Myth, Transcendence, and the “Conspiracy of Divine Providence”

Fr. Robert Spitzer on the sacred center of all human myths, and the unlooked-for consequences of opening ourselves to God’s transcendence.

The third volume of Father Robert J. Spitzer’s Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence series, God So Loved the World: Clues to Our Transcendent Destiny from the Revelation of Jesus, continues the exploration of man’s relationship with the divine which the author began in his two previous books, Finding True Happiness and The Soul’s Upward Yearning, and which was discussed at length in the first part of my interview with him.

Here in the second part of my conversation with the prolific Jesuit writer and speaker, he describes his own experience of the transcendent in his spiritual journey, as well as the fascinating subject of myth—and humanity’s continued thirst for great mythical stories.

Robert Spitzer, SJ (Image courtesy of the Magis Center)

CWR: In the recent film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, a quote from Joseph Campbell—“All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells are within you”—is repeated throughout. Does this correlate with the Ignatian notion of “finding God in all things,” or are there concerns here?

Father Robert Spitzer, SJ: Yes. Let’s just compare Mircea Eliade with Campbell on myth for a moment. Campbell has taken a decidedly non-divine approach, and he calls the supreme myth the “hero myth”— the hero with a thousand faces, for instance.

Now, there’s no doubt that Campbell is on to something with respect to the idea that everyone has this archetypal symbol, this primordial myth about being heroic, within him. I certainly believe that; I believe J.R.R. Tolkien believed that; I believe Mircea Eliade believed that; and I believe Joseph Campbell believed that. But there’s much more to the hero myth than just the hero. Mircea Eliade would say, where does the hero take his significance from? He takes his significance from his conformity with the sacred. Eliade said the first and foremost part of the mythic consciousness of human beings is the fact that the sacred, namely God, has broken into the profane world. Every single culture, every single religion, has this at its center. The profane world is an indifferent world. God made it sacred. The sacred made it significant; when it broke into the world it made it holy. And that’s part of the mythic consciousness that is part of the human psyche.

There’s evil in the myth, too. What the myth tells us is: everything you do is not limited to this here-and-now, limited, concrete situation…you are immersed in the huge cosmos of the sacred versus evil and what you are doing is either lending itself to goodness or lending itself to evil. If lending itself to goodness, then you are the champion and the true hero. And if lending itself to evil, you are nothing but a villain and on the side of darkness—and you are to be challenged.

A hero has to be virtuous, on the side of the sacred. I do think we carry this around in us—but I think we carry a Tolkienian, Eliadian myth around in us, not a Joseph Campbell kind of myth, which is a kind of secular view.

By the way, myth doesn’t mean a false story. When Tolkien uses the word myth, he’s using it in the sense of a story that tells of the significant interaction between the sacred and the profane, between good and evil. So it’s a significant cosmogonic story, which is not false, but is highly symbolic and which informs us of the cosmological and metaphysical context of our good and evil actions. Tolkien told Lewis that myths are perhaps the only way that we can get at the true metaphysical and moral significance of our lives, that we can immerse ourselves in a narrative of a cosmic significance between good and evil. Just like Frodo Baggins.

CWR: Is Christianity the fulfillment of all myth?

Father Spitzer: Christianity, in a way, gives the ultimate explanation. Remember all of us have this unconscious myth. And Jesus tells us there is personified evil out there, that there are dark forces out there, but we have to have teaching, we have to have nuance, we have to have a metaphysics which makes discriminations, we have to get a fix on what morality is. And there Christianity provides the ultimate interpretation.

Eliade saw this in every religious consciousness; he called it homo religiosus—religious man. And religious man is linked to homo symbolicus, the symbolic man. You can even make it the homo mythicus, the mythical man. We have for a long time given that interpretation. Tolkien even said, I’m an unabashed Catholic, I don’t believe in just myth, I believe in the Christian interpretation of the myth, so all I’ve been doing is telling a Catholic story all this time.

CWR: Film director Franco Zeffirelli once wrote, “A priest friend who is dear to me warned that when you begin to involve yourself in godly matters it is terribly difficult to return to mundane trivialities.” What does that mean for you in your life?

Father Spitzer: (chuckles) Well, that sort of sums it all up. It goes back to my high school days—I started getting involved in godly matters. I don’t know what it was in my heart or spirit. I know it came from the Catholic Church; I know it came from, in some sense, my mother’s faith; I know it came from something I felt about little Sacred Heart Church and its stained glassed windows and statues—something about that church, serving Mass, following the Mass in my missal, going to the catechism class—something deeper. Children really do have genuine religious experiences.

I had my moments of really questioning in high school, but the flame was still alive in my heart. I was always kind of looking. When I got to college, that’s when the onslaught happened. I went to this Catholic college, Gonzaga University, which I later became the president of, and when I got there the professor gave me some stuff on the Friedman singularity theorems. It was the first time I saw, not just this connection between faith and science, but creation in a theorem. That really caught me by surprise. I took a class on the proofs of the existence of God. I got exposed to St. Thomas Aquinas, to Gerard Manley Hopkins. It became utterly addictive—I couldn’t help myself! I sat in the lectures of Father Bernard Lonergan on the functional specialties of theology, awestruck. I was hooked. I went out and bought a copy of Insight. I started going to daily Mass. I started getting intrigued by almost every homily those priests gave. I couldn’t stop!

