Our guest today is Stephen Jenkinson a Harvard-trained theologian and a teacher, author, storyteller, spiritual activist, farmer and founder of the Orphan Wisdom School, a teaching house and learning house for the skills of deep living and making human culture. Before founding the school, he headed the counsel team of Canada’s largest palliative care program and in 2008 a film ‘Griefwalker was made about his work with the dying and their families and he’s the author of several books including ‘Money and the Soul’s desires’ and ‘Die Wise’ .
Spoiler Alert: This isn’t a synopsis or a review but I will reveal certain, important, plot points. As such, if you haven’t yet seen it yet – and would like to – you may want to stop reading now.
Cursed. Obscene. Scary. Nauseating. Pea Soup. These are just a selection of words associated with William Friedkin’s 1973 film, The Exorcist (adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name). The Exorcist tells the story of the Exorcism of 12-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil, who has been possessed by a malevolent force. It is set in affluent 1970’s Georgetown USA, where Regan lives with her atheist mother, who also happens to be a famous actress.
Even in the early 1990’s, when I was at school, this film had a reputation as being the most disgusting and frightening film ever made – which of course meant everybody wanted to see it. This desire was only intensified by the fact that The Exorcist had been banned in the UK since 1984; a few friends and I even attempted to watch a pirated copy of it on VHS, but our excited anticipation was soon extinguished once we realised that the video quality was so bad as to render further viewing impossible. In 1998 the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) lifted the ban, and The Exorcist was released – with much fanfare – in cinemas across the country. Many of my peers came back with reports of disappointment and boredom. ‘It’s not scary at all. I didn’t jump once’ they’d say, or ‘I don’t know what the fuss is about, nothing even happens for most of the film’. I was worried. I’d recently read the book and really enjoyed it, but wasn’t sure how it would be translated into the ‘Scariest Film Ever Made’. Could this really be the same film that had caused people to faint and vomit while watching it? I knew loads of people who’d seen it the first-time round and refused to even talk about it, let alone watch it again. Perhaps it hadn’t aged well?
When I did eventually get to see it that I could understand why my peers were confused about the reputation it had achieved. I’m not the kind of person that finds Horror films particularly scary anyway, but I had expected The Exorcist to be an exception. It wasn’t. In this respect, the length of time that had passed since its original release did seem to have had an impact. Horror films throughout the 90’s had a tendency to reject the kind of subtle psychological techniques used in the 60’s and 70’s in favour of ‘jump scares’ and ‘gore effects’. Therefore, that is what any teenager going to see a Horror movie at this time would be expecting. That’s not what they got with The Exorcist. There’s hardly any ‘gore’ and it is almost entirely void of ‘jump scares’. In addition to this, much of imagery was much less shocking in the 90’s than I suspect it would have been to a 70’s audience. With these considerations in mind I can understand many of my peer’s sense of disappointment – in this respect it had not lived up to the hype. However, as much I wasn’t scared in the cinema, I loved it. I found it absorbing in a way that few films had been and was surprised by the skilful way in which it created an atmosphere. The deep layers of meaning hidden within the imagery and narrative demanded repeated viewing. It is a deeply unsettling film and I found that it stayed with me (as the book had) long after I’d left the cinema; something that did not happen with contemporary horror films such as ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (which is instantly forgettable). While it wasn’t what the hype had lead me to believe it would be, The Exorcist, as a film, had aged very well indeed.
After a period of about 10 years, where I watched it quite a lot, I spent a further 10 years without seeing it at all. That is, until a few months ago, when I heard Mark Kermode (film critic and Exorcist expert/ super-fanboy) discussing it on the radio. With some trepidation – I feared that it really might have aged badly by now – I sought out a copy and sat down to watch it again. I needn’t have worried, it stands up incredibly well & I enjoyed it just as much (if not more) than I had before. More importantly for this blog however, I also realised that it related, both stylistically and narratively, to the Middle Way.
Watching The Exorcist is a physical experience. I know that watching any film can be described as a physical experience, we are embodied beings after all, but The Exorcist goes further. You can feel the cold of Regan’s bedroom. You can smell her necrotic breath as she lies, unconscious on the bed. I don’t understand what cinematic tricks are used to create this effect but I suspect that it has as much to do with the sound as it has with visuals. The ambient sound is hypnotic and the groaning rasp that accompanies Regan’s breathing creates a powerful and absorbing effect. There are other scenes where the combination of visuals and sound work together to create the experience of embodied physicality, such as when Regan is made to undergo a range of intimidating and painful medical tests.
