© 2000 - 2003 by Ann K Elliott
THE DESCENT TO HELL
The death and resurrection of Christ is an archetype which lives itself out not only in the individual but also in the collective psyche. There are certain periods in history when the collective God-image undergoes death and rebirth. Such is now the case. The twentieth century is the Holy Saturday of history.
Edward F Edinger(1)
The Descent into Hell
In order “that God may be all in all”(2) early Christian theologians saw the necessity of extending the act of redemption to the deepest collective levels of the human psyche. Allegorically this would be back to Adam and Eve. Therefore in recognition of the completeness of the remedy of the Cross, Christ was declared to have descended into hell on the Saturday between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, whereby
. . .
the gates of brass were broken in pieces . . . and all the dead that were
bound were loosed from their chains . . . and the King of glory entered
The doctrine of the descent or “harrowing of hell” has been embellished in apocryphal lore as well as through the symbolism of the visual arts. In the imagery of Plate V-1, Christ is entering into hell through a mandorla opening in order to raise up Adam and Eve. As a theological statement, “the harrowing of hell” specifically refers to the release of the “worthy dead.” As a mythological theme, it is parallel to the descent into the lower world known as the “night sea journey.” In mystical literature, it is relevant to “the dark night of the soul.” As a phase of individuation, Edinger points to the descent as having “the greatest importance to depth psychology” in that it represents “the ego’s deliberate descent into the unconscious.”
The light of the ego is temporarily extinguished in the upper world and is carried into the lower world where it rescues worthy contents of the unconscious and even conquers Death itself.(4)
In the iconography of the “the harrowing of hell” Christ is portrayed in a role similar to a tribal shaman: one who has undergone a death and rebirth experience and who now journeys into the lower world for the purpose of retrieving what has been lost, be that health, “luck,” or fragments of the soul. The icon of Plate V-1 could well serve as a meditation image for the purpose of entering into the realm of the unconscious in order to retrieve what can bring about an expansion and enrichment of consciousness. It could serve equally well as a focal image for a method of inner work Jung calls “active imagination.”(5) In either case the purpose would be to raise to consciousness “the worthy dead” of one’s inner world.
Transformation by Fire
The imagery of the descent into hell is analogous to the ego’s fall into the unconscious for a prolonged time and to a depth from which it emerges as one reborn, and as a result now seeks to serve the Self who serves the All. Jung views this prolonged encounter as the psychological equivalent of the integration of the collective unconscious and as forming “an essential part of the individuation process.”(6) Similarly, St John of the Cross speaks of “the cleansing fire of the dark night.” when,
Divine light . . . acts upon the soul which is purged and prepared for perfect union in the same way as fire acts upon a log of wood in order to transform it into itself.(7)
Thus St John tells us that the goal of the journey is “perfect union,” for which the dark night (or the descent into the collective) is preparation. To accomplish the work of transformation, the “fire acts upon” the wood. He says the fire begins “by drying the wood” and “driving out its moisture.” Here the psychology analogy could be as to how emotional contamination from the unconscious, when sufficiently “heated, sputters and spews and sometimes erupts in a way that drives what is hidden out into the light of consciousness where, as a component of the shadow, it can be recognized, owned and transformed. It then begins, St John continues, “to make [the wood, i.e., soul} black, dark and unsightly.” In this analogy St John offers a reasonably good description of how the shadow appears to the conscious personality, and why it ended up in the basement of the personality in the first place.
Little by little, St John instructs, the fire brings out and drives away all that is dark and unsightly and “contrary to the nature of fire,” until finally, the fire begins to kindle the wood externally and give it heat, at last transforming the wood and making it “as beautiful as fire.” He goes further in his analogy to say that when the log (the soul) is acted on by the fire (the Spirit) it is neither passive nor active. Its weight, however, is greater and its substance denser than that of fire, but otherwise “it [the soul] has in itself the properties and activities of fire [Spirit].”
Thus it is dry and it dries; it is hot and heats; it is bright and gives brightness; and it is much less heavy than before. All these properties and effects are caused in it by the fire.(8)
In the New Testament, John the Baptist describes his baptism as “with water for repentance,” but points to Jesus as the one who will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”(9) Whereas water washes and cleanses what is on the surface, fire goes much deeper: turning to ashes all that is combustible to its flames; revealing the value of what is able to withstand its flames; and otherwise transmuting the elements from one state to another--the temporal into the eternal, self into Self. As noted above, Jung held that the integration of the collective unconscious is the greater part of the individuation process. After his own prolonged descent into the deeper, collective level, he wrote of the radical change of perception he had undergone:
It was then that I ceased to belong to myself alone, ceased to have the right to do so. From then on, my life belonged to the generality.(10)
Typically, after a person emerges from these deeper levels, his or her life is no longer determined by personal satisfactions. Before the descent, the ego was the center of the conscious personality. Afterwards it serves the Self who, as the new center of the whole psyche, serves the greater Whole.
Tolstoy’s Story of Transcendence
Tolstoy, for his short story Where Love Is God Is, takes as his theme the rebirth of the soul. The story is about a shoemaker named Martin whose wife and only surviving child have died. As a result, Martin has fallen into the depths of a personal hell. He lives and works in a small basement room with one window looking onto the street. One day a “holy man” from his native village stops by. Martin opens his heart to him and tells him of his sorrow. The “holy man” counsels Martin to read the Gospels. His words, and perhaps his compassion, “sink deep into Martin’s heart.” From that time on Martin reads from the Gospels each evening.
Drowsily reading one evening, he hears a voice call his name. “Whether a vision or a fancy,” he can’t tell, but twice again he distinctly hears: “Martin, Martin!” and then, “Look out into the street tomorrow, for I shall come.” Next day, as Martin sits by his window mending boots he keeps looking up and out.
He sees an old soldier who, having grown weary from shoveling snow, is resting on the handle of his shovel. Martin taps on the window and beckons him come in. From his samovar he pours out two tumblers of tea and together the two old men sip their tea and visit. Martin, however, keeps glancing out the window. “Are you expecting someone?” his guest asks. Martin tells him about his experience of the night before. He asks the old soldier if he has read the Gospels. His visitor replies that he is just a simple man who cannot read. But he seems interested and so Martin tells him what he had been reading just the night before: how when the Lord was on earth he went mostly among plain people, “and chose his disciples from among the likes of us.” The old soldier is noticeably moved and tears begin to run down his cheeks. In taking leave he thanks Martin kindly for the comfort he has given both to his body and soul.
Picking up his work again, Martin continues to glance out the window. The day moves on and the sun grows cold. He now notices a woman who is a stranger and without as much as a shawl against the winter chill. Moreover she has a baby in her arms who is crying as the woman tries to shield the infant from the cold. Hastening to his door, Martin bids her “Come in. Warm yourself and feed your baby.” She explains she hasn’t eaten all day and has no milk. Martin turns at once to fix her a bowl of cabbage soup. While she eats he entertains the baby. As he does, happy memories of when his children were little flood into his mind. Assured the woman has a place to stay, he finds a warm shawl for her from among his late wife’s things. As mother and infant take leave, hope for their future is renewed.
Tolstoy’s story continues with other guests, until the day winds down and the lamplighter comes by. This signals Martin to put his work aside and open his Bible. But before he can begin reading, he thinks he hears footsteps. He turns to look in the direction of a darkened corner of the room. He imagines he sees dim forms. As the forms emerge and pass before him he recognizes each of those to whom he had given hospitality that day. He again hears the voice, this time saying: “Martin, Martin. Don’t you know me?” Knowingly Martin smiles to himself and picks up his Bible to where it is open. There he reads: “I was hungry and you feed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in.” And moving on to the bottom of the page, his heart leaps with joy as he reads, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”(11) The Lord, indeed, had come to him that day . . . and he had welcomed him.
Teilhard’s Emergence from the Collective Hell of WW I
During World War I Teilhard experienced a “living hell” during the time he served as a stretcher-bearer in front-line trenches. Writing near the end of his life, he looked back to this time of immersion into the collective experience of the horrors of war as the point from which the new, visionary dimension of his life, both as scientist and priest, was born. From that time on he saw all of creation, even inanimate nature, as infused with Spirit. Once Teilhard caught sight of the unity of spirit and matter there was no turning back to the conventional thinking of either religion or science. In him the two had come together and conceived a new vision of a divinely-directed evolution moving forward and upward towards an ultimate goal when God would be “all in all.” Teilhard would spend the rest of life formulating and writing about what he had seen and knew to be true, even in the face of an unrelenting rejection by the church and the order to which he had vowed obedience.
