Stations of the Soul

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 29, Lent 2004
By Joy Ryan-Bloore

It is Monday morning the first of March as I begin to write these reflections. My father would have been 85 today and I am conscious of his presence as I drive to Mass at St Peter’s in Fisher Avenue. A few days ago, a friend asked me had I seen the film ‘The Passion of the Christ’ … I found myself replying almost without thinking ‘‘no’ because I see the passion of Christ every day’. And that is true. The individuals I accompany all have one thing in common … an experience of suffering from which they seek relief or at least understanding; and behind this is the often unspoken hope that it will all go away. But it is not as simple as that.

One of the most difficult things I struggle with is being with a person who suffers for a long, long time, despite their efforts to accept and endure it consciously. Such people live their lives in ways which are nothing short of heroic. When this happens I face into this dark mystery: suffering which seems to have no current cause and no relief seems to be in sight. At this point I feel the natural tendency to do one of two things: firstly to double my efforts by exploring all sorts of avenues with them in the hope that we will find a ‘solution’ or secondly: to sink into despair. Neither of these two attitudes are helpful. The first is easier, but it is simply a massive distraction from an unpalatable reality. I am by nature an optimist, and don’t despair easily, but I confess I often feel on the edge of it. However, when I go into that place more fully I discover it’s more about my reluctance to sit with feelings of powerlessness and the knowledge that I can’t ‘do’ anything about it. At that point I remind myself that suffering is connected to the mystery of the Crucified Christ. I don’t think I could do the work I do without knowing I am somehow caught up and contained by a Presence much greater than my human efforts.

It is not about changing suffering, but enduring it consciously. It is about carrying our own cross in the light of Jesus’ journey which gives hope that ultimately something new will come from it.

Mel Gibson’s film ‘The Passion of the Christ’ has struck a controversial chord because it portrays the story which has sustained our ancestors for centuries. The story of Jesus who embodied in his own life, the final triumph of love over evil … through the ultimate sacrifice of his life. Despite the graphic and prolonged description of the passion, the film has stirred people because it portrays evil in all its horror, and the power of love and forgiveness to look at it fully; stand in the face of it; endure it and ultimately triumph over it. It is a film of hope for those who suffer – and perhaps that is sufficient justification for its existence, for there are increasing numbers of horrific situations in our world which need to be counter-balanced by hope; and for those who choose to promulgate evil in all its many insidious disguises – a timely and uncomfortable reminder that even evil and death do not ultimately destroy love.

But the problem with Mel Gibson’s film is that it focuses solely on the historical Jesus and highlights the physical torture he experienced without assisting us to see where our individual story fits into this ‘big story’. The Way of the Cross is an archetypal symbol describing the nature of the soul’s journey.

I am not denying the importance of the film, nor the importance of reflecting on the Passion and Death of Jesus. Far from it. But that is just the beginning. His journey heralded a new stage in the development of human consciousness to which we are all called. Jesus taught that the experience of God was not to be found in outer laws and prohibitions, but that the new convenant, the new law of love was written in our hearts.

He repeatedly called people to an awareness that the Kingdom of God was within and that the purpose of each human being’s life was to find it (the Kingdom) and be found by it. Jesus’ journey has become the map by which we walk our own. Whenever we suffer we are usually in conflict, torn between two opposing demands. Taking up our cross means embracing that conflict and enduring it until such time as it reveals its ‘solution’.

‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let them renounce themselves and take up their cross every day and follow me. For anyone who wants to save their life will lose it; but anyone who loses their life for my sake, that person will save it. What gain, then is it for a person to have won the whole world, and to have lost or ruined their very self.?’ Luke:9:23-25

This inner call has very clear consequences. It leads to suffering and to the Cross. Not by imitating his life, but living our lives with a similar integrity. The renouncement of self of which he speaks is the gradual awareness that there is more to my life than my conscious self. My ego position. Becoming a follower of Jesus is a call from God to become a mature individual. To embody in our humanity a unique reflection of the God-image. Taking up our own cross means embracing our shadows and enduring the suffering which this process inevitability brings and which is our unique destiny.

Towards the end of his life, Jung pointed to a stained glass window of the Crucifixion in his study and said to a friend:

‘You see, this is the crux for us … humanity has to cope with the problem of suffering. The East wants to get rid of suffering by casting it off. Western men and women try to suppress suffering with drugs. But suffering has to be overcome, and the only way to overcome it is to endure it. We learn that only from him’. And here he pointed to the Crucified …’ (Letters: Vol 1 p236n)

The cross is not a symbol of expiation or punishment, but of the ‘arduous labour of evolution’, as Teilhard de Chardin put it. Jesus’ journey is a pattern, a map, a blueprint engraved indelibly in the psyche of every individual, which describes an evolutionary process towards a higher level of consciousness: what in religious terms we would call holiness or union with God What in secular terms people might describe as wisdom, or maturity. Physicians of the soul from all ages like St Paul, St John of the Cross; St Teresa of Avila and more recently Teilhard de Chardin and Carl Jung, all knew that the following of Christ was firstly an inner journey and that it would exact a high price.

