an honest appraisal of life as it is and has been
My Dear One,
The only place to begin anything is where you already are. There is no need to “get somewhere else” in order to begin. The beginning is always before you, here and now. Your next step always has the potential to be the First Step.
This is the first week in a personal journey towards resurrection and renewal. As we prepare to set out on The Universal Transformative Journey (called the Monomyth by Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey by Christopher Vogler), the first thing to do is to take honest appraisal of where you are right now. Don’t rush into action without first breathing deeply and examining the landscape of your life. It would make no sense for your first step to be a misstep.
Before we begin our move into the Transformative World, let us first give full acknowledgement, love and attention to the Ordinary World. People who go on spiritual journeys often do so not out of a place of weakness but relative comfort, or at least resigned familiarity. They don’t have to take this journey. They could continue on as-is. But still there is something that pulls them out, pulls them forward. A sense that God is calling them to make a move somehow. Or that something, perhaps God, is missing in their lives and they are ready to find and experience “the more.” Most people who have come to me for spiritual direction or pastoral counseling have done so not because of some great and immediate tragedy but because life has become a routine that they can no longer tolerate accepting. Their refusal to embrace apathy is their saving grace. And they finally have to come out with their doubts about God, or their unresolved conflicts, or a sense that they are called to do something new in their careers or personal life but they are still unsure what that looks like. It is always my honor to walk that journey with them. Let me say up front it is my honor to walk now with you. So before we begin, let us first breathe deeply and fully accept and appreciate where it is you are beginning from.
How else can we know how far we’ve gone if we don’t first make note of where we began?
The importance of acknowledging the starting point is inherent in any stories we tell. Let us examine two, first a fictional one and then one from the Christian faith.
Movie Example: The Way
One of my favorite movies is a 2011 film titled (not insignificantly) “The Way” and stars one of my favorite actors, Martin Sheen. (Throughout these next few weeks I will make occasional reference to this film. You won’t have to have watched it to follow along, but if you haven’t seen it it’s a great story!). In the film’s opening scenes we learn that Martin’s character, Tom, is an ophthalmologist, wholly subsumed in his work and the social boys’ club built around it. And he is lonely and jaded. He has a son, Daniel, (played by Martin’s real life son Emilio Estevez) who is the opposite of his father in every way. Daniel is a carefree wanderer, always eager for his next adventure. Tom is forever trying to get Daniel to settle down into a routine, a normal, productive, predictable, stable life … like his. Daniel is always arguing that life should be lived as an adventure, moving where your heart takes you, encountering new people, new places, living with little so you can take in much. “You don't choose a life, dad. You live one,” Daniel tries to explain.
It seems hopeless to think either one of these men will ever grow to understand the viewpoint of the other. And therein lies the great tension between the two. They remain at an impasse as Daniel prepares to leave for either his next “colossal waste of time” or “life-giving adventure,” walking the ancient pilgrim route of the Camino de Santiago across Spain. This is where they begin and nothing that follows would make any sense without first establishing this starting point.
Biblical Example: Luke’s Gospel
We can also trace Jesus’ life story through the stages of the Universal Transformative Journey. Jesus, as our exemplar of what it means to go on the human journey, reveals to us the necessary steps each of us must take. That’s why he so often gave the invitation to “Come, follow me.” Jesus isn’t going to tell you about a life, he’s going to show you how to live one. This “good news” is not something to be comprehended, it’s something to be experienced.
The gospel of Luke starts by setting scenes - both for the reason for writing this story and also for the events of the story itself:
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
And there you have it. The author (who doesn’t identify himself but who we have named Luke) is setting out to write an “orderly account” (notice this phrase is used twice) to Theophilus (which literally means “lover of God”) in order that he may know the truth of the events that many others have told … but, apparently, not well enough to Luke’s liking.
And thus he begins to set the stage: In the days of King Herod (character) of Judea (place), there was a priest (calling) named Zechariah (character) … His wife was … Elizabeth (character) and both of them were righteous (characteristics) … but they had no children (tension), because Elizabeth was barren (tragedy), and both were getting on in years (tension).
Luke is an epic storyteller who is about to begin the story of Jesus in an ingenious way, not by introducing the hero, Jesus, but by introducing Zechariah and Elizabeth, ordinary, faithful people who live ordinary, unfulfilled lives. And yet, God is about to do something new and miraculous in their story! And it only foreshadows something even more miraculous yet to come!