On the surface, The Exorcist is a fairly standard tale of good versus evil; light overcoming darkness. During the first scene – where an elderly Jesuit priest, Father Merrin, is seen attending the archaeological excavation of an ancient Assyrian site in northern Iraq – the contrast between quiet contemplation and loud commotion is jarring. While the scene is set within the suffocating glare of the desert sun, it is also pierced with dark imagery. It’s within this context that we finally see an increasingly disturbed Merrin wearily, but defiantly, facing a statue of the Assyrian demon Pazuzu. It is no coincidence that this scene brings vividly to mind the Temptation on the Mount, where Jesus overcame Satan’s attempts to divert him from his holy path to righteousness. I’m sure that this premonition of the battle to come, is constructed and representative of several Jungian archetypes, but I’m not familiar enough to identify them all. However, I’m confident that there’s the Hero, the Shadow, God and the Devil; the latter two also being representations of two metaphysical extremes: absolute good and absolute evil. The key point however is that Father Merrin is not God (or even Jesus) and the statue is not the Devil (or even Pazuzu), they are both the imperfect embodiments each.
Understandably perturbed by her daughters increasingly disturbing behaviour, Regan’s mother seeks the help of neurologists and then physiatrists. Both fail to identify a cause and both fail to succeed in their interventions. Eventually, the perplexed psychiatrists suggest that Regan’s exasperated mother enlist the services of a priest, to which she reluctantly agrees.
The priest that she finds is a man called Father Damian Karras. Karras is unlike Merrin, whose background is not really explored, in that he is clearly a conflicted and complex character. We see him caring for his elderly mother, when no one else seems willing to, and we also see him, dressed in his Jesuit regalia, turn away from a homeless man who asks for his help. Karras, then, is not a bad person, but neither is he that good. The viewer is left to wonder the nature of this priest’s faith. When we add to this the fact that he is a scientist (psychiatrist) as well as a priest, we start to see the depiction of a complex, multifaceted individual who struggles, in all aspects of his life, through the messy middle in which we all exist.
Karras, who is not qualified to perform the Exorcism ritual, convinces the Church of Regan’s need and Father Merrin is subsequently called upon. The moment when he arrives at the house and looks up at the room which contains the possessed girl is inspired by The Empire of Light, a series of pictures painted by René Magritte in 1953-4. As with the opening sequence, we are shown our archetypes juxtaposed in preparation for battle; this striking image was also used as the now famous promotional poster (which I used to have on my bedroom wall). The clichéd battle between good and evil begins. Except it doesn’t… not really. Like the statue of Pazuzu, Regan is not an absolute representation of evil; she has been embodied by evil but is not the embodiment of it – she’s a 12-year-old girl. Father Merrin is not the embodiment of good, he is just a representative of Christ (and therefore God). This is made explicitly clear (if it wasn’t already) in an extended scene where the two priests desperately shout, ‘the power of Christ compels you, the power of Christ compels you’ over and over while throwing Holy water on the levitating girl. A lesser film would have Merrin eventually defeat the demon and save the girl, but this is not what happens. The elderly Exorcist dies during the gruelling exchange and Karras is left facing the demon alone. Again, a lesser film would have Karras take up the role of Exorcist and overcome the evil force against all odds. This is not what happens. Religion, like science before it has failed and Karras appears to be in a hopeless predicament. In the heat of the moment he takes the only course of action that he feels is available to him; he grabs Regan and shouts at the demon, ‘take me, take me’. The demon gladly obliges and, a now possessed, Karras – who already exists somewhere between good and evil – is able to throw himself out of Regan’s window, where upon hitting the ground he falls down a flight of steep stairs, where he dies, presumably taking the demon with him and leaving Regan to make a full recovery.
Science, religion and the explicitly archetypal forces of good have not triumphed over evil and, in this muddled mess, appeals to authority do not always provide the promised solutions. Instead our Middle Way hero, who’s able to hold onto his beliefs lightly, is left to address challenging conditions as they arise. The solution he finds, I would like to suggest, seems remarkably like an extreme example of the ‘two donkeys’ analogy that is a favourite of this society. By integrating competing desires, he is able to overcome conflict, albeit at great cost to himself.
