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Center for Action and Contemplation

Stories Are Essential

Sunday, January 10, 2021

A New Story

Stories Are Essential
Sunday, January 10, 2021

It doesn’t matter how old we are; we all need stories to believe in. If there’s no storyline, no integrating images that define who we are or that give our lives meaning or direction, we just won’t be happy. It was probably Carl Jung (1875‒1961) and Joseph Campbell (1904‒1987) who most developed this idea for my generation of Western rationalists. Many of us had thought that myth meant “not true,” when in fact the older meaning of myth is precisely “always true”!

Jungian analyst and story-teller Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes:

Stories set the inner life into motion, and this is particularly important where the inner life is frightened, wedged, or cornered. Story greases the hoists and pulleys, it causes adrenaline to surge, shows us the way out, down, or up, and for our trouble, cuts for us fine wide doors in previously blank walls, openings that lead to the dreamland, that lead to love and learning, that lead us back to our own real lives . . . [1].

I can’t imagine I’m alone in longing for us collectively to embrace a better story, one that has the power to change our hearts and minds and enliven our imaginations.

Jung goes so far as to say that transformation only happens in the presence of story, myth, and image, not primarily through rational arguments. What fits (or does not fit) into your preexisting storyline?  For Christians, the map of Jesus’ life is the map of humanity: birth, everyday life, betrayal, abandonment, death, resurrection, and new life. In the end, it all comes full circle; we return where we started, though now transformed. Jung saw this basic pattern repeated in every human life, and he called it the Christ Archetype, an image “as good as perfect” that maps the whole journey of human transformation. [2] Jung’s notion of an Archetype or Ruling Image helps us understand the “Universal Stand-In” that Jesus was meant to be. Sadly, for most Christians Jesus ended up being an exclusive Savior for us to worship instead of an inclusive Savior with whom we are already joined at the hip.

If we live in Europe or North or South America, there’s a good chance we’ve picked up this archetypal storyline, at least on some minimal level. We might not really believe it or surrender to it, yet if we could, we would be much happier people because the Christ map holds deep and unconscious integrating power for us as individuals and for society as a whole. A Great Story connects our little lives to the One Great Life, and even better, it forgives and uses the wounded and seemingly “unworthy” parts of our lives and others’ lives (1 Corinthians 12:22). What a message! Nothing else can do that. Like good art, a cosmic myth—like the Gospel—gives us a sense of belonging, meaning, and most especially, a personal participation in it.

[1] Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (Ballantine Books: 1992), 20.

[2] C. G. Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed. (Princeton University Press: 1968), 68.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, unpublished talk (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2015).

Story from Our Community:
In Colombia, we have been struggling to implement peace for the last six years, after 50 years of armed conflict. The CAC has taught me that this is a time for different answers to the old problems of greed, ambition, hatred and ideological polarization. It is a time for a different spiritual paradigm born out of the mystics (Christians and non-Christians) who have shown us a way to relate to the poor and vulnerable as a sure way to meet the God of all. I have discovered that by making myself go to the frontiers where the poor and vulnerable abide, I am able to meet the God of all humanity. —Louis A.

Image credit: Tree Trunks near Hermitage, Gethsemani (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
We can’t always see the ways trees are in relationship because their complex world of roots lives underground. We, the human family, are also inextricably interconnected.
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