Monthly Archives: July 2020

The wounded stag

Environment creates religious experience. If you put that theologically you might say there is a revelation of God in nature, and through nature God draws us into his presence. I’ve never visited a desert, but can see how that might lead to a feeling of being emptied out; in the same way walking in a forest you can have a feeling of the richness of God’s creation. In this way nature which is God’s creation can become a symbol of our inner frame of mind – including the unconscious, and affects us spiritually and psychologically.

In his discussion of Christian mysticism William Johnston uses the symbol of the wounded stag – he takes this from a line from St John of the Cross:

‘the wounded stag is in sight on the hill, cooled by the breeze of your flight.’

John of the Cross tells us in his commentary on his Spiritual Canticle that the wounded stag is Jesus himself – he is wounded because we are wounded. This seems so apt in our current situation. We have deeply wounded nature and so we too are deeply wounded. Our very destruction of God’s creation inevitably leads to our own suffering. The virus is merely a symptom of the terrible actions we have taken.

In his commentary St John of the Cross writes:

‘It is characteristic of the stag that he climbs to high places and when wounded races in search of refreshment and cool waters. If he hears the cry of his mate and senses that she is wounded, he immediately runs to her to comfort and caress her.’

In the same way Jesus hearing our wounded cry is wounded with love for us and joins us in our suffering.

‘Among lovers, the wound of one is a wound for both, and the two have but one feeling’.

In contemplative prayer John says we can take our selves spiritually to a high place where God begins to show himself to the soul in this life, but not completely. We can glimpse him, like the wounded stag, but as if from a great distance. Our relationship is not about our love for Jesus but rather is about the mystery of his great love for us. The flight of contemplation causes a breeze and this is the spirit of love – the Holy Spirit who refreshes, heals and sustains us in the deepest part of our soul.

Going inwards

Going inwards is one way of coping with what is happening outside. Rather than a retreat or a withdrawal I think it can be a way of balancing the destruction that we see in the external world with creativity in the inner one.

William Johnston, Catholic and Zen mystic and writer who lived and worked in Japan for most of his life quotes the idea of ‘the shift to interiority’ – following Jesus who tells us to go into our room and pray in secret this is the inner room that the Indus call ‘the cave of the heart’. In our deepest being we will meet our Father. He also refers to John 7 verse 38. In the NRSV it reads: ‘out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’ which in the St James’ version is translated as ‘he that believeth in me, as the Scriptures hath said, out of his [her] belly shall flow rives of living water.’ Johnston imagines a stout Japanese bodhisattva sitting ‘gloriously in the lotus posture while rivers of ki (energy) flow from his hara or tanden (belly) to the entire universe’.

What happens when we go down to the true self? Johnston says we have to try and discern whether this inner voice is indeed the true self and not a vicious super ego. It is here that knowledge of the unconscious can play a part.

Johnston distinguishes or discusses the idea of ‘ordinary prayer’ which takes place from our own efforts assisted by ordinary grace and then occasional times of ‘extraordinary prayer’ that is a gift and a grace from God. Practicing ordinary prayer leads to acquired contemplation and Johnston found this was very common in Japan where there was this level of awareness. It has been acquired through the different rituals such as the way of tea, and the way of Zen. ‘These so-called ways (Japanese do and in Chinese tao) are among the richest flowers of Sino-Japanese culture.’

The deeper that we can go into the cave of the heart then human effort becomes less and less necessary because of the action of God … ‘and then there comes ‘infused contemplation’ which is pure gift.’

These difficult times 3

It becomes increasingly clear that we cannot go back to the way things were before the current pandemic, and if we do then more difficult times will happen. Yet humans are a species that find change difficult – yes we can adapt, but reluctantly, and often only by small incremental steps. Perhaps this is the same for all created beings.

In 1955 Carl Jung wrote about how the wheel of time cannot be turned back. ‘Things, however, can be destroyed and renewed. This is extremely dangerous, but the signs of our times are dangerous too. If there was ever a truly apocalyptic era, it is ours. God has put the means for a universal holocaust into the hands of men.’  Jung was referring here to nuclear warfare. Whilst the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is now 75 years ago the threat remains, with even more missiles with greater capabilities, and perhaps a diminishing awareness of the total destruction and horror of it all.

Jung describes how pessimistic he is about the future and the darkness of knowing about this level of destruction: ‘My thoughts about “this world” … are not enjoyable. The drive of the unconscious towards mass murder on a global scale is not exactly a cheering prospect.’ Taking the long view Jung comments how transitions between the aeons always seem to have been melancholy and despairing times, and now we are moving into Aquarius and here Jung quotes from the Sibylline Oracles: ‘Aquarius inflames the savage forces of Lucifer’.  He jokes that this could be a case of senile pessimism if he had not seen the evidence of nuclear weapons, and the unconscious drive towards ‘the great genocide’.

