Tending the Flame

Three days after my husband’s sudden death last month, a thought wafted into my bludgeoned consciousness: “Now you will see what your faith and your psychology are made of. Now you’ll find out what’s really true, because whatever a person believes or thinks are true are really only as true as the largest crisis or heartache.”

This thought came to me, and I knew it was true. I have, in fact, discovered the substance of my faith. I’ve also seen of what use analytical psychology is during the worst crisis of my life. I have found out what’s true for me. Sometimes what I’ve seen has been surprising.

In our Jungian Studies seminars, we’ve been studying alchemy for two months. I’ll be sharing some of what we’ve learned for the metaphorical and psychological value, because what I’ve learned has given me light during a dark time.

Wikipedia’s definition of alchemy emphasizes the popular misconception that alchemy was a medieval science that sought to transform base metals into gold. It was, in the popular way of thinking, mere money-grubbing through archaic science. This is not true.

Alchemy was, indeed, a medieval science, but also a philosophy. The word comes from roots meaning “the work.” For Jung, James Hillman, and other analytical psychologists, alchemy provides a sort of anatomy of individuation, along with a methodology for approaching the psyche and how one experiences the world.

The goal of alchemy was to transform base matter by liberating the meaning in it. Put in psychological terms, alchemy is a process by which you change your mind, and everything connected with your mind.

The psyche speaks in images, while the mind speaks in concepts. Alchemical language is not a conceptual language, it is one of images; it will therefore appeal to the visual learner, the artist, the poet, and the philosopher as well as the psychologist, the student of life, the person given to asking questions.

Alchemy is a judgment-free discipline. Alchemists merely undertook the work with a “wait-and-see” mindset. This is the mindset of the true skeptic, who suspends judgment and simply tries to look into a matter and see what it is, how it reacts to another substance, what happens when different degrees of heat are applied, and so on.

For the alchemist, everything was secret and everything was the most important thing. Two alchemists in two different laboratories could use the same substances in the same way but achieve different results, because the alchemical process was directly affected by the psychological and spiritual state of the alchemists themselves.

When alchemists failed at their projects, it was because they let their fire go out. The light, heat, and warmth went out of their work because they grew too weary to tend the flame. The writer of Hebrews admonished Christians to “run with endurance the race marked out for us,” for it is human nature to falter and lose heart when we’re faced with suffering, shame, and opposition (Hebrews 12:1-13). Under prolonged suffering, anyone can “grow weary and lose heart.” Thus, the medieval alchemist, cooking his substances at low heat all day and all night, might fall asleep, become distracted, or otherwise fail to persevere at the work. The most common cause of failure was the failure to tend the flame.

Let’s remember to tend the flame.

24 responses

  1. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t
    shoow up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Regardless, just wannted to say superb blog!

  2. Eve…in the wake of your loss I find it so very difficult to explain myself fully on this. After much mental debate in my mind…..I’ve chosen to let it be…it’s not necessary I’m understood on this…my emotions and thought processes are far too abhorrent, dismal, and hopeless. Especially to be expressed to those whom are seeking enlightenment and hope. It is not my intention to scare people into such hopelessness…nor to minimize their grief and emotions over the loss of precious loved ones. There is no antidote for such grief…it is paralyzing and, with the exception of narcissists,….no one is immune nor prepared for it’s slaughter to the soul.
    Such is the death of a loved one.

    As a young woman I used to love to read Stephen King novels…I’m far beyond that now….but way back then they were fun and interesting to me. I will never forget one short story he wrote….I read it once and never forgot it and because it had such an impact on me….it seemed an insight somehow into my future and yet I had no idea how that would come about.

    It was a futuristic little story about a family that were taking the express “train” to Mars. This train traveled at such a fast speed…faster then sound or light…so that it would get one there in a matter of minutes. Only thing is one had to be put to sleep before this flight. When tested on mice …scientists found that if they were not put to sleep…they came out the other end insane.

    A young boy that was traveling with his family, however, did not want to be put to sleep. He wanted to “see” what occurred during this flight…fully awake. So when it was time to be given the gas that put all the passengers to sleep…the boy broke the rules…and held his breath when the attendants covered his mouth with the mask before, they too, put themselves to sleep.

