The Sacred Marriage - Lecture II

The Narrow Gate

We’re talking in this series of lectures about an ancient mythological symbol called the hieros gamos or the sacred marriage. Eventually – at some other time of the year; we don’t have enough Saturdays here in June to accomplish our full objective in this particular series of lectures – we will set forth the philosophical translation of the myth found in pagan philosophy, and how the theological dogma of the Church answered that with its own “theological philosophy”. But since the myth is a picture, and philosophy is a concept, the myth is easier to grasp for those uninitiated in philosophy. We are hoping that having the mythological picture of the sacred marriage firmly “in hand” will make it easier to understand the intellectual concepts of philosophy and the dogmatic teaching of the Church, so that we can begin to be properly awed at the sight of the glorious vision of the Gospel.

 The sacred marriage is the union of god and goddess. This is a mythological symbol for the comprehensive union of opposites that constitute the cosmos as a whole. It represents, therefore, completion, perfection, totality, wholeness. In the mythological image of the sacred marriage, the center of that union is in the belly or the womb of the Goddess, i.e., in death; or rather, in that mystical realm closed off to our profane eyes that lies on the other side of our birth and our death. It is instructive to note that the Teutonic name for the Goddess is Hell; and the Greek word, Hades, means unseen. These two names indicate a notion of death not as a tragic end but as an unseen chamber of transformation. Death is the hidden dark fourth of the mother’s womb, the sanctuary of the cosmic temple in which a transformative mystery takes place. The bald old man dies and is transformed as the newborn babe. Death, that is to say, is the alchemical retort in which lead is changed into gold, i.e., man into god. It is the philosophers’ gate through which the One passes to become many, and through which the many pass to return back to the One. When we die, our “real self” returns to the mystery, the dark fourth of the Goddess’ womb where we came from in our birth; and there, in the mystery, in the womb of the Goddess, in the dark fourth of death, we come upon our end which, in the mythological experience of the sacred marriage, is revealed as the beginning of a new existence for us. The religious and philosophical question is: what is that new existence?

The sacred marriage is by no means a relic of a bygone era. It is an archetypal image that makes manifest the inner, invisible structure of our nature which not even science, I would say, is able to measure. It is of intrinsic interest to us. Let’s look more closely at the reasons.

Why the Sacred Marriage is of Interest

1. Similarities. First, the drama of the sacred marriage shows striking similarities to the Gospel.  A divine son born of a virgin mother, who grows to manhood only to be cut off by his nemesis in the prime of his life, but then rises from the dead on the third day “for the life of the world” is the central drama of pagan antiquity’s sacred marriage as it is of the Christian Faith. The cross is a symbol central to the sacred marriage as well. With its four arms, it marks the four stages of the virgin-born child’s life-cycle: birth, youth, adulthood, then the hidden phase of the “dark fourth.”

This raises the question: is Jesus just a myth? If so, then there was no Incarnation and Jesus is just a Jewish version of Osiris or Dionysius or any of the other virgin-born sons of the Goddess of pagan antiquity. At stake here is not so much the truth of the Gospel, given what we have said about the myth: that it is an archetypal image that reveals the invisible structure of our nature. At stake is coming upon the “narrow gate” of the Gospel that opens onto the Truth of what God has prepared for those who love Him, which eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has been conceived by the heart of man.[1] For, if we see the Gospel simply as a variant of some universal mono-myth, if Jesus is simply another “mask” of God or one of the thousand “faces” of the divine hero found in every mythology, then there is nothing distinctive about the Gospel proclamation and no reason for the Christian Faith not to be absorbed into other religious world views, saying the same thing as the mystery religions or Hinduism or Buddhism or Gnosticism, just in a Hebraic way (and this is precisely what we see happening in other Christian churches). If, however, the Gospel is in fact proclaiming a “new and strange” doctrine that the philosophers on Mars Hill had not heard before,[2] then that narrow gate hiding in the “broad path” of the religions of the world will be obscured. We’ll pass right over it without seeing it.


2. The Same Template. The sacred marriage is of intrinsic interest for a second reason. I shared with you in my last lecture how archaeological evidence suggests to us that mankind’s earliest experience of the ultimate mystery of being was not that of a Father God but of a Mother Goddess. In the earliest religious experience of man, the whole world is divine. It is the body, the epiphany of the Goddess. Her materia is the material principle of everything that exists. The earliest philosophers recognized the Goddess as a mythological image of the soul and the principle of the universe. Modern psychology says the same thing. The image of the Goddess is a projection of the soul onto the screen of divinity. By engaging the image, man engages his soul.