[In recent months I have written very little by way of blogs on this site, due to being preoccupied with other matters – and, when I had the time, finding that I still lacked the creative momentum. However, I have already written large amounts of material on the Middle Way, particularly in the form of my books, and I have decided to start offering some selected extracts from my books as taster blogs. They will just be lightly edited to fit the blog form. This one comes from the beginning of Middle Way Philosophy 3: the Integration of Meaning. – Robert]
Although meaning has traditionally been separated into the two spheres of cognitive and emotional, Middle Way Philosophy involves an inclusive and unifying account of these two spheres of meaning. In every practical situation in which a flesh-and-blood person finds a given symbol meaningful, there must be both cognitive and emotional aspects to that meaning.
By “cognitive” meaning, I mean the recognition of symbols, particularly but not only words, in terms of semantic equivalences: for example, dictionary definitions. The bare recognition that a cross represents Christianity is cognitive. The understanding that the word “cross” refers to the shape of two rectangles overlapping in their centres, with the longer sides of each at 90° to the other, is also cognitive. The ability to recognise a cross and pick it out from other shapes tests understanding of its cognitive meaning.
Cognitive meaning (when treated in isolation in its own limited terms of reference) ultimately depends on the truth conditions of propositions (i.e. the conditions in which a statement would be true), even when it is applied to the meaning of a non-verbal symbol. That is because my ability to cognitively identify a cross depends on my ability to judge whether a statement like “This is a cross” or “This is not a cross” is “true” or “false” in terms I would accept in my representation of the world. “Cross” by itself doesn’t tell me what that judgement would be, because it doesn’t tell me whether a cross is being claimed to be present at all, or where it is. The dictionary definition of a cross can only follow from this ability to tell what is a cross and what is not in the terms in which we accept the word. This is the standard account given in the theory of meaning used by analytic philosophers, which applies exclusively to cognitive meaning.
This cognitive meaning also applies to the merely cognitive interpretation of non-verbal symbols, or what have often been called “signs”. A “sign” in this sense is just a non-verbal indicator of a verbal equivalent: a cross means “Christianity”; a red traffic light means “stop”. Because our understanding of these signs depends on our ability to relate them to verbal equivalents, and those verbal equivalents depend for their meaning on truth-conditions, the cognitive meaning of a sign also depends on truth-conditions. The same can be said for signs in a wider sense. If I think the unpleasant noise of a violin is a sign that it is badly tuned, or a footprint is a sign of deer, then these meanings depend similarly on my ability to relate the sign I am experiencing to a verbal equivalent, and ultimately to recognise whether propositions like “The violin is badly tuned” or “Deer have been here” are “true” or “false” in terms I would accept.
By “emotional” meaning, on the other hand, I mean our responses to symbols: responses that vary in intensity. Regardless of my appreciation of its cognitive meaning, a given statement may be of enormous interest to me, or of practically none. If I am waiting expectantly for an announcement that is crucially important to the fulfilment of my desires: say, the announcement of whether or not I get a job I’ve been interviewed for, or an indication of whether a sexual interest is reciprocated, the language that follows is highly meaningful. On the other hand, routine and formalistic language is likely to be of very little interest, because we know that the person giving it is only going through the motions: for example, the safety information at the beginning of a flight (unless it’s your first flight), or the legal terms and conditions that most people don’t read before installing new software. I can fully understand such language in a cognitive sense, and yet barely register it, because it has little emotional meaning for me.
Emotional meaning is not ultimately dependent on interpretation in terms of propositions, or indeed on interpretation of any kind. It means what it means because of its impact on us, regardless of whether it is a misunderstanding of what the speaker or writer meant to communicate. Emotional meaning can be attached to single decontextualised words (think of “vomit” or “blood”) and to symbols, or to anything that we choose to interpret as meaningful. The emotional meaning of a cross as a symbol may depend on our background and relationship to Christianity, and may be very negative or very positive. Our emotional relationship to a favourite tree on a frequent walk, or a certain gurgle made by a baby, is also a matter of emotional meaning, despite the fact that the symbol to which we attach this significance may be purely personal and not recognised by others as symbolic.
My central thesis about the relationship between these two spheres of meaning is that neither is ever wholly absent. Although our experience of certain symbols may be overwhelmingly dominated by one, and the other may be very attenuated, we can never justifiably claim of any symbol that it has no cognitive or no emotional significance whatsoever. This is because, in the concrete situation in which people experience meaning, both are required to some degree.
