Monthly Archives: September 2018

The heart of the personal 1

When I was training as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist I was very taken by the writings of Harry Guntrip a psychoanalyst (though never formally trained) who died in 1975. One of the tutors on the training course I was on, Jeremy Hazell, had his training analysis with Guntrip in the 1960s and subsequently wrote a psychoanalytical biography based largely on the archive of Guntrip’s dreams that Guntrip had recorded over forty years and also the accounts of Guntrip’s sessions over two analyses – the first with W.R.D. Fairbairn and the second with D. W. Winnicott. Jeremy Hazell also published a collection of Harry Guntrip’s papers.

Guntrip himself published a number of books and articles on his particular understanding of what he called personal relations therapy, including his work Psychotherapy and Religion. He came from a non-conformist background initially joining the Salvation Army as a way to escape home and before working as a psychotherapist he was a Congregational minister. He had an unhappy childhood with a harsh and critical mother and a central trauma was the death of Guntrip’s brother (Percy) at the age of 16 months when Guntrip was 3 and a half – a true understanding of which he finally achieved in his seventies and after the death of his analyst Winnicott. Guntrip broke through what was the amnesia surrounding Percy’s death and re-experienced the loveless atmosphere in the home and his depressed and depersonalised mother.

This enabled him to write:

A problem created in childhood is ‘never too late to mend’, and if we know how to let our unconscious speak to us, a lifelong tension can be relieved even in the seventies. Age does not necessarily bring loss of capacity for emotional change and relief of longstanding tension.

Guntrip also understood that real religion is a form of coming home and is essentially about a search for truth, and that inevitably psychotherapy and psychoanalysis is a way of shedding the false self and associated hypocrisy that can be connected with seeing oneself as ‘religious’. If we are religious (whatever that means) our task is then to expose and strip away any sentimentality or froth that we think might be God and see beyond our projected images of God into an authentic experience.

As Winnicott explored in his work, the image of God is formed in the earliest of relationships between newly-born infant and mother when the infant is under the illusion that they had created the breast which suddenly appears to satisfy a need. The shift happens as the infant begins to realise through the help of a transitional object that there is a separate person to whom they are relating. In the same way we imagine and create God on what we have experienced in our early life, but this too can develop in mature religion into something beyond a God who merely bolsters or agrees with us or who is a punishing and critical parent. The move is to experience through deep belief and trust the beauty of holiness in what has been called the Ultimate Other.

In the next post I shall explore Guntrip’s thinking on how the relationship with God can developed through transference to the therapist.

So, finally, what does surrender to God look like?

So finally what does surrender to God look like?

The other important aspect of the flow of presence is that it must be rooted in actual human experience; in other words if human thought does not confirm the experience then it is not relevant. So we have here the existential reality of personal experience – as is confirmed by the accounts of Roberta Bondi, Harry Williams, Carl Jung and Etty Hillesum. This is about our consciousness, our soul awareness, and when we are open to the flow of presence we find ourselves in a place in which the transcendent and the imminent meet. This is what Eric Voegelin calls the sphere of the ‘in-between’; in-between the timeless or eternal and the time of imminent time.

Here then consciousness, our experience at that moment holds the tension between these two opposite states. Always Voegelin believed the soul is potentially able to feel the divine presence, the presence of the Unseen moving the person. If we can be open to this then there is surrender in the form of moments of spiritual growth.

In his collected works Voegelin understands that truth then is this process of knowing the reality that we are in and that the reality always involves the flowing presence of the divine. He writes: ‘The In-Between … is not an empty space … but the realm of the spiritual … the mutual participation of human in divine and divine in human reality.’ He saw that the mental quest was to be open, or as open as possible so then the spiritual search becomes a transition of the psyche from mortality to immortality. Personal and collective history both then consist not of concrete happenings in world-time but are the divine-human encounters in the flowing presence.

The idea is for open existence and to become an open self which seems to be about connectedness and inter-dependence – to be willing as Etty Hillesum puts it, open and receptive to life.

So perhaps then surrender to God looks like an opening up and an attunement to the divine presence but allowing the presence to master us. Poetry often says these things so much better than prose.

Thou mastering me

God! Giver of breath and bread:

World’s strand, sway of the sea;

Lord of living and dead;

Thou hast bound bones and veins in me,

Fastened me flesh,

And after it almost unmade, what with dread,

Thy doing; and dost thou touch me afresh?

Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.      


Gerard Manley Hopkins


So what does surrender to God look like?

