Eleanor Cowan

 

 

Open Your Eyes to the History of the Catholic Church
Author: Eleanor Cowan
Published in The Senior Times, Montreal, Qc,
July/Aug 2004 Vol. XV111 No 9.

As I turn on to Wellington Street in Verdun, I eye yet another of the Roman Catholic Annual Collect posters of a Renaissance painting of the child Jesus, tucked lovingly into the warm embrace of his beloved mother, yet virgin, Mary. Their eyes serenely closed, mother and child enjoy deep bonding. The advertisement requests money and reads: “The Catholic Church – keeping the family alive.”

What is wrong with this picture, displayed all over Montreal, in terms of Catholicism and family life?

The art might fit in the dining room of a priest’s residence but how does it relate to the history of ‘The Family’ vis-à-vis The Catholic Church? I walk on feeling both angry and sad.

Suddenly, I imagine myself sponging wet glue over the offending poster and slapping on, instead, a photograph of my dear Roman Catholic Irish mother taken in the 1960’s.

This sorry photo would detail a truthful witness of the relationship between the Church and The Family: her sagging breasts and stomach, her twelve children crowding round her in various states of lostness, my mother’s frightened eyes, staring open and straight ahead ask “How are we going to pay the bills this month?” Unable to stretch Dad’s decent dollar far enough, Mother is not smiling nor are her children. My parents tithed to the Church even then.

As a little girl, there was something else I thought odd, although I soon learned to silence myself, to subdue such insight. One evening after mother dished up the dinner she’d cooked throughout the afternoon in the two giant pots she used so well, she whipped down the hall, grabbed her coat and hastened to the door.

“Where are you going, Ma?” I asked

“One of Delores’ brood is still sick so I’m going over to fix Father Rick his dinner again tonight.”

“But Ma, why doesn’t Father go over and help Delores instead? Isn’t it his turn?”

“That’s a joke” said Ma. Very Funny. Har dee har har” she said, mimicking her beloved Jackie Gleason of The Honeymooners as she closed the door behind her. Those two comedians, Art Carney and Jackie Gleason, sewer cleaner and bus driver, married to Alice and Trixie, women who emphatically speak up, brought my mother more genuine laughter and hope every Saturday night than ever she knew with the authoritarian Roman middlemen who ruled her life.

I recall mother telling me, back in 1959, that her parish priest once leaned over and whispered to her, “Agnes, how old would your youngest be now?” Translated, that meant, ‘Get cracking – time to make another soul for God.’  

Many years later, Mother said that if a priest ever spent so much as five minutes on a labor table, giving birth would soon become a mortal sin.

Unlike the sensitive Madonna cuddling her only child, my mother had no time for us.

She truly had so many children that she did not, like the woman in the shoe, know what to do. A fear-based person, she served her Church unfailingly and died at 52.

If she’d had the one child featured in the poster chosen by the church to represent ‘family’ she would have lived.

On my way to work on the metro, I am again faced with the serene Virgin, her eyes demurely closed, and in deep embrace with her only child. I sadly reflect on the hugs my angry and exhausted mother never had time to give me nor any of the youngest of her enormous gang. This neglect caused terrible problems.

I also note that the artwork chosen to represent The Family lacks the presence of a second partner. Yes indeed, it is true that in working much overtime to feed us all, Dad was largely absent.

Might the Catholic Church reflect for a moment on the pain this beautiful but ever so ill-chosen painting evokes in the adult children of all the Catholic women who bore child after unwanted child to avoid the eternal condemnation they were threatened with it they didn’t?

Might the Catholic Church feature at least one of these grotesquely large families that instead of remaining together got dogmatically torn apart? Finally, perhaps the funds gathered can be used for Women and Men’s Shelters or drug and alcohol detox centers, where the youngest daughters and sons of neglectful Catholic families often reside.

