Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sin-eating, Transgression and the Trivialization of the Sacred

The Learning for Life Group essay, "Mavericks, Schmaverks! Dime a Dozen - What We Need Are Real Transgressors!" is extracted from "Sin-eating, etc." may scroll down to the section entitled "Transgressors Serve, Ignore-ance, The Mythology of Transgression" although it is best to read it in the greater context of the entire essay.

My friend, my friend, I was born doing
reference work in sin, and born
confessing it.

This is what poems are:

with mercy
for the greedy,
they are the tongue's wrangle,
the world's pottage, the rat's star.

-- Anne Sexton, "With Mercy for the Greedy"

But wherefore could I not pronounce 'Amen'?
I have most need of blessing and 'Amen' stuck in my throat"
(lines 30 - 32).

-- William Shakespeare, from

All lies and jest.
Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.

-- Paul Simon, "The Boxer"

"People will do anything, no matter how absurd to avoid facing their own souls."

-- C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, Collected Works, Vol. 12, par. 126.

A man will go far to find out who he is.

-- Theodore Roethke, from "In a Dark Time"

I'm gonna ride to the West where the fence commences
and gaze at the moon till I lose my senses.

-- from the song, "Don't Fence Me In"


An Outstanding Invitation to the Dispeptic Banquet

I am a sin-eater, a transgression taster, a veritable trespasser's tratatoria of degenerate degustation, digester of daimonic dishes and damaged just-desserts. And, yes, I swallow. As a blues song sings it, "'s a dirty job, baby, but somebody's got-ta do it!"

But I'm not the only sin-eating thug in the people business. When cogitating about what I might want to say regarding transgression an immediate image of one of my heroes rushes to mind as first conjured in Peter Redgrove's account of his therapeutic work and apprenticeship with the late John Layard, Jungian analyst extraordinaire. Redgrove writes:

Very early on... I was lucky enough to meet a great and widely known analyst, John Layard...a striking man, in his late seventies when I met him. He had snow-white hair that was worn long and flowed over his collar like steam boiling from a pot. His face in repose had a profound listening quality, and he was very tall. In the centre of his forehead, just above the eyebrows, was a small, round, skin-covered hole in the bone, like a third eye-socket. It was a bullet-hole, from when he had once tried to commit suicide, and you could tell if you had managed to interest him because it would beat with a pulse like a drum. When he knew you well, he would take out his denture for comfort, and then you could see that when he was absorbed in what you were saying he would salivate copiously...he told me he was a sin-eater, and that was why his mouth watered. I protested in the name of common sense; he replied, 'We've had enough of that. What we need is uncommon sense.' --pgs xiii-xiv, from the "Introduction," The Black Goddess and the Sixth Sense, Paladin Books, 1989

Upon first reading this striking image of an elderly Jungian psychoanalyst formerly suicidal with a bullet-hole in the middle of his forehead toothlessly salivating proclaiming to be "a sin-eater" to his client and student, I laughed outloud in gleeful and relieved recognition of someone to whom my inescapable humanity could easily relate, bullet-hole and what led to it, saliva and appetite for sin-eating, all, along with his reframe of sin and transgression -- how devilishly tasty! And how un-New Agey, un-New Thoughty, not at all "spirituality LITE", un-clinical psychologically, irreligious, irreverent and utterly human with sulpher and brimstone tints and tones, his very crusty humanity not any longer laden or at least less laden with the burden of an impossible moral transcendence. All the while vibrantly humorous and deadly serious, bullet hole attesting to the seriousness Layard took his work, that of his clients. And nevermind the transference and counter-transference!! Sin-eating is serious business but not without boundary-breaking irreverent-for-the-gods'-sake humor. Humor, latin for "fluid." A sense of humor, a sense of fluid fluidity, of flow. Currents. Implication of heights (air currents) and depths (molten earth core magma flow, water currents).

