Healing the split between spirit and nature


Earth and Spirit

Federico Fellini’s beautiful 1963 film “8 1/2” is an autobiographical story about a director, Guido, played by Marcello Mastroianni, who is trying to complete his new film. As he tries to escape pressures by entering a fantasy world, incidents in the film repeatedly link to childhood memories, showing how his Catholic upbringing shaped his life.

One scene involves an odd incantation. At a party, a magician performs with a clairvoyant who demonstrates her ability to read people’s thoughts. A skeptical Guido agrees to be a subject. The clairvoyant studies his face and then writes the words “ASA NISI MASA” on a blackboard. Fellini then cuts to a brief flashback of Guido’s childhood. “Asa Nisi Masa” is a bedtime chant the children would say, a phrase with the power to make the eyes of a wall portrait come to life.

The chant is children’s play language, pig Latin. When each second syllable is dropped, we have the word anima. Fellini was interested in the work of Carl Jung, who used the word anima to describe the personification of female characteristics in the male. It’s a reference to Guido’s confusion about women; the film shows how the many women in his life influence his thoughts and actions.

The word anima means soul or life force. It’s what gives zest and lift to our lives.

I head-over-heels befriended a young woman who lived upstairs from my first apartment in college. Her name was Christina. Her eyes flashed with wit and intelligence. She had an ironic mouth, a wry humor, a stalwart strength, a storming and irreverent mind. If the moon had a sister, Christina was the dark-haired and more stimulating of the two. Lost in the razzle-dazzle shock that is late adolescence, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had suddenly unfolded filmy butterfly wings and fluttered up off into the evening. I wanted nothing less than to gather her silver music, her darkness into my hands, and take tentative sips.

One summer evening when it was too hot indoors, we sat, Christina and I, in a back alleyway under a buzzing neon billboard and talked, just talked, until well past midnight, about things we discovered we both happened to treasure -- Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast fantasies, Captain Nemo, Ray Bradbury, calling butterflies “flutterbys,” about outrageous thoughts and madcap schemes. That she liked what I liked and thought funny what I chuckled at -- moreover that she even fancied, just like me, crunchy peanut butter spread over toast -- these were discoveries. Not only did I share the planet with mysterious creatures like her, but in important ways we were kith and kin.

We related to each other as equals. The one time I strayed from this footing, she lashed out at me expertly, with uncanny radar, demolishing me with a few well-chosen words.

We all have such encounters. Others are alluring, nurturing, enchanting -- and can be dangerous, just as nature is.

Ecofeminist Starhawk titles her blog “Dirt Worship.” It’s shocking, revealing the discontinuity in our religious views, and shows how reclaiming the feminine together with the sacredness of the natural word is a political act as well as a spiritual calling -- and it’s deeply healing in an ecological sense.

The split between spirit and nature, with “spirit” assigned to men and “body” to women, devalues not only women and female bodies, our source, but the natural world, also our source, and gives human beings license to destroy the very life-support systems that sustain us all. To heal that split, we embrace the deep value of this world, of life, flesh, nature, sexuality, emotion, intuition and all the nurturing aspects that have been assigned to women. This is what creation spirituality is all about. When we empower women, we also free men -- to hold their own bodies and sexuality as sacred, to reconnect with the Earth and their own loving, emotional and nurturing selves, to feel their passion.

When women can cherish the vulnerability of men as much as men can celebrate the strength of women, a new breed may lift a heavy yoke from us both. We all could breathe free, look life’s realities in the face, deal with them in an adult way, and stop recoiling from them like 50-, 60- or 70-year-old teenagers. Among the disruptions of our time, the strife between women and men takes heavy casualties -- families torn asunder, broken hearts, a wasteful drain of vitality, a Catholic church broken apart. It’s hard to see how the rift will mend.

After several decades of marriage, I am beginning to learn: When the light comes, it shines on a man who wishes to grow up before he grows too old. We can move into responsible masculinity -- and humbly discover what we’ve been missing.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune asked poet Robert Bly to propose activities for a National Day for Boys equivalent to Take Our Daughters to Work day. Bly suggested fathers take their sons off to the library and show them the books and play the music they love. Women have often been excluded from the work world, Bly noted. “I think it’s just as likely now that men will be shut out of the inward world.”

Asa nisi masa.

[Rich Heffern is editor of the Eco Catholic blog on NCR’s Web site at NCRonline.org/blogs/eco-catholic.]

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