Thursday, November 8, 2012

Response to a Challenge

Earlier this week, Carla commented on a post of mine:
"You've made me actual consider ordering the Mary-El, and I didn't think that was possible. If you can write an entry reconciling me to that Hierophant image, I am sold. :)"
This, I suppose, is my attempt... ;]

 "It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there rotting on prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either - but right through every human heart - and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us it oscillates with the years. And even within the hearts overwhelmed with evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an un-uprooted small corner of evil. Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions on the world. They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person."
― Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

The image for the Hierophant that we have here is, to say the least, rather unusual; some might call it uncomfortable, disturbing. Indeed, we have a woman, bony and sorrowful, awkwardly holding two deformed infants to suck at her swollen breasts. A stained glass window, murky, behind her; a golden key dangles at her chest. What to make of this image?

(The book offers an explanation tied to the deck creator's own vision/system, calls the woman Babylon. I have a firm tradition of only taking what works for me from such book, however, and much of the deck's underlying system as described is not for me. And so....)

Well, who is the Hierophant, really? What is this major meant to represent? Almost always depicted as male, he is sometimes called the Pope, or the High Priest. Though usually depicted as a religious leader, he represents more than just the influence of established religion. He is authority - not personal, familial, organization, like that of the Emperor - but rather moral authority, systemic authority, the pull of duty and obligation. All those rules and taboos, established and implicit, that we are pushed to follow. He can be a teacher and a guide, wisdom of time and experience collected so as to be passed on. He can be tradition, institutions that hold sway, a regimented, routine way of doing things, the path of least resistance, the path of doing what you 'should' do, what you are 'expected' to do. He can teach, and he can guide, and he can forbid and command, our Hierophant.

But is it only religion and institutions that can do this, that can push us this way? Is this the only aspect of our lives that this card can represent? What teaches us, sometimes gently and sometimes with great pain, clawing into our skin, our minds? What do we suck at, in life, to find our moral center, the traditions and routines we end up following? How do we learn which expectations to follow and which to reject, which are the duties that bind us, call to us? Only from teachers, mentors, religious leaders?

No, no. What greater teacher is there, in life, if not our own experience, our own suffering? What can build and nurture compassion more than our own pain? How can we understand the sorrow and grief of others, had we never felt it ourselves? How could we learn to forgive, if not for having made our own mistakes, sometimes careless, sometimes ignorant, and sometimes pettily deliberate? We are molded and shaped by our experiences, our traumas and troubles as much as by our triumphs.

Who is that woman, that monstrous figure of suffering that holds the key to wisdom, enlightenment, transcendence around her neck? Her hands are frightening, but is it she who causes so much pain in the world? Or is it us, our own hands that do these things, the terrible and the wonderful both? Two infants, duality. We build beautiful cathedrals and mosques that stand through the ages, feats of engineering; we help those in need, raise money, give food and clothes to those without. And we burn people and stone people and slaughter them with machetes in churches, calling them roaches. This is humanity. This has always been humanity, the two sides of the coin.

When did I really become aware of the world outside of myself and those I knew? When did I really start thinking about the bigger picture, the grand scheme of things? It wasn't during childhood Sundays in church, daydreaming about stories and characters I had made up; it wasn't anything a teacher said to me, or a parent. It wasn't the early teenaged years I spent alone with books, absorbed in my own inexplicable sadness, my then-need to hurt myself deliberately again and again. All of that may have tilled the earth a bit, opened my mind, but no.

It was me at seventeen, in high school, always the student of history, deciding, for some reason, to read Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, unabridged, all three thick volumes. So much painfully detailed recollection and recording; so much suffering, decades and decades of unthinkable injustice, brutality. We learn about the Holocaust in school, sure - see so many movies that to a degree we become desensitized; and anyway that is a story with a happy ending, relatively speaking. We fought the big bad Nazis, defeated them, liberated the camps. We had the Nuremberg trials and the formation of the Jewish state and we had bold declarations of never again, never again. This was something different. This was the suffering of twenty or forty million people (not counting victims or forced famines or war) killed over decades, and even more with lives destroyed. This was suffering without restitution, without justice, even without recognition. Who can speak of the gulags in any detail in this day and age?

I was seventeen and my eyes were pulled open. I read about genocides and wars and human rights. I went to university and studied international relations, economics. I wrote a thesis about the security implications of failing to protect human rights.

What shapes us, for good and for bad, if not suffering? What makes some people bitter and others kind? Why do some people grow and others remain the same, small in thought, in feeling, in self-awareness and understanding of the world? Why do some people bend and others break under pressure? What is religion, really, if not a system meant, for better or worse, to help people come to terms with the most terrible and terrifying aspects of existence?

Do we reach for the key, do we find it? Do we swallow the bitter milk we are fed and use it to grow stronger, better than we once were? It is a choice, for each of us; always there is a choice.


Carla said...

You know what. I'm not enabled on that Hierophant card. But I am enabled on you.

Please write more.

When I was seventeen, I disappeared into my room to listen to Duran Duran, write the poetry of the inexperienced, and then went on to major in English and wrote a thesis on 'cars and girls in The Great Gatsby'. :)

Keep writing about this deck, please.

Anonymous said...

I, too, have been following your Mary-El. And I have always liked the jewels you write. And I like this Hierophant card, but probably because I like the Hierophant in general, tho not as typically depicted, which is probably because I have never been involved in any sort of organized religion in my life.

When I was seventeen, I came to the conclusion that I would never be able to touch anybody, because the spaces between the molecules of our bodies would forever remain larger than the molecules themselves. Later on I kissed a boy with great detachment.

Sharyn Mallow Woerz said...

You'll never convince me to order it, those aces make me puke :) Puking for entertainment isn't my style...

78mirrors said...

Loved this piece of writing! Very thought-provoking. :)

Bonkers said...

thanks guys. and yeah, i totally get that not every deck is for everyone but...with that kind of comment, couldn't resist trying ;D

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