19 July 2008

"In Shoes Too Small": Jung and Benedictinism

I was fortunate enough to attend a day's workshop on the relationship between Jungian psychology and spirituality yesterday at San Damiano's Retreat House in Danville, CA. The presenter was Brother Don Bisson, FMS, D Min, and the focus was on the nature of Individuation as a Spiritual Practice. The title was "Walking in Shoes too Small", and ironically, this was a phrase from Jung I had heard for the first time just last week while on retreat when Sister Donald mentioned it in a conference on Benedictinism, the enlarging of our hearts, and the critical need for the recovery of soul or soulfulness in our culture. There was a lot of good material and a great deal to assimilate (I have not even begun!), but a couple of points struck me because they reprise central aspects of Benedictine spirituality. One of these had to do with the Jungian concept of fate. For Jung, fate has to do with the non-chosen, non-negotiable elements in our lives. Fate for Jung is to embrace these elements; it is especially to embrace this (our own) time and place and not some other. In genuine individuation one comes to embrace and even love our fate, all while recognizing that fate in the Jungian sense (unlike some notions of fate) includes the capacity to choose.

Now, one of the things which is most striking about Benedictine spirituality (and one of the first places it differs from the classic Franciscan vows) is the vow (or value) of stability. The Benedictine monk, nun, (or, similarly though in their own way, the oblate) commits themselves to a particular monastery for life. That is, they commit themselves to this community, this group of people with all their weaknesses, foibles, gifts, capacities, etc. And generally they commit themselves to place and time as well, to this time in the history of the church with all its challenges and frustrations, to this world with all its needs, potentialities and deficiencies, to this community (as a whole) with its vitality and lack of vitality. All of this is a part of a contemplative commitment to live in the present moment. As Elizabeth J Canham writes, [[ The vow of stability affirms sameness, a willingness to attend to . . . the reality of this place, these people as God's gift to me and the setting where I live out my discipleship. We are discouraged from fantasizing some ideal situation in which we will finally be able to pray and live as we should. Instead, Benedict says, be here, find Christ in the restless teenager, demanding parent, insensitive employer, dull preacher, lukewarm congregation.]] (Weavings, Jan-Feb 1994)

In the more personal sense Benedictine stability means, [[standing in my own center and not trying to run away from the person I really am.]] (Tomaine, St Benedict's Toolbox) The linkage between the Jungian concept of fate, and the Benedictine vow/value of stability could not be clearer. It is also linked intimately with a truly Christian notion of human freedom. As I have written here before just recently (July 4th) too often people mistake the power or ability to do anything we want as freedom. But in Christianity freedom is the power to be the persons we are called to be; it is the capacity to be (and become) ourselves in spite of limitations or circumstances, and in fact THROUGH these limitations and circumstances.

At the same time stability does not imply a static response to life, for Benedictines also make a vow (or embrace the value) of conversatio morum, which is both a commitment to fidelity to monastic life and to continued conversion of life. (Besides, stability is a commitment to community more than place, and how can THAT be static??) Obedience (whether vow or value) also is a commitment to an ongoing responsiveness to God, and THAT kind of responsiveness, because of its "object," is just about as dynamic as one can get! As Brother Don stressed at the workshop/day of reflection yesterday, individuation is a process of transformation which involves not just embracing fate, but also the negotiation of liminal spaces (the desert is a symbol of this), places where one really encounters the shadow self and awakens to the true self. It implies conscious choices to deal with our own deep woundedness, to heal from this, and yet, in the process to risk the inevitable wounding which comes WITH the process of healing and individuation. In fact, "standing at the center of ourselves" is not a static but rather a dynamic event full of both risk and promise, suffering and peace. It implies not just contemplative withdrawal but return to our world to serve it.

So, I have begun my own examination of the Benedictine vows and how my own translate into specifically Benedictine terms. Interestingly, many of the themes shared by both share commonalities with Jungian and (perhaps) transpersonal psychologies. They echo as well some of the concerns (and courage, faith and hope) another Sister shared with me when she sent me a program from a ritual during her own community's recent Assembly. One of the quotes from the closing liturgy was very striking to me, and I think you will see how it ties in with both a Benedictine vow/value of stability and the Jungian notion of fate: [[ Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because the fact is we were made for these times. Yes, for years we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet in this exact [place] of engagement.. . .When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for. . . .This comes with much love and prayer that you remember Who you came from and why you came to this beautiful, needful Earth.]] (C Pinkola Estes, "Letter to a Young Activist in Troubled Times")