Reinterpreting Ancient Stories and Our Own Life Story

In renewing my study of Greek mythology, I tried to discern the experience behind the stories, the basic life questions they raise, the answers found in these ancient tales, and the continuing light they shed on our current life situations. At the same time, I tried to look at them through the lens of the sacred worth of the person, the fundamental equality of human beings, and the perspective that the outer events portrayed are inseparably a projection of inner events. The long journey of Odysseus back to his home in Ithaca, for example, is essentially a story of his inner journey to his most authentic self, his inner home. He is then able to share that home with his wife, Penelope, who has made that same inner journey in solitude as well.

The story of the Athenians’ choice of Athene over Poseidon as patron of their city, for example. reflects the priority of wisdom over power. There is a recognition of the raw power of the sea, of rampant vegetation, and of the wild horse. Yet preference is given to the ships that sail the sea, the cultivated olive grove, and the tamed horse one rides. A similar choice is reflected in the resolution of conflicts by jury rather than vendetta, that is, by reasoned decision rather than violent destruction.

The story of Oedipus, echoed somewhat in Shakespeare’s King Lear, reflects a profound transition in the understanding of power, wisdom, and love. It occurs as a result of his passage from successful king to suffering exile. Initially, reflecting a view of power as domination, he is provoked to violence and kills the person who turns out to be his birth father. He next solves the riddle of the sphinx, which asks what has four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening. The answer is a human being at three stages of life. This is an illustration of Oedipus’ cleverness, yet also of his failure to grasp its deeper meaning, which points to the brevity and fragility of life. Finally, he is made king and receives its queen as a reward, so to speak, an example of love as possession. When the painful truth of the situation is unveiled he loses all royal authority and goes into exile, blind and physically week, In wrestling with his tragic situation and the suffering it entails, he comes to an inner strength and wisdom, and his last words to his daughters expresses his realization of a deeper sense of love. He proclaims his great love for his daughters and tells them that such love can change all pain.

A reinterpretation of the story of Narcissus helps to shed further light on a renewed vision of power, wisdom and love. After running from closeness to another, Narcissus discovers an image of himself as lovable, as one who is capable of giving and receiving love. If we translate this story as a dawning awareness of the intrinsic worth or value of the person, we may have a starting point for a new interpretation.

In this perspective, wisdom becomes a profound experiential conviction of the worth of each human person, and, in some way of the whole universe. Power becomes empowering not domination. Based upon the recognition of the worth of the person, it becomes the capacity to bring something to life, to summon the growth and fulfillment of the person, not the unreal need to put something to death in that person. Love is transformed from the attempted possession of a person to a genuine concern for their well-being that befits their intrinsic worth.

Last week, we referred to Howard Thurman who calls us to listen for the sound of the genuine in ourselves, which Thomas Merton calls the true self, which the Quakers describe as the inner light, and which Wayne Muller calls the song deeply within ourselves. This, I believe, is the voice of our own sacred worth. Thurman goes on to invite us to listen as well for the sound of the genuine in others. Then our hope is to have others listen to the sound of the genuine in us. When this opening occurs, there is a mutual, respectful encounter, which enables and summons both or vulnerability and our security. Finally, Thurman holds that we may come to hear the same music, the same sound of the genuine flowing through all that is, through everything. The starting point, the foundation, appears to be, a gradual awakening to our own sacred worth, as did Narcissus, though sometimes with great pain, as did Oedipus. It may be aided by the caring of others, or hindered by their indifference or even hostility. It can be fostered by the world around us and the experience that the universe is friendly. It may be clung to when it is not felt or when our feelings push us toward self-rejection. All of these may be the crack that lets the light in, and gradually lets the light of our own sacredness shine beyond all barriers.

When these ancient stories are reflected upon beneath their surface words and images, they perhaps echo the challenge of the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet: “Go within yourself and probe the depth from which your life springs.” And: “Always trust your own feeling. …Then slowly and with time the natural growth of your inner life will bring you to fuller awareness.”

May each of you discover and hear and appreciate the sound, the song, of the genuine within yourselves, and within others, and may you learn to sing its melody more and more in your everyday life.

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Norman King, October 10, 2021