Spiritual pioneers on the edge

The next few posts will be about a current interest of mine which is reading about those who became pioneers of spiritual discovery. Perhaps it is rather about spiritual recovery – recovery of the soul and to recover that from which each person is estranged – namely one’s essential truth. Generally, the people I am going to look at came to believe that we can have an experience of oneself as divinely grounded where there is an experience of divine immanence as a universal power underlying all that is.

This aspect of universality means that the pioneers take us out of the constraints of what Jung called confessional religion which is caught in a ‘dead system’ – a matter of the head and not the heart, a matter of doctrine rather than experience. Marginality to formal religion can in itself be utilised as a spiritual resource, after all history shows us that inside ecclesiastical authority the pioneer can become assimilated or controlled or even eliminated as a threat

So, these pioneers are on a personal search for a truth, and to experientially relate to their need for a more than intellectual meaning in life. Paradoxically what begins as a personal search leads to an intensified sense of one’s affinity with all that is. A greater resonance with what has been called ‘the Source of the all’ within can only generate a compassion with all that participates in the same source. Carl Jung called this extended compassion and saw it as endemic to his study of individuation – in other words the more we approach our essential self the more open we are to be alongside others. In recovering our soul, we recover our connections and unity with all of creation – to all that exists beyond the individual.

There are many of these contemporary pioneers. Why? There has been a disconnection from what Jung called ‘the spirit of the depths’ – the deeper we go the less solipsistic we become and so individual soul recovery through the examples and teachings of these pioneers has a much wider consequence in providing access to ‘the ruler of the depths of world affairs’. Their influence is great.

The experience of one’s essential self as divinely grounded is always ambiguous and cannot be held onto or possessed but it is a yearning, a longing for enchantment which is sometimes rewarded. Jung records one experience when he dreamt of a dark night in Liverpool (the pool of life). In this dream Jung and a number of Swiss companions are in Liverpool. It is night, dark, winter, raining and sooty, all very unpleasant. His party moves up to a higher part of the city and there Jung perceives a small island of pure light shining on a single budding magnolia tree that is illuminated both by the light and also by its source. Jung wrote that he had had a vision of unearthly beauty ‘and that was why I was able to live at all. Liverpool is “the pool of life”.  ‘I saw that here the goal had been revealed …everything is directed towards that centre … The dream depicted the climax of the whole process of the development of consciousness.’

The Quest for Home and Self 2

Looking further at this search Paul Tillich sees that our essential nature as grounded in God cannot be forgotten – our memory of God is the basis of our sense of God and sense of exclusion from being home with God. Carl Jung takes this sense of God further when he writes: ‘God is the circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.’ God or the numinous is ever present Jung writes about the numinous as that which ‘controls the human subject, who is always rather its victim than its creator.’

For both Tillich and Jung make the point that the process of the quest for home and self cannot be exhausted in the course of a lifetime where realization can only ever be partially realized. The fullness of the quest belongs to eternity but the quest is the basic demand of life and what actually makes life worth living. The goal of the journey is unity with the ground of being. Interestingly and John P. Dourley comments audaciously Jung sees that in the deepest part of the psyche the unconscious unites what the Church has divided – namely the human and the divine – the goal of each person’s life is the experience of the natural divinity of one’s humanity … For Jung there is a natural presence of God in the human psyche:

‘It is therefore psychologically quite unthinkable for God to be simply the “wholly other”, for a “wholly other” could never be one of the soul’s deepest and closest intimacies – which is precisely what God is.’ The Western bias of making God totally transcendent and out there means that too few people have ‘experienced the divine image as the innermost possession of their souls.’

Dourley concludes his article by assessing that Jung provides us with a more detailed map of the way of the quest with a more accurate description of the powers to be met en route, ‘and with gripping premonitory image of the final homecoming’. He sees both theology and psychology as able to throw light on each other’s sense of exile and search for home and some sort of acceptance and assimilation of both ‘be truly able to help each other to go home together.’

