There is a strange and unusual account from the Jungian analyst Vera von der Heydt about Carl Jung’s reaction to her religious vision which I think is worth sharing as part of this discussion about the overlap between spirituality and psychotherapy. Vera von der Heydt writes how during her analytic training in Zurich she was on her way to a seminar when she became aware she was crying, and had the sensation she was bleeding from the upper part of her body…she was not and though distressed went on to her seminar though feeling very strange. The same thing happened the next day, but this time there was blood coming from a small wound under her heart and from wounds all along her arm. This time she felt great fear and rang her analyst who told her to go to bed and that she would arrange a session for Vera directly with Jung. As Vera was going to her home she passed the chapel where she went regularly for Mass and went in surprised to see a priest enter and begin to say Mass at the main altar. When the priest turned round Vera saw that it was Christ. She writes,
‘In a curious way this seemed right to me. When the moment of taking Communion came, I walked up to the altar rails; He gave me the Host and then offered me the Chalice; this was too much, I drew back, but He insisted and so I drank; it was very, very bitter. And after that He was no longer there, and the chapel quite empty. I went home, but could not stop myself from crying.’
The next morning Vera told Jung everything that had happened. He listened very carefully and asked her many questions, such as whether she had had similar experiences, whether she was frightened of blood, when and what she had felt about her periods, her sexual relationship with her husband, the menopause and when she had had a hysterectomy and many other questions encouraging her to remember and associate with feelings and bodily pain. She writes that after an hour she felt back in her body, and was no longer afraid, indeed she felt very peaceful. ‘We sat in silence for a bit, and then Jung got up and told me that he had to leave me. He stretched out his hand, took mine, and smiled and said: “I think that is all, isn’t it?”’
Vera von der Heydt concludes that Jung had accepted the language of her senses and of her body, ‘he had taken my hurt, my wounds seriously and helped me to dwell on them and to recognise them as belonging to my life and to my totality. And my mystical experience he had given supreme value to by not discussing it. I felt healed in the deepest sense of the word: for the first time I really understood that healing is a process that is a constant transformation when one is sufficiently awake to remember all the different parts of one’s being.’
She implies that this awakening and recognition of being alive can happen both through analytical psychology and found through spiritual awakening.…. It is all part of the same journey.
‘We used to answer questions with answers. Now we answer them with questions…’
The old certainties are no longer sufficient. In our rational contemporary Western culture defined by materialism and technology we look for definitive answers and for answers that are given completely and quickly. In this way as the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot expressed it: ‘the misfortune of the question is the answer’. We are led to expect and this is a fantasy, that science and conceptual thought will be able to provide an answer and a solution to difficulties. It’s a fantasy because ‘science as the answer’ is in itself set up as an idol – and so it becomes a replacement god for us to worship and who may save us if we believe in it enough. It’s a mockery to say that god is dead for we will always search for something to worship.
It’s no longer possible to answer cosmic questions in simple personal terms – it seems even in the sense of what’s right or wrong and abstract terms derived from science remain unsatisfactory as solutions. It’s been shown that most scientific theories are out of date within 30 years and that at its best so-called cosmic answers are always ‘situated knowledges’ in the sense that they are framed by the context and environment of whoever is undertaking to answer.
It does seem to be the weakness of all empirical theorists that the so-called answers are so limited and reductive and to some extent Carl Jung also displays this in his approach to religion. It is clear that the arguments on both sides as put forward between Carl Jung and Victor White – between analytical psychology and religion – are obscured by their experience and the context (culture and times) of both men.
Sometimes out of loyalty to the church individuals defend indefensible positions and can react in a hostile manner with some paranoia to the idea of analytical psychology – that paranoia of course may in itself contain a grain of truth as psychoanalysis rather more than analytical psychology has been hostile to religion. In the same way Carl Jung’s Protestant ancestors and upbringing clouded his understanding of religion and particularly his response to Victor White’s Thomistic Catholic mentality and framework.
Threats to our belief system can be generalised out into the world (inner doubts can be projected) and affect our relationships with one another. We become dependent on our personal beliefs about the world and about our religious faith if we have one, and in an effort to shore up doubts we may become more strongly resistant to any apparent attack on the belief. Then the person who doesn’t believe like we do becomes the heretic and the focus for hostile thought. It’s easy to see how many people hope that if they keep to the outer rules they can overcome their inner difficulties.
The only search for answers is to open up to more questioning and so to search and continue to search. This has to be a search that is fundamentally inwards. Carl Jung despite his difficulties with Victor White understood this when he wrote explaining the background to his theological thinking as ‘I had to rely on experience alone’. Similarly, Thomas Merton who really is a theologian of experience, turned inwards in his seeking for God but always within the frame offered by the monastic community within which he lived. For questioning can be scary without a structure and indeed Carl Jung’s journeys into the deep unconscious confirm this.
Spending time reading and thinking about Carl Jung’s approach to religion and the difficulties that he had with his understanding and relationship with Victor White and other theologians has left me with a number of conclusions. One is how much our early experiences in infancy and childhood affect later religious belief. This is easy to see and to trace particularly in someone like Carl Jung but also in work with people who find it so difficult to trust and to believe in a loving God – after all if you have a deeply ingrained expectation of criticism or punishment or conditional love, how can you possibly believe in something different.
The only time we can receive unconditional love is when we are tiny babies and if that doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen enough, then the effects last long and through into adult life and beliefs. Freud put it so well when he wrote about the shadow of the object falling into adulthood… here the word ‘object’ is being used to refer to an early relationship with a significant other person. And as it has been pointed out often institutional religion of whatever kind can play into this, so we are left feeling miserable wretches and sinners, a scenario that fits neatly into the psyches of those who have been subject to much criticism in the past. At the start of one recent book a young woman says: ‘why would I go to church, I feel bad enough about myself anyway!’