Here is the template of the Goddess that is still the template of worldly thought. The Goddess is the material principle of being. Everything in its material substance is the materia of the Goddess. The soul’s material principle is the materia of the Goddess. The soul in its material principle is the measure of all things. It is the ultimate mystery of being. In religious terms, it is divine, immortal, eternal.

The mythological concepts and images of the sacred marriage will be transmuted into the prose of philosophy and even into the theories of modern day science. But the template is the same: whether you place in the center of the template a Goddess or a God, or the philosopher’s water or air or fire or earth or mind or the infinite,[3] or the One or the scientists’ carbon 14 or energy, as the material principle that everything is when reduced to its irreducible essence, you are saying that everything is absolutely the same in its irreducible essence. You should recognize this template as that of monism or pantheism (which is essentially a variant of monism) and as the religious source for that universal religious insight: “That art thou.”

Life is this material (of the mother’s substance) principle in movement: from birth to death to rebirth in the religious terms of the myth; from the One or Being into the realm of becoming and back to the One or Being in philosophical terms. Since the many are the One in the material principle of their irreducible essence, they have no existence in themselves except as instances of the one life force. They are like so many ice cubes destined to dissolve back into the water of the cosmic ocean.[4] In this template of the Goddess, there is no essential difference between theism and atheism. God is simply the term you give to the material principle of being, whether that material principle is mind or water or carbon 14 or energy or something else altogether. The question, then, isn’t: is there a God? The question is: what is God? What is the material principle of being that everything is an instance of, and that everything dissolves back into?

Does such a cosmos, however, have any real meaning where the life that the uroboric life-cycle of birth, death and rebirth symbolizes is always coming back to its beginning and never getting anywhere? Is not everything but an illusion since it is all headed for dissolution back into the One, the God, the material principle, as though it never existed in the first place? Physics in this scheme of things is really phenomenology: the study of ephemera, illusory ephemera. But I’ll ask the Romanian Orthodox theologian, Dumitru Staniloae to speak to this subject:

“Our disappearance into nature would represent no progress of any kind even for nature.  [It] would imply a static situation within a process that remains always essentially identical with itself and is, therefore, in its monotony, absurd.”[5]

Already the template of the sacred marriage is at odds with the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Logos,” which could be translated as “meaning”. All things came to be in the Logos or in meaning. The Gospel preaches, therefore, that the world is intrinsically meaningful; and the Gospel claims to teach us how to find that meaning and to become one with it so that we ourselves become meaningful.

The world is intrinsically meaningful according to the Gospel because the “one lost sheep”, i.e., the particular individual, has value such that the One, the Logos of God, goes looking for it. In the template of the sacred marriage, on the other hand, the “one lost sheep” has no value except as an instance of the One. And this is still the template of worldly wisdom, whether religious or philosophical or scientific. These are our first indications that there is something significantly different about the Gospel beneath its apparent similarities with the sacred marriage. Where will we find that narrow gate where the Gospel opens beyond the sacred marriage?

Note that our attention is now directed to the gates of the dark fourth at the center of the Goddess’ template. Behind those gates, in the unseen chambers of Hell, the mystery transpires that religion is all about. Our question becomes more focused: what happens to the “one lost sheep” behind those gates in the dark fourth according to the Gospel?

3. A Dynamic Materia. This brings me to a third reason why the sacred marriage is of interest to us. Analytical psychology sees the sacred marriage as an archetypal image. That means that it makes visible through its imagery the invisible geography of the psyche and the movement of libido or psychic energy. Analytical psychology sees this as a process of individuation. Let me describe how analytical psychology interprets the symbol of the sacred marriage and then I’ll explain how this makes the sacred marriage of interest to us.

The sacred marriage is a symbol of the psyche’s instinctive drive to individuation. The son/lover of the Goddess represents the “organ” of differentiated consciousness, the ego. The Goddess as Great Mother represents the unconscious, the “womb” that is impregnated by the seed of the father god, the seed of consciousness, whose materia, of course, is that of the Goddess. The paternal seed of consciousness unites with the “egg” of the maternal unconscious. The egg I suppose is the ego in potentia. It is the treasure hiding in the field, the pearl of great price, the princess trapped in the dragon’s den.

The ego, however, is but a stage on the road to individuation. That road leads back into the womb of the Goddess, back into the sacred temple of transformation, the unconscious. The ego, however, if it is not to be consumed by the Goddess’ devouring maw, must attain to manhood, to a certain level of consciousness, so that it can unite with the Goddess as her adult lover, her bridegroom, i.e. in consciousness. The uroboric cycle of the sacred marriage, or of individuation, is now transposed to a higher key. Its ballad is now of the ego penetrating the dragon’s den to recover the princess for the conscious purpose of uniting with her in the sacred marriage to bring the fractured opposites of the psyche together into a single, unified whole. This is the fully integrated self, the divine child, the son of god born of the virginal bride, even the “incarnate” son of god who is the product of the pysche’s full integration.

