Tag Archives: archetypes

The Exorcist: A Middle Way Interpretation

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.


Heroic Agnosticism

There seems to be a basic misapprehension, shared by traditional religion and Romantic narrative alike, that the absolutists are the heroes. Heroes stick up for what they believe in, regardless of what fate throws at them. They continue with the quest – across the oceans, deserts, and arctic wastes – they slay the monsters, and in the end they get their reward. Or, even if the hero does not get all he desires, his beliefs are at least upheld, even if he has to die for them, for the martyr too is a hero. It’s stirring stuff, constantly reinforced for us by Hollywood, by heroic literature, even by religion.

Who could question such a narrative? Nobody should underestimate the difficulties. But one of Jung’s visions in the Red Book confronts us with their full pain.

I was with a youth in high mountains. It was before daybreak, the Eastern sky was already light. Then Siegfried’s horn resounded over the mountains with a jubilant sound. We knew that our mortal enemy was coming. We were armed and lurked beside a narrow rocky path to murder him. Then we saw him coming high across the mountains on a chariot made of the bones of the dead. He drove boldly and magnificently over the steep rocks and arrived at the narrow path where we waited in hiding. As he came round the turn ahead of us, we fired at the same time and he fell slain. thereupon I turned to flee, and a terrible rain swept down. But after this, I went through a torment unto death and I felt certain that I must kill myself, if I could not solve the riddle of the murder of the hero. (p.161)Siegfrieds_deathJung is slaying, not a literal hero, but the archetype of the hero within himself. The belief that the hero will always succeed against the conditions, and that his desires and beliefs are intrinsically right according to some assumed cosmic law, is one that we may implicitly indulge every time we get caught up in the hero story. Not only do we absolutise the hero himself, but we may also identify ourselves with him. But if we are to recognise the limitations of this reassuring fantasy, we have to be able to recognise that the hero may be wrong in his assumptions. To recognise this may feel extremely painful, and the death of the hero symbolises this pain. The myths provide us with this death story as well as with the achievements of the hero, giving us the resources of meaning to be able to recognise it, but we may still have to go through that shock of dis-identification.

Jung identifies the death of the hero with the archetypal role of Christ, whose crucifixion plays a similar role: showing us that our absolutised idea of a human God must die so as to lead us on to an engagement with God that is no longer based solely on human projection. Jung puts it this way:

I must say that the God could not come into being before the hero had been slain. The hero as we understand him has become an enemy of the God, since the hero is perfection. The Gods envy the perfection of man, because perfection has no need of the Gods. But since no-one is perfect, we need the Gods. The Gods love perfection because it is the total way of life. But the Gods are not with him who wishes to be perfect, because he is an imitation of perfection. (p.171)

‘The Gods’ here are symbolic of our own wider recognition – of the limitations of our current egoistic view of ourselves and of our greater potential as more integrated beings. We do not attain perfection merely by imitating, because the model we imitate may have worked in the conditions it was produced but is unlikely to work in the very different conditions of our own lives. Only integrated creativity will do, and that requires us to let go of our identification with all heroic models of imitation.

Strangely enough, though, there seems to be an even greater heroism involved in this process. What could be more heroic, itself, than killing the hero? But if we reduce this to another model of imitation, an absolute set of beliefs about how the world is and how we should act in it, then we will find this new heroism just as limiting in the end, and find ourselves in a cycle of endlessly killing new heroes. The killing of the hero needs to be accompanied by the further development of integration in experience so that we come to rely positively on that rather than on absolute beliefs about the hero. Our heroism needs to become agnostic, but such heroism can be seen, not as abandoning heroism, but as finding a deeper and more adequate form of it.

I have often been puzzled by the way that agnosticism is frequently portrayed in popular discourse, as the very opposite of heroic. As Richard Dawkins describes agnostics (quoting a preacher with approval): “Namby-pamby, weak-tea, weedy, pallid fence-sitters” (The God Delusion, p.69). The assumption here seems to be that agnostics dare not attempt the heroism of belief, whereas I want to suggest that on the contrary, agnostics are even more heroic than the heroes caught up in their righteous assumptions. The dogmatic hero carries on against adversity in the certain feeling that God or the universe is on his side. The agnostic hero, on the other hand, has to manage without such delusory certainties, managing only with hope and embodied confidence. Nothing can be taken as determined about her success in the goals she takes up, and even those goals themselves have to be taken as provisional ones. The greatest hero ventures into the lands of uncertainty, and rather than just slaying the monsters, has the courage to question her own monstrous projections.

