Monthly Archives: November 2019

December with Thomas Merton – week 1


Guido da Siena Madonna and Child

In the first week of December 1940 Thomas Merton writes in his Journal about silence. At this time of his life Merton is teaching at English at St Bonaventure’s College at Olean. The idea of joining the Franciscans has receded, as Merton notes: ‘I am impressed and awed by the fact that I cannot join an order’. In the Journal accounts we read of Merton’s reading, some linked to his teaching, and some to his increasing religious devotion. He describes the room he is staying in at the college:

‘I am glad I am in this room. Tacked on the door are pictures of Saint Dominic, Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, two of the Blessed Mother and Child, and one, a Durer, Guido da Siena, The School of Giotto. On my desk, Kierkegaard, The Biographia Literaria, Metaphysical Poetry – Donne to Butler, Saint Bonaventure, Saint Theresa of Avila, Hopkins, Lorca, Aristotle, The Pearl, Little Flowers of Saint Francis, Saint John of the Cross. Wait and see how fast I throw away Byron! Then also Saint Augustine, but waiting to be returned to the library. Two volumes of Skeat’s big Chaucer, also. Somewhere – Blake: not my own. Modern Library and its paltry edition!’

  It is from Kierkegaard that Merton reflects on what a vow of silence might be like, and how contemporary life is forcing people to the desert – away from it all.

‘The world is full of the terrible howling of engines of destruction, and I think those who preserve their sanity and do not go mad or become beasts will become Trappists, but not by joining an order. Trappists in secret and in private – Trappists so secretly that no one will suspect they have taken a vow of silence.’

Musing further, Merton says that seeking silence is the only response to, ‘the increase of the unbearable sound of the world’, yet, at the same time, doesn’t think ‘the higher vow of silence is to be sought after.’ Picking up Kierkegaard’s thinking on the type of silence demanded by Abraham in the trial over Isaac, and the similar vow of silence imposed, ‘on the Blessed Mother by the incomprehensible mystery of the annunciation’, or of Saint Francis alone in the presence of the Son, ‘is not to be idly asked for by a terrible coward, afraid of a toothache.’

Despite this we know that by December the following year Merton would enter the Abbey of Gethsemani where he would stay for twenty-seven years under a vow of silence.


Connecting up psychotherapy and religion – personal relations theorists 4

Harry Guntrip, Jeremy Hazell’s analyst, was originally a Congregational minister and had turned to a life in the church after his unhappy childhood. His own father had been an evangelical preacher described in an extraordinary interview given by Harry Guntrip to Bernard Landis in 1981 as a ‘hell-and-brimstone preacher who conveyed drama and excitement and attracted many people’. Unfortunately his father couldn’t handle Guntrip’s domineering mother and so stayed away from home most of the time. Whilst his father made many religious pronouncements, he was never seriously concerned with Guntrip’s existence leaving him feeling utterly isolated.

Guntrip describes in the same interview how the most durable and shaping influence in his life was his domineering and incessantly critical mother, and for Guntrip the most puzzling and transcending issue in psychoanalysis was how to disengage from this kind of experience. His mother, destructive from the beginning, was remote, depressed, and cruel, administering frequent and violent beatings, screaming that she never wanted to be a mother. Once she beat the family dog so savagely that she gave it away to avoid murdering it. Her violence, as well as her complete disinterest in Harry, drove him from the house except to sleep. Guntrip recalled how he often would try to claim his mother’s attention, but she’d only become enraged and beat him, ordering him to buy a new cane when an old one broke. By six or seven, dispirited and despondent, he began spending time at the nearby Salvation Army headquarters, often following the band that played on the streets near his home. By the time he was sixteen the Salvation Army was practically his home, and Guntrip said that it literally saved his life. He spent most afternoons singing along with the band, and thought seriously of devoting his life to the Salvation Army, though in fact joined the Congregational church instead as an adult. He said that the nexus of his life-long struggle was the dread of aloneness.

Guntrip realized that insight was not enough and that for reparation to take place was the life interaction of two personalities where both people change as a result of the encounter. Additionally, in Guntrip’s experience, the analyst must be able to find something of substantial value in the patient that he can reliably affirm, something pertaining to the patient’s own capacity to nurture and create. Guntrip declared: “The fact is, I’ve become much less interested in theory. Theory—this is just a schizoid defense. It doesn’t lead to change. This only occurs through an enduring personal relationship.”  The incorporating of an affirming analytic relationship was the heart and means of cure. In the same way religious theory ‘dogma and doctrine’ can only mean something in the context of a personal relationship with God.


