The concept of “the quintessence” has more than one historical root. Here I will deal with the one that really does have roots, the one that involves sacred trees. It may seem strange that people once considered certain trees (and by extension, groves) sacred, yet there is a simple logic to the belief and – not surprisingly – a link to modern psychology.
Trees are a source of the mysterious quintessence, which is an externalization of the unconscious mind. (Image: Wikipaintings)
Most of us associate the practice of worshipping trees, or worshipping among trees, with the Celtic peoples of Western Europe. Tacitus (writing about Celts in his book Germania) says, “The Grove is the centre of their whole religion. It is regarded as the cradle of the race and the dwelling-place of the supreme god to whom all things are subject and obedient.”
The authentic self is constant. This means that, at the more fundamental level of our being, we never change. There is much truth in the old English adage that “a leopard does not change its spots.” Yet there appear to be many cases of people who went through enormous transformations. I want to look at two notable examples and show that the shifts these famous men experienced are not what they seem.
C. S. Lewis described his sudden religious conversion as “melting like a snowman,” but he was merely returning to his childhood roots. (Image: public domain)
For decades now, many in the West have suffered from a peculiar kind of spiritual anorexia. This disease of the spirit, extremely widespread, stems from our anti-introspection and anti-intellectual attitude. We favour extraversion over introversion and regard the pursuit of knowledge (as opposed to mere information) as the work of boring nerds and eccentric geeks. However, such wilful myopia comes at a cost. When we turn our backs on genuine understanding, we turn our backs on wisdom. But wisdom is the nourishing food of the spirit. Therefore, on the spiritual plane we are like anorexic girls — we refuse to “eat.”
Hard-won personal wisdom is the only cure for spiritual hunger. (Image: public domain.)
Heroes in myth, legend and literature are often profoundly troubled and provide deeper insights than action heroes. (Image: public Domain.)
The heroes we see in today’s action movies are quite different from the heroes of legend and literature. Film – being short and dealing largely with externals – does not easily allow for deep insights into a character’s inner life. Heroes played by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis are neither thoughtful nor subtle. They are never inwardly complex. Their heroism is all in the external world and conflicts are always struggles with other people or life-threatening situations. Such tales are certainly entertaining, but they provide nothing to illuminate the more psychological aspects of being human.
In myths, legends, and literature heroes serve a greater purpose. Through their heroic struggles, they demonstrate more than just singular physical feats or acts of physical courage. There is an inward component to their heroic adventures. These heroes are often profoundly troubled people. They have inner conflicts that have rendered them social misfits. They may be unusually sensitive, and/or intelligent, and because they are so different from the “well-adjusted” they suffer. Their suffering forces them into seldom-used paths quite far from the collective ones approved by society. They strive for things never attempted by the ordinary person. The battles along the way provide a great opportunity for strengthening personal growth. By trying to ease their pain, they have become extraordinary. They have inadvertently become heroic.