But, we might ask. Why now? Why so much chaos, suffering and confusion at this particular time? To answer those questions, we have to accept another 20th century discovery: this time from science and particularly quantum physics: that we do not live in a static universe. We now know we occupy a universe which is constantly evolving.

We also know that the 21st century is symbolized by the sign of Aquarius – a man carrying a pitcher of water on his shoulder. Water is flowing out of the pitcher over the fish at his feet. The symbol indicates a new age, an evolutionary stage in development, which calls each person, and therefore the collective, to a greater level of consciousness. The fish symbolizes contents from the unconscious.

Jesus ushered in the Age of Aquarius in his own person and, by linking it to his imminent suffering and death, showed us what price this evolution would demand of each of us. It was the night before he died. When Peter and John asked him where they were to prepare the Passover he replied:

‘Listen, he said, as you go into the city you will meet a man carrying a pitcher of water. Follow him into the house he enters and tell the owner of the house, ‘The Master has this to say to you: Where is the dining room in which I can eat the Passover with my disciples?’ The man will show you a large upper room furnished with couches. Make the preparations there. They set off and found everything as he had told them, and prepared the Passover.’ (Luke 22:10-1`3

Listen again to these words: ‘as you go into the city you will meet a man carrying a pitcher of water’. Men did not perform this task at that time. This is the prophetic symbol which looks ahead to our age: the Age of Aquarius. In other words, humanity as a whole is just evolving to the point to which Jesus was calling us 2000 years ago. We are just beginning to be sufficiently conscious to tentatively embrace the message which cost him his life. What does this new stage of evolution demand of us? What does it mean to be a follower of Christ today?

Psychologically it means that each individual has to deal with their own unconscious. Be responsible for their inner life. And initially this is about dealing with our shadow. But what do we mean by shadow?

Anglican priest and Jungian analyst John Sanford describes the shadow like this:

‘If you stand facing the light, you will cast a shadow. But unless you turn and look on the floor behind you, you will not be aware of the dark shadow following you. The shadow is the part of our personality, which is in our background, of which we are usually unaware. It is that part of us which our conscious mind can only accept with difficulty. So the shadow is our angry side, our weakness, our sickness, our primitiveness, our sensuality, our rebelliousness, our inferiority – whatever it may be about ourselves of which we are most afraid and would rather not face. Where do we see the shadow? It appears in our dreams as a sinister or inferior figure of our own sex. We may also find the shadow standing between our intentions and our achievement, in the projections we make upon people of our own sex, at the root of much racial prejudice, at the bottom of many of our broken human relationships. The more we try to remain unaware of it, the more it manifests itself to us in these ways. But partly the shadow is a cultural phenomenon and shows what is neglected or repressed in the entire culture in which we live as well as in our individual life. For example, our culture emphasizes the intellect, education, sophistication, materialism, success at the expense of the soul.’

…the shadow is a cultural phenomenon and shows what is neglected or repressed in the entire culture in which we live as well as in our individual life. For example, our culture emphasizes the intellect, education, sophistication, materialism, success at the expense of the soul.’

‘We can understand the shadow in contrast to the persona. The persona is the mask we wear before the world; it is the front we put on. But too often we come to identify ourselves with our persona. We think we are the person whom we would like to appear to be. The shadow stands in direct contrast to this persona. The more we try to appear all goodness and kindness, the more brutal our shadow appears in contrast; the more we try to be all strength and courage, the more we are followed by a shadow of weakness.

All of this makes the shadow seem a sinister figure. But when the shadow is given conscious recognition we will find that it has much of positive value to add to our personality often giving us … what we need to complement our personality and become a complete human being.

For all of its darkness, the shadow seems close to God. Seeing our shadow the ‘beam that is in our own eye’ is essential to religious experience, the beginning of a confrontation with ourselves and with God.’ (Dreams – God’s Forgotten Language, p. 107-108)

Facing our shadows demands nothing less than a conscious acceptance of suffering as it did for Jesus who became the Christ.

It is now 12 March as I write and Spain has been subjected to a fatal terrorist attack injuring over 1400 people and killing a further 200 innocent citizens. Reflecting on this horror brings me to the wider dimension of my reflections viz understanding that each nation has a collective shadow and what happens when that gets projected. What happens when one nation demonises another and acts out their shadow.

Just as each individual is called to endure the conflict of the opposites without acting them out through the projecting of their shadow; nations are called to do the same. Projection of the collective shadow is the underlying psychological cause for the current conflict in our world. It is at the heart of all ethnic conflict and terrorism. And much closer to home, it is at the heart of the present struggles between the tangata whenua of our land and those of us who also call this land our home.