Step back then! I'm salivating and the flow is heavy. Liver, transgression and consciousness all flowing together. Coughing confluences. Noir-ish nuances. Outright offensiveness. Keep a spit cup nearby. A spit cup, for those saintly and civilized ones who wouldn't deign t0 know, is kept near at hand to spit snuff or tobacco chaw into whilst one partakes of the gravy and the levity of the nicotinic leaf, and sin. Leaves aren't too far from sin. Just ask Adam and Eve, first transgressors who brought consciousness out of divinely legislated unconsciousness by obeying the consciousness bringer, Lucifer, Light-bearer (The Creator Deity forbade eating of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil).

All consciousness, then, is transgression.

If you haven't noticed, one can become keenly self-conscious when transgressing. Thus the leaf coverlets on the Primal Progenitors as the first underwear in the Garden of Eden. I recently asked a colleague why Adam and Eve covered their genitals and not their asses since there is so much shame about anality and shit. She answered wisely, "You don't cover what you can't see." But I transgress, I mean digress. Back to sin-eating and consciously doing so which is really the parson's proffer, the psychotherapist's prerogative, the healer/counselor's pretense and pressure.

But let me begin at the beginning again with a confession again:

I am a sin-eater. Until only recently I secretly salivated a la Layard yet publicly pretended to be an abstemiously lite though contrary poetaster of the luxurious foie gras of the Seven Deadlies (Seven Deadly sins), a munching momser at the veritable smorgasbord of cultural culpas and egregious condiments, those musky, putrid, odoriferous offal-awful morsels of eclectic human sin, mine own, others. Foie gras, the liver from which it is made, is an acquired taste for most humans, a rich, bitter, more than slightly turned odor-of-shit flavored organ meat. A friend from South Africa recently told me that lions always eat the liver of a kill first, and fight for it. Male lions have first dibs since the liver appears to be the most tasty of organs out of the plethora of organ choices. It seems Nature makes liver top choice on the menu for beasts. Why should we uber-animals with consciousness be any different?

The liver as we know converts toxins in the body into harmless substances thus it's rich poisonous flavor which is absolutely and dangerously delicious. Prometheus, that forward seeing thief (his name means "foresight") of Greek mythology, stealer of divine fire and meaty morsels intended for the gods, bringer of forbidden consciousness and therefore of culture to mortals was punished for his transgression by being chained to a rock where an eagle (sometimes a vulture) would eat his liver by day only to grow back at night to be fed upon once again come daylight. Prometheus had the gall to break divine law and appropriate fire and sacrificial meat for humans, a titanic transgression, his being a Titan afterall.

Edward F. Edinger, Jungian analyst writes:

"Prometheus' story gives us profound images of the nature of emerging consciousness. First there is the process of separation, which determines what belongs to the gods and what belong to humankind, the ego gaining increments of meat, or energy, for itself. Then humanity is provided with fire, one could say with light and energy: consciousness and the effective energy of will to carry out conscious intention are created. However, there was a fearful price for this, because the acquisition of consciousness was a crime, as described in the myth, and its consequesnce was to generate in Prometheus an unhealing wound, the wound inflicted by the eagle/vulture by day--during the time of light and consciousness. This particular detail indicates that consciousness itself is the eagle/vulture, the wound producer. Prometheus pays for the consciousness of humanity with his suffering." (pg. 12, The Divine Drama, The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology, Shambala Press1994).

Prometheus committed hubris (inflated pride, being like the gods) and though the gods punished hubris they secretly understood it and admired it seeming to repeatedly pull for it by their restrictions, laws, taboos clearly laid out for mortals and the lesser gods thus guaranteeing transgression since laws, boundaries, taboos beg for transgressors. Though punishment is meted out there are rewards to the punished, sophia (wisdom) being the greatest reward in Greek religion. Sophia/wisdom, humanly gained from human sinners, gifted even the gods who eventually evolved/transformed into Greek philosophy and its pursuit, philos = love, sophia = wisdom, the love of wisdom. This sophia is not derived from the gods above but derived from human sin and sufferings within and against the laws/taboos/boundaries set by the gods who themselves did not obey what they imposed upon mortals and the created world. Thus we learn that transgression, going beyond the bounds, crossing over the border, brings or can bring consciousness and wisdom. Suffering punishments for far seeing, seeing ahead, just plain animal curiosity ("what does that apple, that liver, taste like?") going for the forbidden fire, brings consciousness for transgression equals consciousness eventually.

