Some topics are too heavy to be treated other than lightly.
Great fairy tales have that light touch. They treat a weighty message with so light a heart that we are forever delighted by the tension between playful form and ponderous content. A fairy tale at its best might well be a myth that has learned its own lesson so well that it is able to take itself lightly.
[quote text=”But the great Path, which even the monastic approach merely approximates, is all-embracing. Its design shines through every path. “]
This is the reason why fairy tales speak a language understood by all. Smiles need no translation. This is the reason also why the language of fairy tales seems to me appropriate for speaking about obstacles, tests, and trials on the monastic path. Behind this choice of language stands my conviction that the Path that makes any path worth pursuing is one and the same for all of us. The monk has no monopoly on it. The monastic path is merely a methodical approach, designed to keep one on that great “Path with a heart.” Not all who try the monastic approach are thereby monks; what makes you a monk is that for you it works. The monastic path is not designed for all. But the great Path, which even the monastic approach merely approximates, is all-embracing. Its design shines through every path.
The two fairy tales I suggest we explore let the pattern of the great Path shine through. They tell of tests and trials, of the dura et aspera, as St. Benedict calls those “hardships and rough spots” on the way. And they tell of them in a manner that allows us to see the universal Path in the particular, and the monastic trials in the light of the great tests we all must undergo, regardless of the way we choose. The first of my two stories is Grimms’ “Snow White.” The other one is the tale of Amor and Psyche found in the Golden Ass, more correctly called Metamorphoses (Book 4:28 to 6:24) by Lucius Apuleius.
The images of myth and in their own way, great fairy tale images too, raise questions that are not meant to be answered, but lived.
But before we try to see what these two stories can show us about obstacles on the path of the monk or any other, a word of caution: Let us never press their images, nor, for that matter, my own interpretations. In the spirit of the fairy tale, they want to be held lightly. Playfully, almost, those images raise questions, raise rather than answer them. Who are we to press them into answers? Before they are raised, questions tend to oppress us. But once truly raised, a question can arouse life. The images of myth and in their own way, great fairy tale images too, raise questions that are not meant to be answered, but lived.
Try, playfully, to look at the setup of the Seven Dwarfs through Snow White’s eyes. Does it look domestic or monastic? Seen through the eyes of a monk, at any rate, it certainly resembles a monastery rather than a household.
To begin with, the place “beyond seven mountains” and far from any other habitation suggests monastic seclusion. And the little ones who live together there do not form a family, but rather a brotherhood of some sort. They share a common table (St. Benedict’s much emphasized mensa commums) and a common dormitory (“if possible,” says St. Benedict, “all are to sleep in one room”). All receive the same: there are seven little settings on the table, each with its own little plate, spoon, knife, fork, and cup; and when they come home each lights his own little lamp. One is reminded of St. Benedict’s list of things necessary for the personal use of each monk: “cowl, tunic, stockings, boots, belt, knife, pen, needle, handkerchief, writing tablet.” Yet, again in good Benedictine style, the needed things are not issued with military uniformity, but “to each according to need”: the shorter the dwarf, the shorter his bed. And with a rather monastic sense of fairness, the one whose bed fits Snow White’s size takes turns sharing the beds of the other six, crowding each bedmate for only one hour until the night is out.
This brotherhood of seven – septenarius sacratus numerus of the Benedictine Rule – follows a strict schedule of work from morning to nightfall. “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brethren ought to be occupied at definite times in manual labor.” (Walt Disney even adds a monastic detail which the Brothers Grimm have not made explicit: he has them chant as they process in order of seniority.) The order and cleanliness maintained by the Seven Dwarfs strengthens our sense of a monastic atmosphere, for “anyone who treats the monastery property in an untidy or careless way is to be taken to task.”
No single one of the traits we have pointed out might be convincing by itself. But together they add up to a syndrome that could hardly be so monastic by mere chance. In fact, the perspective in which the Seven Dwarfs are viewed can easily be recognized as that of peasants living near a monastery. It is an outsider’s view, in spite of its familiarity with details, not unsympathetic, but baffled as much as intrigued. We hear a suppressed chuckle in the voice that mentions precisely those traits which peasants would have found most unfamiliar in a monastery. Each one is sleeping in a separate bed! St. Benedict, too, makes quite a point of that, for it was by no means a general custom. Order and cleanliness are stressed again and again: But there is more than that, there is refinement. There is a tablecloth; and the bed linen is as white as snow. And small as the Seven Dwarfs are, the storyteller is looking up to them and refers to them even as die Herren, using the title by which, in my own childhood still, peasants would refer to the monks of a neighboring abbey.