It is upsetting to find people like Richard Dawkins failing to recognise the heroism of agnosticism, when that very heroism is so central to science. The scientist always has to proceed in conditions of uncertainty, unless she constructs deluded assumptions of naturalistic ‘truth’ where none are available to us. The use of scientific method is distinguished for its heroic agnosticism. But this heroic agnosticism can also be a distinguishing feature of the very ‘religion’ that Dawkins so despises. The mystics, too, proceed on the basis of a faith that grows from their experience of what they call God, and have to slay their own heroic certainties in order to plunge into the cloud of unknowing. Religious believers and scientists alike may have to slay their own heroes on order to go on to a deeper recognition of human potential.

Picture: The death of Siegfried (public domain)

Symbolising truth

I thought it would be good to follow up my recent essay on scepticism (which points out that we have no access to truth) with some positive comments about truth as a symbol. I was also particularly moved recently by finding this picture in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It is an anonymous picture, dated about 1620-30, called ‘Truth presenting a mirror to the vanities of the world’.

(c) The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Artistic depictions of Truth as an allegorical figure are interesting. They are overwhelmingly female, and sometimes naked (obviously reflecting the idea of ‘disclosure’). This Truth, on the other hand, is sumptuously robed and dignified. Her expression seems appropriately severe. The use of a mirror to symbolise truth is widespread, and can be interpreted both as an indication that we should confront uncomfortable facts about ourselves, and also that we should look at our own role in creating the ‘truths’ we believe in. The skull is obviously a reminder of the ‘truth’ of impermanence and death, that we may often fail to face up to. What I found particularly striking here, though, is that Truth is also holding up a pair of scales. That suggests a particular emphasis on the need to balance our judgements in order to get closer to truth, a direct suggestion of the Middle Way as well as related philosophical ideas such as that of ‘reflective equilibrium’. From the Middle Way point of view, positive or negative metaphysical extremes would distort the scales either way, preventing the much more subtle balancing of the scales required to make judgements in experience.

As a sceptic, I don’t believe that we can have access to truth (and saying this is not itself a truth-claim but rather just facing up to our embodiment and inability to be God). However, that doesn’t in any way prevent us from imagining and symbolising truth. Indeed, maintaining truth as an ideal, and relating to it positively, seems to me an important process. There is no contradiction here. We can, at one and the same time, honour or even worship truth, whilst recognising our inability to access it. Indeed, at a more profound level it is our very commitment to truth as an ideal that drives us to recognise that we do not have it. That commitment (or faith) in truth does not consist in propositions about truth that are claimed to be true (or false), but in the meaningfulness of truth to me. I may have all sorts of neural connections that enable me to respond to ideas of truth, these being linked into embodied experience and activity in all sorts of ways, but none of these are so entrenched (I hope) that they result in claims that such-and-such is formally true.

The embodied nature of what truth can mean for us is evident in this picture, as all the ways that truth is depicted are not about ‘the truth’ itself, but rather about ways that we need to face up to conditions that we are resistant to. The scales, as I have already mentioned, are a more directly embodied metaphor for the judgement process. The mirror and skull are directly associated with often unwelcome recognitions of the imperfection of our bodies. But the woman herself is also an embodiment of truth rather than an abstraction from it, and can remind us of some facets of the meaning of truth for us: dignified, restrained, and slightly severe.

‘Truth’ has sometimes been relativised by pragmatic philosophers (such as Nietzsche and William James), who would talk about ‘our truth’ rather than ‘the truth itself’. This does reflect ordinary informal usage, where I’m quite happy to admit that the phrase ‘That’s true’ does sometimes cross my lips, meaning ‘that accords with my experience and understanding’. But in my view truth has too much dignity – is too sacred, if you like – to be treated in this way on the more formal occasions when we talk or write more reflectively about it. It’s only because we find truth meaningful in this way, and preserve its symbolic absoluteness, that we are able to be sceptical when it comes to truth claims. Indeed, it seems to me that sceptics are the people who find truth most meaningful, at the same time as recognising fully that they have never met with her in person.

The metaphor of ‘truth as a woman’ was famously developed by Nietzsche at the beginning of his ‘Beyond Good and Evil’:

Supposing truth to be a woman – what? is the suspicion not well founded that all philosophers, when they have been dogmatists, have little understanding of women? that the gruesome earnestness, the clumsy importunity with which they have been in the habit of approaching truth have been inept and improper means for winning a wench? Certainly she has not let herself be won – and today every kind of dogmatism stands sad and discouraged.

