The Ego’s Last Supper | John Philip Newell | Isle of Iona | Carl Jung

cross-iona-4By John Philip Newell

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.

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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.

John Philip Newell, A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 156-160.

Stories from Iona Abbey | Celtic Spirituality | John Philip Newell

By John Philip Newell

37541083-thomas-mertonThe new harmony that we seek is not the construction of a new unity. It is, as Thomas Merton says, the rediscovery of an “older unity.” It is not the laying of a new foundation for relationship. It is the fresh uncovering of life’s original groundwork. In the final weeks of his life, Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk and visionary for peace, met in Asia with leaders of other religious traditions. One of the last things he said to them was, “My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”

Our experiences of communion in life are glimpses into this original unity. They are a rediscovery of what we most truly are—one. Whether it is our experience of gazing into the vast infinity of night skies or looking deep into the eyes of one we love, it is the recognizing of a oneness we did not create but have been gifted with. It is the rediscovery of a harmony that precedes us, the remembering of a unity that is deep in the body of the universe.

church4The best of our rituals and religious disciplines of communion reflect this. They do not create oneness. They help us remember our oneness. They do not make unity. They release our unity. They free us from the forgetfulness of thinking we are essentially separate. They liberate us from the delusions of isolated individuality. In our sacrament of communion in the Christian household, when we share one bread and one cup together, we recite Jesus’ words, “Do this to remember me.” We do this to re-member, to bring back into relationship again what has been forgotten, to reawaken within ourselves the way of oneness, the truth of oneness, the life of oneness.

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One of the great blessings of my four years at the abbey on Iona was gathering together with people from around the world every Friday evening to share bread and wine at the long table. This ancient Scottish practice of communion, in which a table extends the entire length of the chancel, is celebrated weekly at the abbey. Gathered around the table were always many nations and languages, many colors and denominations. It was an experience of the world at table together. And when the world gathers together at table, there is always the sublime as well as the ridiculous.

I shall never forget one Friday evening in particular. Our service had begun at the east end of the cathedral. During the first hymn, I led the procession from the nave into the chancel so that we could be seated around the long table. The first to join me at the head of the table were some lads from Easterhouse, a rough council housing scheme in Glasgow. Perhaps they had never been in a church before.

Sometimes this was the case on Iona, when groups from different traditions and backgrounds gathered together.

The lads were wide-eyed about the proceedings and appeared happy enough to be there. But sitting at table together was probably not what they had expected. The combination of food and drink, together with their being warmly welcomed into the life of the community, made them feel so much at home that they pulled out their cigarettes and lit up at the table. I was hesitant to inhibit their style, but felt they should at least know that this was not our custom at the abbey. So as the rest of the congregation was still singing and making its way from the nave to the table, I had a quiet word with the boys, to which they obligingly responded by putting out their cigarettes. I thought the worst was over. In fact the comedy had just begun. When it came to sharing the bread and the wine, they were the first to receive. And by the time the chalice reached the fourth lad, it had been drained dry. The celebration of an older unity!

As well as absurd occasions at the abbey, there were truly extraordinary moments of oneness. There was the time when Zaki Badawi, a prominent scholar of the Islamic community in Britain, led us in a Muslim call to prayer in the abbey church. This was a sound that had never been heard within the eight-hundred-year-old walls of the abbey. And yet it sounded as if it deeply belonged. It was the sound of a new-ancient harmony that was being born again within us and between us.

And there was the week when Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, the cofounder of Clergy for Peace in Jerusalem, taught Torah at the abbey. The agreement was that he would teach Scripture in the mornings and for the rest of the day join in as much of the community’s life as he wished. Jeremy fully participated in the pattern of our days. Every morning he would join us for prayer in the abbey church. In the evenings he would sing hymns with us and listen to our Scriptures.

Toward the end of the week, we asked Jeremy if he would preach at the long-table celebration of communion. Being a good rabbi, he said he did not know a precedent of a Jewish rabbi preaching at a communion service. But he knew a precedent of a rabbi singing a table blessing at a Christian communion, so he would sing a table blessing for us. When it came time for the blessing, Jeremy gave it a ten-minute introduction. So we had a sermon after all!

Ali was presiding that evening, so she was seated at the head of the table. And because Jeremy was preaching—or giving the table blessing as he called it—he sat immediately next to her. We assumed he was simply wanting to be present for communion rather than to fully participate in communion. When it came time for the sharing of the bread and wine, however, Ali, intending simply to start the bread around the table, handed it to Jeremy so that he could then pass it on to his neighbor. But Jeremy received the bread and ate before serving his neighbor. And he did the same with the cup.