Transgressors Serve, Ignore-ance, The Mythology of Transgression

Transgressors serve. And are served up by the "righteous", the wannabe gilded guru-ic gossips, those glib spirit entrancers, those chin-charmers dime a dozen, those Metro-mancers who plant golden, mass produced flags in the "transformation" business staking their claims of imminent domain in the new gluttony that is now "Spirituality, Inc." from lofts to loony toons, the "enlightenment business" with TV talk show hosts proclaiming the latest best-selling "Secret and Esoteric Science" designed to gain material stuff and, of greatest value in that racket, projections of "Power" with money attached. There will be no dirth of these who so easily via magical thinking with no critical thinking whatsoever please the desperate, the greedy, the forsaken ready to "worship at any shrine impulses toward perfection" (Artur Rimbaud) which are promises for transcendence but most often dissociation and bypass of the problem of the shadow side of existence, of good and evil.

Transgressors bring that disowned shadow and underworld value, that which has been left out of official culture secular and "spiritual", of families, clans, cults, groups, communities, nations. They are scapegoated but at first usually ignored. John Layard, mentioned above, said that the crime of Oedipus, whose myth our Western culture is built upon, is ignorance-- ignore-ance (pg. xiv). Every rebel, maverick, criminal, rule breaker represents a lost value or a new value which has been ignored by the collective. They may be punished, they will be punished, but in the end the punished one will become wise or has the potential to become so and, that not happening, some child or two or three or more will be born or will arrive from some other shore having crossed a border legally or illegally and the old collective values shall fall to the new values brought in by the invader transgressors.

Religion, myth, dreams, society historically and currently are full of those mythic transgressors who bring about a new value, a new order, or herald one to come. Jamake Highwater in his book, The Mythology of Transgression, speaks of two kinds of transgressions, theological, which is a breaking of the absolute laws of god, and mythological, which is "a metaphor suggesting a process similar to metamorphosis: an act that brings about transformation. The line crossed by a mythic transgression is a boundary of consciousness at the same time that it is a boundary of collective mores...such boundaries are called "reality" (pg. 44), ruled by an ideology or theology or philosophy (all of which are believed to be absolute). Mythological transgressors are always perceived by the collective as theological transgressors and are always considered threats, criminals, and are punished. Highwater pointedly continues: "...transgression [from the theological eye] is generally understood to mean an action that is morally subversive. A transgression is closely associated with the religious idea of damnation...we reproach them as sinners. And the more "terrible" the transgression, the more we reproach them. We may ridicule them, disdain them, beat them, imprison them, banish them, or we may even kill them. But the worst of all possible punishments is doubtlessly our attempts to redeem them: to change them from their sinful ways to our blessed ways...Sartre said that "hell is other people." In matters of dogma [theological or psychological] he may have been right (pg. 42)."

In sum, the mythological transgressor leaves the known, received and sanctioned "Walled City" of norms, of the socio-psycho-sanctimonious collective in order to bring about revelation and transformation. The archetypal hero's journey always leads to revelation and transformation. Highwaters says "the crucial turning point of any (hero's) adventure is that moment when a man or woman breaks away from the commonplace world in order to act out a sense of self. It is this decisive act of disjunction from the commonplace, of departure from the known world, that represents the essential act of crossing the line, of breaking the rules and trespassing beyond the familiar world. That trespass represents the hero's willingness to pierce the protective walls of the community. It represents the daring [and Promethean "gall"] to make a precarious passage beyond the walls by doing that "one thing" that is forbidden (pg. 41)."

