Anima Mundi

Last year, I spent a day hiking through Glen Tromie in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland. It was midwinter, and the ground was covered by a thick layer of snow. I had walked for hours without meeting anyone. I love the intimacy of this glen. Some of its neighbors, like Glen Feshie and Glen Einich, are wilder and grander, but Glen Tromie is a perfect winter walk with its smaller proportions and shelter of hills on either side. During the hike, I realized just how much I love this land. I also wondered how it is that I hold this love together with my love for other landscapes, other wildernesses. I thought of the vast stretches of sky and sandstone mesas in the high desert of New Mexico or the ancient rock formations and lakes of the Canadian Shield where I spent my summers as a boy. What is it that allows the love of these different places to be one?

At the same time, my thoughts turned to the particularities of our lives and relationships. How do we remain true in our family life, in our devotion to nation, in our loyalty to religious tradition, and at the same time be in faithful relationship with those beyond the boundaries of these defined relationships? Can we live a conciliation between the two? I had been reading Jung’s thoughts about what he calls the “transcendent function.” It is a way of uniting supposed opposites. It is a disciplined practice of placing oneself in between two worlds, or at the midpoint between two extremes that seem irreconcilable, and faithfully waiting until the intersecting of their shared essence occurs. It is a way of seeking oneness between the two ends of a spectrum that otherwise fall into duality.

What are the dualisms of our lives? I love this place and not that place. I love my family, my nation, my religious inheritance, my species but not those people, those traditions, those species, those life-forms. And what about the ultimate dualisms that Jesus addresses in his teachings? I love God but not my brother. Or I love myself but not my neighbor. Jesus transcends these separations by disclosing the oneness of love. The one “who truly loves,” says Eckhart, “can only love one thing.” So radical is this oneness that it means that what we do to ourselves is what we do to God. What we do to our neighbor, what we do to the earth, is what we do to ourselves.

As I walked through Glen Tromie reflecting on my love of one place in relation to my love of other places, I was searching for a “transcendent function,” something that would hold them together. And what emerged in my thoughts was the medieval concept of anima mundi, or “the soul of the earth.” The Scottish landscape in which I was walking can seem so entirely different from the New Mexican landscape. One is eternally moist and verdant. The other is a high desert of sand with occasional outrageous outbursts of color and blossom. And yet in both places I breathe deeply. I inhale the soul of creation in these landscapes and am alive to its oneness. It is what Teilhard de Chardin calls the “fragrance” of the Feminine deep within the body of the earth, that quality within matter that awakens our desire for union. But the modern world, especially since the seventeenth century, has lost its awareness of the anima mundi. Matter is no longer animated by spirit. Instead, says Richard Tarnas, the universe is viewed as a “soulless vacuum.” And humanity is regarded as an exception of the cosmos. Spiritual and psychological qualities are located exclusively in the human psyche rather than in the vastness of the universe and in everything that has being. We have raised humanity into a separate category from the earth instead of seeing that we carry within ourselves the essence of the earth.

Toward the end of day in Glen Tromie, I was reveling in a sense of the anima mundi all around me. The whiteness of the landscape, the soft curves of the mountain peaks, the flow of the river were like a living body infused with soul. By now it was twilight as I headed out of the glen. But suddenly ahead of me on the path was a pack of dogs. They had picked up scent and were rushing at me full speed and angry. No one was with them. They came from the direction of the hunting lodge and kennels nearby. Clearly they had been pent up for too long and were now exploding with aggressive energy.

All my attention was focused on the big hounds at the front of the pack. I thought if I could speak to them, calling out firmly but unthreateningly, I could establish a type of relationship with them and settle them. They stopped about ten feet in front of me, still barking furiously but by now unsure what to do. Although part of me was frightened, I felt a calmness in my voice. Years of experience growing up as a boy with dogs, and the fact that the big hounds had now stopped and were listening to me, made me think I was going to be all right.

Out of the corner of my eye, I was aware of a little dog that I assumed to be a puppy. So he was of no concern to me. My focus remained on the big hounds directly in front of me. But suddenly the little dog bit me from the backside. It was not a puppy after all. It was a small terrier. He dug his teeth into the back of my leg, cutting my skin and drawing blood. It lasted but a split second and then he was gone, rejoining the others. The pack now began to disperse a little, enough at least to let me move forward. But now as I hobbled on, limping slightly at the sharp sting of the bite, I kept my eyes on the terrier as well. And soon I was safely away.

An experience of anima mundi! Never an experience to be romanticized. There are always little terriers in life that will bite our backside if we are not careful. We need to give our attetion to them as well, our concentrated attention. This is not to detract from the reality of my experience of elation in the glen — even though I will never again hike Glen Tromie without a walking stick in hand! I do not doubt that there is an anima or spiritual dimension within everything that has being, and that within each life-form is the Soul from whom we and all things come. I do believe, however, that we have to learn how to be in relationship with all things again, how to approach one another, and how to reassure each other. And we need to know the risks. We need to be aware of how fragmented the unity is and just how deeply our wholeness has been divided by fears and aggressions that have further compounded the brokenness. We need to find ways of giving real attention to one another, of entering into “genuine dialogue” with the earth and its creatures. And in all of this we need to believe again in our “incredible power to love.” It is deep within us. It is deep within everything that has being. And it alone holds the strength to redeem our relationships.

Newell, John Philip. A New Harmony. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011. | Photo by Louis Maniquet on Unsplash