That the dwarfs seen in this perspective “dig for gold” makes sense. Given time enough, monasteries tend to acquire wealth. But quite apart from that, peasants would see gold mainly in church; and not so much in their own village church as on a pilgrimage to some monastic shrine. The glass coffin, too, with its golden lettering recalls reliquaries and the monks’ calligraphy. Yet, the most lively details are remembered not from church, but from the monastic kitchen, where lay people from the neighborhood would be as likely as Snow White to find employment. Both cooking and laundering were done in the kitchen; so also mending and knitting while the stew was simmering. All those are listed as Snow White’s duties. But to me the most amusing and convincing little detail is the subtle hint at the monks’ insistence (shall we call it a hang-up?) that the meals be on time. St. Benedict seems almost a bit fussy regarding the evening meal. Twice he repeats that “all must be finished while day-light lasts,” and every Snow White that ever worked in a monastic kitchen soon learned that when the dwarfs came home at night “the meal had better be ready,” as the story puts it – or else.
Anima’s own inner be-wilderment becomes the ordeal which her external trials merely make explicit.
Surely, the stories of Snow White and of Psyche have a great deal of charm in common. But are there deeper connections between the two? On the very surface level of narrative already we detect remarkable parallels as soon as we look closely. This may surprise us, when we remember that one and a half millennia separate Apuleius from the Brothers Grimm. And yet, the similarities make sense as soon as we discover that in both stories the protagonist is the same: Anima. (The Jungian connotation is not misleading here, but we shall have to fill in nuances as we go along.)
Anima’s obstacle course starts with an obstacle. Neither Snow White nor Psyche is allowed a running start. A first and crucial testing stands at the very beginning of both stories. It is, in fact, the impact of collision with this initial obstacle which propels Anima into action. Not a bad beginning for a monastic vocation.
How can one tell that there is promise in a monastic candidate? Two answers given seem diametrically opposed, though each is cogent in its own reasoning. The one will have it that only a candidate who was a success in worldly matters is likely to make a go of it in the monastery, too. The other one argues from the opposition between worldly and monastic values that a candidate fit for the monastery must in worldly circles have been considered a misfit. Paradoxically, a genuine candidate proves both opinions right. Our stories bear out this paradox. As Snow White, and as Psyche as well, Anima is both success and misfit. And she is a misfit precisely because she is a success; because of her surpassing beauty.
By their beauty both Snow White and Psyche are singled out. That same beauty becomes for both of them the first great obstacle, the initial touchstone of their testing. A surpassing beauty, we have called it. There is something brand new in that beauty, something the old woman can’t match, be she stepmother queen or the jealous mother-goddess Aphrodite. Anima’s beauty is surpassing because it is something altogether new. But her being beautiful in an unheard-of way surpasses Anima’s own comprehension. And so, her own inner be-wilderment becomes the ordeal which her external trials merely make explicit.
As we follow the succession of events our two stories run perfectly parallel in their first, “pre-monastic” phase. The differences in narrative detail make the parallelism of the plots all the more striking. Out of jealousy, the old mother figure seeks to destroy Anima. Snow White is as much in the dark about this as Psyche is. By the time they catch on, their fate is sealed. Both are led into the wilderness: both are destined for death in the prime of life, but both are spared by the one whom the old woman had commissioned with their undoing and in both cases, he spares them because he looks at their beauty and is moved. One could hardly imagine two more different actors for this part than the old queen’s huntsman and Eros himself, but the plot is the same. Out in the wilderness Anima is totally alone. Mutterseehg allem it is said of Snow White; and Psyche, left alone on the summit of a crag, brings to mind Rilke’s lines “Exposed on the heart’s mountains…” Then among the trees of a forest (Dante’s “dark woods”) both find a meal ready, but they remain alone in these welcoming surroundings and in the end both go to bed alone and fall asleep. (What monk does not remember that first night on a monastic cot or mat, that last sigh before a deep sleep?)
