Monthly Archives: October 2019

Connecting up psychotherapy and religion – personal relations theorists

Earlier this year Jeremy Hazell one of the founding members of the psychotherapy training that I undertook died. He had originally trained in theology and had become a vicar but following a dream whilst in a first therapy where he was seeking help for anxiety neurosis and palpitations he had seen that his ministry was to be predominantly pastoral – working with people. The dream shaped his future and he writes:

‘I was sitting in a small chapel which opened directly onto a busy city street. I was not being active, but was simply being there for any passer-by who felt in need of spiritual solace. There were no services, and the place was deeply peaceful amid the bustle of the city.’

Following this Hazell worked for the Samaritans alongside his work as a vicar then realizing that he needed more therapeutic experience he embarked on a five year personal training analysis with Harry Guntrip in the 1960s. Guntrip (who had originally also trained in the church as a Congregational minister) at the same time as seeing Hazell was himself in analysis with Donald Winnicott so as Hazell writes he, Hazell, reaped the fruits of this. Guntrip saw the purpose of psychotherapy as one of facilitating a genuine relatedness in which the person being seen could recover and develop. This fits with the thinking that the ego is the core of the personal self intrinsically relationship and identity seeking and Guntrip’s ideas came to be known as personal relations therapy. Hazell writes that Guntrip took,

‘a personal delight in finding the lost aspects of the personality, restoring relatedness and attending the growth of the original natural self. Thus I found energies which had long been subverted by anxiety to structure a “false self” gradually becoming free for reinvestment along lines of genuine personal interest…I experienced a profound sense of inner security, of on-going being and inner purpose, at first in the sessions themselves, and then increasingly in my family and the outer world … Guntrip sought to reach, repair and restore the emotionally weakened core.’

Looking back at sermons written whilst he was in treatment Hazell believed that they began to reflect the transforming experiences that took place in his analysis, as for instance ‘Love is man’s growing-power and God is love’ (Harvest festival 1965); ‘We carry within ourselves the seeds of our own maturity’ (1967); ‘Our own love and longing to love with which we are born, is the spring of our personal life’, and ‘When perfect love casts out fear, the energy expressed in anger is recalled in the service of the soul in loving, and the individual begins to realise his potential as a child of God’.

Hazell writes that these remained his firm beliefs and though eventually leaving his work as a priest he felt that he had discovered the vocation of therapeutic counselling within the wider ministry.

Learning from Merton’s early experiences: God asks Merton to make a choice

When Thomas Merton receives a letter from the Draft Board ‘telling me that my number was up for the army’ he is surprised but completes a form trying to make clear his position about warfare. Merton puts it then in a different way ‘less abstract and stuffy’ which is that God was asking him to signify where he stood in relation to ‘the actions of governments and armies and states in this world’. And here we have glimpses of Merton’s later writings about warfare specifically nuclear war, about peace, about politics, about racism and about ecology and about a right way of living.

Merton writes in The Seven Storey Mountain that God:

‘was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice…’

Here Merton says that the choice is essentially an act of love for truth and for the gospel and for the mystical body. But he also adds that the choice is for him too as an individual … ‘He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do.’

After some thinking about the implications of war Merton is able to state: ‘To my mind, there was very little doubt about the immorality of the methods used in modern war’ so he applies to become a non-combatant objector using quotes from St Thomas and sees himself helping in the medical corp. This section ends with a funny account of Merton’s attendance at a medical for the Draft Board where he is told by the doctor to go home – ‘you haven’t enough teeth’. As Merton adds ‘So they didn’t want me in the army after all, even as a stretcher bearer!’

Of course the Draft Board returns just before Merton enters Gethsemani, he has already written to ask if he can return for a further retreat with a view to becoming a postulant and enter the novitiate and with that agreement also comes another demand from the Draft Board for a follow up medical – they’ve lowered their requirements – you can fight with bad teeth. Merton replies that he is entering a monastery and his spiritual adviser sees the timing as ‘a very good sign – I mean as far as your vocation is concerned.’

Perhaps learning from Merton in this situation means that each one of us is asked by God to make a choice about our response to ‘the actions of governments and armies and states in this world’ and when we make a choice then other doors open.

Learning from Merton’s early experiences: ‘this business of saying the Office’

Shortly after this disappointment of not entering the Franciscan novitiate Thomas Merton buys a set of four books; he shows his brother who he unexpectedly runs into:

‘I handed him one of the volumes. It was sleek and smelled new. The pages were edged in gold. There were red and green markers.

“What are they?” Said John Paul.

“Breviaries.”

The four books represented a decision. They said that if I could not live in the monastery, I should try to live in the world as if I were a monk in a monastery.’

Gone is the pride and certainty instead Merton writes that he wanted grace and needed prayer and that ‘I was helpless without God, and that I wanted to do everything that people did to keep close to Him.’ He reflects that buying the books that day was one of the best things he ever did in his life: ‘the inspiration to do it was a very great grace. There are few things I can remember that give me more joy.’

