Sunday, November 25, 2018

Advent and Psychic Birth - An Introduction

From Advent and Psychic Birth by Mariann Burke

Meister Eckhart in a Christmas sermon paraphrasing St. Augustine says of Christ's birth, "This birth is always happening. And yet, if it does not occur in me, how could it help me? Everything depends on that."(1) The thesis of this book is that our own psychological "birth" is related to the "birth" of God within us, and that this birth is "always hap­pening." The paradox is that we long for this birth and yet we fear it. For centuries our unconscious fears and longing have been mirrored and "contained" in the religious dogma and symbolism of the church, a channel to the riverbed of the unconscious. But in a church and a culture that general­ly devalues the feminine realm--earth, the body, sexuality, instinct--these energies flow back into the psyche. Today the longing for consciousness and the integration of these energies have led many to leave the church which, they feel, no longer speaks to their needs. Others find spiritual ful­fillment in a strong adherence to traditional doctrinal and Biblical interpretation. Still others, in increasing numbers, find that a more personal inner journey leads not only to greater self-awareness, but also to a richer appreciation of their religious heritage.

My approach throughout Advent and Psychic Birth is to try to make connections between the archetypal images and personal experience, in both ancient and modern modalities, through associations, amplifications and clinical material. In one sense this approach has evolved out of my training in ana­lytical psychology. Yet it has become deeply personal and flows out of my own felt sense of the Advent imagery and my own journey toward psychic birth. Far from diminish­ing my faith in Christ, it has broadened and deepened my understanding of the meaning of incarnation. Jung writes: "The efficacy of dogma by no means rests on Christ's unique historical reality but on its own symbolic nature, by virtue of which it expresses a more or less ubiquitous psy­chological assumption quite independent of the existence of any dogma."(2) On first reading these words we may feel that Jung is undermining dogma and Christ's mission on earth, yet our own experience as it relates to the underlying pattern of dogma, can only serve to enrich its meaning. "In religious matters ... we cannot understand a thing until we have experienced it inwardly ... for it is in this experience that the connection between the psyche and the outward image or creed is revealed .... "(3)

For each of us the image that speaks to us differs. For some it is an image from the Bible or from another religious tradition, while for others it is a dream image, or an image that seems to surface directly from the body. Each of these can be received as "messages " from God.

If we look at the biblical poetry of Advent in a more personal way, we find that while it belongs to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, it transcends both. Beginning in darkness and destruction and ending in light and rebirth, Advent imagery represents a mythic or archetypal pattern. The Advent call to awaken from sleep is a call to follow the way of consciousness, to search for the inestimable gift, the treasure of the "hidden" self as well as the Imago Dei which carries the power to revitalize us both as individuals and communities. Symbolically, the four Sundays of Advent remind us of the quarternity and of wholeness, as does the familiar Advent wreath with its four candles, one lighted each week suggesting the gradual dissipation of inner and outer darkness. During the first three weeks of the Advent liturgy, the tone is decidedly one of action and movement, beginning with the Baptist's call to prepare a way. With the desert "transition" the tone changes, and during the fourth week the Virgin appears, strong, questioning, willing to trust in the unknown. As in any religious initiation we are led to participate in a new dimension of life. Here, if we can con­tact our own "virgin energies," we listen as the angel speaks and we, in silence, like Mary, wait as the earth "buds forth a savior."

In chapter 1 we shall look at the background of the Advent season in the myths and practices underlying the winter solstice festivals, when our ancestors anticipated the return of the sun which had "disappeared." We shall look in particular at the myth of eternal return, in which the end of the year is celebrated analogously as a death, a return to chaos, and a renewal of time, of society and of each per­son. Our ancestors' sense of expectancy mirrors our own as we look at material from the oldest celebration of New Year in ancient Babylonia, noting, too, an earlier time, when the "birth of the new child or sun" came, not following the death of the old king and the restoration of the new, but out of the all-encompassing Earth Mother. The myth of eternal return is patterned after the creation myth in which life comes out of the "void," at the word of God. From a psycho­logical perspective the myth reflects our own anticipation of new life even in the midst of our experience of "chaos" and darkness.