An older unity was being rediscovered among us, a oneness that precedes our divisions, a unity that underlies our differentiations. In speaking about the communion service later on that night, Rabbi Jeremy explained that it  had not been his intention to receive the bread and wine when he came to the service. But as he sat at table he realized that it was all so deeply familiar, the sharing of bread and wine at table together. He also realized that he had been so welcomed as a Jewish rabbi into the abbey community that he could receive the bread and the wine according to his own tradition. He knew that he was not being untrue to us or to his own inheritance. He was being deeply true. He also knew that he wanted to be true to an older unity, the unity of the human soul, the unity of the earth.

John Philip Newell, A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 132-136.

Seeking a New Harmony

IMG_5249.JPGBy John Philip Newell

A few summers ago at our little retreat center in New Mexico, we were exploring themes of wholeness. We were asking how the broken harmony of our lives and world can be transformed. What does the transformation from woundedness to wholeness look like, whether individually or among us as nations and species? Among the participants at our retreat was a couple from Colorado, Larry and Diane. A number of months earlier, they had lost their son, Zach, in an airplane crash. They opened their hearts to us as a group and allowed us to share in their grieving. When it came time in our reflections to ask what it means to seek transformation, and how we are to move from brokenness toward wholeness, Larry said simply and unforgettably, “If by wholeness you mean some sort of smoothing over of the gaping wound that will always be in me because of my son’s death, I don’t want that sort of wholeness.”

“If by wholeness you mean some sort of smoothing over of the gaping wound that will always be in me because of my son’s death, I don’t want that sort of wholeness.”

Larry was not meaning that he wanted forever to be paralyzed by his son’s death. He was not meaning that he did not wish to move toward transformation. He was meaning, however, that he wished never to forget the preciousness of his son’s life and his agony as a father in losing Zach. And he was meaning that any true journey of transformation would not skirt around that wound but would incorporate it deeply into whatever the new beginning was to be. When he finished speaking, he reminded us of the resurrection story in St. John’s Gospel. The risen Jesus, he said, shows the disciples the marks of crucifixion in his hands and side. The resurrection story is not about the wounds being undone. It is not about the suffering being smoothed over. The wounds are deeply visible. They are part of the new beginning. They are an inseparable part of the new beginning.

Jung says that wholeness is about “integration . . . but not perfection.”

557-MJung says that wholeness is about “integration . . . but not perfection.” It is about bringing into relationship again the many parts of our lives, including our brokenness, in order to experience transformation. It is not about forgetting the wound or pretending that it did not happen. It is about seeking a new beginning that grows inseparably out of the suffering. It is not about returning to Eden, an unblemished state of innocence within us or between us. It is about bringing our origin in Eden, the root that connects us still to the sacredness of our beginnings, into the depths of our exile from Eden, including all of the woundedness that false decisions and wrong turns have created within us and between us in our lives.

As the Scottish poet Kenneth White writes, this is not “any kind of easy harmonization.” It is not about returning to a simple unspoiled melody. It is about seeking a new harmony that fully recognizes the experience and the depth of our brokenness. Or as Edwin Muir, another Scottish poet, put it in his poem “One Foot in Eden,” it is about seeking a blossom that was “never known” in Eden. “What,” he asks, “had Eden ever to say of hope and faith and pity and love”? These, he says, are “strange blessings” to Eden. They come not simply out of the garden of our beginnings. They are born out of the “grief” and “darkened fields” of our lives.

John Philip Newell, A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 98-99.

The strength of humility, of being close to the humus

JPN_(Iona_MN)By John Philip Newell

The Quran includes a powerful account of the creation of humanity. When God brings forth humanity from the fecundity of the earth, the divine command to the holy angels is to bow down and honor what has been made in the holy image. The angels prostrate themselves before Adam and Eve, with one exception. The greatest angel, the angel of light, refuses to bow. He says he will not bow to what comes out of the earth, out of “the black moulded loam” of earth’s soil (Al-Hijr 15:28). And thus begins the falseness of Satan. He chooses the path of hubris, of lifting himself up over the earth, of positioning himself above the other.

