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Center for Action and Contemplation

Healing Images

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Jung: Week 2

Healing Images
Wednesday, October 14, 2015

In his classic book, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung talks about being a young man at the outbreak of World War I and how the experience of massive destruction and slaughter was impacting him and so many Europeans. Through this trauma, Jung found, “To the extent that I managed to translate the emotions into images—that is to say, to find the images which were concealed in the emotions—I was inwardly calmed and reassured. Had I left those images hidden in the emotions, I might have been torn to pieces by them. . . . As a result of my experiment, I learned how helpful it can be, from the therapeutic point of view, to find the particular images which lie behind emotions.” [1]

One of Jung’s foundational ideas is that mere words and concepts do not give us access to the unconscious. Certain sculptures, biographies, images, art, and stories can have such a striking effect on you because what your unconscious has already half-known is brought home to conscious awareness by gazing upon them rather than analyzing them. Analysis, if it remains dominant, is merely a control mechanism of the ego. Let the images do something with you before you try to do something with them is the principle here.

I believe that good art and good images (Jung would call some of them archetypal images) have the power to evoke an epiphany in you and to transform you at deeper levels. That’s why I think good art is absolutely essential for good religion. The iconoclastic nature of the Protestant Reformation might have been its greatest fault. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re experiencing in a logical, rational way, but you can’t take your eyes off of a picture or a piece of art. You’re drawn to it because the epiphany is happening as the unconscious is being ferried across to your conscious mind—but unconsciously!

One of my own encounters with good art has stayed with me for many years. On one of my first speaking trips in the mid-seventies, I went by myself to the St. Louis Art Museum where they had an extended exhibit of Monet’s water lilies. I went from room to room and found myself getting quieter and happier, and when I walked out into the sunshine, I felt I floated home! Now, I don’t know that I had a new piece of doctrinal information or theological insight, but the experience connected to something deep and true within.

I believe that’s what good art, poetry, and mythology do. They tell you, without you knowing it, that life is not just a series of isolated, meaningless events, as postmodernism sees reality. The great truths—when they can be visualized in images—reveal to you the deep patterns, and tell you that you are a part of the course of history and all humanity. That deeply heals you. It is less informational than transformational. And it largely happens beneath your conscious awareness that it is even happening.  You only see the fruits later. [2]

Jung also believed that God speaks through dreams. Dreams can bring the unconscious into the conscious because the ego’s defenses are down when you are sleeping. Truth that might seem threatening to your ego when it’s awake, and therefore not be allowed in, can slip undetected into your dreams. In Jung’s words, “Myths which day has forgotten continue to be told at night.” [3]

I hope you will now have permission to trust good art and “great dreams” (not all are) as messages being lifted from the unconscious, and not just your personal unconscious but the Great Collective where all things are one and shared. If I ever write, preach, or teach anything well, I am always drawing from that broader field and deeper well, and that is why I must honestly say, “I did not do it. It is not my idea.”

Gateway to Silence:
“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” —C. G. Jung

[1] C. G. Jung, recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffe, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Vintage Books: 1989), 177.
[2] Adapted from Richard Rohr, unpublished talk (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2015).
[3] C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 282.

Image credit: Charing Cross Bridge (detail), 1903, by Claude Monet (1840-1926), Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri, USA.
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