Sunday, January 23, 2022

What Signs and Symbols Can Teach Us, If We Pay Attention

Carl Jung, the famous psychoanalyst, once told the story of a patient who was so caught up in her own logical rationalizations for her troubles that he found it difficult to make any progress with her. At one session, Jung said, the patient told him about a dream in which someone gave her an expensive piece of jewelry that looked like a golden scarab. As the patient talked, Jung heard a persistent tapping noise on the window behind him. When he went to investigate, he found a large flying insect seemingly insisting on getting inside.

"I opened the window and immediately caught the insect in the air as it flew in," Jung writes. "It was a scarabaeid beetle, or common rose-chafer, whose gold-green color most nearly resembles that of a golden scarab. I handed the beetle to my patient with the words 'Here is your scarab.'"

According to Jung, the patient finally opened up to him and made great progress following that eerie event. 

Was it all just a chance occurrence? Jung didn't think so. Such incidents of synchronicity, he believed, are signs that reveal themselves all around us but require an openness of mind for us to perceive them. Think of how you might toss yarrow stalks to point you toward a reading in the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of oracles. When you can see how the particular reading relates to your life, you can think of it as a fluke of happenstance, or you can engage your intuitive mind to understand why you might have been led to that particular reading in the first place. But to achieve the latter, we have to break down the barriers that our rational minds throw up, insisting upon "mere coincidence" or "baseless superstition" as ways of dismissing what could otherwise be seen as the universe trying to get our attention.

I thought of Jung after lying awake in bed early this morning and trying to justify why I shouldn't make the 75-mile trip out to the Byzantine Catholic church I've been attending recently. I was tired. I could go next week. I could always just spend some quiet, reflective time at home in place of attending a liturgy in person.

So I stumbled downstairs, got some coffee, and opened my computer to see if there was any work waiting on me. When there wasn't, I checked my email and then popped over to YouTube -- only to find a new upload from one of the channels I follow, The Ten Minute Bible Hour. Matt Whitman, the keeper of the channel, is an evangelical Protestant who often visits other denominations of Christian churches and talks to their pastors and priests in an attempt to find out what they believe and why. As someone with a similar curiosity toward other religions and beliefs, I always appreciate Matt's attempts to be open-minded and learn, rather than bicker over whose dogma is right or wrong. 

Well, wouldn't you know it: A brand-new upload on the channel had Matt visiting with Fr. Thomas Loya -- a Byzantine Catholic priest, at his Byzantine Catholic church in the Chicago area.

Coincidence or not, I interpreted that as a nudge from beyond to not be so lazy and make the drive to church.

If that wasn't enough for one day, the Gospel reading at today's liturgy, from Matthew, was the story of the Canaanite woman who begged Christ to cure her daughter. That just happened to be the last thing I read last night, as I work my way through Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Bible: The Gospels. I had no idea that was going to be the Gospel selection today at church, and yet there it was, repeating itself from my bedtime reading. Crazy, right?

Things like this are not new to me. I take them in stride while not dismissing their message. For example, I know that Mary has kept tugging on me to come back to the Catholic-Orthodox family every time I wander too far away. I remember feeling her call out to me as I was visiting a Catholic church after many years' absence. Out of the corner of my eye, a nearby statue of her was silently prodding me to come over and talk to her. So I did, and that began my return to the faith I was born into. Later on, I was overcome with a warm feeling of compassion, acceptance, and unconditional love when I reached out to touch a likeness of her in another Catholic chapel.

Skeptics may say it was all a matter of my own psychological projection. Maybe; maybe not. But there have been so many Marian apparitions over the centuries, many of them officially accepted by the Catholic church, and some of them witnessed by thousands, that I'm inclined to believe there's something to it all. Even the Orthodox have their accounts of apparitions, the most famous being the prolonged appearances of the Theotokos at Zeitoun, in Cairo. 

And that's not to mention all the accounts of weeping statues and icons across the ages, or the famous Guadalupe tilma.

In recognition of the encounters so many have had with the Blessed Mother, myself included, I wear a necklace depicting Mary's appearance to those keeping vigil at a church in Constantinople in the 10th century. According to the story, St. Andrew the Fool and his disciple, Epiphanius, saw the Virgin descend into the church, surrounded by angels and saints, and joined the congregation in prayer, spreading out her veil of protection across the faithful.

"Do you see the Sovereign Lady of All?" Andrew asked, unable to believe his eyes.

"I do," Epiphanius confirmed, "and I am amazed."

The Holy Protection of the Theotokos, as the event is known, is the subject of many Orthodox icons and has become the name of many an Orthodox church. 

When it comes to Mary's kid, you may have heard of the numerous accounts of Eucharistic miracles, including stories of human heart tissue growing from a neglected communion host. Those that have been medically examined, like the Shroud of Turin, apparently all share the same blood type.  

You can say these are all clever forgeries and fanciful tales designed to keep the gullible in the pews. And for all I know, you could be right. You could even say they're Satanic deceptions, as many zealous anti-Catholic evangelicals do. But to take either stance, I think, is to miss the point. 

Think about Jung's scarabeid beetle, and how it showed up at just the right time to help his patient make a breakthrough. It didn't really matter whether some mysterious universal force put the beetle there to help Jung's patient or whether it was just an amazing coincidence. The end result was that the event allowed the patient to let down her rational defenses and consider what the physical manifestation of her dream meant to her on a deeply fundamental level. It widened her perceptions from only what she could logically deduce to what was possible if she understood the event as a symbolic reality. 

Religion works the same way, if we can take religious teachings onboard as being literally true on an emotional level. That opens us up to realities that our logical and linguistically limited minds may not have been able to perceive.   

In a similar way, our family has a New Year's tradition of doing personal tarot readings for the upcoming year. The readings aren't some kind of magical insight into the future, but rather a way for us to see how our lives and experiences relate to the cards we pulled, which in turn lets us create a relevant context for the spread. It helps us become more mindful and aware of things that might happen, given our habits, tendencies, and circumstances, so that we can skillfully prepare for them beforehand. 

I was thinking about all this after I saw a video earlier in the week that is said to have originated in Ukraine. The event depicts an Orthodox priest performing an outdoor ceremony during what appears to be Theophany, the celebration of Christ's baptism. At the back of the alcove where the priest is blessing the waters, we see a life-size icon of Christ being baptized in the Jordan. Those familiar with the Gospel story know that after Christ was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended as a dove from the heavens, accompanied by a voice saying, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

In the video, as the priest is conducting the ceremony, a dove flies into the building and perches on top of the icon, in what feels like a real-life re-enactment of the descent of the Spirit. The timing couldn't have been more perfect. 

The event sent shivers rippling across my body and nearly brought me to tears. Most people in the comments were praising God for giving the people a much-needed sign in these troubled times. Me? I was reminded of why I find the story of Christ so compelling and why I've always come back to it, even after traveling many other spiritual roads that are worlds removed from Christianity. 

I'd love to be able to believe all of it on a literal level. But I do regard it as true on an emotional level, and I think that understanding of the story can be just as deep, profound, and life-changing, inasmuch as it directs our minds away from our egoic tendencies and toward something much larger, eternal, beyond words, logic, and reason.

It gives us hope. And that, in these dark times, is no small feat indeed.

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