    When the “train” arrived at it’s destination… the passengers slowly woke up. The boy’s family, whom had slept through the flight, awoke one by one. When they were fully awake they noticed the boy was not there with them. Almost immediately they heard blood curdling screams coming from an adjacent room. They rushed in….there they saw the boy…where the attendants had tied him to a share and he was screaming in anguish….his mother then tried to comfort him. He shoved her away shrieking… his face twisted in agony…..”I wanted to see!!!! I wanted to see!!!”….”Well I SAW!!!”…..and with that he reached up and scratched his own eyes out of his head. End of story.

    I wish I had chosen to remain asleep. I realize, though, I cannot share this…I have a responsibility to anyone I come into contact with not to share it….. it is revolting. It is terror.

    Eve…I am in awe of your and the other folks on this site…courage. My best to you and yours always.

    Mona

    • Mona, I think I know what you mean as much as I can without being you or knowing you personally–because you write so clearly. Yes, what you’re saying is true: when we become conscious, things get worse at first. And for a long time. We come to the place where we really lose everything–every sense of direction, of self, of God (if we ever believed), of soul, of the way, of everything. This is essential in the individuation process. Nobody gets there without suffering incredible loss because of consciousness.

  3. Just as in a literal “flame” the flame within us can be and often is extinguishable. It is fragile.

    I can remember that day my flame went out with perfect clarity…to say it was a devastation of catastrophic proportions is putting it mildly.

    It was the day I realized that there are things that one can experience in life that are far worse than death….even that of your own child or in the face of your own premature death.

    I am in no way minimizing the death of a loved one…I have experienced it…the loss and the effects are annihilating, calamitous, desolating, destructive, disastrous, mortifying, and overwhelming as emotions just come upon us, in waves, that there are no words or definitions. Brand new emotions….and they are all terrifying.

    To think some sick god would throw us here (unasked) that would relish in watching us having to “handle” something worse then that…..where all that would be “welcomed” compared to what they are dealing with now…..leaves me filled with hatred.

    I would rather not believe such an entity exists.

    • Mona, I agree there are things one experiences in life that seem worse than death. Death itself would seem a liberation for the one who died; it’s only for those left behind that it’s so difficult.

    • Miss Mona Roberts,

      Thank you.

      You wrote:
      “Just as in a literal “flame” the flame within us can be and often is extinguishable. It is fragile. I can remember that day my flame went out with perfect clarity…to say it was a devastation of catastrophic proportions is putting it mildly. It was the day I realized that there are things that one can experience in life that are far worse than death…”

      I also remember the day my flame went out, only I never saw/thought of it in those terms; seeing it instead in terms of losing my spine, which felt like it was ripped out of me. Before that day I was fearless; since, even though I have unconsciously tried to deny it, I have lived in fear. I haven’t exactly figured out what took place, psychologically speaking– loss of spirit, loss of soul?– but I stumbled across this term from Jung which you may identify with. You are, sadly, too right, there are things much worse than death.

      Abaissement du niveau mental:
      A lowering of the level of consciousness, a mental and emotional condition experienced as “loss of soul.”

      It is a slackening of the tensity of consciousness, which might be compared to a low barometric reading, presaging bad weather. The tonus has given way, and this is felt subjectively as listlessness, moroseness, and depression. One no longer has any wish or courage to face the tasks of the day. One feels like lead, because no part of one’s body seems willing to move, and this is due to the fact that one no longer has any disposable energy. . . . The listlessness and paralysis of will can go so far that the whole personality falls apart, so to speak, and consciousness loses its unity . . . .
      Abaissement du niveau mental can be the result of physical and mental fatigue, bodily illness, violent emotions, and shock, of which the last has a particularly deleterious effect on one’s self-assurance. The abaissement always has a restrictive influence on the personality as a whole. It reduces one’s self-confidence and the spirit of enterprise, and, as a result of increasing egocentricity, narrows the mental horizon [“Concerning Rebirth,” CW 9i, pars. 213f.]

  4. I think so many things distract us from tending our flames, or make it hard to do so. Computer time, for sure. Life becomes wearying instead of nourishing and refreshing. Sometimes we forget where to seek sustenance or even how to, and we drag ourselves down.