This, then, is Anima’s flight from worldly ways, her fuga mundi. And it is Anima, to be sure, here at the threshold of monastic life. Be it in Bangkok or on Mt. Athos, at Chidambaram or Monte Cassino, the one who seeks admission at the monastery gate is always Anima. St. Benedict uses the feminine “anima” more than half a dozen times in speaking of monks, especially in the context of monastic apprenticeship and training. The Novice Master is to beaptus ad hurandas animas – skilled in winning souls. Souls only? Our word “soul” seems quite inadequate to translate “anima” in this and similar passages. What is meant is certainly not the soul as distinct from the body. “Anima,” as St. Benedict uses this term, has far more in common with the biblical nefesh than with Plato’s psyche: It stands for the whole human person. We might even say that it stands for the root of our wholeness, for our human potential to fall in love with Love as Psyche did. To be bride, that is the vocation of Anima.
The tribulations Anima must undergo in the wilderness begin for Snow White almost as soon as she has fled over those seven mountains and valleys and has been received by the brotherhood of the seven little ones. It was a common saying among the Desert Fathers, those forebears of Western monks: “Have you fled into the wilderness? Prepare yourself for battle!” Monastic struggles are not just evitable obstacles on the chosen path. A novice deliberately wants to be tested and tried on this narrow road without bypasses. Tribulations are painful, but welcome. The tribulum, from which the word “tribulation” is derived, is the Roman threshing sledge that separates wheat from chaff. And the Rule of St. Benedict offers the image of a fire by which silver is tested. “But in all this,” monks rejoice, “we more than overcome through the One who loves us.” It is for the sake of the great Lover that Anima finds herself in the wilderness, even though at first, she may be no more clearly aware of this deepest reason than Snow White or Psyche or any other novice.
At first, all is sheer delight: Snow White’s humble abode, where every pot and pan has its proper place and sparkles on the shelf, no less than Psyche’s magnificent residence with its colonnades and fountains. In every monk’s memory novitiate days have a way of taking on colors of paradise. But a crisis must soon come. “Crisis” is another term that has its roots in a Roman farmer’s word for sifting grain. Extremity, panic, perplexity are not essential to crisis; its essence is rather a process of stripping that liberates. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” This applies also to the kernel stripped of its husk and set free: It applies to the process by which Anima in her novitiate is stripped of worldly ties.
By being in tune with the whole the heart becomes whole. This wholeness, the goal of every path, is at stake in the testing of obedience.
Ties and tying, that is the key image of Snow White’s first trial. The queen step-mother, disguised as an old peddler woman, calls out her wares: “Staylaces in all colors!” Yes, they do come in all colors. The family ties that will ensnare Psyche in her troubles are only one kind of ties: It matters little by what kind a novice is entangled. “Come,” says the old peddler woman, “let me lace your bodice properly for once.” Before she knows it, Anima is all tied up with this or that. And that is the end of her new life. Like one dead, she lies on the ground. Snow White had been warned, but to no avail. Finding her now, the Seven who had been unable to save her by warning her save her by cutting her ties. That’s far more painful: violent, almost, but this is the violence of love. Nowhere does this brotherhood show their love more clearly than by cutting the ties at any cost (remember, those were brand new silken laces) and setting Anima free. “Little by little she returned to life,” the story says.
But temptation will come again. Three times. In the language of myth that means again and again. If the first temptation was entanglement, the second one is vanity. This means something more serious of course, than the innocent enjoyment of being good-looking. What makes vanity serious is a morbid preoccupation with self one’s little ephemeral self, for that is lethal.
In our fairy tale, the image for this vanity is an ornament, a comb. The wicked queen barely needed to change her disguise. The forgetfulness of novices is proverbial. And yet, mindfulness is what the training of the monk is all about. Well, that mindfulness does not come easily to Anima. “Go away,” says Snow White. “I must not let anyone in.” But when she eyes the comb, she is infatuated. And when the peddler woman offers to make her pretty, she thinks no harm. What the story literally says is that “Snow White thought of nothing” – not a flattering but an accurate description of Anima in her novitiate daze. As soon as the poisoned comb touches her hair, the daze becomes a deathlike stupor.
