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Archive for the ‘Myth and Fairy Tales’ Category

I’ve had occasion in recent weeks to have conversations – either in person or online – with people who self-identify either as atheists, agnostics, or “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).  A core question in these conversations seemed to revolve around whether or not there was a “spiritual” part or nature in human beings.

So my asking “What is ‘Spiritual’?” in this blog is not about the field or practice of spirituality, it’s more about how we might identify what in us is “spiritual” when we use that word.Church-New

First, let me say that at this core level, I would NOT say that our spiritual self is defined by belief in a divine being or a set of beliefs about God, faith, or church. I say that because I think there are people who are spiritual who do not hold to the belief systems of any religious tradition, per se.

At its most basic, I think the spiritual part of humans has to do with meaning – with discovering or creating meaning about life or about the events in our lives. After all, if we’re just a bundle of cells with a brain and nothing more than thinking meat sacks that are here only to eat, procreate, and create human culture for the moment, we wouldn’t seek or assign meaning to anything. If there’s nothing more to our lives than day to day existence – no larger story or reality – why would we even begin to ask what our purpose is or why we are on this earth?

But we are a species of meanings, of narratives, of stories. That is the way we are wired. We seek to see ourselves as part of something larger, to belong to a meaningful narrative, not as just at the receiving end of a lifelong parade of random acts of suffering.

I have to confess that for many years now, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about God, about spirituality, about theology, and about how that all fits with healing, wholeness, psychology, and just the basics of navigating our way through a world that is full of both beauty and terror. Joseph Campbell said that people are not really seeking the meaning of life but that we are seeking the “rapture of the experience of being alive.”  I’ve been so steeped in all things spiritual and mythological for so long that I sometimes forget that most of my fellow sojourners on this earth probably don’t spend as much brain time on these topics as I do.

That point was brought home to me again this week in an exchange with a man who identifies himself as SBNR.  He told me he does not believe in God and is not sure if humans even have a “spirit.” I’ve felt for a long time that one of the wisest voices about the human spirit and about faith is Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest and Franciscan. In a recent meditation he wrote:

The Perennial Tradition includes a recurring theme in all of the world’s religions and philosophies. They continue to say, each in their own way:

  • There is a Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world of things.
  • There is in the human soul a natural capacity, similarity, and longing for this Divine Reality.
  • The final goal of all existence is union with this Divine Reality.

I forwarded the meditation to my SBNR acquaintance, and he responded that he really doesn’t think very often about God, or divine reality, or scripture, and that he doesn’t place much value on those things.  In a way I found that kind of stunning, then I saw some humor in my being stunned, but I finally wondered about the value of what are seen as sacred texts to a secular world.

I sympathize when people choose to not affiliate with any organized religion – I understand why people find little of value in the Church today – even though I choose to remain within the Christian tradition. But I don’t understand why people would dismiss the wisdom of sages through the centuries who have spoken and written of encounters with divine reality. Do we really think they were all lying or having hallucinations?

It seems to me that for someone to say they don’t believe in the divine reality that others have experienced is like saying you don’t believe in Istanbul because you’ve never been there, or that you don’t believe in gelato because you’ve never eaten it.

Like Carl Jung, I don’t believe in God. I know God exists. I know divine reality exists. I’ve glimpsed it.

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In a 1959 interview with the BBC, Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung was asked if he’d grown up believing in God, and he answered that he did. The interviewer then asked if he now believed in God. Jung responded that the question was difficult to answer. “I know,” he said, “I don’t need to believe, I know.” We might ask what he knew and how he knew it. Of course I can’t speak for Dr. Jung, but I believe he meant that since he’d personally encountered God – since he’d had direct experience of God – his experience replaced “belief” with more concrete “knowledge.”

