The last post began to discuss the account of a deeply personal conversion experience of a woman in her 40s who had previously no expectation of a relationship with God.
In her account the woman writes of being both wonderfully happy but deeply disturbed and frightened as what was happening was outside of all previous expectations and assumptions. She describes that her fear was that she had perhaps gone mad and was suffering from a mental breakdown – perhaps schizophrenia … or … could it possibly be that there was a God who was communicating with her? She also feared some supernatural visitation perhaps something like a poltergeist – it seemed too much to believe that there was a God who delighted in personal encounter.
She says that the first instructions came quite early on after the actual ‘voice’ had stopped and they were
1. The most important thing to learn is to listen. It is impossible to do anything more without this ability.
2. You must empty yourself so that I can come into you.
3. You must never do anything you don’t want to do.
When I read this third instruction from her account I laughed and like the author marvelled because it seemed so counter-cultural within the Christian tradition
After ten days all the lessons pouring into her head suddenly stopped and having felt overwhelmed and totally swept up in the experience she felt the Presence withdrew from inside her leaving her completely free to make her choice. This to her great surprise felt totally devastating and feelings of abandonment and desolation took over.
She had decided to follow all the instructions and did exercises in creative visualisation to imagine emptying herself such as removing large blocks of stone from within her and with an army of cleaners scrubbing her ‘inner walls’. Towards the end of this time she was given an instruction to go and tell a named person about what had taken place so that she would not afterwards pretend it hadn’t happened. She hadn’t spoken even to her partner about what was going on but too embarrassed to speak she gave the named person everything she had written down and he, a doctor, said that she was not mad and that this was God! He suggested she visited a priest he could recommend whom she found deeply reassuring and who was in no doubt about the good nature of her experiences. About the third instruction he said that she was lucky to have been told this because ‘it was not much understood but it was right.’ ‘He told me that I had got the wrong idea of Christianity, that it was like being held in someone’s arms, and I should not be frightened.’ Rather than a noose it was a yoke and he gave her some helpful books to read though with no pressure, as the priest added ‘I could see you were being pressurized from elsewhere.’
We learn that the woman to whom all this happened goes on to become confirmed and the family trauma is healed… she writes this account which although kept private for many years: ‘What God does for one,’ she thought ‘may have meaning for many’ – and so I pass it on… because this extraordinary contemporary account is about person centred religion.
In one of his letters Thomas Merton writes about moments of personal breakthrough in this way:
‘I can say as a Christian, and an existentialist Christian, that I have often experienced the fact that the ‘moment of truth’ in the Christian context is the encounter with the inscrutable word of God, the personal and living interpretation of the word of God when it is lived, when it breaks through by surprise into our own completely contemporary and personal existence. And this means of course that it breaks through conventional religious routines and even seems in some ways quite scandalous in terms of the average and accepted interpretation of what religion ought to be.’
Here Merton is talking about the person centred nature of religious belief…If our relationship with God is to have any meaning then it will be deeply private and personal. Indeed, it can be difficult, even for Merton, when trying to explain either epiphanies or private moments of awareness, although he does it much better than almost anyone else that I’ve read.
Always the arrival of the word of God in our lives takes us by surprise, God often relates to us well outside the expected framework and often far from ritual. Indeed sometimes the established framework gets in the way and obscures what is happening. It was Martin Buber who said that ‘Nothing is apt to mask the face of God so much as religion.’
What is so helpful about Merton’s writing quoted above is that he emphasises how the experience of the word of God arrives utterly within our contemporary lives and to us personally. And yet how often is this discussed or given sufficient space within organised religion… Sometimes personal experiences are a bit frowned on or seen as fanciful or as belonging to those who are emotionally unstable. There is a fear that they remove control from the institution or those who hold fast to it, and yet there are many experiences both from lay and religious lives that clearly describe the process.
