“To refuse the call means stagnation. What you don’t experience positively, you will experience negatively” - Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
In the Hero’s Journey ‘monomyth’ that Joseph Campbell discovered scattered throughout the world’s mythological traditions, the journey always starts with the call to adventure. The hero or heroine, often an average unsuspecting person, is summoned to leave the safe confines of their world and journey into the unknown on a quest they don’t yet understand. In the 20th century, two major motion picture trilogies- Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings- gave epic representations of the hero’s journey, and people flocked to these films en masse. Why are we so drawn to these depictions of the hero’s journey and the adventure of taking up ‘the call’? What exactly is the calling, where is it emanating from, and why are we so attracted to it? This article is an extended reflection on the nature of the call and how it shows up in our religion, our art, our culture, and perhaps most importantly, in ourselves.
About a year ago I experienced the call to go into ministry in the Christian church. It came as quite a shock. I never went to church as a kid, and as a philosophy student I’d spent the last ten years sure I was going to be a philosophy professor one day. I had many daydreams of my office with its teeming bookshelves of philosophy texts. When I was twenty-five my favorite book was (no joke) Why I’m Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell. I hated organized religion with a passion, angry at all the destruction and horror it had unleashed throughout history, and my newly trained rational mind loved to attack any weakness I could find in it. If the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris had been writing then, I’d have been a big fan.
I did, however, have a spiritual life. Like many other Gen X’ers, I turned to the East and to the traditions of Buddhism and Taoism, and went on meditation retreats. I also had a deep love for nature, and felt a powerful communion while alone in it; and from time to time, to steal a classic phrase from the comedian Bill Hicks, I “squeegeed my third-eye clean” with the use of psychedelic mushrooms. That was the spiritual make-up of an early member of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd.
Fast-forward about eight years, and I found myself in church for the first time in my life. I’d heard about this minister, the Reverend Bruce Sanguin, who was integrally informed and doing evolutionary spirituality in a Christian context. I loved it. I loved what Bruce was preaching, I loved the big old church and the beautiful stained glass windows, and I loved meditating on that big image of Jesus on the cross every Sunday. What does that image mean? And then one Sunday as I sat in the pews something clicked inside, and powerful emotions started to pour through me. All of a sudden I knew that I was going to go into ministry, that I was supposed to go into ministry, and that I was in some way coming home to where I was meant to be all along. But it was still a shock. Ministry? Christianity? What about philosophy? Ah crap.
So I’m now engaged in a “discernment process” within the United Church of Canada, where I’ve been assigned a Reverend from another United church and a small committee to meet with six times over the course of a year. The process is designed to help me make the transition smoothly, to understand the role I’m stepping into, and to help me be sure that it’s something I really want to do. In the second meeting the topic of discussion was the call, and we studied several call passages from the Bible to better help understand and integrate this experience. I found this extended meditation on the call within the Christian tradition to be very interesting and helpful. Let’s check out a few call passages from the Bible now, to see what wisdom that tradition might have to offer when it comes to the phenomenon of the calling.
We can start with the story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:4-15). Moses is a shepherd and he’s on a mountain with his flock, doing his thing. Then he notices a bush burning, but curiously the flame isn’t actually consuming the bush. He moves in to have a closer look and boom, God’s voices thunders “Moses!” While probably clutching his chest in fright, Moses replies, “Here I am”. God introduces himself and says that he’s chosen Moses to go to Egypt and rescue the enslaved Jewish people. Moses is like, no no I’m good, I’m cool, I’m just a shepherd, you must be looking for someone else. Who am I to do such a thing says Moses? God replies, “I will be with you”. After a little more back and forth, Moses agrees to undergo this arduous journey.
There are a couple things we can notice about this call passage. Firstly, God or Spirit is intrusive. Moses is just minding his own business, not actively seeking much of anything, when God puts the call to him. The journey, the service mission, is not asked for. Moses does not choose but is chosen; he is summoned. Secondly, there’s a relationship of trust. In the Hero’s Journey myth the call is often followed by the Refusal of the Call. This can be out of fear, or a feeling of inadequacy, or any number of reasons. Moses asks, “who am I to do such a thing?” and God essentially replies “trust me, I’ll be with you”. One of the original meanings of faith in the Christian tradition is fiducia or trust (1). There’s a powerful sense in which one doesn’t know where things are going, but we connect to the inner voice (or outer as depicted in the Moses passage) and we trust it as a benevolent guide on our journey into the unknown.
