Jung's Septem Sermones ad Mortuos


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Jung's Septem Sermones ad Mortuos
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The Relevance of the Visionary Experience to Culture  




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Lecture 2


Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, Jupiter Group, January 21st, 2001

Copyright © Anne Baring

To attempt to give the essence of a man's soul and his influence on our culture is a great privilege and a great responsibility. Some of you may not have read Jung's Seven Sermons to the Dead, so in this talk, to prepare the ground for the reading of them, I thought I would tell you the story of the events leading up to them, briefly introduce the Sermons and also show you some of the paintings that Jung did during this time. They are published in a book called C.G. Jung, Word and Image, published by Bollingen in 1979.
---- Every culture needs a vertical axis as well as a horizontal one. That is to say, we need to aspire to something beyond or greater than ourselves. Without this vertical axis, we are liable to lose ourselves in the confusing maze of the "ten thousand things" as the Taoists put it. 350 years ago God was the supreme value, the vertical axis. Today our culture does not recognize a dimension of reality beyond the physical universe, nor any form of consciousness transcendent to our own. It has exiled soul and rejected spirit. With them it has banished beauty, wonder and awe. Great poets and visionaries and artists who in other times connected us to soul and spirit hold no place of honour in our culture. This makes it difficult for people to understand Jung, for Jung, like Dante and Blake, was a visionary. What is a visionary? A visionary is someone who is open to a universe beyond the literal mind, someone who has direct experience of dimensions or worlds we are not normally aware of. Jung's greatest longing was to build a bridge between the reality we see and know with our physical senses and another unseen reality. He knew that our greatest need is for connection with the transcendent, not through belief alone, but through deeper experience of the invisible world that underlies the physical one.
----- Jung's great contribution to our understanding of ourselves is that he discovered that the soul was accessible - like physical reality - to scientific exploration. Beyond the conscious mind lay a vast unexplored hinterland that he called the collective unconscious. He knew that the modern psyche was in a state of suffering and alienation because the conscious mind knew nothing of this deeper ground, and therefore could not grow to its full potential, its full stature through relationship with it. He defined sickness or neurosis as a state of incompleteness, and health as a state of wholeness brought about through the reconnection of our conscious mind with that unrecognised dimension of reality. A few years before he died he said to a friend that he felt his foremost task was to open people's eyes to the fact that man has a soul, and that there is a buried treasure in the field and that our religion and philosophy are in a lamentable state". (1)
----- One of the great themes of ancient myth is the hero's journey into the underworld, his encounter there with a fearsome adversary and his return to the world of everyday life, bringing with him a priceless treasure. With this treasure, he is able to regenerate his culture, heal the sick, free the people from the spell cast on them by demonic powers, release the waters of life so that fertility is restored to the wasteland. This theme has its root in the sun and the moon's nightly and monthly journey into darkness and their return to illumine our world - a timeless theme of life, death and regeneration and the essential relationship of the light and the dark, the known and the unknown. It descends to us from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece. It underlies all later mythologies, including the Christian and the Gnostic one, which taught that we have become separated from our home in the divine world and are therefore exiled, lost or asleep. It tells of the need to enter the unexplored depths of ourselves in order to recover our connection with that world, thereby bringing about our awakening, transformation and return to the source. This is the mythological theme which underlies the Seven Sermons to the Dead.
-----In the prologue to his autobiography - Memories, Dreams, Reflections - Jung says: "In the end the only events in my life worth telling are those when the imperishable world irrupted into this transitory one. That is why I speak chiefly of inner experiences, among which I include my dreams and visions. These form the prima materia of my scientific work. They were the fiery magma out of which the stone that had to be worked was crystallised". (2)
       So what were these inner experiences and how did Jung come to write the Seven Sermons to the Dead? Jung parted from Freud in 1912 when he was 37. During the next seven years from 1913-19 when he was trying to develop his own orientation to the treatment of his patients, he deliberately provoked a near-overwhelming eruption of visions, dreams and fantasies. He called this period his Nekyia - a Greek word which describes a descent into the underworld. It is important to note that this experience took place just before and during the First World War whose catastrophic effects he had foreseen in a series of visions during the autumn and spring of 1913-14:

In October, while I was alone on a journey, I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. When it came up to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country. I realised that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilisation, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood. This vision lasted about one hour....Two weeks passed; then the vision recurred, under the same conditions, even more vividly than before, and the blood was more emphasised. An inner voice spoke: 'Look at it well; it is wholly real and it will be so. You cannot doubt it'. (3)

-----These visions were followed by a dream, thrice repeated, in the spring of 1914:

In the middle of summer an Arctic cold wave descended and froze the land to ice. I saw, for example, the whole of Lorraine and its canals frozen and the entire region totally deserted by human beings. All living green things were killed by frost. In the third dream frightful cold had again descended from out of the cosmos. This dream, however, had an unexpected end. There stood a leaf-bearing tree, but without fruit, whose leaves had been transformed by the effects of the frost into sweet grapes full of healing juices. I plucked the grapes and gave them to a large waiting crowd'.

