Monthly Archives: April 2022

Exploring the resonances between psychodynamic therapy and Judaeo-Christian faith

In a paper written back in 2002, Revd Chris MacKenna – priest and Jungian analyst – looked at the resonances between the Judaeo-Christian faith and the modern discipline of psychodynamic therapy and counselling. He wasn’t suggesting that either of them could be collapsed into the other, but rather that both put us in touch with a deep vein of human experience. Both are about spirituality and inner work, and both in tune with a very ancient tradition of pastoral care. The paper called ‘Counselling as Spirituality’ offers ideas which I have taken to reflect on.

Psychodynamic therapy and counselling emerged from the parentage of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung: both imbued their work with their highly developed attitudes to life which (and despite Freud’s rejection of religious belief) reflect the spirit of each man. Such manifestations of the spirit as a force that animates, was then bequeathed to their respective disciples and movements. Psychodynamic work which is not particularly affiliated to either the Freudian or Jungian school of thought, does not come with a ready-made spiritual ‘spin’, but there are core values and processes which resonate with elements of Judaeo-Christian faith.

One of these is the value which is attached to the individual. The current trend – fostered by economics and demands for outcome analysis – is for short-term work and this is shown in the pushing of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) or CAT (cognitive analytic therapy) and various forms of brief psychotherapy. Traditionally psychodynamic work offers an open-ended approach. I often worked with people for ten or twelve years and often 2-3 times a week, and both my own analyses lasted into double figures. So that’s hundreds and sometimes thousands of hours working with an individual, or being worked on. This value may be easily critiqued in all sorts of way (time, cost, access, privilege etc.), but it surely resonates with the Judaeo-Christian tradition which claims that human beings are of almost infinite value because each is made in the image of God.

Another central value of working psychodynamically is that there is a tragic sense that something has gone wrong, there has been a dislocation in a key relationship and often very early in life – perhaps through birth trauma, or the attitude of a parent or some disruption in the home environment. So, there is a belief in developmental theory – the past does affect the present, and with the understanding that one will need to work through it before we can be free to move forward. This can be linked – however unconsciously – by the mythology attached to the idea of the fall. Once life was harmonious then there was catastrophic dislocation, and in the story of Adam and Eve serious trouble began. The belief that early catastrophe disturbs us, our relationships with other and with God is present and leaves a sense that life hasn’t realized its full potential.


Eveleyn Underhill -letters of encouragement 5

As the last contribution from Evelyn Underhill’s letters, I couldn’t resist part of her correspondence to C. S. Lewis about animals –

She begins by commenting on some of his ideas from his book The Problem of Pain and how for her Christianity does not explain suffering, but does show us what to do with it. Rather than attributing all the evil and pain of creation to humanity’s rebellious will, she senses a fundamental disharmony between creation and God. But the point where she firmly disagrees with Lewis is about his chapter on animals where she takes exception to his idea that ‘The tame animal is in the deepest sense the only natural animal … the beasts are to be understood only in their relation to man and through man to God.’

Evelyn comments that this seems an intolerable doctrine and a frightful exaggeration in what might be involved in the so-called primacy of man.

‘… is the cow which we have turned into a milk machine or the hen we have turned into an egg machine really nearer the mind of God than its wild ancestor? … You surely can’t mean that, or think that the robin redbreast in a cage doesn’t put heaven in a rage but is regarded as an excellent arrangement.’

She lambasts his illustration of the family home plus family dog as smug and utilitarian, comparing it to ‘the wild beauty of God’s creative action in the wild jungle and deep sea. Adding:

‘And if we ever get a sideways glimpse of the animal-in-itself, the animal existing for God’s glory and pleasure and lit by His light (and what a lovely experience that is!) we don’t owe it to the Pekinese, the Persian cat or the canary, but to some wild free creature living in completeness of adjustment to nature a life that is utterly independent of man. And this, thank heaven, is the situation of all but a handful of creatures we have enslaved. Of course I agree that animals too are involved in the Fall and await redemption and transfiguration.’

Transfiguration can never come by taming though, but rather by loving and reverencing the creatures enough to leave them free – and we might add now by not destroying their habitats.

‘When my cat goes off on her own occasions I’m sure she goes with God – but I do not feel so sure of her theological position when she is sitting on the best chair before the drawing-room fire. Perhaps what it all comes to is this, that I feel your concept of God would be improved by just a touch of wildness.’

The second verse of a poem by Evelyn Underhill called Immanence seems to express this relationship between God and animals:

‘I come in the little things,
Saith the Lord;
Yea, on the glancing wings
Of eager birds, the soft and pattering feet
Of furred and gentle beasts, I come to meet
Your hard and wayward heart. In brown bright eyes
That peep from out the brake, I stand confest.
On every nest
Where feathery Patience is content to brood
And leaves her pleasure for the high emprise
Of motherhood—
There does my Godhead rest.’