Trials and Trivializations

"One cannot be too cautious in these matters, for what with the imitative urge and a positively morbid avidity to possess themselves of outlandish feathers and deck themselves out in this exotic plumage, far too many people are misled into snatching at such "magical" ideas and applying them externally, like an ointment. People will do anything, no matter how absurd to avoid facing their own souls." -- C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, Collected Works, Vol. 12, par. 126.

It is obvious that theological transgression is found amongst the theologically/metaphysically inclined. It is also found in so-called secular groups. Whether self-identified as sacred or secular both have their own absolutes which are wielded "god almightily" creating pompous accusers holding psycho-sanctimonious straw courts in dithering dockets where the transgressor without legal representation is expected to give account or be banished. The masses become the judges, the leaders capitulating to them while all along complimenting the horde on "how well they are doing." Power struggles ensue as to who has "the Truth" and the "sleuthy toves" do "gyre and gimble in the wabe (Lewis Carroll poem)." Jabberwocky and juggernauts, assaults on the "Truth" become assaults in truth designed to punish and scapegoat and to empower the self-chosen ones. The only revelation brought forth is of blame, shame and, most usually, immense hypocrisy and ongoing relentless gossip amongst the alpha spiritualists. Power over the group is grabbed in the vacuum and consolidated. Meanwhile the sinner/transgressor is exiled which in a real sense is a grace for the tried and convicted, an escape from the whirlwind of offense, pretense and obsessive rumination of paranoid leaders (paranoias passed off as intuitive revelations, of course, thus ensuing trials and punishments are divinely ordained and the paranoic hands remain "pure" in their minds, behinds bared for others to see) and their obedient castrati. Committees form to give official "truths" and self-serving "spins" all the while the grinning skull upon which they stand blindly grins at the charade. The exiled one is not heard from again. Nor does the righteous throng want to hear from him or her having born in scapegoat fashion the "sins", the unconscious, unintegrated shadow of leaders and group. With a chant and a blessing the "redeemed" and "enlightened" march in goose step to commoditized, Westernized, narcissistic "Oms" with best-selling tomes in armpits, a spiritual deodorant for sure, guaranteeing financial prosperity in Macbethian hands which, as Ernest Becker points out in his astounding Escape From Evil, are vain attempts to deny death and finitude where we all leave behind us fuming piles of excrement which betray our animal nature and impermanence. Meanwhile the glib Winter Queen and King of Commonplace spouting "spiritual platitudes" and mystico-sprach (hypnotic entrancing nonsense) disguise dark ways of power marching on into infinity in even spiffier, shinier packages even more of a commodity for the new gluttony which is "spirituality" now become co-opted, trivialized rituals which once were sacred to indigenous people the world over.

"Was I too glib about spiritual things?" - Theodore Roethke

Now here is a difficult sin to eat, mea culpa mea culpea maxima mea culpa, the trivialization of the sacred into purchasable commodities and self-improvement programs where self appointed and self aggrandizing wannabe high priestesses and priests of the Mammon Feast dressed in "outlandish feathers" and "exotic plummage" can be hired at exhorbitant costs usually of pocket and psyche/soul . Harvey Cox speaks sharply and surgically accurate to this trivialization of sacred traditions into possessions to be purchased with enlightenment and money guaranteed if the chela/student follows the rules doing it all correctly, using the credit card copiously, all the while curtsying to a "namaste", "peace and blessings" and a "praise the Lord". Cox prophetically writes in the 1970's (all prophets are transgressors in their day):

"If there is any fault to be allocated, it lies not with the victims [of commercialization of spiritualities] but with the buyer-seller nexus within which the new Oriental religious wave is marketed. Despite what may be good intentions all around, the consumer mentality can rot the fragile fruits of Eastern spirituality as soon as they are unpacked. The process is both ironic and pathetic. What begins in Benares as a protest against possessiveness ends up in Boston as still another possession. Dark Kali, the great and terrible destroyer, whose very glance can melt the flesh of the strongest warrior, whose slightest breath can stop the pulse and paralyze the soul, finds herself dangling from bracelets with all the other charms.

