Over at Patheos.com, T. Thorn Coyle’s Make Magic of Your Life is a featured book at present, and many of the writers at the Pagan Channel have reviewed her book and posted their reviews. Likewise, I’ve done one, which you can read here, but I didn’t get to post the full review because they thought it was too long. So, I’m posting the full review here, which you can read on and comment upon; or, you can read it and post comments over at Patheos.com as well if you wish.
Sphinxes in the Library: A Review of T. Thorn Coyle’s Make Magic of Your Life
by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
“Queer I Stand,” Patheos.com Pagan Channel
T. Thorn Coyle, Make Magic of Your Life: Passion, Purpose, and the Power of Desire (San Francisco and Newburyport: Red Wheel/Weiser Books, 2013), x + 243 pp. $18.95 (U.S.). ISBN: 978-1-57863-538-2.
“Desire” and “passion”: in the world of religion and spirituality, these two terms are often thought to cause more suffering than they solve, and are viewed more as liabilities and obstacles rather than opportunities. While some religious systems have this notion to a greater extent than others—with particularly negative notions accompanying them in some of the dharmic religions, ancient stoicism, and of course several mainstream forms of Christianity, at least historically—the same is not true of modern forms of Paganism and polytheism, nor some of the more ancient and indigenous religions of the world. Desire and passion are the very essences of and driving forces behind life and the wider cosmic processes in the light of many of these religious systems. But, how can we as individuals learn to recognize our desires and pursue our passions without burning ourselves out, leading ourselves down the paths of self-delusion or self-aggrandizement, or mistaking more passing wants and needs for our True Will?
These topics, and many more, are the subject of T. Thorn Coyle’s latest book, Make Magic of Your Life. The virtues of this book are multiple, and the critiques I have of it are extremely few and marginal to the larger question of “does this book accomplish what it sets out to do?” The only answer that I can see to the latter is a resounding and reassuring “YES!”
When a book reviewer sits down to read a book and evaluate it in composing their review, they are really sitting down with two books: the book in their hands that an author (and editors and other contributors and behind-the-scenes individuals) have toiled tirelessly to produce, and another book that is invisible and often inscrutable to the individual reviewer that contains all of the hopes and expectations and false assumptions about the author, their work, and what the reviewer hopes the book should contain. This process is as true of any casual reader of any book as it is true of a reviewer like myself and a book like the present one…and, for that matter, it is as true of any reader of any blog post or other piece of writing as well. The negative comments on blog posts and news articles across the internet are a lengthy testament to people’s mistaking the invisible text for the visible one, the text that they have brought with them and have created in their own minds in comparison to the actual text on the pages—whether virtual and electronic or paper from once-living plant matter.
In sitting down with Thorn’s book recently, I was perhaps more aware than ever of this dual textual reality, and was often painfully aware of how easy it is to get caught up in the invisible text when the actual text went in a direction that I wasn’t expecting, wasn’t comfortable with, or for some other reason simply didn’t connect (or, occasionally, connected too deeply) with my own process at the time of reading. I can say that in my own experience of the book, it is the easiest and simplest difficult book I’ve ever read: and, I mean every adjective in that evaluation in the most positive and praiseworthy sense.
Thorn is extremely intelligent as a writer and a teacher, and the simplicity and accessibility of her style in both written and spoken media brims with the skill that many of us struggle with constantly: how to convey complex and depth-based concepts in a manner that is not only easy for anyone to understand, but also is easy to digest and doesn’t assault the senses or the intellect of those consuming it. Thorn’s writing never “dumbs it down” for readers, nor does her teaching in other forms do likewise; and yet, the simplicity of the text and the language it uses, and the ease with which concepts are conveyed is highly deceptive because of the gravity and profundity that the ideas carry. This is neither a lengthy book nor a weighty tome, but the impact of it is potentially quite extraordinary, as if less than two-hundred-and-fifty pages carries the explosive power of a ton of dynamite.
That deceptive ease of the text is part of why it is a difficult book to read. Again, the concepts are not unclear, poorly expressed, or laden with the possibility of misunderstanding; instead, they are challenging, speaking directly to questions of existential import for every individual. The grace and skill of this book comes through in the imparting of these penetrating insights and difficult questions. These insights and questions do not come as rapid-fire metaphysical machine gun shots, or even as well-aimed spear casts that twist upon impact. Instead, they arrive as Thorn, a gentle surgeon who is master of the scalpel, wields it to explore one’s own bodily integrity and health (from the most material physicality to the outer edges of one’s divine self) in an effort not to hurt or destroy, or even to begin the process of excising cancerous growths—that task is left to the reader once they finish the book’s five individual sections, or the entire book—but instead simply to illuminate those areas of dis-ease and potential for ill health. These can then be dealt with by the individual as they see fit with their best methods in their current position.