Think of the hubris of our lives. Think of our individual arrogance, the way we pursue our own well-being at the neglect and even expense of other individuals and other families. Think of the hubris of our nationhood, pretending that we could look after the safety of our homeland by ignoring and even violating the sovereignty of other lands. Think of the hubris of our religion, raising ourselves up over other wisdom traditions and even trying to force our ways on them. Think of the hubris of the human species, pretending that we could look after our own health while exploiting and endangering the life of other species.

photoThe way of hubris, of arrogantly lifting ourselves up over the other, is opposite to the way of Jesus, who taught the strength of humility, of being close to the humus, close to the Ground from which we and all things come. The humblest, says Jesus, are “the greatest” (Matthew 18:4). Not that following Jesus’ path of humility is straightforward. Constantly there is tension—the tension of discerning how to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, how to honor the heart of another nation as we honor our own homeland, how to revere the truths of another wisdom tradition as we cherish our own inheritance, how to protect the life of other species as we guard the sanctity of our own life-form. Jesus knew such tension. He was tempted to use his wisdom and his power of presence to serve himself, to lift himself up over others. But to the tempter, he says, “Away with you, Satan!” (Matthew 4:10). Away with the falseness of believing that I can love myself and demean others.

“By way of contrast,” says Hildegard, “humility does not rob people or take anything from them. Rather, it holds together everything in love.”

The twelfth-century teacher Hildegard of Bingen says, “Arrogance is always evil because it oppresses everything, disperses everything, and deprives everything.” The way of hubris pretends that we can be well by oppressing, by exploiting another people in order to serve our own people. It pretends that we can be well by dispersing, by breaking down life’s oneness into entirely unrelated compartments. And it pretends that we can be well by depriving, by denying to others and to other species what we ourselves most cherish. “By way of contrast,” says Hildegard, “humility does not rob people or take anything from them. Rather, it holds together everything in love.” The way of humility, of reconnecting to the humus, remembers the sacred Ground of being within us all. And it knows that we will be truly well to the extent that we love one another.

John Philip Newell A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 83-85.

Part 2: Knowing and Naming Our Brokenness.

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by John Philip Newell

I had a dream a few years ago, in which I tried to sneak into Carl Jung’s tower house in Bollingen. In the dream, it had an exterior spiral staircase even though in reality the stairs are on the inside. In the dream, however, I was halfway up the tower heading for the top floor, which was Jung’s place of solitude and study. It was a room into which very few people were invited. Thinking he was not in, I planned to creep into the room in his absence. So I was surprised when I heard his voice above me. “Come up,” he said in his heavily accented English. I was embarrassed at being caught out, but delighted to be invited up.

The scene in the dream then changed. We were not in Jung’s top-floor room but on the top of the tower itself, looking out in all directions. We had with us an ancient musical instrument, a precursor of the French horn, and we took it in turn to try to sound the lowest note possible. Finally, during one of Jung’s attempts at the horn, I stood behind him and massaged his neck, thinking that if I could relax him, he would be able to produce the sound. Then it came, a full, clear vibrating of the lowest note. It resounded through us and all around us, traveling from the tower out into the surrounding woods.

Then, as if in response to the sound, there came people from the four directions. They were carrying what looked like ancient animal skins rolled up. They placed these at the foot of the tower—east, west, north, and south. Those who had carried the animal hides then unfurled them. Within each skin were human remains, thousands of years old. And it was clear that these human forbearers had died from violence, from ax wounds to the head or spear thrusts to the heart, from dismemberment and war.

The dream spoke to me of the depths of violence that we carry within us as a human species, as nations and religious traditions—layer upon layer of inherited violence. And it spoke of the capacity for violence in my own heart, in my thoughts and fears and struggles for survival. But the presence of Jung in the dream spoke also of healing, and especially of the relationship between consciousness and healing. He represented the desire to connect again with life’s deepest note, the Sound that unites all things. And the dream spoke to me of the implicit relationship between knowing our true depths and knowing also the brokenness that is within us.

Knowing and naming brokenness is essential in the journey toward wholeness. We will not be well by denying the wrongs that we carry within us as nations and religions and communities. Nor will we be well by downplaying them or projecting them onto others. The path to wholeness will take us not around such awareness but through it, confronting the depths of our brokenness before being able to move forward toward healing. As Hildegard of Bingen says, we need two wings with which to fly. One is the “knowledge of good,” and the other is the “knowledge of evil.” If we lack one or the other, we will be like an eagle with only one wing. We will fall to the ground instead of rising to the heights of unitary vision. We will live in half- consciousness instead of whole-consciousness.

A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 63-65.