A bit like in counselling or psychotherapy the personal experiences can be held within a framework and there is some security within this and a way to interpret what may be happening to us. There is a fascinating account in the current Fairacres Chronicle [the Journal of the Sisters of the Love of God at the Convent of the Incarnation, Oxford] which describes a contemporary conversion. Dealing with a family problem the woman who writes the account describes lying awake in a state of fury and resentment about what was happening. Everything had been tried when it occurred to her that some people might suggest prayer. As a non-believer she recoiled from this, but in the end did say a prayer and then forgot all about it. Ten days later she heard a voice in the night which told her to turn on the radio; the voice repeated the command and seeing there was no one there – it was 2.0 a.m. she felt both curious and afraid and switching on the radio heard a poem and a song exactly on the subject which was causing her so much anguish. Completely astonished she writes that, ‘For nearly a week I felt in a daze…’ All her preconceptions and expectations were shattered and feeling vulnerable, in confused pain and needing to be alone she tried to make sense of what had happened whilst the information and instructions (though no longer spoken out loud) continued in her head. She was on the receiving end of something very personal but that also felt terrifying and like a wonderful happiness… the next post will describe what then happened…
A person centred religion
The person centred approach is very much an idea taken from the writings of Carl Rogers which also led to a particular form of counselling work and training – not so much working with the unconscious or with the psycho-dynamics but rather from where the person is actually at and almost coming alongside them and being with them in their difficulties. The idea has been taken up by more mainstream caring agencies including the NHS where for example in mental health a person centred care approach aims to look at what is needed from the users and their families’ point of view.
Considering the concept again I’m wondering about looking at it in terms of religion and spirituality. Of course our personal relationship with God is totally person centred but in religious institutions it sometimes seems the very opposite – it’s rather an institution centred approach. That was certainly my experience when working in child protection for the Church of England where defending the church and those who worked in it could sometimes be seen as more important than the needs of the person who had been abused.
It is sometimes the same in the way the church generally treats its children – not always – but I had an experience the other day which rather depressed me. The approach was not about being alongside the child in a person centred way but the very opposite. It was in a large church where much was being made of children as the most precious people in the congregation – the future of the church and so on but then they were hurried off to their different groups while the adults got on with what was apparently the main business – readings and sermon.
I happened to see what was going on in a group of very young children… Of course it’s only volunteers who are helping here because although the church apparently sees the children as so important nobody really wants to work with them and if none of the parents are up for doing it then really anybody who offers is gladly accepted. No money is invested that I could see with quite a lot of old crayons and toys and this is in a wealthy church. In the group I saw, the person in charge was unable to understand the experience from the point of view of the three young children in front of them. Instead I could see that what mattered was that children knew about certain Bible stories even if they could not understand what was being said, so the various points were hammered on until the children eventually voted with their feet and went off to play with even younger children. The person who had led the group was on a mission and wanted the children to behave in the way that they expected them to behave; they wanted them to hear the story even although it was clear that the words didn’t mean much and why would you understand the words ‘Jericho’, ‘Levite’ and ‘Samaritan’ if you’re four years old. And yet the story that was being told – the Good Samaritan – could have been presented in a way that meant something to children who went to preschool or reception classes… What might stop you going to help someone? How would you feel if you saw another child being hurt? And then there could have been the fun activities of colouring or gluing and sticking but even this part was being directed by the person in charge – whatever you do keep within the lines and don’t make a mess!
But keeping within the lines and not making a mess is not what Jesus did and is not what he asks us to do, but rather to live freely and imaginatively and creatively which is exactly what small children do already until they are inevitably curtailed and controlled.
Thinking about ambivalence – balancing strong feelings
Being human is about having a range of emotions and feelings along a continuum from love to hate. Being alive is when we know about these feelings and can find a way of integrating them. The injunction in Matthew 5: 48 – ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ can therefore cause much confusion. The word ‘perfect’ carries a lot of difficult associations and seems far from what we know about our experience of realistically being in the world. Some have advocated a different translation and suggested using the word ‘whole’ or the literal translation which means ‘be complete.’ This seems to offer a way in which psychological awareness can be included in spiritual awareness and a way in which our humanity can be honoured rather than repressed or denied.