Staying Awake

Published in QAAL - Linking for Learning,
Concordia University
Vol. 19, No.1 Fall 2001

I first heard the news of the terrorist attack of September 11 as I stepped inside the doors of the Montreal Children’s Hospital for a teacher's meeting about a handicapped boy. It was the child’s father who told me that planes had slammed into the Twin Towers. What he said didn't register, perhaps because he kept on behaving normally - greeting nurses and pouring coffee for each of us before we sat down to make some important choices for the child.

Back at school I observed shock on the faces of staff crowded around the lunch room TV set - and finally got the picture.

With no forewarning and no escape, September 11 was a rough awakening. Now, the hard part is to stay awake. I may be powerless over what happened, but I'm not helpless.

Being one small person is not permission for me to recoil in hopeless isolation from urgent messages:

Jungian scholar Dr. James Hillman suggests it's high time the humble values of daily service and weekly maintenance be valued just as much as high drama and the heroism of the few. 

I once heard that during WW 1, bright red ribbons were tacked upon the front doors of the families whose sons made “the supreme sacrifice” for their countries. In the harsh glare of September 11th, then, ours is not the only country that sends our youth off to die…while grey-haired politicians often fail to negotiate peace. 

We are the ‘elders’ who can pay the price being awake exacts, by owning power well, with every small, even miniscule ethical choice in our own daily lives.

Another Jungian scholar, William Johnson, presents a similar theme in his book The Mirror Mind. He suggests we examine our own conscience regularly, “Not a fault-finding mission, but a survey of one’s abilities…”  Johnson suggests that our responsibility is to hone our talents well, for not to do so leaves the world worse off and deprived – perhaps in uncaring hands. 

What would the world be like if we, all of us, chase passivity away, and join committees where we can make a difference…and insist on accountability?
 

Sometimes we are so stunned by shock we end up doing nothing but isolating with murky feelings of survivor’s guilt.  “Let it begin with me” counsels Johnson.

And lastly, what has helped me is quiet reflection. Simply focusing my attention, daily, on the importance and value of peace in our lives and what that means, is helpful.  I get ideas. I act. 
 

“Life can only be understood backwards…” said Kierkegaard “…but it must be lived forwards.”  I ask that my abilities be transformed into purposefulness that can help the world and all those grieving in every oppressed country.

 

 

Welcoming the Stranger

Published in The Sunflower
October 2005

An ancient allegory tells of a traveler who happened upon a sick man lying on the road. The afflicted stranger is distinctly different from the traveler both religiously and politically. Typically, the two men would disdain one another’s company. They'd avoid each other. Yet, the traveler got down from his high horse, examined the sick man’s wounds and arranged for on-going care for him.

Even today, what I know about myself is like the tip of an ice-berg. And, the submerged aspects of myself can frighten me. There's sudden anxiety on my way to work or at other transition times. And then it's so easy to run away, to compensate myself - with an unnecessary snack or getting too busy.

I still avoid the estranged aspects – of myself.

Earlier in my life, I labored under the mistaken notion that until I "knew myself", I couldn't be happy. How could this ever be accomplished, though, when I am constantly changing? The notion that the tolerance I can have for others whose personalities I may dislike, might also be applied to myself, has taught me that before healing can ever occur, I have to reassure myself.  I have to trust that I too will welcome the stranger of myself. I can consider the nature of my own fragility and practice self-compassion instead of self-criticism. 

Like the thoughtful traveler did, I can also arrange for continual support - for myself.

While self-identification and self-knowledge are by-products of my growth, they are not my central goals. Much more important is that I become a compassionate person. Only then will those frozen traits of myself - those survival techniques I no longer need - begin to melt. Only with gentle self-acceptance can I even begin to inspect those unwanted defenses, my wounds.

Today, I no longer require a list of identifying features to determine exactly who I am. Like the tender-hearted traveler, I can be kind to myself as I adventure along my own divinely mysterious path.

 I too can lovingly stop to tend the stranger - who is me.

