The Hero's Quest

Picture: Parsifal The High Mysterious Call
by Willy Pogani, early 20th C Hungarian illustrator

According to separation theory,
the developmental task for men and women is very different. All of us begin inside the body of another human being. All are born utterly dependent on that other and unable to distinguish between our own being and hers. To become a self we must learn, first of all, to separate our own identity from that of our mother. We then gradually grow into our own self through the lifetime process Jung calls individuation. As we move through childhood to adulthood we follow different paths. A little girl attains womanhood by becoming a being that is progressively more and more like her mother. A little boy attains manhood by becoming a being that is progressively less and less like his mother. Here is the Genesis of the differing spiritual paths of men and women: for women, the path is towards unity, inclusiveness, forging community. For men it is towards individuality, separation and distance.

Of course this is a gross simplification - this is just a blog after all, not a psycho spiritual treatise. And of course Pinker and the other evolutionary psychologists are becoming daily more detailed about the way the brains of men and women differ and why; and of course their insights have a bearing on the way the genders develop. But separation theory speaks a truth that has been noted for as long as we people have been taking notice. Think for a moment of the world's religions : Female deities are of the earth. They are concerned with immanence and fecundity. Male deities are of the sky. They are concerned with transcendence and order. And, as many writers have noted, many of the old folk tales are grounded in this difference.

In his small but powerful analysis of male psychology, He (part of a trilogy, He, She and We) Robert Johnson uses the myth of Perceval (Parsifal) to analyse the life journey of men. Perceval is a naive youth, living with his mother. She hides from him the existence of knights and warfare, but one day Parsifal encounters some knights and is entranced. He leaves his mother and sets off in quest of becoming like the ones he has seen. Soon after leaving home he has an encounter with the Holy Grail and the pursuit of the Grail becomes his life's quest. The story is too powerful and too complex for me to mangle it into a blog post, but it involves Perceval encountering a series of mentors, inspirations and enemies as he lives his life in service to others. His renown grows but is always hollow, until at last he attains his life's goal, which happens when he answers the Grail question: Whom does the Grail serve? He has known both the question and the answer (The Grail serves the Grail King) for many years but his quest ends when manages to answer in exactly the right place and at exactly the right time. The end of his quest lies well beyond the goal - knighthood - which had so entranced him as a youth. The end of his quest also brings healing, not so much for himself but for others, and even for the universe.

The story has several versions, and has become the basis of epic poetry and of opera because it is so powerfully evocative. To leave the safety of home and spend himself in pursuit of a great and noble end is the hero's quest. It is the basic plotline of much of the world's mythology, as Joseph Campbell points out in his seminal work on comparative mythology The Hero With A Thousand Faces. It is a motif constantly present in the history of the Church, the lives of the apostles and indeed, in the life of Jesus - if only we choose to see it. The failure of the Church to present the Gospel as a Hero's Quest, and the tendency of the Church to present the Gospel always in terms of community is the deep reason our Western churches are devoid of men. Of course the emphasis on community is of fundamental importance and I am not suggesting for a micro second that the inclusiveness of the gospel or the necessity of establishing and building a truly loving community should be downplayed. But the complementary emphasis of the Gospel, there in the scriptures, is missing in the Western Church, with very predictable consequences.


