Renowned psychologist Dr. Carl Jung addressed the idea of participation mystique or “mystical participation”, which was derived from Lucien Levy-Bruhl. It’s a complicated idea and there is much to address, but what does it mean to participate in Mystery in spiritual terms?
Life is hard. The rhythms of life have a way of unsettling the balance whoever we are. No one is immune to the highs and lows of life, but such circumstances inform the soul. A billionaire doesn’t always appreciate life for what it is. You can have all the money in the world and still not feel satisfied.
It’s easy to say you need to appreciate life and have faith, but that is too easy. Faith slips away sometimes. No matter how hard we try to believe, it just isn’t there at the moment. Faith lives within us. It is there, but it is illusive and needs to be revealed and recognized.
The poet Rumi says, “Sometimes we live with a deep secret that we know and then sometimes not”. Ron Rolheiser sums this idea up beautifully, “Some days we walk on water and other days we sink like a stone. Sometimes we’re Mother Teresa inside and other days we just want to go to Vegas and have an affair”.
Life has a way of creeping up on us where we cannot see clearly. We are struggling with work issues, family issues or health issues, grieving or our loved ones are sick and we’re helpless in our inability to do anything. We get stuck in the emotional or mental planes of understanding and the joys of the world seem a thousand miles away even though happiness is right there for the taking.
There are times where we gain solace in life and lean on our faith. There are other times where we just hang on for dear life and weather the storm. Those of us who suffer from anxiety are not consoled by the words of others. We have workable answers, but we can’t seem to make them work for ourselves at that moment. It is a sort of “dark night of the soul”. We lean on God but the darkness is so pronounced that you can’t get beyond it.
Sometimes we are too close to life perspectives and we need to step back. We cannot see the forest through the trees. The great theologian Karl Rahner writes, “We must always see our life against an infinite horizon”. Sometimes the horizon is too big for us, but there is so much to see. We need to look to the side of the road and explore the quantum world of “a universe in a grain of sand” or a dead tree trunk laying in a meadow.
There is a dance between darkness and light. The Taoists call it the yin and the yang. Both expressions make us whole. We need both to participate fully in Mystery.
We live between planes of consciousness that fluctuate. Sometimes we are grounded on the physical plane, sometimes the mental plane, sometimes the emotional plane, and sometimes the spiritual plane. On a good day all things are equal.
It’s the presence of others that helps in all of the above. It is in knowing we are not alone that helps us see things in a bigger way. Knowing that we are journeying with others can help change our world whatever plane of consciousness we are engaged in. When we’ve created a hell where we don’t let others in, it’s time to seek others out.
We need others to just point to the little things that keep us grounded. They help us participate in life in a unique way and move us beyond the limited mind. People help us see the larger perspective by introducing a simple expression of God’s work in our lives. They cheer us up and remind us that we are participating in joy. You have been a blessed gift and you are needed. Sometimes an animal helps us see this.
I watch my friends’ dog every now and then. His name is Franklin. Franklin needs me, but I need him, too. We’re pals. I know his needs and can pinpoint what he wants without him asking. We have established a connection where he knows I have his back and he has mine. If there’s a bigger dog that looks dangerous coming our way, I lead him along and tell him, “It’s time to go”. He whimpers, but he knows I’m right and follows.
I find that being in his presence reminds me of this presence of Mystery. I’m walking him and having a rough day. I’m frustrated and can’t get it together this day. Franklin goes about his business and sniffs every bush and pole to mark his territory. He’s doing his job as a dog. He spends a little too long in a spot, and I want to keep moving. I give him the anxious “hurry up” scold, but catch myself as I see the deep pleasure he is experiencing in this one spot.
As we walk he is in his glory like there’s no other place he would rather be. The wind is sweeping across the lawn on a balmy day, and he stops. He examines a spot in the freshly cut grass and honors the manicure. He digs his nose into the ground and slowly dives off a board of restraint into the pool of grass. He’s swimming in the grass. He rolls one way, curls his head to his torso, stops, and curls his head to the other side like he’s doing dog yoga. He pulls up and gets to his feet, appreciates the moment and shakes his fur. Tail wagging, he raises his head as if to say, “thanks, I needed that”; gaping mouthed, a twinkle in the smiling eyes and off we go.
One instant and concerns are gone, watching an animal live for the moment. I’m grounded again in mystical participation.
We each need to find the poetry that grounds us. No two poems are the same and no two experiences are either. We gage what is right for where we are and look for the grab bags of tricks to affirm and counteract the negative experience with a good one. We pick the poetry for the moment we need.
When we’re too emotional, maybe we need to look at the things that ground us in recognizing the beauty of emotions – walk in nature or work the garden. When we’re living in the mental plane, maybe we need to step back to lighten up and watch some comedy or pick a song to get out of the head. When we’re working out too hard, maybe we need to take a moment and relax, slumber in a hammock and treat ourselves to a bowl of ice cream. When we are too close to the light spiritually we need to step back, have a beer and watch a game.
Bishop John Shelby Spong said, “Maybe the difference between being human and being divine is not the difference between two things. Maybe it’s the difference in a spectrum. Maybe the way to become divine is to become so fully human that your life becomes open and the infinite presence of God can flow through you in an unfettered and unbroken way to bring about holiness in the human world.”
He nailed it. Jung noted, “Participation in Mystery is a mystical connection between subject and object”. Spiritually speaking, “mystical participation” is the appreciation for all things being one in the poetry of life – that all we encounter points to something beyond, something greater. We participate in Mystery with an eye on the blessing. We engage in our humanity, and the graceful flow of the divine river leads us downstream to even greater views and possibilities against an infinite horizon.
Photo by Claire Beasley