The statement in Matthew follows the suggestion that we love our enemies and I think that before we love our enemies we have to firstly acknowledge our hatred of them. Jesus’ suggests that we pray for those who persecute us – our enemies. I think the prayer that he is suggesting is a form of integration of our projections. It is of course projection of hatred that causes wars, murder, abuse and cruelty so as Carl Jung so wisely said the best thing we can do with our lives is acknowledge our projections. Denying negative feelings merely means that such feelings emerge in a different way, through projections or through strange and disassociated actions or words. If we are being hurt or persecuted by others or think we are then it is inevitable that we will hate them. D. W. Winnicott in his important paper ‘Hate in the Counter transference’ understood that it was essential that the mother allowed herself to have feelings of hatred towards the baby who demanded so much from her without doing anything about it. He writes: The most remarkable thing about a mother [and a father too presumably] is her ability to be hurt so much by her baby and to hate so much without paying the child out, and her ability to wait for rewards that may or may not come at a later date.’ He suggests that in part the hate is contained by nursery rhymes and play that include ideas of hurting the baby:
Rockabye Baby, on the tree top
When the wind blows the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,
Down will come baby, cradle and all…
For Winnicott this is not a sentimental rhyme and anyway sentimentality is useless for parents as it is a denial of hatred and in the same way useless for the infant who needs hate to hate so as to be able to accept his or her own feelings and be truly alive.
In the same way if our religion and spiritual life is sentimental it cannot be real and so this suggests that strong feelings cannot be tolerated or allowed. For whether we like it or not we are going to feel hatred no matter how unseemly or nasty that feels. The challenge that Jesus’ offers us is how to get to a place where that can be understood, experienced and so managed and integrated. In other words by knowing that part of ourselves we become complete and are less likely to act this out against others whether our enemies or not.
Out there, in here and back then…
There are some really useful ideas taken from counselling and therapeutic work that can help in the spiritual life. One of these is the: out there, in here and back then… ways of looking at how we are. Having a sense of these three aspects is sometimes seen as helpful in counselling and psychotherapy work and when I came across this way of thinking it struck me as also having relevance for the spiritual life.
Out there – that seems to be very much about the external trappings of religion and our spiritual practices whether that is to do with a set ritual and routine and following various readings or saying various prayers. It can also course be linked to how we are in the world and how our spiritual life affects how we are with others. But I also found myself thinking about how ‘out there’ is very much like the persona the part of oneself that is in the world. The bit of us that is certainly out … It may be less about being out and proud and there may be times when the way we are ‘out there’ can feel shameful. We are very much ‘out there’ when attending standard church services. For example where I currently attend we are often asked to introduce ourselves to each other before the service or during exchanging the peace and quite often there is a lot of talk going on before and after the service. There is a hugely social element to the whole thing and I’m reminded that C. S. Lewis always left during the last hymn so he didn’t have to talk and shake hands with people – he wanted to take the experience – the ‘in there’ experience away with him before it became diluted- a sentiment I have great sympathy for.
In here – when this is used in therapeutic work it’s very much about the relationship between the therapist and the person who is coming to therapy… what happens in the consulting room. Perhaps in spirituality it can be about our relationship with the divine. What does it actually mean to be in a personal relationship with Christ and with God? It’s different from the relationship with the therapist which involves a face-to-face encounter. ‘In here’ in terms of our spiritual life is about a face-to-faith encounter. The quality of the relationship is deepened by contemplation and silence but of course it also hugely influences the ‘out there’ part as well. But it is also, like in therapy, a developing relationship and one that has its good and bad sides to it. It is absolutely psycho-dynamic and greatly affected by the ‘back then’ part.
Back then – this I think is crucial for the other parts to be meaningful because if we can understand how the past affects the present then we can understand our spiritual life better. Because of course the way it was ‘back then’ (both in our actual environment and in our inner world) has an implication for our relationship with the divine and how we conduct that and also how we are with others. ‘Back then’ experience may mean that we expect a punitive demanding sort of God who wants us to be compliant and passive or we may expect a rather absent God who will only like us if we are good. Understanding the ‘back then’ can release us to be really alive in the relationship – both the ‘in here’ and the ‘out there’ times.