When Thomas Merton wrote that ‘solitaries are born of severe mothers’ he was of course speaking personally, but in a way in which others could identify. Why would you seek out company if you’re only expecting to be told off? In one of my early books called Journeying Home I wrote about getting stuck at the first stage of love – this was looking at the first stage of St Bernard’s four stages of love which he puts as: ‘we love ourselves for ourselves’ but I suggested that for some people it was more about hating yourself for being yourself and how hard it was to dis-identify from early messages, from early ingrained messages, so as to look at oneself in terms of love.
When I was a Quaker which I was for about 20 years I particularly loved the section in what was then called Christian Faith and Practice which was about the spiritual experiences friends. One of these was George Lloyd Hodgkin (1880 to 1918). In the light of our contemporary confusion his longing ‘just to live the highest life we know and leave everything else’ seems so straightforward, but I particularly like something he wrote in 1912 which I’m going to quote. In the extract he talks of realising that all that matters are what he calls the simple longings – one of which is to be by God’s side whatever happens. ‘We must give up trying to hold his hand, and just stretch out our hands – even if they are just fists – for God to hold. There is all the difference… between holding and being held.’
Finding our way to the real God
One of the helpful writers about the link between Carl Jung and Christianity is Ann Belford Ulanov. She has of course written many books but a particularly helpful one that I’ve found is a collection of essays by her – one of which is called ‘The Christian Fear of the Psyche’ this is in the book The Living God and Our Living Psyche. She writes about how each of us seeks to find our way individually and together in community to a real path to the real God. She’s particularly interesting in her belief that there is no future for the church without including the psyche. And she tackles the various objections that Christians usually have about Jung’s work.
Most people realise that God can speak through the psyche – God can reach us through anything at any time. God comes to us through the body and all the psyche through all parts of us, and so the unconscious can be a medium of the Spirit that reaches to us from the bottom up rather than the top-down model of wisdom being disseminated by religious leader. It’s all about being open and aware. The journey that we are invited to go on is inward and here we can be reminded of Theresa of Avila who writes about the interior castle of our self with its many mansions, and that as we progress through we find waiting for us at the centre the Lord.
So that the way that we know or our means of knowing can lead us into unknown areas where we are invited to become closer to God who is not limited through our imaginations or dull teachings that focus on ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’; on the way we behave or how we should be thinking. Here also Carl Jung is helpful where he understands the archetypes as the tools of God and the reality that can speak through us – through the psyche.
The freedom that belongs to God allows anything to happen if we can be open to it and here we can find the real Christ who is the God of freedom. The task is to become all of whom we are given to be – the person that God wants us to be and as Jung notes, ‘true personality is always a vocation’ where ‘surrender to God is a formidable adventure’, he continues that the person who risks themselves wholly to such surrender finds themselves directly in the hands of God. Jung writes ‘Christian faith insists on the deadly danger of the adventure.’
Though personally speaking that surrender to adventure sadly doesn’t seem to be the message of the church!
As has been described in the earlier posts Jung’s interest in religion had its roots in his early childhood. The complexity of his later thinking has clear roots in the past experiences and perhaps none more so than what happened when he was about 12. It’s a famous account that still remains at the heart of his later understanding of what he saw as God. In brief, the account describes how he was walking home from school on a lovely sunny day and passed the Cathedral of Basle; looking up into the sky he saw God sitting on his throne and the spire of the cathedral sparkling in the sun. He thought how beautiful it all was but at the same time a forbidden thought came to mind which led to him feeling numb with a choking sensation knowing only that he must not continue thinking because the thought that was trying to emerge would be a dreadful sin. Unable to tell his parents about it because they would be too upset he spent three days and nights in agony with the forbidden thought trying to break through. On the third night Jung describes how the crisis came with the realisation that if God was omnipotent and omniscient it must be he who put the thoughts there. In other words it was God’s intention that humans sinned – such as Adam and Eve – and thus God’s intention that the forbidden thought had come into Jung’s mind.
Jung’s thought was that perhaps God was testing his obedience by putting in place a task which incurred doing something against the teachings of religion and apparently even against God’s own commandment – it was a moral test of obedience. So finally Jung allowed the terrible thought to come which was that God was sitting on his golden throne, high above the world, and from under the throne an enormous turd fell upon the sparkling new roof of the cathedral, shattering it and breaking the walls of the cathedral. Allowing the thought to become conscious led Jung to a feeling of indescribable relief and overwhelming grace – even unutterable bliss such as he had never known. Following this experience Jung deliberated long about what God’s will might be, and why on earth he would attack his own cathedral.
It’s from this strange experience as a 12-year-old that Jung’s early understanding of what he described as a terrible dark secret that ‘God could be terrible’ emerged. He felt that having this secret was shaming and sinister yet above all he felt he needed to know and to experience what it might mean. It also led him to question his father – who was a pastor and other family relatives who seemed, he thought, to shut themselves off from what might be a more complex understanding about God. Profound doubts about what had been told him about God had thus been established.
Plenty has been written about how these early experiences led to Jung’s later understanding of the collective unconscious. However what seems odd is that whilst acknowledging his experience Jung did not later analyse such an experience in the way that for example Freud might have looked at it – an attack on the father and a rubbishing of his father’s conformity. Clearly religious beliefs are framed often by early transferences, traumas and experiences with parents and so on; the task is to become aware of these and to try to move beyond the limits of what has been so firmly ingrained. This is about then opening up to grace and to something beyond our expectations and imaginations. It is about allowing a movement beyond the limitations of what has been known.