Community

Published in QUAAL- Linking for Learning, Concordia University
Vol. 17, No.4, Summer 2000

As a child, community was my big family, my neighborhood of friends up and down what seemed like miles of street, my inspiring kindergarten teacher and the lady serving fresh ice cream at the dairy, far, far away, around the corner. And then change happened. It was a stunning shock to learn that Miss Rosemary was not coming with me to Grade One. Then my best friend moved away. I missed her terribly. Soon after, I found out that our family was moving too.

It hasn’t stopped since then: moves, losses, deaths, births, and additional career shifts. In fact, change itself is a permanent feature in my life. Yet, my sense of community is stable because it is rooted, not in geography, but in ideas.

So what does community mean to me?

Community is neither hand-picked not ‘by invitation only’. Successful community is not about grasping tightly - but holding lightly, especially to conflicting ideas and difficult personalities. I am entirely responsible to assess how comfortable – or not – I feel in their midst and to take care of myself in all of that. I’ve heard some wise and helpful things from people I didn't like. This is how community helps me to stretch and grow with those whose personalities challenge me to mature.

Community means that if there is a disaster in my town or in another part of the world, I don’t have to know my neighbor; it’s about helping out, giving aid, protesting injustice, and sharing our thoughts.

It’s about joining groups that, together, create the kind of intelligent, powerful energy that gets important work done. Grandiosity often orchestrates solo. Humility, though, holds hands and accomplishes much. Still and all, there are times when no one else will join in and you must write that risky memo all by yourself. Supporting your own instincts, by yourself, is important because your silence is your permission for the unacceptable. Trusting yourself is a prerequisite to community.

Community is about bumping into a former student in the metro who thanks me for having been there for her in the past and even though I just vaguely remember her face and couldn't possibly manage a name, I feel that, wherever she goes, I’ve helped raise her in her world family.

Community is about taking a day off when I need quiet time all by myself so that, rested and relaxed, I can respond well, rather than react. Community is about people, places and events only secondarily. Primarily, it’s all about the purposeful, generous energy that allows us to share the best of ourselves, wherever we are,with family and friends, old and new.

Mystical Mistake
Author: Eleanor Cowan
Published in The Forum
May 2002

Dedicated to my brother, Charles (1956-2004)

“This must be a slip”, I thought. I’d gone too far, traveled to the edge of my boundary line and then crossed over it. With twisted reasoning that made some kind of sense at the time, I decided to do something that felt very uncomfortable. My 22 year old daughter was leaving home in Montreal to work for the summer in Kingston, Ontario. She asked me to drive her and her belongings there over the weekend so off we tooled on a sunny Saturday morning. We discovered that the place she thought would be home was a dump. We stopped for coffee, bought a paper, made some calls, drove around but had no luck finding her alternate lodgings. When I was ready to call it a day and drive back to Montreal, my daughter made an impassioned plea. Since her bed and belongings were in the van and since we were halfway there already, she wanted to know if I would please drive her to Toronto – another 300 miles or so. It was four o’clock in the afternoon and I was tired. I’d already had a busy, demanding week. I needed to rest. I wanted my daughter to come home and use our internet services before we set out again.

What was it? The look in her eyes? The passion in her voice? “Please, Mom, please?” Was it all of this? I wanted to say, “No, this is nuts. I need to rest before work on Monday, and that’s final.” Instead, I melted. “All right,” I said, “let’s go.”