-----The idea of war did not occur to him at all, he says, and so he drew the conclusion that he must be threatened by a psychosis. But as events culminated in the outbreak of war in August 1914, he began to understand the meaning of these visions and dreams and to take the unconscious seriously as an unexplored dimension of reality in which all humanity participates.
----- The visionary has to translate the images and words of an unseen, archetypal world into the language and understanding of his time. His conscious mind, struggling to contain the overwhelming power and numinosity of the experience, will interpret it according to the level of his own understanding and the needs of the age in which he or she lives. Jung had to undergo the original experience in order to find the knowledge that was missing in the science of his day and then to discover how to communicate that knowledge in a way that people could understand. He took great care to try and understand every single image, every item of his psychic inventory, and to classify them scientifically - so far as this was possible - and tried to embody his insights in his daily life, for he knew that this was an ethical obligation of the conscious mind towards the unconscious. (4)
-----Some have seen the experience of these years as a psychotic episode and have labeled Jung schizophrenic; others, including myself, see it as a shamanic initiation into the direct experience of another order of reality. There are two dangers attendant on this experience - one is the danger of insanity - of being overwhelmed by the material - not having a sufficiently strong conscious ego to contain it. The other is the danger of becoming identified with the material, inflated by it, taking it to be absolute, literal truth. Jung had the greatest difficulty in maintaining his psychic and emotional balance during this time.
----- Fortunately Jung had the help of a superb education in addition to his medical and psychiatric training. This education included knowledge of Greek and Latin and a thorough grounding in philosophy, literature and history. He had a brilliant innovative and intuitive mind as well as the intellectual knowledge and psychiatric experience to ground his discoveries in empirical observation. These seven years after his break with Freud in 1912 were tumultuous and extremely stressful for himself and his family. He took care to allow plenty of time for solitude, reflection, writing down and painting his dreams and fantasies, often brooding by the lake close to his home and building villages out of the stones on the beach.
----- "At this time when I was working on the fantasies," he writes, "I needed a point of support in 'this world'. It was most essential for me to have a normal life in the real world as a counterpoise to that strange inner world. My family and my profession remained the base to which I could always return, assuring me that I was an actually existing, ordinary person."(5)
----- Jung recorded his experience in over 1000 handwritten pages and illustrations, many of which he later bound together in a still unpublished volume that he called the Red Book. The Red Book opens with a beautiful page written in fourteenth century German script. In the top left hand corner, there is a landscape painted inside a large initial - in the manner of medieval illuminated manuscripts.
----- This picture he painted is of Philémon, the being who was his guide to the underworld of the unconscious, rather as Virgil was guide to Dante. Jung writes of him: "He said things which I had not consciously thought. At times he seemed to me to be quite real, as if he were a living personality. Philémon and other figures of my fantasies brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life. Philémon represented a force which was not myself."(6) Philémon taught Jung psychic objectivity - that the psyche was as real as the physical world. He represented superior insight and acted like an inner Guru or guide to the unconscious.
----- Through these beautifully worked pages, we can see how the dimension of the soul is rescued from neglect and obscurity; its life is given meaningful form in images and words. In this way it becomes accessible to the conscious mind.
----- Jung found it ironical that he, a psychiatrist, should encounter at almost every step of his experiment the same psychic material which is typical of psychosis. "This," he says, "is the fund of unconscious images which fatally confuse the mental patient. But it is also the matrix of a mythopoeic imagination which has vanished from our rational age." (7)
----- Then, one day in the summer of 1916, as he describes it in his autobiography, certain paranormal experiences occurred, among them dreams and disturbances told him by his children and the repeated ringing of the doorbell when no-one was there: "The house was filled as if it was crammed full of spirits" he writes, "and the air was so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe." "For God's sake," he said to them, "What in the world is this?" And the spirits cried out in chorus: "We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought." (8) And that is how the Sermons begin. Jung wrote down what he heard that evening and on the two subsequent ones.
----- It is not an exaggeration to say that the material which came to him during these seven years and, in particular, during those three evenings, was the "fount and origin" of all his future work. "It has taken me," he wrote near the end of his life, "virtually forty-five years to distil within the vessel of my scientific work the things I experienced and wrote down at that time...The years when I was pursuing my inner images were the most important in my life - in them everything essential was decided. It all began then; the later details are only supplements and clarifications of the material that burst forth from the unconscious, and at first swamped me. It was the prima materia for a lifetime's work". (9)
