Throughout May and June we will be having a series of reflections shared by Michael Petrow. Michael is a scholar of Origen, who was a brilliant early Christian theologian from the second century. Even though Origen’s name has been tarnished with the label of heresy, his writing has had as much impact on Christianity as Augustine and Aquinas. In this series (every Wednesday for the next couple months) Michael is going to share with us some of Origen’s timeless wisdom and relate it to our complicated modern day lives.
Michael is also a spiritual director and a scholar of early Christian mysticism and depth psychology. He currently lives in New Mexico where he works with The Center for Action and Contemplation as well as The Guild for Spiritual Guidance.
I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did!
One idea that I find truly fascinating in Origen’s thought is “the pre-existence of souls”— his teaching that our souls existed with God before this life, before even the existence of the cosmos. (He got in a quite a bit of trouble for this actually.) Now there is some debate as to whether or not this basically works out to a Christian version of reincarnation (not quite in my opinion, but maybe.)
Now as a result, he also believed that the events of our life had a lot to do with actions and decisions made before our birth—that our souls lived through the circumstances that they needed to in order to learn the lessons they needed to learn, and to heal the wounds they needed to heal. (Maybe so, and more on that another day.)
But we don’t have to jump all the way into these profound (and potentially problematic) cosmological ideas just yet. Because I think the belief that our soul is older than the life we can remember reveals something that we all find to be true in our lived experience, regardless of whether we “believe” in an eternal soul or not.
We always enter the story in the middle.
When you were born, you stepped into circumstances beyond your control, and you inherited a series of gifts and challenges that had a gravity, an inertia, and a momentum that was going long, long before you came along. You stepped into a series of stories—that of your family, your culture, even the human race—that were telling themselves before you came along to listen or play a part, and will still be playing out long after you depart.
This might seem unfair, that we inherit troubles, traumas, trials and tremendous opportunities not of our own making… but this is life friends. We are not individuals who exist at any point in a vacuum. The sooner we disavow ourselves of this belief, the less we will be tortured by the inequities of life. [IMHO demanding too much satisfaction from the Divine for the inequities of suffering in this life, might actually be one of the greatest sources of suffering.]
What do you think? This feels real to me. Origen has no obnoxious doctrine of “original sin”—that came later with Augustine—but I personally don’t need that absurdity to recognize that I inherited a “bad temper” from my mother who was a deeply loving but also very traumatized individual. She in turn inherited issues with anger and impulse control from her father, who was likewise deeply traumatized by an abusive childhood and the five aquatic combat landings that he participated in as a Marine in the Southern Pacific theater of World War II.
The story keeps going backwards, a great-grandfather who was a soldier abandoned in Northern Africa, a great- grandmother who lost her legs when she was hit by a train. Trauma and trouble seems to go way way back, as do the stories of overcoming those challenges and finding love and healing.
What about you? Do you relate to this in any way? Did you step into a longer story?
Further, it takes a certain degree of pressure off when we realize we always leave our story unfinished. We come in in the middle of the story and we leave the same way, exiting the movie theater before the lights go up. The prophet always leaves the world un-corrected, the teacher leaves it uneducated, and the healer leaves it unhealed. The work and the world continues long after we are gone, and the play continues long after we exit the stage.
This might make you feel forlorn, “like a poor actor who “struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” Perhaps life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Or perhaps there is a longer story being told, and if we can accept we are but a part in a bigger narrative, it can set us free, while simultaneously connecting us to all others, who also are brief but essential chapters in a multi—volume library.
What do you think? Have you ever felt older than your years? Do you believe that maybe you existed in some form or fashion before you were born? More to the point how does it feel to reflect on the notion that we always are stepping into the middle of the story, and always busy dealing with drama that’s not ours, even as we leave stories, situations, and issues unfinished for others to sort out when they come along? Where has it been hardest for you to drop into the middle? What is the hardest part for you to leave unfinished?
If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favourite social media or sign up for our email list to receive weekly reflections. If you want to learn more about Celtic Christianity and Contemplation, check out some of the free videos from our virtual retreat: Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.