Longing is the theme of chapter 2, our own longing for rebirth and wholeness. We shall look at the ancient practice of the alchemists and at their opus in which they projected into matter their own psychic aspirations and their longing for God and for self. As Advent celebrates the feminine mystery of birth, so the alchemists intuited rebirth from the earth and from matter. Though they understood little about matter, they worked in their laboratory watching the effect of fire on the particles of earth they had placed in the round vessel, or vas. Through meditation and work they sought a more personal experience of incarnation. Through "operations" they performed on matter, the operations of water (solutio ), air (sublimatio), fire (calcinatio), and earth (coagulatio), they "brought forth" their "stone" or "Child," names they gave to the goal of their work, the inner "gold" of immortality. We will make some connections between the color worlds of the alchemists, the nigredo (black), albedo (white), and rubedo (red), and the stages represented in the Advent biblical imagery.

Hope is the theme in chapter 3, hope imaged by the savior child-god, the One who restores and frees us. The child-god represents one aspect of our own psyche together with the "dream" child, the real child, the divine child. Men and women in therapy often dream of children and infants, perhaps representing possibilities to be developed psy­chically. We shall look at two clinical vignettes in which women express their desire to have a baby. In some cases such an image may represent hope hidden under a sense of isolation and depression. Hope in its religious expression reaches a pitch of intensity during Advent with the "O" Antiphons. We shall look at these prayers as expressions of our longing for Christ as well as for our own hope for re­lease from loneliness and fear.

Chapter 4 leads us back to beginnings where we encounter our fear. We are called to awaken and awakening to fuller consciousness can be painful and frightening. Key images here are the mountain, in mythology regarded as the Center of the World, the place of renewal and rebirth. Bibli­cal passages recounting destruction by water and fire are also read during the first week of the Advent liturgy remind­ing us of the "return to chaos" in the solstice festivals, a prerequisite to "awakening" the sun. Psychologically this awakening can be viewed as a call to further development or, as in the case of movement toward "psychic birth," to a separation of the ego from the paradisical oneness of containment. Psychologically, this painful separation both from the mother and from the unconscious is needed for further development of the ego and a more secure sense of self.

In the wilderness our fear gives way to sadness and our sadness to anger. We need our anger, for it helps us to find our way. The wilderness journey is by far the longest stage in the way to rebirth. Jung tells us that there is no clear way; the way is made up of fateful detours and wrong turnings. The Baptist calls us to minister to the poor, psychologically to recognize and embrace the "poor" in ourselves. The parts we fear and hate, perhaps our anger and rage, our inner fierce "animals" need to be wrestled with in the wilderness of our psyche. Often the "demons" release their energies as light and power for movement into birth. In the wilderness we experience both demonic fire and life-giving waters, as we move into a period of "waiting" for the dawn.

After a night of darkness, we begin to experience the joy hidden within our own darkness. The dew symbolizes the awakening of joy. In chapter 6 we look at Mary as the Virgin and Mother, psychologically speaking the feminine side of God. While the motifs of fire and water are domi­nant during the wilderness sojourn, now we focus on air and earth motifs. The "child" of the alchemists comes out of the earth, that is, the human personality, and is nourished by all the elements. So we, too, in our journey to "birth" need to sense our spiritual "center" as giving purpose and meaning for our life. Yet while we look to heaven, or to "ideal" people in our lives to search for this center, we must come down to earth, to "embody" and to feel our body as "home" and cradle for our new life, the "child of joy." This process in the psychological literature is referred to as "idealizing and mirroring," or "ascent and descent." Mary represents the vessel within us, containing the virgin heal­ing energies open to the transcendent power which can make our "impossibilities" realities. Mary at the annuncia­tion represents in us the new creation and the possibility of recovering joy, and through an awareness of joy to experi­ence a greater capacity to love.

