Today as I write on March 13, 2013, the world witnessed the election of a new Pope for the Catholic Church. As I followed the events I witnessed person after person, non-Catholics all, express their astonishment at the enthusiasm they felt about an event that held no actual relevance for their practical or even religious lives. They were swept up in a way that left their thinking mind baffled even as their affective centers brimmed with emotional content. Why were they so moved when they knew that logically it made no difference for their life? Like most concepts in depth psychology, the answer is paradoxical; it is both simple and complex, straight-forward and mysterious.
Symbols are powerful. Why? Because they contain a latent power within them that are activated by the unconscious. The visible reaction may be nonexistent or overwhelming but the symbol, or archetypal content, has an effect. Hitler’s reversed black swastika on a field of red and white perfectly reflects the spirit of his regime: a dynamic, destructive vortex of energy careening towards apocalypse. The flag of the United States also perfectly embodies its ethos: an ordered set of paths as our forebears set about creating the new Jerusalem, where “I will bring the blind by a way that they know not; in paths that they know not will I lead them: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked places straight. These things I will do, and I will not forsake them” (Isaiah 42:16). In one image and one verse we find the ethos of a superpower, the light in the darkness that was once the domain of the physical and supernatural princes of this world now banished and bathed in the light of Libertas’ torch held aloft in New York Harbor. How many monarchs rule over nations versus the number of democracies or republics? The light of Libertas has bathed the world and America has fulfilled her destiny, with the future as her patrimony to what will one day be a grateful world. This is the power of a symbol.
The Catholic Church is steeped in symbolism as the beneficiary of the rich Hellenic and Roman civilizations from where the institution arose. C.G. Jung spent decades describing and amplifying only a few of the symbols used by the Church. The intuitive brilliance and wholly unconscious blending of Arian symbolism of the ram and/or lamb and the dualism of the Piscean fish had a sweeping effect as the Piscean age took root some twenty centuries ago, eventually fulfilling its mission of uniting the known world into a spiritual kingdom devoted to identifying with the good and right, in perpetual opposition to the dark and dangerous shadow.
The image of the benign and gentle psychopomp, the guide of souls who holds the keys to eternity and to whom we must cling for guidance lost as we are in a sea of darkness, is a central symbol in the inheritance of humanity. This masculine archetypal image sits with us in tarot decks, dreams, our grandfathers, and religious figures. However, the example of this symbol par excellence has just been witnessed by the entire planet. Where we were lost, now our guide of soul has appeared with a gentle smile, a life dedicated to a radical proposition of redemptive faith, and a spiritual authority afforded by an impossibly rich set of symbolic correspondences that actually has the power to transform consciousness permanently.
This transformation is critical. The election of a pope is a moment of initiation for both the man and his church; he needs to wear the vestments and see the multitudes in order to realize his new identity and role even as the multitude require their pastoral guide to navigate what the Piscean age described as the fallen world. At the completion of the event a radical Piscean myth is reinforced: the proposition that the Church is empowered to carry its good news about the risen god to the world and joyfully await his return.
I take particular interest in the widely evident sarcasm of so many commentators and watchers of the events today. The symbols cannot but exert some influence on them, and I find their overly sarcastic remarks particularly informative and illuminating. Like a petulant child resisting their fear or comfort to defy mother and begin to create their own voice, these must pull away hard in order to assert their autonomy from the symbolic pull tugging at their psyches. They only reinforce the power of the symbol and one wonders how it will continue to influence them unconsciously as they are so resistant to making the symbol conscious and thus allowing it to dwell and act within their psyche in ways the conscious mind cannot predict or control.
Numinous paranormal experience contains symbols as powerful as those consciously and unconsciously invoked by the Church today. This is what is lost on so many in their haste to define such events as either literal happenings that can be measured or hallucinations of a faulty mind. Virtually all aspects of such an event contain symbols that act on the psyche of the experiencer.
The purpose of such numinous experience continually appears to be, according to those who are able to effectively integrate such events, the same as the initiation processes such as what was witnessed today in Rome: transformation of consciousness. Experiencers are taken beyond the threshold of the culturally sanctioned notions of reality and placed in a liminal location where an engagement of some kind takes place. These events contain profound symbolic content that act on the experiencer in ways beyond one’s ability to process at the time, not unlike the effects my non-Catholic friends experienced at the spectacle of the transformation of a kindly elderly gentleman into the Hierophant or Vicar of Christ. Of course, the direct experience of a UFO vision, witnessing of a ghostly figure appear and then fade away in your bedroom, or confrontation with strange, otherworldly beings is a far more jarring event, but the symbolic content is also always present and the effects of that content on consciousness are universally underestimated.
Paranormal encounters are marginal phenomenon that exist in liminal spaces, places that by definition exist beyond the borderlands of acceptable cultural norms. Therefore, rejection and ridicule must not only be tolerated; it must be expected if it is a genuine paranormal experience. It is no accident that so many schizophrenic diagnoses follow experiencers. Julian Silverman’s comparison between the schizophrenic population and shamans bears witness to the differences in outcome when the culture has established an opening for the acceptance of the paranormal versus one that rejects it unequivocally. Vivre la différence. This is why it is so critical to have access to competent guides of soul to help experiencers integrate their experiences and place them in a psychic container and context for further investigation, gestation, and transformation. This process produces miracles of psychic development, awareness, creativity, contentment, and fulfillment. It can become the foundation stone of what C.G. Jung described as the process of Individuation.
Those of us who embrace paranormal events as opportunities for soul-making welcome the wisdom of using powerful symbolic processes for positive transformation. Symbolism is all around us, working on our psyche and changing us in unconscious ways. Our task is to engage the world with as much soul and consciousness as possible to discover the vicissitudes of our lives and the shadows within that blind us to our challenges and opportunities. It is said that our salvation lies in our symbolic wound; I might add that our symbols can act as our salvation when we allow them to become the embarkation point of a journey into ourselves. Doing this, we might be able to declare for ourselves ‘Habemus Papam’ (we have a Pope!) as we encounter the inner hierophant to guide our soul on its journey to itself.
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As a parting word, please let me qualify everything I have written in the understanding that many others have written more thoroughly, expertly, and eloquently than I about these epic topics. My purpose in bringing up these issues is to place them within the context of the experience of the paranormal.
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Ronald S. Tucker, PhD:
Author for The Numin Center
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