Again it is the acies fraterna – as St. Benedict calls the brotherhood that closes ranks when the spiritual struggle gets tough – that comes to Anima’s rescue. Again the Seven Dwarfs find Snow White lying on the ground as if dead. But they have not forgotten. They immediately recognize that it was the stepmother’s doing, find the comb, and pull it out. This second failure struck deeper than the first. This time, cutting won’t do; the comb has to be extracted. Vanity threatens monastic life closer to the core than external ties.
But, in good fairy tale fashion, Snow White is given a third chance. This time she does remember; but again she fails. This time she does not blunder into her failure, she is outright disobedient. Like Eve, who “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired,” Snow White “lusts after the apple,” the story tells us, and she takes and eats. “This time the dwarfs will not be able to bring you back to life again,” the queen laughs, and she is right.
The laces had remained on the outside; the comb was merely inserted in her hair, but she swallowed a bit of the apple. Eating is a full engagement. It is communion. We become similar to the food we assimilate. Psyche, in the end, will drink the goblet of ambrosia and become immortal. Snow White, here, shares the apple of hatred and dies. Her three trials came closer and closer to the core of her being, closer and closer to the essence of Anima’s monastic commitment. The laces first: One is ensnared by ties, but they remain external. Next, the comb: Vanity is a morbid turning back on itself of a self that may, however, be in itself still healthy. But disobedience is disintegration, death. This would make no sense if obedience consisted merely in doing what one is told to do. But the obedient response to a specific call is merely an exercise. It trains Anima in the skill of being attuned to the call of each moment. Mastery of that skill is accomplished obedience. By being in tune with the whole the heart becomes whole. This wholeness, the goal of every path, is at stake in the testing of obedience.
Through obedience, each thread on the cosmic loom finds its way into the great pattern as it emerges. Through disobedience the threads get entangled. Snow White’s silken cords of many colors hint at her entanglement. Psyche, in turn, gets tangled up in family ties. When her invisible lover warns her against her sisters, she begins to miss them all the more keenly, and at length her tears prevail. The wicked sisters are admitted and their envy is aroused by Psyche’s bliss. Again her lover warns; Psyche must at least guard his secret from her sisters. But when they come again they get her entangled in the web of her own lies, and on their third visit they pull the snare tight. At last she must admit that she has never seen her lover’s face and those two, her kin and yet her foes, persuade her that he is a monstrous serpent. They implore her by the bonds of blood and by the ties of birth that unite them to rid herself of that monster bridegroom.
By now the real issue is clearly in focus: This is a test of faith. Will Psyche trust her divine lover or her all too human kin? “If the joys of your secret love still delight you, and you are content to lie in the embrace of a foul and venomous snake, at least we, your loving sisters, have done our duty.”
“Those false she-wolves are weaving some deep plot of sin against you,” her lover had warned Psyche; “They will try to persuade you to want to know my face; but I have told you, if you see it once, you will see it no more.” Psyche, in reply, had assured him of her faithfulness: “I seek no more to see your face; not even the dark of night can be a hindrance of my joy, for I hold you in my arms, light of my life.” And yet, “she tossed to and fro” in a crisis of faith; “in the same body she hated the beast and loved the husband.”
Like Snow White, Psyche forgot. “She forgot all her husband’s warnings and all her own promises.” At her sisters’ faithless counsel, Psyche lights the lantern and lifts the sharpened razor. But there lies Love himself, fairest of gods! “Even the flame of the lamp, when it beheld him, burned brighter for joy,” and “a drop of burning oil fell upon the god’s right shoulder.” In seven syllables, the collapse of paradise is told: tacitus avolavit – he flew away without word.
God writes straight,
even on crooked lines.
Anima failed. There is no denying it; not if we take our stand on the storyteller’s own ground. One need not deny, of course, that in a sense this failure led to growth for Psyche. Yet, it is not the element of disobedience that leads to a happy ending after all, but rather a turning away from it, a change of heart.
Contemplating God’s plan in which even sin has its function, Augustine marvels: “Even sin!” –Etiam peccata! Paul Claudel paraphrases Augustine with a Basque proverb: “God writes straight, even on crooked lines.” We should not rob this insight of its power by making it appear as if failure had been the inevitable, even the originally intended course of events. The paradise towards which we go casts no shadow on the one we lost. What our bliss would have been, we shall never know. Enough for Anima that, even after her fall, “the god her lover left her,” not lying on the earth, “but gave her hope.”
