I wrote this piece in 2009 and have just revisited it. It seems just as relevant to me know as it did then.
‘People were startled to hear that if we don’t go to the spirit, the spirit comes to us as neurosis. This is the immediate, practical connection between psychology and religion in our time.’ (Inner Work : Robert A Johnson).
I read those words this morning and a veil lifted. If we go to the inner world consciously and willingly, Johnson tells us, then we are able to be in touch with the great function of healthy religion; that is the ‘inborn demand for meaning and inner experience’. If we don’t then the Spirit will, as he puts it ‘forces its way back into our lives through neurosis, inner conflicts and psychological symptoms that demand our attention’. Strong stuff, but I would add ‘and still we ignore them’.
I see so much of this in myself, in my work of listening to others and also my work with men. People often are beset with what they think are crises and they want to resolve them and move on whereas in fact they are the breakthrough of the spirit and therefore, possibly, wonderful occasions of grace.
Grieving has to be one of the highest issues on the list of crises that we are unable to ignore and yet we do. Richard Rohr often says that much male anger is nothing other than repressed grief. I think he is right, but I think this is an issue that increasingly effects all of us both male and female.
Recently I ran a workshop on Mythology helping people to understand what myths and fairly tales can teach us about life. I was powerfully struck by the prevalence of weeping as a way of addressing the deepest issues of our wounded psyche. The Brother’s Grimm offer two stories in which this phenomenon is explored. The first being the Handless Maiden whose grieving and healing tears protect her from the bargain with the devil that her father makes. The deal can be read as the abandoning of all the sensitivity and the delicacy of feeling for technological progress. She refuses this way though it costs her hands and a cosseted life with a father who offers material comfort in return for spiritual sleep.
Cinderella, unlike Disney’s saccharin version, weeps over the grave of her true Mother so much so that a whole new life springs from it. No fairy godmother for the Brothers Grimm, rather a grieving process that plants a branch in the soil of sorrow which flowers and is a home to the birds of feeling and emotion. These same birds grant her wish to be adorned in her true self and to wear the shoes of life that fit her perfectly. The self same birds alert the prince to the fact that the stepsisters (not ugly in this version) have, on the advice of their Mother sliced off parts of their feet to fit the shoe. Read a women’s (or more than ever a men’s) magazine to see what we will have to cut off to fit the outward standard of beauty.
It is inner work that reveals our true beauty, it is grieving over that which has been wounded and coming through that process with heart intact that transforms us. Sadly many think that this is just navel gazing or a maudlin obsession with loss and that the answer is to learn nothing from our losses and so called failures just move on, on to the next panacea. Witness the mad rush to act as if the credit crunch never happened and to return to business, and I mean busy-ness as usual, Busy-ness is the modern answer to inner trauma and it is lethal to the human spirit. So, as someone I recently heard this, ‘God comes to us disguised as our everyday life’. That disguise may often be dark, wounded and sorrowful, even neurosis, as Robert Johnson has it, but if we want to be whole and healed, then facing it, working with it, listening to it, in dreams and in waking life and doing the work of grieving may be the best thing we ever did.
Thanks for this Adrian. I’d not seen that quote from Johnson before, and it’s very challenging. Your second paragraph connects with me. I need to reflect further, but my immediate reaction is to be taken back to an early morning by the lake in Weston Park, worn out and despairing after days, weeks, months, years of grappling and struggling with the demands of religion and the religious, which had only intensified my neuroses. As I gazed at the water and the ducks (ducks are important on my spiritual journey!) there was a sudden, quiet, unforced moment of opening and surrender, and my whole personal landscape changed. It wasn’t an instant healing, but a changed perspective that has brought me much greater peace and settled-ness in life. “Going to the inner world consciously and willingly” – living as far as I can awake and open, in awareness of the Divine, however we understand that, and being willing to gently co-operate as I become aware of the work that the Spirit and I need to do within me – that has given me far greater purpose and peace than all the years of seeking to “deal with” (or ignore!) stuff or live in a prescribed way.
I have learnt this in my own journey into grief this year after my father’s declining days and eventual death in May, and a weekend of reading the letters he wrote to my mother during between 1943 and 1945, the Italian campaign of the war.
Richard Rohr puts it well: Historic cultures saw grief as a time of incubation, transformation, and necessary hibernation. Yet this sacred space is the very space we avoid. When we avoid darkness, we avoid tension, spiritual creativity, and finally transformation. We avoid God, who works in the darkness – where we are not in control!
I became so aware of how many avoid this place, how afraid they are of other’s tears and how they could not just be with me in my sadness. Perhaps the wisdom of why hibernation is necessary and why it is a very sacred space because when you surrender to that sadness and sorrow you discover the other face of it, joy!
Rumi says two things I found useful: Sorrow pulls up the rotten root that was veiled from sight. Whatever sorrow take away or causes the heart to shed, it puts something better in its place, especially for the one who is certain that sorrow is the servant of the intuitive.
If a sorrowful thought stands in the way, it is also preparing the way for joy.
It furiously sweeps your house clean, in order that some new joy may appear from the Source.
Thanks to Anne and Kate for continuing this dialogue with such wisdom and honesty.
You might like to see my first attempt at a blog on this very subject of grieving and how healing it is. I think this comment will give you a link to my new blog, hopefully!