    I also think we forget that we provide our own flames and that the source is eternal and ever-sufficient. It’s an illusion that we could ever run out.

    I know this doesn’t help with your grief. I wish I could say something to make it better.

    • So true that we “forget where to seek sustenance or even how to, and we drag ourselves down.” I think about how breastfed babies, if given the bottle and formula, will soon enough want the formula because it comes so easily out of the bottle–even though breast milk is best for the baby. So it is with us: we like our fast food, our junk food, our fast and junky lives. When you live that way all the time, soon you just want what doesn’t really nourish. One generally has to work a bit for what’s nourishing (I’m thinking of cooking, here…!).

      Nothing helps with the grief except to know that grief is universal, that suffering and loss come to every human being, that I am not alone, that I am loved, and that I can’t avoid it or fix it, I simply have to be in it. It will last a long time–years. I will not be myself ever again, but why would I want to be?

      I hurt and I cry in public, especially when people are kind. So what? Better to be crying over kindness than onions.

  5. Eve, I went through the same thing when my sister was dying of cancer. It made me question, and I came out knowing that what I believed really was true–that I really did believe it. I had my doubts for awhile, as I went through the process. I am not glad that she died when she did, but I am glad for what it did for me. I think it made me ready to face the next huge challenge, whatever it might be.

    Of course, it will still hurt as much, but I will be braver and stronger and I will have some perspective that I would not have had before having my faith shaken to the core.

    I am very interested in this topic of alchemy. I hope that someday you will write more about it.

    • RG, I will write more about alchemy. Since it’s about transformation, I can hardly help myself. I feel I’m being cooked over a steady flame these days, anyway. ;o) But you’re right: suffering makes us more ready. It also makes us more compassionate.

  6. 3Eve,

    Only because you make me think first– another wry smile as I’m gonna have to think about this. I think I get what you’re saying, but I’m not sure that I’m coming at it from the same point of view/perspective as you, which alters the perception/meaning.

    Your post reminds me of a myth–that may not even be Native American–of two braves undergoing initiation; they had to carry a fire/coal/ember from the village up a large mountain some distance off and light a fire that could be seen from the village. The first one to do so would be the next chief or some such thing.

    Both raced off into the night. If I remember correctly, running together both encountered a man in need; the one brave continued on and the other stopped and used his flame/ember to light a fire and helped the man in need. Ultimately the one brave reached the mountain first, but his flame went out in the process. It was the second brave who, in stopping (and seemingly losing), rekindled his flame from the fire he started to aid the “other” and though he reached the peak last, was the only one able to complete the task.

    As to its interpretation here, that’s for you; though I will say, having never met your husband, I suspect that he was not the kind of man to race on into the night past the “other” in need.

    In contrast (from Rumi), the Sufi (and Gnostic?) traditions seek to be consumed in the Flame of the One/Beloved. Just a thought.

  7. Dear Eve,

    Even in grief your mind has a magnificent strength. Even in grief your words grip, engage and communicate.

    I just wish you didn’t have to be in grief. That wishing could make it so – that would be my wish for you.

    My prayers for you and the children.

  8. I’ve almost let my own flame go out. It’s a lovely, sad image and so true.

    I shall take better care of my own flame and I trust you will as well. Take care woman. Sending hugs.

    • I will, Deb. I’m watching it. I think of you and all you’ve gone through, and knowing that you ARE still tending your flame gives me strength.

  9. Eve, You are in my prayers. May your faith prove strong, and may you know God’s love in ways you never knew possible.

    Candle

    I’m not afraid of those curled-brown leaves
    hanging in bunches from deciduous trees

    nor strong gusts of the season’s first cold wind
    that will send the last of them flying into darkness.

    I do not avoid spots where leaves now decay—
    virtual ghosts of their green-spring existence

    in rain on city sidewalks and ominous shadows—
    and fall, when the moon’s orange light glows

    soft as an ember. I light a candle on Friday,
    autumnal wind chilling, as we wait in unspoken prayer.

