Four years ago I wrote paper utilizing alchemical imagery in an attempt to situate the HIV/AIDS crisis in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv (Kiev). It is important to note that an InfectiousnDiseases Hospital was located on the territory of the Pechrska Lavra. The Hospital was evicted, stigmatizing and marginalizing patients as sinners. I write this today to advocate on behalf of the sick and suffering and on behalf of countless souls who have lost their lives to AIDS. The clergy of the Moscow Patriarchate and its clergy should be evicted from Ukraine for collusion in the deaths of the innocent.
The AIDS Patient and the Abbot
Susan Sontag’s (1988) AIDS and Its Metaphors draws upon her own struggle with cancer and her seminal work Illness as Metaphor (1977) in which she presents illness as not only a physical reality but a metaphorical one. The very nature of human existence is grounded in what she terms a “dual citizenship,” a citizenship which grants us a place “in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick” (1977, p.3). As she explores the metaphorical aspects of illness, her discourse brings to light such notions as a disease as a battle, invasion, and punishment from God. Although AIDS is not a disease, but a syndrome, the military metaphor is particularly applicable since AIDS does not originate inside of the body, but is contracted from fluids that originate outside of it. It is not surprising that the term “plague” has also become a metaphor for this syndrome, and that religious fundamentalists’ project divine punishment upon those who can justifiably be considered to be their own shadow.
AIDS is an acquired condition. The seemingly innocent word “acquired” in reality is hardly that at all. The notion that a deadly condition can be “acquired” extends the metaphor even further, suggesting pollution and contamination. Through active imagination, this syndrome can no longer be ascribed to a segment of the society, but to all of us who live with a collective sense that all of our defenses have become weaker. Behind the collective projection of a world that is defined by a political and militaristic wall of defense, what lies in its shadow is the inability to remain immune to such realities as a global economy, climate change, political upheaval, and the interconnectedness of everyone and everything in a web that is worldwide. Perhaps AIDS is a metaphor which describes the fluid connection between consciousness and the unconscious, the visible and the invisible. Corbin (1977) notes that the alchemical operation depends upon a metaphorical mirror accessible to the Wise, and through which one can “contemplate all the things of this world, whether it be a concrete reality (‘ayn) or a mental reality (ma’na)” (p. 99). The alchemical practitioner’s gaze opens up a horizon of inner sight which permits the intimate connection between the conscious and the unconscious to come into awareness and is an appropriate psychological lens for understanding the metaphorical aspects of the AIDS syndrome more deeply.
The AIDS patient to whom we are referring is not one specific individual, but a person, who like millions of others, has lost a sense of unique history and identity. The ravages of this syndrome displace a sense of normative identity and is replaced by a new collective identity and class membership. This does not mean that persons who live with HIV/AIDS have totally lost their individuality, but rather to draw awareness to society’s labeling of this population as sinners, outcasts, lepers, and persons to avoid for fear of contamination. Hillman (2010) points out that our Christianized cultural psyche, which is stuck in the psychic split of Jesus and the devil, overemphasizes whiteness and light, and fears darkness and the nigredo; an essential component and starting point of the alchemical opus.
The photograph below, chosen from the “Photo-Shock” series, depicts an AIDS victim standing in front of dilapidated housing. This man with AIDS is the quintessential image of mortificatio. His emaciated body and loss of muscle tone, the sad gaze of his eyes, the decaying fence and housing behind him, present a physical landscape reflective of the inability to sustain an immune defense system. If one follows Hillman’s dictum to “stick to the image,” then the viewer and the image can enter into an intersubjective field which holds and respects this man’s literal personal mortificatio and the putrefactio of his environment. According to Hillman (2010) the nigredo is not the beginning, but a phase which has been accomplished. He states:
Black is, in fact, an achievement! It is a condition of something having been worked upon, as charcoal is the result of fire acting on a naïve and natural condition of wood, as black feces are the result of digested blood, as blackened fungus is the result of decay. Because depression, fixations, obsessions, and a general blackening of mood and vision may bring a person to therapy, these indicate that the soul is already engaged in the opus. (p.87)
Hillman (2010) amplifies his discourse on the alchemical nigredo by engaging in a poetics of black as a metaphor for the destruction of paradigms such as dogma, and dependable notions of what constitutes goodness. Black dissolves the tyranny of what he terms “possitivities;’ it is fluid and moves downward opening up new arterial pathways in the psyche. What was taken for granted, as fact, truth, and virtue, are not longer comforting, but seen through with a darkened eye. It should be of no surprise that persons who suffer from HIV/AIDS are outsiders and in the company of other social non-conformists, such as revolutionaries, prostitutes, pirates, and anarchists.