A deeply important part of my spiritual journey has been the practice of dream work and the examination of synchronicities – those occurrences in daily life that seem to be meaningful coincidences – along with other kinds of inner work based on the psychology of Jung and those who work in his tradition. I’ve also – like many Jungians – used myths, fairy tales, and sacred wisdom stories to show me where I am in my journey, as they reveal archetypal patterns of life and the psyche. This kind of psycho-spiritual practice has led me to experience a God who…

  • speaks to me personally through dreams and powerful synchronicities
  • reveals meaningful stories to me when they are most helpful
  • is moving me through refining fire for transformation and healing|
  • calls me to my true path or destiny just as God called Abraham, Jacob, Mary of Magdala and others.

Though one can see similar divine encounters in the stories of God’s people revealed in Christian and Jewish scripture, this is not the kind of God that is described by the traditional or classical Christian theology that was so heavily influenced by Greek thought. Traditional theology describes a God who is:

  • Wholly other; who cannot and does not interact directly with humans except through supernatural revelation and that kind of thing stopped when the last page of the Bible was written,
  • Absolute Ruler, Unchanging, the Unmoved Mover, and not influenced by humans’ situation or sufferings,
  • So offended or dishonored by human sin and error that humans are therefore separated from God by an unbreachable chasm,
  • No longer reachable by direct experience of “regular” people no matter what early Christians experienced,
  • And, that our personal experience of God should not be trusted because there’s no way to “know” or “prove” that we are encountering the “real” God as God is in God’s self

Who is the God you know? And if you don’t feel that you know God, which God would you put more trust in – the Unmoved Mover, or the God who knows your deepest troubles and who calls to you, personally, as “deep calls to deep” in that still, small voice?

Many in the church would have you believe that the only theology that is “right” is what has been handed down for centuries in our tradition. But as Bruce Epperly reminds us in his text Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed,

Postmodernism cautions us that all theology is concrete, situational, and time bound. Postmodern theologians warn us that universal theological statements are abstractions that can be both oppressive and irrelevant to flesh and blood human beings… [on the other hand] Process theologians affirm that people can still tell a universal story, but…this story is grounded in experience and perspective and must be open-ended and liberating. (p. 1)

Each one of us has our own theology, and we are engaging in theological activity “whenever we try to discern the meaning of our lives, fathom the reality of suffering and tragedy, and discover our place in the universe.” (p. 2)

The question is, does your theology help transform your life and your heart? Does your theology open you to experiencing the Living God so that you can say you know God exists? Does your theology free you from whatever binds you?

If not, what good is it?

 

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What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then? ~Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I love dream work. I don’t even remember when I began working with my dreams, although I know that I began my love affair with all things Jungian after reading Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. That book and her audio series Theatre of the Imagination are truly banquets for the soul. I’m glad I still have a car with a cassette deck so I can keep listening to Estes’ evocative voice and entrancing storytelling while driving. But I digress; we were talking about dreams.

Dream work is commonly done in Jungian psychology, and it is based on the idea that our psyche is made up of both conscious and unconscious aspects. Jung believed that the unconscious held information of which we were not yet aware, but which could be life enhancing and important for our well being. In addition to our personal unconscious, he believed there was a transpersonal collective unconscious which holds the kinds of archetypal patterns that come to humanity in dreams, fairy tales and wisdom stories or myths. He believed that there was a pattern of wholeness in each psyche that he called the Self, and that this Self could use the symbolic language of the unconscious to speak to us through dreams.

Rev. Jeremy Taylor, a Unitarian Universalist minister and author, believes that all dreams come to us in the service of health and wholeness. I personally believe – and have experienced – that dreams are a language that God uses to be in dialogue with us, to show us love and to give us guidance. Tuning in to our dreams, I believe, helps us tune in to God’s purposes for our lives.

I’m currently in a doctoral program at Claremont Lincoln University, and taking a class in Teaching Contemplative Practices. Last night, I led our class in a contemplative practice using dream work. Though I’ve led groups before in dream work – where the whole gathering works together on one dream at a time – but last night’s practice was different, more meditative. I suggested that this practice could be almost like a kind of lectio divina, where the dream is approached as a sacred text. After the participants reviewed their dream in their minds, and then wrote down the images and the associations they held for each, I invited them to hold all the images in front of their minds’ eyes and contemplate them like an icon, like a window to the Sacred, opening themselves to any message that the dream may have come to offer. Finally, we paused in silence and gratitude for the dream and the Dream Giver.