    The heavens look like November, when suddenly
    a dancer cuts through fragrance, pauses before the high altar,

    bows, sways, glides her feet. Touching incense,
    she becomes incense, becomes a tall, white candle,

    burned offering, a body in worship, in essence,
    profuse with continuance, its bold punctuation.

    She points her toes, her undulating hands toward the incense,
    as it curls. The candle as dancer, dancer as candle.

    Fiery symbol as worshipper. All sweetness
    of foretaste of the heaven yet to come.

    first published in Wild Goose Poetry Review and forthcoming in Seriously Dangerous

    • Helen, thank you for this lovely poem. In a beautiful bit of synchronicity, a friend who is an artist blessed me last week with a small oil painting of a curled-brown leaf! I looked and looked at it and thought of all the reasons she might have sent that particular painting. Your poem is lovely and sad, and it also shows just exactly why the painting and poem have come my way. I have to thank you.

  10. Dear Eve,
    I hope I do not presume but I would suggest that your husbands flame will never really go out as long as he lives in the memories you and others have, and in the good deeds that he did. Don’t forget to tend your own flame. Hugs Lee

  11. 3Eve,

    So happy to see ya back, hopefully more frequently.

    As I understand it (possibly incorrectly) cognitive development progresses from image to symbol to concept, which roughly correlates to the body, emotion, and mind centers or preconceptual, preoperational, and concrete operational (Piaget’s terms).

    Image equals the thing itself: an image of a mountain equals/represents a mountain and only a mountain. A symbol can equal anything. A mountain, as a symbol, can equal/mean patience, strength, or anything else you like. Concepts are rules about images and symbols; that, as the medium, they are the means by which we manipulate or work with images and symbols.

    At higher, post-operational, levels of development, I assume that concepts become something to be manipulated (object) as images and symbols are at the conop level, rather than the manner/method in which we manipulate. And if my experience is in anyway indicative, I would suspect that that becomes meaning itself; that we work with/manipulate images, symbols, and concepts via meaning (Viktor Frankl and Logotherapy applies here I think).

    How does all that, if I’ve gotten it right, mesh with, “The psyche speaks in images, while the mind speaks in concepts.”?

    I get the ego-mind speaking in concepts but wouldn’t/doesn’t the psyche speak in symbols? Or is that the unconscious (a component of the psyche)? If the psyche spoke in images I would think that understanding it would be easy, even from a conceptual perspective, because the messages would be literal and therefore not open to (much) interpretation.

    Sorry that I am speaking more to the details of your post rather than the spirit

    “We do not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” ~C.G. Jung

    • Librarian, you make me smile because you make me think! Tonight my smile is a wry one, because thinking is difficult at the moment. But I’ll answer with one immediate answer to your question about the psyche speaking in symbols… I will be going by memory, but the idea is something like this: The image comes first, and the image that arises from the unconscious (the Self / God / Spirit) is alive, breathing, and has meaning to the one to whom the image appears. Once the dreamer / thinker / seer / feeler has this image, the temptation is to make it more and more concrete; when this happens, it may become a symbol. So, I dream of small green frogs, and the image of these frogs means something specific that the Self is saying to me (ego me, conscious me)…. but whatever part of me ‘gets’ the meaning is co-existing with other parts that want to take charge of the meaning. They then turn the frogs image into a symbol, and soon I am wearing a frog on a necklace, or embroidering frogs on my vestments, or preaching frogs from the pulpit or putting them on textbook pages. They then become symbols, and are farther removed from the original image. This is why (I think) that it is said that the psyche speaks in images. This is a sort of foundational idea in analytical psychology. It’s not that the symbol is wrong–it is simply a matter of degrees removed from the original image. These days we do not even have many symbols–we fight all of them, the cross, the flag, the Star of David, anything. We don’t even want symbols, much less images. But now I will go off on a rabbit trail… Anyway, this is my immediate answer, although you are also correct in your understanding. If I remember to do it and have time, I’ll go back over some theory and we can kick it around. I’m glad you brought this up, because it’s always possible that I misspoke!

    • You know, your comment to me a few weeks ago, “it will be OK,” or “everything will be all right” has stuck with me. In fact, I’ll never forget it and will probably thank you many times for sharing it, because that comfort expanded my belief system.

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