Jungian analyst and author Donald Kalsched was winding up his presentation on Grimm’s fairy tale, "The Water of Life." He was describing how this fairy tale mirrors the recovery of a vital part of our soul that becomes separated from the psyche during childhood trauma. I listened closely, deeply enjoying his description of the youngest brother’s sleep and dream periods and his speculations into their meaning. It was the third day of a four-day meeting of Friends Conference on Religion and Psychology, and the meeting already had been an elegant pageant. There were compelling plenary sessions where Kalsched presented his work on childhood trauma and the soul, including several analyses of fairy tales, after which he generously opened the floor to questions to include the large audience.
Additionally, I participated in a small, provocative nature study group that met between plenaries, which offered wonderful support for the integration of what I was learning. The conference attendees were mostly Quakers, and I was delighted to be, for the first time, in a community that shared so many of my personal life values. Donald Kalsched’s straightforward and elegant analyses resonated, too, reminding me how full and important dreams can be, when suddenly . . .
. . . I was floating in a vast, velvet darkness, utterly black and comfortable. As I floated, I peered around, exulting in my freedom. I inspected every degree of my sphere. It was perfect—except for a small smudge directly before me, a pixel of light troubling the beautiful, serene blackness. That smudge irritated me, but as it captured my attention, I was drawn toward it at great speed. The light grew. I realized it was beaming from a portal shaped like a door, but with an arch at the top. The light was intensely white with a bluish cast.
As Donald Kalsched finished, he reanimated an experience I had not recalled for many years. When I was 17, a severe sinus infection ate into an internal wall of one of my sinuses—weakening a cranial artery to the point of hemorrhaging. Although a highly respected specialist was available to treat me, I was hospitalized for a long time and continued to fall, to slide deeper . . .
Suddenly I was inside. Directly in front of me was the source of the light, a towering figure without neck or limbs whose body seemed to be a cloudlike garment that fell and became part of the cloudlike floor. The only features were eyes, which filled the room with blue-white light—so bright that I was surprised I could look into them without any pain. Immediately the entire embrace of this being filled me: I realized that whatever or whoever it was loved me beyond all measure, past all longing.
Donald Kalsched removed his clip-on microphone and suggested to the audience that it was a good time for us to take a break and stretch. I wrestled with the idea of telling him about what had just played so eminently through my psyche. But it was too personal; it had nothing to do with fairy tales. Those with questions were already approaching his lectern. I would just visit the lobby, get a drink of water, and stretch. I did not need to waste his time by drawing attention to myself. But as I got up to walk away, I found myself moving toward him . . .
I moved ninety degrees in a circle to my right; his eyes followed me. Part of me wanted to see the portal through which I had just arrived, but it had disappeared. Beyond the figure and to my left was a small, globular protuberance, which resembled a bush. Like everything else, it was intensely white with a bluish cast. But the eyes had tracked me and commanded my attention. These eyes were rounded where they were closest, but tapered to a point and canted sharply up: Wicked, I thought. I should have been afraid, but felt no fear. There was no malice in their gaze, only love. And the sheer delight of my surroundings! I laughed. I knew I was someplace amazing and wonderful.
I stood to the left of the lectern. On the other side, a small number of questioners gathered. Donald Kalsched smiled as he fielded a question; he was a most genuine and unpretentious man. Even so, I feared my story would mark me as whacked. What would he think? What would all those who could not help but overhear think? I figured that there was still time for me to slip away, to keep the story to myself. But as Dr. Kalsched wrapped up another answer, he turned and looked me in the eye. My throat was tight and dry; I felt I would start shaking. He put his left arm on the podium, while behind us the noise level of the audience rose. Finally, his movement and the rising background noise had created a private place for my story and me.
"You . . ."
The word thundered into my being. It was completely new and refreshing, something that had come to me directly from the furnaces of creation. I realized that the word had just appeared; I had not heard it. It meant me, that beautiful part of me that only "you . . ." could name. I reveled in the fullness of its meaning, the perfection it communicated. I was fused to those eyes . . .
The story fell out of me: the illness, the trips to the hospital, the treatment, the deterioration, the long faces of my parents, the nurse who came to my side every four hours to give me injections: antibiotic, vitamin K, vitamin C, and Demerol. I had quickly slipped into the deepest of sleeps . . .
". . . may . . ."
Discovery again. Music from the beginning of the universe. Until now I had never heard, never considered the truest meaning of ". . . may . . . ," the absolute freedom of choice.
". . . stay . . ."
One-syllable words spilled into my mind. Within each lay the promise of total knowledge.
". . . or . . . you . . . may . . . go . . . back."
Donald Kalsched did not laugh. He looked directly at me the whole time. Then he said, "Have you written this story down?"
"Here," he said, and tore a small piece of paper from the bottom of his speech text. On it he wrote his e-mail address.
An image of my mother and father filled my head: they stood by my hospital bed, overcome with grief, while I lay still and pale. A moment of sadness flashed at the possibility of leaving this amazing new place, followed by consuming anger directed at that terrible spot weeping blood deep within my head. Hot anger penetrated the spot that could cause my parents such agony. I knew my choice . . .
I awoke in the middle of the night.
I explained then to Dr. Kalsched that some years later, I read an account of a near-death experience and immediately recognized similarities to my own experience. I was never sure if my experience was just a Demerol-induced dream, or some fantasy manufactured by my psyche. But when I walked out of the hospital three days later, weak but well, Dr. Hakim, my specialist, was amazed. I convinced my teenage self that my anger had produced so much heat, it had psychically cauterized the lesion in my head.
All of this played out in my story to Donald Kalsched and in the e-mail correspondence we shared the following summer. Ultimately, I have never felt better than I did for having walked up to that lectern and having shared something personal. The onerous steps to Dr. Kalsched’s lectern led to one of the most liberating experiences of my life. The part of my soul I had hidden walked boldly out into the broad sunshine of the world, and the world hardly even blinked. Most importantly, in that spiritual encounter I felt the closest kind of security and ineffable love welling up and becoming a solid and accessible part of my persona. What was once individual became general, and that which was general had internalized and revealed a great truth.
I found myself too wound up to sleep after my conversation with Donald Kalsched, so I took a stroll across the Lebanon Valley campus. Almost immediately I noticed the spire of the chapel, bathed in an intensely white light with a bluish cast. I smiled, knowing that I was in a place similar to where a bright angel had lit the inner light of my own soul so long ago.