God as the healing place
Thomas Merton in a letter to Linda (Parsons) Sabbath which he wrote on 19 March 1966 says in response to her concern about her rather volatile emotional health: ‘your nature is getting a bit rocked, and there is not much you can do about it. Do not attach too much importance to any individual happening or reaction, do not look for very special significances: all is part of a purification process…’ He explains that she cannot will away her ego and if she does so she will be in a bind – for Merton sees that it is only God who ‘can unlock the whole business from the inside, and when He does, then everything will be simple and plain.’
I think this links to the last post where I discussed the security that may be found underneath all the mistrust and all the anxieties, fears and worries – again as Merton calls it ‘that constant business’.
Alexander Ryrie has written a wonderful series of chapters in a book called ‘The Prayer of Silence’ which I have been reading over Lent and as I have just discovered he also wonders about trust and security and how difficult it can be at times to believe that God is in charge, and that we can trust God to make everything all right. He says that the Hebrew word for ‘to trust’ means ‘to find one security’. This is not about believing that God will prevent terrible or unpleasant things from happening but rather refers to something deeper and more inward. He goes on to say that to trust is to know about ultimate safety and that it can only be God who provides absolute safety and security.
As we know if we seek for security in the things of the world we place ourselves at the mercy of all that is temporal and illusory. It is only through the experience of seeking God inwardly that we can find this security. This has nothing to do with vocal prayer but is rather about moving into deep periods of silence where in seeking God we open ourselves to God in the very heart of ourselves. I think this is really about surrender in allowing God to take us down into himself; it’s also about allowing dependency and vulnerability.
To quote Ryrie again: ‘As we go down into God, we begin to recognise that God is not above human life and controlling it, but underneath it and sustaining it; that God is below us, supporting us and suffering with us.’ He believes that this can affect how we look on God in relation to natural disasters, but will also affect our own personal relationship with God where we can feel in the depths of silent prayer held by God – surrounded, contained and enfolded. As the Quaker writer Rufus Jones describes it ‘I felt myself invaded by a Presence and held by Everlasting Arms.’ In this way we know experientially an inner security. And we know this in the very centre of our being – it is deeply personal but if we can experience enough authentic security it will free us to be open to life. ‘In a world of tragedy and suffering we can become, to a small extent at least, not predators but healers.’
Sometimes a lack of trust has its roots in what some analysts have called basic or primitive agonies. In some situations early experiences can lead to anxieties about either intrusion or abandonment or indeed both. In some situations the small child can alternate between the fear of being overwhelmed and the fear of being rejected – one way to cope is to become compliant with the needs of the parent and so this sets up the false self and the true self goes into hiding. It was Winnicott who wrote about depersonalisation, in other words feeling unreal to oneself. In some situations the false self becomes a caretaker self and acts as a protector for the true self for as long as is needed.
Contemplative prayer and meditation offer some sort of healing from these states of mind; for if it is possible to spend time in silence and to experience the silence as non-persecutory then relief and recovery can happen. Time in silence is a kind of dropping out of life for a time and a holiday from oneself, because as we all know having to be a self all the time can be a heavy weight to carry. In both Christian and Buddhist meditation the idea is to go beyond the self and beyond the state of the moment so feeling free from the tyranny of self.
Of course therapy can help us to understand why we are the way we are and what has happened to contribute to this and there are moments in therapy that can be transformative and help one all lifelong. Undoubtedly depth psychology can help to dismantle and can help us to take apart the false self that has been constructed; it can also offer a safe space for real feelings and emotions to be heard and contained. I think long-term psychotherapy helps to build up a sense of trust in relationship, but there is always the long shadow of early trauma – nameless dread – potentially lurking. It was Harry Guntrip who so memorably said, ‘that water can always flow in the dried up river bed’ meaning that even if we feel we have overcome our past and moved firmly on there remains the possibility of the resurfacing again of old feelings.
Surrendering to God does offer a possibility of the old anxieties around intrusion or abandonment returning because there are times when we feel the presence of God and there are times when we feel much doubt and left alone, even to the extent of wondering whether a belief in God is a mere fantasy – make-believe. (The Psalms particularly are full of verses describing almost a game of hide and seek with God where God hides his face and then reveals himself again.) However if one can reach a state of deep and silent communion with God this then seems to move one beyond the ego-self into a slightly different dimension; we are tapping into a deep archetype within ourselves which is unchanging and constant, outside time and space and therefore not liable to the vagaries of life. So even although we bring our rational, our conditioned, our troubled and fearful self to meditation there seems also to be a deeper part of ourselves that intuitively seeks what has been called ‘the unthought known’ – something deep in our psyche that searches for and knows about God. This is the God who can also be understood as a ‘transformational object’ in the sense of changing our inner world through acknowledging and healing mistrust and moving us beyond such experiences.
‘Ever torn asunder by our hands
Still the God remains our healing-place.
Always we stay sharp to understand
While God dwells carefree and dispersed.’