No deity however terrible, no devotion however deep, no ritual however splendid is exempt from the voracious process of trivialization. The smiling Buddha himself and the worldly-wise Krishna can be transformed by the new gluttony into collectors' trinkets. It was bad enough for King Midas that everything he touched turned to gold; the acquisition-accumulation pattern of the new gluttony does even more. Reversing the alchemist's course, it transforms rubies and emeralds into plastic, the sacred into the silly, the holy into the hokey...(a) changing of the gods into consumer software..." -- pg. 134, Turning East, The Promise and Peril of the New Orientalism, Harvey Cox, Simon and Schuster, 1975.

There are no easy solutions at hand, no "correct courses" to follow to counter and dilute this commercial Moloch unleashed now almost around the world entire. I counsel humility before the juggernaut and that "rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born" (William Butler Yeats, from "The Second Coming"). I counsel abjuring glibness and triviality regarding matters of matter, psyche and spirituality. I absolutely counsel shadow work, shadow work, shadow work which does not mean banishing instinctual aggressive, erotic and warlike selves to "spiritual charm school". Owning these aspects or at least entertaining them at table, doing dream work true, staying focused upon the profound dilemma of human existence and its/our contrariness not only cultivates authentic humility while being utterly human but also creates possibilities of creative, dynamic tolerance and possible eventual integration of opposites. Evil and suffering will not be "workshopped" nor turned away with "magical passes" and "spiritual" slight of hand or mind.

We suffer. And suffering is not a lie. And currently, perhaps throughout human history, humans resort to momentary entertainments, even "spiritual and occult" entertainments, to assuage suffering which eventually foster an even more desperate emptiness for spiritual entertainments, of which intuition is one of the most chiefly misused and abused, ultimately failing to authentically fulfill. Like toys, expensive or cheap, the empty hole and voracious toothy mouth of "hungry ghostness" is not satisfied when authentic powers of mind are turned into what Trungpa Rimpoche calls "spiritual materialism". As Jung says, "...
far too many people are mislead into snatching at such "magical" ideas and applying them externally, like an ointment. People will do anything, no matter how absurd to avoid facing their own souls." -- C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, Collected Works, Vol. 12, par. 126.

Thus, shudder of shudders, Jung counsels "facing your own soul." Soul means psyche. Work with the psyche for which one with rare exceptions needs a guide, inwardly and externally. Pray to be guided to a sin-eater, a Layard type who does not ignore human imperfection nor pretend to piety and god-almightiness. Look for a bullet-hole drumming in intent attention, salivation and "uncommon sense." Find someone who, like you perhaps are experiencing now, is "beyond the fence", having lost her/his senses in order to gain them anew along with "uncommon sense." Abjure commercial promises and platitudes and be wary of trance-mongers selling quick abbreviated journeys to enlightenment with guaranteed prosperity to follow. "Somewhere over the rainbow" is just that, "somewhere over the rainbow", for in the end, once again, one returns, or can, with courage and consent to lose one's "bauble-babbling deities" to Kansas, ordinary and mundane, praising in creaturely astonishment the majesty accessible in ground, in hands, genitals, eyes and skin. Revelations in the spore and more abound. Land here in the physical universe assenting to suffer and bear witness to the spectrum of joys and horrors which create exquisite and ordinary responses for we are indeed creatures of response in a universe which appeals to us as creatures of response to authentically respond. We may curse (we WILL!). We may praise (we WILL!). We may question (we always SHOULD!) and more but conscious humanity, all-too-humanness, is enough. More than enough. We really don't need yogis and saints and fainting spiritual Blavatskys afraid of toothy, meaty existence. The spine of an edible leaf screams, too, when we chew. And we leave it fuming behind us in testament to life and death just as odiferously as the once-was- flesh injestions of living energy called food. Contrariness is who we are. We gaze at the star of our personal sky, cry "Why?" and "We Wee Oui" amidst the scry and scree of our being here just one being amongst numberless beings in an expanding universe.