He begins and the first time he tries to say the Office (and this is in Latin) was on the train:

‘I opened up the book and began right away with Matins … It was a happy experience, although its exultancy was subdued and lost under my hesitations and external confusion about how to find my way around in the jungle of the rubrics… I went on from psalm to psalm, smoothly enough. By the time I got to the Lessons of the Second Nocturn, I had figured out whose feast it was that I was celebrating.’

And so Merton starts saying and praying the Offices and gradually the anguish and sorrow reduces. Initially he found it difficult, as surely everyone does, in finding his way round the books, ‘every step was labour and confusion, not to mention the mistakes and perplexities I got myself into.’ Apart from getting advice on how to work out the feasts and so on Merton decides not to mention it to anyone: ‘half fearing that someone would make fun of me, or think I was eccentric, or try to snatch my books away from me on some pretext.’

And the benefit of the regular routine of reading the office has a gradual effect:

‘Yes, and from the secret places of His essence, God began to fill my soul with grace in those days, grace that spring from deep within me, I could not know how or where. But yet I would be able, after not so many months, to realize what was there, in the peace and the strength that was growing in me through my constant immersion in this tremendous, unending cycle of prayer, ever renewing its vitality, its inexhaustible , sweet energies from hour to hour, from season to season in its returning around.’

Learning from Merton’s early experiences: ‘the horrible humility of hell’

Learning from Merton’s early experiences: ‘the horrible humility of hell’

The description of Merton’s realisation that he might not be able to become a Franciscan and his subsequent thinking is powerful because it so well illustrates those hot and cold moments when one realises who one is in the light of some situation or how people have ‘wrongly’ assumed how one is from an immediate impression. Merton calls such self-knowledge ‘anguish’. He links it to a type of humility in hell – which is not the humility of the saints that leads to peace but is rather a ‘false humility of hell which is an unending burning shame.’ It is part of self-love because it is our pride based on how we see ourselves that is hurt and it is this pride that has to be burned away by God. This is of course Merton at his most zealous, unsubtle and unforgiving:

‘It is the proud that have to be burned and devoured by the horrible humility of hell … But as long as we are in this life, even that burning anguish can be turned into a grace, and should be a cause of joy.’

There is something familiar to be taken from this dismay as we read how Merton comes to see that when he was meeting the various monks none of them knew ‘who I really was’.

‘They knew nothing about my past. They did not know how I had lived before I entered the Church. They had simply accepted me because I was superficially presentable, I had a fairly open sort of face and seemed to be sincere and to have an ordinary amount of sense and good will.’

Merton describes his agitation whilst waiting for the decision to be made and then experiencing his anguish and restlessness. He prayed to God for God’s will to be done.

‘My own mind was full of strange, exaggerated ideas. I was in a kind of nightmare. I could not see anything straight.’

After hearing that he was being turned away Merton goes to confession – which again because he is in deep distress goes badly wrong.

‘The priest was in no mood to stand for any nonsense, and I myself was confused and miserable, and couldn’t explain myself properly, and so he got my story all mixed up…The whole thing was so hopeless that finally in spite of myself, I began to choke and sob and I couldn’t talk any more. So the priest, probably judging that I was some emotional and unstable and stupid character, began to tell me in very strong terms that I certainly did not belong in the monastery, still less the priesthood and, in fact, gave me to understand that I was simply wasting his time and insulting the Sacrament of Penance by indulging my self-pity in his confessional.’

Learning from Thomas Merton’s early experiences: ‘living as if … for temporal favours’

The Seven Storey Mountain is (for me) a wonderful book to return to, either to re-read or to dip into from time to time. Admittedly the late Merton contains the deep understanding of his mature spiritual thinking but there is much to be learnt from Merton’s early insights.

One that has resonance is linked to the time of Merton’s realization that he could not join the novitiate and become a Franciscan. For those who may not remember this is a little while before Merton goes to the Abbey of Gethsemani and enters the Trappist order. It is in the summer of 1940 when Merton muses on what he might be called and how he will be as a Franciscan:

‘I would come humbly along the corridor in my sandals – or rather our sandals – with my eyes down, with the rapid but decorous gait of a young Friar who knew his business: Frater John Spaniard. It made a pleasant picture.’

And so the summer months pass before his planned autumn departure to join the Franciscans and it is only looking back that Merton can see that God wanted to ask more about this vocation – one which Merton can admit attracted him because of the teaching and writing and the surroundings where he would probably live. The questions were raised when Merton was reading the bible – chapter 9 of the book of Job. Merton quotes parts of the chapter, here from verse nine:

“‘Who maketh Arcturus and Orion and Hyades and the inner parts of the south…”

There was something deep and disturbing in the lines. I thought they only moved me as poetry: and yet, I also felt, obscurely enough, that there was something personal about them. God often talks to us directly in Scripture. That is, He plants the words full of actual graces as we read them and sudden undiscovered meanings are sown in our hearts, if we attend to them, reading with minds that are at prayer.’

Merton says he didn’t at that stage have the art of reading in that way but the following words began to burn and sear within him:

“If he come to me, I shall not see Him: if He depart, I shall not understand … If He examine me on a sudden who shall answer Him? Or who can say, why dost Thou so?”

From the grace of such reading came the realization of,

‘an accusation that would unveil forgotten realities. I had fallen asleep in my sweet security. I was living as if God only existed to do me temporal favours’.