“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
In his laboratory, which comprised two cellar rooms, Paracelsus begged his God- his unspecified God, any God- to send him a disciple. It was growing dark. In the hearth a meager fire cast flickering shadows. To get up and light the iron lamp was too much trouble. His mind dulled by weariness, Paracelsus forgot his request. Night had erased the dusty tubes and retorts, when there was a knock at the door. Drowsily, Paracelsus got up, climbed the short spiral staircase, and opened the door. A stranger entered. He, too, seemed exhausted. Paracelsus motioned to a bench; the other man sat down and waited. For a while, neither of them uttered a word.
The master spoke up first. “I can recall western faces and eastern faces,” he said a bit pompously. “I do not remember yours. Who are you and what is it you want?”
“My name doesn’t matter,” the other man replied. “I’ve walked three days and nights to reach your door. I want to be your disciple. I bring you all my worldly goods.”
He took out a small pouch and, with his right hand, emptied it onto the table. There were many coins, all of them gold. Paracelsus had turned to light the lamp. When he faced around again he noticed that in his left hand the man held a rose. The rose made Paracelsus somehow uneasy.
Sitting back, he put his fingertips together, and said, “You offer me gold, believing I hold the secret of the philosopher’s stone, which turns base metals into gold. It’s not gold I seek. If it’s gold you’re interested in, you’ll never be a disciple of mine.”
“I don’t care about gold,” the other man answered. “These coins are but a token of my willingness to work. I want you to teach me the Grand Secret. I want to follow by your side the path that leads to the stone.”
‘The path is the stone,” Paracelsus said slowly. “The stone is the point of departure. If you don’t understand these words you have not even begun to understand. Each step along the path is the destination.”
The other man looked at the master with misgivings. “But is there a destination?” he said, his voice changed.
Paracelsus laughed. “My detractors, who are as numerous as they are stupid, say no, and they brand me an imposter. I disagree with them, though I may be wrong. Yet, there is a Path, I know.”
A silence fell, into which the other man said, “I am prepared to go by your side however many years the journey takes. Let me cross the wilderness. Whether or not my stars allow me to set foot there, I want to see the promised land- even if from afar. But before I set out I want some proof.”
“When do you want it?” asked Paracelsus, suspicious.
Suddenly decisive, the disciple said, “At once.”
The two had been speaking in Latin; now they spoke in German. The young man held the rose aloft.
“Everyone knows you are able to burn a rose and then by your art make it rise again out of its own ash,” he said. “Let me bear witness to this wonder. I ask only this, and then I’ll entrust my whole life to you.”
“You are most credulous,” said the master. “But it’s not belief I require, it’s faith.”
“That’s just it,” the other man insisted. “Because I believe I want to see the destruction and rebirth of the rose with my own eyes.”
Paracelsus had taken up the flower, toying with it as he spoke. “You believe, then, that I can destroy the rose?”
“Anyone can destroy it,” said the disciple.
“You are wrong. Do you believe something can be turned into nothing? Do you believe the first Adam in Paradise could have destroyed a single flower or blade of grass?”
“We are not in Paradise,” the young man said stubbornly. “Here, beneath the moon, everything is mortal.”
Paracelsus had risen to his feet. “Where are we, then? Do you think the godhead could create a place other than Paradise? Do you consider the Fall to be anything more than our ignorance of the fact that we dwell in Paradise?”
“A rose can be burned,” said the disciple defiantly.
“There’s still fire in the hearth,” said Paracelsus. “If you were to throw this rose onto the coals, you would believe it to have been consumed and its ash real. I say that the rose is eternal and that only its appearance undergoes change. With a single word I could make you see it again.”
“One word?” said the disciple, full of wonderment. “Your still is cold, your retorts coated with dust. By what means would you bring the rose to life again?”
Paracelsus regarded him sadly. “My still is cold,” he repeated, “and my retorts coated with dust. At my time of life I employ other tools.”
“I dare not ask what they are,” said the other man cleverly- or humbly.
“I speak of the tool used by the divinity to create heaven and earth and the unseen Paradise in which we dwell but which original sin conceals from us. I speak of the Word, which the teachings of the Kabbalah reveal.”
“I beg you, please show me the disappearance and reappearance of the rose,” the disciple said matter-of-factly. “I don’t care how you do it- with your still and retorts or the Word.”
Paracelsus considered, then said, “If I were to do what you ask, you’d say it was merely an appearance forced on your eyes by magic. The marvel would not confer the faith you seek. So spare the rose.”
The young man stared at him, doubting as ever.
“Besides,” Paracelsus said, raising his voice, “who are you to enter the house of a master and demand a miracle of him? What have you done to deserve such a gift?”
“I know I’ve done little,” the other man said, quavering. “I beseech you in the name of the many years I will study in your shadow to let me see the ash and then the rose. I’ll ask nothing else of you. I shall believe the evidence of my eyes.”
Abruptly, he picked up the bloodred rose that Paracelsus had left on the desk and cast it into the flames. The color went out of it, until all that remained was a heap of ash. For an endless moment the young man awaited the Word and the miracle.
Paracelsus displayed no change of expression. With a strange simplicity he said, “AU the physicians and apothecaries of Basel claim I’m a fake. Perhaps they are right. There’s the ash that was once a rose and will never be a rose again.”
The young man felt ashamed. Paracelsus was a charlatan or mere dreamer, and he, the would-be disciple- an intruder- had burst in and was forcing the master to admit that his renowned magic arts were but a piece of vanity.
“What I have done is unforgivable,” said the young man, dropping to his knees. “I lack the faith the Lord demands of true believers. Let me go on seeing the ash. I’ll return when I am fitter and will be your disciple, and at the end of the journey I’ll see the rose.”
He spoke with genuine passion, but his passion was the piety inspired by the aging master, so venerated, so maligned, so illustrious, and therefore so hollow. Who was he, Johannes Grisebach, to discover with a sacrilegious hand that behind the mask there was no one?
To have left the gold coins behind would have amounted to an act of charity. On his way out, the young man gathered them up. Paracelsus accompanied him to the foot of the staircase, telling his visitor he would always be welcome in this house. Each knew they would never meet again.
Paracelsus stood there alone. Before extinguishing the lamp and sitting in his weary armchair, he turned the handful of delicate ash in his cupped palm and under his breath spoke one word. The rose sprang to life.