Monthly Archives: March 2021

Raissa Maritain 1

I have written about Raissa Maritain before – in 2015 but her spiritual journal is full of good things. In the preface written in 1963 by Fr Rene Voillaume, who was the Prior of the Little Brothers of Jesus, he writes ‘in reading these pages one feels as if one were been given direct access, through an astonishing sobriety of expression, to the world of Truth and of the Kingdom of God.’  The reader is ‘guided on the path of contemplative prayer, on the path of secret love, of the “mad”, boundless love for God by the knowledge of these spiritual experiences. And how could we know them, if those who have lived them had not had the candour to tell us about them.’’

Raissa Maritain (1883-1960) lived a life that was dedicated to intellectual work. She was Russian, a poet and philosopher who moved to France to study and where she met her husband Jacques Maritain who, later, following her death, published her journal. It is divided into 4 notebooks – the first 1906-1917. Amongst the prayers and psalms copied out there are two poems though Raissa called them hymns. One written in 1906 begins:

My God I am here before thee

I crumble into nothing before thee

I adore thy greatness

My need is immense

Have pity on me

Let thy spirit dwell in me …

In 1907 she is seized with a feeling of deep ‘familiarity with God, with Jesus, with Mary. I wept and exulted. It was as if there were a perpetual spring of joy, of sweetness, of happy certainty welling up in me – it lasted a long while- and the memory of it has not been effaced.’

Ten years later she records longing to occupy herself with God but being unable to as taken over by a ‘state of trouble and helplessness’. On the advice of her then spiritual director, she ‘gave all my mornings to resting in silence with God, according to what God will ask. Not to let anything disturb me unless someone comes to fetch me.’

It is worth mentioning that Vera, Raissa’s sister lived with them – assuming ‘the role of Martha’ and leaving Raissa free to deepen her life of contemplative prayer. The notebook includes details to a developing experience of ‘absorption in God’. She writes: ‘Be still, leave all occupations and know, know God, contemplate him, give him your thought and your heart; give thanks to him.’

Narcissism and narcissistic wounds

The last  analytic concept that I am posting about is also a difficult one  (in that there are different ways of looking at it), but it is one that can further help us understand ourselves and bring light into spirituality. This is narcissism and narcissistic wounds.

In the myth Narcissus is not interested in other people – he was the product of the violent rape of a nymph by a river-god and it was predicted that if the boy was ever to know himself, he would die. In order to stay alive Narcissus has to struggle against his desire to see and to know himself. When Narcissus meets Echo, a beautiful nymph she finds him very attractive but she can no longer use her voice except to repeat what someone else has said. The arrogant Narcissus shows no response to Echo who spends the rest of her life pining for him until thinner and thinner she vanishes leaving only an echo behind. Narcissus is often pictured peering into water fascinated by his origins, gazing into the water so that he might see his original parents copulating. Gazing into the water he identifies with this fantasy and dies by plunging a dagger into himself – his blood spilling onto the earth becomes a beautiful narcotic flower: the narcissus.

We all experience what is called healthy narcissism in early life, and later there are times when we are fully occupied with ourself and our reflection in the waters of life – it’s possible to move in and out of narcissism depending on what is happening. People who have a narcissistic personality disorder are fairly impossible to reach, and connect with and have a low interest in the wellbeing of anyone apart from themselves. Narcissism is on a continuum with a huge difference between the mild and severe. It can be found in groups and in institutions. It has been suggested that at the core of the very narcissistic person there is a feeling of deadness – there has been some serious damage done early in life where needs have not been met and parents have not been able to provide enough good.

And we all know about narcissistic wounds which are special kinds of hurts- where as the expression goes, we are ‘cut to the quick’ and that may even threaten our identity or self-image, our ego-ideal or our self-esteem – then feelings of hurt, shame or age can be very powerful.

Different variables on narcissism include the traumatizing narcissist and the empowered narcissist – the former inflicting their ruthless will to the detriment of others, and the empowered or phallic narcissist frequently leads and organises others – they may be very charismatic, a significant number gravitate to religious leadership, but they act from a grandiose sense of self-importance or exhibitionism.

It has been pointed out that none of us is free from narcissism where one of the fundamental aspects of the condition is that like poor Narcissus it blinds us from self-knowledge.

Psychoanalytic concepts that might help in life and on the spiritual path – holding and containment

These are ideas linked to the work of Donald Winnicott (holding) and Wilfred Bion (containment) and it seems that both analytic concepts might be helpful in terms of spiritual life especially in the context of contemplation and meditation where one is in a silent relationship with God – being held and contained.

Winnicott’s thinking on the holding environment is that it is a developmental stage where the infant and good-enough mother are as one entity, as yet undifferentiated in the infant’s consciousness, so the infant is unaware of his need for another. At one point he described it as the space between inner and outer world, which is also the space between people–the transitional space’ a space of intimacy and creativity.’

I read this as a benign space and in the context of spiritual life where I can feel surrounded and held by ‘the everlasting arms’.

Containment also is about a safe place but the emphasis here is on a safe place where unmanageable emotions can be held. Bion’s theory originates from the projection by the infant of upsetting, fearsome and intolerable feelings into the mothering person. In the mother/infant relationship here too a good-enough mother feels the infant’s distress and contains it before returning the experience to the infant, but in a way where it has become manageable and so can be adapted to and reintegrated. In prayer – serious, authentic and sometimes desperate prayer (not formulaic intercessions) as we project distress into God or Christ we are anticipating and over time experiencing a form of containment. If in some sense we can feel heard in prayer then there can develop a sense of trust and wellbeing – this can help even if I don’t understand how or why.

Ultimately in my experience both holding and containment are essential to the developing spiritual relationship with God.


Psychoanalytic concepts that might help in life and on the spiritual path- part 2 on ‘good-enough’

Winnicott’s idea is of the ‘good-enough mother’ was intended to liberate parents from the millstone of aspirational perfection. Once the infant knows the mother can reliably provide during the baby’s early state of complete dependence, it is through the bust-ups and bungles of being good-enough rather than perfect that the infant finds out about their own developing needs. The child discovers he or she is not within the suffocating realm of parental omniscience, nor are the parents within the tyranny of the baby’s omnipotent control. Importantly the infant finds that rage and phantasies of destruction do not magically destroy the world, except in their creative imagination. Beyond this lies a widening horizon of emotional development: anger, disappointment, reparation, and eventually, independence, and gratitude.

It’s an imposition in Christian teaching to ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5: 48). The difficulty with the idea of being all good or perfect is that it involves not only denial of the shadow, but also means that religion and spiritual practices become heavily dominated by the super ego – so all spontaneity and creativity is lost and indeed we become compliant with a false self religion and faith.

Instead, the idea of ‘being whole’ rather than perfect allows for the idea of being good enough – there is enough good within to balance or mitigate against the not so good or bad – there’s always the shadow and mixed feelings, but they can be integrated – so ‘be balanced therefore, as your heavenly Father is balanced.’ Perhaps it sounds unorthodox but it is possible to try to balance feelings rather than endlessly trying to achieve the impossible.

The ‘good enough’ idea can also help with softening superegoic expectations in any context – it’s a bit like doing one’s best given the circumstances.