This past week, a long-time friend and ministry colleague came to the island.
His name is Jerry Wright, who has recently published a new book, A Mystical Road Less Taken, describing an alternative spiritual path which takes seriously our collective psyche. Previously, he wrote a book offering a new way of looking at our religious impulse, Reimaging God and Religion. I have found both books compelling and provocative as he looks at the current situation in our struggle to find ways to connect with God in a disenchanted world.
He was taking a break from his normal work as a therapist/analyst. He called to tell me he would be here for four days, and then go up the coast to my old haunt, Folly Beach. He was bringing his dog with him, his faithful companion.
I had recently heard him speak on Zoom as a part of a group we both have been associated with for years, the Jung Society of Atlanta. He was specifically speaking about a trip he took recently to Africa. He leads “spiritual pilgrimages” to various places, and people accompany him because of his expertise and wisdom. He has travelled to Iona, to Canterbury, to Greece, various places where traces of spiritual encounters still resonate and glow. His trip to Africa prompted the remembrance of Carl Jung’s journey there in 1925, which provided a striking threshold moment of enlightenment for Jung.
My friend found such a moment for himself. He was positioned at the Mara River, watching the annual migration of animals across the plain, making the crossing at the river. It’s an annual, instinct-driven migration that takes all kind of species across the crocodile-infested waters.
My friend’s eye caught sight of a specific family of zebras poised to make their crossing. As they did, the youngest of the family was seized by a crocodile, taken under the bloody water for consumption. My friend watched in fascination and horror. The rest of the zebras made it across, but were concerned, as they arrived on the other side, discovering one of their number missing. After looking around frantically, scanning the river bank for their missing family member, they went to return to the other side to find their lost member. My friend could not look any longer, and turned away, caught by the pathos of the situation.
Let’s pause for a second. Pause. That’s a power we have as humans, to pause and not react. What were your immediate feelings in my short word picture of this moment in Africa? What images came to mind? What feelings came to you? Are there specific memories that emerged for you, a trace of an experience where a similar thing occurred as you observed nature, or perhaps in your own life? Pause. Ponder. Wonder.
My friend and his group returned to camp following this paradigmatic moment. My friend, a most empathetic and caring person, identified with the innocent, young zebra who was caught in the jaws of this waiting crocodile, remembering his own helplessness, and moments of being out of control, of vulnerability. He had a visceral reaction to observing a creature being “taken under”, as he remembered a time in his life when he himself felt such experience.
But he also identified with the zebra family, hurt by the loss of a familiar member, left wondering what had happened. Befuddled by the instant change in the reality of the moment. Shocked at their own vulnerability, torn by self-protection and the need to find the lost one, my friend has been there in his own life experience, as have we all. He recently dealt with the ravages of a disease on his wife, and watched as she slowly succumbed to its power.
But finally, he faced the fact that he was also the crocodile, waiting for an opportunistic moment to seize an unsuspecting and vulnerable victim. His hunger for food and survival drove his movement. He, too, was capable of the violence that can self-justify the disregard of another’s life and perspective. He knows his aggression, civilized but just underneath the surface, like a croc, waiting.
Has my friend’s musings resonated with your soul? How do you see the nature of reality? Is this just the way it is? Is it as Norm of Cheers suggested, a “dog-eat-dog world…and I’m wearing Milk Bone underwear!”
Is their a natural “plan” underneath this moment of bloody death, or is it another example of cruelty, of the powerful, overwhelming the vulnerable? What sense do you make of this? Pause. Ponder. Wonder.
My Jungian friend is still pondering this moment as he has been back to his home in North Carolina for weeks. It made a profound impact of his thinking. We are both zebra and crocodile. The human is the most creative of species of animals on the planet, but also the most destructive. We are both, simultaneously. Zebra and croc. How does that show up in your life?
We sat together for lunch at a spot I enjoy here on the island, Tramici’s. It had been sunny and clear for days, and almost at the precise time of our meeting for lunch, a violent thunderstorm struck, with the pyrotechnics that would have made DeMille happy. He had brought his dog with him so we were sitting outside, forced to experientially witness the power of nature. What sense did I make of this? A random thunderstorm on an island….not too rare an occurrence, but why now, in the middle of my long-awaited time of meeting? Had some cosmic force conspired to dampen our gathering, or was it a meteorological punctuation to the profundity of our exchange? Or, more to my scientific worldview and bias, was it a cold front merely transforming the tropical atmosphere? The storm seemed to come and go with our meeting. How odd.
It was what I would call a “threshold moment”, a time between the structured life that we live everyday, and the chaos of the anti-structure, where things seem up for grabs, in question. Such places have been described by various cultures in a number of different ways. The one that appeals to me is the term “thin space”, where the line between heaven and earth seem to blur, a space where one glimpses the presence of the Holy. In such moments, one senses both the attractions to and fear of the profundity of the moment. Your heart beats harder and faster, but there is also a sense of dread, even fear. How odd.
Rudolf Otto called it the numinous, a sensing of the presence of the holy. One seems to touch the hem of the garment of life, where the sense of connection is palpable but fleeting. Impossible to put into words, Otto employs the ancient words of the mystics, as it is ineffable. We are prompted to gaze into the mystery that is beyond our schedules, budgets, and agendas to a depth that connects us to one another, creature to creature, across species, even across partisan lines, as it that were possible today. Those are moments where I wish to linger, but it is ephemeral and fleeting. Precious, but oh so real.
I think that is what my friend experienced there in the exotic plain of Africa. It is what we sensed together as we broke bread in a courtyard of a restaurant, encompassed by lightening and thunder. It is what I experience when I visit the quietness of the graveyard at Christ Church here on the island, as the day passes into night, as the young deer cavort among the tombstones, playfully denying the finality of death.
A thin space. A place between the Structure of our civilization and the wild Spirit of Creation. A threshold of entrance into a land of connection, where the dance goes on, and the journey never ends. A space to pause, ponder, and wonder.
Did I mention that I love thin spaces?