----- Jung's courage and tenacity in risking insanity to experience this unexplored dimension of consciousness sums up his lifelong determination to devote himself, as he put it, to the scientific exploration of the soul - to listen to its voice, decipher its language and its imagery, become receptive to its attempts to communicate with the conscious mind. Like many titans of innovative thought who are ahead of their time, he has been reviled, contemptuously dismissed as a mystic, and to a large extent, ignored, notably by members of his own profession. But Jung revived, extended and deepened the concept of soul for the whole culture, rescuing it from the obscurity and neglect into which it had fallen for centuries. In his writings and his practice, soul becomes not something that belongs to us but something to which we belong - a vast and unexplored dimension of reality. He asked again the great soul questions: what is life? What is God? What is the root of evil? What is the purpose of our lives on this planet and how can we fulfil it?
----- Because the Sermons are so deeply rooted in the Gnostic tradition, it is necessary to say a little about this. There was a great stream of human experience which flowed from the thriving city of Alexandria in Egypt into several channels - into the writings of the early Christian Gnostics, the Hermetic Tradition, the later Alchemists, and the transmitters, both Jewish and Christian, of the ancient tradition of Kabbalah. Hellenistic Egypt in the second and third centuries AD was the immediate source of all these traditions, yet the roots lie deeper, in the temple teachings of a far older Egypt. Alexandria was the city of Gnostic teaching - the meeting place of East and West, a vibrant crucible for the exchange of ideas and teachings between Egyptians, Greeks, Syrians and Jews, and also sages from the East bringing teachings from far-away Persia and India. This vital stream of esoteric teaching which was later to suffer such persecution at the hands of the Christian Church, is the "complementary" or missing counterpart of the orthodox tradition that is familiar to us. It is an essential yet largely unknown aspect of our spiritual inheritance.
----- It is also helpful to know about shamanic traditions lost to Western civilization: traditions which speak of unorthodox methods of healing; visionary experience; travelling to other dimensions of being; encountering and speaking to the souls of the dead. All this material belongs to the history of the evolution of consciousness. It too, endured remorseless persecution by the Christian Church. It is astonishing that so much survived, passed from individual to individual, century to century.
----- So who were the Gnostics? They were a group of early Christians, among them the descendents of Jews who had fled Jerusalem after the murder of James, the brother of Jesus, who claimed to have inherited the secret teaching that Jesus imparted to his closest disciples, including his brother. Many Gospels now lost were in circulation among them, including the four that have come down to us. There are two Greek words for knowledge. One of them - epistémi - means knowledge in the sense of information gathered. The other - gnosis - means knowledge in the sense of insight and wisdom. The meaning and purpose of life is to be discovered neither through faith nor through accumulating knowledge about the known world, but through inward transformation and growing insight into the nature of reality. The Gnostic Gospels show that their deepest concern was with how to open the eye of the heart, how to awaken us to awareness of the divine ground of our nature, to awaken us from a state, not of sin, but of sleep and ignorance.
----- Prior to 1945 and the discovery of the 52 Gnostic texts buried at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, there were few texts that survived destruction when the Gnostic sects were repressed and their books burnt by order of the Emperor Constantine early in the fourth century AD. By 1912 Jung was already familiar with these and with the work of the German scholars who had studied them. This enabled him to grasp the significance of the images, fantasies and dreams that presented themselves to him during these seven years and, in particular, the material of the Sermons. He would have known that he was writing in the Gnostic tradition of listening to the voice of the soul and that what he was experiencing was similar to what the Gnostics and Kabbalists had recorded of their own visionary and auditory experiences. But, and this is crucially important, he also knew that he had to grow into the meaning of what he had heard. As a psychiatrist, he had to interpret this raw material and embody it in a form that people could understand, that could become the basis of a new understanding of the soul.
----- The Sermons speak with the voice of a prominent Gnostic teacher - a man called Basilides - one of the two great Gnostic teachers who taught in Alexandria in the second century AD - and who was himself taught by a man who was a follower of the Apostle Peter. He is said to have written 24 books of commentaries on the many Christian Gospels then existing. He was also a poet and his teachings were carried as far as Spain by his disciples. So now we come to the First Sermon which bears a strong similarity to the few fragments of Basilides's work which have survived.