This is perhaps most obvious in the case of language that depends strongly on its cognitive meaning, where its emotional meaning may be attenuated. A bored school-child, who is supposed to be reading a textbook which she is quite capable of understanding but has no interest in, will find that textbook as meaningless as any set of undeciphered hieroglyphs. Attention is simply a necessary condition for meaning, and attention has to be motivated by desire. In the absence of such desire, that meaning is absent. As soon as some attention is brought to bear on the symbols, though, cognitive meaning can also follow.
I set aside here the abstracted scenario assumed by analytic philosophers, who assume that a proposition can have meaning by itself, even if it is not a meaning for anyone. Analytic writings on meaning are full of examples like “Paris is the capital of France if and only if Paris is the capital of France”. This is the locus classicus of analytic philosophy abstracting itself into irrelevance by totally disregarding all the conditions in experience by which people find “Paris is the capital of France” to be meaningful. People find it meaningful because they have an understanding of the terms, yes, but also because they find the claim worthy of attention.
Where symbols depend much more strongly on emotional meaning, however, there also needs to be some element of cognitive significance present, however attenuated. Take the example mentioned earlier of a favourite tree. That tree is meaningful to me because I frequently pass it and admire it. I do not merely perceive it, but also accord it a specific significance. So although the significance of the tree consists mainly on my admiration of it, it also has a cognitive significance that could be given a verbal equivalent, such as “That’s one of my favourite trees.”
There is obviously a vague boundary line between perception and meaning, particularly as perception is not a uniform appraisal of everything in view, but is already guided by what might be taken to be at least a potential form of meaning. The boundary-line could be roughly defined by desire, because I define meaning in general as a habitual attachment of desire to a symbol. If I have no particular desires in relation to a landscape, say, I may perceive that landscape without attaching any particular meaning to any features of it. However, if I pick out an ash tree because I want to impress my companion with my tree-identification skills, or because its shape has an aesthetic appeal to me, the intercession of desire has simultaneously created a symbol. Where there is a symbol, there is meaning rather than merely perception.
This raises the question of how far the capacity for meaning of this kind is a unique capacity of persons: “persons” generally meaning, in practice, human beings with sufficient sentience, although theoretically extending to other possible persons such as intelligent aliens. There seems to be no good reason to limit meaning to persons, because other animals seem capable of experiencing both the emotional and the cognitive aspects of meaning. Obviously particular objects have an emotional impact on animals: for example, a dog may signal its desire for a walk by bringing its lead that it associates with walks. However, this same example has a cognitive element because the lead, for the dog, is obviously a sign for “walk” and could be given a verbal equivalent. The verbal equivalent does not have to be given by the dog for it to have that significance for the dog. The cognitive meaning of “I want to go for a walk” as the meaning of the dog’s gesture of bringing the lead ultimately depends on its truth conditions, but not on the dog being able to analyse the truth conditions, any more than it does for the majority of human beings, who would also (if they have not studied any philosophy) probably not be able to analyse the meaning of their language in terms of truth conditions. Meaning, even when understood representationally (i.e. as purely cognitive), thus provides us with no discontinuous justification for discrimination against animals purely on grounds of species. Animals may have a less sophisticated understanding of meaning, but their relationship to meaning only varies incrementally from ours.
The analysis of meaning in terms of cognitive and emotional spheres is of limited value. I think a Lakoffian account of meaning in terms of bodily experience and metaphorical extension is generally more helpful. However, I do not regard the Lakoffian account as inconsistent with cognitive and emotional accounts of meaning, provided that they are understood in the inclusive way I have described here. What Lakoff and Johnson effectively do is to explain why symbols have an emotional (or, more accurately, a bodily) impact on us. Their work on metaphorical extension also helps to explain how the cognitive element of meaning can be related to bodily meaning without appealing to “truth” or “falsity” of an abstract or metaphysically defined sort. However, I have started by relating these two spheres of meaning in order to create some continuity between my account of meaning and those widely used, and to show that my account does not contradict them so much as put them into a wider context.
