Mothering Sunday can be a difficult time for many people. Unfortunately there’s sometimes a rather simplistic and superficial attitude towards it which is only to be expected in the commercial world but is sadly reproduced in the world of the church. Here’s a few examples from my own experience:
In one church the children are lined up in front of the congregation to sing a song about how wonderful their mothers’ are and how grateful the children are for everything their mothers’ do and how sorry they feel for the times when they have not done what their mother has told them.
In another church baskets of posies are handed out to anyone female, after all women if nothing else are all mothers!
In another church the prayers are for us to all think about the great sacrifices our mothers’ made especially when we were babies (and by implication selfishly) waking in the night and needing feeding and care. We are to thank God for the qualities of gentleness and compassion that belong to mothers.
You don’t have to train as a psychotherapist to know that this one dimensional sentimental and sanctimonious trash is going to at best continue some rather dreadful stereotypes and at worse enrage those who beg to differ. What about the children in the first scene who are adopted or fostered or as all children do have ambivalent feelings towards their mothers? In the second scene what about the women who would love to have children, but who for various reasons do not want to or are unable to? In the third example we need to just be aware that times are changing there is increased awareness of shared parenting (after all men can be compassionate and gentle too!) and there are also statistics that show the high rates of neglect and abuse faced by children. Also what about all those struggling in counselling and therapy to make sense of their childhoods and sorting out the good and the bad, and working through all the mixed feelings that belong to any mother/child?
Mothering by God though now that’s the real deal!
It’s probably about 30 years or so since I last read the 5 volumes of The Children of Violence in sequence and I’ve just finished rereading them this week. It confirms to me what a brilliant writer Doris Lessing is. The final volume The Four Gated City is inspirational but reading them I also felt a poignancy and at another level a fear for how asleep we seem in contemporary society in terms of politics. Doris Lessing was prophetic about the environmental damage that we now know about – the poisoning of natural resources and the associated billions and billions being spent by the military-industrial complex. The end of volume five takes us to the aftermath of what is called ‘The Catastrophe’ and life after a radiation leak that has almost destroyed Britain. Everything is contaminated and only small groups encamped on the far west coast of Ireland have had any chance of survival.
I think there is a link with contemplative prayer and concern for the environment. Thomas Merton thought that and demonstrated in his own life how immersion in contemplation led to a feeling of greater connection with others and with the natural world. It awakened a concern for all other living things including the planet. Being awake is being aware and is about being fully alive and that has to include not just an interest in our own spiritual development but an active concern for the natural world.
Sometimes there seems a feeling in church circles that one has to be nice – very nice. perhaps this is what has been referred to as the vicar’s tea party syndrome (VTPS). This seems at odds with being human. After all being human is about having lots of different feelings and some are nice and some not so nice. Instead of beating oneself up about having the nastier thoughts it might be more helpful to accept them as part of what it means to be human. You can sometimes see the strain in the endless smiling and the positive speak and so on.
Strangely this ‘being nice’ is so at odds with the accounts we have of those who have really struggled in the spiritual life to become authentic. This often seems a path of great testing and involvement with all aspects of being human – instincts, desires, and so on. One of the best accounts is from the Quaker George Fox who writes that ‘his inward sufferings were heavy’ when he realized that everything that we decry and deny outside has its origins within the psyche. Using the language of the time George Fox writes in his Journal in 1647; ‘the Lord shewed me that the natures of those things which were hurtful without were within’. He asks why he needs to know about murderous rage, envy, hostility, destruction and so on as he didn’t want to ‘commit these evils’ and the reply he gets is ‘that it was needful I should have a sense of all conditions. how else could I speak to those conditions; and in this I saw the infinite love of God … and I had great openings’ .
And great openings is what analysis is about. Despite the embarrassment and the shame a great deal of the instinctual life is revealed in all its varied forms and if the analyst and patient can accept this with love then what has been split off and denied has a chance to become acknowledged and integrated. The primitive life of the instincts is there from birth and how it is managed by the parents then helps the infant either integrate this or to repress and deny these feelings. If they are split off then they emerge later usually in some perverted or distorted way.
Sorting all this out has to be the way to authenticity and the acceptance that even as Christians we are human, not plaster cast saints! The great thing about the account by George Fox is that as he sees all the awful things within his psyche – ‘an ocean of darkness and death’ so he also sees ‘an infinite ocean of light and love which flowed over the ocean of darkness’. So love is stronger but it doesn’t mean that the dark has to be denied.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about the question of having a weak ego. This is traditionally where the reality function isn’t always 100% and there is a tendency for all sorts of impulses to break through which can lead to feeling confusion and so on. The sense is of being unbalanced. In spiritual writing there is much made of laying aside the ego, or even breaking down the ego. Thomas Merton understood that this can be extremely problematic and he wrote about how for many of the novices that he taught there needed to be a building up of the ego before it was dismantled.
When R. D. Laing wrote about the spiritual breakthroughs that can happen for those who are mentally ill, especially those who are psychotic he rightly received much criticism with people saying that he was romanticising the reality of what mental ill health can be like and so on. I think what he was getting at is that some people are then able to see reality without the obfuscation of their status, role and so on. This is what Merton called the false self. I think false self is a much more helpful term to use as it is not possible to function without the ego. For example we have to organise ourselves, shop, cook, wash, respond to demands and so on. Perhaps in a community the ego can be released as the community or the organisation takes on the egoic function.
The way to build up the ego is through love. People with a weaker ego have usually had insufficient love, and by that I mean unconditional love in their earliest years. This is where you are loved for just being you! I’ve realised very recently that impulses that break through such as fear, aggression, anxiety and so on can be met or tempered by love. Those of us who are religious can experience God’s love and this can help to build up the necessary foundations. Holding on to that sense, perhaps even when it is not always apparent is faith. But it’s a slow business building up that faith experience in order to become resilient.