Allowing Ourselves to be Surpassed
Satprem reports that by mid-twentieth century Aurobindo felt the human species had reached a crucial point
. . . a new crisis of transformation as crucial as must have been the crisis which marked the appearance of Life in Matter or the crisis which marked the appearance of Mind in Life. And our choice is crucial also, for this time, instead of letting Nature work out her transmutations without caring much for living contingencies, we can be the conscious collaborators of our own evolution, accept the challenge or, as Sri Aurobindo says let ourselves be surpassed.(13)
In the lives of both Teilhard and Aurobindo their attainments to higher levels of consciousness were preceded by unusually intense, even “burning” and “all-consuming” circumstances beyond their abilities to control. Sometimes, in our more ordinary lives, we too find ourselves in circumstances not of our own choosing and beyond our ability to control. In the midst of such circumstances we tend to forget that once initiated the transformational process has a life of its own, leaving us the choice of either trusting or resisting to go where the supramental Self, or Holy Spirit, leads.
The Baptism of Fire
Within the context of individuation symbolism, fire and its baptism is the psycho-spiritual process by which the chaff of the personality is burned away so as to reveal the gold of the higher spiritual being--the Self--and so prepare and empower a person for service to transpersonal purposes. There is a baptism of water and a baptism of spirit, the one is a conscious choice, the other is visited upon one when the time and conditions are right for the trials that a call to higher consciousness brings. Again these words of Jung speak out of his experience:
What is it, in the end, that induces a man to go his own way and to rise out of unconscious identity with the mass . . . ? It is what is commonly called vocation . . . [which] acts like a law of God from which there is no escape. (14)
Aurobindo described the operation of his inner voice as when “the required knowledge” would fall into his mind “like a drop of light.” Jung described his transition as from belonging to himself alone to belonging “to the generality,” which term Edinger interprets as “being connected with the ‘infinite.’”(15) Teilhard, after his transformation, was never again free to conform his mind to the Jesuit mold, even though he continued to live in obedience to the Rule he had accepted for his life, and even though the outer suppression of his own creative voice caused him intense emotional suffering. As it worked out, however, shortly after Teilhard’s death and due to a loophole in canon law, not only were his spiritual writings published but they met with an overwhelming enthusiasm, probably augmented by their previous suppression.
The Holy Saturday of History
As individuals undergo transformation the collective consensus of reality changes. As individuals are transformed their influence sways others to embrace new possibilities as to what is humanly possible. Similarly, and over long periods of time, the collective concept concerning the nature of God and what constitutes “Reality” also changes. Edinger observes that
The death and resurrection of Christ is an archetype which lives itself out not only in the individual but also in the collective psyche. There are certain periods in history when the collective God-image undergoes death and rebirth. Such is now the case. The twentieth century is the Holy Saturday of history.(16)
With the Resurrection “on the third day,” the Friday of the Crucifixion is day one, and Holy Saturday day two. Both Old and New Testaments give a scriptural time formula which says “a day with the Lord is as a thousand years.”(17) This suggests the idea of the entire second millenium as the Holy Saturday of history, and in which the twentieth century was its final hours. And history well may will look back on the second millennium, and particularly on the twentieth century, as humanity’s collective equivalent to Christ’s descent into hell. If so, has the U-turn of the descent been made? Is humanity now emerging from its collective hell on earth? This same avenue of symbolic thought suggests a collective Resurrection “on the third day,” or during the third millennium. When Jung looked into the future he saw the times ahead as momentous:
We are living in what the Greeks called the kairos--the right moment--for a metamorphosis of the gods, of the fundamental principles and symbols. This peculiarity of our time . . . is the expression of the unconscious man within us who is changing.(18)
Chapter 5 Notes
1. Edinger, op cit, Christian Archetype, p 118-119
2.1 Corinthians 15:28
3.James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, p 100
4.Edinger, op cit, Christian Archetype, p 110
5.See Barbara Hannah’s Encounters with the Soul: Active Imagination as Developed by C G Jung, Sigo Press, 1981; also Robert A Johnson’s Inner Work, Harper & Row, SF, 1986
6. Jung, Aion, CW9ii, par 72, quoted by Edinger, Christian Archetype, p107
7. Soul Afire, op cit. 258-259
9. Matthew 3:11
10. Edinger, op cit, Christian Archetype, p 112
11. Matthew 25
12. Satprem, Sri Aurobindo, Harper & Row, NY, 1968, p 283
13. Ibid, p 308
14. Edinger, op cit, Christian Archetype, p 45
15. Ibid, p 112
16. Edinger, op cit, Christian Archetype, p 118-119
17. 2 Peter 3:08 & Psalm 90:4
18. Edinger, op cit, Christian Archetype, p 119