“Representationalism” is not simply a representational or truth-dependent account of meaning, but the belief (or assumption) that such an account is an exhaustive one, or that meaning is entirely cognitive. Similarly, its less common opposite “expressivism” is not just the belief that meaning is emotional, but the belief that it is entirely emotional and has no cognitive element. The Middle Way can be applied here to avoid such metaphysical accounts of meaning, which are absolute, dualising, and non-incremental. However, like many other metaphysical beliefs, representationalism and expressivism are based on the recognition of certain conditions, the interpretation of which has been over-extended and absolutised. We can reject both representationalism and expressivism, whilst simultaneously accepting that language and other symbols both represent and express. Provided that we maintain an awareness of both, these explanations can both be incorporated into a wider account of meaning.
- Cross in the Sky by Photo Dharma (CCA 2.0)
- LOT safety card from 1968
To the vast majority of Westerners, including me until recently, Chinese characters are just squiggles. But I have recently begun the study of Chinese, in preparation for a period working in China that should begin in a couple of months’ time, and found myself unexpectedly fascinated by the characters. If I had an expectation about learning the characters, it was that it would involve hard graft, trying to remember the relationships between random squiggles and meanings. But instead, if anything, it seems more like play, because it recapitulates the gradual assemblage of meaning we go through in childhood. Instead of graft, it involves a development of meaning connections that are accompanied by something more like delight. My progress has also been greatly aided by a delightful book called Chineasy, first created by a graphic designer called Shao Lan to help her children learn Chinese characters.
Shao Lan’s book makes clear how Chinese characters have developed out of what she calls ‘building block’ characters (which are not quite the same as the more commonly known ‘radicals’). These building block characters have all developed out of stylized representations of everyday, concrete things; the kind of things you would expect the ancient Chinese to represent first. These include terms like person, tree, fire , water, weapon, sheep, horse and tiger. Here are some examples: on the left is the character for ‘mouth’ (kou), which looks a bit like a mouth except that it’s been squared off; on the right the character for ‘tree’ (mu), which looks like a simplified tree with spreading branches and roots; and on the left the character for ‘person’ (ren), which you could think of as a stick figure minus the head and arms. Some more examples of ways that modern characters have developed from early pictograms are given in the table at the foot of this blog.
These basic building blocks are then extended to produce gradually more abstract terms. For example, put an extra root on the ‘tree’ character and you get the character for ‘origin’ (ben) – see left. The idea of an origin is a metaphorical development of ‘root’. Combine this character with an abbreviated person to the left of it and you get the character for ‘body’ (ti) – see right. The body is the root of the person. Put three mouths together (presumably all offering different opinions), and you get the character for ‘quality’ (pin) – see left.
It didn’t take long, as I began to engage with this learning process, for it to suddenly dawn on me that the composition of Chinese characters graphically illustrates the development of embodied meaning as explained by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson – a theory that has had a huge influence on Middle Way Philosophy as I have developed it in my books (especially Middle Way Philosophy 3, which is all about meaning). Lakoff and Johnson offer a radically alternative understanding of meaning to the mainstream ‘representationalist’ view that is still assumed in much philosophical and scientific thinking: one in which meaning is not based on a relationship between words and symbols on the one hand and some sort of assumed ‘reality’ on the other, but rather one in which we build up meaning through the links we make in our brain as we learn from early infancy, connecting words and symbols with embodied experiences. Their explanation begins with what they call ‘basic level categories’ and ‘image schemas’ – basic building blocks of meaning in which a particular common experience becomes associated with either a word itself, or an implicit connection between words. It then explains how these building blocks of meaning gradually get elaborated through metaphorical extension into more abstract terms. Crucially, to understand even very abstract ideas, we draw on our earlier layers of meaning-linkage: so, for example, to understand the concept of an academic field I draw on my understanding of ‘literal’ fields or other bounded ‘containers’, which connects this abstract idea to my most visceral, infantile experiences of putting things into other things that contain them (including my own body). This reflects what Lakoff and Johnson call the container schema.
Lakoff and Johnson’s theories are explained and evidenced in some detail in their works, but (although they give a range of examples) I have long felt the lack of some kind of ’embodied meaning dictionary’ which might assist one in working out how a particular word, symbol or term developed out of basic level categories and image schemas. Of course, there are also a number of possible problems with such a project. One is that there are probably no definitive answers as to how meaning developed in each case, just a range of plausible explanations – the main point of the theory being just to show that it must have developed in that way in general rather than to prove any specific example. Another problem is that the basic level categories, image schemas and metaphors obviously vary enormously in different linguistic contexts. Perhaps even the same or a similar term may have a different embodied sense for different people, depending on what the basic level categories were, how they have interacted and how the metaphors have developed.