The next passage to look at is when the young Mary is asked to carry the child of God (Luke 1:26-38). Mary is just hanging out, doing whatever girls did at the time, when the angel Gabriel comes cruising in and tells her she’s been chosen to carry the child of the “Most High”. Mary is startled and bewildered, and asks how this could be as she’s still a virgin. Gabriel answers, “nothing is impossible with God”. So Mary replies, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said”. And with this the angel leaves.
What are some things we can notice about this call passage? One thing is that Mary says she’ll do it, but she’s not exactly jumping for joy about it. There can be a certain gravitas when it comes to undertaking the call. Secondly, Mary has assented to housing Spirit within her. This is a call request that can come to any of us. Will I follow my dreams, my passions, my bliss? Will I heed that inner Spirit that’s calling my Unique Self forward? As Joseph Campbell has pointed out, virgin birth stories are found throughout the world’s mythology. According to Campbell, they represent the birth of a spiritual life within the previously solely human or animal entity. Mary overcomes her fear and chooses to be a God-bearer; she agrees to bear divinity into the world. Whether we hear it or not, this is a call whispering in all of our ears, all of the time.
To sample one last Biblical call story we can look at The Calling of the First Disciples (Matthew 4:18-22). Here Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee and he sees the two brothers Simon and Andrew fishing, and he says to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men”. They immediately drop their nets and follow him. Moving along Jesus sees two other brothers, James and John, fishing with their father. Jesus calls to them and they immediately leave their boat and their father and follow.
There are several things to note in this very brief passage. The first is the immediacy with which the choice to answer Spirit’s call is made. The men simply drop their nets and walk away. There’s a powerful decisiveness depicted in this decision. But not only that, the brothers leave family and friends behind, a radical choice in the patriarchal society of the time, a bold rejection of hierarchies and the prevailing traditions. The call can demand such choices. The question becomes, whom do you serve first and foremost, because if Jesus isn’t Lord, someone or something else is going to be. God here is the lure, the ultimate source of guidance, and the disciples choose full commitment.
So those are some call passages from within the Christian tradition. Let’s now turn to how the calling shows up in various aspects of popular culture, and then ask ourselves- why are we so drawn to this story?
The hero indeed has a thousand faces. Whether it’s Odysseus or Beowulf or Percival, Dorothy in Oz or the trials of the Buddha and Jesus, we’ve told this tale to ourselves in countless ways throughout the ages. As previously mentioned, both of the film trilogies Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings offered powerful representations of the call to adventure and the hero’s journey. This has been well publicized in the case of Star Wars, as creator George Lucas has talked about reading Joseph Campbell’s work and intentionally re-creating the hero story in his films. In the case of The Lord of the Rings these mythic-spiritual dimensions have been less well noted, although in his private letters Tolkien called LOR “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” (2). Let’s look at some of those elements in the LOR series, and see what insight it offers into the calling and its demands
When Gandalf tells Frodo that there is danger and that he must take the Ring, Frodo tells Gandalf that he must have the wrong hobbit. He wishes the Ring never came to him. Once again we see the usual fear and the refusal of the call. Even when Frodo has begun his journey and makes it as far as Rivendell and the Council of Elrond- where the full scope of the quest is revealed- he still balks at his calling, hoping someone else will volunteer for the journey. Tolkien writes, “Frodo glanced at all the faces, but they were not turned to him…a great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice”. Finally Frodo says, “I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way”.When Frodo says he doesn’t know the way, we once again hear the trust that’s needed on the hero’s journey. When we answer our calling we don’t know where it will take us. And who hasn’t felt the desire to see someone else take up the journey, to fix the worlds ills, while we rest safe and content. To answer the call, however, means we step up and take responsibility ourselves, we follow our passions and convictions and willingly enter into our own trial by fire. Not an easy task to be sure.
The journey also demands great strength on the part of the hero/heroine, usually strengths that were unknown before the journey began. Both Frodo and Samwise Gamgee, as well as many others in the LOR story, find reservoirs of courage, strength and endurance that they never knew existed. The philosopher Nietzsche had a provocative phrase about what he felt the meaning and goal of life was. It was, he said, “to become who you are”. If the calling is answered, and the subsequent journey undertaken, we put ourselves in a prime position to find out who we are, to find out what latent potentials and powers are lying deep within us.
