Monthly Archives: August 2018

What does surrender to God look like? 6

Etty Hillesum wrote her diaries and letters surrounded by the shadow of the Holocaust and her writings describe an extraordinary inner journey or spiritual transformation based on self-reflection and a drive towards her own truth which led to an increasing dependence and love of God.  Etty understood the interweaving of the spiritual and the psychological and her insights reflect this: ‘My protracted headaches: so much masochism; my abundant compassion: so much self-gratification’.

Where Etty, despite the appalling context in which she writes, is similar to the others whom I have used (Carl Jung, Roberta Bondi and Harry Williams) is her courage to follow the thread of her own experience and this inexorably led her towards God. It led her to surrender, despite everything, in gratitude for all that was given her; a profound self-acceptance and acceptance of others; and a conviction of life as meaningful with an inward beauty and rightness. She could feel the inner harmony of the world, despite the outer disharmony.

Etty begins in this way: ‘I’ll “turn inward” for half an hour each morning before work and listen to my inner voice. Lose myself. You could also call it meditation…But it’s not so simple, that sort of “quiet hour”. It has to be learnt… let this be the aim of meditation to turn one’s innermost being into a vast empty plain, with none of that treacherous undergrowth to impede the view. So that something of “God” can enter you, and something of “Love” too … the love you can apply to small everyday things.’

Shortly after writing this Etty writes of the increasing numbers of arrests, the terror, the concentration camps and the arbitrary dragging away of people. ‘We seek the meaning of life, wondering whether any meaning can be left. But that is something each one of us must settle with himself and with God. And perhaps life has its own meaning, even if it takes a lifetime to find it. I for one have ceased to cling to life and to things.’

Struggling with the fear and the ‘suffering of mankind’ she writes, ‘I feel like a small battlefield, in which the problems, or some of the problems, of our time are being fought out… Life itself must be our fountainhead, never something or someone else.’

Later she writes on her need to accept herself and transform the inner heaviness into light. She muses on what it might be like in a convent perhaps she could feel peace and clarity but resolves that: ‘it is right here, in this very place, in the here and now, that I must find them.’

Early in her diary she writes:

There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then he must be dug out again.

I imagine that there are people who pray with their eyes turned heavenward. They seek God outside themselves. And there are those who bow their head and bury it in their hands. I think that these seek God inside.

What does surrender to God look like? 5

In the last post I used the writings of Carl Jung from his book Memories Dreams and Reflections and also from Anthony Stevens work On Jung to look at Jung’s extraordinary surrender to the depths of the unconscious. It was clearly impossible to continue such a perilous journey and he describes how he would repeat to himself that he really existed and that he was not ‘a blank page whirling about in the winds of the spirit, like Nietzsche,’ who went mad when he had similar experiences. Jung recognised that through active imagination he was merely entering realms of the psyche which are normally inaccessible to people. He stopped his travels when he understood more that the goal of all psychic development is the Self. The Self he experienced as an archetype and the centre beyond which it is not possible to go – it’s the goal to which everything is directed and for Jung the Self equates to God. The nearer one comes to an experience of the Self the opposites become transcended and there is healing in the psyche.

Jung’s surrender to these experiences led to an inner peace – he knew them to be true. His experiments of surrendering to the deep psyche ended with a dream where he found himself in Liverpool – literally meaning ‘pool of life’. The city was arranged about a square:

In the centre was a round pool, and in the middle of it a small island. While everything around about was obscured by rain, fog, smoke and dimly lit darkness, the little island blazed with sunlight. On it stood a single tree, a magnolia, in a shower of reddish blossoms. It was as though the tree stood in the sunlight and was at the same time the source of light.

Companions who were with him commented on the abominable weather and spoke of another Swiss who was living in Liverpool expressing surprise that he should have settled there. ‘I was carried away by the beauty of the flowering tree and the sunlit island and thought, “I know very well why he has settled here”’.

Jung writes that the dream brought him a sense of finality. The unpleasant black opaqueness of the fog represented what he’d undergone up to that point but now he had been given an image of an earthly beauty and with that he could go on living in the ‘pool of life’. The dream had depicted the whole process of the development of consciousness and satisfied him completely. ‘I had taken the step into darkness. When that happens, and then such a dream comes, one feels it is an act of grace.’

What does surrender to God look like 4

For the analytical psychologist Carl Jung surrender took the form of deep self-knowledge and what he describes as plunging down ‘into the dark depths’. He used the term active imagination to describe how he surrendered his conscious psyche in order to explore the deep unconscious. Jung tells us how the experiment eventually began:

It was during Advent of the year 1913 … that I resolved on the decisive step. I was sitting at my desk once more, thinking over my fears. Then I let myself drop. Suddenly it was as though the ground literally gave way beneath my feet … I frequently imagined a steep descent. I even made several attempts to get to the very bottom … It was like a voyage to the moon, or a descent into an empty space … The atmosphere was that of the other world.

During these extraordinary experiences Jung encountered different figures including Elijah and Salome. He recognised Elijah as a personification of the archetype of the wise old man and Salome as an anima figure – they were also he thought embodiments of the Logos and Eros principles. During his encounter out of the figure of Elijah a new person arose whom Jung called Philemon, a numinous figure, who appeared to him on numerous occasions and from whom Jung learnt many things, including the reality of the psyche.

At times he seemed to be quite real as if he were a living personality. I went walking up and down the garden with him, and to me he was what the Indians call a guru … In my fantasies I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. For I observed clearly that it was he who spoke, not I. He said I treated thoughts as if I generated them myself, but in his view thoughts were like animals in the forest, or people in a room, or birds in the air, and added, “if you should see people in a room you would not think that you had made those people, or that you were responsible for them.”

