the canaanite woman and psyche’s knife

(This is the homily I offered for the closing Mass of our Camaldolese Retreat for Oblates and Friends at St. Francis Retreat Center in San Juan Bautista.)

A Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. (Mt 15:22-28)

Following on the gospel I now want to tell you another fable, the fable of Eros and Psyche. I was introduced to this fable through the work of the great Jungian psychoanalyst James Hillman in his seminal essay “The Myth of Analysis.” Hillman suggests in that essay that this ancient fable “Eros and Psyche” would make a better foundational myth for the journey of psychoanalysis than either the Oedipus Complex of Freud or the Hero’s Journey of Carl Jung.[i]

The fable of Eros and Psyche is from a 2nd century novel called Metamorphoses (or The Golden Ass) by the Roman writer Apuleius Although that’s the only extended version of the story, the figures of Eros and Psyche also appear earlier in Greek artas early as the 4th century BCE. But it was also picked up and rediscovered during the Renaissance and retold in poetry and drama, and especially widely depicted in painting and sculpture. (In modern times C. S. Lewis told his own version of this story in the book Till We Have Faces.)[ii]

To recap the fable of Apuleius:

Psyche is the third daughter of a king. She is so beautiful that she rivals the beauty of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. When people actually start worshipping Psyche instead of her, Aphrodite gets angry and sends her son Eros (or Cupid) to shoot Psyche with one of his arrows that will make her fall in love with the first creatureshe sees, hoping that she will fall in love with a monster. Butwhen Eros goes to her, he himself is quite taken with her beauty and so takes her in a secret marriage. It’s secret because he doesn’t want his mother to know that he has disobeyed her and because a god cannot marry a mortal. So Eros has Psyche sequestered in a magic palace where she is attended to by invisible servants who meet her every desire. Eros has also told Psyche that she must never see him, and he comes to her only in the darkness every night to consummate their marriage and leaves again every morning before light.

So Psyche spends her days alone in this castle. One day her jealous sisters come to visit her in this marvelous miraculous castle and convince her that her invisible husband is actually a monster and will kill her and the child with which she is pregnant as well. They give her a lamp and a knife, and instruct her to, after her lover has fallen asleep, light the lamp and kill him. And so Psyche does one night light the lamp, but when she does, of course, she sees that he is actually a beautiful god, and she falls in love with him. She tries to hide the knife in her own breast but the knife refuses to be a part of her suicide and slips to the floor. Unfortunately a drop of oil from the lamp falls on Eros’ shoulder and wakes him up. He flies into a rage that she has disobeyed him and then flies off back to his mother’s abode.

Psyche of course is now desolate and in despair that she has lost this beautiful love. Ultimately she goes to Aphrodite and begs her to restore Eros to her. Aphrodite cynically sets before Psyche a series of impossible tasks to fulfill which, with the help of all kinds of supernatural creatures and Eros himself, she does wind up fulfilling except for the final one. However, when Psyche fails the final test, Eros goes to Zeus himself and asks that he make Psyche divine so that they can be properly wed, which Zeus does––and they live happily ever after––the heiros gamos.

Here you see Psyche is wielding the knife!

I ran into an interesting book recently by Elizabeth Nelson, from the Pacifica Institute in Santa Barbara. It’s called Psyche’s Knife.[iii] The premise of her book is that the one thing that usually gets forgotten in the re-telling or in the picturization of this fable is the knife. So many images contain the lamp, but the knife is rarely portrayed. (As a matter of fact, I did a bit of a search of the images of Cupid and Psyche and only found one that shows her wielding the knife.) But Nelson thinks that this knife is a very important overlooked symbol. It’s the feminine knife. It’s different from the masculine knife; it’s not a knife that slays so much as it is a knife that separates, but in separating brings about a deeper union. She quotes a David Whyte poem, “The blade is so sharp––It cuts things together––Not apart.”[iv] It’s a knife that separates, but in separating brings about union–– the heiros gamos.

Now to get as esoteric as possible, Nelson associates all this, a la Jung, with alchemy. In alchemy the third of what are called the operations of transformation is separatio––separation. Chemically this means isolating the various components by filtering them, and––and this is what’s important––discarding any un-genuine or unworthy material in search for the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher’s Stone. Of course, what the alchemists thought happened to materials was also seen as a metaphor for what happens to the soul. (Maybe this is why alchemy at one time was a monastic occupation.) Psychologically, this process is the discovery (or re-discovery) of our true essence and the re-claiming of the “gold” that has been rejected by the rational mind––that is, that which was rejected by the archetypally masculine part of our minds. On the inner journey this is the process by which we recover or unbury everything that has been hidden and then we decide what to discard and what to reintegrate into our refined regenerated personality.

