Carl Jung says that the cross is a “Christian totality symbol.” It symbolizes the way of completeness in which the quadrants or four cardinal points of the whole are connected. It consists of a vertical line and a horizontal line intersecting. The vertical line joins what is above with what is below— heaven and earth, spirit and matter, the cosmos and the earth. The horizontal line joins what is on one side with what is on the other side—East and West, the masculine and the feminine, the interests of one nation and the life of another. At the center of the cross, the opposites meet. And in the Christian tradition the center of the cross is the place of self-giving. It is love that has the power to conjoin what is considered irreconcilable. It is sacrifice that brings together the so-called opposites. But this is not to be con- fused with the doctrine of propitiation in which Christ’s death has often been imagined in Christianity to be a payment to God for the sins of the world. Rather the symbol is pointing to the nature of love itself. Oneness is costly. It will be born within us and among us only if we are willing to die to our separateness. As Jung says, we “must celebrate a Last Supper” with our ego. Whether as nations or as individuals or as an entire species, we must choose to abandon ourselves to love.
In 1939 Jung had a dreamlike experience in the middle of the night. He woke and saw at the foot of his bed the figure of Christ on the cross “bathed in bright light.” And he saw that Christ’s body was made of “greenish gold.” It was for Jung a powerful vision and a disturbing one. The greenish gold of the dream, he realized, was the symbolic color for transformation in alchemical thought. It represented the anima mundi or the greening spirit that is within all things. Among medieval alchemists, it was this belief that led to the hope that base metals could be changed into gold, for all things shared the same golden essence of life. But for Jung it was a way of speaking of the human soul’s capacity for transformation.Within every human being is life’s sacred essence. And it is love, especially love’s willingness to sacrifice, that holds the key to transformation, to release again life’s essential oneness.The twelfth-century teacher Hildegard of Bingen expresses it similarly when she says that Jesus reveals “the greening power” of the soul. He shows us the way of love, the truth of love, and the life of love. It is love that will release life’s greening force again.
A number of years ago on personal retreat, I used a form of contemplation developed by Ignatius of Loyola in the sixteenth century. Ignatius had discovered that the imagination was a faculty of knowing. He realized also that it could be a tool of fantasy, a way of escaping reality. But the significance of his discovery was the realization that our imagination could take us to places within ourselves to which the rational mind alone does not have access. Ignatius developed a form of contemplation in which he was able to make an imaginal connection between Jesus and himself. Specifically it was a way of contemplation in which he imaginatively placed himself in the Gospel stories of Jesus. He would allow the senses of his imagination to color the place, to people the narrative, and to bring him into direct conversation with Jesus.
Prayer or meditative practice is about being dis-membered in order to be re-membered.
This was the form of contemplation I used on retreat at St. Beuno’s spirituality center in the north of Wales, the monastery where the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins studied for the priesthood and wrote some of his greatest poetry. In the time of contemplation, I used a story from St. Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus is described as rising early in the morning “while it was still very dark” in order to go to a deserted place to pray (Mark 1:35). In my imagination I allowed the place to be a little bay off the Sound of Iona with which I am familiar. The time was early morning, just as the seagulls were beginning to announce the coming light. And I was a disciple wanting to be with Jesus in the silence of dawn.
I could not make him out on the shore. It was still too dark. There was only enough light to glimpse the barest outline of his form. I did not want to disturb him. My desire was simply to share in the silence. But in my imagination Jesus spoke to me. And his voice did not sound kindly. “What is it you want?” he asked. “I want to be with you,” I replied. To which Jesus responded, “You don’t know what you are asking.” The light of dawn was growing. I was able to see a bit more of his shape. I now saw that he was doubled over like an old man, leaning on a stick. And then he began to be dismembered, losing one limb after another, until finally all that was left of him was a clump of seaweed against a wet rock on the shore.
It was a disturbing contemplation for me. At first I tried to dismiss its details from my mind. I even tried to reshape the story, retracing its stages and attempting to force my imagination in other directions. But in the end I could see nothing but the clump of seaweed on the strand. And I began to realize that truly I had not known what I was asking for. Part of me had wanted to be with Jesus on the shore. I liked the idea of getting away from the crowds as Jesus had done in the Gospel story. But what I had not realized was that to join Jesus in prayer was to approach the place of dismemberment. Prayer or meditative practice is about being dis-membered in order to be re-membered. It is about descending into the death of the ego in order to be reborn from our true depths. It is about being stripped down to our essence, where we will find the gold of our being, the greening power of the soul.
Jung says that to find our true self “involves a passion of the ego.” It is about letting go of the pretence of separateness, whether as individuals or as nations or communities. It is about “ex-centration,” as Teilhard de Chardin calls it, a finding of our true center not simply within the limited confines of our own individuality but at the heart of one another as well. It is not about ceasing to love ourselves but about loving ourselves in a radically new way, by loving the other as our self. It is, says Teilhard, about shifting “the axis” of our being outside of ourselves. And in all of this it is about knowing that our essence is like the precious seaweed gathered on the shores of the Western Isles of Scotland each year to fertilize the fields for the next year’s growth and fecundity. This is the wisdom of Jesus that I heard again in my imagination on the shores of Iona. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). It is only as our separating ego is dis-membered that we will re-member our true self, one with all selves.