There was a time I was puzzled by the bible and the idea of heaven and hell. I found it difficult to reconcile the external teachings of the church… and having a faith with the internal journey of discovering how to live a moral life and contribute as a human being in a way that was good for me, others, and humankind. I’ll give you the broad strokes and start at the beginning of my experience with faith, almost sixty years ago. Maybe something you read here will help your own spiritual quest.
I once went to Catholic mass with my father as a very young boy to sing with him in the choir. I’m not sure how it was that I ended up at the St Thomas D’Aquin church on Kilborn Avenue in Ottawa singing in Latin or French with my dad, but I was up there once or twice overlooking the congregation from the choir balcony at the back of the church.
It is a rare and good early memory of my pops. He was still kind and gentle back then, and when I’d lose my place in the hymnal, I’d look up at him and he’d lean over while singing and patiently place an index finger on the right spot of the page for me. I was so impressed he could keep up, even more so at his tolerance.
This is a picture I inherited from my father, it may have been given to me while he was still alive, or maybe not. In any case, I have it and I’m glad I do. It was around somewhere on a wall of his home as far back as I can remember. I treasure it because it came from his life with my religiously devoted mother, and so, when I see it, well, I think a little bit of them both. We exist in each other.
This picture is often called the Sallman Head or The Head of Christ. It was done first as a charcoal sketch in the 1920s entitled “Son of Man” and later painted in oil in 1940 as you see it. It has since been reproduced an astounding half-billion times worldwide… and is also associated with miracles.
According to David Morgan in The Art of Warner Sallman (1966), a white businessman was released by vicious head-hunters in a remote jungle when they came upon a picture of the Sallman Head in the man’s wallet. Apologizing, they vanished “into the jungle without inflicting further harm.”
Another is a story of a thief who changes his mind when spying the Head of Christ on a living room wall. There is even a tale about a purported conversion of a Jewish woman shown Sallman’s picture on her deathbed by a chaplain. Another miracle tells of a child’s remission from Leukemia after seeing the picture.
Sallman himself said the idea for the sketch and eventual painting came from a “miraculous vision” one night at 2 am while despairing over what he might present to a class the following day.
This tiny version I have is yellowed with age and framed in such a way that it has brown paper covering the backside of it the way old pictures from a different era once did. While my father may have attended mass with me the odd time when I was a kid, I don’t remember him going after our choir visit, even though my brothers and I all became altar boys at that very church where I first sang with dad.
I had occasion to ask him about church attendance later when he was in his 80s. After all ma, his wife of more than six decades, had faithfully attended Holy Cross Catholic church at Riverside and Walkley since the church was built. She counted coins for them and had close friends there.
Dad said he had made Alcoholic’s Anonymous his church but that if he had to do it all over again he would have attended with his wife. He said it was because he realized too late that he was likely missing out on community. He said it not wistfully but matter-of-factly, wide-eyed and leaning in a bit while punctuating his words with finality. He did that when he admitted things during our private conversations, as if an interminable impatience with himself lingered beneath the surface of his speech.
My journey around faith took a different route. After my altar boy years (unmolested), I was out of the house early once my father burned out and broke down and unsurprisingly, I turned away from the church to eventually live a thug’s life in the streets. Beaten children often become deviant, no surprises there. In my mid-thirties I was welcomed into the Anglican faith, its inclusion of female priests more suited to my emergent feminism. I realized later I valued justice after all.
The Anglicans caught me off-guard during the conversion ceremony when, during the rites, the bishop appeared to lightly slap the Catholic out of me in while I knelt in front of the congregation. I remember looking him in the eye quickly and thinking, OK I’ll let that slide this once, as if my internal incongruities were being tested.
Around that period of accelerated renewal in my life, I reasoned that since I’d confirmed I could make hell on earth, I suspected the idea of heaven was to try to make heaven right here in this world around us each day.
I shared this “heaven on earth” minor epiphany with my Anglican sponsor, the Reverend Doctor Pellegrin, who was kind enough to confirm my suspicions with muted encouragement. It’s funny how the world conspires to put just the right person in a man’s life if he allows it. To become a psychologist, Bruce Pellegrin had done his doctoral dissertation on how the priesthood was for many a search for a father. He helped me bridge the gap between faith and logic.
Later, I moved away, leaving organized religion (and feminism) behind while taking up a more deterministic view of humankind under the influence of my behavioural science training and eventually the likes of Spinoza’s pantheism. This is how I refer to myself now and I don’t see nor feel conflicted about it. God as a metaphor for the universe seems grand enough. Nevertheless, the idea of God stands to me as a reasonable quest in people’s lives so atheism would never do in my case.
I credit my father for blessing me with one of the best practicalities about religiosity and the idea of God The occasion was when my young son (ten or so at the time) was on a cub scout weekend. He was invited to take a pledge, “I promise to do my best, to love and serve God, to do my duty to the Queen, to keep the law of the Wolf Pack, and to do a good turn for somebody every day.”
The boy refused, stating he didn’t believe in God.
What should have been a slam-dunk formality became a back-room haranguing from the cub leaders who told him point-blank, no pledge, no cub scouts. When he got home, I heard all about it. I had the local cub leader over to point out psychological development of abstract concepts were a little early for most ten-year-old kids. I received an apology; he’d waive the pledge.
My son rejected this entreaty. I had attended cubs, then scouts, and later was privileged to be allowed in as a pioneer in the movement and I wanted this for my son. I consulted my father. He suggested we use G.O.D. as in Good Orderly Direction. BINGO, I thought to myself, what a perfect compromise.
