master—so venerated, so inveighed against, so renowned, and therefore so hollow. Who was he, Johannes Grisebach, to discover with sacrilegious hand that behind the mask was no one?

Leaving the gold coins would be an act of almsgiving to the poor. He picked them up again as he went out. Paracelsus accompanied him to the foot of the staircase and told him he would always be welcome in that house. Both men knew they would never see each other again.

Paracelsus was then alone. Before putting out the lamp and returning to his weary chair, he poured the delicate fistful of ashes from one hand into the concave other, and he whispered a single word. The rose appeared again.

—Translated by Andrew Hurley

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