The Saint’s Journey I: The Hero’s Journey and the Limits of Truth and Myth
This is part one of a three-part series on the Saint’s Journey.
You may have never heard of the “Hero’s Journey” or “Monomyth” before, but if you have ever read a book or watched a movie, then you have encountered it.
The Hero’s Journey is not only found in fictional stories though. It appears to be part of the fabric of our consciousness and leaves traces of its pattern in the stories of our lives.
Therefore, if you are conscious … which I assume you are since you are reading this … then you surely have encountered the Monomyth.
The more heroic one’s life, the more clearly the Monomyth emerges.
The Hero’s Journey pattern can be found in the lives of ordinary people and the heroes of history, but it appears most vividly in the lives of the Saints who lived “lives of heroic virtue.”
What is the Hero’s Journey?
The “Hero’s Journey” or “Monomyth,” was coined by Joseph Campbell, a university professor and mythologist.
His most famous book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, has influenced many authors, writers, and filmmakers since it was published in 1949, including George Lucas who used the Monomyth as a template to tell the Star Wars story.
Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living translation of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation. Religion, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth. — The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
The Hero’s Journey has three basic phases: (i) Departure; (ii) Initiation; and (iii) Return.
You may notice that the three-part framework of the Monomyth is very similar to the Three-Act Structure used in fictional narratives found in movies, books, and plays. Why is this?
My theory is that time is a dimension of reality and also a significant component of storytelling; so this three-part structure is just part of our human experience and emerges whether we are discussing myths or other stories, both fictional and true.
In the first phase, Departure, the hero is called to “depart” his existing life and go on an adventure. The hero is usually called away from home to travel to strange and faraway places.
In phase two, Initiation, the hero must overcome conflicts and adversities. The challenges the hero faces can take the form of hostile enemies, dangerous weather, evil monsters, and supernatural forces.
Finally, in the third phase of the Hero’s Journey, Return, the hero overcomes his adversities and returns to the normal world with a “boon.” The “boon” can be wisdom gained through experience, a relic like Bilbo’s sword Sting from JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or some special power or ability.
The Limits of Truth and Myth
Before I continue, I want to be clear that when I talk about the Hero’s Journey, I do not take all of what Joseph Campbell said or believed to be true. It appears that many of his beliefs about religion were erroneous. He left the Catholic Church and seemed to see religion mostly as a psychological condition.
However, because Campbell was mistaken about some of his beliefs does not mean that people of faith should ignore all of his ideas. If St. Thomas Aquinas had done that, he never would have studied the pagan philosopher Aristotle. That would have left the Catholic Church’s understanding of philosophy underdeveloped or incomplete.
The Church teaches that faith (fides) and reason (ratio) are symbolic of the wings of the Holy Spirit. Human reason allows us to know God and to make free choices about how to respond to Him. Therefore, we should never repress the gift of reason out of fear or discard truths discovered through imperfect sources.
The faithful should not fear discussing myths either. In his book, The Human Person, author J. Brian Bransfield cites St. John Paul II:
[M]yth in the classical sense tells a truth about the human person through an event that is so true it cannot fit under a microscope. The rationalist emphasis of the nineteenth century attempted to relegate myth to fantasy. The stories of the past were branded as not true, made up, false-fantastic tales with no truth in them. As a category of human expression, however, myth is deeper.
The Genesis accounts are the classic myth: the accounts are in a sense ‘more than true’; they convey a truth too dense to fit into a fact. Myth is not about fiction or the unreal, but the more than real. — The Human Person, J. Brian Bransfield (emphasis added)
Therefore, myth is not simply fantasy. Myths can actually express deep truths about reality.
That is not to say that the Bible is a myth either. Only that myths can be present in the Bible without turning the truths of the Bible into fairytales.
Catholics believe that the New Testament tells us what Jesus Christ really said and did.
Therefore, the Gospel is not a myth, it is the truth.
In the second part of this series we will discuss examples of the Hero’s Journey in popular culture and in Scripture in the life of Saint Paul.
Until next time…
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