An attractively embodied point of view, though obviously a very male one. ‘Clumsy importunity’, though, seems quite an appropriate metaphor for how many people, male or female, treat truth. They completely misjudge her, thinking she’s like them and can easily be made part of the group. Beyond that, however, perhaps we shouldn’t push Nietzsche’s analogy too far. It is not so much Truth that has not let herself be won, but rather us who are incapable of winning her.

Some of the ‘dogmatic philosophers’ attacked by Nietzsche for importuning truth have more recently taken to more indirect, hypothetical appeals to her. The truth-dependent theory of meaning widely accepted in analytic philosophy is something like a fake cheque supposedly drawing on Truth’s bank account. We’re told that a certain claim is meaningful because we understand the circumstances in which it would be true – even though, in practice, we have never experienced and never could experience an occasion when we know anything to be true. If we were ever to pay in the cheque, rather than just passing it round as a medium of exchange, payment would be refused, because Truth does not let her account be drawn on in such a way. Hypothetical appeals to truth in practice have nothing stronger than convention to draw on.

As a symbol, Truth can also be understood as another version of the God archetype recognised by Jung. If the archetypal God in our experience is a forward projection of the possibility of our integration, Truth is very much the same, for the outward process of removing delusive barriers reflects the inner one of removing conflict: in both cases it is absolutisations that stand in our way. Just as those who really have respect for truth should not claim to possess it, similarly those who really have respect for God should not claim to be in possession of revelations that reflect God’s will.

The acceptance of truth as meaningful at the same time as recognising that we don’t possess it is a difficult balancing act, but, I think, a crucial aspect of the Middle Way. There are lots of judgement calls as to where the boundaries between truth-claim and truth-meaning lie, and different people may disagree on exactly where they lie in different cases. But if you want to practise the Middle Way, I think it is the overall balancing intention that is important here. Not getting sucked into claims about truth or falsity requires resolution on the one hand, but respect for truth as a symbol of what is out there may be equally important.

Rites of passage

At times of big individual change (such as birth, death, coming of age and marriage) human groups like to come together and affirm their social solidarity. As humans are such social animals, this is often a beneficial and psychologically necessary process. However, the way in which solidarity is usually cultivated in traditional groups is through appeal to metaphysical absolutes beyond experience: for example, at funerals, appeals to beliefs about the afterlife are common. Particularly in modern society, where an increasing number of people can think critically, and where there are a plurality of such absolute claims, this way of doing things constantly undermines its own object by producing conflict. The absolutes appealed to are exclusive, and shut out those who do not subscribe to them, whilst those who are beginning to think critically about them will probably have to repress their doubts about the absolute claims (producing inner conflict) in order to maintain social acceptance. How to do rites of passage well is thus a major problem for modern society, both for how groups organise rites of passage and how individuals participate in them. Funeral of St Martin of Tours Simone_MartiniThe traditionalists maintain their commitment to the absolutes (and either deny the problem or see it as ‘personal choice’); a few radicals have experimented with alternatives such as humanist ceremonies (which may or may not be free of negative absolutes); but probably the majority of more or less non-religious people participate in the traditional ceremonies with a greater or lesser sense of reserve, reluctance or alienation.

I have been engaging with this problem anew for myself recently, following the death and funeral of my father. My father was a Baptist minister, and deeply engaged in a church community, as are much of the rest of my family. Apart from attending rites of passage, however, I have had little or no direct involvement in that community since I was a teenager. My experience of church weddings and funerals throughout my life has been one of pretty constant alienation and conflict. I would have liked to participate in the community, but strongly resented the requirement of reciting, singing and listening to absolute claims I did not believe in as an effective qualification for acceptance. I was also involved in Buddhism for many years, and have had similar experiences of alienation in Buddhist rituals, including rites of passage such as the funerals of Buddhist friends. Often I stood or sat in respectful silence, but that would not stop my mental reactions to what was being said and the way this distracted from the social solidarity I would otherwise have been very happy to engage in.

Given this previous history, at first I was dreading my father’s funeral. The more the ritual mattered to me, the deeper the alienation seemed likely to be. However, I am very glad to report that, for the first time, I found this Christian funeral a very positive and moving occasion, that helped me say farewell to my father in an entirely fitting way. For the first time I found ways forward, and those ways are all about the application of the Middle Way. There are indeed ways of ‘working with’ traditionalist rites of passage which at least worked with the group of relatively liberal Baptists and Methodists I was with, though they may be more difficult (not impossible) to use with more conservative or fundamentalist religious groups. I wanted to share these, and put them in a general form, in the hope that they will be useful to others, but I will illustrate them using my own recent experience.