Whatever one's religious persuasion one cannot help being touched by the poetry of the Hebrew and Christian biblical Advent texts. The Advent liturgy offers a rich fare of images: images of death and destruction, images of hope, of struggle, of waiting, of pain, puzzlement, questioning, doubt, images of birth and of love. Psychologically speak­ing, it is more important to experience an image than to interpret it or to relate it to mythological sources, helpful though this may be. Experiencing opens us to the energiz­ing power of the image which "feeds" us, giving us sub­stance and meaning. Whether the image comes from the Bible, Koran, I Ching, Tarot, or from our dreams and visions, the image brings us in touch with a wisdom and shared experience of humanity. Images of Advent speak to us of our yearning for life, even as the One whose birth we celebrate came to give us life "to the full."

Probably no other time of the year evokes in us such a range of emotional response--from sadness to joy--as the weeks leading up to the feast of Christmas. The word, "Advent," from the Latin, adventus, means "coming" or "approach." The word connotes a longing or hunger for something more in life, something intimated but still unfelt. For Christians this longing focuses on the divine child, a child who was embodied in the Jesus of history, and who, from a psychological perspective relates us to "unborn" as­pects of ourselves. Advent, then, is the season of the unborn. And it is this aspect of Advent that we will explore as images of psychic pregnancy and birth. Each of us nurtures some promise that wants to be born. Psychic birth refers to any potential aspect of ourselves that longs for realization; it refers to our "becoming" who we are meant to be.

Advent biblical imagery metaphors the individua­tion process, the reconciliation and balancing of opposites within the personality, the conscious and the unconscious. Ideally the ego holds the tension between the two sides dia­loguing and integrating aspects of the "dark unknown." This may happen, for example when our intellectual de­velopment dwarfs our feeling and emotional life, causing, perhaps, neurosis and psychosomatic symptoms. The "new" possibility, the more balanced personality may be sym­bolized through a reconciling symbol. The child is such a unifying symbol, born of two opposites, masculine and fem­inine, conscious and unconscious.

But what happens when the ego is not strong enough to stand the tension of opposites when, for example, the feel­ing or instinctual side has been so repressed that a healthy tension of opposites does not exist? This may be due to a poor "fit" between mother and infant through the fault of neither, or it may be due to emotional and bodily absence of a nurturing adult. In a letter to Walter Corti Jung wrote that God wants to be born in the flame of our consciousness. But we must be strong enough to bear this flame. And what if this flame has no roots in the earth? "Could God then be born? One must be able to suffer God."(4) In Jung's view God becomes conscious through each of us. We are God's limita­tion in time and space. In striving to find our own self, we become an "earthly tabernacle" for God. When this be­comes our path toward psychic growth, then the pattern of ego development becomes the pattern of individuation. In these pages my focus on psychic birth refers primarily to this development. The divine child, then, might ref er not only to God but also to the hidden "cut-off" sense of self, the ego identity. But the Advent message brings healing as we resonate to its themes of death and birth out of our deepest need. Whether our need is to become more "grounded" in our "earth," that is, in our own ego self, whether our need is for liberation from the pull of opposite tensions in our life, or whether our need is simply one for renewal and affirma­tion of God's presence within us, the Advent imagery can speak to us in a deeply personal way.

In linking God's incarnation in Jesus and our own per­sonal "becoming," the biblical imagery of Advent leads us into the depths of our own hope, desire, and joy. To awaken Advent within us means to open ourselves to the call to be initiated more fully into the meaning of death and birth, that mythic reality that fires our longing to experience the Life dwelling within us. During Advent the child carries that image of Life in all its various meanings. It evokes first the image of Jesus as divine child, a child-god. On a human level it recalls our own childhood as well as the child side of ourselves always present. On another level this Life is re­lated to the "child motif," the mythological and symbolical child. In his Psychology of the Child Archetype Jung writes that this image of child links us to our own preconscious past, to our psychic roots, for the child lived a psychic life before it became conscious. The image of child, then, links us to our origins. Symbolically the child motif also links us to the future, because the child represents potential; it wants to develop. While the child links us to the past, it never ceases to look forward.