It is hope that is tested in Psyche’s second trial. Our myth, as it stands, leaves us little doubt that Psyche has failed, as the biblical myth leaves little doubt that Adam and Eve have fallen into sin. Yet in both stories there remains a ray of hope. Here, Eros promises to destroy the wicked sisters, “but you,” he says to Psyche. “I will only punish thus—by flying from you.” This flight of Eros from Psyche is an intriguing variation on Francis Thompson’s theme of the Hound of Heaven. In the very flight from her, “this tremendous Lover” pursues Anima, here too,” down the nights and down the days,” as day and night she seeks him. The paradox of hope is this: Anima’s divine lover pursues her by fleeing from her.
According to the logic of the heart, his pursuit of her must necessarily take the form of flight, or else the hopes she has might be mistaken for the Hope he is.
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms. (1)
In its own imagery our story develops the purification of Psyche’s hope. As Eros flies away, Psyche follows him with her eyes until, blinded by tears, she can see him no more. In despair she casts herself, then and there, headlong from the brink of a river. Again she has failed. The test of her hope starts out with failure. “But the kindly stream…to do honor to the god who sets even waters ablaze with his fire, quickly caught her up in its current and laid her unharmed upon a bank deep in flowering herbage.” It is here that Psyche’s long wanderings begin.
Wide open to the road ahead of her, Psyche sets out on her journey of hope. The divine Lover whom she seeks secretly guides her steps and keeps stripping her, one by one, of all her hopes, to make her completely empty, ready to receive him. This stripping takes the form of Psyche’s encounter with the Great Mother. Hope is a motherly virtue. Under three different aspects Psyche must meet the mother goddess: as Demeter, Hera, and Aphrodite. I see in this threefold repetition more than the fairy tale’s fancy for the number three. Only by putting earth, sky, and sea together can the myth bring out the cosmic fullness of the mother image. Demeter gives fruitfulness to the earth; Hera is queen of the Heavens; Aphrodite was born from the foam of the sea.
But there is also a stepping up in the sequence of the three encounters. Wandering after her lost lover, Psyche sees a temple high on a mountain and says, “How do I know that my lord may not dwell there?” It is a temple of the great Earth Mother, and Demeter appears to Psyche, but will not let her stay even for a short rest. She must go on.
In a deep valley, Psyche, comes upon another temple, where she begs Hera, goddess of matrimony and of childbirth, for asylum. But again her hope is shattered: She must be on her way. Deep in her heart she knows that she will have to face the divinity under the very aspect that causes all her trouble: Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love. Wishing “to leave no path of fairer hope untried, however doubtful it might be,” she had approached the sacred portals of Demeter and Hera. But she knew that no darkness could hide her safely from “great Aphrodite’s inevitable eyes.” Now she says to herself: “Your little hopes are shattered. Renounce them boldly!” With this boldness of hope, purged of all hopes, and preparing herself for certain death, Psyche stands at last at Aphrodite’s portal.
Here the third phase of her trials begins; now her love is to be tested. And, like her faith and hope, her love is not merely tested by these trials but transformed.
Love is that “Designer infinite” who can mend every rift, and only Love can work into the grand design even sin.
The tests of Psyche’s love turn out to be tasks of obedience. This must be so. For obedience is the process by which we find our place in a wholeness to which we belong. Wholehearted assent to that belonging is love. In her obedience to the tasks imposed on her by Aphrodite, Psyche comes to understand and accept her belonging in an ever-wider context. By expanding in this way, her love is transformed from preferential attachment to universal belonging. Love always grows in that way.
…Thus, love of a country
Begins as attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent… (2)
Psyche’s tasks have cosmic implications, stretching her love throughout earth, water, fire, and air. She cannot fulfill her tasks without the help she receives from fellow creatures that inhabit those four realms. Confronted with corn, barley, millet, poppy seed, chickpeas, lentils, and beans all in one heap, Psyche is dumb-founded by the task of putting like with like, but the ants, “humble nurslings of earth, the mother of all,” take pity on their human sister; in no time they separate the whole heap, grain by grain. Next she is commanded to bring some golden wool from rams fierce with fire, but out of the water the voice of a reed tells her when and where she may simply gather the pickings of wool from the thorn bushes. And when Psyche is given the impossible task to fetch water from the top of an inaccessible waterfall, an eagle swoops down, fills the vessel, and carries it back to her through the air. “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God” (Rom. 8:28); and here is “the spouse of Love himself,” as the little ants call her in the story.
