Friday, February 12, 2010

Joseph Campbell: Translating Mythic Tradition into your Life

Because I have chosen to return to the Church in which I was baptized yet have irretrievably lost much of the faith I took for granted as a child, I am constantly in search of a way to reconcile my Catholicism with the call to be who I really am. Joseph Campbell shines a light on one possible path through the dark forest.

In the Introduction to the book Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation, Campbell says the following about bliss:

These deities in myths serve as models, give you life roles, so long as you understand their reference to the foot in the transcendent. The Christian idea of Imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ - what does that mean, that you should go out and get yourself crucified? Nothing of the kind. It means to live with one foot in the transcendent, as God.

As Paul says: "I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." That means that the eternal thing works in me. And this is the meaning of the Buddha consciousness, the consciousness that is both the entire universe and you yourself.

The myth tells you that if you engage the world in a certain way, you are under the protection of Athena, under the protection of Artemis, under the protection of this, that, or the other god. That's the model. We don't have that today. Life has changed in form so rapidly that even the forms that were normal to think about in the time of my boyhood are no longer around, and there's another set, and everything is moving very, very fast. Today we don't have the stasis that is required for the formation of a mythic tradition.

The rolling stone gathers no moss. Myth is moss. So now you've got to do it yourself, ad lib. I speak of the present as a moment of free fall into the future with no guidance. All you've got to know is how to fall; and you can learn that too. That is the situation with regard to myth right now. We're all without dependable guides.

Yet even now you can find two guides. The first can be a personality in your youth who seemed to you a noble and great personality. Y0u can use that person as a model. The other way is to live for bliss. In this way, your bliss becomes your life. There's a saying in Sanscrit: the three aspects of thought that point furthest toward the border of the abyss of the transcendent are sat, cit, and ananda: being, consciousness, and bliss. You can call transcendence a hole or the whole, either one, because it is beyond words. All that we can talk about is what is on this side of transcendence. And the problem is to open the words, to open the images so that they point past themselves. They will tend to shut off the experience through their own opacity. But these three concepts are those that will bring you closest to that void: sat-cit-ananda. Being, consciousness, and bliss.

Now, as I've gotten older, I've been thinking about these things. And I don't know what being is. Ands I don't know what consciousness is. But I do know what bliss is: that deep sense of being present, of doing what you absolutely must do to be yourself. If you can hang on to that, you are on the edge of the transcendent already. You may not have any money, but it doesn't matter. When I came back from my student years in Germany and Paris, it was three weeks before the Wall Street crash in 1929, and I didn't have a job for five years. And, fortunately for me, there was no welfare. I had nothing to do but sit in Woodstock and read and figure out where my bliss lay. There I was, on the edge of excitement all the time.

So, what I've told my students is this: follow your bliss. You'll have moments when you experience bliss. And when that goes away, what happens to it? Just stay with it, and there's more security in that than in finding out where the money is going to come from next year...

Your bliss can guide you to that transcendent mystery, because bliss is the welling up of the energy of the transcendent wisdom within you. So when the bliss cuts off, you know that you've cut off the welling up; try to find it again. And that will be your Hermes guide, the dog that can follow the invisible trail for you. And that's the way it is. One works out one's own myth that way.
You can get some clues from earlier traditions. But they have to be taken as clues. As many a wise man has said, "You can't wear another person's hat." So when people get excited about the Orient and begin putting on turbans and saris, what they've gotten caught in is the folk aspect of the wisdom that they need. You've got to find the wisdom, not the clothing of it. Through these trappings, the myths of other cultures, you can come to a wisdom that you've then got to translate into your own. The whole problem is to turn these mythologies into your own.
Now, in my courses in mythology at Sarah Lawrence, I taught people of practically every religious faith you could think of. Some have a harder time mythologizing than others, but all have been brought up in a myth of some kind. What I've found is that any mythic tradition can be translated into your life, if it's been put into you. And it's a good thing to hang onto the myth that was put in when you were a child, because it is there whether you want it there or not. What you have to do is translate that myth into its eloquence, not just into the literacy. You have to learn to hear its song. (My bold and italics)

I know that I have found my bliss, and now I try to follow it every day. I also know that I sometimes cut off "the welling up of the energy that is the transcendent wisdom [God] within" me, as I go about the more mundane and sometimes frustrating tasks and events of my daily life. That I know these things is key; consciousness or awareness is also part of the wisdom within.

The song of my faith can be heard in the beautiful voice of the young priest who sings "Lift up your heart" in Gregorian chant so that it makes me shiver and brings tears to my eyes; it is in the in the transcendent symbolism (or in the reality) of the act of transubstantiation; it can be heard in the words of Henri Nouwen when he reminds us with such passion that we are not what we do or what others think about us, but we are the beloved sons and daughters of God.

Joseph Campbell, Eckhart Tolle, Henri Nouwen, Father Bob, my wise and loving friends Richard and Kaycee, and others have all helped me to realize and to be who I really am. Yet as a gay man and a "faithful dissenter" on many issues, I still feel a longing for a more welcoming and inclusive Catholic Church. This is what I told a friend in an e-mail I sent earlier today:

I would love to go to Mass on Sunday or on Wednesday night, or at Christmas or Easter in a church where all are accepted and loved, where the priest, man or woman, openly gay or straight, celebrates the liturgy lovingly and reverently and preaches the gospel of love. I would love to be in a church that welcomes young people and does not condemn them for doing what is natural for all young people to do; that welcomes and blesses the union of all loving couples, gay or straight, married or unmarried; that does not exclude or condemn those that respectfully disagree.

Will I ever realize this dream in the institution of the Roman Catholic Church? Will I ever be able to be truly myself - and be accepted as such - in my local parish community? I have to admire the Roman Catholic Womenpriests about whom Obie Holmen wrote in The Open Tabernacle. These women have decided not to wait for the great wall built by the Vatican over the centuries and fortified in the last 30 years to fall so that they might be taken in as full members of the Church.

Someone had to have courageously taken the first step to blaze a new path that travels under or over or around that wall.


  1. Thanks for the shoutout. As a straight person but gay ally and as a Lutheran and not a Catholic, I feel honored to have been asked to be part of the Open Tabernacle blog editorial and writing team.

    In blatant self-promotion, I mention my own blog where I have written extensively about LGBT issues especially within my own ELCA (I was an LGBT advocate present at last summer's historic assembly) and also my soon to be released novel, A Wretched Man (, which treats the Apostle Paul as a self-loathing gay man.

  2. Hey Obie:

    I LOVED your article on womenpriests. I fully intend to find out more about this group of very courageous women. I hope that you make sure your book also goes on in Canada right away; I'll try to be the first Canadian to buy it.