Make Life a Mythic Journey
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least
—-Walt Whitman (“Song of Myself,” verse 48)
The recovery of a mature spirituality is one of the most difficult tasks of our time.
—-James Hollis (Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, p. 182)
For many people the concept of God seems outdated and no longer relevant. There have been too many religious wars, whether between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan, or the current ongoing deadly conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria, and other countries in the Middle East. And here in the United States, the ongoing religious-fueled attacks on women’s reproductive rights (especially access to abortion), pedophile priests, and restrictions on same-sex marriage have further alienated many from traditional religion and belief in God.
The Jungian, Robert A. Johnson, says that, “Hearing what has been called the still, small voice within—this is the religious life (p. 101).” This is what Jung called the Self, the unconscious center or archetype that guides us and contains our sense of spirituality. In contrast to our conscious ego, which, according to Johnson, “seems to come from your head” (or the thinking function), the Self “seems to come from your heart or your stomach (we sometimes call it a ‘gut feeling’) (p. 102).”
According to Jung (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 325), the “telling question” confronting modern Western, agnostic and atheistic, men and women is, are they “related to something infinite or not?” James Hollis goes even further asking, how in “our finite sensibility” can we know or “experience” the “infinite mystery that has been called God” (Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, p. 189). This is our major task, what I’ve called “the spiritual imperative.” For Hollis maintains that it is only through the connection of the outer infinite to our inner being, or Self, that we experience that numinous unity that gives our life meaning. How or where can we find that experience?
Last month, my wife and I made our annual pilgrimage to the San Francisco area to celebrate her birthday. During our visit, my wife and a close friend decided to spend a day together—their annual female-bonding event. Rather than stay in the hotel and read, I made my own pilgrimage to the nearby Muir Woods, a national monument dedicated to the preservation of the California redwoods. These trees are the “tallest living things” on the planet, reaching heights of over 300 feet and dating back 1,000 to 2,000 years.
As I walked through the gate at the park entrance, I felt as if I was stepping into another world. The tall trees envelope you and you feel their upward thrust into the infinite. There was an immediate other-worldly spiritual stirring that became fully conscious as I crossed the bridge and entered the Cathedral Grove. There I was, surrounded by the awe-inspiring redwoods stretching upward higher than the spires of any Gothic cathedral or the minarets of any mosque toward the heavenly canopy of the blue sky. I paused and was swept away into the transcendent space we call soul. Then, after a few moments, the stillness was broken by other voices entering the grove. I listened to the groups coming and going and counted over a dozen different languages. This was truly a holy place where the world’s congregation gathered.
My two hours among the redwoods of Muir Woods clearly seemed to be the numinous, spiritual experience of the infinite that both Jung and Hollis described. Rather than feeling diminished by the stately immensity of the trees, I felt enlarged and connected to something majestic and enduring. But does this qualify as “a mature spirituality?” Hollis claims that such “an image of nature, an imago Dei” would have to “allow us to relate to the experience of the mystery in a way that consciousness can grasp.” Specifically, he says, “It can only be if they [the images] move us, that is, set off a resonance within us” (p. 199).
To this question, I answer with an unequivocal, “YES!” to quote James Joyce. I would add that, beyond resonance, one must truly feel connected. My journey through the Muir Woods left me feeling connected to the cosmos, the world, and the people in it. In other words, it was a feeling of pantheism that produces an ensouled compassion for others. It is a spiritual sense of connection to the mystery of the universe that existed before I was here to be conscious of it, and will continue after my brief sojourn here. It is, as the “good gray poet” said:
Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
Frolic on, crested and scalloped-edg’d waves!
Gorgeous clouds of the sunset! drench with your splendor me, or the
men and women generations after me!
We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection in you also,
You furnish your parts toward eternity,
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.
—-Walt Whitman (“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” verse 9)
Paul Marshall Wortman
July 23, 2013