Sunday, May 18, 2008

Trying to find an Axis Mundi ...

I remember studying Mircea Eliade in my undergrad work at McMaster University way back in another Century. In addition to his work - "The Myth of the Eternal Return" (which incidentally made me critically think about the entirety of Christian Theology from a different point of view) we studied a number of his other works including "The Sacred and the Profane."

But what I remember most of all was Eliade's description of the Axis Mundi in human history. He likened it to the central axis around which we secure our meaning and understanding of the world and our place therein.

He cited the Totem Poles of the NorthWest Coast First Nations people as the most graphic example of this axis mundi. For in the totem pole is not only a physical axis around which the life of the family, the clan or the community revolve. The axis itself tells the history of the people for whom this axis has meaning. The figures are intricately connected to the people - the story told on the totem pole is the story of the people who raised it, maintain it, and live around it.

It is not coincidence therefore, that some of the Totem Poles were created as doorways into the communal long houses that they stood in front of. The act of stepping through the Gaping Maw of the Totem, or one of its creatures became a symbolic stepping IN TO the story of the people itself. By walking through the arch, you entered the very centre of the Universe for this group of people.

In First Nations culture the connectedness to PLACE is very strong. This past week I listened to a Native Leader speak of the importance of Community for First Nations people. As she spoke of the need to BE IN COMMUNITY, I thought of the axis mundi that community - PLACE - represents.

Most startling of all was her contention that First Nations people will stay in a dysfunctional toxic unhealthy community BECAUSE it is STILL a form of community. She noted that the community under the bridge in an urban centre may be a nightmare, but it remains a community, and for a First Nations' person, that community is life itself. To take them away from that dysfunctional community and offer nothing in return would mean death ... such is the NEED for community.

Community becomes the Axis Mundi ... and without the Axis Mundi in our lives we are not only lost ... we begin to die ...



This week I also started reading Elizabeth Gilbert's book "Eat, Pray, Love" about her journey of transition and transformation from the end of a marriage through to finding herself ... Her journey is ultimately about the loss of the Axis Mundi in her life ... her self-understandings, her roles, her place and her world is thrown into upheavel and she struggles to find her way forward ...

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As I read her words I found too many of them ringing true for me and the journey I have found myself on in recent years ... One of my struggles has been in grappling with the mounting list of losses that I've experienced ... I've had wise friends tell me to stop tallying the losses, and instead take stock of what gains I've achieved and what I still have ... AND while I've tried to do that, it has been easy to slide towards the "woe is me" pity party that can only see the half-empty glass, rather than a glass half-full ...

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Last night I read Gilbert's book and she shared her struggle with understanding herself and the place she found herself in as her marriage dissolved and everything she understood about herself began to melt away - I had an a-ha moment.

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She had, in her life, become so focused on those around her that she allowed herself to be defined by their presence in HER life, rather than by her self and what she was. It was when a friend noted that there had been a significant change in her since she left the marriage that she realized how she had become a mirror to the person she was with. She observed in herself how much she had become like the new man in her life rather than being like her former husband ... the struggle she suddenly found herself confronting, was how to be HER OWN PERSON.

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She then went on to describe the challenges of finding, and perhaps even creating that person who has been lost for a very long time ... the importance of find oneself independent of merging oneself with another ... the merging it would appear, could be an attempt to find an Axis Mundi in an unbalanced and ever-shifting world ... There is security and comfort in being "with" someone ... the is discomfort and insecurity being "with" only ourselves ... We are perhaps ALL hardwired for community, and community becomes our Axis Mundi, and when disaster strikes we begin to search out community (sometimes dysfunctional) to make us feel valued, loved and cared for ...

Glibert's struggle, and perhaps mine as well, is to find ourselves and to find within ourselves the axis mundi around which our cosmos turns ...

As I laid in bed last night I realized that the things I've always regarded as my axis mundi(s) have systematically disappeared ... individually they are not necessarily significant losses, but as they pile up, they become a dizzying array of items:

- the death of my Maternal Grandmother ...

- my mom's bout with cancer ...

- the presence in our life of two toxic couples posing as friends who had only thier selfish self-interest at heart...

- the loss of the Church in Minnedosa to fire...

- the vicious, petty nastiness that comes in the wake of such trauma...

- the betrayal of a co-worker I had foolishly called friend ...

- the political machinations of a group of fear-filled and hypocritical church leaders ...

- the failure of colleagues and associates to act much less speak ...

- the failure of onlookers to DO ANYTHING to stop the nastiness they could see ...

- the failure of the Church to simply LIVE its faith and stop being grossly political ...

- the outright lies spread through community and Church ...

- the implosion of our marriage...

- the closing of my home Congregation ...