I had hoped to attend Thorn’s session at PantheaCon 2013 during mid-February in San Jose, CA on “Manifestation: The Four Powers of the Sphinx”; but, as has often occurred at that gathering, my schedule did not line up well enough for me to be able to manage it. Luckily, this book was an extended treatment of that very subject, organized along those very same lines using the model of the Four Powers of the Sphinx, namely “To Know, To Will, To Dare, and To Keep Silent,” with a fifth result being “To Manifest,” which requires all of the previous Four Powers to be used and applied appropriately in context. (I will have more to say on this schema below.) Reading this book came at a very important and opportune moment for me, as I had just returned from a busy and successful PantheaCon, but in certain respects had more questions than I had answers for, more anxieties and uncertainties than I had complacencies resulting from recent successes, and a generally difficult time attempting to re-integrate my new insights and responsibilities with my quotidian life. (I’ve written a bit more about this here, and wrote along the very same lines last year as well in a previous “Queer I Stand” column here.) Despite still not feeling “quite right” with my world and my existence, and not having had nearly enough sleep, I made the time to read this book, and relished every moment of doing so—including the difficult ones. I am not a fast reader, but the book read very quickly for me; I hope to come back to it again when I have more time and more ease, and can take each section slowly and more fully, as it was meant to be read and worked with, rather than taking in the whole over a few days. Reading this book has, perhaps, been one of the best integrative activities I’ve done following PantheaCon ever; and, perhaps marketing it at PantheaCon (and other conventions) in future years with that use in mind might prove very useful for everyone!
In addition to numerous helpful exercises and capstone rituals for each of the five sections, the book is peppered with inspirational quotes from a wide variety of sources, and several extended anecdotes from a group called the “Wise Council” whose constituent individuals are profiled toward the end of the book. Amongst these Wise Counsellors is the Patheos.com Pagan Channel’s own Crystal Blanton from the Daughters of Eve blog. While these insights and examples from others are used effectively, Thorn’s work is very much based in her own experiences, which she details at various points, including experiences of burnout and failure. These were extremely encouraging for me to read, not because of some sense of schadenfreude, but because Thorn has been something of an eminent “Pagan superstar” over the past few years who I have admired greatly. Even superstars can’t shine twenty-four-seven…and, most importantly, that’s okay! While I still want to push myself harder, and know that I can stand to be challenged more in many respects in my own work, life, and spiritual journey (all of which are different regions of the same territory, in any case), it is also useful to know that exemplary individuals fail, have bad days, and have ongoing troubles. It is yet another obvious matter that everyone should know and realize, and yet it is too often forgotten as we read the invisible texts of others all throughout our lives that we carry and create as we encounter the world. The disarming honesty of Thorn’s accounts of difficulty and failure inspire compassion, not only for Thorn’s work and that of others, but most especially for myself. This is an invaluable and important lesson that needs to be emphasized, reviewed, and revisited for most of us, I suspect, and this book is plentiful in that particular effort.
Two further things (amongst many possible) in this book were outstanding and deserve further mention here. In Part I, “To Know,” Chapter 2 is on “Needs, Wants, and Desires.” This chapter alone is worth the price of the book (and far more!), and should be required reading for spiritual seekers in every tradition—in fact, I’d go as far as saying that it should be required reading for every graduating high school student. As a culture, we in the United States are painfully under-educated in discernment over the differences between these things, and this brief chapter goes a very long way in helping to clarify those matters considerably. (As a potential further project for the future: the issue of discernment arises throughout the book, but it does so especially poignantly in this chapter—a fuller exploration of the act of discernment might be a good study to undertake soon, perhaps collaboratively in concert with a variety of spirit-workers, spiritual directors, theologians, philosophers, and other practitioners within the modern Pagan and polytheist religious communities…?) There was also a section in a later chapter on the importance of realizing how privileged one is if they are able to be doing this kind of deep self-reflective work at all: if you are reading this review, or are reading the book itself, you have a certain amount of privilege in very many respects. As a person who is disabled, partially employed, and from a gender and sexual minority, it is very easy for me to forget how very lucky I am to be able to even admit those things publicly or to spend time on religion and self-development work at any level. There are (too) many who are far less well-off than I am, even though I’m aware of a great many who are also far better-off than myself as well. Thorn did a session on privilege in modern Paganism at PantheaCon in one of the hospitality suites, which I didn’t know about until it was over; but, again, having read her discussion of this in the book went some way toward making me feel as if I had not missed out. Thorn’s comments on that subject in this book are also worth looking at and taking very seriously and sincerely to heart for anyone in any religious community.
As I stated previously, it is very hard to find any major faults or matters to critique in this book. Being critical comes naturally to me, and I am still finding it difficult to do so. I offer the following very minor points for further consideration not as critiques, and certainly not as reasons to avoid this book or find fault with it (on the contrary: this is a rare occasion where I see the potential for anyone and everyone who reads this book to find something useful and potentially transformative in it!), but instead simply as small matters to consider for those who are interested, and as possible areas for increased awareness or attention in the future. Overall, the book is, as I perceived it, almost entirely free from errors, which is rare enough today, with one possible exception: on p. 9, the sentence “The Sphinx Lévi writes about has the head of a man, the forepaws and shoulders of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the flanks of a bull.” There is nothing wrong with that sentence in itself, but it is repeated twice in a row on that page. I had a tough time wondering whether or not to point out this potential error, because I wondered if it was such an important point that needed re-emphasis for the structure of the book to remain (on which, more below) that it was simply repeated for reinforcement purposes rather than an error. In any case, there were no errors of the typographical sort that would in any way impede anyone’s understanding, which is the most essential thing.
