In The Spiritual Letters of Dom John Chapman he offers excellent spiritual direction to a large number of correspondents. The letters included in this collection begin in June 1914 continuing up until ill-health in the early 1930s; he died in November 1933 at the age of 68.
The letters in the first part of the book are to lay people and he offers practical and insightful advice. Writing from the Abbey on the Isle of Caldey near Tenby he encourages the development of contemplative prayer.
Letters to the first correspondent are from 1914 up till 1931. He begins by suggesting that the interior peace that is wanted is not attainable; however there is another interior peace which consists of simply willing what God wills – even though it seems to go against one’s own desires.
Chapman thinks that prayer is about annihilating one’s own will in a cheerful and willing fashion, though this would undoubtedly put him at odds with psychotherapists who might wonder whether that can indeed ever really happen.
Chapman discourages the person against seeking a vocation and looking for a community to join thinking that they would be disappointed and suggesting instead a time of waiting and wondering and trusting to where God leads. He reassuringly adds that ‘all will come right, so it may seem all wrong. Do not worry, but be confident. If you cannot pray in the least, and only waste time, and moon, and wander, still hold on…’ He ends this letter by saying that although these are his views and he certainly not infallible he finds them reasonable and they work well in practice.
A couple of years later in 1916 he is repeating his suggestion of just remaining with God in times of quiet prayer and that the more time that can reasonably be given to being alone with God easier it is to enjoy it. Here he spells out that enjoyment is a feeling that it’s worth doing rather than judging it is simply lazy and wasting time.
The test he says ‘is not whether you feel anything at the time, but whether afterwards you feel (quite illogically) better, and more determined to serve God. In the subsequent letters he advocates the answer to all troubling states of mind is to abandon – in other words only God matters. ‘It is not necessary to “want God and want nothing else.” You have only to “want to want God, and want to want nothing else.”’ He reassuringly adds that very few people get beyond this but that God is interested in the wish and the will in this way we are all beginners.
Thomas Merton shifted his view of Mary quite noticeably over the course of time. Initially he saw her as an intermediary, as an intercessor in prayer but later he understood her as a model of perfection in her simplicity and hiddenness.
He wrote that ‘she was in all things human and ordinary.’ He saw her as simple and unassuming and without drama or self-importance. When he oversaw the making of a statue by a South American sculptor for the novitiate library at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton asked her to be created as ‘the Indian woman of the Andes, the representative of all that is most abject, forgotten, despised, and put aside.’
Merton saw her as Our Lady of Solitude completely receptive to the coming of the Word and that her consent opens the door to the incarnation of the embodiment of God in the world. In that sense Mary as well as her humanity is also the embodiment of Wisdom, Sophia, and an example of how anyone can become open to the transmission of the Word.
Carl Jung understood this too in the sense that God is born in the soul of each person. In that way we can identify with Mary and have our own experience of a Virgin birth – it can happen to us. The story of Jesus’ birth – born ‘illegitimate’ and in poverty, with the status at that point of a refugee, offers a framework for people to contain their own experiences of rejection, powerlessness and poverty, the position of the ‘have nots’.
Jung saw that as a ‘myth’ this is therapeutic because it offers a link to a wider experience. We are not left alone as the Son of God also knows rejection and neediness and scarcity. Here Jung is using the word ‘myth’ as a way of expressing life more precisely and meaningfully than science does. He sees a myth as a central idea giving life meaning. He wrote, ‘what we are to our inward vision, and what man appears to be…can only be expressed by way of myth. Myth is more individual and expresses life more precisely than does science.’
Of course myths are often dismissed as ‘only myths’ i.e. not proved scientifically, but myths hold the framework of both the life of the person and of the community in the way that science could never do and each myth holds an essential truth that we recognise from our experience.
Understanding the symbolism of the Virgin birth
Whatever one’s views about the conception of Jesus Christ, it is worth thinking about the psychological implications of what is presented in the gospel accounts. It seems on the whole that most of the Anglican Church tends to pass over what the Virgin Birth might mean. I can’t think of a time when it has been a topic for a sermon. The only time I remember it discussed was at a conference on psychotherapy and spirituality at St Marylebone Centre for Healing and Counselling when there was discussion of what it might mean to be pregnant with Christ. This fits with Jung’s view.
In E. A. Bennet’s published conversations with Carl Jung he writes that William Temple (Archbishop of Canterbury 1942 to 1944), had said to Jung that the Anglican Church tended to be apologetic about the Virgin birth and that he himself hadn’t ‘got it’. In contrast Jung wrote very positively, seeing that Mary brought in a feminine dynamic to the overly male Trinity and he believed that the Virgin birth had to be understood psychologically rather than literally. He saw the virgin as the archetypal figure of the soul of humans and that it could only be in the soul that God could be born – where else could it be? He saw that only the Catholic Church understood this and that it was a huge psychological truth represented and symbolised by the figure of Mary.
