Once when Jesus was praying in solitude, and the disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.'”
Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.”
He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.
He said, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
This passage has an intriguing opening. It also is an interesting study in psychological projection.
There seems to be a contradiction in that opening statement. Jesus is praying in solitude and his disciples are with him? How could that be?
It seems to suggest an important lesson for those of us who take prayer seriously. Solitude need not mean solitary. It would seem from this cameo of Jesus’ spiritual practice that he needed to be in solitude, that essential state for the growth of spirit in Spirit and by Spirit. This of course is not new to us. The Gospel of Luke distinctively shows Jesus as often drawing aside to be in solitude. What is of note however, is that this solitude may be practiced in the presence of a community of those who are on the journey with us.
There is too much loneliness in our world. Those of us, like myself, who live alone may too easily succumb to the temptation of solipsism and think that God may only be found in absence from others. Wasn’t it John Cassian who taught that community is essential for the monk, for how can one hope to grow in grace if there is no one to challenge and irritate you?
So the distinction between solitude, and loneliness have to be carefully discerned.
That profound Jungian, (no, sadly, they are not all profound, many are merely pretentious) Robert Johnson, has written of loneliness in “Inner Gold: understanding psychological projection”
Loneliness is an interior matter… The collective unconscious often produces myths that tell us what is happening or about to happen in a culture… [One] is Der Fliegende Holländer, The Flying Dutchman. There are many variations on the story and all go something like this. A young man has committed an indiscretion, a transgression that resembles the one that caused Adam and Eve to be expelled from the Garden of Eden. He is the captain of the ship The Flying Dutchman. As punishment, he and his ship are banished to sail the storm clouds, where they must stay until someone loves him. He cannot ask anyone to love him. He has to wait. That’s the terrible thing about loneliness. You can’t ask for relief. It’s a kind of paralysis. You can only hope that someone will sense your dilemma and help.
The Flying Dutchman has been banished “above” to the stormy upper world. Loneliness is always “up there,” an abstraction. There are billions of people in the world. We do not need to feel lonely. But we alienate ourselves from ourselves and then we head up to the clouds, to the stormy aspect of loneliness. When our feet are on the ground, we feel connected to the energy of the world and don’t feel so lonely. When we connect with the lower parts of ourselves, we are in relationship with others as well. The word saunter comes from the Middle Ages, when we sainted or sanctified inanimate objects, and not just people. Even the cross was sainted, and so was the earth. The earth was called Saint Terrare, and so when we saunter, we are in contact with Saint Terrare, the sainted earth. Sauntering grounds and connects us. It is an important cure for loneliness.
Every evening, as the winds whirl around the chimneys, the villagers hear the Flying Dutchman moaning, crying out in loneliness. They all rush indoors, closing their doors and windows, to keep out this awful sound. For years the young man lives like that, up in the storm clouds, moaning in the chimney tops of northern Germany.
Then, one day, a peasant maiden hears him moaning, and because of her good heart, goes out into the yard and calls to him. She asks the Flying Dutchman to come to her, and that is all it takes. He comes down and is relieved of his loneliness. They have a love affair, and his humanity is restored. Only a peasant woman in touch with the earth has the good sense to do this.
Many of us are Flying Dutchmen, and our loneliness is unendurable. We have an insatiable need for entertainment—we moderns watch TV and other screens more than seven hours a day—and for anything that might assuage our longing, especially late at night when the howling in the chimney tops is most painful. Loneliness is on the rise, and advertisers exploit this: If you do thus and so, you’ll feel better.
There are three kinds of loneliness—loneliness for the past, loneliness for what has not yet been realized, and the profound loneliness of being close to God. The third kind is actually the solution. A good myth doesn’t leave you out on a limb. It describes the difficulty, and also offers a solution.( Pg 36-38)
Jesus, before Jung and Johnson, knew this. That is why he is praying in solitude, WITH the disciples.
So we come to the psychological projection part of the story.
Probably one of the most powerful excuses we offer when we fudge the distinction between solitude and loneliness, and want to justify our aloneness, is that when we are alone we have less conflict. With Satre we intone, “Hell is other people“. The truth is when we are alone we don’t have to account for ourselves and we don’t have to deal with the expectations of life and others.
It is rigorous to be in community with others. It is difficult to deal with the projections and the expectations. Ask any clergy-person. I mean, who on earth or should that be “who in hell?” decided that clergy should enter this already rigorous communal life with the Albatross title of “REVEREND” around their necks? If that is not begging for destructive projection then I don’t know what is. Could this simple aspect account for so much of clergy burnout, depression and psychosis?
Healthy and whole Jesus, in the solitude of prayer in community deals with projection head on. He asks what most of us as clergy are too afraid to ask, “So who do people say that I am?”
Watch the projections happen. Individual and collective unconscious archetypes are projected onto Jesus in this passage. “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.'”
Jesus, sniffs but he doesn’t inhale. This is ego-intoxicating stuff. Instead he moves the question into the community. Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter offers the prophetic, priestly and papal projection, “The Christ of God.”
Now there is something for the ego to get hold of! That trumps “Reverend”, don’t you think?
But healthy and whole Jesus, still sniffing and not inhaling,says Luke, “…rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.”
Instead, Jesus begins to teach about selfless service and how, losing one’s life is the only way to follow him.
I don’t know if our communities will ever be able to stop the projection onto the clergy with its terrible price. I know even less, if the clergy will ever become integrated enough to stop inhaling those projections. Certainly the young crop of clergy I see in my denomination and Synod seem hell bent on being more “Reverend” than they are on being “real”
And so the church will still never see Jesus as clearly as Jesus saw himself.
Lonely isn’t it?
(Listen to this reflection being preached on Father’s Day 2010 at Port Alfred Methodist Church. Click here)