There’s a ghost-like, ephemeral butterfly, who’s been given the scientific name Leptosia nina. Her flight, like a wandering snowflake, is weak and erratic, as she hovers close to the ground, pausing now and again to flitter playfully near a flower or drink from morning dew. Her delicate wings are a translucent, pearly white, each having a small, dark spot, the color of ashen shadow. Her common name is psyche, which in Greek is both the word for butterfly, and the word translated as “soul” in the New Testament. It’s a word that suggests the deepest and most essential part of our being, the place where our most sacred truths live, and where, in moments of stillness and grace, Christ is born in our hearts.
In this light, psychology could be understood as the study of the soul, and psychiatry the healing of the soul. Now, I suppose those definitions might seem ambitious, or in the medical model perhaps even nonsensical, but long before there were fields called psychology or psychiatry, the wholeness of a human being was considered a soul made well again. Admittedly, this begs the question: what is a healthy soul, and what is a soul like when it’s not healthy?
John Sanford, in his book The Kingdom Within, suggests that a soul’s primary purpose is one of relationship, relationship to self, to others, and to God. To the extent that a soul is healthy, those relationships are loving and nourishing. For an unhealthy soul, those relationships are broken, painful, or absent. And so our soul is yearning to share itself in the kind of open, authentic, and loving relationship we call intimacy.
When we consider intimacy the language that naturally comes to mind has to do with nearness, touch, and warmth. We speak of being “close to a person,” or we say they’ve “warmed up to us.” If we desire more intimacy with someone we might say they seem “distant,” and intimate friends are called “bosom buddies.” In the original Greek version of John’s gospel, the beloved disciple is described as the one who reclined on the bosom of Jesus.
Describing intimacy in terms of physicality and warmth makes perfect sense when we consider the one experience we all share of the ultimate in closeness with another person. While we were in our mother’s womb and for a short time after we were without any perceived separation at all, a loving relationship of total communion, of complete giving, and open receiving. That’s one of the reasons the language of incarnation, birth, and rebirth stirs us so strongly on our journeys of faith. Like a mother for her children, God loves us before we come into being as persons with a love greater than anything we can imagine, and from the moment we do start to feel separation in the world, we long for a re-union with our Creator, a return to the shadow under his wings.
Another way we seek that kind of oneness is in romantic love. In Greek mythology, Psyche, a very beautiful young princess often pictured as having wings like a butterfly’s, is wedded to Eros, the Greek god of love. The turbulent story of these lovers describes a soul’s longing for true intimacy, and the fruition of her longing is the sexual union between soulmates. A story with similar themes, written about five hundred years earlier, is the one we find in the Old Testament in the Song of Songs.
The Song of Song’s has a long history of interpretation, usually as an allegory for God’s relationship to the nation of Israel or for Christ’s love for his bride, the church. The most popular view among scholars nowadays is the literal view that it’s just what it looks like, a very erotic and sensual love poem. Between the allegory and the literal, though, there are other options. Mystics throughout the ages, for example, have read it as a way portraying the longing and union between the Holy One and a humble human soul, not denying the erotic and sensual, but suggesting that our embodied sexuality reflects certain qualities of the beauty, love, and generosity of our Beloved Creator. In fact, the experience of loving, sexual union is so much a part of our understanding of closeness in relationship, that we often forget that intimacy refers to much more than that.
The word intimacy comes from Latin words meaning “making known that which is innermost,” or put another way, it’s the sharing of souls, the core of who we are, and the most authentic parts of ourselves. It has a lot to do with our experience of love, the opening of our hearts for both giving and receiving — from the sharing of oneness of a mother and her infant to the sexual union of romantic love, and all the ways we find intimacy in between.
But if it’s so wonderful, why do so many of us seem unable to satisfy that longing. Very often we become frustrated, and the desire of our souls for intimacy becomes distorted and warped, to the point where we might not even realize what it is we’re seeking anymore. Instead of drawing God and others closer, we push them away. We try to fill that God-shaped hole in our hearts with just about anything else from seemingly harmless distractions to dangerous addictions, addiction to substances, behaviors, emotions, and false beliefs.
In the story of Psyche and Eros, for example, they bear a child, Hēdonē, said to be the personification of lust, a warning that when our soul’s desire becomes corrupted even something as potentially joyful and healing as sex can be turned into an act of objectification and of increasing separation.
Henri Nouwan, in his book Reaching Out, offers us a way of understanding why our longing for intimacy so often goes awry. He describes the problem in terms of learning how to navigate from a place of loneliness to one of solitude, a journey that invites us into intimacy with the one person we ought to know best, ourselves. Ever since the possibility of loneliness emerged with the separation between mother and infant, our egos have been trying to keep us safe by giving us a strong sense of self in the world, an identity we can hold onto while we relate to others. Unfortunately, as we move through life and feel the sting of suffering and shame our egos can’t help getting a little carried away with their job, and we adopt false identities serving only to separate us. We spend lots of time and energy holding on to these false selves, trying to prove we’re safe enough, or good enough, or able enough. And after a while we even stop relating to ourselves very well, and we forget who we truly are. We forget whose we are.
But we do need to remember, because unless we remember how to be in an intimate relationship with ourselves, our soul, in its yearning for intimacy with others and with God, will be left wanting. One way we can remember is by practicing praying as Jesus once told us, in the solitude of our own hearts, where we learn to open the door to Christ waiting patiently for our return.
But it can be difficult. What gets in the way is the fear of visiting the places of ash and shadow in our heart, the painful loneliness, and the hurtful, false beliefs we have about ourselves and others. It’s the same fear that started us down this road of separation, and it’s what keeps us there.
Imagine this for a moment. You’re holding onto a tree limb for dear life, while a friend close by is whispering to just let go. But you’re afraid to let go, and you can’t even bring yourself to look down. You’re afraid that whatever is waiting for you is terrible and painful, and will probably be the death of you. Or perhaps you’ve been struggling for so long that your hands don’t seem to know how to unclench. And that small voice says look, there’s nothing to fear. There’s no pit of hungry alligators waiting below, no nasty spikes, no boiling lava. Now it’s true, some say the fall itself can kill you, but, dear one, it’s truly OK. You see, your wings are only waiting to unfurl, you’ve only forgotten.
In this we can learn a few things from our friend Leptosia nina. She spends her time as a caterpillar being nourished by plants. Flowers especially seem so wonderfully open about sharing their light and beauty. I wonder if while practicing opening her heart in the world, starting with a friendly, generous flower might be a little easier. Then she enters her chrysalis, her time of solitude, sealed away with only her own innermost self as company. And I wonder if when the pain of being confined in her chrysalis becomes great enough, this gives her the courage to face the fear of moving on, to weather the pain of transformation. And then our psyche can lay claim to her true self, free to rest in that knowledge, and, taking flight with her newfound wings, share her light and beauty with the world.
For Christians, this is the way of Jesus. We’re called to let our hearts soften and be fully open, practicing a profound intimacy with self, others, and God. It’s a difficult path that requires trust and courage, because the soul of intimacy is transformation, and transformation is about the letting go of parts of ourselves we don’t need anymore. It’s about taking a risk and letting those false selves die. But it’s worth braving our fears and trusting in God, because only by facing the darkness and loneliness can we overcome our feelings of separation, and find that we’re not alone after all, and never were. Our Beloved God has been with us all along, just waiting for us to remember the truth of who we are, to rest in the Light of Christ, and to share that light, the beauty of our innermost selves with the world. And our Holy One is always whispering words of reassurance for us, sounding something like this: My beloved and so beautiful child, I am with you, we are One, and you’re safe here. Please, stay and rest for a while, and have no fear.