This is what Psyche’s knife represents––the blade that separates not to slay but to unite. Much of this is shadow work, but not just negative shadow. This is the positive shadow, re-exploring things we are ashamed of or things we were taught to hide away by our parents, churches, and schooling. Psyche’s knife also wants us to cut away the self-inflicted restraints to our true nature, so that our real self can shine through. The Jungians call this individuation, and individuation always requires separation, differentiation, and the recognition of what is really yours and what is not. This is the work of Psyche’s knife.

You see, the sad part of this story of Eros and Psyche is that, as beautiful as it was, they were living a lie, a lie that Eros was content to perpetuate as long as he didn’t have to face Mother. (Typical male: all the fun without any of the responsibility!) The heroic part is that Psyche was no longer content to live the lie. What’s better? Living half asleep in a fantasy, never really knowing the truth, hiding? Or shining the light on reality, calling it for what it is––and being willing take the consequences for it. This is Psyche’s knife. Her glimpse of the truth costs her her fantasy world, but ultimately her courage and integrity make her divine. She has used her knife after all, not to kill herself, or kill Eros, but to become real.

Why I tell you all this is because I think the Canaanite woman in the Gospel of Matthew too is wielding Psyche’s knife. Nelson goes on to speak of different fierce feminine mythological figures––the Hindu goddesses Durga and Kali, Neith the warrior goddess of the Egyptians, Judith who slays Holofernes during the Babylonian captivity; even Èowyn in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. (Remember when Aragon asks her “What do you fear, lady?” and she answers: “A cage, to stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”[v]) I think that this Canaanite woman also needs to stand up here with these heroines wielding Psyche’s knife. She’s fierce and she’s fearless and she’s unconquerable. Lucien Deiss, writing about this, says that as long as Jesus kept quiet, he had a chance to win. But, just like the famous conversation with his mother at the wedding feast of Cana, as soon as he begins to engage her in this famous dialogue, it’s all over: “his goodness was going to give in. Would he not understand that a mother is capable of anything to save her child?”[vi] Jesus’ harshness is completely undone by her humble directness.

This is something we need at some point in our spiritual lives, in our journey of self-discovery, and in our conversation with God. As a matter of fact, this is something that God is going to demand of us. We are going to have to say what we want and stand by it––and be willing take the consequences for it. We are going to need this knife that doesn’t slay––but still separates in order to unite. The knife that helps us sort the worthwhile from the trivial; the knife that will help us discover (or re-discover) our own essence and re-claim all that has been rejected by the rational mind; the knife that doesn’t slay, but helps us discern what to discard and what to reintegrate into our refined, regenerated personality.

This isn’t only about women, you know. This is an important moment for men as well. Men too need to learn to take up this knife, not to slay but to separate, to discern and sort the real from the illusion, the trivial from the vital. Remember, Eros doesn’t want to offend Mommy. But the male too has to at some point take up Psyche’s knife and use it to cut Aphrodite’s apron strings, stand on his own two feet and be ready and willing to say “No” to Mommy who wants to keep him a puer eternus–an eternal little boy and away from “the holiness of [his] heart’s affection”––be that our blood mother, mother society, our motherland, or Mother Church.[vii]

On a broader scale, in this day and age Psyche’s knife could also serve as our communal alternative to the easy answers of fanaticism and fundamentalism that surround us. There was a wonderful column by David Brooks in the New York Times the other day. Brooks thinks that “the whole depressing spectacle of this moment” in our country “is caused by a breakdown of intellectual virtue,” specifically a breakdown in our “ability to face evidence objectively, to pay due respect to reality, to deal with complex and unpleasant truths.” This is what Psyche’s knife does. Without it we start to tolerate “dishonesty, incuriosity and intellectual laziness”––and “then everything else falls apart.”

Brooks wrote that, “The temptation is simply to blast the neo-Nazis, the alt-right … and the rest for being bigoted, vicious and hate-filled.” Mind you, some of that is necessary because the “boundaries of common decency have to be defined.” But that’s the knife that slays. We need Psyche’s knife, too, which will mean, “having the courage to understand that the world is too complicated to fit into one political belief system.” It means understanding there are no easy answers that can explain our existential problems, and no malevolent conspiracies that can explain the big political questions. “Progress is not made by crushing some swarm of malevolent foes.” That’s the knife that slays. “It’s made by finding balance between competing truths,” discerning “between freedom and security, diversity and solidarity.”[viii] That’s the work of Psyche’s knife.