Robert Johnson, a well-known author and Jungian analyst describes the collective shadow this way: ‘All scape-goating is due to projection. When society worships consciousness and refuses the unconscious, some of the hidden residue appears as hatred, violence, and the other tragedies that fill the morning newspapers. .’ (Contentment – A True Way to Happiness p.46-47)

Teilhard de Chardin suggests that this sort of suffering is the painful price of evolution. There are outer signs that we are in the midst of such a birth process – a shift in consciousness of cosmic proportions with all the danger that entails. Across the earth nations and individuals continue to inflict unspeakable suffering, on each other. But because they are unaware of their shadows, their efforts to defeat the ‘enemy’ cause them to become possessed by the same attitude they believe they are fighting. Hence the need for political leaders to be aware of the nation’s shadow when seeking global solutions.

For humankind to remain unconscious at this point has disastrous consequences. The on-going conflict in Iraq is because the collective shadow of each nation is being projected on to the other, ie, the inner conflict of each nation is being acted out with an outer foe in the hope of securing a solution to its own conflict. Some mediating voices are slowly being heard in the political arena and growing protests around the world demonstrate an awakening – a shift in consciousness in the collective.

It is now 16 March. Spain has just elected a new leader and the Socialist Party has come to power denouncing their country’s participation in the war and seriously considering withdrawing their occupying troops. It emerges that an overwhelming majority of the Spanish people did not want to participate. The people have spoken. The price is horrific.

‘War’, as a poster in a New York peace rally declared, ‘is a 20th century thing!’ Robert Johnson puts it this way: ‘An entire generation may live a modern, civilized life without ever touching much of its unconscious nature. Then, predictably, it breaks loose in a war or some other form of destruction. We have seen this quite recently in the Balkans and in Rwanda. A greater focus on rationality is not the solution, as the history of the twentieth century so sadly proves. The more one-sided we become in our consciousness, the more we are subject to eruptions from the unconscious.’ (Contentment – A way to true happiness p46-47). The words of Jesus apply to individuals and nations:

‘Hypocrite! Take the plank out of your own eye first and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother or sister’s eye.’ (Matthew 7:4)

This is the only way we can have any positive impact on the world community as it labours towards peace. In other words, no one believes that if we ‘take the beam out of our own eye’, confront our shadows, and endure the suffering involved; we will be making a powerful contribution to world peace and increased consciousness. Jung often said that the person who starts withdrawing their own shadow from their neighbour is doing work of immense immediate political and social importance. This will inevitably involve us in a radical change, which is precisely what the Church calls us to in this season of Lent. Our egos have to bend to an agenda from within, written by Someone greater than ourselves.

In other words, turn away from unconscious living, confront your shadows. Take responsibility for your own life—because life is very short!—and time might be running out. The Church calls this process ‘conversion’ or ‘metanoia’ – a Greek word which means to pull out by the roots. The Stations of the Cross is an ancient, devotional practice in which the participants are invited to reflect on the journey of Jesus from his death sentence to his Crucifixion and entombment. The fourteen stations of the journey act as signposts in and describe the psychological stages of the soul’s journey towards a deeper level of development. These ‘stations of the soul’ are an archetypal map and assist each of us to identify and endure stages in our own suffering, and against the backdrop of the bigger story, help us to arrive at a new level of meaning. Such a process involves the sort of suffering which is depicted in the journey of Jesus. It involves the death of how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive God. Both self-images and God images are challenged and finally die.

If we do not understand the purpose of our suffering, or the contribution it makes to the transformation of the wider community, we can be tempted to run away from it. Such a reaction is motivated by the ego’s need for self-preservation. So we fill our lives with more and more activities in order to blot out the increasing awareness of somehow not quite living the way we are called to. The ego has to die. The old world-view has to die.

Anyone who dares to face ‘crucifixion’; anyone who dares to suffer the death of old ego-centred attitudes; these people can experience resurrection; a life in which desire is transformed into love.

But, as we have seen, this mystery was not just to be lived by Jesus. It is not only about looking back at Calvary on Good Friday. It is to be lived by us. It is not just reserved for the few, but is potentially within the psyche of every individual. It is the capacity to suffer the presence of irreconcilable opposites in our lives until such time as they reveal their purpose. Such consciously endured suffering is transformative and is at the heart of all human development. Anyone who dares to face this ‘crucifixion’ in whatever way it presents itself; anyone who dares to suffer the death of old ego-centred attitudes; these people can experience resurrection into a new life in this world and beyond death; a life in which desire is transformed into love.

In conclusion, I would like to quote someone much closer to our time, someone who sacrificed the desires of his ego and courageously embraced the Cross which was laid on him, Teilhard de Chardin: ‘Do not brace yourself against suffering. Try to close your eyes and surrender yourself, as if to a great loving energy. This attitude is neither weak nor absurd. It is the only one that cannot lead you astray. … Try to sleep with that active sleep of confidence which is that of the seed in the fields in winter.’

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