----- The opening words of the First Sermon read: "The dead came back from Jerusalem where they found not what they sought. They prayed me to let them in and besought my words, and thus I began my teaching." How can we understand these words? Who are the dead? In the Gnostic teaching the dead are those who take the material world to be the only reality and who have no awareness of the existence of other dimensions. The dead come to Alexandria to seek out the Gnostic tradition, the conventional Christian tradition (represented by Jerusalem) having apparently failed them. With these Sermons, Jung opens the door to psychic contents and psychic needs which have been neglected and repressed for centuries and which he, as a potential carrier of consciousness for the whole culture, needed to become aware of. He writes that these conversations with the dead "formed a kind of prelude to what I had to communicate to the world about the unconscious: a kind of pattern of order and interpretation of its general contents."(10) No wonder he was filled with excitement as he began to decipher their strange language and imagery and to realise the implications of what they were saying.
         The text of the Sermons is full of paradoxes, and is complex, powerful and difficult to understand. It might be helpful when listening to them to imagine three interpenetrating and interacting worlds or dimensions: first, the familiar material world; secondly, an intermediate world of immeasurable extent - the unseen yet ever-present archetypal world of the soul, and thirdly, a world that Basilides calls the Pleroma, a Gnostic term for the divine ground of being which is the root of all, present within all yet beyond and transcendent to all.
----- In the First Sermon Basilides describes the Pleroma as a boundless, indefinable and totally transcendent dimension of being which nevertheless permeates the created world in the way that sunlight permeates air. We ourselves in our essential being are the Pleroma, because we and the whole created world partake of the nature of the eternal and the infinite. The Pleroma is the beginning and the end of created beings. Yet as the created world comes into being and we experience ourselves as separate from the Pleroma, it is rent in two. Our human task, that Basilides calls the Principle of Individuation, is to respond to the innate prompting of our nature to grow into our full potential as differentiated individuals yet at the same time to live with the deepest awareness of our oneness with the divine ground of the Pleroma. He ends the first Sermon saying that we should strive after our true nature because it is this that will bring us to our goal. But how do we discover our true nature?
----- In the Second Sermon the dead ask to know about God. "Where is God? they ask. Is God dead?" And Basilides answers that God is not dead but that all things which are brought forth from the Pleroma are pairs of opposites: the life force manifests as both creation and destruction, as good and evil, as God and Devil, and these are inextricably mingled in the created world and in ourselves. God and Devil are fullness and emptiness, generation and destruction. Activity is common to both. Basilides names the principle of activity as the highest god or power who is beyond this primal pair of opposites and gives this god the name Abraxas (a gnostic term). If the Pleroma were capable of having a being, Abraxas would be its manifestation, he says.
-----In the Third Sermon, the dead ask to be taught further about this highest god. Basilides says that Abraxas is undefinable life itself, the mother of both good and evil. Abraxas is the pulse of existence, cosmic energy in all its mystery, power, beauty and terror, its perpetual coming into being and its perpetual dissolution. Abraxas can be imagined as a dynamic energy that brings into being all worlds, the life force pulsing into all that we know and are in this manifest dimension of reality. Abraxas is the titanic force of the life process residing in the atomic nucleus of the soul. On the level of life on this planet, Abraxas is embodied in the immense power of instinct which is really the age-old life patterns of the planet and all the life connected with it. Until we become aware of this power within us and discover how consciously to relate to it, we are likely to be driven by blind unconscious instinct and to act in ways that may be divine or demonic without being able properly to distinguish between them.. Abraxas connects us to the life of the earth, yet also to the life of the cosmos, the life that flows to us from the divine ground of the Pleroma. It is both the unknown radiance and the dark shadow of our own psychic life.
----- Of the shadow Jung wrote: "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure is disagreeable and therefore not popular." (11) In the Fourth Sermon, the dead rather grumpily ask to be told about gods and devils. Basilides speaks to them about the multiplicity of good and evil forces, among them the Burning One whom he names Eros and the Growing One whom he names the Tree of Life. Each contains both good and evil. He tells them that the number of gods and devils is as immeasurable as the host of stars: every star is a god and every space occupied by a star is a devil. The emptiness of the whole is the Pleroma and the activity, the life of the whole is Abraxas. This vast diversity of light and dark elements cannot be compressed into the concept of a single God because this leads to the mutilation of the created world and the mutilation of man who is part of this vast diversity. To compress diversity into oneness leads to the mutilation of life, to uniformity, sameness and the fear of differentiation. It is useless to worship the gods or even the one God but it is essential to know the nature and power of the cosmic forces.