Make no mistake about it: this pagan woman is throwing the whole balance of power off, and she’s a the sign that what Isaiah prophesied in the first reading we heard today is about to happen, that the first covenant is about to break out of its nationalism, tribalism and ethnocentrism, and realize God’s plan that my house shall be a house for all people.[ix] And Christianity, its daughter, will indeed become a dragnet, at Pentecost, and catholic really means universal, and multi-expressions, each hearing in his own language, in her own tongue. The same breaking out of the its container happens in the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council, as Rahner thought and Bruno loved to proclaim, when it finally starts to break out of its own Euro-centric Roman-Greek container to become a world church (and how lucky we are to see that at least happening in the College of Cardinals under this pope, himself a first step out of the same old Roman business as usual).

And could it be that the same thing is painstakingly happening in the USA as it finally sinks in that this is no longer merely a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant stronghold, but is itself becoming a new Jerusalem, as so many of the founding mothers and fathers dreamed. But a Jerusalem like the one Isaiah dreams of today––a house for all people.

And so in the days to come, we will, like Psyche, like this brave woman, need not the masculine knife that slays all that is foreign, but the feminine intuition that separates to discern and unite.[x] We need this Canaanite woman’s courage and tenacity. But what we also need is her humility––her “humble directness.” Both Psyche and this Canaanite woman are acting out of desperation as well as courage but that desperation––being taken to the crisis of their own limitation––has led them to have the humility to call for help. This is raw courage, the courage of humility, the courage of desperation, but it’s also the courage of the will to live that is willing to say ‘Lord, help me!’

This is my favorite, the sculpture by Canova in the Louvre.

The good news is that unlike Aphrodite who was jealous that a human being could share in her glory, our God is not like that. Our God wants to make us participants in divinity, and the glory of God is the human person fully alive. It reminds me again of Merton’s essay on Prometheus, who wanted to steal the fire from heaven, whereas Merton wrote our God wants to give us the fire! And that fire is eros; that fire is our own deepest desire. And Merton said “Our joy is heaven’s mirth,” and, to quote the late Sebastian Moore, Jesus is the liberator of that desire. God is the One who fulfills our desires, as a matter of fact God is the fulfillment of our desire––the real hieros gamos. And rather than being jealous of our beauty, we are invited to look at Jesus as if in a mirror, and when we do, we see our own beauty, we see who we are and who we are meant to be.




20 august 17

[This has been updated: I mistakenly wrote that Psyche’s sisters convinced her that the child in her womb was also a monster. They actually tried to convince her that Eros was going to kill her and the unborn child.]

[i] It was a marvelous kind of full circle to get to preach about this in the presence of Sr. Donald, because she was the first to introduce me to James Hillman and to his seminal essay “The Myth of Analysis” at a very important moment in my life.

[ii] Of course psyche is the Greek word for the Latin anima or soul; and eros is sometimes called Cupid, usually translated as “desire,” from the Latin verb cupere. This “desire” sometimes has negative associations––covetousness, cupidity, etc.––but for the moment let’s leave it in its pure form. The ancients speak even of God’s eros for us and our eros for God. This is eros that’s the love that draws us out of ourselves, the love that impels us to our truest selves, even to the rest of ourselves.

[iii] Psyche’s Knife: Archetypal Explorations of Love and Power, Elizabeth Èowyn Nelson, esp. 18-24.

[iv] “No One Told Me”

[v] Lord of the Rings, 58.

[vi] God’s Word is Our Joy, 232, 234.

[vii] I’m reminded of the poem of Eugenio Montale: “Don’t ask us for the phrase that can open worlds, / just a few garbled syllables, dry like a branch. / This, today, is all that we can tell you: / [Cio che non siamo, cio che non vogliamo.] what we are not, what we do not want.” From Collected Poems 1920–1950, Eugenio Montale, trans. Jonathan Galassi (slightly altered), New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998, p. 39.

[viii] “There’s always going to be counter-evidence and mystery. There is no final arrangement that will end conflict, just endless searching and adjustment.” David Brooks, NY Times, August 15, 2017.

[ix] Is 56:1-7.

[x] And, as Brooks says, have “the courage to rest in anxiety and not try to quickly escape it,” being “tough enough to endure the pain of uncertainty and coming to appreciate that pain,” the uncertainty and anxiety throw us off our smug islands of certainty and force us into “the free waters of creativity and learning.” (ibid.)

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