So what does surrender to God look like?

Perhaps one way to understand the exploration over the past weeks is to take up the idea of the flow of Presence. Each of the people discussed over the past weeks opened themselves to a ‘more than themselves’. Roberta Bondi ‘gave up’ and allowed the flow of Presence to reawaken her. Carl Jung deliberately opened himself to the experience of the inner world and went with the strange numinous figures that emerged, and Harry Williams understood that he was more open to the flow of Presence once he was less attached to his status and persona. Etty Hillesum set out to become increasingly open and this transformation was dramatically speeded up by the terrible circumstances in the external world.

In the last post I drew on the philosophy of Eric Voegelin, another refugee from Nazi Germany, who used the symbol of ‘divine presence’, ‘Presence’ or ‘flowing presence’ to define a person’s experiential sensitivity to and reflective acknowledgement of their consciousness’s responsiveness to being drawn or moved or pulled by the divine. This is where the divine is recognised as transcendent – in other words not present in the same way as things defined by space and time. In this way we can see that opening ourselves to God will take a different form and encourage different aspects depending on our circumstances and personality.

One of the interesting ways that Voegelin uses this idea is thinking about being open horizontally to the world whilst the opening to the divine is a vertical dimension. The first takes place in time while the vertical is ever present; in the first we are bound by time and in the second we are in the realm of the timeless and opening toward divine reality. This symbol of the flow of presence is primarily the intersection of time with the timeless (a phrase that Voegelin took from the poet T. S. Eliot). Any aspect of surrender involves being open, open to whatever comes our way whatever is possible. Etty Hillesum and Carl Jung both remained curious and interested and absorbed in what life had to offer; whilst Roberta Bondi and Harry Williams were the more cautious – as if their opening was almost forced on them.

I’ve been looking at this through personal stories but the same idea of the flow of presence can also be understood collectively across societies. Voegelin appreciated that we don’t necessarily see the drama that we are living through and our roles in it are only partially and imperfectly known to us, this is a perennial situation of inescapable essential ignorance. To find a way ahead he thought we must always turn inward and restore contact with the lost centre of our consciousness (Carl Jung would express this as the need to be in touch with our unconscious) and also restore contact with our culture and to be present to the flowing presence. Only by turning inward and gaining this insight can we get a sense of the Light that this throws on the mystery of human existence.

What does surrender to God look like? 7

Etty Hillesum’s surrender to God can also be seen as resistance to the dehumanisation and destruction of the Holocaust – she bore witness during the actual occurrence of the horrific events. As Meins Coetsier points out in his study of her life and writings she struggled to preserve the human through writing and dialogue with a transcendent Other, God. She shows us how she attuned herself to the flow of life and chose to bear witness to its Beauty amid a nightmare of senseless brutality and doom.

Coetsier uses the idea of “the flow of presence” taken from the work of the philosopher Eric Voegelin as a way of catching changes and shifts in the way that we respond to the divine presence. It helps us understand what is taking place in a soul undergoing dramatic breakthroughs and rapid advances in the spiritual life – in this case in the midst of a social period of overwhelming collapse into lethal disorder. So for Etty the experience of surrender to God to Truth was not about dogma or teachings but the experience of an orienting force within the soul.

Etty remained immersed in the real world while being aware of its deeper mystery that is carried in and revealed by the flow. She was fully conscious of factors beyond human control but knowing that she could not escape her fate in the darkness of the concentration camp she embraced her life in that place.

She writes, ‘I sometimes feel I am in some blazing purgatory and that I’m being forged into something else. But into what?’ Sent to the camp at Westerbork with the first group of Jews she returned:

I am reminded daily of the fact that a human being has a body, too. I had thought that my spirit and heart alone would be able to sustain me through everything. But now my body has spoken up for itself and called a halt. I now realise, God, how much You have given me. So much that was beautiful and so much that was hard to bear. Yet whenever I showed myself ready to bear it, the hard was directly transformed into the beautiful. And the beautiful was sometimes much harder to bear, so overpowering did it seem. To think that one small human heart can experience so much, O God, so much suffering and so much love… I accept everything from Your hands O God.

Surrendering to God she writes:

‘I repose in myself. And that part of myself, that richest and deepest part in which I repose, is what I call “God”… My life is one long hearkening unto my self and unto others, and to God. And if I say that I hearken, it is really God who hearkens inside me. The most essential and the deepest in me hearkening unto the most essential and deepest in the other, God to God.’