She sang gaily beside me, the sun sparkling in her eyes. I smiled too, but I began to wonder about myself. Despite my discomfort, I sensed I was doing the right thing. We visited a dozen places on Sunday morning, all to no avail. I paid a sky-high hotel bill, felt anxious in a city where I’d grown up in an alcoholic family, and was getting more and more uncomfortable being in a place crowded with difficult memories. Suddenly, it occurred to me to call my brother. We hadn’t seen each other for quite a few years. Although we spoke on the phone from time to time, I didn’t want to see him without giving advance notice. Chuckie was a daily drinker and there'd been some problems between us in the past. A few years ago, after some personal reflection, I decided to clear the clouds between us and we began chatting again. We never spoke of the past. We seemed to start again on a new path that felt fine for both of us. He sent me e-mail jokes and we had more than a few loving exchanges. So, on that Sunday, anxious and stressed, I surprised him with my call from a phone booth. He instantly invited us to his place. Driving to his home, I thought it strange and incomprehensible that I was back in a city that was connected to so much suffering in my youth. Here I was, on my way to a completely unplanned visit to someone in my family who still suffered from active alcoholism – even after all we’d been through as children. I wondered what was going on. My brother welcomed us. We hugged and he said some nice things about an older sister who'd encouraged him a great deal. He spoke proudly about his daughter and his son. He shared how happy he was with his new renovation business. He enthusiastically announced that my daughter could stay at his place till she found a job. 
He said he’d gladly clear out his tool room for her, that she could use his computer, internet service, fax machine and phone. He said he'd even drive her to interviews and do anything to help her out. It was wonderfully touching. I clearly experienced my brother’s generous spirit. There was only one problem. He was drinking. My daughter quietly let me know that she couldn't stay for that reason. After making gentle excuses about changing our minds, we drove back to Montreal. Late Sunday night, I arrived home upset about a wasted weekend that cost me about $600.The next day I returned the van, took a day off work and focused, with the help of some dear friends, on dealing with my anxiety.


Over the following weeks, I learned some compassion for myself, more about not being perfect, ever, and about doing the best I could in pinch-hit situations. I grew less recriminating about how well or not I was doing. All of that was in May. Four months later, I decided to go to a local meditation center to listen to a lecture. Upon arrival, I discovered I’d misread the brochure and I was, in fact, two weeks early. On my way out, my eyes fell upon a small book about treasuring life. I bought the book with the money I would have spent on the lecture. When I arrived home I received a call from my sister telling me that on that same day our brother died suddenly in Toronto. My daughter lit beautiful candles in our living room and sat with me as I cried and read the important little book that I'd bought just minutes before I would need it so much. Recently, a friend of mine referred to my experience as a gift and so it was. If I had not said yes to my daughter in May, I would not have had the opportunity to see my brother for the last time. I would not have been able to comfort my sister at his funeral by relaying the wonderful things he’d said about her, nor would I have been able to reassure his children of how proud their father was of them.

I am so grateful for the gifts of  mistake.

Thank you Marie Louise von Franz 

Recently at a local feast here in the First Nations Community where I live, I observed an elder carefully peel strips of beaver meat from the cranial bone he held in his work-worn hands. Small, sharp blade incised just so, he peeled back a strip of meat so cleanly that only the bald white bone remained. Clearly, he’d learned, in times of want, to eat respectfully and thoroughly. Nothing wasted.

Similarly, I too so deeply appreciate the nourishment provided by the devoted Jungian scholar, Marie Louise Von Franz (1915-1998) in On Dreams and Death (Shambala Publications, Inc. 1986) that I would like to share some of the strengthening ideas, dreams and images that have satisfied my own cravings, especially in this time of global challenge.

Let me begin with a dream of an analysand of Von Franz: 

                         She was at a garden party where many people were standing around on a lawn.
                         Jung was among them. He was wearing a strange outfit: in front his jacket and
                         trousers were bright green; in the back they were black. Then she saw a black
                         wall which had a hole cut out of it in exactly the same shape as Jung’s stature.
                         Jung suddenly stepped into this hole, and now all that one could see was a 
                         complete black surface, although everyone knew he was still there. Then the 
                         dreamer looked at herself and discovered that she too was wearing such clothes,
                         green in front and black behind. (Pg. 155)

Von Franz reports that upon waking from this dream, her client received a phone call telling her that Jung had just died. Von Franz does not think that in death, the course material body will one day rise up out of the burial plot and resume its life on earth as fundamentalist religion would have it. But the Self will: Inside the material body of our cells, skin, blood, and bone there is included energy known as ‘subtle body’, comprised of our awakened consciousness, the character we have conscientiously developed - all that which has been rescued from the unconscious.

Marie Louise von Franz encourages personal growth – and promises important rewards of increased consciousness. It is our very thoughts, ideas, new attitudes, deeper understandings, in other words - our constructed character, that, at death, part from the course material body, a container it no longer needs since it has, by its own effort to individuate, created a new receptacle.

Do the meaty returns of our own brave hunting adventures contribute to our own ‘subtle body’?  I consider the books and art and scientific developments and brilliant inventions contributed by those who have developed themselves in the world, despite difficulty.

Marie Louise Von Franz advises we meet death consciously. We can practice by paying attention to living well, by treasuring every moment whether we are cleaning the bathroom or making a soup or just lying down on the couch and bravely feeling our feelings and listening to ourselves. . 
  
Von Franz supplies the following dream of a man who had been unhappily married but who had tried all his life to maintain his marriage according to conventional Christian standards:

He was in a church beside his wife – apparently to be married to her again or 
to reconfirm his marriage. But in front of him was a blank white washed wall.
The minister was a person whom he knew in reality, a very decent but depressive, 
neurotic man. Suddenly, a most beautiful Gypsy woman broke into the ceremony, 
fettered the parson with ropes and began to drag him away. At the same time
she looked with flaming eyes at the dreamer and said, “And with you, I will soon 
lose my patience.” (Pg.51) 
  
Von Franz explains that the above dreamer died of a heart attack shortly after having this dream. Life doesn't seem to tolerate betrayal very well. This reminds me of a dream had by Jungian scholar, Marion Woodman, who related that she had consistently ignored her instincts. Over and over again, she brushed away her thoughts. She didn't listen to what she knew she should do. One night she dreamed that an angry woman appeared to her, screaming that if Marion continued to ignore her, then she’d snatch back the beautiful 'pearls' she once gave her. 
I think of my frightened father. He couldn't defy his church, which, he believed, dangled his salvation. If only he'd been encouraged to establish his own inner place of worship; his own instincts and his sacraments. If it is our important life work to “make conscious” all that which is unconscious, we are to be constantly birthing the imaginative and inspiring new ideas we have.


Marie Louise von Franz examines a dream by J.B. Priestly (http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jpriestley.htm ) related in Man and Time: 

 “I was standing at the top of a very high tower, alone, looking down upon the myriads of birds flying in one direction; every kind of bird was there, all the birds in the world. It was a noble sight, this vast aerial river of birds. But now, in some mysterious fashion the gear was changed, and the time sped up, so that I saw generations of birds, watched them break their shells, flutter into life, mate, weaken, falter and die. Wings grew only to crumble; bodies were sleek and then, in a flash, bled and shriveled; and death struck everywhere at every second. What was the use of all this blind struggle towards life, this eager trying of wings, this hurried mating, this flight and surge, all this gigantic meaningless biological effort? 

As I stared down, seeming to see every creature’s ignoble little history almost at a glance, I felt sick at heart. It would be better if not one of them, if not one of us at all, had been born, if the struggle ceased forever. I stood on my tower, still alone, desperately unhappy. 
But now the gear was changed again, and time went faster still, and it was rushing by at such a rate, that the birds could not show any movement, but were like an enormous plain sown with feathers. But, along this plain, flickering through the bodies themselves, there now passed a sort of white flame, trembling, dancing, then hurrying on; as soon as I saw it I knew that this white flame was life itself, the very quintessence of being; and then it came to me, in a rocket-burst of ecstasy, that nothing mattered, nothing could ever matter, because nothing else was real but this quivering and hurrying lambency of beings. 
Birds, people or creatures not yet shaped and colored, all were of no account except so as this flame of life travelled through them. It left nothing to mourn over behind it; what I had thought of as tragedy was mere emptiness or a shadow show; for now all real feeling was caught and purified and danced on ecstatically with the white flame of life. I had never felt before such happiness as I knew at the end of my dream of the tower and the birds.”
 

