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Friday, March 3, 2023

In Lent, reflecting on death, psychologically and theologically

 Lent, 2023, a time when the people of Ukraine must be wondering if their God is dead, given the rampant, senseless, remorseless, criminal, heartless slaughter being inflicted on their land, their people, their institutions and their resilient faith and spirit. Their leaders’ (both president Zelenskyy and his wife) fortitude, stoicism, endurance and leadership are trumpeted universally as heroic models of strength under extreme duress (evocative of the Hemingway trope). And there is a potential beacon, in this political, military, criminal and existential crisis, that might find  resonance in unexpected source.

In his Revisioning Psychology, James Hillman, points to the image of Christ that “dominates our culture’s relations to pathologizing. The complexity of psychopathology with its rich variety of backgrounds has been absorbed by one central image and been endowed with one main meaning: suffering. The passio of suffering Jesus—and it is as translation of Jesus’ passion that ‘suffering’ first enters our language—is fused with all experiences of pathology. The crucifixion presents pathologizing first of all in the guise of emotional and physical torment. We read this suffering in the story (the days leading up to the crucifixion and the act itself) and we see it in paintings (the distressed agon in the scene). The allegory of suffering and its imagery has functioned so successfully to contain the pathologizing that one tends to miss the psychopathology that is actually so blatant in a configuration at once distorted, grotesque, bizarre, and even perverse: Golgotha, place of skulls; betrayal for money, Barrabas the murderer, the thieves and gambling soldiers; the mock purple robes and scorning laughter; the nails, lance, and thorns; the broken legs, bleeding wounds, sour sop; persecutory victimization along with route; women lovingly holding a greening corpse and their post-mortem hallucinatory visions. Quite an extraordinary condensation and overdetermination of psychopathological motifs….I am simply pointing out an obvious truth: religions always provide containers for psychopathology. (p.95)….However—by containing pathologizing, religion constricts it to the significance established by the allegory. The crucifixion model holds pathologizing to the one narrative and its governing idea of suffering, the theology of the passion. Therapy in our culture eventually comes up against the Christian allegory; whether the pathologizing is going on in an individual who is consciously Christian or not. (p.96)…If as some report, the Christ vehicle no longer carries our culture’s religious requirements, then it can no longer contain our pathologizings either. Fantasy no longer restscontent with the imitatio Christi (where sin means pain or pain sin, where love means torture and goodness means masochism, but all is redeemable for there is no real death, and so on)….It is, therefore, imperative to be as iconoclastic as possible toward vessels that no longer truly work as containers and have become instead impediments to the pathological process. (p.97) By iconoclasm, (I mean) shattering is crusted allegorization into a too-specific meaning which impedes us from recognizing the other figures within the Christ image and the other voices speaking through our pathologies, telling us neither of sin nor suffering, necessarily presenting neither testimonies of love nor gates of resurrection. As one instance: depression. Because Christ resurrects, moments of despair, darkening, and desertion cannot be valid in themselves. Our one model insists on light at the end of the tunnel; one program that moves from Thursday evening to Sunday and the rising of a wholly new day better far than before. Not only will therapy more or less consciously imitate this program (in ways ranging from hopeful positive counseling to electroshock), but the individual’s consciousness is already allegorized by the Christian myth and so he knows what depression is and experiences it according to form. It must be necessary (for it appear in the crucifixion), and it must be suffering; but staying depressed must be negative, since the Christian allegory Friday is never valid per se, for Sunday—as an integral part of the myth—is preexistent in Friday from the start. The counterpart of every crucifixion fantasy is a resurrection fantasy. Our stance toward depression is a priori a manic defense against it. Even our notion of consciousness itself serves as an antidepressant: the be conscious is to be awake, alive, attentive, in a state of activated cortical functioning. Drawn to extremes, consciousness and depression have come to exclude each other, and psychological depression has replaced theological hell. In Christian theology the heavy sloth of depression, the drying despair of melancholy, was the sin of acedia (apathy or not caring) (as it was called in the Church Latin). It is just as difficult to manage today in therapeutic practice because our culture on the New Testament model has only the one upward paradigm for meeting this syndrome…Depression is still the Great Enemy. More personal energy is expended in manic defenses against it, diversions from, and denials of it that goes into other supposed psychopatholgical threats to society: psychopathic criminality, schizoid breakdown, addictions. As long as we are caught in the cycles of hoping against despair, each productive of the other, as long as our actions in regard to depression are resurrective, implying that being down and staying down is sin, we remain Christian in psychology. Yet through depression we enter depths and in depths find soul. Depression is essential to the tragic sense of life. It moistens the dry soul, and dries the wet. It brings refuge, limitation, focus, gravity, weight, and humble powerlessness. It reminds of death. The true revolution begins in the individual who can be true to his or her depression. Neither jerking (p.98) oneself out of it, caught in the cycles of hope and despair, nor suffering it through till it turns, nor theologizing it—but discovering the consciousness an depths it wants. So begins the revolution in behalf of soul. (p. 99)

