One of the greatest superstitions is that of an image of God who is exclusive. This is the false god who calls a people just for him and excludes all those who do not fit in some way with what this might mean. This is a greedy God who wants things for himself; the alternative is of a God overflowing with abundance and generosity for all his creatures and creation. A great fallacy is that we all worship the same God because these are two radically different Gods – both of whom have their devoted followers. The image of God that is in us affects the way we behave – exclusively and judgementally or open to the world in all its different forms – or perhaps we alternate between the two. Incidentally according to Neville Symington, the psychoanalyst who was a priest, sees that everyone has such different Gods battling within them – whether religious or not.
Our attitude affects the way we behave, and our psychological approach to the things that we do. Superstition is bound up in this too, so, for example, sacrificial acts that may look wonderful to others may have been done to placate this greedy God and to win approval. If I say prayers then God will save me; if I help this homeless person then God will favour me. In other words this God is can be bribed – I will win his favour and so help myself. Or – there is the other God who loves me for who I am, and doesn’t need to be won over or bribed. Once again – we usually tend to have both views at different times, depending on where we’re at and how we are feeling. Whilst this is spiritual it is also of course psychological in the sense of our emotional orientation to life. At times I will be introvert and self-protective, excluding others, and at other times I can be generous and open trusting in other people.
Symington, writes how looking back he can see that as a priest he consciously changed from the savage God that he saw as external to himself, and who was lodged in what he calls ‘the superstitious church’ to an intellectual understanding of the loving God. He began to understand that all the external piety and rituals implied that God was bribable: ‘You offer God prayers, sacrifices, devotions, and so on, and thus the savagery of God is bought off. This had been my piety.’ He later understood that the idea of the savage God still remained with him, but he projected it in various church people or parts of the church.
‘When the focus is on the outside the reason is very often because the horror of what is within is so awful that it cannot be contemplated, so one flees to the outer for refuge which is prominent. The savage God is part of a self-protective, solipsistic manner of being’.
As Symington wrestled with this inner and outer God he decided to renounce saying the Divine Office and instead become ‘master of my own fate before God’. When he began to understand that the tyrant God came from within his own psyche, he ‘crashes into the most appalling depression’ and turned to psychoanalysis to try to understand, later leaving the priesthood to become an analyst – albeit one who wrote extensively and I think helpfully about spirituality.
Sometimes it is quite comforting to follow religious devotions without much thought or awareness, but Neville Symington sees doing this without being emotionally present as ‘a self-righteous middle class pseudo-religious attitude’ ‘self-centred and self-congratulatory’. He says that when he was ‘awake’ what he benefited from was a wider, more human understanding of life and the world. He is particularly critical of his own adoption of what he calls the worst of superstitious practices when he decided to become a priest. He traces the start of this back to when he received instruction aged about 8 on how to take the host at communion:
‘I was to flip it back and swallow it and not allow it to touch my teeth. To let it touch my teeth would be making Jesus fall when he was carrying the Cross to Calvary… It would be a mortal sin… I believed implicitly all these superstitious injunctions … I was a frightened paralysed child … and how I trembled before such a ferocious God.’
Reading the lives of the saints as an adult Symington decided he too would become a saint and so he put a stone in his shoe to suffer pain, saying the rosary throughout the day, fasting, going on pilgrimage and saying confessions. ‘I had retreated into an awesome cave filled with the worst of superstitious practices.’ Looking back many years later, and writing in his eighties, he sees that he was in the grip of something that was crushing his individual creative self, but that he was determined to follow. Whilst acknowledging that giving oneself to something greater is ennobling, he saw that there is a difference in taking possession of something rather than being possessed by it. ‘The real difference which all great mystics knew is being possessed by being itself rather than some particular sensual part of being.’
Entering a seminary he continued in what he saw later as a renunciation of his own person and his own thinking to doctrines and dogmas, and to the ceremonial duties of the church. However over the six years he was there, he moved from this immersion in what he called solipsistic principles to a gradual realisation about relationship and relating to other people. This he calls an ethic of compassion. It comes about he thinks from a move from hate to love and a movement from superficial thinking – ‘the packaged thoughts of others wrapped in a synthesised language’ to what he calls ‘deep thinking’ where new thoughts or ideas are generated, perhaps even from reading or having contact with something outside the usual.