The hero’s journey often involves a battle of good vs. evil, light vs. darkness, and there are often many temptations toward the latter. We can see this with the power of the Ring, and Frodo’s struggles not to be overcome by its temptations. We hear this in the story of the trials of the Buddha and of Jesus. When Jesus’ tempter offers him the authority and splendor of “all the kingdoms of the world”, Jesus replies, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’”. Apparently the journey is fraught with these sorts of temptations and moral difficulties, always challenging us to remain heading for the light. The quest is not easy and is rife with peril, but the rejection of our dark side is said to bring boons and spiritual riches we could never have dreamed of.
So these are just some of the many hero’s journey motifs in The Lord of the Rings. The question we must now turn to is- why are we so drawn to this story? Does it just satisfy some adolescent adventure fantasy? Perhaps. But it seems to me that there must be something deeper than this too. Maybe we are so drawn to this story because this is a fundamental animating drive of the cosmos and ourselves. Perhaps the deepest meaning of human existence is to answer the call that beckons to each one of us. Perhaps we are so drawn to this story because we’re still in the process of making this core existential calling conscious to ourselves. While we think we are merely riveted by a great film or story, perhaps what we’re really riveted by is our deepest desire.
As I sat pondering this question after my discernment meeting on the subject of the call, my mind drifted to another ordeal that we in Canada had just watched and undergone. The Stanley Cup playoffs! Every spring sixteen hockey teams make it to the playoffs and to win must undergo one of the most grueling and arduous competitions in all of sports. For two months players battle it out, putting their bodies in harms way, giving every ounce of heart and energy they can muster, all in pursuit of the possibility of one day hoisting the Stanley Cup above their heads in glory. And if one looks up the Stanley Cup on Wikipedia, another of its official names is- The Holy Grail. The cup of immortal life! I even heard a couple of players refer to the Cup as the Grail this playoff. And I thought to myself, could it be that this epic hockey playoffs is yet another representation of the call and the hero’s journey. Could it be that what we’re actually involved in during the Stanley Cup playoffs is really a culture wide externalization of our own unconscious desire to answer the call and undertake the heroic quest. And what if we could collectively recognize this, and release all that energy back into the stories of our own lives. What would the world look like then?
The notion of the Grail and immortal life brings me to an interesting problem with regards to the hero’s journey. In Joseph Campbell’s text The Hero With a Thousand Faces, he reports that the “ultimate boon” the hero eventually receives from the quest is knowledge of the eternal dimension of our being, the “beatitude beyond imagination, the Ultimate in its primary state, the elixir of Imperishable Being”. Basically, for several thousand years the core teaching of the hero story was the reality of an Absolute unchanging dimension of existence, what some have called ‘traditional enlightenment’.But how are we to now view the calling and the hero’s journey within the context of evolutionary spirituality, wherein Spirit is seen as still creating in and as creation, and through us? What does it mean to answer the call of a process that is, as Andrew Cohen likes to say, going somewhere? What boon awaits us when we entangle and enmesh with the call of an evolving cosmos? Could it be something like the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, as Jesus predicted, a society whose central organizing values include love, justice and non-violence?
Well, I suppose it’s probably best not to guess, as we’ve seen that the core of the quest involves a deep trust and receptivity, an openness to whatever will emerge through our own answering of the call. But it’s still an intriguing question I must admit. I suppose it’s only through a fellowship of conscious evolution and collective action that we’ll come to discover more about the answer.
The final point I want to make about the hero’s journey is this. It’s often the case in the hero myth that the necessity of the journey is precipitated by a growing darkness or shadow in the world- the Empire, the Matrix, the dark powers of Sauron and so on. The hero must venture into the darkness and encounter the shadow and master it, both within and without, and then return to the society transfigured. Today we are surrounded by much darkness in our world. Since the 2008 financial collapse, we’re discovering more and more how widespread the corruption in our financial and governmental systems actually is. Greed and deep pockets have got a cold grip our institutions. We’re learning more all the time about the extent of environmental devastation on the planet, with healthy soil, oceans and clean water supplies in deep decline. Addiction in many societies has become endemic, anxiety and depression commonplace. If we were following the script, now’s a perfect time to answer the call and take up the hero’s journey. What I love about Marc Gafni’s teaching of Unique Self, and why I think it’s so important in this context, is that it allows us all to tap into the calling that is uniquely ours. A fellowship of Unique Selves could indeed help tip the balance of powers in our time back toward the light.
It’s not always comfortable to face this kind of darkness head on. I know from experience that it’s all too easy to turn away. Perhaps we can heed a lesson from The Lord of the Rings on this matter. When Frodo complains to Gandalf of feeling the pain of living in an evil, burdensome time, Gandalf replies, “So do I…and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us”.
[This article was originally published at IEvolve: Center for World Spirituality]