Theologically, I am polytheist, and not a monist. Thorn identifies as a “non-dual polytheist,” but I did not see very much polytheism in this book—and there would have been ample opportunity to have introduced it, if desired. There are goddesses and gods and other divine beings that could be easily correlated as potential allies and exemplars for any of the Four Powers of the Sphinx (e.g. Angerona, the Roman goddess of silence, for the power To Keep Silent). It is possible that reference to various deities was left out simply to make this book more palatable to a wider religious and spiritual readership than modern Pagans and polytheists—a choice that was probably very practical under the circumstances. Several portions of the book, particularly toward the end, go into what I would consider more monistic excursions than would be appealing or necessary according to my own tastes. I don’t think having them there detracts, by any means, though I know many polytheists who have an extreme monism allergy, who might better be warned of this before proceeding so that they can take any precautions they might feel appropriate when doing so.
Thorn makes relatively frequent reference to “God Hirself,” and explains that the latter reflexive pronoun is a gender-neutral pronoun (which, alas, in the pronunciation of most Americans is indistinguishable from “herself”). This sort of linguistic usage is very good and appropriate. However, when referring to the readers and the potential audience, Thorn’s usage is usually along the lines of “brothers and sisters” and other conventionally binary gendered usages. The wider audience of this book is likely to be one of those potential genders; a narrower audience, including myself, is not. Having images of deities that are affirming of our alternative gender identities is very useful and good; but then not having that gender identity recognized amongst the human sphere by someone presenting those positive and affirming divine models seems incongruous.
As a polytheist who draws from ancient Greek and Egyptian sources, I like sphinxes a very great deal; the Obelisk of Antinous indicates that they were part of his temples, and I’ve seen some syncretistic Graeco-Egyptian temples that have both Greek-style and Egyptian-style sphinxes in their processional ways leading to the temple. The structuring schema of Thorn’s book is based on the Four Powers of the Sphinx, which are identified with its different animal components (as described in the quote from page 9 given previously). These four animal images are also found in the four symbols of the Evangelists of Christian tradition (Matthew the man, Mark the lion, Luke the bull, John the eagle), and also in images of archangels and other such beings. Three of the four images (eagle, bull, and lion) are also connected to the Tetrad, the newly emergent deities that I worship. For all sorts of reasons, I think this is an appealing schema; but, having reached the end of Thorn’s book, I am somewhat questioning how useful it was in the context of the book. Much of the discussion throughout the first three sections seemed to be parallel, if not in some places extremely similar, such that the subject of desire and its pursuit as interpreted through the powers of To Know, To Will, and To Dare began to sound quite alike. And, with the addition of the fifth power, To Manifest, which occurs often simultaneously with the exercise of the other four powers, it all begins to feel a bit infinitely recursive, and perhaps not usefully so. The chapters in the book are valuable in a manner that stands alone from any discussion of the sphinx and its powers and parts at the beginning of each, I think. The third section, To Dare, with its description of the human head on the sphinx and its holding of a cup of water, was not nearly as detailed or as vivid as the other sections’ descriptions. As someone who enjoys large schemas with complex correlative symbolism (with the number four, elements and directions can easily be brought in for starters), I can understand the appeal of the Four Powers of the Sphinx as a structural principle which people can understand and identify with. But, my biggest reservation is that the material is so strong independent of that structuring schema that, perhaps, it could have been foregone altogether. Sometimes, it is difficult to let something stand on its own strengths without the scaffolding of established forms to give it authority and presence; I think that Thorn’s work in this book has the integrity and strength to have been able to stand on its own, had she chosen to proceed in that fashion.
I see many similarities in parts of the journey that Thorn’s life has taken with my own: we are both people who intellectualize (and often overly so…I wonder if Thorn is likewise an Enneagram 7?), who have struggled with physical difficulties, who have lived in difficult economic circumstances, who have had non-traditional approaches to gender and sexuality, and whose lives have taken strange turns in pursuit of desire for spiritual development. The few times I’ve been able to interact with Thorn in person have been enjoyable and enriching, and we are very much kindred spirits in a variety of respects. But, we are also very different beings, and in that difference lies our strength, and the even greater importance for me—and for every reader of Thorn’s book—to pursue their own journey to the fullest capacity possible. We can take great inspiration from how others have lived their lives authentically in pursuit of desire, but doing so is no substitute for pursuing our own desires. There are no gurus in modern Paganism or polytheism who end up doing the work for us; it is up to us to enact and embody these teachings. We must each fulfill our own part in the greater cosmic schema to bring this process of universal existence further in its development. Understanding and pursuing desire as a method for furthering that process is the task this book sets out to teach the reader upon, and it does an admirable job of it. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone; in fact, it’s one of very few Pagan books, or books at all, that I am not only recommending to my mother to read, but that I think she will actually read and from which she will learn some important and transformative lessons!