In the 1991 movie, Fisher King, Robin Williams plays the part of a once successful married man whose wife was one of a number of persons killed by a rampant gunman in a restaurant. Williams' character loses himself after a period of catatonia and lives as a homeless guy. Jeff Bridges plays the radio personality who believes himself the cause of the psychotic gunman going on the rampage. It is a movie worth seeing for a lot of reasons.
Occasionally, in the movie, Robin Williams' character is confronted by the vision of a fiery red knight on horseback charging him. Williams' character is terrified and flees for his life each time. As my wife and I watched this movie in a theater, she finally had to punch me, because, each time the red knight appeared I would audibly exclaim, "turn and face him dammit!" My advanced psychology training is a combination of Jungian analysis and Bowen Theory.
Writer, Ursula Leguin, created a series in the late 1970s that has come to be known as The Earthsea Trilogy. The books are about a wizard named Ged and his journey through life. The first book centers on his development. His mentor sends him to the special school for those gifted as wizards. In the cockiness of his youth, he conjures a deeply dark figure that kills one of his teachers and begins pursuing Ged all over Earthsea. Finally, exhausted and near death, Ged finds himself at the home of his childhood mentor. After nursing him to health, the mentor tells Ged that he must cease running and turn to face this hideous dark creature. When Ged and his conjured dark monster finally meet and grapple, Ged's eyes are opened to the reality that the creature is his own dark side and ultimate death...the two aspects of being we are most afraid to encounter.
We recently celebrated All Saints' in the Christian calendar of festivals. We have done serious injustice to the saints by placing them on pedestals and pronouncing them as perfect...as if they had no shadow side or capacity for error, anger, fear or maliciousness. Thomas Merton called our common view of saints as "plaster casts that only represent a false reality." For many years, I was one of those that Merton was speaking to.
Shortly after the death of my mother in late 1987, I felt myself stuck in what seemed like a thick, sucking mud. I went to see a psychotherapist friend for insight. Her first question to me was, "what do you most want to be when you finish here?" Without blinking or hesitating, I blurted, "...A Saint!" I found myself in gales of tears. Her measured response to my stunning revelation was, "Well, my friend, you have set yourself a rather impossible goal don't you know..."
My father had died suddenly of a heart attack just a few weeks prior to graduation from high school in 1968. It was a huge loss for a 17 year old, who actually treasured his dad (though we did have our disagreements). It took me 19 years to realize that I had been running from his death...and...thereby...from my own. He was only 54 years old. Mom was 64 when she died. The monster was stalking me, and I was next in line!
This may not be an admission for a theologian to make, but it was my "red knight" and conjured dark monster. I didn't really know it for a long time, but fear is the beginning of wisdom..if one is willing to make the journey. And, the journey begins with confronting the spectre and asking, "who are you and what do you want?"
I won't rehearse the full details of what amounts to a 43 year journey. However, I will tell you what I learned. Like Jacob wrestling with the angelic being, I have ultimately turned on my pursuers, asked the questions above, grabbed them and wrestled them to the ground of my being. There I sat with them until they would speak. A conversation then could ensue. Fear dissipated.
Now I face a new challenge. In retirement, the road upon which I journey makes a curve. The vista shifts and becomes unfamiliar. It isn't quite the same horizon. The shoulder that was expertly replaced a year ago with a titanium joint has a "spectre" within it....yet to be definitively diagnosed. When I shared my fear with a wise friend last week, she gave me gracious counsel and insight. The shoulder is a symbol of carrying weight or a load. What are the aspects of your inner reality (she asked) that would create a joint failure and possible infection of this magnitude? She did not answer the question for me, when I couldn't (I stood looking, I think, like a deer in the headlights....very unusual for me). Instead, she smiled, rested a caring hand on mine and said, "Go sit in it."
I knew exactly what she meant. Enter the contemplative place, face the shadowy figures and ask for direction. What part of me am I avoiding? The answer is, as yet, only partial. The initial emerging "red knight" in my second contemplative period this past Friday (11/11) was my own mantra as a young priest: "Nothing dies on my shift!" The second "red knight" appeared later that day...out of the blue while working around the house: "We do not raise quitters."
Well, when did this new problem begin with a shoulder that was healing so nicely? About a month after my retirement. Obviously, I have some things that need to be wrestled down and engaged. I am now "sitting in" this morass of renewed and resurrected monsters.
Grace is a good weapon. Of equal importance is the capacity to integrate one's life experiences...see them all as part of a continuum that is all loved and necessary. There is no failure. Nothing dies. One doesn't quit, because there is nothing to quit. It is a constant evolution and growth. This current frontier is nothing less than the integration of soul with mind and body.
Oh, but you say, you are a priest. Didn't you do that long time ago? I've done a lot of things and traveled a long road. Now the fullness of it confronts me. I am my only measure of meaning at this juncture. Oneness is the capacity to be an authentic self in concert with all other authentic selves. It's the definition of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus said that the "Kingdom is at hand." Meaning: It can happen among us now. The unfolding begins! Digital to HD for techies.....
My love in Christ,