The Quest for Home and Self

The Jungian analyst and Roman Catholic priest John P. Dourley who died in 2019 wrote a pamphlet for the Guild of Pastoral Psychology in 1982 about this psychological and spiritual quest drawing on the writings of Paul Tillich and Carl Jung. I must have bought it fairly soon after that, when, as a young adult, I was at the start of my own searching for deeper meaning. Coming across it nearly four decades later it still makes a lot of sense.

I like the way that Dourley understands that the very searching implies an experience of a certain fullness or well-being from which life is currently somehow removed – in other words the energy for the quest becomes the energy for looking for this absent abundance.  We already have a distant sense of what we are looking for. ‘Homelessness implies a sense of home in however many different places the human spirit may locate it.’ The looking is the basis of both the possibility and the necessity of the spiritual searching. ‘This remains true even though the pilgrim may come to this recognition only toward the end of the journey, and possibly after passage through many homes on the way.’

Dourley sees transformative experiences in the depths of the psyche as being connected to both psychic and spiritual conversion – what he calls ‘the unity of the psychological and religious in one’s own person’ where the searcher is being led to their truest home.

‘Which way does one turn toward home and self? Are they to be found in a transcendent country foreign to the land of our present exile? And do we go home with the gratuitously given energy and light of a power drawing life to itself from a position totally beyond it? Or is the way home to be found in a turning within to meet there a part of ourselves which has never been away from home and drives us from the depths of our existence to unite ourselves more fully with it?’

In the first God is a stranger – in the second God is one from whom each of us has been estranged. As we discover God, we discover ourselves – something similar or even identical from ourselves although God infinitely transcends us – God from whom we have been estranged but never have been nor ever can be separated.

This is then a radical understanding of divine immanence where the search for the essential self and the search for God become the ultimate concern in the quest for home. Tillich thought that ‘to be human is to be concerned with the ultimate because the ultimate is that power in the human driving humanity to itself.’ The search for the infinite is fired by its presence in the depth of each person: ‘God is the presupposition of the question of God.’

Raissa Maritain and the Fourth Notebook 1924-1926

In 1924 Raissa was in her early 40s and suffering from repeated ill health but dedicated to her contemplative and intellectual life. She writes how she awaits all from God: ‘For from me to Him, it seems that all the bridges are cut. But not from Him to me … Direction and light from God alone …  entirely open to God’. Her experiences have deepened so she can write about the ‘reassuring darkness / insensible delight / incomprehensible communion’. In this darkness the soul can only subsist on the sole will of God. She interpreted her illnesses as ‘salutary’.

She distinguishes between love and friendship between humans and then from again her own deepest experiences in solitude with God, she writes how God loves us with friendship:

‘by providing for all our necessities and by dying for us on the Cross. God loves us with love by making us participate in his nature by grace – by making the sanctified soul his dwelling. By making himself known to us through supernatural Revelation … And what does he demand of us ourselves? Our heart.’

Raissa was repeatedly drawn inwards and became withdrawn – an inwardness that set her apart from others.

Judith Suther interprets Raissa’s long spells of illness (and Jacques Maritain said that illness became the constant trial of their household – he and Vera Raissa’s sister were also not spared) as setting the pace of the salutary withdrawals from the world which illness allowed. It was the prolonged effects of illness, not illness itself, that established the pattern of meditation and prayer that made possible the rather extraordinary record of her spiritual life. Suther writes: ‘She [Raissa] made constructive use of the body’s fragility and transformed suffering into a holy state, an imitatio Christi. Once experienced, extended convalescence began to alternate with physical well-being, defining thereby an essential condition of her survival.’ The battleground between the physical material body and the spiritual meant that over time she became ‘a pilgrim of the Absolute’ and a spiritual exile – praying along even from those she loved most. She did emerge to connect with people from time to time but not for long and with only limited endurance – she referred to herself as ‘a bird with broken wings.’ She died in 1960 leaving her journals, a wonderful book Les Grandes Amities – translated into English by Julie Kernan We Have been Friends Together, and many poems – some of which have been translated by Thomas Merton into English.

