We tell ourselves stories in order to heal.
I know a writer who suffered from frequent headaches, insomnia, and bouts of depression so debilitating, he contemplated suicide. His parents sent him to an institution for mentally disturbed children.
He endured electroshock therapy and numerous analytic sessions with a Jungian psychologist. Two of his marriages ended in divorce — the second one lasting only eleven weeks.
His eyesight was poor, he developed heart disease and eventually died from leukemia.
And amidst all this strum and drang, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Nearly 30 years ago, I read his seminal work Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game) published in America as Magister Ludi.
One story from that remarkably underappreciated novel still resonates over the decades, The Father Confessor.
Nearly everything Hesse wrote was an attempt to give voice to his manifold spiritual wounds.
The Father Confessor is a story about two renowned healers — Josephus Famulus and Dion Pugil who lived in the times of St. Hilarion (300 AD).
Hesse, who loved to play games with language, anchors the two names in their character (Famulus — assistant or servant, and Pugil, the boxer.)
Each has a unique approach to healing.
“Josephus knew how to listen to him, to open his ears and his heart, to gather the man’s sufferings and anxieties into himself and hold them, so that the penitent was sent away emptied and calmed. Slowly, over long years, this function had taken possession of him and made an instrument of him, an ear that people trusted. His virtues were patience, a receptive passivity, and great discretion.”
“All the complaints, confessions, charges, and qualms of conscience that were brought to him seemed to pour into his ears like water into the desert sands.”
After listening to the penitent, Josephus said nothing but stooped, kissed him on the brow, and made the sign of the cross over him.
Dion Pugil was celebrated for being able to read the souls of those who sought him out without recourse to words.
“He often surprised a faltering penitent by charging him bluntly with his still unconfessed sins.”
Father Pugil “was a wise counselor of erring souls, a great judge, chastiser, and rectifier. He assigned penances, castigations, and pilgrimages, ordered marriages, compelled enemies to make up, and enjoyed the authority of a bishop.”
After years of being the ears to humanity, Josephus begins to become conscious of his own vanity. It is a moment of profound spiritual crisis — where he sees himself not as fellow pilgrim but as something more.
“After a time, listening to some confessions, he found himself subject to spasms of coldness and lovelessness, even to contempt for the penitents.”
Hesse’s words bear witness to his own descent into depression.
“It was a feeling very easy to bear in its initial stages, for it was scarcely perceptible; a condition without any real pain or deprivation, a slack, lukewarm, tedious state of the soul which could only be described in negative terms as a vanishing, a waning, and finally a complete absence of joy. There are days when the sun does not shine and the rain does not pour, but the sky sinks quietly into itself, wraps itself up, is gray but not black, sultry, but not with the tension of an imminent thunderstorm.
Gradually, Joseph’s days became like this as he approached old age. Less and less could he distinguish the mornings from the evenings, feast days from ordinary days, hours of rapture from hours of dejection. Everything ran sluggishly along in limp tedium and joylessness.”
At this moment of crisis, Josephus sets out on a journey to seek counsel from Dion.
“He moved on easily, as if he were being led, as if a distant, kind voice were calling and coaxing him, as if his journey were not a flight but a homecoming.”
During his journey, he arrives at an oasis where he meets an older man with “hoary beard and a dignified but stern and rigid face.” He asks the man if he know where Dion Pugil might be found.
The older man says he knows Dion and will bring the traveler to meet him. After a while, the older man confesses that he is Father Dion.
Josephus, the listener finally pours out his soul “the whole story of his life as a Christian and ascetic, which he had intended for purification and sanctification and which in the end had become such utter confusion, obscuration, and despair.”
“Old Dion had listened with unflagging attentiveness, refraining from the slightest interruption or question. And even now, when the confession was over, not a word fell from his lips. He rose clumsily, looked at Joseph with great friendliness, then stooped, kissed him on the brow, and made the sign of the cross over him.”
Later, Josephus realizes that this is the same brotherly gesture with which he had dismissed so many of his own penitents.
Dion and Josephus live and work together over the next few years. At first, Josephus is a servant but then their relationship flowers and he becomes a student and ultimately, a colleague.
When Dion is on his deathbed, he confesses to Josephus that on the very night they met on the oasis, Dion was on a journey of his own. He too, had fallen into despair and was on a pilgrimage to meet the famous healer named Josephus.
It is a story of mutual healing.
The listener becomes confessor and the judge becomes a listener. It is an illuminating story on many levels.
For both men, crisis was the opportunity for choice. A decision to make the growth choice instead of the fear choice.
The healing story is often one that takes you by surprise. That resonates with you on an unfamiliar frequency. That sets you off on your own pilgrimage.
What is your healing story?