I have been speaking lately of a way of interpreting our life experience as a gift and call to bring something to life, even out of the many deaths in the midst of life. I have also been reading a little each day from a few different books. One of them is by the late philosopher and spiritual writer, John O’Donohue. The book is called Anam Cara, a Gaelic term which means “soul friend.”
He writes that we should not force ourselves to change by beating our lives into a predetermined program, plan, or shape. “Rather,” he says, “we need to practice a new art of attention to the inner rhythm of our days and lives.” He adds that “the soul knows the geography of your destiny. … The signature of this unique journey is inscribed deeply in each soul.” These words recall my thought that it is important to trust the inner unfolding of our own self or life.
As we have said, the basic gift is our very self as sacred, and the basic call is to listen to, to heed, and to follow that sacredness in our self, in the deepest core of who we are. As we do so, we will discern the sacredness of others, of the world around us, and gradually of the universe itself and of all that is. The universe comes to be seen, not as a collection of object to dominate, but as a community of beings to reverence.
A fundamental step in this journey is to listen to and to become aware of our deepest inmost self.
In Markings, Dag Hammarskjöld, has expressed it in a very striking way: “The longest journey is the journey inward, of one who has chosen their destiny, who has started upon their quest for the source of their being.”
The reference to the geography of our destiny and to our journey inward recall the conviction of Joseph Campbell that the stories of all ages and cultures portray the journey of the hero or heroine. These, for him, are not so much about events in the outer world, but attempts to name the unfolding inner journey that each of us is called to make. In a similar way, we may recall that Lawren Harris, Group of Seven painter, writes that: “I try to get to the summit of my soul and paint from there, there where the universe sings.”
The question then arises as to how we get in touch with our inner core and its thrust or unfolding direction. We have spoken before of the path of silent solitude, which may involve attention to breathing, reflective reading, the lovingkindness meditation, and the like. Here I would like to mention the role of images and stories as guides to name that inner experience, to help us get in touch with who we are and the authentic direction of our life.
Myths and folk tales are full of imaginative ways that help us name our experience and come to awareness of the self behind the experience. In light of recent reflections, these are images that help to name the gift that we are and the gifts that are ours, and that call us to develop and share these gifts with one another.
In Hansel and Gretel, the children’s journey takes them through a dark forest. The forest stands for all the dark, unknown, chaotic, dangerous and destructive forces within and around the person. Our inner journey requires us to recognize and name the shadow side of our existence, yet not to be lost within it or see it as our identity. We are not our mistakes, weaknesses, or even our betrayals. But while naming this dark forest within, we need to see to the deeper, inextinguishable light within.
The birds who swallow the crumbs and prevent the children finding their way back along a previous path, express our deepest inspirations. These lead us to seek growth rather than cling to seeming securities of the past. The white bird who sings beautifully tells us that our need for beauty and meaning, is deeper than our need for mere survival.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus (in Latin, Ulysses) encounters all kinds of perils in his journey to home. The irresistible song of the Sirens reminds us to tune in to the beauty of life which is not overcome by its brevity. The Cyclops suggests, as do the giants in folk tales, that power divorced from caring is eventually self-destructive. Nearing the end of his journey, Odysseus next hears his experience named in a way that strikes to his soul in the song of the blind poet and singer. He realizes as well that home includes those with whom he is bound in a love relationship. In Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack both needs the harp and marriage to a princess to fulfill his life. Our inner journey, our inner geography, moves us to the beauty of the arts and the beauty of mutual love.
These examples simply try to illustrate that we may look at images in stories as ways to assist us in finding our way to our inner core, to discovering our sacred worth as a gift and uncovering the gifts we have, and hearing as well as the call to develop and share these gifts. This is not a matter of prying into ourselves from outside in, as if with a pair of psychological pliers. It is a question of allowing what is within, the unfolding direction of our inner self, to rise to the surface of our awareness. The stillness of silence in solitude allows this unfolding to occur. Yet so also do the images and stories that help name that inward soul for us.
Thomas Merton says that it is not a question of self-examination from without, looking in on ourselves from outside, so to speak. It is a matter of becoming present to our inmost self, deeper than all the surface needs and wants, deeper than the fears and hostilities and conflicts, deeper than all else within us. Merton calls it a point of light like a pure diamond, the secret beauty and depths of our hearts.
May you more and more come home to your inmost sacred self, as deeper and more than all the inner shadows of fear and hostility. And may you more and more follow its unfolding pattern which leads to gratitude and generosity, truth and beauty, justice and love.
Norman King, May 23, 2022