Praise is always a transgression,
a boundary break which takes us beyond ourselves
all the while delivering us and the universe
unto and into our very selves.

WE become the loci, the axis mundi through
which the streaming universe courses and a
means amongst jillions through which we may
share that coursing with others.


[The image at the top of the essay is a scanned postcard from Mirepoix, France once in my possession. It depicts a gargoyle/demon and is located in the cathedral of Mirepoix, France. I have tried to find information on the photograph online but so far to no avail. It is a striking image and I love it since I believe it brilliantly depicts the "therapist's/counselor's shadow self."]

Books cited:

What is a sin-eater? Taking benefits but individuation...

A sin-eater is a traditional type of spiritual healer who uses a ritual to cleanse the dying of their sins. The sin-eater absorbs the sins of the people he or she serves and typically works for a fee. As the sins are usually consumed through food and drink, the sin-eater also gains a meal through the transaction. Sin-eaters are often outcasts, as the work and the sin-eater is considered unsavory the work of which is usually thought to lead to an afterlife in hell due to carrying the unabsolved sins of others. The Roman Catholic Church regularly excommunicated sin-eaters when they were more common, not only because of the excessive sins they carried, but also because they infringed upon the territory of priests, who are supposed to administer Last Rites to the dying according to Church Doctrine.

The sin-eater saves the dying not only from hell, but also from wandering the earth as a ghost - thereby performing a service for the living as well. In some traditions, sin-eaters perform their work for the moribund, while in others, the ritual takes place at the funeral. The sin-eater is usually associated with the British Isles, but there are analogous customs in other cultures as well.

A sin-eater typically consumes bread as part of the ritual of taking on the dying person's sins. He or she may also eat salt or drink water or ale. Sometimes, special breads are baked for the purpose of the sin-eating ritual, perhaps featuring the initials or image of the deceased. The meal is sometimes passed over the dead or dying body or placed on its breast to symbolize its absorption of the person's sins. The sin-eater may also recite a special prayer.

Some cultures have customs that are similar to sin-eating and may have evolved from more traditional forms of the ritual. Instead of a designated, outcast sin-eater serving a village, for example, the deceased's nearest relatives may perform the service, as was once traditional in Bavaria and the Balkan Peninsula. In the Netherlands and some parts of England, ritual baked goods were given to the attendants or pallbearers at a funeral. This latter tradition lived on for a time in New York. Today, the custom of the sin-eater has largely died out, though it is often referenced in popular culture."

For more about sin-eaters read


With Mercy for the Greedy

by Anne Sexton

For my friend, Ruth, who urges me to make an appointment for the Sacrament of Confession

Concerning your letter in which you ask
me to call a priest and in which you ask
me to wear The Cross that you enclose;
your own cross,
your dog-bitten cross,
no larger than a thumb,
small and wooden, no thorns, this rose—

I pray to its shadow,
that gray place
where it lies on your letter ... deep, deep.
I detest my sins and I try to believe
in The Cross. I touch its tender hips, its dark jawed face,
its solid neck, its brown sleep.

True. There is
a beautiful Jesus.
He is frozen to his bones like a chunk of beef.
How desperately he wanted to pull his arms in!
How desperately I touch his vertical and horizontal axes!
But I can’t. Need is not quite belief.

All morning long
I have worn
your cross, hung with package string around my throat.
It tapped me lightly as a child’s heart might,
tapping secondhand, softly waiting to be born.
Ruth, I cherish the letter you wrote.

My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it. This is what poems are:
with mercy
for the greedy,
they are the tongue’s wrangle,
the world's pottage, the rat's star.

Anne Sexton, “With Mercy for the Greedy” from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981). Copyright © 1981 by Linda Gray Sexton and Loring Conant, Jr. Reprinted with the permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.

Source: The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (1981).