Rilke: Sonnets to Orpheus 2 XVI
Part of the whole issue of learning to love and trust involves confronting feelings of shame. This is shame within and about oneself – perhaps it’s connected to caring about how one appears and how one seems in the eyes of other people. From really quite early on in childhood it starts to matter how we are and how we appear out in the world; of course this will be less important for the lucky ones who have been loved unconditionally from birth, but it also means that it is exacerbated for those who have been conditionally loved and learnt to comply with parental commands and expectations. This of course is what the child and adult psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott understood led to the development of the false self where authentic feelings are sacrificed in order to fit with another person’s (usually a parent) needs. It then takes a long time to start to be able to be in touch with what one is really feeling.
I very much like in the account by Michael Eigen of his meeting with Winnicott where he describes how Winnicott trying to communicate something left his chair and sat at the end of his therapy couch, ‘hunched over, visibly groping, corkscrew-like, unafraid of awkward intensity, digging into what he was trying to find.’ This Eigen sees as an unembarrassed nakedness, and he writes that he felt relieved to see Winnicott reaching for a depth he wanted to share. And then Eigen writes this strange sentence which for me has such resonance: ‘It is, I fear, more novel than one would like to think, to feel unashamed of having a psyche.’ Unashamed of having a psyche… But this lack of shame allowed Eigen to affirm his own psyche in Winnicott’s company.
It seems to me that in our current culture it can be shaming both to have a psyche and to have a spiritual life – it’s certainly shameful in many ways to come out as a Christian. It seems to be fine to be a Buddhist or to practice Zen. And as for the psyche we may be allowed to have a psyche if we are displaying ‘problem behaviour’ or suffer from a number of psychological symptoms or addictions but the run-of-the-mill everyday psyche (which is everybody’s) where we struggle with conflicts and doubts, fears and desires and so on seems to have been relegated to some strange area which is all about neurons firing and cognitive bits and pieces.
In the baptism liturgy there is a statement which is said to the candidates: ‘Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified’ …. because of course like Peter on the night of Jesus’ arrest it is only too easy to betray one’s beliefs, and it’s often when it doesn’t matter so much. Perhaps when they’re really big occasions and we are primed up to acknowledge our faith it’s easier; sometimes caught off guard it requires a lot more strength. The other day an old friend who I had thought knew me asked, ‘you don’t really believe that Jesus was the son of God do you?’ I felt very hot and managed to say ‘yes’ although I rather wished later that I’d also handed back the question by saying, ‘well it’s clear that you don’t!’ I was both ashamed and unashamed but it did mean that I then became an outsider in that situation… My response removed me from the main stream. I can see that to love and trust includes loving and trusting one’s own beliefs including one’s own psyche and one’s own spiritual life…and to love and trust means owning and accepting one’s shame.
‘“Love and be loved!’ That is the only thing worth aiming at, for it is the only great truth in life!” So says Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace. He was also able to understand though how difficult it is to love in the face of what seems like undeserved suffering. In an earlier book called Journeying Home I took the first of St Bernard of Clairvaux’s four stages of love: you love yourself for your own sake and looked at this state of mind when it is stuck at as hating oneself for one’s own sake. How is it possible to love and trust as an adult if in the earliest stages of life one has not been loved unconditionally and learnt to trust the person looking after you?
And yet we know because we are told that Jesus comes to be with the broken-hearted. It has been suggested that the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” can be seen as about the mentally ill. Perhaps this is because for the lucky ones who have known unconditional love it’s an easy step to turn to God and believe that one is loved whereas for those who haven’t known that it becomes a lifelong struggle to accept.
The New York psychoanalyst Michael Eigen said in an interview “I didn’t know then that therapy works on an irreparable fracture. When I was young, I still believed it could be corrected.” He writes about the imperceptible trauma that can be experienced in the very earliest days of life when he describes ‘the quality of the breastfeeding, the quality of the milk, the quality of the feeling atmosphere. Sometimes the baby’s suffering is so awful it has to seal its nose while eating, close its eyes and ears, shut out the sound and sight and feel of the mother. Just take the milk and not starve. Does some sense of death hover in the body that drives it to drink even if it hates the feel of life in those moments? The baby lives but the quality of life is compromised. The issue is not survival alone, but what kind of quality of life do you have in surviving?”
So for many people life becomes a way of surviving, managing and learning to live despite this original wound and the damage of an unloving environment. For some people early trauma removes any capacity to experience – there can be a quality of frozen alertness in some children that stays on long into adulthood. There is always the apprehension of what might happen and so it becomes very hard to experience the good in the world. You can learn to see it and to appreciate it but it’s not possible to hold on to feeling that this could be true. So in turn hearing about a loving God can make a lot of sense and be intellectually accepted but to feel it true in the very essence of one’s being is hard.
One way through is to have a belief that one is not alone with the experience – hence the possibility of the beatitude… and the sense of the reality of the truth as known because of the damage. After all we are told that we are originally the children of God and that is long before we are the children of our parents.