Monday, November 25, 2013

Fair Helen

Homer tells us that the Trojan War was fought to win back Helen of Troy, who was rightfully Helen, Queen of Sparta. The war lasted ten long years and almost ended in an inconclusive stalemate, with both the Greeks and the Trojans suffering heavy losses, including their respective heroes Achilles and Hector. The war hovers between history and mythic storytelling: a twilight conflict written centuries after the events. In our terms, Homer was writing a historical novel, but he was also creating something which still speaks to us: something which, long centuries later, our instincts respond to on the deepest level. 

Helen of Troy remains historically elusive, and perhaps for this reason she gathers in strength in our minds. More than a woman or even a queen, she has come to represent the ultimate in feminine beauty, and therefore the ultimate prize that men wish to conquer. Men will go to war to win her, will sacrifice much to possess her. As Womankind she is the guardian of the deepest feminine secrets, the source from which the elixir flows that completes the unity of man’s separation from himself. If he can conquer that secret then the alchemical wedding can be celebrated.

As a conquest whose battleground lies not at the walls of Troy but within ourselves, it is the conquest of separation and the regaining of a unity which has been lost. It is not a battle of the sexes, but a battle for us all. Whether man or woman, we are confronted with this struggle. But this conquest has a darker side. Where it goes wrong is when we are no longer content with mere conquest, but seek as well to have power over what we have conquered, to possess rather than to assimilate and accept. This is when, instead of unity, conflict and further separation follow.

It is the woman, the eternal Helen, who is the holder of the secret of things. Approach her, surrender to her, and we become co-participants in the secret: the secret of the elixir of life, when soul embraces spirit. But as soon as our ‘man’ side reaches for power, as soon as the soul tries to possess Helen as the feminine spirit, we batter ourselves against the walls of Troy in the folly of a needless war. 

There is a secret story of Helen not told by Homer: a story of the ancient mystery schools. This story has Helen seeking the safety of a sanctuary in Egypt, while the wayward Trojan prince Paris actually kidnaps and takes to Troy a phantom double created by magic whom he believes to be the real Helen. This story as well has its inner truth. For the man who strives after power in place of unity, the woman makes herself invisible. It is this phantom Helen, more ghost than substance, whom he ends up having power over and taking possession of, while the real Helen, the Helen who could so easily be his, the Helen of peerless beauty, remains hidden from his sight. 

Sculpture La nature se dévoilant á la Science by Louis Ernest Barrias
Musée d'Orsay

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Birds of Passage

A wise rabbi once said: “It is a great challenge always to be in joy, to make yourself strong, and with all your force, to banish sadness and bitterness out of you. All sickness that comes over human beings, come forth out of the descent of joy. The descent of joy comes from the deformation of the ‘deep song’, of the vital rhythms. When joy and this deep song are affected, sickness can overcome us. Joy is a great remedy. It is important to find one place in us which gives us joy, and attach ourselves to it."

Another wise voice – that of Khalil Gibran’s – said of joy and sorrow: "Your joy is your sorrow unmasked, and the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain." 

Joy works in us. To enjoy – to ‘en-joy’ – is a way of living which gives spirit and flow. Joy seems to embrace a whole spectrum of verbs: to trust, to heal, to give, to receive, to dance, to sing, to share, to make love: all ways of living from the heart.

And we wish this joy for everyone, which is what can keep us going. But we also will encounter the pain of joy – the joy which has its borders:  borders which always will be there in some form. And when we experience injustice, it is this sense of injustice which can harden these borders. Still we know: I am on my life's journey. Like the migrating birds of passage, after their African sojourn, journey north  to breed and face storm and rain on their journey, in the same way the soul, full of joyful anticipation, hurries straight through the opposing forces towards her destination, which is complete joy.

The way of joy is a way to self-knowledge. For along this road of joy, just as the birds meet their headwinds and storms, we will meet our inner obstructions. We will be given a panoramic view of our fears and flaws, our weaknesses and pains, and we learn that we carry traumas within which cannot be healed. It is understandable that many of us will lose heart altogether, falling into grief and depression, or even face illness which no doctor can heal.

And still we make the attempt to keep enjoying, even though the social pressures to remain positive, to ‘look on the bright side’, can at times appear clichéd and hollow to the point of seeming cynical. For sometimes the pain is too deep, too fierce, for us to be able to discover the tiniest bud of joy in ourselves. But…

No night so dark that it will become morning again, is a line in a song by a Dutch troubadour.

We have to break in order for the light to come in, a dear friend once said to me. How right he was. For in the crack of breaking one will see, however small or faint, this spark. It is the spark of creation! However softly-glowing, it will find its way to our wounded heart, and begin to shine from within. The more we hold on to it, nurture it, the more this creative joy comes to light, and back into our life again.

When that wise rabbi asks of us to be strong, and with all our force to banish sadness and bitterness from us, and Khalil Gibran tells us that joy and sorrow are inseparable, I like to believe that they both contain their own truth. We all have experiences of joy and sorrow to know that we need to be strong like the birds of passage, facing storms and losses, but also experiencing those moments of pure joy, of effortless soaring over the moonlit oceans.

Painting Joy and Sorrow by Kahlil Gibran

Friday, November 8, 2013

On the Shores of Endless Worlds

The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore was a true mystic – but a mystic in the most human sense in that he allows us to see his fallibility, his constant wrestling with and searching for the form of his relationship with the divine. In this he is like another profound thinker, the Spaniard Miguel de Unamuno, who remarked that: "Faith which does not doubt is dead faith." 

Tagore's collection of blank verse poems known as 'Gitanjali' ('Song Offerings') we came across in an old Dutch edition from 1920. The Dutch is rather old-fashioned, and so we set out yesterday evening to write our own free translation into English. The poem draws no conclusion (and is the stronger for that), but listen to its sound: you can almost hear the rush of the waves onto the shore and the laughter of children. And the interweaving of innocence and experience, death and life, are played off against each other to the backdrop of Tagore's vivid and powerful setting. These things, Tagore seems to be saying, are not contrasts, but simply changing aspects of what is really a seamless whole.


On the shores of endless worlds the children gather. The infinite heavens are motionless above, and the restless waters are boisterous. On the shores of endless worlds the children gather, dancing, shouting, laughing with joy.

They build their houses of sand and play with empty shells. They weave their boats from dry leaves and laughingly launch them upon the unfathomable deeps. The children play their games on the shores of worlds.

They are unable to swim. They have not learnt how to cast nets. Pearl fishers dive for pearls, traders sail in their ships, while the children collect pebbles, only to discard them again. They do not search for buried treasure, they cannot cast fishing nets.

The sea rears up laughing, and pale glints the smile of the shore. Death-dealing waves sing songs without meaning to the children, as a mother who rocks the cradle of her infant. The sea plays with the children, and pale glints the smile of the shore.

On the shores of endless worlds the children gather. Storms course through the uncharted firmament, ships founder in the trackless watery wastes, death is abroad, and children play. On the seacoast of endless worlds is the great gathering of children.

From ‘Gitanjali’, by Rabindranath Tagore
Translated from the original Bengali into Dutch by Frederik van Eeden, and from Dutch into English by