A breakthrough into the true God and away from this dictator God who had become more benign over the years came when Symington, now a priest in the East End of London, recognised suddenly that he was not God’s slave but rather his free responsive partner: ‘God was not a dictator but a Being who invited me to be his friend.’
Neville Symington sees that our human task is to be lived by Life and here he means ‘Life as a transcendent principle’. He thinks a worthwhile test of whether or not we have lived worthwhile lives is this: is the world a better place for my having lived in it.
Following the superstitions surrounding the false god mean we are not open to life, but rather hemmed in and reduced by conformity to certain rituals, and ways of being not initially based on our own subjective experiences. During his training and work as a Catholic priest in the late 1950s and 1960s, Symington felt that his adherence to what was expected and what he saw as the associated superstitions meant that he had become as he puts it ‘hypnotized’ – false. This became a life long struggle, only become partially resolved in old age. He writes that he believes he will struggle with it up to the point of death. ‘I became a priest; I wore the outer clothing but inside I was not truly a priest. There was a priest-like person but not the priest whom people outside thought I was.’
He thought that if we remain false and bound by superstition of how we ought to be and so on, and then what happens is ‘a suicide of the heart’. But what he calls the ‘absolute in our being’ calls us to allow that reality to be the supreme motivating principle in our lives. If we turn away from this, then we have not allowed God to be God within us. Symington questions what it is that paralysed him, and led to holding the person he really is prisoner within the outer conventions. His answer is ‘a savage God who hypnotized me’.
He quotes Teilhard de Chardin writing about meditation and finding the layers within himself of convention and superstition beginning to fall away as he searched for his inmost self; and his sentiment echoes that of Thomas Merton who wrote about the ‘disturbing stranger’ that is within each of us – our true self.
This is what Symington says:
‘Leaving the zone of everyday occupations and relationships where everything seems clear, I went down into my inmost self, to the deep abyss whence I feel dimly that my power of action emanates…as I moved further away from the conventional certainties by which social life is superficially illuminated, I became aware that I was losing contact with myself. At each step of the descent a new person was disclosed within me of whose name I was no longer sure, and who no longer obeyed me. And when I had to stop my exploration because the path faded from beneath my steps, I found a bottomless abyss at my feet, and out of it came – arising I know not from where – the current which I dare to call my life.’
Being religious is about accepting a sense of mystery and finding a system that can enshrine it. The psychoanalyst Neville Symington, (who died in December 2019) writes in his autobiography A Different Path about the varying quality of soul he found in people who were religious or philosophical – in other words interested in life below the surface. He thought that this interest was to do with the person’s inner orientation to life: ‘It is a humble deference to something bigger, to an Absolute, to mystery. It is a spirit of enquiry.’
Symington was born into a Catholic family and lived in Portugal: ‘We Catholics had the truth. Protestants were simply wrong and were to be pitied. We knew we were right. We must have been the most self-righteous family and some of the English of Oporto, I suspect, hated us for it.’ Part of the struggle he documents is how to throw off this self-righteousness and the superstition which went with it.
An early experience that dogged him for many years was identical to the one I wrote about exactly a year ago that happened to Dennis McCort when he took a sip of water before communion on a Sunday, thus breaking the fast required from midnight. Symington writes about a similar injunction, when, very excited on Easter Sunday aged eight, he ate two chocolates he had been given. He then remembered the fast, but not wanting to disappoint his father he said nothing, so lined up at the communion rail he received the host: ‘I had committed a mortal sin. This deadly sin had cut me off from God and should I die now I would go straight to hell.’ Knowing he could go to confession he went a few days later, but was so terrified by what he had done he dared not tell the priest. This then he knew was a further mortal sin: ‘Now I knew I was deep in hell … I knew my soul was as black as pitch’. It’s not until four years later when he was a junior at a boarding school in England that he finally summed up the courage in confession. A kindly priest gave him a small penance and spoke the words of absolution. Yet, Symington, who became a priest in his twenties, but then left some years later, can look back and see that although he had apparently been forgiven, he had been such a frightened child that the inner belief and state of his soul, whereby he believed that he was wicked and deserved to be punished, was still present within him long into adulthood.
He can then write in his later years:
‘At a later time in my life I came to hate the Church which had made such an agony for me in my childhood. However, I now know that the fearsome God, although aided and abetted by superstitious injunctions, was a product of my own emotional state which I had projected onto and into the Church … Nevertheless I think the Church has much to answer for when it inculcates fears of this kind into its members.’