Luke is setting the stage not just for this couple’s story, but for all of humanity who lead lives that feel like something important is missing. Zechariah and Elizabeth are stand-ins for us all, just like Adam and Eve, first man and first woman. Something has been lost and what follows is now the story of how God is going to help bring healing, restoration and resurrection to people like Zechariah, Elizabeth, all whose lives are missing something they long felt called to create but couldn’t. Luke’s is the story of God coming into the world to heal what is broken, make possible what seemed impossible, and it begins with the birth of two babies, John and Jesus.
Believe it or not, God still does this! God still breaks into our world to surprise us with joy, with completely unexpected twists in the narrative of our lives that transforms and transfigures, moments that are so crucial they divide our stories into everything that happened before that moment and everything that has happened since then … graduations, falling in love, the birth of a child, an unexpected job offer, an enlightening conversation with an old friend, …
Of course the same holds true for the tragedies of our lives as well. Sickness, loss, pain, and death also create these turning points that can send us off on a new path towards eventual reconstruction or sometimes further deconstruction.
Before we begin, take time to examine what some of these moments are for you. There is already a lot of backstory to your life. You have seen many joys and many sorrows, many successes and many failures, some of your own and some of others around you, wrestled with both friend and foe. What has happened to you up to this point will have a profound effect on how you will react to things going forward.
If your life were to be told as a movie or epic novel, what event would make the most effective first scene? What day, conversation, prayer, walk, triumph or tragedy in some way encapsulates the heart of your life to this point? Was it a victory long ago that now casts a long shadow? Was it a tragic loss that has left a deep and unhealed wound? Think of your favorite movie or book and where it begins the story. How does it set the scene and the tone of all that is to come? Our favorite stories almost always begin either by showing the humdrum of the main characters’ everyday life OR the shocking event that disrupts their Ordinary World and sends it spiraling in new trajectories.
Your Journey this week
Throughout your experience with following The Way’s Universal Transformative Journey, I will be inviting you to tell your story AS a story. This is just for you, for your eyes only. You can either write it as a first-person journal or as a third-person story as if you were telling it to someone else. Sometimes, this stepping aside from our lives, examining and narrating it with some perspective, can be very helpful in not over-identifying with our own plight and preconceived notions. But choose the style that feels most natural to you.
Using your own journal or this worksheet, write an opening scene, a first chapter in this three act play (see last week’s introduction about Departure, Journey and Return if you want to refresh your memory about the overall structure of this journey). This week you are writing about what has been. Starting next week you will be writing about what is now. So really take advantage of this opportunity to get to the heart of your life’s journey up to this point.
Don’t try to write the whole story, that would take too long. And it’s not necessary. Movies take 20 minutes max to set the scene. Novels usually are launching into action by the end of the first chapter. So choose one scene, one story to tell, that helps tell the much bigger story of your life.
What conversation between you and someone else would serve effectively to get across to others the central tension in your life right now? What event cracked open a wall, revealing a whole other world just on the other side? What is your central question and what is battling within you to answer that question one way or the other? What is at stake? What does everything else seem to hinge on? What about your conflict comes from external factors? What about it is arising from within you?
What central issue are you going to be asking God to help you face and resolve? This first chapter can really help you focus in on that question.
I am proud of you for being willing to engage this really important inner work of the Universal Transformative Journey. Know you don’t walk this path alone. Our stories are intertwined in ways we can never fully appreciate. We always go together …
following The Way,
Words of Wisdom from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
“When our day is come for the victory of death, death closes in; there is nothing we can do, except be crucified - and resurrected; dismembered totally, and then reborn.” p. 12
On The Hero and the God
“The godly powers sought and dangerously won are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time. He is “the king’s son” who has come to know who he is and therewith has entered into the exercise of this proper power - “God’s son,” who has learned to know how much that title means. From this point of view the hero is symbolical of that divine creative and redemptive image which is hidden within us all, only waiting to be known and rendered into life.” p.30-31
On “The World Navel”
“The effect of the successful adventure of the hero is the unlocking and release again of the flow of life into the body of the world … [salvation] pours from an invisible source, the point of entry being the center of the symbolic circle of the universe, … The tree of life, i.e., the universe itself, grows from this point, … [and the saving] figure may be that of the cosmic man or woman (for example the Buddha himself, or the dancing Hindu goddess Kālī) seated or standing on this spot, or even fixed to the tree (Attis, Jesus, Wotan); for the hero as the incarnation of God is himself the navel of the world, the umbilical point through which the energies of eternity break into time. Thus the World Navel is the symbol of the continuous creation: the mystery of the maintenance of the world through that continuous miracle of vivification which wells within all things.” p. 32
Here are links to resources I used this week which you may find helpful:
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
The Way (movie), directed by Emilio Estevez
The Bible (New Revised Standard Version)