The human race has a collective unconscious principally accessed through the vehicle of culture. Through culture, we gain access to the universal (common to all humanity) and the particular (located within the particularity of a culture) repositories of the collective unconscious. The word repository is a good one here.The collective unconscious houses the violent impulses of a society or culture. This is material too dangerous to allow free reign because the destructive nature of such collective unconscious material poses a threat to the stability of a civilized society.The collective unconscious is where a culture or society’s primal instincts, impulses, memories are banished through the mechanism of repression – a form of collective forgetting.
Because the mechanism of repression is a form of forgetting, we are easily lulled into a false assumption that what is forgotten has been deleted from our cultural experience. We are surprised when unconscious material resurfaces into the field of conscious awareness. Cultures and societies often imagine they have moved on from the memories of a more violent past. Like material we imagine has been deleted from the hard drive on a computer, the cultural violence of the past lurks out of sight and out of collective mind. On a computer hard drive deleted material simply awaits the right program to unlock its retrieval. In the case of a society or culture circumstances of uncertainty and conflict weaken the mechanism of repression; allowing the primitive phobias rooted in hatred and fear to re-emerge into the conscious awareness of the civic space.
The idea of a collective unconscious is one of Carl Jung’s important contributions to the field of depth psychology. Yet, the core idea of the unconscious is best summed up by a maxim of the great Sigmund Freud who said that what we can no longer remember we are destined to repeat.
I begin this reflection on the significance of the commemorations of All Saints- All Souls on November 1st and 2nd this year with this brief exploration of the workings of the collective unconscious because underneath the Christian carapace of All Saints and All Souls lie very ancient pagan spiritualities. Pagan spiritualities speak to a more primal level of collective experience. These continue to be represented to the modern American consciousness in the rituals of the Celtic Halloween and the Aztec Dia de los Muertos.
Celtic Halloween and the Aztec Dia de los Muertos represent an uncanny similarity. Each is historically and culturally distinct, completely unrelated to the other, yet, their similarity evidences the universal – transcultural – elements of the collective unconscious still very much in play. They both represent cultural responses to the fear of the power of Otherness – that which cannot be seen but remains strongly felt through its malignant influence upon everyday experience. The Halloween custom of disguise expresses our ancestors fear of death. They disguised themselves with costume, mask and face paint in an attempt to hide personal identity from the demons let loose at this time to roam the earth.
This All Saints-All Souls tide, we continue in the nightmare of dark collective and cultural forces reawakened and revitalized, demons of our collective past, which many of us naively believed had been deleted from the cultural hard drive. The endless cycles of an invasive news media communicate into our waking and sleeping the incontrovertible proof of the dark fears of Otherness let loose upon our civic landscape. Xenophobia, homophobia, racism, or misogyny, fears we thought we had become either liberated from or had at least made social and cultural progress against once again slip their chains in our collective unconscious to re-emerge into the conscious awareness of our shared civic/cultural conversations.
These collective phobias of Otherness never go away. They have never really been forgotten. Our only protection against them lies in a constant conscious remembering to avoid the ambush of unexpected repetition.
Everything in the universe is interconnected and interdependent, nothing is really forgotten. The Medieval Church understood this only too well in the grand panorama of a three-tiered universe comprised of the Church Militant here in earth, the Church Expectant – those having passed through death into a state of preparation for eventual entry into the third tier of the Church Triumphant – the saints in heaven who now worship night and day before the throne of the Lamb of God. Prayer as an expression of love and affection, of a sense of indissoluble interconnectedness and the ongoingness of relationship, flowed up and down along a two-lane highway connecting the tiers of the three-fold universe.
The 21st-century mind is not the medieval mind. Between them lie the vicissitudes of a process Charles Taylor has called disenchantment. For us the three-tiered universe is at best a wonderful metaphor that stimulates imagination, or is at worst a fairy story explanation, which having grown up, the Western mind is no longer in need of. Yet, at the heart of the three-tiered metaphor lies a profound understanding of the nature of interconnection communicating the indissolubility of relationship.
For many today, myself included, the medieval imaginary is now replaced by a quantum imaginary. The metaphors of web and network, particle and wave, and the structure of parallel dimensions provide the metaphors for interconnection and communication within a culturally syntonic (culturally compatible) expression of ancient realities.
Descending from a cosmic panorama to the human dimension we encounter the central truth at the heart of All Saints and All Souls. All Saints is the only festival that can be transferred to a Sunday so as to take precedence over the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. The reason for this is that spiritually and psychologically, All Saints-All Souls, link light and dark, white and black, joy and sorrow. These linked commemorations express the fundamental truth that for human beings death is an ambiguous experience.
All Saints expresses the truth that death is merely a biological event at a point along a continuum of life change. As the Eucharistic preface for the dead puts it – for to thy faithful people O Lord, life is changed but not ended, and when our mortal bodies lie in death, there is prepared for us a resting place, eternal in the heavens.
This expresses the belief that the life now and the life to come are interconnected by the ongoing nature of relationship continued and sustained through prayer. Thus in the saints, we rejoice with those who have been made complete in the love of God. We continue to request their spiritual concern and the support of their prayer so that the love of those who now worship from a nearer shore continues to strengthen us in our task to be the Church in the world.
Yet, unremitting cheerfulness in the face of death denies our wrenching experience of physical loss and separation from those we love but see no longer. Grief is the response to loss as we experience loved ones kidnapped by death. In the commemoration of All Souls, we give expression to this human dimension of death and although they do not need our commendation, we need to commend them to the mercy and love of God. For us, this is an expression of our continued sense of involvement with them. We ask their prayers and in return, we pray for them as they move into the next phase of a life that is eternal.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Hebrews12:1