Tag Archives: psychology

Rocky’s Prayer

Day of the DeadThis weekend, many Italians are traveling to village cemeteries to pay homage to their ancestors. The Catholic feast of All Saints Day on November 1st is a national holiday followed by All Soul’s Day. It is a time for the living to ritually remember the dead – both saint and sinner alike. In preparation, the (mostly older) women are scrubbing tombstones clean and buying votive candles and pots of chrysanthemums to decorate the graves of loved ones. Coinciding with the beginning of darker days and longer nights, this time allows us to pause and consider our own life and death.


Fava bean flowers

The two days devoted to honoring the dead correspond agriculturally to when Umbrian farmers seed their fields. They are also busy burying onion bulbs and garlic cloves with the hope of enjoying sweet shoots in the spring. There is a local saying among our neighbors that All Saint’s Day marks the planting of fava beans. In fact, eating fava beans was once thought to be a way to be in communion with the dead. The bean flower is white with black markings that take the form of the Greek letter thet or θ, which is the first letter of thanatos, meaning ‘death’.

Last year’s giorno dei morti, I decided to walk the two kilometers into town to attend the morning mass. On the way, Rocky, my neighbor’s dog, decided to follow me. Despite my shooing and yelling “A casa! (Go home!)”, Rocky stuck by my side. Exasperated, at one point I threw stones (not at the poor creature, but in the vicinity and only to emphasize my point), but to no avail. Rocky dashed away, up and around a ploughed field, only to return to my side with a broad grin and wagging tail.



I soon gave up and we journeyed together into our village. I figured once we arrived, Rocky would just wait outside the church, become bored and go quietly home. But he had other ideas! Rocky trotted right behind me into church and took a seat at my feet. I was mortified! In our Umbrian village, dogs are dogs and people are people. Half the men are hunters and have teams of dogs, locked in cages all week, only to emerge half-crazed with pent-up frustration for a morning hunt. Dogs do not enter people’s homes, never mind the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary!

Scooping Rocky into my arms, I promptly carried him outside. “He’s not mine. He’s not mine.” I meekly defended myself to all the heads turned our way.

But as I turned to go back inside, Rocky was right behind me! The mass had started and Don Stefano was in the midst of the opening prayer. Again, I made my apologies and lugged Rocky back outside. The church was starting to fill up. Attendance was higher than usual because of the families that were visiting for the holy day of remembrance.

A casa Rocky! A casa!” I futilely commanded once we were outside, pointing in the direction of his home. “A casa!” Before I realized, Dario, one of the local men who hunts, brutally gave Rocky two hard kicks on his side. The dog whined and bolted down the street. Hoping that he would now go home, I went back inside. But Rocky, bless his soul, soon returned. He once more entered the church, found me among the crowd, and took his seat at my feet.Angel of Grief-Emelyn_Story_Tomba_(Cimitero_Acattolico_Roma)To my surprise, people were starting to whisper, “Leave him. Let him stay.” And then Don Stefano stopped in the middle of the mass and said: “Look at this povera bestia (poor beast). He has tried three times to enter the church and come to mass. He is a good example for all of us. How many people refuse to enter the church? How many people stand outside or stay home and watch football? Let the dog stay as an example to us all.”

The service continued and Rocky lay still. All the while, I was busy with how we might make our escape. By the time the homily rolled around, I had my plan. Knowing that Rocky would follow me up to the altar when I went for holy communion, I figured that I would go last and then turn and lead him out the door. Perfect!

The time came and I waited to be the last to receive communion. Sure enough, Rocky was right behind me, tag wagging down the aisle for communion! But when I turned around, I saw that, to my horror, the church was packed. Worshipers were standing three-deep and blocking the one and only exit. Approaching the door, I wondered what to do. Meanwhile, Rocky had not followed me, but had quietly returned to our pew! I had no choice but to follow and join him until the end of the service.

After the mass, people were laughing and teasing me. “You tried to escape right after communion, but Rocky knew better! He knew to wait until the end of the mass before leaving.” There was no arguing with this. Rocky did know better.

Suddenly I realized that it was not just a coincidence that Rocky had followed me to church that day (something that he had never done before and has never done since). I realized with wonder that Rocky had come to pray for all the animal souls. Since 1970, we humans have killed 60% of the world’s animal populations, 83% of all mammals. Everyday 200 species go extinct. Somebody needs to acknowledge this profound loss in prayer. And who better than a fellow animal creature like our beautiful Rocky?


Assagioli’s Thoughts on Animal Wisdom

More than 45 years ago, Assagioli recognized our need to draw on Saint Francis’ inspiration to cultivate “harmonious relations with the environment.” He believed that our love should not be “limited to the members of the human family,” but be an all-inclusive embrace of “all living things in the animal and vegetable kingdom of nature.” Assagioli also acknowledged our vital spiritual dependence on the animals with whom we share this Earth, when he wrote in 1913:


“Science refuses to let go of the presumption that only humans are ‘wise.’ By humbly lowering ourselves and asking those inferior beings, we might understand the obscure message coming from the human soul. We might more easily raise the grand veil of mystery by another small margin.”


Saint Philip Neri and his dog.

Isabelle Bagdasarianz Küng, a student of Assagioli’s and pioneer teacher of psychosynthesis, recounted a story about her time when she was staying with the Assagiolis in Florence. Every day (except Sundays) at noon, Roberto and Nella Assagioli, together with Ida Palombi and anyone else present would gather in his studio for meditation. Isabelle remembered how the maid’s dog would often sneak into the study precisely at this hour. Upon entry, the dog would take its place between the sofa and desk.