The boy was having none of it. He saw this as a ruse to get him to believe in God and wasn’t about to let the adults who ganged up on him during the cubbing weekend off the hook. He quit, refusing every attempt at compromise, never attending cubs again. I had to respect the kid’s guts while saddened for him too..
Perhaps I had inadvertently… but I don’t remember ever trying to convince him there was no God, so his mother and I were surprised at the whole of it. I’m guessing it was probably the same year he found out there was no Santa Claus. Poor kid, I imagine he had his model of the world shifted and there was no going back.
I can’t say that I have struggled with faith, that would be too strong. I have considered it, though I know having a faith seemingly and miraculously comforts many others, probably as many as half of us. I conclude humans are undoubtedly hardwired for faith.
I think there is something inoculative about believing and people often drift in and out of faith with the ebb and flow of life. I myself have hung onto the simplicity of G.O.D. since learning of it and have shared dad’s tip with countless others. It seems enough as is… but there is more.
My father read a book or more per week most of his life and when he was slowly dying of dementia and moved to a care-home, I inherited his books. There I found Freud, Jung, the Greeks, many philosophers, all books he’d read decades ago, many yellowed but with brittle pages intact. I imagined him again and saw how these must have contributed to his religious reluctance just a bit. And Nietzsche, that “God is dead and we have killed him” fucking Nietzsche.
One of the great finds among dad’s remnant collection was a copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, someone I’ve followed for years. It’s a 1970 thirteenth printing by Meridian Books of the original 1949 version and the copy my father had cost $2.75 Canadian.
In The Power of Myth, a book written based on interviews with Bill Moyers almost forty years after his Hero book, Campbell answers Moyer’s question about metaphor:
MOYERS: What is the metaphor?
CAMPBELL: A metaphor is an image that suggests something else. For instance, if I say to a person, “You are a nut,” I’m not suggesting that I think the person is literally a nut. “Nut” is a metaphor. The reference of the metaphor in religious traditions is to something transcendent that is not literally any thing. If you think that the metaphor is itself the reference, it would be like going to a restaurant, asking for the menu, seeing beefsteak written there, and starting to eat the menu.
For example, Jesus ascended to heaven. The denotation would seem to be that somebody ascended to the sky. That’s literally what is being said. But if that were really the meaning of the message, then we have to throw it away, because there would have been no such place for Jesus literally to go. We know that Jesus could not have ascended to heaven because there is no physical heaven anywhere in the universe. Even ascending at the speed of light, Jesus would still be in the galaxy. Astronomy and physics have simply eliminated that as a literal, physical possibility.
But if you read “Jesus ascended to heaven” in terms of its metaphoric connotation, you see that he has gone inward—not into outer space but into inward space, to the place from which all being comes, into the consciousness that is the source of all things, the kingdom of heaven within. The images are outward, but their reflection is inward.
The point is that we should ascend with him by going inward. It is a metaphor of returning to the source, alpha and omega, of leaving the fixation on the body behind and going to the body’s dynamic source.
(The Power of Myth (pp. 67-68). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)
Mythology helped me understand God. Once I did, I never had a problem with it again.
The real fun is in mystery, in miracles even. Everyone loves redemption, sublimation, and we can’t help but root for an underdog.
When my mother was a few days away from death, I visited her. We spoke of faith, especially mystery and miracles. At one point she looked up at me in pain and with unwavering conviction obvious in her eyes, voice, and expression, patted my hand and said, “You’ve got to have a bit of faith, Christopher.” It was her final advice.
Though I would have said anything if it meant she would not die, I remember promising that I would indeed, leave room in my life for mystery, for miracles, for a bit of faith. My perfectly imperfect mother died that Friday after a two-day vigil at home, surrounded by her nine adult children and husband of sixty-two years, all wishing her well while sending her off.
The family dog keened mournfully at the exact moment of her passing.
Desire is always accompanied by fear, even if we don’t recognize it. In a similar way the wonder and excitement of awe is coupled with the threat of chaos. It is this which makes us a little afraid and drives the creativity needed to consider things outside our normal perceptions.
You can imagine that “someone like me” has lived at times what may have seemed like an exalted life if only for the many times I have eluded the Grim Reaper’s scrolls. I have also visited dungeons of despairing, mostly of my own creation, while carrying hopelessness and shame for a half century.
I suspect most of us have at least a version of some of this (if not a lot).
When I first read the following quote, I thought it could have been written for me. Of course, Carl Jung is writing it for himself on behalf of us all. It’s my favourite of anything I’ve read by him and another reason why the Sallman Head occupies a place on the wall of my house. In his Collected Works 11, p, 550, Jung wrote:
“That I feed the beggar, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ—all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least amongst them all, the poorest of all beggars, the most impudent of all offenders, yea the very fiend himself—that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness, that I myself am the enemy who must be loved—what then?”
I have come to believe a faith in God is about fostering a faith in yourself. Its representation can be both internal and/or external, of seeing the interconnectivity of all things, the known and the unknown, the sacred and the profane, the miracles and the mysteries, the compassion and the belonging. Mike Spencer Brown (The World’s Most Traveled Man) reminds us of some of this when he writes, “At the end of the day, we are all of us staring at the same heavens.”
It doesn’t make sense to decry another man’s search for meaning as he arrives at his understanding of God.
It could be faith is about accepting one’s divinity and the divinity of others with each of us finding a way home to the God within.
Power & Love,
True and Free,
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