The destruction of nature and the habitats of our fellow creatures is also another form of this unconscious desire for destruction, but there is always the opposite too which is creativity, and this is an energy towards life and living. Jung would say that both have to be in balance and perhaps the current difficult times are forcing us to see differently how we might live.

We are he says also irresistibly attracted to God who invites our creativity. ‘I would feel it the most heinous sin were I to offer any resistance to this compelling force. I feel it is God’s will that I should exercise the gift of thinking which has been vouchsafed to me. Therefore I put my thinking at his service…’

Jung’s thinking was about the integration of the shadow, in other words owning the destructiveness both individually and collectively, bringing the dark destructiveness into the light. The psyche – the unconscious –is not man made, but is part of the divinely created nature which for Jung includes evil and destruction. The aim is not to deny this and so find a false goodness or perfection, but rather for completeness or wholeness, Jung called this individuation.

‘In so far as God is wholeness himself, himself whole and holy, man [and woman] attains … wholeness only in God, that is in self-completeness, which in turn they attain only by submitting to God’s will … For me the state of human wholeness is one of “completeness” and not of “perfection”, an expression like “holiness,” I tend to avoid.’

These difficult times 2

If all aspects of creation and the created order bear the mark of the Creator then they reflect the divine love and intention of creation. This makes our attacks and destruction of nature an attack and destruction on God. It is another crucifixion. We destroy what Thomas Merton calls the ‘Godliness that is in all things around us, that proclaim the immense and unfailing love of their creator.’

In 1947 Carl Jung wrote that people did not know that ‘the only true servants of God are the animals’. The problem for people was rather how we might become human and so more like the animals get further in touch with our intuitions. The difficulty would be to get us to understand that ‘any lousy dog is much more pious than they [Methodists and Baptists] are.’

We are animals too and like all living beings Jung believed that life’s journey was a striving towards wholeness – ‘everything living dreams of individuation.’ Part of the damage that we have done is to destroy that inner connection with nature and other animals. This means Jung believed that through our treatment of creations we have lost our appreciation of the ‘numinosity’ of animals. ‘They have become apparently harmless’ – here I think Jung is referring to our demystifying the spirit of animals so that they merely are seen as meeting our needs perhaps as food or as entertainment or as an inconvenience that need to be exterminated.

He continues,

‘instead we people the world with hooting, booming, clattering monsters that cause infinitely more damage to life and limb than bears and wolves ever did in the past. And where the natural dangers are lacking, man does not rest until he has immediately invented others for himself.’

Our difficult times reflect that we have lost our connection with nature, we have taken away the dignity of all animals. We cannot see the kinship of all creation. This is the model for how God intended and intends humanity to relate to the rest of creation. This is the Franciscan model – one of nature mysticism. This is where, ‘mystical experiences involve an appreciation of creation as God’s handiwork; nature manifests the divine.’ Surely we have been able to become more open to this during lockdown when the cars and aeroplanes stopped, the skies cleared and we could hear the birdsong. The ‘hooting, booming, clattering monsters’ were stilled and nature was briefly allowed to breathe again and have some space.

These difficult times 1

In 1953 Carl Jung warned a pastor of the danger of confusing ourselves with God. Seventy years later this seems like a prophecy that is being horribly fulfilled – although of course realistically humans have been confusing themselves with God for centuries. This links to the biblical idea that we are made in the image of God. We read in Genesis 1:27, ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’

It depends what the image of God means, but it is a short step to see it as to do with power and control. Jung saw the danger as seeing ourselves as the demiurge, in other words being responsible for the creation of the universe. Perhaps here in the sense that we arrogantly make the universe or recreate the universe to meet our own needs; as if everything in it has been created merely to serve us. Inevitably this means that we are also responsible for the earth’s destruction. In the almost seventy years since Jung wrote that warning, our powers of destruction have continued apace, and in our lack of humility we have inevitably usurped the cosmic powers of destruction. Indeed Jung warned of ‘a second Deluge,’ adding, ‘He [man] should become conscious of the tremendous danger of God becoming man, which threatens him with becoming God, and learn to understand the mysteria Dei better.

This has been especially so around the destruction of other creatures’ habitats and lives. We have not seen that they too were created by God and carry the imprint of their creator. Here the Franciscan Bonaventure is especially prescient. Dan Horan in his book on The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton explains Bonaventure’s theology of creation,

‘that highlighted the ways in which everything that was created by God was, in a sense, a vestige of the Creator. Each tree, blade of grass, bird, and so forth bears the imprint (vestigium) of the God who lovingly willed that aspect of the created order into existence.’

Thomas Merton connected to this Franciscan tradition. He wrote,

‘My idea of the world: first of all the world as God’s good creation. I have the good fortune to live in close contact with nature, how should I not love this world and love it with passion? I understand the joy of St Francis amid the creatures! God manifests himself in his creation, and everything that he has made speaks of him.’