As Anima’s love expands, it deepens; it matures. The stages of love’s growing are also depicted in the succession of Psyche’s labors of love. Not only does the order of images – seed, summer fields, and barren rock – suggest springtime, harvest, and bleak winter; the heart knows more subtle seasons. It starts with making order. “Friend, for what purpose hast thou come?” St. Benedict solemnly confronts each novice with this question. Sort out your motives! There is only one valid one: “that he truly seek God,” – Anima’s invisible Lover. Once Psyche has done this sorting out, she has to show how brave she can be. In order to prove that her love is “a most vehement flame” (Cant. 8:6), she has to brave the rams that burn with the sun’s fire. But from fortitude in action there is still a long climb to that slippery rock where Psyche stands as if she herself had turned to stone. Sooner or later all paths of love, monastic or otherwise, lead to that point where going on is as impossible as turning back. Anima stands still; but she still stands. At this point “love is most nearly itself.”
Now certainly Psyche is no longer a novice. Yet, there is one more trial that sums up all the others and somehow was contained in all of them. The ultimate obstacle is death.
Aphrodite adds a fourth task to the conventional triad which we often find in myth and fairy tale. Psyche has to go and confront the one aspect of the Great Mother she had not yet encountered: Persephone, queen of the nether world, Mother Death. This part of the story is so rich that we cannot even begin to do it justice here, but we ought to focus on one element that is essential in our context: Psyche’s final failure. Obedient to Aphrodite’s command and to the advice of a “far-seeing tower,” she carries out the task of bringing back in a casket beauty, a gift of the eternally young queen of the realm of death. Already she has regained the realm of daylight with her treasure. And what happens now? Disobedient, she opens the box.
Once more we must remember the close bond that unites love and obedience if we want to feel the full impact of our story. Throughout Psyche’s last and crucial labor of love her obedience is stressed, but one step from the finish line she falters. Alive, she has descended into the realm of death and obtained that gift of beauty sealed in secret. But as soon as she breaks both seal and command, she falls into a deathlike sleep. By failing in obedience she has failed the test of love. This at least is the verdict of the story. It is our task to understand why this is so.
Love is our heart’s creative “yes!” to that all-embracing design of being to which we belong – not a static design, of course, but a universal choreography, a dance. Obedience is the process of finding, step by step, our way into the harmony of that great design, and so into love. But disobedience reverses that progress. Disobedience is dissonance. Suddenly we are out of tune, out of step, out of breath; we have fallen out of love, have cut ourselves off from the flow of the life-giving design. This means death. Disobedient Anima dies. All Psyche’s helpers from ant to eagle are powerless now, for she has cut herself off from them. Only the lover can bring Snow White to new life; only Eros can wipe the sleep of death from Psyche’s eyes: For love is that “Designer infinite” who can mend every rift, and only Love can work into the grand design even sin – Etiam peccata!
We have already seen how closely the stories of Snow White and of Psyche parallel one another throughout their beginning phases, from the initial stumbling block of Anima’s surpassing beauty to her welcome in monastic surroundings; we now see how perfectly the two stories mirror one another also in their final phases. Three times, Snow White succumbs to temptation—by the colorful laces, the pretty comb, the tasty-looking apple; each time she falls into a deathlike sleep that more and more resembles death. Her entanglement and her vanity lead step by step to her final deadly disobedience. Psyche, too, fails three times, as her faith, her hope, and her love are tested. But in all three of those testings it is her obedience that is tried.
Of course, our text knows no such abstractions as we have used to trace the parallels. Happily, the fairy tale lets truth blossom forth in images. And those images too, show distinct resemblances. We have noticed before how the motif of Snow White tied up in her silken laces echoes Psyche’s entanglement in family ties and deceit. But Snow White’s ornamental comb and the forbidden fruit are also reflected in Psyche’s final disobedience. Are we not reminded of Snow White’s vanity when Psyche plots to steal from the treasure entrusted to her just enough to make herself more attractive? And when she decides to “sip a tiny drop there from,” she falls into the death-sleep that overcomes Snow White as soon as she tastes a tiny piece of the apple.
