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Meditation in a Former Chapel

BY John Bonaduce August 9, 2022

Ancient Gothic arch St. Andrews Cathedral, Scotland. Creative Commons 3.0.

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. 

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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. (p. 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.

After a successful career as a television writer in the 1970s and '80s with such credits as M*A*S*H and Maude, John's interest in story became increasingly academic. He transitioned to a new field, music, with a Masters in Conducting, then earned a PhD in Mythology from Pacifica University.

His main musical ensemble, Shantigarh, emphasizes a wide range of liturgical music styles, and its membership swells to as many as one hundred voices when they present John's original score for Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, CA, at an event broadcast nationally each January.

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The Celebration of Life (Audio: Lecture I.1.1)

Our gift to you this month is audio lecture. Access this download for free until the end of the month.

Early shrines and cave art suggest that human beings were aware of a grand mystery far beyond themselves more than 100,000 years ago. Modern investigations into early mythologies have revealed basic motifs and recurring themes. Joseph Campbell shows how these ancient myths and symbols celebrate the mysteries of life and can sustain us today.

News & Updates

Tish’a B’Av (August 7) is a day of mourning over the destruction of Judaism’s First and Second Temples.

On Āshūrāʾ (August 8), Shi’ite Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali in 680 (CE).  However, for the Sunni, Āshūrāʾ is a time to recall Allah’s merciful presence throughout history evidenced in Noah’s safe landing in the ark as well as his guidance of the Children of Israel to the Promised Land. The Islamic schism itself dates from the aforementioned martyrdom of Ali when tribal politics erupted in violence.

For ten days beginning August 8, Zoroastrians observe the Muktad honoring the Fravashis or guardian spirits thought to influence prosperity and family well-being.

On Raksha Bandhan (August 11), Hindu women and girls tie protective talismans around their brothers’ wrists. The festival, which translates to “tying on of protection,” is also the subject of a movie premiering the same date in 2022. Trailers look promising.

Weekly Quote

God and Buddhas in the Orient are not final terms like Yahweh, the Trinity, or Allah, in the West—but point beyond themselves to that ineffable being, consciousness, and rapture that is the All in all of us. And in their worship, the ultimate aim is to effect in the devotee a psychological transfiguration through a shift of his plane of vision from the passing to the enduring, through which he may come finally to realize in experience (not simply as an act of faith) that he is identical with that before which he bows

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Myth Resources

The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church

Margaret Visser spent a lot of time at Sant’ Agnese fuori le Mura in Rome, studying every detail of this small building. I have learned a lot about the symbolism of church architecture and design from this book, a bestseller in Canada

A “delightful” tour of Rome’s St. Agnes Outside the Walls, examining the stories, rituals, and architecture of this seventeen-hundred-year-old building (The Christian Science Monitor).

In The Geometry of Love, acclaimed author Margaret Visser, the preeminent “anthropologist of everyday life,” takes on the living history of the ancient church of St. Agnes. Examining every facet of the building, from windows to catacombs, Visser takes readers on a mesmerizing tour of the old church, covering its social, political, religious, and architectural history. In so doing, she illuminates not only the church’s evolution but also its religious legacy in our modern lives. Written as an antidote to the usual dry and traditional studies of European churches, The Geometry of Love is infused with Visser’s unmatched warmth and wit, celebrating the remarkable ways that one building can reveal so much about our history and ourselves.

Featured Work

Joseph Campbell Companion, A

In an intimate seminar gathered at the Esalen Institute for one month in 1983, Joseph Campbell discussed the ways in which myth informs and pervades each of our lives. This popular book gathers together many of Campbell’s mind-opening thoughts and observations from this seminar, from his lectures, and from his published work. This is both an inspiring and a very accessible volume to enjoy.

Book Club

“Travelers to the ancient Greek oracle at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were greeted with these words, carved into the stone above the door: ‘Know Thyself,’ ‘Nothing in excess,’ ‘Surety brings ruin.’ Somewhere, in the space between these maxims, was the answer to their prayers. In her novel Delphi, Clare Pollard inhabits this space in form and content, and invites us to reflect on our need to know what the gods, the cosmos, or fate has in store for us. Fragments of Greek mythology and a survey of oracular devices are held up to our present-day fears and uncertainty. What fuels our longing to know the future, and how does this desire impact the present?”

Catherine Svehla, PhD
Editorial Advisory Group
Joseph Campbell Foundation

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