Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Golden Apples

Far to the west, so far that it almost balances on the rim at the edge of the world, lies an island. Being an enchanted place, this particular island is the home of beings not encountered in our own everyday world, but if we are fortunate we may perhaps visit it in our dreams. Were we to do so, we would encounter three beautiful nymphs known as the Hesperides, who are the daughters of the sunset. For when at day’s end the golden sun slips beneath the world to begin its journey through the starry realms of night, the nymphs are the last beings to bid it farewell until the following dawn.

On this enchanted isle grows the sacred tree of Hera, the consort of great Zeus. This remarkable tree, which was grown from the fruit that was a wedding gift from Gaia, the earth goddess, bears apples of pure gold whose possession will grant precious immortality to anyone who owns them. It is the task of the Hesperides to guard these apples well, and to keep a watchful eye on the three nymphs and to make sure that they are fulfilling their task, a huge and terrible serpent twines its glinting coils around the tree’s trunk.

In this idyllic scene we recognize all the elements of enchantment: a sunset island set apart from the world, three beautiful nymphs, a fearsome guardian serpent, and a tree which bears miraculous fruit. It echoes other such scenes familiar to us from other stories and other places: Idun, goddess of spring and rebirth, who, in the Islandic Edda, took care of the golden apples, the poisoned apple in the story of Snow White, and the tree and the serpent that dwells in the Garden of Eden. And like the Eden story in the Book of Genesis, we are aware that in order for things to happen, in order for the story to progress further, the walls of enchantment have to be breached.

On the island of the Hesperides that disruptive influence arrives in the form of the goddess Eris, whose very name means ‘Discord’. Exactly how this troublesome goddess managed what she did is unclear. Perhaps she tricked the guardian serpent, or perhaps she caused some quarrel to break out between the three peaceable nymphs. The result is the same: Eris leaves the enchanted island with one of the apples in her possession. Being the devious goddess that she is, Eris has little interest in keeping the apple for herself. She is, after all, already immortal. No, her plan for the precious apple is much more insidious. The goddess writes on the apple the three beguiling words: “To the fairest”, and tosses it into the midst of a feast of the gods on Olympus. 

The goddesses Hera, Aphrodite and Athena naturally all claim that the apple is intended for them, and the mortal, Prince Paris, is brought in to settle the dispute. Beautiful Aphrodite sways the outcome in her favour with a simple but irresistible bribe: she promises Paris the hand of the fairest of mortals, Helen, who would become known as Helen of Troy, if the prince will decide in her favour. With such a prize on offer, the outcome is never in doubt. Paris claims what the goddess of love has granted, kidnaps Helen – and the terrible and tragic seed which leads to the drawn-out and deadly Trojan War is sown.

One small act carried out with mischievous intent can set in motion a whole chain of events whose outcome cannot be foreseen – not even by the individual who set those events in motion. Neither gods nor mortals can control those events, which, like ripples which disturb the surface of a still pond, continue to spread beyond the cause that started them. The three Hesperides must mourn the loss of the precious fruit entrusted to them. But perhaps the apple of Discord did grant a certain measure of immortality. So many centuries later, we still know the names and can relate the stories of those who feature in these ancient tales. And we can trace the events in our own lives which might reflect them, and each in our own way work, like the Hesperides, to come to terms with what has been taken from us. 

Painting: The Garden of the Hesperides, by Frederic, Lord Leighton.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Mystic Heart

Many of the posts which you may read here are about mystics. We tend for convenience to label these mystics according to when they lived. There are the mystics of the Ancient World, such as Pythagoras, and Pythia, the Delphic oracle, who was believed to be possessed by the god Apollo when she uttered her mysterious pronouncements. There are the mystics of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Hildegard von Bingen, Hadewijch of Brabant, Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich are four such mystics whose remarkable visions and insights seem at times to penetrate to the very heart of greater mysteries. And there are the contemporary mystics of our own times, such as Kahlil Gibran, Etty Hillesum and Rabindranath Tagore, whose writings offer profound insights into the human condition, and so touch us all.

We can name all these names, and we collectively call them mystics, but is it possible to find some defining thread of meaning and experience that would allow us actually to say what a mystic is? Perhaps if this were possible, it might bring us a step closer , not just to understanding them, but to experience in some way the things which they experienced, to share with them these remarkable insights which go deeper than our own everyday experiences.

One thing is very clear, even from this brief list of names: mysticism is gender-blind. Both men and women were and are regarded as mystics of equal stature. Even in a church whose hierarchy was and is essentially male-dominated, the mystics of the Middle Ages often were women who moved in a man’s world, and still made their mark on history. I think of Hildegard, who in contemporary accounts was described as being small and slight of stature, but who nevertheless negotiated her way through a world dominated by the bishops who were her superiors to gain respect and recognition for her visions and insights.

But if gender is irrelevant to mystic experience, what qualities tie such mystics together? What line binds Pythia to Hildegard, so remote in time from each other? What links the Lebanese Gibran to the Bengali Tagore, who might have been separated by their different cultures, but who nevertheless were each other’s contemporaries? We might say the obvious, and name their devotion to their beliefs. All mystics were on a quest, and this quest took the form of a need, even a passionate desire, to have a contact in some form with a deeper aspect of their faith. For a mystic, doctrine was not enough. A mystic desired something more, something beyond the borders that others had erected around their particular faith. A mystic was – and is – seeking a direct experience of the Divine.

Such a path cannot be trodden by careful route planning, by wondering what we are going to do next, by thinking carefully about the thoughts that might or might not guide us. Such thoughts are only distractions. A mystic does not walk a path. A mystic is the path, and total trust and surrender are the companions along the way. Every movement is a movement made in love, and every gesture is a gesture of love, of love for the inexpressible Divine. 

When Julian of Norwich said that ‘all shall be well’, I do not believe that it was an expression of hope. I feel that she made the statement out of total certainty. She knew with every fibre of her being that it would be so, even though the end of her journey was not yet in sight. 

Photo: sculpture Teresa of Avila by Fr. Lawrence Lew