I am going to suggest three ways of applying the Middle Way when involved in a rite of passage in a religious or other group context where absolute beliefs are invoked: positive engagement in solidarity actions, archetypal interpretation and perspectival reflection.

Positive engagement in solidarity actions

The real point of rites of passage is solidarity, so one obvious way to respond is to do whatever you can to support that solidarity without compromising your integrity. If you’re alienated from the metaphysics, it might require all the more countervailing effort to convince both yourself and others that you’re positive about the solidarity bit. At my father’s funeral, I both played the piano and gave a tribute, and that made a tremendous difference to me. I was in touch with my feelings and was able to channel and communicate them positively, but neither action required me to say things I didn’t believe. Others also responded to this, and lots of people who knew me in childhood then came up to talk to me because of that participation, when they might well have just avoided me as an awkward customer otherwise. Of course, if you’re not so closely involved, or not sufficiently trusted by the organisers, it might be difficult to take such a central part in the ritual, but there may be other, smaller ways of expressing solidarity feelings, such as giving flowers or other gifts, or helping out in smaller ways with the organisation.

Archetypal interpretation

But what do you do about the hymns, prayers and sermons, or equivalent ritual speech or song in other religions? I think the content of these can be roughly put into three categories. One aspect is universal and easy to relate to: it is just celebration of solidarity or common wisdom. When I find passages like that in a prayer or hymn I’m happy to join in. When a religious leader shares common wisdom, for example talking about the need for awareness and response to one’s partner in a marriage, then I’m also happy to listen and agree. Another aspect is clear statements of metaphysical belief (such as creeds), which are the most difficult to deal with and I’ll come back to below. A third aspect in between, though, consists of a lot of religious language that could be interpreted absolutely, but can alternatively can much more helpfully interpreted in archetypal terms.

Archetypes are functions of our own psyches, expressing our deeper needs, drives and aspirations in ways that may not always be conscious and may challenge us. One of the beneficial aspects of religion is that it may put us in touch with bigger perspectives and more profound emotions through archetypes. These give us a sense of meaning and resources for our lives that is often confused with (but needs clearly separating from) absolute beliefs. If you can maintain a sense of archetypal interpretation of the religious language used in a rite of passage, my recent experience is that can be profoundly liberating. However, it’s taken me a long time to move from mere intellectual appreciation of archetypes to being able to connect with them in a context as loaded with other emotional associations as a church service.

For more on archetypes you might want to listen to some of my talks on the subject, or read the section on them in Middle Way Philosophy 3, but in the context of rites of passage the most likely archetype you’ll come across is the God Archetype (also called the Wise Old Man/ Old Woman). The God Archetype is a projection ahead of yourself as a completely integrated being, and its power comes from the temporary energy of integration as we connect even with the possibility of being so much ‘bigger’ than we are now. For example, this is the first verse of the hymn that opened my father’s funeral:

Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father,

There is no shadow of turning with thee;

Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not,

As Thou hast been Thou for ever wilt be.

I managed to relate to this positively by reflecting on the way that the capacity for integration, represented deep in my experience by God, was always there in the way the hymn was trying to convey. I could always return to more integrated states, however conflicted I might get at other times. I found that interpretation easier in that moment, also, because I was in touch with my physical experience, which could be a basis of connection with the bodily experience of the hymn writer (I expect that he was expressing his bodily experience as well as his metaphysical assumptions). On past such occasions, I have instead allowed myself to follow a critical intellectual response to the metaphysical claims about God’s eternal nature that one could also get out of this verse, which leads one instead rapidly down a road of conflict and alienation.

Perspectival reflection

Finally, though, there are also still very likely to be claims made during rites of passage that cannot either be positively accepted or interpreted archetypally by anyone trying to practise the Middle Way. For me, claims about the afterlife fall into this category. I have previously found them the most jarring, even offensive, thing I experienced at funerals. Sometimes I have thought “How dare these people disturb a helpful process of social solidarity by engaging in wishful thinking and metaphysical fantasy completely divorced from bodily experience?” But of course, these passages will happen. In most religious contexts, we’re most unlikely to be able to persuade the organisers to leave them out, and it’s probably not wise to even try, given how deeply rooted they are.

However, in my recent experience I think the way I managed to deal with such indigestible bits is to put them in perspective. Again, bodily awareness and positive participation really seem to help with this sense of perspective. These are just people engaging in fantasies, and though they are not harmless by any means, they are far less important than the positive value of the ritual as a whole. They are neither the whole of the people and their beliefs, nor are they the whole of the religious community, and it is possible to gently put them aside and just focus on what is positive.

Picture: Simone Martini – Funeral of St Martin of Tours