So Jesus for analytical psychology is a psychologem. He represents the ego striving for integration by accepting death on the Cross and burial in the tomb to descend into hell, the dark fourth, the alchemist’s sacred retort of transformation by which lead, the ego, is transformed into gold, the self. The risen Christ is the ego transformed into the fully integrated self.

The drive to individuation is the outer face of psychic energy or libido. Note, then, how the theories of analytical psychology insert into the template, in place of the Goddess, energy as psychic energy or libido to establish a material principle of being that is inherently purposive. The life instinct and the death instinct, drawn from the theories of psychoanalysis, and which you should recognize as the psychological transmutations of Thales’ rarefaction and condensation, or Heracleitus’ principle element of fire (another evidence that the underlying template is the same; only the names have been changed to honor the programmers), are the instinctive movements impelling creation in its material drive for individuation in the fully integrated self.

But in its material substance, how is the self any different from the ego or even the unconscious? Has the school of analytical psychology accounted for the movement of the many from the One without in the end losing the many to the One? In the final analysis, its theory is unable to support the purpose it attributes to the material substance of the psyche. The way it speaks of the collective unconscious, an impersonal nature that is the foundation[6] of the individuation process, and of a transpersonal Self – that seems to be an abstract merging of many micro-selves into one transpersonal macro-Self that is as such impersonal, leads me to believe that the ancient riddle of the One and the many remains as obscure as ever. Honestly, it looks like a modern effort to be scientific that succeeds only in looking like a scientific version of the religion of the Upanishads – or probably more accurately, given Jung’s religious sources of choice, ancient Gnosticism. We are still working with the same template that collapses into monism in which the many are lost in their material identity with the One, the self (Brahman, Atman, Sophia, Aion), the ultimate principle of the universe and the goal of psychic energy – libido, or prana?

Nonetheless, analytical psychology helps us to sharpen the focus of our question even more because its theories take us mentally into the dark fourth to show us more precisely what we’re talking about in the sacred marriage and in the Spiritual Marriage of the Gospel. Both have at their center what they present as the material principle of the soul, or the self. At issue, then, is a proper identification of the material principle and the nature and destiny of the self.

So, you see, our topic isn’t about a relic of a bygone age. It’s about an issue that should be of the highest interest because it is of some existential urgency: Who am I? Why am I? What must I do to inherit eternal life?


Addendum: Let me conclude by anticipating one of the points we hope to make in a future lecture. It concerns the “principle of nature”. You saw this evening how many “nominees” have been set forth as candidates for the “principle of nature” or, as we just now called it from our summary of analytical psychology, the “material principle of the soul or of the self”: water, air, fire, earth, mind, the infinite (which is probably the circle, and that might be the uroboros), carbon 14, energy. What is the “principle of nature” or the material principle of the soul or of the self as given in the theological vision of the Church? It is articulated by Origen of Alexandria. In his commentary on St John 20:21 (or so); he writes: “Our primary substance (he uses here the Greek word hypostasis, that which stands underneath, which will become in later Christian dogmatic terminology the word for the Person) is “our having been made in the Image of God.” The Image of God is not a thing; it is the Person of Jesus Christ (cf. Col 1:15 with Gn 1:26-28.) St Didymus the Blind, a student of Origen, would refine this teaching in the early part of the fourth century. The Image of God, he would write in his commentary on Gen 1:26-28 is fundamentally our capacity for God.

I would submit that this can be a knob by which you can lay your hand on the narrow gate. Think on it, and see if the narrow gate doesn’t open onto a completely different “world”. It would be the world of the Spirit that is in the world but not of it; the world of the Kingdom of Heaven.

[1] 1 Cor 2:9

[2] Cf. Acts 17:19-20

[3] Probably the circle representing a never ending cycle of change, like the Chinese yin-yang or Heracleitus’ principle of fire.

[4] I outlined this ontological vision in contrast to the ontological vision of Byzantine theology in the three lectures I presented here last year.

[5] The Experience of God, trans. Ioan Ionita and Robert Barringer. Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Cross Orthodox Press. 1998, p. 4.

[6] Or, the hypostasis, the term of Christian dogma for what “stands underneath”. This shows how the theory of analytical psychology is diametrically opposite the ontological vision of Christian dogma. In Christian dogma, the hypostasis is not the impersonal nature from which the person ebbs and flows, but the Person in which the nature exists.