The Infectious Diseases Hospital, which was established and built by the citizens of Kiev over 100 years ago, is the only facility in this city which is capable of serving an ever-growing population of people living with HIV/AIDS. This hospital also played a vital role in treating patients during the flu pandemic of 1918. Although it was not constructed by the monastery, the archives of this community indicate that the monks themselves founded a hospital to serve lay people as far back as the 11th century. Patients who benefit from services are not only city dwellers, but villagers who, like our unnamed man, have no access to other places to receive treatment, and who also desire confidentiality for fear of being stigmatized by neighbors
The Abbot of the monastery has publicly expressed his disdain for the “sinners” who come for medical services on the territory of holy ground. Television reporters have recorded him standing in front of the hospital making the following statement: “Would you want to live next to people who have lived a promiscuous and sinful lifestyle?” (My translation) This created quite a stir, and the medical staff, patients, and members of the All Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS are still waiting for an apology. Investigative reporting has also disclosed that the Abbot is allegedly involved in money laundering, was an elected official in city government from the Communist Party, held a lavish birthday party in an exclusive hotel when he turned 50 this year, and was gifted a Mercedes Benz worth over $100,000.00 American dollars by one of his guests. Certainly, the Abbot’s reputation has been “blackened” by his greed for “gold.”
Although abbots are elected from the ranks of male ascetics, it is not uncommon to encounter abuses of power and money. This is particularly true in the Russian Orthodox Church which colluded with communist party authorities during Soviet times, and continues to do so today. From an alchemical perspective, this Abbot’s relentless pursuit of “gold” is very telling. Commentaries on alchemical literature, such as von Franz (1980), Henderson and Sherwood (2003), and Abt (2009), point out that the transmutation of base metals into gold is a metaphor for describing the interrelationship of the unconscious world with consciousness. In other words, the goal of alchemy is not a literal transformation of lead into gold, but an opus which demands a knowledge which is well-guarded and passed down to adepts from Sages who understand the art. The pursuit of gold is appropriate for all humans, including the Abbot who has sworn to live a life of poverty, if this pursuit is not a literal pursuit of wealth. The gold of the alchemists is not the common gold, but “non vulgi” as noted by Carl Jung (1983).
The Abbot’s seemingly obsessive pursuit of wealth is, inadvertently, the first step for positive psychological growth, if only he would embrace an inner knowledge which opens up an understanding of the symbolic dimensions of human life. When compounded by his projections of “sinner” upon the HIV/AIDS patients at the clinic, the horrible dualism which plagues the Christian world becomes even more evident. Jung (1954) analyzes this split by noting that Augustine’s understanding of “man as a microcosm…has yet to be discovered” (p. 32). Projection and possession by the unconscious reveal that humanity is being torn apart and that it unknowingly “provides the inner disunity with an outwards vessel without changing the disiunctio into a conuinctio” (p. 33).
Recently, the Abbot has avoided confrontations with the press and has made no further statements regarding his desire that the “sinners” be evicted from the monastery grounds. As I actively imagine the Abbot’s current psychic state, the wall which he has created between himself and the public may be a metaphor for his interior life. The disiunctio which Jung (1954) noted above can lead to a nigredo state of separatio. One of the plates of the Harley text of the Splendor Solis entitled “The Golden Head” (Henderson & Sherwood, 2003) renders a pictorial representation of this state of separatio, and may provide alchemical insight into the Abbot’s behavior and his potential for future integration.