Jung wrote that the Roman Catholic Church tended not to bother about people ‘believing’, which is a bit of an obsession in Protestantism; rather the people are ‘in the Church’. Jung was writing this before Vatican II when the mass was said in Latin. He noticed that often people were not even following the liturgy and possibly even talking to one another but when the bell rang, the sanctus bell, they belonged and crossed themselves. He thought that the experience of grace was somehow ‘in the vicinity’ and that it accumulated as it were in the physical space of the church over centuries and so people ‘got it’. In contrast he thought that the Protestant church lost this at the Reformation. The Reformation then became about rationality – one must understand, not feel, and Jung thought that this was bad. Instead of experience the reliance was on the literal text of the Bible and faith in what was written down there. However often this was not enough. Jung emphasised the numinosity of the Roman Catholic Mass because it gave expression to a psychic reality and then people ‘got it’- in other words they experienced something.
Reformation or re/formation can take place in both religion and in psychotherapy and in both it demands an authentic and real, lived experience. Reformation comes from the heart of individual experience. It can be personal but it can also be collective and in both it is an event that springs from the present moment. Something is happening.
The teachings of Jesus, or Paul, or the Buddha, or in psychotherapy the writings of Freud, or Jung, or Winnicott can all be edifying and open up new areas of knowledge and thinking but in itself the reading does nothing. After all Paul himself had a sudden revelation and the best psychoanalytic insights come from the very practice and experience of the therapeutic relationship. Unless there is a personal experience nothing happens. Carl Jung talking about this thought that a numinous experience can take many forms, for instance falling in love. What matters is that it is really lived. In the experience one is fully alive and present to what is being felt.
In conversation with C. G. Jung, E.A. Bennett notes that Jung told him that when he published his work on alchemy people said it was nonsense. A professor in Oxford wrote saying that he had read the book and found it most interesting, but no proof was given. ‘But,’ said C.G., ‘the book is full of proofs! What could he have wanted as a proof? Something he could explain “scientifically”, or take a photograph of?’ What C.G. regarded as important was that people thought as the alchemists had done – they had certain experiences, and as indeed we still have experiences.
So the real interest is in the experience, not in ‘proving’.
But often we doubt our own spiritual experiences, perhaps because as Thomas Merton put it we suffer from the disease of absolutes. All uncertainties are intolerable and we want answers that are right and final. Our experiences in spiritual life are about deepening our relationship with God and we are invited to turn trustingly again and again towards the light.
In the foreword to the book ‘Loving God Whatever’ by Sister Jane of the Sisters of the Love of God, Mother Rosemary writes about how our big commitments are lived out (in other words experienced) inch by inch, day in day out, and step-by-step. One of these big commitments may be to God and as Sister Jane counselled one man, ‘we cannot know for sure if God is Love, but we can live as if he is anyway’. That surely is the way of re/formation.
Our expanding collective consciousness (excluding from this certain world leaders and groups who appear to have little if any consciousness or conscience) is beginning to appreciate that we are all in it together – our continued existence depends on the continuing existence of the natural world. We cannot be ‘the Crown of all creation’ by destroying it. Thomas Merton worried about the destruction of the natural world in the 1960s and countered potential criticism of people saying ‘why do you worry about birds, why not worry about people’. His answer was that he worried about both birds and people. ‘We are in the world and part of it, and we are destroying everything because we are destroying ourselves spiritually, morally and in every way. It is all part of the same sickness, it all hangs together.’
In a revealing essay Gosia Poks describes her personal attempts at ‘Recovering an Original Unity’. She writes about how traditional theology states that humans deserve love and help because they have immortal souls; but Christians still tend to deny animals the right to the same compassion. She reminds us that in this context, a few centuries ago, the best theologians fought one another over the question of whether non-white humans had a soul. Of course theological disputes can only ever reflect nothing but the current state of awareness of a group of decision-makers.
Behaving compassionately towards animals and with an awareness of our impact on the environment is not to do with rules or right answers, but with connection and compassion. Gosia, who lives in Poland, describes the community – the alternative community – that she has set up as ‘a parable of communion’… at the time of her writing (2015) it consisted of three cats, two dogs, a guinea pig, two women and with her very elderly parents occupying the ground floor, ‘in which the dog lies with the cat – to misquote Isaiah – and I, the alpha and leader of the pack, am the servant of communion.’ She goes on to describe how all the different waifs and strays arrived in her life in situations beyond her control, staying for the rest of their lives; it turned out that her own personal and professional plans turned out to be of secondary importance, and as she explains her current life has chosen her and not the other way round.
‘Time, energy, expenses, worries – the consequences you must accept when you try to be faithful to a calling.’ As soon as you say, ‘here I am Lord’ then God is at work, God is witnessed and we are answering in the name of God. She feels that animal rescue takes on a deeply spiritual dimension in the context of Matthew 25:40 – ‘whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me.’ If the whole of creation is the work of love, and everything in it is our community, then all are our brothers and sisters, human and nonhuman animals, all of creation. The task is to recover the original unity.