Nella would often chase the dog out, but, like Rocky, it would refuse to leave, scratching the closed door and demanding to be let in. And like Rocky, the creature was eventually allowed to stay.

During the meditation, the dog would never make a move – not even twitch its ears. Isabelle recalls that Assagioli would jokingly say, “You see, the animal kingdom feels the attraction of the spiritual dimension.”


Many thanks to Isabelle Bagdasarianz Küng for letting me share this story.

P.S. Click here to celebrate the saints who loved animals.


Just a few of the 10,000+ Catholic saints.

Imagine All the Healing

Finally I was able to let go of fear and found courage and trust. Marije Smits

“Finally I was able to let go of fear and found courage and trust.” (Marije Smits)

When Susan arrived for her first counseling session, I was struck by her almost fairy-like beauty. With dark hair, creamy fair skin, and crystal green eyes, she reminded me of Snow White. At the time of our meeting, Susan was a 28-year-old PhD student studying philosophy and ethics. Not long before, she had discovered a mole while taking a shower. Susan had been going to tanning salons since she was 20. By the time she was 23, she was addicted to looking and feeling “sun-kissed”. By then she was working at the tanning salon to help pay for her own treatments. For nearly two years, she was tanning every other day.

The mole turned out to be diagnosed as malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. “I didn’t even know what ‘melanoma’ meant,” she admitted to me. “When I found out the results, I was all alone at home and started to panic. I thought I was going to die.”

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An Imagined Apology

Apology - Street ArtNot long ago, I reflected on the process of forgiveness and how much time it can take. Recently, I heard a fascinating interview of the playwright and author Eve Ensler about her new book The Apology. Throughout her childhood, Ensler had been physically and sexually abused by her father. Decades after his death, she decided to write an apology for him – the apology that she had yearned to hear all her life. The book is written entirely from his perspective. In its “Introduction”, she talks about using her imagination to create the words she needed to hear her father say:

“My father is long dead. He will never say the words to me. He will not make the apology. So it must be imagined. For it is in our imagination that we can dream across boundaries, deepen the narrative, and design alternative outcomes.”

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Spring Breath of God

With standing room only, the bus sped down the freeway on a bright warm morning. Once we turned onto the bollenstreek, long ribbons of intense blue, mauve, and white stretched to the near horizon. At the same time, the colours seemed to invade inside and pour over us. Fields of yellow daffodils blared spring’s final triumph over the particularly long winter. Every head on the bus turned and gazed. And then suddenly, quite spontaneously, everyone sighed together, “Aaahhhhhhhh.” A breath song of collective awe.

We were headed to Keukenhof Gardens, near the Dutch town of Lisse, famous for its variety of bulb flowers, especially tulips. I was feeling particularly triumphant because I had two Dutch people in tow. My husband had finally run out of excuses and decided to appease his American wife. Along with us was a friend who had actually lived near the gardens for the past 35 years and had never visited them before. Continue reading

Birthing Forgiveness

forgivenessForgiveness is a transpersonal quality whose essential role is often overlooked in the story of Good Friday. Today Christians mark the death of Jesus, who before dying, forgave his executioners as well as the thief crucified by his side. Born out of a paradoxical mixture of human suffering, responsibility and love, the essential power of forgiveness is that is contains rather than proliferates violence. Today seems like a good time to explore where forgiveness comes from and the power it holds. How does it happen? And what are the steps that we, in our personal lives, can take towards it?

Forgiveness is a creative process. You decide how much, when, where, how, and under what conditions to forgive. As Jungian psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes, “The important part of forgiveness is to begin and to continue” (author’s italics). It does not happen overnight, it does not have to happen fully. But one thing is certain, it cannot happen from your head. We cannot reason our way around, into, or towards forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from the heart, and it requires a great love, a Love beyond ourselves. Continue reading

A Time for ‘Self-Stripping’

DSC01928 Burn

In the Umbrian countryside, it is time to burn old growth.

We are now halfway through the period of Lent – a time before Easter when Christians seek purification through fasting, prayer, and charitable acts. The forty days of Lent are, in many ways, similar to the Islamic time of Ramadan, which I was fortunate enough to experience while living in Egypt. During Ramadan, Moslems are expected to fast as well as give alms and read the Qur’an.

Assagioli wrote extensively on what he called “the science of applied purification”, insisting that this work must be undertaken in order to transform the lower characteristics of our personality and bring unity to our soul. He described purification of the personality as a process of re-orientation and elevation of the higher mind. Using our will, we burn the dross of our affective and instinctual energies, habits, tendencies and passions. Once clear of the obstacles that prevent us from receiving our higher intuitions, we are free to receive wisdom from the Higher Self. In other words, purification is a necessary process that we all must endure along the journey towards personal psychosynthesis before we are adequately equipped to seek spiritual psychosynthesis. Continue reading

Book Announcement: The First in a Series

In celebration of International Women’s Day, I am happy to announce the publication of A Free and Wild Creature: Women, Service and Motherhood.

Book Cover I am a Wild CreatureThis book is a selection of blogs that have appeared on this website from 2014 to 2019. As the past five years have flown by, these bi-monthly reflections followed each other without any thought on my part to their cohesion or continuity. They simply captured moments in time – concerns, joys, wonder, delight, and sorrow.

And yet, while preparing this series of four small books, the reflections seemed to have mysteriously folded into one another. Like the flotsam washed ashore by the sea, these reflections seemed to have divided themselves by weight, roundness, shape and tone. Continue reading