There is a social and political, indeed even a professional price to be paid for one’s darkness, truly acknowledged. One is unlikely to be hired, invited, selected, promoted, or even included in whatever activity one aspires to enter. One is also likely to be alienated from family, friends, neighbours and acquaintances. And while these implications of a protracted darkness are socially and political ande professionally distasteful, for a host of possible reasons, everyone knows that we all either have gone through, or will go through darkness, often when we least expect it.The Hillman ‘take’ on the culture’s embeddedness/indebtedness/dependence/reliance in and on the Christ/crucifixion/resurrection myth, however, can be said to be little if ever acknowledged, confronted, from a psychological perspective in North American culture. And while the church leaders, thinkers, ethicists, and professors of such subjects as Christology will defend their relative and nuanced perspectives on the theological significance of this Lent/Easter story, (which Hillman is neither denigrating nor dismissing), its psychological implications, as portrayed by Hillman seem both relevant and also significant.

Having participated in the liturgical rituals in which the Crucifixion/Resurrection story is enacted, I have noted the impact of the darkness on several men and women, without fully being conscious of the wider ‘anima mundi’ impact of the story. Indeed, when in a Lenten study session, I heard a senior woman utter these words, “Well, we all know there never was a Resurrection!” I retorted, unequivocally, “If there was no Resurrection, then this whole faith is a fraud!” I was not at that moment conscious of whether the woman’s understanding was literal or metaphoric; my own perspective, as best I can recall, was that the Resurrection had to have at least metaphoric significance if I or anyone was to believe that, although beyond intellectual or cognitive comprehension, it completed the story of the crucifixion, and the concept of metanoia that is embedded in the narrative.

· The practice of brushing ashes on a forehead, to commemorate Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, along with the tradition of ‘giving up’ a favourite food or activity, as a sacrificial commemoration of the suffering of the Christ;

· the Lenten study sessions that seek to dive more deeply into the meaning and application of the story to the people of the Christian faith;

· the Maundy Thursday washing of the feet, in imitation and commemoration of the act as recorded in the John 13:2-17, as an act of humility and selfless Jesus’ love for the apostles;

· the loud noise called the strepitus representing an earth quake when Jesus dies and the confusion following or perhaps the rolling away of the stone from the tomb;

· the recitation of the “Stations of the Cross”….

these are all part of the gestalt of ‘entering’ into the darkness, the grief, the deep reflection about the lives we are living and have lived, as a prelude to the symbolic moment of ‘forgiveness’ in and through the Resurrection and the promise of both metanoia here and eternal life in the hereafter.

Juxtaposing the Hillman psychological analysis of the crucifixion/
resurrection story with the ecclesial embodiment is done neither to sanitize or justify the belief of Christians nor to denigrate the psychological and cultural influence of the narrative. It is done to pay witness to the legitimacy of their co-existence. Indeed, it is the poetic basis of mind, as the lens through which Hillman considers this narrative, that has, from a decade-plus serving inside the church, been found to be largely absent from any and all conversations, dialogues, liturgies and papers included in the “professionelle formation” of apprentice clergy, at least from this scribe’s limited experience. The confluence of poetry and faith can neither be denied nor easily accommodated whether from an intellectual or an emotional perspective. Things ‘ethereal’ and ‘ephemeral’ and ‘eternal’ and ‘metaphysical’ that cannot be isolated from the ‘earth,’ the ‘blood,’ the ‘words,’ the ‘acts,’ and the ‘food,’ the ‘books,’ the ‘money’ of those whose lives flow in the ‘between’.

