The return of the soul

The ‘return of the soul’ woodcut 

The Rosary of the Philosophers – ‘the Rosarium’ is a sixteenth century alchemical treatise that Carl Jung referred to in his writings about the transformation of potentials. In the treatise this is represented by two imaginary figures, a king and a queen seen as psychological opposites. A series of woodcuts illustrates this transformation which can happen externally: interpersonally, and, also, inside us: intrapsychically within the person.

One woodcut is called ‘the return of the soul’ and it shows the soul as a baby or a child, diving down from heaven to breathe life into the dead body of the united king and queen. In the woodcut, the child/soul breathes new life bringing insight and the integration of the body and the soul. The soul then emerges as part of the integrated personality born of the two in relationship – for Jung this was also born in the relationship between patient and analyst. In this context the soul is identified with the life force and divinity.

Donald Kalsched, the Jungian analyst, describes his work with Jennifer who had experienced serious trauma as a little girl, and who came into therapy saying that she ‘had lost her soul’. There were fleeting moments when she felt that her soul had returned to her – such as painting alone in her studio, or sometimes when alone in nature, but most of the time she felt devoid of value and self-worth. Convinced of her own lack and ‘badness’, she suffered terribly, but mostly based on self-attacks and self-criticism.

‘It was as though, in the space inside which her soul had vacated a dark mocking spirit had moved in, a mental spirit that negated everything and filled her with despair and hopelessness. … She was surviving, but she was not living.’

As the therapy progressed, the woman was able to draw on a memory that helped her towards self-compassion – a transcendent experience which she called a ‘visitation’ from a ‘presence of light’: a presence that she interpreted as an angel, and a power that had supported her to live. At the time of the angel visiting Jennifer was 7, and near death, having been terribly injured through abuse by a relative. Inspired by another little girl patient in the next bed who was colouring a picture, Jennifer thought there might be reason to live. However, her recovery was slow, and at times doubtful with recurring debilitating episodes of peritonitis. She had been given a box of watercolours, but despite looking longingly at the colours she thought: ‘what use is this to me now.’

‘The angel when it came to her, was in the midst of soft white-yellow light beside her to the right. Neither male not female, it was at once terrible and cool and somehow unsurprisingly familiar. Calmly and caringly, the ethereal messenger declared without preamble. ‘You don’t have to continue; it’s all right to let go now.’ The presence paused then continued, ‘if you decide to stay it won’t be easy.’

Jennifer remembered how it was tempting to let go and not call out for help with her pain, but then her eyes fell on her box of watercolours and in particular a colour called Rose Madder – she thought I need to use this colour – how can I leave earth without using it. I need to paint, so she told the angel she had to stay. ‘With her angel’s visit, came a quiet sense of belonging, a knowing that she was a part of something greater than herself.’ Her pain had been witnessed. She called for help and gradually got physically better. As an adult she became a painter. Working on the memory of the angel with Kalsched gradually began to help her reanimate her soul, and begin to integrate it into her body.