Many of the participants shared that they’d had an “aha” moment of new insight into something related to the dream. Certainly, those kinds of insights can be just as sweet as any rose with which we awaken.

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My last post was about those times of waiting in the dark – or in the “soup” – when we don’t yet know what new life may be born after the death or loss we just experienced. But as with the cycle of seasons, the “winters” of our lives are always followed by the new life of Spring.  I’ve been emerging from a dark winter myself in these last few weeks, and so it has been helpful that there are physical signs of new life as I walk around my neighborhood. Whether it’s a preponderance of bunnies hopping around or the brightly enthusiastic songs of birds, all these things are a comfort.

I especially love bluebirds. I was not aware that I’d see bluebirds in California, as I only knew of the Eastern Bluebird, but I’ve come to learn that there is a Western Bluebird. So in honor of these lovely creatures, I’m going to share an essay I wrote when I was still living in Georgia while in another time of waiting and watching – for new life.

* * * * *

Lately, I’ve been enjoying those tell-tale sings of Spring’s presence – the fresh green grass that’s almost neon-like in its intensity, the increasing volume of the morning bird sounds, the purring made by the first hummingbirds at the feeder and the nighttime chorus of frog love songs.

I have to confess that I’m in love with birds and have always considered them visiting angels.  There’s a very special place in my heart for Eastern Bluebirds, and I always stop and stare when I notice that flash of blue breezing by.  A couple of years ago, I nailed a bluebird house to the side of the shed and though I usually notice a mated pair investigating its interior every year, there must be something about it that isn’t pleasing since no family except for the wasps has yet set up house there.

Once again this year there’s a bluebird family at the top of my chimney, as I often hear them chirping while I’m in the living room.  The old wood stove pipe must be a particularly good audio conductor, because it always sounds as if the birds are right in the room with me.

In the first spring after I moved to Habersham County, I came home one evening from an out of town trip and was horrified to discover a dead male bluebird in my kitchen.  I had just two indoor cats then and wondered if they had chased the poor thing around the house until it died of fright because its body was untouched and perfectly glorious.  I could tell by the droppings left behind that he had gone to nearly every window in the house in his desperate attempts to find freedom.  Each time I imagined his panic it just made me cry all over again.  Before I buried him in my garden, I stroked his lovely feathers and told him how sorry I was that I’d not been able to release him from his indoor prison.

In the days that followed, I told my friends that I didn’t think it was a good omen that the “bluebird of happiness” had died in my house.  I mean, just how is one supposed to interpret that?  According to Wikipedia, mythology around the bluebird has existed for thousands of years and it is a “widely accepted symbol of cheerfulness, happiness, prosperity, etc.”  In a 17th century European folk tale called “The Blue Bird,” two children are sent out by a fairy to find the bluebird of happiness and when they return empty-handed they learn the bird has been at their home the entire time.  Native American cultures consider the birds to be sacred and I’ve learned a dead bluebird is “a symbol of disillusionment, of the loss of innocence, and of transformation from the younger and naive to the older and wiser.”  When I think back to my journey over the last few years, it now makes perfect sense for that symbol to have landed in my kitchen at that time.

Just the other day, my next step finally became clear.  I’ve decided to move to Chicago to attend the Lutheran School of Theology there.  My hopes and prayers are that I will find my studies and my new academic community to be enriching and soulful and that this work will lead me to a vocation that will sustain me, one that I will love.  I leave my beloved north Georgia mountains in July.

A couple of weeks ago, after much loud chirping in the living room, I looked up from my desk to see another male bluebird in the house.  This time, I witnessed his fluttering from window to window.  This time, I was able to surround him with my soft hands and escort him out the back door alive and well.  I’m hoping that’s a good sign for the new life to come.

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