Evelyn Underhill’s letters of encouragement 4

Although some of Evelyn Underhill’s comments feel so much of her time (1875-1941), I find myself attracted to the seriousness of her work, and the mixture of spiritual and psychological insights present in what she writes. In the early 1930s she has a long correspondence with someone initialled DE. Here’s a flavour of what they discuss.

The correspondent is wanting to ‘let go of the self’ and Evelyn counsels: ‘we can never become un-selfed on our own – it is God’s work in us. We can only open the door and say, “Do what you like.” In the next correspondence she responds to DE who is in bed suffering the strain of what being open to God means.

‘We have to feel utterly helpless, weak, and unable to stand up to it, if we are ever to learn real trust and abandonment … Don’t struggle to find proof of God’s existence when He seems to vanish … von Hugel [EU’s own early spiritual director] in his little book of prayer compares this experience to meeting a sandstorm in the desert – and says the Arab, then, doesn’t struggle with the situation but accepts it, lies down in the sand, covers his head with his mantle, and just waits. That is what you are asked to do.’

Clearly DE is struggling, as during the following Lent, Evelyn repeats the above advice: ‘I am so sorry things are being hard … Just lie down quietly as you can in the dust and wait for the Lord; don’t struggle – it is perfectly useless at such times, and merely exhausting…’

Six months later:

‘After all, if you choose Christ you start on a route that goes over Calvary, and that means the apparent loss of God as a bit of it. There is no by-pass. But as long as you were getting the assurance of God, your offering wasn’t absolute, was it? … So face up to it, and thank Him (for He is there all the time …) Apart from this attempt at acceptance, don’t do anything. It isn’t your fault, it is just part of the route – and God will again show Himself when you are through this bit. Don’t struggle with prayer you can’t do – just say “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit”. Continue your Communions quite steadily … Remember it is you who are temporarily blinded, not the world that has gone black. Early bed, novels, the flicks and so on are all good and help to minimize the nervous strain … it is a normal experience in spiritual growth. … As von Hugel says, “it is so much more He who must hold us, than we who must hold Him”’

DE visits the doctor with nervous strain and is given a sedative (!). Evelyn responds that it is all ‘psycho-physical and should be dealt with from that end’ – again advising DE to accept what is happening and what has happened to her in the past and trust that God is somehow present. She diagnoses it as ‘a psychic illness’. (Perhaps some time in therapy might have helped, but would DE have been able to find a therapist sympathetic to spirituality and religion at a time when Freudian analysis was so central …)

A few months later Evelyn writes:

‘I don’t know when anything has made me so happy as your letter. I’ve always felt that if only you could be protected from discouragement and persuaded to carry on, God would show himself to you – and then you would know it was, in spite of all the difficulties and sufferings, more than worth while …it is so wonderful.’


Happy Easter!

Evelyn Underhill letters of encouragement 3

Later in her life Evelyn Underhill revealed the pull to the Roman Catholic church, but her feeling that she was following God’s will by staying in the Church of England. In the early 1930s she wrote to one correspondent about how awful on occasions the church can make one feel.

‘As to feeling rather dismayed by the appearance of the Church Visible at the moment – that is inevitable I’m afraid to some extent. But keep your inner eye on the Church Invisible – what the Baron [Baron Von Hugel – her own earlier spiritual director] used to call “the great centralities of religion”. That is what really takes one up into itself “with angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven” not only the Vicar and the curate and the Mother’s Union Committee. But there is something entrancing, don’t you think, in a supernatural society, so wide and generous and really Catholic, that it can mop up all these – even the most depressing and still remain the Bride of Christ? The Church is an “essential service” like the Post Office, but there will always be some narrow, irritating and inadequate officials behind the counter and you will always be tempted to exasperation by them.’

Evelyn passed onto others her own experience which is that the question should not be “What attracts and helps me?” but “Where can I serve God best?” – and usually the answer to that is “Where He has put me”. Again, she reminds her correspondent that the C of E desperately needs people who can pray and help people and to leave that for the devotional atmosphere of Rome is like abandoning the trenches and going back to the barracks. Referring to Newman’s conversion as “spiritual selfishness” she counsels her correspondent that “there is a great deal still to be done and a great deal to put up with, and the diet is often none too good – but we are here to feed His sheep where we find them, not to look for comfy quarters! At least that’s my firm belief! And the life of prayer can be developed in the C of E as well as anywhere else if we really mean it.”

Her advice to another is to keep your Christianity wide as well as deep – there is the Church Universal. God enlightens us bit by bit – as we can bear it and where we are.

‘Don’t strain after more light than you’ve got yet: just wait quietly. God holds you when you cannot hold Him, and when the time comes to jump He will see to it that you do jump – and you will find you are not frightened then … just be supple in His hands and let Him mould you (as He is doing) for His own purposes, responding with very simple acts of trust and love.’