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” or “Monomyth” is a story pattern discovered by Joseph Campbell. 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.
The Hero’s Journey is not only found in fictional stories though. It seems to be part of the fabric of our reality and leaves traces in the stories of our lives, especially the lives of the Saints. The more heroic one’s life, the more clearly the Monomyth pattern emerges.
Three Phases of the Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey has three basic phases: (i) Departure; (ii) Initiation; and (iii) Return.
In the first phase, Departure, the hero is called to leave his existing life to go on an adventure. The hero is usually called away from the safety of home to travel to strange and faraway lands. In phase two, Initiation, the hero is faced with conflicts and adversities. The challenges the hero experiences can take the form of hostile enemies, dangerous weather, evil monsters, and supernatural forces. These challenges are uncomfortable for the hero, but they change the hero for the better, forcing him to grow and mature. In the third and final phase of the Hero’s Journey, Return, the hero overcomes his adversities and returns to the world with a “boon.” The “boon” can be wisdom, a relic, a lightsaber, or some other special power or ability.
We will focus on the second phase of the Hero’s Journey, Initiation. The hero’s Initiation is what we call the desert or wilderness experience in Christianity. Recall that the Israelites suffered in the desert in the Old Testament after they fled Egypt and it was in the desert that Jesus was tempted by Satan.
Now, let’s take a look at the desert experiences of two individuals you know.
Luke in Dagobah
The Empire Strikes Back is a story about Luke Skywalker’s desert experience. The movie’s theme is struggle and as the second movie of the original Star Wars trilogy, it falls perfectly within the second phase of the Hero’s Journey, Initiation.
When the movie begins, Luke and Han are stranded in the midst of a brutal blizzard. They endure the bitter cold throughout the night until they are rescued by their friends the next day. After the rebels are forced to flee from their base on Hoth, Luke descends into a fierce internal struggle over his identity as he trains with Master Yoda in the swamps of Dagobah.
Luke’s future is uncertain, but instead of meeting the mystery of what lies ahead with hope as he had done in Episode IV, he is separated from his friends and overcome with fear and doubt.
At the end of the movie, Luke loses his hand in a lightsaber battle against Darth Vader. As if losing to Vader was not bad enough, Luke then learns, in one of the most memorable moments in Hollywood cinema, that the evil Sith is his father.
Luke’s friends also experience trials of their own. Han and Leia are seemingly betrayed by Lando Calrissian on Bespin and Han is taken captive and sold to Jabba the Hutt. However, Leia and Chewie finally manage to escape the Empire’s grip and rescue Luke with Lando’s help.
The final scene of the movie is a shot of Luke, Leia and the two droids gazing out the window of their star ship. It’s as if they are asking the universe “Now what?” They plan to rescue Han, but the ending of this movie is far different than the triumphant ceremony that closes out Episode IV.
Luke suffers and is challenged in the swamps of Dagobah and throughout all of Episode V just as the Israelites suffered in the desert when they fled Egypt and just as Jesus was challenged in the desert before beginning his ministry.
St Paul on the Road
St Paul’s “Initiation” or desert experience can be seen throughout the Acts of the Apostles. Over a 30-year period, he traveled something like 10,000 miles by land and by sea. Whether Paul traveled on foot, by horse or by boat, all travel was difficult and dangerous during the first century and 30 years is a long time to be on the road. Paul’s life was very difficult to say the least.
In Lystra he was stoned and left for dead, though he survived and continued his ministry. (Acts 14:19) In Phillipi he was stripped, beaten with rods, flogged and thrown in prison. (Acts 16:22–24) Paul avoided a riot in Ephesus. (Acts 19:21) When he went to the Temple in Jerusalem he was beaten and arrested and almost killed. (Acts 21:33–36) He raised his Roman citizenship as a defense to being flogged, but the Jewish authorities conspired to murder him, so he was eventually placed on a ship and sent to Rome by the governor of Caesarea after he appealed his case to the Emperor. (Acts 22:28, 23:12, 25:12) Before arriving in Rome, however, Paul was shipwrecked on the island of Malta. (Acts 27:41, 28:1)
In addition to the outward trials Paul faced, we know that Paul also suffered from a “thorn” in the flesh. (2 Corinthians 12:7) We are not sure what this “thorn” was. Some have speculated that he suffered from some physical ailment. Others have suggested that the thorn was spiritual in nature. Whatever the case, Paul tells us that he asked God to take the thorn away from him three times, but God’s response was simply “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Leaving the Desert
The stories we love, Sacred Scripture and our own lives tell us that the desert is a place of trial and suffering. However, we should be hopeful because we know that the dry and painful desert paradoxically makes us grow.
Though the Rebels suffered a disastrous defeat in Episode V, Luke and his friends eventually achieved a great victory over the Empire. St Paul’s “Return” was not a worldly return to any physical place here on earth. His Christian “Return” was coming into the presence of his Lord and Creator and joyfully gazing upon Him.
Are you in the desert spiritually, psychologically, physically, in your finances, in your career, in your relationships? Are you suffering? If so, do not lose hope. God is preparing you to be a hero.
If you liked this post, please: