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.