But Chinese characters seem to offer a kind of graphic record of this process of meaning development. The ‘building block’ characters can be readily identified with basic level categories: not necessarily our basic level categories, or even those of modern Chinese people, but those of the ancient Chinese who developed the characters. The associations between these characters that allow them to develop also depend on image schemas that allow connections of meaning between basic level categories in a particular embodied situation. If I’m an ancient Chinese person, I won’t just passively appreciate a ‘tree’ as a separate object, but probably chop it down and build a house out of it, creating a set of associated meanings that combine associations of timber, origin, foundation, and home. I won’t just contemplate a tiger as an object (early ‘Oracle bone’ version on right), but rather I’ll associate it with the bodily experience of fear, allowing the creation of characters that develop ‘tiger’ into words that refer to danger, as they do in modern Chinese. I’ll also combine the basic level building blocks in ever more complex ways dependent on metaphor, as in the development of ‘quality’ from ‘mouth’.
It has to be stressed that embodied meaning is our meaning as individuals, so this cultural record is only an approximation of the process by which meaning develops in an individual. Nevertheless, the parallels are striking, and seem to offer evidence in support of Lakoff’s and Johnson’s whole way of thinking. The relationship also offers much potential for improving language education so as to take into account the way in which we process meaning. A Ph.D. thesis by Ming-San Pierre Lu shows that this kind of approach leads to much more effective learning of Chinese.
In some ways the same development can be traced in the phonetic scripts that most of the rest of the world uses (such as the Roman script I’m writing in now), except that a disconnection obviously occurred early in the development of phonetic scripts, when pictograms began to be used to represent sounds. For example, the capital letter A still looks a bit like an upside-down ox, reflecting its origins in a Sumerian pictogram that then came to mean the initial sound used in the word rather than the meaning of the word itself. Since the relationship between sounds and meaning is largely abstract and conventional (except for a few onomatopoeic words), it’s very easy to lose any sense that the letters we use depend in any way on a base of embodied experience. That can happen in Chinese too, of course, where the characters are highly conventionalized, and doubtless the experiential basis rarely reflected on in practice. If a Chinese symbol only means an abstraction to a particular individual, its past historical development will make no difference. It’s learners of Chinese, probably much more than proficient users, who have the privilege of reconnecting with that experiential basis.
So how does this all relate to the Middle Way? Embodied meaning is closely related to the Middle Way, because acknowledging it can be a very useful element in practising the Middle Way and avoiding absolutisations. You can only make and believe an absolute claim if you assume that the language you use represents the world in some way, and that the claim you are making can thus be ‘true’ or ‘false’, rather than helpful or unhelpful in relation to experience. I don’t want to suggest for a moment that users of Chinese are any less prone to absolutisations than other linguistic groups. I have no evidence for that. I’d only suggest that they have a very helpful tool in their hands to help them reflect on the embodied roots of the language they are using. For me, learning Chinese also seems potentially to be a helpful practice in freeing up my remaining tendencies to implicitly think of language as having solely representational meaning (as well as other integrating effects, such as leading me to re-examine my beliefs). But in terms of my proficiency in Chinese, I have a very long way to go indeed. This is merely the first report of an intrigued learner!
Picture: Students learning in a mountain village in Xijiang, China, by Thomas Galvez CCSA 2.0
Table of pictograms and individual characters from Wikimedia.
Though I’m now trying to give up the common practice of using ‘myth’ to mean falsity, I must also confess to having long used the term ‘hagiography’ (which means the written life of a saint) pejoratively, to mean a one-sided adulatory biography. Both these usages, though, tend to reduce meaningful symbolic material to claims about facts, when their chief significance doesn’t consist in anything of that kind.
Recently I’ve been rethinking my assumptions about hagiography when reading the Life of St. Cuthbert by the Venerable Bede. Cuthbert was an Anglo-Saxon saint from Northumbria in north east England, closely associated with the holy island of Lindisfarne, and Bede is the scholarly monastic writer of the early eighth century, better known for his ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’, though he wrote in Insular Latin (the weird form of Latin we used to use on these benighted islands). In his youth, though, Bede knew and served Cuthbert. Though he claims to have composed it only on the basis of reliable testimony, Bede’s life of Cuthbert is just one damned miracle after another. He cures the sick all over the place. An eagle brings him food in the wilderness. His incorruptible corpse cures the sick too. And when ravens steal straw from the roof of his island hermitage, he banishes them until they come back and apologise, with “feathers outspread and wings bowed low”. What are we to make of all this?