Finally, of course, I got so hooked that one day I was walking to work in a public accounting firm and thinking, I really love philosophy and theology and science and poetry…when all of a sudden this huge rainstorm comes on. I’m in my suit and running along an alleyway and the rain was belting down on this galvanized steel roof. I don’t know whatever got me to say this but I said, “All right, Lord, if this has something to do with me becoming a priest, make the rain stop.” And it did. It stopped so suddenly that the sound on the galvanized steel roof just ceased and all I could hear was the water falling off in front of me like a waterfall. I looked up and said, “Are you kidding?” I felt like I had made a promise. “OK, then, I suppose you would like me to go talk to somebody about being a Jesuit priest?” (laughs)

I was on fire. It was as if God was stoking the coals. Now, I could have always given the old secular interpretation, “Come on, rain, stop, let me get to work.” Because you’re always free. God doesn’t push you, but he does give you a lot of assistance, gives you inspiration. But he leaves you free, and thank God I responded. It’s really been a joy and an adventure. And if you dabble in religious matters and the matters of God, don’t worry, it’s not just addictive, God is going to take you as far as you can go—and that’s pretty far!

CWR: You write in Finding True Happiness, “My prayer life gives me a heightened awareness of God’s love and my relationship with Him calls me more and more to my authentic self.” How do we know revelation when we see it or hear it? Could it be the voice of God, or our own voice?

Father Spitzer: I have a principle called the Spitzerian Principle of Infinite Rationalization, and my own voice generally takes that form. I’m a great rationalizer. Always have been. Give me five minutes and I can make anything look good. I always had that view of conscience, it was very close to John Henry Newman: there’s a loving but authoritative voice of God within me that kept me true to myself. And I’ve heard my inner dialogue just fine without the benefit of God’s intervention and some of it impresses me—what baloney I can speak to myself!

Now I do have my moments of authenticity and truth, but it is very, very difficult to try to find your way to authenticity and truth without the voice of God. Pride is so tricky. And we’re tricky to ourselves, but there’s an evil spirit there that can be doubly tricky. And before you know it, you’re in vanity. Before you know it, you’re in spiritual pride—overweening spiritual pride. Before you know it, you’re building a façade that just sickens you. Left to myself I’m really worried what I can come up with.

I hear the voice of God in many different ways, in inspiration and consolation. God can also use desolation, like a warning system about going no further.

Sometimes it’s what I call a conspiracy of divine providence, where too many coincidences happen at once, but where others say, “No that’s just synchronicity: you’re looking for all the clues and so you’re hearing all the clues.” And my thought is, “But no, I would have heard those clues whether I’m looking or not looking!” When clues start assembling together, I think this is either coincidence or maybe God’s telling me something, and I let myself be swept along by providence.

CWR: You also write, “Individuals are not only interpersonal, they are transcendentally and cosmically interrelated, everyone is intertwined with everyone else.” This insight echoes Pope Francis’ Laudato Si, where he states more than a dozen times that “everything is interrelated.” Is this what you mean by a “conspiracy of divine providence”?

Father Spitzer: It’s more what I mean by mystical body. Part of it is conspiracy of divine providence, the other part is the mystical body of Christ. God has us all intertwined with everybody. John Donne says: no man is an island, every man is part of the main; one man’s death affects us all; do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. Because we experience every death. Now as the Church experiences its ups and downs, as we experience our ups and downs, we’re affecting the whole mystical body and the whole mystical body is affecting us.

I always tell a story of my mother and Christmas. We used to open our Christmas presents on Christmas Eve, so on Christmas morning my mom’s taking us to Mass, and I was really in a state of consolation.

“Mom, I’m so happy.”

“Did you get all the Christmas presents you wanted?”

“Well, I did, but that’s not it.”

“Maybe you’re really starting to love the family, it was a great family occasion.”

“I like our family, but it wasn’t about the family.”

“Maybe it’s the joy of the whole communion of saints that’s just coursing through your veins on this Christmastide.”

I thought, “That’s it. I’m happy with the whole communion of saints being happy. It’s my unique transcendent Christmas joy.”

I do think there’s something to this. I think Paul is totally on to something—we’re all interconnected with each other. I think John Donne is totally right, every man is part of the main. I think Gerard Manley Hopkins understood that, too.

Once, my sister’s child was at the high chair at the dining room table and somebody told a joke and everybody starting laughing at the table and she, who of course was then far too young to understand the joke or anything else, starts laughing, too. And I looked at her thinking, “That was me on that Christmastide.”


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About Connor Malloy 7 Articles
Connor Malloy is a writer with staff experience in Catholic higher education.