----- In the Fifth Sermon the dead sardonically ask to be taught about church and holy community. In this Sermon and the next Basilides speaks of the Heavenly Mother and the Earthly Father, about spirituality and sexuality, the tension between them and the hidden contra-sexual polarities in man and woman. He also teaches them that spirituality and sexuality are not qualities that human beings can possess or comprehend. Rather, they are mighty daemons - archetypal principles - whose energies flow through us and to whose laws we are subject. We are rooted in instinctual life yet we are drawn back to our source in the divine world of the Pleroma. Both polarities have to be recognised, honoured and integrated within our own nature. Otherwise we may fall victim to the one or the other, blindly driven through life by them. Finally he says that man needs a balance between community and solitude, between belonging to and differentiating himself from the group. Again, a balance must be held between these polarities. Too great an identification with the group brings dismemberment and dissolution in collective beliefs and behaviour. Too great isolation from it brings the same. Community, he says, gives us warmth, while solitude gives us the light.
----- In the Sixth Sermon Basilides speaks of the power of sexuality to delude those who know of no other world beside the material one, and the power of effective thought which comes to those who seek solitude and which connects us with what is beyond us and with those already awakened souls who try to reach us, to help us. The Mother, he says, intercedes and warns but she has no power against the gods. The dead contemptuously say: "Cease to speak to us about gods, demons and souls. We have known all of this in essence for a long time!"
----- In the Seventh Sermon the dead return again to Basilides for they have forgotten to ask about man. Basilides teaches them that man is the unique link between the macrocosm and the microcosm, the portal between the outermost infinity and the innermost infinity. In immeasurable distance, he says, there glimmers a solitary star on the highest point of heaven. This star is man's God and goal, his world, his Pleroma, his divinity. In it man finds repose. There is nothing that can separate man from this God provided he can turn away from his fascination with the fiery power of Abraxas. To this One man ought to pray. Such a prayer increases the light of the star. Such a prayer builds a bridge over death. It increases the light of the microcosm; when the outer world grows cold, this star still shines.
----- Jung knew through his own experience that the imagination was the key to relationship with the archetypal ground of the soul. It falls to us to create a relationship with it, developing insight and wisdom through listening, observation and dialogue with it. Ignorance of the tremendous power of the hidden energies which lie beyond the limited and fragile conscious mind, risks our being taken over by them, falling into madness and the dissolution of our humanity - something that we increasingly see happening today.
----- When Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God at the end of the nineteenth century, he was describing not the literal death of God but the decay of a belief system and an image of spirit that was worn out, because it was no longer numinous and therefore relevant to millions of people. Jung realized that that the problems of our time are rooted not only in the grip that scientific materialism has on a secular culture, but above all in the loss of a living myth and the increasing polarisation between the conscious mind and the unconscious, between thinking and feeling, mind and soul. He saw that the dissociation of the conscious rational mind from what he called the primordial or instinctual soul presented a growing and unperceived danger to humanity. The more we emphasized reason and the supremacy of the rational mind, the more instinct would drive, possess, delude and overwhelm us.
-----Jung knew that conventional religious teaching had not preserved the vital knowledge that nature and instinct are an expression of spirit. In splitting nature from spirit, emptying matter of soul, and contaminating the instincts with guilt and fear, an essential part of our wholeness has been lost. He knew it was vitally important to balance the predominantly masculine character of our culture with its emphasis on power, control and conquest by integrating the less valued aspects of the feminine archetype: nature and matter, soul and body, feeling and instinct - that is - to create a conscious, healing and redemptive relationship with these neglected aspects of spirit within ourselves and within the culture. What he offered was not a new belief system but a spirituality grounded in self-knowledge - particularly awareness of the shadow - leading to ethical responsibility towards life in all its aspects, seen and unseen. He knew that we did not have much time in which to accomplish this momentous task.
        In answer to the question "What can I do?" Jung said, "Become what you have always been, namely, the wholeness we have lost in the midst of our civilised, conscious existence, a wholeness that we always were without knowing it." (12)

1. From a letter written by Jung in 1960 quoted by Dr. Gerhard Adler in Dynamics of the Self,
Coventure, London 1979, p. 92
2. Prologue to Memories Dreams, Reflections p. 18
3. Memories Dreams, Reflections p. 169-70
Memories Dreams, Reflections p. 184
Memories Dreams, Reflections p. 181
Memories Dreams, Reflections p. 176
Memories Dreams, Reflections p. 181
Memories Dreams, Reflections p. 183
Memories Dreams, Reflections p. 191
10.Memories Dreams, Reflections p. 184
11. CW 13, par. 335
12. CW 10, par. 722

I am deeply indepted in this lecture to Stephen A. Hoeller, and his book The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead, Quest Books, 1982 and 1994 and to C.G. Jung: Word and Image, Bollingen 1979

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