Thomas Merton in his writing has the knack of making you feel as if the words are addressed just to you. It’s a wonderful skill and those who were lucky enough to meet him whilst he was alive say that he offered you undivided attention. In other words he was not one of those people looking past you or over your shoulder checking to see if someone more interesting had come into the room. What Merton offers still in his writing is connection – ‘only connect’ as E. M. Forster said – Merton could do that. He was interested in people and interested in the inner world and it shows in his writing. Listening to Josh Cohen today talking about the private self at Bath Literature Festival I found myself thinking about Merton and how much he did in fact reveal of his private self. It is thought that the Journal entries were written with the idea of future publication in mind and yet they seem so private and you read them thinking that here is the real Merton. However his great skill is that in reading of his struggles and insights one is of course learning more about oneself. For above all his writing offers the reader a chance to learn not only about some one else’s spiritual life but to reflect and question one’s own
Freud used this phrase to describe how the past can irrupt into consciousness one way or another. It doesn’t really matter what we do to try and prevent it as it will emerge through dreams, symptoms and our responses. Sometimes one is caught unaware by the strength of a reaction and part of the work in therapy is to disentangle what belongs in the present from the there and then, and understand how the past can affect us so strongly in the present. Jung used instead the idea of the shadow and the importance of bringing what had been pushed into the dark recesses of our minds into the light of consciousness. Jung wanted the shadow to become integrated – as far as is possible.
The same thing happens to our spirituality. If it suppressed by the endless rationalisations and factual and sometimes cynical justifications that things are as they are and there’s nothing more than our human reason it has to re-merge in other sometimes distorted forms.
Someone whose thinking about the affect of our modern society on emotional well being had a big impact in the 1960s and 1970s was R. D. Laing: a bit of a hero for me. He believed in the primacy of experience – experience that is unmediated by concepts, conjectures and stylised thought…he wrote about the experience of being a person. Laing asked, ‘Can human beings be persons today?’
Laing explored the violence and damage – both intentional and unconscious – between people in all types of relationship, within families and in our social structures, and wider societies. This violence forces us to become alienated and to lose our potential to become who we really are. Instead we conform and comply to fit the demands and expectations of family and society. For many this leads to great suffering and mental breakdown. Laing understood these dynamics both from his own childhood, and the extraordinary capacity he had to understand the minds of others. He thought that the journey to recover our self is often a journey through the experience of madness into awareness and insight. He writes that no age in the history of humanity, has perhaps so lost touch with natural healing processes.
Laing’s work criticised the medical establishment. Over his career he increasingly attacked the theories and reasoning behind the system of psychiatric diagnoses, and also the treatment on offer. As his popularity grew so did the unease and criticism about his stance and practice. In his work with people Laing moved beyond the labels of madness. He went beyond the formal classification system, the earnest discussions about the use of ECT and physical restraint (I think he would have understood the now extensive use of drug treatments as another form of restraint) into a place of innocence and experience where he met the distressed person and saw and heard the abused child, or neglected baby, or over-protected infant subjected to confused parenting. Nearly forty years later all his books and perhaps especially for the interface between psychology and spirituality The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise remains a relevant and inspirational book
I came across a Centring Prayer retreat led by Basil Pennington in 1991 and was interested to see that he attributes the inspiration of the name centring prayer to Thomas Merton. Basil Pennington traces the idea of what is also called the prayer of the heart back to John Cassian and his journey out to the deserts of Egypt where he learnt how to pray from Abba Isaac.
In the course of his teachings Basil Pennington explains the word contemplation as a word made up of three parts and this is taken from his teaching:
The last part of the word ‘tion’ means abiding state – all of us have those, if we are alive, and able to stay in the present moment – when we feel touched by God and we experience the Divine. What we look for in our spiritual lives is a way that helps us live more and more constantly in communion with God
And that’s what the first part of the word means ‘con’ – con means with
And the middle part ‘templa’- well in the early Roman times the templa was seen as a particular part of the heavens, and the then priests of the temple, the priests of the people, would look up into the skies and try to see how the birds flew and what was happening in the sky so as to work out the will of God. From that time, that templa, got projected onto earth and became the templum, the temple, an actual place where people go to commune with God.
So contemplation is abiding with God, where his will is known, where his love is known, where he is present in his temple.
Happiness is in many ways such an ephemeral feeling. There’s a wonderful poem by Mary Oliver called Happiness which I’ve found deeply moving. In it she describes watching a she-bear looking for honey ‘the secret bin of sweetness’ that bears can find in trees. The she-bear presents as a ‘black block of gloom’ as she shuffles through the woods. And then she finds the honey. In the second stanza Mary Oliver writes how the bear perhaps drunk on the honey and perhaps a bit sleepy begins to sway from side to side … I’m going to quote this part:
I saw her let go of the branches,
I saw her lift her honeyed muzzle
into the leaves, and her thick arms
as though she would fly –
an enormous bee
all sweetness and wings –
down into the meadows, the perfection
of honeysuckle and roses and clover –
to float and sleep in the sheer nets
swaying from flower to flower
day after shining day .
I think it’s the last two lines that I find so powerful. I actually came across this poem for the first time when on retreat for a few days. I wasn’t having a good time. Some old feelings, began to re- emerge and I suppose looking back I felt a bit like the black block of gloom, weighed down. Reading that the bear could feel herself as a bee and dancing between the flowers in the sunshine reminded me that depression does lift, situations do change and difficulties do not remain for ever – nothing stays the same and so happiness is always possible. Transformation can take place and then the world looks different – what a relief!