Priestly, explains Marie-Louise von Franz, understood the flame in his dream as the eternal cosmic Self.

Rather than cowering uselessly behind a belief that we are insignificant and unworthy in the grand scheme of things, we can view ourselves as critically important and essential participants in the shaping of our own immediate futures.

Jung said that to the degree we do not participate in becoming the best we can be, then to that very same degree are we, and the world, deprived. Each person has a gift to give. 
  
Finally, the thrill of the following passage from the architect Stefan von Janovich, someone who died and then was revived: 

One of the great discoveries I made during death…was the oscillation principle…
Since that time “God” represents, for me, a source of primal energy, inexhaustible
and timeless, continually radiating energy, absorbing energy and constantly 
pulsating … Different worlds are formed from different oscillations; 
the frequencies determine the differences… 

(Pg.147)

Let's contribute to a vast fund of conscious cosmic energy!  Like the elders, we shall gladly leave only bald bones behind; happy with the nourishment we have been given. Like Jung passing through the fence, yes, we can continue to love through the the work we have left behind, presence in another color.

 

 

Safe Passage!


In her richly meaningful book Dreams and Death, (Shambala Publications, Inc.1986) the late Jungian scholar and psychoanalyst Marie Louise Von Franz reflects upon an ancient Egyptian Book of Aphorisms, wherein the deceased says:

“I am…Osiris. I came from you, wheat.  
I entered into you, I became fat in you, I grew in you,
I fell into you…so that the gods live for me.
I live as wheat, I grow as wheat, 
which the sacred ones harvest. 
Geb covers me.*
I live, I die, I do not perish.”
 

* Geb means ‘earth’.


Marie Louise von Franz explains the meaning of this quotation with a dream by J.B. Priestly (http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jpriestley.htm ) related in Man and Time:

“I was standing at the top of a very high tower, alone, looking down upon the myriads of birds flying in one direction; every kind of bird was there, all the birds in the world. It was a noble sight, this vast aerial river of birds. But now, in some mysterious fashion the gear was changed, and the time speeded up, so that I saw generations of birds, watched them break their shells, flutter into life, mate, weaken, falter and die. Wings grew only to crumble; bodies were sleek and then, in a flash, bled and shrivelled; and death struck everywhere at every second. What was the use of all this blind struggle towards life, this eager trying of wings, this hurried mating, this flight and surge, all this gigantic meaningless biological effort? 

As I stared down, seeming to see every creature’s ignoble little history almost at a glance, I felt sick at heart. It would be better if not one of them, if not one of us at all, had been born, if the struggle ceased forever. I stood on my tower, still alone, desperately unhappy.

But now the gear was changed again, and time went faster still, and it was rushing by at such a rate, that the birds could not show any movement, but were like an enormous plain sown with feathers. But, along this plain, flickering through the bodies themselves, there now passed a sort of white flame, trembling, dancing, then hurrying on; as soon as I saw it I knew that this white flame was life itself, the very quintessence of being; and then it came to me, in a rocket-burst of ecstacy, that nothing mattered, nothing could ever matter, because nothing else was real but this quivering and hurrying lambency of beings. Birds, people or creatures not yet shaped and coloured, all were of no account except so as this flame of life travelled through them. It left nothing to mourn over behind it; what I had thought of as tragedy was mere emptiness or a shadow show; for now all real feeling was caught and purified and danced on ecstatically with the white flame of life. I had never felt before such happiness as I knew at the end of my dream of the tower and the birds.”


Priestly, explains Marie-Louise von Franz, understood the flame in his dream as the cosmic Self. 
Continuity, agreeing to provide safe passage for the Flame of Life, which, for me. is Love – my human celebration even though I understand so little.

This entry is dedicated to the family of Anastasia De Sousa who grieve the violent death of their daughter in Montreal, 2006.