The Mandorla

Recently I read renowned Jungian psychologist, Robert A. Johnson’s book, Owning Your Own Shadow, Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, where I learned about the mandorla. Most people know what a mandala is, but a mandorla, Johnson explains is “that almond-shaped segment that is made when two circles partly overlap…This symbol signifies nothing less than the overlap of the opposites…the overlap of heaven and earth.” Many of Europe’s cathedrals have mandorlas and often either Christ or the Virgin Mary is framed in the mandorla. Johnson says that the mandorla is the place of poetry. Johnson explains that the mandorla can help us when we no longer know how to live between the pull of opposites in our lives. It can help us rebind what is torn apart.

“It is the duty of a true poetry to take the fragmented world that we find ourselves in and to make unit of it…All poetry is based upon the assertion that this is that. When the images overlap, we have a mystical statement of unity. We feel there is safety and sureness in our fractured world, and the poet has given us the gift of synthesis.

Great poetry makes these leaps and unites the beauty and the terror of existence. It has the ability to surprise and shock–to remind us that there are links between the things we have always thought of as opposites.”

Johnson goes on to explain that if we make a practice of our effort to create poetry, we can find a way to see how the two worlds are really a part of each other, part of a larger whole. The space in the center where the circles overlap will grow larger and larger, until we see that everything is actually only part of a larger whole. Essentially, I see what he is talking about like this: We get born into a culture and we learn to place things in certain forms. We learn we are this, but not that. This is part of growing up and we function under the laws and ways of being of that culture. Our culture is just a form, a shape, and it is good to learn the rules for the ways of being that are given to us–it is part of being human. Then, at some point in our lives we go through a kind of crisis when things more or less fall apart or become very difficult, and we move out of that Garden and into the world. It is in this space where there are no clear cut laws that we learn how to have true relationship.

This struggle between opposites, the not heaven and not earth is where we learn authentic relationship and learn who we are–where we do the work of becoming. Maybe this is what St. Paul recognized when he encouraged the followers of Jesus to be in the world but not of the world. (Romans 12:2)  Johnson says that “to balance out our cultural indoctrination, we need to do our shadow work on a daily basis.” By this he means to consciously be aware of it and confront it ritually each day, and to spend time consciously letting it go of it. This has the benefit of not imposing our shadow side on others, which also enables us to do less harm in the world by not feeding the general unrest and conflict that is there. The other result, Johnson says, is “that we prepare the way for the mandorla–that high vision of beauty and wholeness that is the great prize of human consciousness.”  Ceremonies such as the mass of the Christian church, he says is one of the ways culture enables us to live out the unwanted elements symbolically so we do not live it out in real life.

Johnson’s discussion reminds me of Lorca’s essay on duende where Lorca describes how the Muse struggles with death, and in that tension is where great art is born.

As Lorca decribes it–

The true struggle is with the duende.

The roads where one searches for God are known, whether by the barbaric way of the hermit or the subtle one of the mystic: with a tower, like St. Teresa, or by the three paths of St. John of the Cross. And though we may have to cry out, in Isaiah’s voice: Truly you are a hidden God,’ finally, in the end, God sends his primal thorns of fire to those who seek Him.

Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline.

We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand, that it shatters styles and makes Goya, master of the greys, silvers and pinks of the finest English art, paint with his knees and fists in terrible bitumen blacks, or strips Mossèn Cinto Verdaguer stark naked in the cold of the Pyrenees, or sends Jorge Manrique to wait for death in the wastes of Ocaña, or clothes Rimbaud’s delicate body in a saltimbanque’s costume, or gives the Comte de Lautréamont the eyes of a dead fish, at dawn, on the boulevard.” (Garcia Lorca, Theory and Play of the Duende)

What I especially love about Johnson’s book is in the way it clearly describes large and complex ideas in accessible language.  The work of our lives is to balance being with doing. Our culture strongly emphasizes doing–who we know, what we know, how accomplished we are, how we can market our skills, etc. Johnson is suggests that the more we can balance doing with being the more whole and healthy we will be. He quotes Jung as saying, “Find out what a person fears most, and that is where he will develop next.” Basically, living in the in between places is where we do our soul work, the work that will enable us to move to a greater place of wholeness. We are like Jacob, wrestling with our angel and the place where we can contact the duende is where the art of our life is born, it is where Spirit lives and where we work out our salvation.

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One Response to The Mandorla

  1. Mary Catherine Frazier says:

    I love the mandorla…it totally changed my perspective of a traditional venn diagram…the overlap area was always a synthesis in my mind, but an overlap of opposites “heaven and earth” is going to capture my attention. I have seen this symbol in many different places, and I attributed to a significant unity but I like feeling it physically…placing the almond inside of my being and keeping it housed within my chakras…my core! Since I was a child I mentally carried a “set of scales” in my stomach…when things are not in balance, it manifests itself with a sense vibrations.

    I like to reflect on the tension of “duende”
    Johnson’s discussion reminds me of Lorca’s essay on duende where Lorca describes how the Muse struggles with death, and in that tension is where great art is born.

    I am not sure agree that “all poetry is based upon the assertion that this is that….” but I in no way can speak as a writer or with knowledge about poetry…but I think I have read pieces of haiku that do not always deal with assertions. They are more like mindful observations…

    It is the duty of a true poetry to take the fragmented world that we find ourselves in and to make unit of it…All poetry is based upon the assertion that this is that. When the images overlap, we have a mystical statement of unity. We feel there is safety and sureness in our fractured world, and the poet has given us the gift of synthesis.

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