- the loss of friends who found it expedient and easier to simply run away ...

- the loss of my job and role of Minister ...

- the loss of my reputation to lies, untruths and vicious gossip ...

- the evaporation of my career within the confines of the United Church ...

- the failure of the Greater Church to take of its blinders and open its eyes to the reality ...

- the lack of transparency and justice through the disciplinary process ...

- the shunning by a community that claims to be "warm and friendly" ...

- the failure of others to open their eyes to what was unfolding

- the petty political machinations of small minded bitter hearted folks who desperately had to be "right" and impose their will upon everyone else

- the hypocrisy of Church "Leaders" who will bad mouth me privately, but smile and wish me well to my face ...

- the acts of violence, physical, threatened, and verbal against me and my person ...

- the betrayal of people I had cared deeply for and loved as friends ...

- the feeling of being utterly, utterly alone ...

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As I read Gilbert's struggles I understood what ALL of these things were in my life ... it was not so much the losses that were the issue, it was the loss of what I had held to as my Axis Mundi ... my understanding of the world and my place in it, my story, my sanctuary, my safe harbour in any storm has been slowly stripped away ... There is no longer a Totem Pole that I can look to as my safe place ...

This morning at worship the presider began by acknowledging what a joy it was to be returning to the place where she had been Christened, Confirmed, and Married, and now was honoured to be preaching ... she described the building where we sat as "Home" ... a place she could always return to and feel comforted ... I realized in that moment, that I no longer had such a home ...

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For me, there are no Sanctuaries to return to ... I can drive my the houses of my Grandparents and Great-Grandparents, all of them places that hold special meaning in my heart and life, but none of them are HOMES any more - they are just buildings ... I have lost the physical reality of two Church Sanctuaries that were "Home" to me ... one a few blocks away that remains a vacant lot ... and another half a country away that now serves another non-UCC community of faith ... Even my spiritual home on the North End of Vancouver Island has become tenuous to my life because it is M's home church - NOT mine ... along the way, the people I had called friends have ebbed away through time and distance, and in some painful experiences through betrayal and abandonment ... my marriage has dissolved ... my role as minister was stripped from me ... and even my familial home back in Southern Ontario is just a place to visit ... and in the coming weeks the house that for 8 years has been HOME to us, will be sold and we will finish packing everything up and starting fresh in two households somewhere else ...

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With no Axis Mundi to hold us in place we drift ...

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And last night as I watched Reign Over Me, with Adam Sandler I had another A-Ha moment about why I feeling overwhelmed by things ...
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near the end of the movie, as the Courts consider whether to place Sandler's character under psychiatric care in a hospital he confronts his In-Laws about the loss of his wife/their daughter, and his daughters/ their granddaughters in 9/11 - the seminal background event in the film ...

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He asks them how they can assume that he doesn't feel anything ... then makes the quiet observation - "At least you have EACH OTHER !!" as he walks away.

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"At least you have EACH other ..."

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In that moment a light went off ... my NEEDINESS, my feelings of being LOST, and my sense of being ALONE arise out of that simple statement ...

Of ALL the losses I've experienced in the last five years ... the loss of community has been the greatest ... Those I called friends have all abandoned me ... (I AM very fortunate to STILL have a circle of caring, understanding, patient, and when necessary critical friends who have stood with me through it all) ... the betrayal of those I had cared about has been deep ... and when the storms formed and the crises began to unfold, like Sandler's character I couldn't see beyond the grief and the hurt ...

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Being engulfed in the loss of your Axis Mundi is a hard place to be ... but having no community to be intimate with beyond the casual "hey, how's it going?" level of conversation is debilitating ... and that is the place where I have found myself again and again and again ...

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"At least you have each other ..." is a stark reminder of the NEED for community ... not just buddies and pals, but people who care about us ... The last three years, the community I had called home has turned its back on me and has shunned me at every turn, reminding me that I have in their eyes become a failure and an embarassment ...

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This weekend, thanks to a book, a movie, a sermon, and prayer ... I've been reminded that even with the losses of my supposed axis mundi, there remains one axis mundi that has never failed me - MY FAITH ... and from that comes the gift of family ... and the blessing of friends ... and certainty that even in the darkest moments, when all seems lost ... the promise of Resurrection never falters nor fails ... God will see us through ... and one day we will no longer be alone, nor feeling overwhelmed by the losses ...

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Today may not be THAT day ... but I know in this moment I'm one step closer to that destination ... and that's a good thing ...

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1 comment:

mrinz said...

In Maori (NZ First nation people - tangata whenua)it is called your 'turangawaewae'. Translated literaly it means a 'place to stand'.

TÅ«rangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home.

For us as non Maori it also means the same.