Connecting up psychotherapy and religion – personal relations 3

Jeremy Hazell wrote about the self as a unique centre of meaningful experience, but that it all depended on what a person can experience and use as an understanding relationship. So there has to be a varying response and a reciprocal relationship, in other words it grows out of the mutual attempt by the therapist and the person being seen to understand and experience together. Into this comes the transference and the chance for the therapist to introduce the person to an entirely unexpected response which can lead to freedom. I like here the quote from R. D. Laing who once said: ‘Not what happened before (transference) but what never happened before’ – a new experience of relationship.

This too can happen in relationship with God – if we bring past experiences, and, for example, expect a critical and ‘punishing’ God who rewards according to compliance and so on, nothing much will happen even though we may feel thoroughly involved in being ‘faithful’. In this case the faithfulness is to the past and not to present experiences. If we can stand aside from this embedded expectation, we might, as Gerard Hughes put it, be ‘surprised’ – by the God of surprises. In other words, set free into a relationship with God not based on what happened before, but on what has never happened before. Being able to be open to the new might feel upsetting and uncomfortable, but brings us to a new place of value and freedom.

How hard it is not to set the agenda and expectations. In an account of conversations with Harry Guntrip, one American researcher describes how on visiting Guntrip he was also introduced to the then director of psychiatry at Leeds Medical School who was opinionated and patronizing, and not a supporter of analytic work, but rather of pharmacology and short-term therapy. Guntrip had noted with amusement that the director had a reputation for diagnosing all patients as having agitated depressions. A friend of Guntrip’s had sat in with the director as he interviewed a patient, and was amazed at how loud, arrogant and hammering a person he was, so that he made the patient increasingly worried and jumpy. Later, the director, truly puzzled, asked the colleague, “Why is it that every patient I see is an agitated depressive?”

The view of Hazell and Guntrip is encapsulated by the idea of the need for affirmation of the core of personal reality, for the eventual resurgence of the patients’ ‘lost heart’, through ‘a secure inactivity’ and ‘receptivity to healing influences’. Hazell says that from his personal and professional experiences where genuine healing has come about, the crucial therapeutic factor has been the arrival of a state of ‘communion’ described as a ‘kind of one-ness (in which) all opposition and all ambivalence lose their sense and their reason d’etre’, this is where the essential reciprocity of the relationship is most apparent. Echoes here of the transcendent moment, when all opposites are held, and where there is a sense of deep communion in relationship with God.

Connecting up psychotherapy and religion – personal relations theorists 2

Jeremy Hazell asks what is it that people are wanting when they come into psychotherapy. Clearly a sense of their significance as a person, quoting here Ronald Fairbairn: as ‘mattering for their own sakes as persons in their own right,’ and perhaps also through an experience of mutual valuing. I like the way that Hazell answers ‘how’ this happens:

‘surely through a steadily evolving knowledge and awareness of each other, through every kind of weather, in season and out of season, in and out of transferences, moving unevenly towards a state of sanctuary, of resting together.’

It is only through this quality of safe relatedness that the anxious mind can be stilled and the true nature of the self can be restored. To achieve this as the patient, one has to believe that the other person is fully with us – on one’s side – there ‘in spirit’, alongside and not ‘working out something in their head’ or ‘working towards an ending’ – not in fact consciously ‘working’ but rather present. It’s rather about seeing the latent natural health of the human psyche: ‘Seeing this living potential in the other person, and fostering its growth by ourselves becoming the medium for its realisation is the purpose of psychotherapy.’ So it is the capacity to be with the person, and this is surely true also in spiritual direction and pastoral work.

Hazell wonders how psychic maturation occurs and here I think are clear links to the idea of spiritual maturation as what he highlights is that emotional maturity isn’t to be measured by the extent to which we can cope or survive or thrive without connection but rather ‘by our willingness to acknowledge our absolute dependence on relations with others for the full realisation of our proper nature.’

‘Emotional maturity comes about when a genuine experience of relatedness supports and nourishes the heart of the self, and when this experience is able to be enjoyed (consciously or better still unconsciously) either in solitude or in contemporary personal relationships.’

This is the idea of ‘mature dependence’ and so similarly it is reliance and dependence on relationship with God and God in others that allows us to think about what spiritual maturity might look like. However this maturity is always relative as Guntrip put it:

‘Even when analysis reaches down to the deeper level, as I believe mine did with Winnicott, there is no such thing as a “full cure”. But while the past is never fully outgrown, one is put in a stronger position internally to experience with fuller understanding the way the bad old relations patterns are aroused and disturbed by present day events’.

And ‘if the past is never outgrown, neither is the whole personal self static while a genuine personal relationship is being experienced.’ This links to the idea of what Winnicott called ‘living spontaneously’ once again something that is alive and happening when one is engaged in a genuine experience or glimpse of an experience with God.