In tracing the psychic roots of Advent we come to see the deeper meaning of the recurrent celebration of Christ­mas, bringing before us again and again through ritual rep­etition of the mythical event the link to our origins, so that this link with our original condition may not be broken. For when we lose our relation to the instinctive side of the un­conscious we become unchildlike and artificial. Unrelated to these vital energies within we begin to suffer from a sense of emptiness. Could it be that this separation from our inner "fire" may account in some way for the depressive symp­toms so often suffered during the Advent-Christmas season? Are these symptoms caused by the physical and psychic ef­fects of sunlessness? We know that during the weeks before Christmas many people feel more anxious, restless, irrit­able, and even hostile. Clinically we refer to this phenom­enon as the "holiday syndrome." Above all, there is often loneliness, experienced more poignantly amidst Christmas partying. At times the outer celebrations find little reso­nance within. Perhaps it is within this very dissonance that we can discover the psychic roots of Advent, as a way lead­ing us back to our instinctive roots, to the child.

This child is also a symbol of hope, and hope is linked with our heartfelt desire to risk the new and to create the new. The child envisions possibilities and opens its heart to them. A child cannot will otherwise. What can we say, then, about the sense of hopelessness that weighs on so many of us, or about depression, suicide, addiction, and the poverty of spirit historian Christopher Lasch points to as the sign of an unhealthy narcissism pervading our culture?(5) Maybe we can get some light on these questions by asking another. Is it possible that out of our very poverty of spirit hope re­awakens, hope as a catalyst of desire?

Advent stirs up that deepest desire in us symbolized by the child--the urge to realize our true self. We live in an age that abuses, victimizes and neglects children, and this in itself reflects the need we have as adults to give attention to the side of us which, perhaps, has suffered the same fate. The "self-pathologies" of our time, especially narcissism or self-hate has reached epidemic proportions. This means that many children grow to adulthood with either a gran­diose or deflated self-image that defends against both the vulnerable as well as the powerful hidden self and causes untold heartache, self-destructive activity, and waste of hu­man potential.

Many years ago Jung wrote that the tragedy we face today results from our uprooting from grounding in the unconscious, or we might say, in Mother Earth. All that follows from that--psychosomatic illness, spiritual malaise, wounded self-esteem--we know well. While Jung always expressed interest in the historical cause of physical or psy­chic problems, he felt that we must also ask: What is the purpose of this disturbance? To what does it call attention? Can we discover the hidden value in it? Can we ask, "What is God calling me to in this depression?" Can we say, for example, that the prevalence of a sense of emptiness and loneliness in our society points to a collective hunger, not only for those aspects of our personality that want to be freed, but for the emergence of a hidden self? The value of this disturbance, then, may lie in its opening us to an aware­ness of our hunger for God and self, two aspects of the same reality.

It is failure to live our individual pattern that leads to a sense of emptiness and loneliness. This feeling is height­ened in those who have been forced to abandon their own instinctive life with its needs and desires. "False self" is Donald Winnicott's phrase which describes a person who, out of need for survival in childhood, became compliant to the wishes and demands of others, and thus lost contact with his or her instinctive needs. This condition sometimes results in a feeling of being cut off from others, unrecog­nized, unable to communicate what is of deepest impor­tance. Describing such a person, psychologist Stephen Kurtz writes of T.S. Eliot, that as a child he suffered isola­tion which left its scars of fragmentation. Eliot, it seems, was an unexpected child of middle-aged parents. One sister was eight years old when he was born; another was away at college. Eliot's father was growing deaf and was emotional­ly distant. Kurtz and Edel suggest that Eliot's mother pro­jected on him her own need to be praised and acknowl­edged for literary achievement and that she treated him as a late "gift of God." Eliot's precociousness was reinforced by certain physical ailments, in particular a hernia which kept him from sports.(6) Eliot's mother did not raise the child but entrusted him to the care of an Irish nurse. This pattern is well known to therapists who note that the real child often was never seen, although his or her parents may have pro­vided material care and goods. The child as idealized pro­jection of parents' needs is treated as special and "a little god" but the real child hides in isolation, emotionally alone and neglected, perhaps only to realize much later that he or she was never loved and never had a childhood. Psycho­logically there are many variations on this theme, and the problems many experience today getting in touch with feel­ings and needs often stem from unmet needs for holding, mirroring, and understanding. When parents idealize their children, they fail to love the whole child, "the child of vomit, shit, fear and rage."(7) The child is rewarded for "proper" be­havior, cleanness, and intellectual accomplishment. When this happens the child comes to loathe his "dirty self" the real self. Lack of self-esteem begins very early.