For me this is another opportunity to apply the thinking I’ve been developing in my book The Christian Middle Way (which I’ve drafted and am now hawking around publishers), where I thought about the interpretation of Jesus’ miracles in the New Testament. As regards factual claims about miracles, I’ve long accepted Hume’s argument that accounts of miracles are more likely to be mistaken than otherwise, given that our other experience shows them to be extremely unlikely. Though the probabilities are against the correctness of miracles literally interpreted, we really don’t know. We can speculate about what ‘really happened’ and construct alternative explanations, but this is all likely to be a distraction from appreciation of the meaning of the stories about what happened. That meaning does not depend in any way on what ‘really happened’, but is rather a product of the ways in which the stories reflect the archetypal functions of individuals in the context of a particular culture’s interpretation of those archetypes.
St. Cuthbert’s miracles can be more deeply appreciated if one lets go of the factual questions and focuses only on these archetypes. To illustrate this, let’s start with the healing miracles. Here’s a fairly typical example:
One day, as he was going round the diocese giving saving counsel in all the houses and hamlets of the countryside, and laying his hand on the newly baptised so that the grace of the Holy Spirit might come down upon them, he came to the house of a member of the royal bodyguard whose wife lay ill and seemed to be dying. The man ran to meet him, knelt down and thanked God that he had come, brought him into the house, and made him most welcome…. Then the man told him that his wife was desperately ill and begged him to bless some holy water to sprinkle on her.
‘I am sure,’ he said, ‘God will grant her a speedy recovery, or if she must die, put an end to her long agony and take her without delay.’
Cuthbert had water brought, blessed it, and gave it to a priest to sprinkle over the sick woman. The priest entered her bedroom and found her lying there looking like a corpse. He sprinkled the bed, sprinkled her, opened her mouth, and poured a little of the life-giving draught down her throat. The patient was quite unaware of what was being done, but as soon as the water touched her an astonishing thing happened: she was immediately restored to full health both of body and mind. She came to, blessed and thanked the Lord for deigning to send such guests to cure her, and then, rising from her bed, ministered to those who had just ministered to her, the patient tending the physicians. (ch.29)
Let’s first note the context in which the healing took place. Cuthbert is laying hands on people to give them the grace of the Holy Spirit. The ‘Holy Spirit’ has become such a stock phrase in Christianity that it might seem almost meaningless, a dead concept, but the live meaning of it in experience is probably more about people recognising new possibilities and extending their awareness in ways that also lift up and broaden their emotions, symbolically related to the confidence expressed in the baptism ceremony. Cuthbert is making people aware of the possibility of new integration.
Note then also that when Cuthbert comes to the dying woman, he does not claim to have power over her illness. It is God who kills or cures, not him. ‘God’ here is also a way of talking about the conditions and reconciling people to them. If the woman had died we would presumably not have heard about this miracle, so the story of her recovery may just reflect confirmation bias, coincidence, selective interpretation and the placebo effect: but in the context, Cuthbert focuses our attention on acceptance of the outcome, helping people to adapt to the conditions, whatever they turn out to be.
In that context, like any other healer, he also demonstrates compassion. This compassion is inevitably selective, because he is human and cannot heal everyone. The story thus does not tell us about God’s justice, but rather helps to reconcile us to his selectiveness. Some will live and others die, and the causes of them doing so are very complex and beyond full human understanding. Yet at the same time an intervention that offers renewed confidence for the suffering person may produce a breakthrough, which can then be recorded and inspire others to similar confidence and openness to integration.
Finally, there is also the actions of the woman after her miraculous recovery. Again, this should probably not be taken literally, as in that case it might seem both medically questionable (she would need time to recuperate) and patriarchal (her service to men couldn’t even be interrupted by near-death!). What I find striking about it is the way it deliberately challenges our expectations. Who is sick and who is well? We attach these labels to people, but the conditions are often more complex. Those who have been ill often remark on this problem: that others don’t know quite how to treat them and are unsure about what they can or cannot be reasonably asked to do. They are shoved either into the indulgent category of convalescent or the negative one of malingerer, because we have trouble with coming to terms with the incrementality of health and have to turn it into black and white terms. Miraculous healing makes all things possible, and its function is to make us aware and appreciative of what is possible, and the ways we might be otherwise constrained by our expectations.