Despite the resulting creativity and outpouring of ideas about the unconscious these experiences of deep psychic surrender brought Jung to the edge of madness. Not only did he hear voices, play like a child and walk about his garden holding lengthy conversations with an imaginary companion, but he believed his house to be invaded by spirits. One evening when the front doorbell began ringing frantically when no one was there Jung and his companions could hear the sound and see the bell moving and the air became so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe. Jung asked ‘For God’s sake, what in the world is this?’ The response he writes was that: ‘then they cried out in chorus, “we have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought.”’ Jung’s response was to write his volume Seven Sermons of the Dead over three evenings – as soon as he did so the whole thing evaporated and the atmosphere cleared. ‘The haunting was over.’

But such experiences like this warned him how desperately he needed to keep a hold on reality. His response was to adopt a creative attitude and response to each thing that happened – each needed to be understood but the insight had to be converted into an ethical obligation.

What does surrender to God look like? 3

In the last post I was looking at Harry Williams’ experiences and described one as a sense of exclusion from the beauty in Regents Park and another as the sense of surrender to the encompassing glory he felt when swimming in the sea. Williams sees his exclusion in the first as linked to when he was ‘a conscientious and God-fearing clergyman’ and so alienated from the glory by his false self or persona. But after his surrender to the sea he begins to have similar occasions of becoming aware of being enveloped in God’s glory and in strange unexpected contexts. The strongest experience of surrender was when on a bus journey in Trinidad:

The journey took about two hours, but I was unaware of the time passing since I was caught up in a bliss which is impossible to describe. It was an experience of the ultimate reconciliation of all things as Love, a living presence, flooded over me and swept me into its own radiance, combining in itself an infinite grandeur with a tender personal intimacy.

Williams goes on to describe other times when he experienced God’s love and presence though he also knew the ongoing emptiness and despair that still lay within him. He knew from these different experiences that suffering need not be the dead-end it seems but that the emotional responses he had both to God’s glory and to his own pain meant that he needed to fully surrender and offer himself with all the mixed emotions and feelings that he had to God on behalf of others. He writes, ‘The challenge with which all people are confronted is to find their true identity in the encompassing mystery from which their being is derived.’

The question Williams mused on was as ever how to do this? How to become closer to God with all that might mean. Sometime after writing this Williams went on holiday to Shetland and went to the small Episcopal Church in Lerwick where one sentence of the prayer book epistle…

…burnt itself into me like fire: “Ye died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” The words overpowered me … if the impact of the words was merciless, it was the impact of merciless mercy … an invitation … is never compulsive. It has about it a supreme graciousness which frightens only because it attracts so mightily. From that moment I knew… that I was being invited to die somehow to an old life in order to find a truer identity in the encompassing mystery of which I had so long been aware.

The eventual decision he reached was to enter Mirfield, The Community of the Resurrection. Leaving behind his academic and theological positions exacerbated anxiety and some depressive incidents and looking back Williams could see the path that he had taken – through:

… great torments to freedom and the inalienable inheritance of my humanity. The last step of that journey was still in the far distance and might never be taken in this life. But the first step… belonged to the past…There is a sense in which the best things in life have to be surrendered as well as the worst, the good as well as the bad. For it isn’t only good food which grows stale and rotten if kept too long.’

What does surrender to God look like? 2

Another account which gives a different perspective on this experience of surrendering to God is given by Harry Williams in his autobiography Some Day I’ll Find You.

After his breakdown and getting rid of what he calls his ‘former persecuting moralism… that old deceiver’ Williams is filled with a sense of dissatisfaction. This is also a feeling of emptiness. He wonders initially if it about being on his own but remembers a deeper more cosmic sense of loneliness and emptiness of not being part of the beauty of the world. This experience he had had some time earlier and he describes a winter’s morning where Regents Park was ‘looking supremely beautiful’ with an ‘unaccustomed stillness’ and ‘the sun a combination of gold and red – suffused the air…’ it was he says blessedness and love but it aroused a sharp sense of anguish and despair in him: ‘I wanted to enter the glory around and become part of it, to become the beauty I saw so that I could share its bliss.’ Instead he felt excluded, an outsider; he could only behold without being able to become and so in that way it felt like a dispossession.

Following recovery from mental collapse and aware of this ongoing sense of loneliness Williams had some experiences that were the exact opposite of the Regents Park time. They were not so intense or sharp but were experiences where in letting go – not self-consciously – rather it just seem to happen he became part of where he was – which he experienced as a union with the elements. He describes swimming in the sea in the warm Mediterranean: ‘It was an experience of union with the natural world… I felt perfectly at ease with my surroundings, shore as well as sea, and said to myself: “Whatever life holds for you, nothing can take away the bliss of this moment.”’

He analyses whether this sense of surrender into oneness is evolutionary, or psychological or mystical and then wonders why we have to always differentiate it and choose. Why shouldn’t all three be right? This then becomes an insight into the interrelatedness of existence which lies behind the complexity of existence. Williams also struggles with whether such experiences are all to do with projection of one’s own state of mind but he sees that view as leading nowhere.

What I had experienced was a meeting between myself and some other which was alive, an other which in the park had somehow refused to welcome me. While in the sea it had greeted me with open arms. But this other which was alive couldn’t be merely earth, vegetation and salt water. These things … were rather the transmitters of a living reality which they embodied and revealed, but which they didn’t monopolize, since the reality stretched infinitely beyond them.

Thinking of the positive surrender in the sea Williams knew that the sea charmed and comforted him, as perhaps he had known in the security of the womb. But that that knowledge didn’t exclude the more important truth which is that the sea was also the sacrament of God’s encompassing presence … the two things were related as the lesser psychological truth reflected the greater while the greater gave to the lesser its full significance.