Like many therapists, I have heard people say, "I don't have a self. I fluctuate. If I'm praised I have one, if I'm neglected or criticized, I lose it." A woman I knew dreamed she had been born on another planet. She said, "Maybe that explains why I feel that I don't belong here. I don't feel that I'm in my life." Even the desire to be "incarnated" or re­connected with instinctual needs and wants seems to go underground. Eliot, in The Waste Land writes of this sense of imprisonment:

            We think of the key, each in his prison
            Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison (8)

The message of Advent speaks to this sense of imprison­ment and isolation. Advent's darkness is related to the de­pressive's suffering in which despair seems to stifle hope.
Yet Advent's night closely resembles the mystic's night of the soul, that is, a felt absence yet a sense that Life is there in the darkness. It is as if in the darkness hides another "key" that opens the prison. As part of a series of cries for freedom which we will reflect on later, one of the Advent "O" Antiphons captures a response to Eliot's verse. It is the antiphon read during the fourth week of Advent.
O key of David, O royal Power of Israel, controlling at your will the gate of heaven (Isaiah 22:22); come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your cap­tive people into freedom (Isaiah 42:7).(9)
Keys are associated with initiation and with the mysteries. In alchemy the goal or the "lapis" was referred to as "key."(10) And significantly, in ancient Egypt the key was associated with the cross. The gods often held the "Nern Ankh," the cross of eternal life, by the top as if it were a key. It was used in ceremonies of the dead in order to open the gates of death into immortality.

It seems that Eliot himself found this key through dis­covering his creative gift. In poetry he communicated his own longing and, touching depths in his readers, opened them to the "hints" and "guesses" of a deeper source of freedom. After his own experience of the wilderness, Eliot discovered that out of the wounding comes a gift that links us to a source of freedom that would otherwise, perhaps, have remained closed. This is the paradox of Advent in its darkness-light symbolism. Advent darkness stirs up, on the one hand, unconscious fears and, on the other, a deep desire for freedom and for all that the child represents. Fear of consciousness and rebirth is the fear of change, and for most of us, nothing is so feared as the prospect of moving into the dark, but that is often where the key is to be found.

Advent as an initiatory journey from darkness to light celebrates the hidden "sun" and the hidden self waiting to be born. In the words of a traditional Christmas hymn the divine child "bloomed" like a rose in the cold of a winter midnight. The qualities associated with the rose: love, vir­ginity, fertility, passion and eros, appear only intermittently in the imagery of Advent. It is as if they, too, are hidden like the new sun of the winter solstice. But we know that they are as present there as is the birth we await.

Mariann Burke is a Jungian analyst in private practice in Newton, MA. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Pittsburgh, Andover-Newton Theological School, and the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. She has done graduate work in Scripture at Union Theological Seminary and La Salle University. Her interests include the body-psyche connection, feminine spirituality, and the psychic roots of Christian symbolism. She is a member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart (RSCJ). Mariann is the author of Advent and Psychic Birth and Re-Imagining Mary: A Journey Through Art to the Feminine Self, both published by Fisher King Press.

1. Raymond Blakney, trans., Meister Eckhart: A Modern Trans­lation (New York: Harper and Row, 1941), p. 95.
2. C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, (translated by R.F.C. Hull. Bollingen Series XX. Volume 12, Collected Works, Prince­ton: Princeton University Press, 1963) p. 185.
3. Ibid, p. 14.
4. C.G. Jung, Letters (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973, Volume 1), p. 65.
5. See Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1979).
6. Stephen Kurtz, C.S.W., The Art of Unknowing (Northvale: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1983), p. 170.
7. Ibid.
8. T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, Complete Poems and Plays (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1971), p. 49.
9. C.G. Jung, op. cit. p. 282.
10. J.C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Sym­bols (London: Thames & Hudson, 1978), p. 90.

Fisher King Press publishes an eclectic mix of worthy books including Jungian Psychological Perspectives and a growing list of Cutting-Edge alternative titles.

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