Make Life a Mythic Journey
“We all have moments in life when we know we are touched by a force that is larger than ourselves, something very real that transcends our experience in the ordinary world.”
—-Lionel Corbett, Psyche and the Sacred (p. 11)
It was Saturday, May 24, 2014, our last full day in Sicily, and my wife and I had already seen many amazing things spanning the history of Western civilization. We were ending our tour in Siracusa (Syracuse) and, as I entered its Duomo, I was about to experience what Jungians, borrowing from Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, call the numinosum; that which produces an “encounter with the sacred,” according to Lionel Corbett (Psyche and the Sacred, pp. 12-13).
As we were about to open the door to the Duomo, our guide, Enzo, asked me to guess what was on the other side. I had no idea. All I remembered from reading my Frommer’s Sicily (5th ed.) was that the Duomo is “the oldest church in Europe.” The 18th century baroque façade of the restored church gave no hint to what was inside. Once we entered, to my astonishment, Enzo pointed out that the church had completely incorporated an ancient Greek temple of Athena dating from around 500 B.C. The Doric columns of the temple were clearly visible in the vestibule and along the interior walls.
I had the immediate sensation of being transported through time as a spiritual traveler from the present to the ancient world. It was a numinous experience that, as Corbett claimed (p. 12), left me “stunned…and filled with wonder…by something uncanny,” and totally extraordinary. This feeling was only heightened as Enzo sat next to us in a pew and explained how the female temple to the Greek goddess had been figuratively married to the male church of the Roman Catholic god.
The Greeks opened their temples to face east while Christians closed that end for their altar. To me, as a Jungian, it symbolized the royal wedding, or hieros gamos, between the male and female spirit. That balance was deepened further by the knowledge that Athena represented the strong inner masculine while Christ contained an equally strong inner feminine. The church-temple itself was literally a transcendent function uniting the ancient and the modern into a numinosum. And, as is often the case, it did “produce a profound sense of union or oneness with the world and other people (p. 13).”
Corbett then adds “that experiences of the sacred may occur in novel ways that do not correspond to the expectations of traditional religions (p. 13).” That certainly was the case for me, a nonobservant secular person with a Jewish heritage. I can only speculate that this may have left me open to the novel experience of the Duomo. Moreover, my immersion in the ideas of Jung clearly provided the symbolic meaning. Does that mean you should book a flight to Sicily? Of course not, it only illustrates the important point made by Corbett (p. 13) that such numinous experiences “may happen to anyone at any time, and they are more common than is generally acknowledged.”
Paul Marshall Wortman