The Shattered Mirror

Eleanor Deckert
The Shattered Mirror

My favourite class in high school was Mythology, taught by my favourite teacher, Mrs. Odhner.

Drawings of Norse, Egyptian and Greco-Roman gods and goddesses filled my notebook. Mrs. Odhner demonstrated that we still use their names for the days of the week and the months of the year. Many superstitions and customs are rooted in ancient tales of heroes and bad guys, beasts and battles.

Some brought us knowledge or stimulated ideas which led to inventions. Some brought love, others taunted us with desire in impossible infatuations. Some helped mortals overcome difficulties, others played with humankind while laughing at their misery. Some blessed people with talents, beauty or outstanding physical strength. Some tossed obstacles in the way. Some guaranteed good crops, healthy children, victory in battle. The right sacrifices, rituals, sacred words, music and symbols attracted the gods' attention and prevented the likelihood of hazards.

Every culture has its origin stories, its taboos, its rules and roles for men and women, beliefs on the after-life.

Confused, and being a teenager, I struggled to overcome a dizzy sensation while the swirl of images filled my imagination - paintings and statues, symbols and powers - who could I ask to help me sort out these conflicting, overlapping sacred teachings that some believe and yet which others shun?

In university I studied World Religions. I wanted to find something good and beautiful in each one. Buddha taught “the Middle Way” and “moderation in all things.” That seems helpful. Hinduism said, “There are many paths to the same summit.” That seems hopeful. Islam has the same roots as Judaism and Christianity. They are cousins. Jews hold on to hope, repeating texts for centuries, waiting for the Messiah. Christians claim He has already come.

To complicate matters, I learned that within these “major” religions there are myriad variations. Is there a correctly documented catalogue of the untold numbers of tribal religions among African, North and South American, Australian and the Oceania peoples?

I wandered between the shelves in the ten-story high university library, wondering how I would ever make sense of it all. I so desired to believe, to learn, to trust, to love, to follow, to serve, to teach, more than any other career, more than any other topic of study, more than any other skill or goal or cause. How could I recognize what I was searching for?

Stumbling through the labyrinth, exhausted and discouraged, like a feather floating down into my hand, I remembered one gem, a kernel of a story from my mythology teacher:

“The Egyptian Queen had a valuable mirror. In it she could clearly see what she could not safely view face-to-face. In the same way that it is dangerous to look directly at the sun, she could not directly see God's glory. Yet, in the mirror, she could behold His splendour. She could bask in the wonder, beauty, goodness and truth like brilliant sparkles, like a pouring of colours, like a never-ending fountain, like a gentle mist, like a wreath of blessing and peace. But, before she could call the people to come and witness for themselves, the mirror was shattered and scattered. And that is how religions came to be all over the world. Each holds a shard of the Mirror. Each reflects a portion of the goodness. Each bright spark guides the person who holds the sliver.”

Then I remembered the childhood story of “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” Each experienced a different part and held fast the belief that “I alone understand.” The first declared, “An elephant is like a rope” while holding the tail. “Indeed, an elephant is like a wall” with hands leaning on the huge, tall side. “Not at all. An elephant is like a wide, flat platter,” having experienced only the ear. “You are entirely wrong. The elephant is a flexible hose,” said the one who felt the trunk bending here and there. “A tree trunk!” declared the blind man embracing the elephant's leg. Would they each hold to their conflicting interpretation? Could they learn to appreciate the other?

As a young adult, I thought I would simplify religion to the bare essentials. Perhaps the Mennonites held the key I was looking for. But an historic time line showed me that even these people, so dedicated to living a life based on truth, have split into many factions, each claiming to be the best way.

In my middle 40s I returned to college, again reading, asking, looking for clues. How can this “many” actually be parts of “one”?

I had an entire table in the library with open books, following the idea that Oral Tradition held clues to my quest. Yes, before written texts, stories passed on through time held the essential elements. At some point, oral tradition was encoded into religious holy books. Oral stories morphed into myth and fairy-tales and continued to be passed along, adapted, embellished, edited. That is not to say that religion is invented or untrue, but rather, to me, that fragments have been preserved in both written and oral stories.

So, I continue my quest. And I always return to the Egyptian mirror. I realize that I do not want to say, “My shard is better than your splinter!” Instead I want to continue to hope that these broken bits can all, again, reflect the vision of beauty, guide our lives, share what is good, and even, somehow, fit together.