Just as in the life of Jesus, so in Cuthbert there are both ‘healing miracles’ and ‘nature miracles’ in which the saint is depicted as being able to participate in God’s control over nature. The following story can illustrate this other type of miracle, and again it is important to quote some of the context.
Not only the inhabitants of the air and ocean but the sea itself… showed respect for the venerable old man. No wonder: it is hardly strange that the rest of creation should obey the wishes and commands of a man who has dedicated himself with complete sincerity to the Lord’s service. We, on the other hand, often lose that dominion over creation which is ours by right through neglecting to serve its Creator. The very sea, I say, was quick to lend him aid when he needed it.
He set about constructing within the walls of his dwelling a small shed which should be big enough for his day to day requirements. It was to be built towards the sea with the floor over a long deep cleft hollowed out by the constant action of the waves. It was to be twelve feet long, for that was the length of the cleft, so he asked the monks to bring him some planks of that length for floorboards the next time they came. They willingly agreed, received his blessing, went off home and forgot all about it. Back they came on the appointed day but without the wood. He gave them a very warm welcome, commending them to god with the usual prayer, then asked ‘Where is the wood?’ Then they remembered. They confessed they had forgotten and asked him to pardon their negligence. The kindly old man soothed their anxiety with a gentle word and bade them stay till next morning: ‘For I do not believe God will forget my wish’. They complied with his request. The following morning when they went out there was a piece of wood of the correct length thrown up by the tide right under the site of the shed. They marvelled at the sanctity of a man whom the very elements obeyed, and blushed with shame at their own slackness in needing to be reminded by inanimate nature what obedience is due to saints. (ch. 21)
‘Coincidence’, I think, as you probably do too. But we don’t know whether or not it should be rightly described in such a way. What the story records, however, is the meaning of these events for the participants. The monks interpreted the driftwood as a divine rebuke because they were ashamed of their negligence, so for them it served the purpose of symbolising their limited awareness and its consequences, regardless of whether or not the driftwood was the result of supernatural intervention. Cuthbert, however, did not offer such a rebuke but responded kindly, presumably in awareness that the monks’ integration (and thus their remembrance of others’ needs in future) would be better supported by such kindness.
Where Bede sees creation as serving the servant of God, we can see a person who is integrated enough to have fully adapted to his environment, recognising both what he can and cannot do in it. He can make use of one piece of driftwood, but since he asked for ‘planks’ he presumably still needs more than this for his building project. He accepts those conditions that he has no power over, but makes the most of those that he can affect. He is emotionally as well as cognitively adapted, not just resourceful but also flexible in his expectations. Read helpfully, then, this story is not about power over nature at all, but about the balanced acceptance of our lack of power. Our ‘dominion over nature’ is only ours by right when we serve its creator: meaning that we only get what we want by recognising the full extent of the contrary conditions. Today, the belief in ‘dominion over nature’ has been blamed by thinkers like Peter Singer for the attitudes that created anthropogenic climate change, but if that belief had been better tempered by awareness and respect for conditions we would have been much readier to accept our role and its effects at an earlier stage when we could do more to prevent it.
So, miracle stories, read carefully with an eye for their meaning in context, can offer us inspiration rather than falsehood. I am not suggesting that this is what they ‘really mean’: rather that we can usefully choose to interpret them in this way – the Middle Way that avoids the reductions of presumed truth or falsehood. Hagiography of a more traditional kind thus takes on a new meaning. However little I learnt about the faults and shadows of the historical Cuthbert from Bede’s biography, I at least found some inspiring reminders of the meaningful wisdom of the past. I don’t take that as a justification for writing such hagiographies today, because it is more important for us to develop balanced beliefs about more recent lives. But Cuthbert for me, and probably for you, is much more of an archetype than a historical figure. The Anglo-Saxon world offers a distance that makes such symbolic power possible.
Picture: St Cuthbert Praying from Bede’s manuscript: British Library Yates Thompson MS 26. Reproduced for comment under fair use terms.
Quotations from Bede’s Life of Cuthbert come from ‘The Age of Bede’ trans J.F. Webb, pub. Penguin Classics. Reproduced for comment under fair use terms.
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Audio talks on archetypes (scroll down)