Light and shadow

When I was in Hawaii last week, I visited Painted Church or, more properly, St. Benedict’s Catholic Church.  It’s a scenic, little-white-church tucked away in the greenery south of Kona and worth a quick stop.  The church is famous for the murals covering the walls and ceiling, painted by Father John Velghe, an untrained folk artist.  The presentation on entering the chapel is light and airy.  Palm fronds scrape the ceiling dotted by little metal stars.  The colors are mostly island pastels.  Below, the scene is more grim.  There are six murals of more terrestrial scenes including hell, grieving Eve crying over the body of Abel as Cain looks on and the handwriting on the wall from the book of Daniel.  The whole church is a beautiful example of American folk art, but I was struck by the juxtaposition of the peaceful ceiling and the disturbing walls.  

Peaceful Hawaiian Heaven

It made me think about two words that frequently come up when I’m talking with my Jungian-analyst therapist: light and shadow.  Jung proposes that many of us spend our lives trying to keep our shadow hidden.  Light is all of the goodness in us.  All the good intentions, the love, the kindness—things we don’t mind seeing.  I observe this as I talk to my patients who have committed violent crimes.  I can’t think of one who didn’t see himself as a good person.  Just last week, I had a man, who was convicted of multiple violent crimes, use those exact words.  I’m not passing judgment on him, but I find it to be a compelling example of the lengths we go to to hide the shadow from ourselves.  

Mural of “Hell”

So if the light is good, then the shadow must be bad.  I’ve given this a lot of thought.  I don’t think that is necessarily true or at least that it is that black and white, or really black and white at all.  My first realization related to this was when I was considering the creation story.  God created Christ.  He also created Satan.  We tend to think of these guys as the polar opposites.  And then he created each of us, who hold in the same being tendencies for good and for evil.  So god created both!  He created the light and the dark.  He created all the parts of me.  The light and the shadow.  To me, at minimum, that suggests there is room for the grey—that it is intentioned by god.  What life keeps teaching me is that we are meant to hold both.  We are meant to be a vessel for the light, while at the same time holding and beholding the shadow.  

Jung said this, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”  Haha! Disagreeable—yes.  That’s how so many of us fall into black and white thinking because it’s so much more agreeable to have neat columns with tidy edges.  But that kind of thinking forces us to hide the shadow from ourselves.  

Maybe Father Velghe knew this as he painted the lovely white church with scenes of darkness.  Maybe he was trying to frighten his congregation into piety.  Or maybe he understood the need for us to sit in a space with both the peaceful, heavenly ceiling and the terrestrial, dark walls.  Maybe he knew that if we spent all our time staring at the ceiling we would never feel the gravity that holds us to the floor.  And that if we only looked at the darkness around us, we would never experience the light of transcendence.  Maybe he knew that we were meant to behold both—in the world and in ourselves. And to choose love over fear, both in relation to the shadow without and the shadow within.       

I thought about this today as R left to spend the weekend with his dad.  “I don’t want you to leave me,” he said.  He didn’t want to leave, but he did it so bravely.  Even when he doesn’t want to go he’s always excited once he sees his dad’s face.

The truth about shared parenting is it feels like having a piece of your heart ripped from your insides on a routine basis.  Often I’m thankful for the break, thankful to have a little time for myself but it’s always, ALWAYS bittersweet.  

Yesterday I kept thinking, it’s just his presence–that is the magic.  We stayed home all day and played toys and ate what we had on hand.  It was nothing special, except that he was here.  I could kiss his soft curls anytime I wanted.  I could hear him breathing next to me.  It was magic because he IS the magic.  

And now he is gone again.  And the truth is that part of me is relieved to have a little quiet.  To be able to rest.  And part of me is devastated.  These two pieces are alive inside of me at the same time and I have to love both of them because I need both to survive this.  So I let myself cry on the couch for a minute, even though it feels like I do it too often. Then I will take a shower and a nap so I can recover from this post-vacation cold as quickly as possible.  

I will let myself be glad for the quiet and hate it at the same time because I need both.