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Meditation in a Former Chapel

Updated: May 17



On my first day of graduate school I became aware that the auditorium in which we gathered had formerly been a church. Despite efforts to secularize the place, a clear liturgical signature remained: a recessed marble basin for holy water, dry now; a choir loft, this day serving as a station for a PowerPoint projector and a spot light; three marble steps leading to an elevated stage where an altar used to be; and, if memory serves, an emptied tabernacle. God’s house minus God.


It reminds me of Joseph Campbell. He loved sacred space. But he very much resisted the idea that any one version of divinity should take up residence in it. 


In The Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living we meet the professor as he presented himself at Esalen in a series of workshops, drawing upon a lifetime of observations about the nature of the sacred. Cathedrals and stupas were of equal interest to him and he found value in traditions outwardly opposed, even antagonistic to one another. That’s his offense actually. Orthodoxy prefers you do not favorably compare its praxis to some other praxis. Orthodoxy recoils at the camaraderie of faiths and prefers you come after them, guns blazing. Campbell, genial and wise, would never do that. 


Campbell’s instinct is not to desecrate but rather to expand the temple precinct until it includes the world. This instinct, present from the beginning of his career on some level, found lyrical expression the night he turned his eyes to the heavens and saw Apollo—not the god, the rocket. The moon landing did not change Campbell, it changed us. Campbell merely noticed.


Having soared beyond thought into boundless space, circled many times the arid moon, and begun their long return: how welcome a sight, [the astronauts] said, was the beauty of their goal, this planet Earth, “like an oasis in the desert of infinite space!” Now there is a telling image: this earth—the one oasis in all space, an extraordinary kind of sacred grove, as it were, set apart for the rituals of life; and not simply one part or section of this earth, but the entire globe now a sanctuary, a set-apart Blessed Place. (293)


When Mohammed cleansed the Ka’bah of idols he was expressing a distrust of all representations of the divine. Campbell’s like that but in reverse. He loves all the images. If you had the good fortune to attend one of Campbell’s public lectures or if you have seen them in video format, you know that he relied heavily on accompanying slides to augment his lectures. Imagery brought his presentations alive but each came with a warning worthy of Mohammed.


“Beholding God—God with characteristics—is the final wisp of ignorance,” he wrote. (114) 


The idea is to disengage from representations, to shun visual shorthand of the ineffable. The idea that one “beholds” God is actually a disaster in Campbell’s thinking. It is the “final barrier” encountered by the kundalini who has reached the sixth cakra.


Any god you have been meditating on or have been taught to revere is the god that will be seen here. This is the highest obstacle for the complete yogi… On the brink of illumination, the old ways are very seductive and liable to pull you back. (114) 


Campbell never claimed to be a mystic. Quite the reverse. He once said that he practiced no austerities and that his only meditation was underlining sentences in books he found interesting. We want to believe him. It is difficult. His approach to the seven cakras in chapter three makes him sound like a mystic or at least a believer on some level. This is more than explication: it is invitation. Specifically, he points us toward a path where “Brahman with characteristics” yields in favor of the higher principle, “Brahman without characteristics.”

 

We find ourselves in the realm of the invisible or, as this month’s MythBlast Series theme would have it, “unseen aid.” There’s a difference. The Catholic Church, finding itself with too much time on its hands after two thousand years, took up the editorial question regarding “seen and unseen” versus “visible and invisible.”  It was decided to change the Creed so that the faithful would no longer testify that God was the creator of all that was “seen and unseen,” a nuanced phrasing which allowed for a sly materialism to find comfort in dogma. “Materialists and rationalists of every age,” said Pope John Paul II in a lively General Audience in 1986, have rejected the possibility of “purely spiritual beings.” The Pope’s bias, and Campbell’s, is toward the truly invisible, the formless archetype or facultates praeformandi, which, as explained by C.G. Jung, is nothing more than a “possibility of representation which is given a priori.” (CW 9 I, para.155)  No, the Pope, the Professor and the Depth Psychologist are fighting for the higher principle. (The Church went with “visible and invisible” and, let it be noted, Vatican emendations are not inexpensive. Congregations threw out  millions of dollars’ worth of hymnals and sacramentaries.)


Campbell, on the trail of the reality beyond image, guides us past cakra VII, Sahasrāra, into the realm of the invisible, realizing with Meister Eckhart that “the ultimate leave-taking is the leaving of God for God.” Consciousness at this level requires no tabernacles in which to stow its gear nor icons to explicate its ideas. 


Joseph Campbell says he identified as Catholic until the age of 25, a point at which he felt he had satisfactorily deciphered the vocabulary and iconography of his childhood faith. What remained in its place? It’s complicated. Once, on his way to a luncheon in Manhattan, he was confronted by a street corner evangelist who asked him if he believed in God. Giving it a moment’s thought, Campbell replied, “I don’t think you have time for my answer.”


Campbell had long ago outgrown the solemn orthodoxies of Christianity. Perhaps that is why I am

reminded of the former Catholic while seated in a former Catholic chapel, its idols removed, now transparent to transcendence.

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