tumbleweed said…
Today's editorial comment from the Taranaki Daily News entitled:
Bring back bullrush.
"The call used to reverberate around the playgrounds of every school in New Zealand. "Bullrush!" And it would usually be followed by a series of thuds and then a classroom full of sweaty boys with scraped knees and dirty clothes. Those playgrounds have been quiet for some time now, silenced somewhat by a feminised fondness for health and safety and a disdain for the rough and tumble that happens when boys follow their natural path of risk and adventure on the trail to manhood. But a new school in Christchurch, due to open in February, wants boys - and girls - to reconnect with that vital, natural physical part of their upbringing and their learning.
It wants boys to seek adventure, to push themselves physically, even at the risk of bloody knees and sore limbs.
This school wants to bring back the bullrush. And climbing trees. And wars with pretend guns. Kids doing what kids have done for millennia.
And we think they are spot on. Not only are we supportive of what Seven Oaks school is trying to achieve, we implore Taranaki schools to follow suit, to also bring back the bullrush and free our male leaders of the future from the cloying, claustrophobic cotton wool of nanny state health and safety and the mediocrity that it inspires.
Because your way is not working. You have pulled kids from the trees, chucked them out of the school pools, pushed them away from any activity that might be deemed dangerous.
And you have stunted their spirit and blighted their growth.
Is it any wonder that boys have been falling behind the girls on the education ladder for some years, prompting calls of concern from all quarters and a great deal of well-intentioned hand wringing? Is it any wonder that males are discouraged from teaching by an education system that appears openly hostile to the principles and characteristics they embody? Is it any wonder that after years and years of being pummelled by the pink purse of feminised authority and societal pressure that wives and girlfriends are now complaining that men are not ... well ... manly enough?
It all starts with telling young boys, all jumping out of their skins and mad-keen to pummel the guy next to them, that bullrush isn't allowed; it's not considered a creative and productive outlet.
But as guys around the world know, women are from Venus and men are from Mars, and on Mars, men play bullrush.
It's how they learn valuable lessons in character, loyalty and their place in the world.
And we desperately need it back."
Anonymous said…
I would like to draw out another implication from the Parcifal myth. As you point out, Parcifal is adventerous, he takes chances, he frequently throws caution to the wind. He needs to do that. The world of women seems to be very different. It seems to value order, relationships, stability and especially security.

I believe God has given not only men and women to each other but also these qualities through the other: That is men bring to women gifts such as adventure and women bring to men gifts such as security.

Every parish of my experience has a high proportion of older women. The older women in my church are a delight. And even if I didn't enjoy them we all know the institutional church would vanish overnight if there weren't older women to keep it going. [Pity then one occasionally picks up ageism, but that is another thread.]

The problem is the proportion of women and men. With a high proportion of women it follows the gifts that women bring are particularly valued. For example in parish life qualities like order and security are highly valued, qualities such as raucous and reckless are at best undervalued and frequently completely absent. I have experienced worship where at the end we stand in a circle, face each other, hold hands and sing, "Bind us together Lord". Such an activity comes directly from the female world. To be clear, while that is miles away from my own preferences I am not making a comment on someone else’s worship; they can do what they like. I do want the activity to be recognised for what it is. Some years ago I had a series of conversations with a female priest. In her view everything was supposed to be, "Soft and gentle": Our hymns were to be 'soft and gentle', our conversations were to be 'soft and gentle', etc. Anything boisterous was unwelcome. On bad days I wonder if our worship and parish life is safe, secure, stable, with an emphasis on internal relationships, and nothing else. No wonder we are making little headway.

I do not want parish life to have those male qualities only -- it could be quite a strange place. I want our church life to have some of Parcifal's qualities. I want parish life to include a sense of adventure and chance-taking; and, well, if you make a decision and get a bloody nose that's bad rotten luck, you can't always play it safe. Paul didn't bring the Gospel to the Greek speaking world by staying home and avoiding shipwreck. So I know where I want to get. And I have some understandings of why men find church so strange and difficult. Unfortunately I can't get beyond that point. I do not know how to include the qualities of Parcifal's adventure into Sunday morning worship.
Bill Schroeder
Verna said…
I remember days like that in parish life [when I was somewhat younger and less perceptive of other people's sensitivties] when we had working bees to do everything needed around the place, when anyone who wanted to went up long ladders or sloshed paint where it was needed, or tore down walls or erected walls - and not a compliance agreement anywhere let alone planning permission! Now we have committees who seek quotes from tradespersons [as many as care to quote] and long wearisome decision making processes with resource consents required and councils having the last say and subverting every project at every turn with the result that it's just too much paper work to ever achieve anything. Definitely bring back bullrush [and every other activity which promoted healthy attitudes to being involved in anything and everything.] Even the annual parish picnic is too dangerous and I'm dreading the day when OSH gets involved with parish fairs - just think f all those stubbed toes and splinters as tables are set up and the possible burnt fingers on the barbecue - oops - did someone mention the government proposal to have only registered and approved kitchens serving food?!