And while the history of the church, foundationally embedded in the writings and teachings of the scholars and the beliefs and the visions and dreams of the mystics, it is a cliché that most of what is taught/learned/absorbed/digested/prayed over in preparation for ministry never finds its way into the parish. Indeed, the obsession with filling news and coffers, analogous to the marketing plans of mega-corporations, has so taken over the aspirations, perceptions, psychology and even the theology of too many church hierarchy. This leaves the church institution co-dependent on the value of ministry being assessed in terms of literal numbers of people and dollars. Here may be where the 

Hillman exegesis of the dominance of depression as sin, and the exhilaration of full pews and coffers as the success/joy/evidence of the promise and abundance of the gospel’s message intersect.

Clergy celebrate “life” in many ways. These include baptism of a newborn, the ritual passage in and through Confirmation, the celebration of love of two people in marriage. They also ‘pray with’ families whose parents, siblings, children are in ill health. However, too often, from the perspective of ordinary people, such illness is conceived as some form of ‘punishment’ or penitence, from a judging God. And then, when life in this sphere ends, clergy also preside over burial rites, sometimes preceded by ‘last rights’. The notion undergirding these last rituals is the ‘promise that the deceased will return ‘home’ to a heaven which is the reward for a ‘good life’.

Expanding on the over-riding image of depression in the Christian lexicon, and the cultural implications is the exhortation to all Christians to life a “good” as opposed to an “evil” life, with the promise of life in heaven as the reward. The intensity of the acceptance of the promise, however, follows on the literal interpretation of both scripture and church teachings, from both purveyor and parishioner. Hillman’s exegesis, however, attempts to disconnect the experience of death, as well as all other experiences in our lives, from the immediate and pressing, the anxious and defaming, and too often debilitating judgement of morality, as the first and most important consideration of all human behaviour.

From Psychology Today, August 18, 2020, in a piece entitled, Death is Among IUS, by Elizbeth Chamberlain, quoting Hillman from Suicide and the Soul, we read: (D)each can impinge upon the moral ‘how’ of the individual’s life: the review of life, one’s faith, sins, destiny; how one got to where one is and how to continue. Or whether to continue. {(p.54)…(It, Death) need not be conceived as an anti-life movement; it may be a demand for an en counter with absolute reality, a demand for a fuller life. (p.52)Indeed, the interface of psychology and religion, as depicted, detailed and posited by Hillman, is worthy of the most serious consideration not only by the psychological community, but also by the ecclesial community. In this century, there is a wide and

In ‘The Acorn Theory,’ Hillman himself writes, just after recounted Houdini’s death from a ruptured appendix, after evading the ‘outer coffins’:

1.     Even the escape artist meets necessity. Ananke’s (fate) chains are both visible and invisible. When the ‘couldn’t be otherwise’ occurs, then the most plausible account of how life works and why they do is the acorn theory. The truer you are to your daimon, the closer you are to the death that belongs to your destiny. We expect the daimon to have prescience about death, calling on it before an airline flight or during a sudden attack of sickness. It is my fate, and now? And when the demands of our calling seem undeniably necessary, again death appears: ‘If I do what I really must, it will kill me; and yet if I don’t, I’ll die.’…Perhaps this intimacy between calling and fate is why we avoid the daimon and the theory that upholds its importance. We mostly invent, or prefer, theories that tie us tightly to parental powers, encumber us with sociological conditionings and genetic determinations; thereby we escape the fact that these deep influence on our fates don’t hold a candle to the power of death. Death is the only complete necessity, that archetypal Necessity who rules the pattern of the life line she spins with her daughters, the Fates. The length of that line and its irreversible one-way direction is part of one and the same pattern, and it could not be otherwise. (p.212-213)

Maybe during this Lent, we might reflect on the significance of ‘death’ both from the perspective of our individual psychological perspective and attitude, and from the perspective of our faith beliefs and their attitudes.

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