Learning from Orpheus

I have been thinking lately of Orpheus, the legendary poet/singer in Greek myth who descended to the underworld to bring back his beloved wife, Eurydice, from death.  He is a guide and bears a secret for all those facing the void of meaning that comes from losing a beloved, the emptiness of grief. Orpheus is my guide somehow through the grief that I have been experiencing as of late.


Orpheus descended to the underworld, by virtue of his music which could charm even the god of the underworld, Hades– and was granted his wife back from death, on one condition: He must not look back at her following behind him until they both were safely in the upper world. Otherwise he would lose her to death forever. Yet in the end he could not resist, overcome by joy or by doubt– when they were so close to freedom and safety—he looked back at her ( to see if she was indeed there?). And she was gone forever. Gone.  Where before was warmth and presence—now endless absence, the cold void. And yet within that void, something excruciatingly beautiful eventually was born. It had to be.

Orpheus and Euridyce by George Frederick Watts (1817-1904)


When one loses one’s beloved, whether to death or betrayal or simple everyday abandonment and change——there are stages of emotion that must be gone through: rage, grief, futile lashing out, pleading, begging and bargaining with God, punishing, spitting, self-immolating, humiliation, self-pity, despair, terror, doubt, loss of faith, timidity, gentle acceptance, courage, hope (in no particular order).


These are all the faces of love.  These are the mysterious ways of Divine Love, working on us, kneading us into good bread, cooking us to be ready for the  feast. This is the price of being a human heart who dares to love and to know love’s bliss. When we feel all this in love we are like faithful servants of the earthly—made innocent through our tears, beloved to the Earth herself. We feel the whole catastrophe. We know we are not in charge, and we must throw ourselves upon the mercy of something larger than us, something invisible, eternal. We become soft in our grief, vulnerable, opened and made empty again for the filling. Lovable, when we feel the least lovable.


We learn what love is though through specific human hands, eyes, voices. Later, after suffering its loss, its many weaknesses and departures, we realize that no human being can contain Love, or love us perfectly as we want to be—endlessly, selflessly, unfailingly. We are disappointed in human beings and this becomes disappointment in Love itself.


But Love is the invisible fabric of existence. It is always there, waiting for a pathway to flow into, a vessel. No one owns it or can give it to us—no one can take it away from us. And yet, when a human being whom we have given our heart to leaves us, we must suffer a “death” that there is no escape from. We, like Orpheus, must face the darkness and the emptiness, all the vicissitudes of rage, grief and loss before the music can come. There is no way around it. Eventually his singing enchanted the birds and the beasts and the air itself—the whole of creation was soothed and charmed by the beauty of his song, healed by it, resurrected.


But could this transmutation have happened in Orpheus without that final death, that total loss? Perhaps the emptying out is what frees the music, what allows it a space to happen in. There can be no void, no vacuum that does not give birth to something. True beauty is often born from the depths of despair, from within the dying gasp of what is passing and must pass. In the absence of the beloved presence, our own creative spirit rises up out of pain and begins singing. What else can it do? In that singing, a presence is conjured—made of our own souls’ voice, which is more than ourselves—it is Life itself singing through us. We find the other within, as they always have been. We must reach the beloved in us, and give up the illusion there is any other beloved.


This Love we can never lose and never possess—but it lives eternally in us and everywhere  around us. It is our vital connection to life, life’s yearning for itself. When we summon beauty out of death, meaninglessness, and despair, in doing so, we taste of our own belovedness. We can sing our pain, refuse to be annihilated into absence. We ourselves can summon the presence that resurrects the spirit of life—through our creative response to our suffering.  We can meet the beloved within us. But the false self, the little self, must die… a veil must be parted and gone through.


If angels and spirits exist and are watching us, I feel they must rejoice when we accomplish this—because we have finally become one with the invisible, the eternal, the unseen reality of Spirit. This is what the flesh has been trying to teach us all along. We are not what passes—but what is eternal, unquenchable, ever loving and ever beloved.



One comment on "Learning from Orpheus"

  • Hi Jennifer, Ian told me about your site. I just want to thank you for your inspiring Orpheus post. It beautifully expresses precisely my own experience of loss and no doubt that of many thousands of others also. Brilliant!

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