Our focus on obedience gives us not only a clue to the pattern underlying both stories, it allows us also to recognize it as the basic pattern of the monastic path. St. Benedict calls it “the road of obedience…so that through the labor of obedience you may find your way back to the One from whom you have strayed loitering in disobedience.” When the monk comes up against “impossible tasks.” St. Benedict has one simple guideline: “Out of love…in faith…let him obey.” “Secure in hope” the monk journeys towards the goal. But this hope is truly open for surprise, not blocked by petty hopes; for “eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love Him.” What awaits them is the unheard-of, the unseen lover, Love himself.
Union with the Lover who is also the savior from death is the point towards which the stories of Snow White and of Psyche converge. Even at the darkest moment a ray of promise remains: The sleep merely resembles death. Even the animals that come to mourn Snow White are sitting there more like emblems of hope embroidered on a hanging above the glass coffin. Owl, raven, and dove, the birds of death, burial, and mourning – but the owl came first, we are explicitly told, “and last, a dove.” A dove also came last, after Noah had sent out a raven: “and there it was with a fresh olive twig in its beak” (Gen. 8:11). The image is strong.
And then comes that moment when Anima opens her eyes and looks into the eyes of Love bent over her. To be awakened by Love, that is the biblical version among the world’s great renditions of the theme of spiritual awakening. Love blinds, we say, but in a deeper sense love is the great eye-opener. “Awake, O sleeper, arise from the dead, and the Anointed One will shine on thee!” (Eph. 5:14). When Snow White opens her eyes, her first words are: “O God, where am I?” And her lover gives the beautiful answer: “You are with me!” Ecce! is the first word of Eros to Psyche, “Look!” and he calls her misella – poor little one, poerecita, or as the Hound of Heaven says to Anima at the end of the chase:
Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest! (3)
“So let us then rise up at last.” St. Benedict calls out to his monks, “for Scripture is arousing us and saying: ‘It is high time for us to rise from sleep.’ With eyes wide open to the light that makes divine…” Yes, this is an expression of rare daring in Christian literature. Not merely divine light, but light that makes divine – deificum lumen – that is what we are to look at.Ecce! St. Benedict, too, calls out to Anima: “Look, in his love the Lord shows us the way of life.” No sooner has Eros wiped the death-sleep from Psyche’s eyes and put it back into its casket, than he shows her that way of life, the road of obedience: “Make haste to fulfill the task with which my mother has charged you; I will take care of the rest.”
The rest is the great wedding feast. But, before it can be celebrated Anima must carry the sealed secret of beauty to the goddess of beauty and love. By this act of obedience the story of Psyche comes full circle. It all started with that beauty. From the very start, faith, hope, and love have been at stake in Anima’s dealing with that gift – “surpassing,” and that means “not easy to handle.” It took courage to bear a beauty which in its newness surpassed her own comprehension – the courage of faith. The newness of that beauty demanded from her a limitless openness for surprise – the openness of hope. And being the beauty she was demanded a “yes” of love in which, accepting herself, she would surpass herself. The fear, the despair, and the “no” of disobedience paralyzed her beauty into that of a death mask. But she is given a chance to complete the “ultimate task,” and “with all speed” she runs. In obedience she surpasses herself in faith, hope, and love. This is Anima’s ultimate transformation. The original stumbling block has become the final stepping stone. The goblet of immortality is filled for her and the wedding feast with Love can begin.
It is all pure gift. Her original beauty was gift. Her final glory is gift. And all the suffering along the way turns out to have been a gift, so as to make it clear that her overcoming, while truly her own, is also truly gift.
But was it necessary, all that suffering, we ask?
Ah! Must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it! (4)
Fairy tales do not give us the answer. But maybe they can help us live with the question. And how else would you learn to live with Psyche’s invisible Lover?
1. Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven” in: The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse,ed. Nicholson E. Lee (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 409-415.
2. T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (New York Harcourt Bruce Jovanovich, 1968), 4:3, pp. 159-162.
3. Thompson, op. cit.
Reprinted from Parabola (Vol. V, August 1980, pp. 33-43).