Welcome to Day Five of my new blog series on “accepting the world.” Catch up on the idea for the series and the first four posts on this dedicated page.
In two weeks, Artefact Institute is presenting our first workshop/event in Louisville, KY. It’s our first event, but already there’s been a lot of interest, and we expect several hundred people in attendance at various points of the weekend. That interest has only been helped by the fact that we’re co-hosting the event with the Climacus Conference 2020. But even with their presence, I’ve sensed that there has been a lot of interest in what we’re talking about–the technique of culture creation.
The Gospel as Fairy Story
Whether it’s confirmation bias or some other mental trick, I’ve been struck more and more by the ever-presence of the archetypes of the hero’s journey in various narrative structures that we encounter, even in our daily lives. Perhaps the most exciting example of this is something that Tolkien talks about in his essay On Fairy Stories:
The story [that is, the Gospels seen through the prism of fairy-story] has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality’. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
At first glance, this is a shocking statement. Is Tolkien saying that the Gospel is a myth? Well, yes, actually. It’s the one and only True Myth.
The True Myth
Many better people have written about Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and the idea of the True Myth. Fr. Stephen Freeman himself wrote about it recently. Rather than rehashing their insights, I want to focus on the fact that Tolkien suggests that there is something about the form of the heroic tale, or fairy tale, that reflects the reality revealed by the Gospel about the nature of the world itself.
Tolkien argues that there is a kind of storytelling form that in its structure either foreshadows (if it’s ancient myth) or recalls (if it’s a more recent fairy tale or fantasy) the Gospel itself. That structure has appeared in slight variations of a single, repeatable form for millennia. It’s possible that the earliest stories people ever told were told in this format. Aristotle recognized this structure as essential for the story to be transformative and instructive. Finally, neuroscientists have written that the brain instinctively reacts to it.
I’m talking about the hero’s journey, which is nothing else than the structure of the story of Christ’s incarnation.
The Structure of the Hero’s Journey
There are different versions of the hero’s journey, all with their own idiosyncrasies, but they all basically follow the same pattern. Here is one of them:
- A Call to Adventure, mediated by Supernatural aid and/or threshold guardians
- A series of challenges and temptations, often accompanied by a mentor figure
- A seeming victory that leads to catastrophe, then “the dark night of the soul”
- A period of atonement or internal gathering-of-strength
- A transformation initiated by a moment of unexpected divine aid, or “eucatastrophe”
- The return of the main character to his home, where he passes on his wisdom to others
It doesn’t take too much effort to see how this structure mirrors Jesus’s life on earth. The Call to Adventure is the Annunciation, the challenges and temptations are the difficulties of Christ’s life on earth, the catastrophic event leading to the dark night of the soul is the Entrance into Jerusalem, the internal gathering-of-strength is the Garden of Gethsemane, the eucatastrophe is the Resurrection, the return is the forty days of preparation for the apostles’ ministry.
The Hero’s Journey in Church Services
The more one becomes attuned to the presence of the hero’s journey (or three act structure, or a host of other names) in stories, the more one realizes it is present in many more places than initially apparent. For example, the structure of our liturgical day is largely based on this hero’s journey.
There is a great deal of symbolism in the structure of all the daily services, especially the liturgy, which is a recapitulation of the New Testament. But the Old Testament, if seen as the heroic story of a nation at large, not necessarily the individual members of that nation, also follows a similar structure. And that structure is also present in Vespers.
But we don’t see it very often. We would, if we were attuned to the symbolic structure of the services. And I firmly believe that if we were aware of it, we would be more attentive to the services, in a way that would help us behold the reality that is revealed before our very eyes, outside of time.
It occurred to me that perhaps one way of illuminating this symbolic structure would be to actually tell a story based on the structure of the Vespers service. And that’s where the idea for St. Simeon’s life as the “story” of Vespers came about.
St Simeon as the incarnation of the Old Testament
St Simeon the God-receiver is a threshold figure, one foot firmly in the Old Testament, on foot firmly in the New. Although we don’t know much about his life, the small details we do know make him a perfect candidate for a hero’s journey. So that’s what I did. I wrote a semi-fictional life story for St. Simeon, based on the structure of the hero’s journey, and Benedict Sheehan and I interwove that story with music from the Vespers service.
It culminates in the eucatastrophe of the Meeting of the Lord, and it will be performed on the eve of the Meeting of the Lord, according to the new calendar.
It is my earnest hope that the performers and creators involved in this Artefact Event will be able to deepen our audience’s appreciation for the beauty and poetry of our services. I hope they will continue to seek the symbolism of other services as well, so that every time they enter church, it can truly become a transformative experience.