Raissa with Jacques Maritain in later life

In the preface to her journal Rene Voillaume a follower of Charles de Foucauld and the founder of the Little Brothers of Jesus, writes:

‘What distinguishes Raissa’s witness and what makes it rare is that it proceeds from an authentic experience of God’s mystery, as well as simply human realities, with unfailing precision of thought. The clarity of an extraordinarily vigilant intelligence, guided by the love for truth, is always there.’

 

Raissa Maritain third notebook

1919-1923

Raissa muses on the search for truth and true knowledge and where to find it.

 ‘At twelve, I thought it lay in medicine; at eighteen, in the natural sciences; at twenty, in metaphysics; at twenty-two in theology. I know now that it does indeed lie there, and that holiness, when added to it, infinitely increases it, and that the wisdom proper to it can do without everything… It was not enough for me to live, I wanted a reason for living and moral principles which were based on an absolutely certain knowledge.’

Raissa thanks God for instilling in her such a desire for truth but her times of ill health bring her to a deeper sense of God. Early entries are full of book quotes but as her health begins to fail these give way to feelings. She writes that her inner prayer remains the same, but with long periods of ‘dryness’ nevertheless

‘however arid it is, I cannot replace it either by reading or by meditation which would do violence to my feelings and which tire me greatly; whereas arid silence with God sustains me, rests me and I would not give it up for anything. … I reproach myself for having too often tried to read in order to excite myself to devotion; it has only succeeded in tiring me.’

She struggles with some of the demands on her ‘the management of oneself and of things’ where there is always the possibility of ‘imperfection’ and in 1921 decides that to love and to abandon oneself to God is the only necessary thing – even more than being silent with God.

A year later she writes that everything must be based on ‘the presence of God’ – the soul has to become simple and unified:

‘Once it seemed to me that I was on the brink of an ocean of love, that it only needed a little, a very little of me to be engulfed in it … Jesus, my God, make me all yours! … When you are there, making the soul rest in silence with you, drawing it to you and uniting it, there is no room for doubt. But when one finds oneself alone again, seeing how great is the poverty of the soul and remembering one’s sins, one doubts the graces received on account of their divine value.’

Raissa adds that she could not live without God, her only hope lies in God.

 

Raissa Maritain second notebook

Raissa Maritain Second notebook

The second notebook covers the period from 1918-1919 – the last year of World War 1. Early on Raissa writes about the vocation of a Christian which is to ‘walk on the waters … With no human support, in pure faith, in hope and pure charity. With no feeling sometimes, simply keeping one’s eyes raised to God …’

 

Despite being always in poor health Raissa journeys with Jacques to Rome in connection with his theological work, and there it’s initially more difficult to find the solitude and silence she needs. Once she can, she deepens her time of contemplative prayer, commenting on the necessity of this time of silence. This is alongside theological study, writing prose and poetry. Raissa sees that contemplation is the foundation of everything, for even if it dispenses with external activities and takes place in isolation it means that there is a stronger connection with others. She sees this as loving others more for God and ‘to esteem them much less in themselves. Their judgement matters little to me, at least fairly little. What matters to me from now on is to be with my God, and to learn to love him truly. To make his Love and his Mercy known, by becoming kind and merciful myself, by living only on his Love.’

God is in us she writes ‘by grace. It is a question of descending into ourselves, to the bottom of our soul, and that, once again, by sweeping away obstacles.’ She feels discouraged looking only at herself so vows to leave the care of herself to God and abandoning her attempts to do anything through her own strength she sees this as a form of surrender.

In her biography of Raissa, Judith Suther raises questions and gives the contradictory views held about Raissa Maritain. She sees that a physically frail highly intellectual woman living an unconventional life will always be the subject of criticism and divergent judgements. By various people seen as a saint, a snob, a hypochondriac, a genius or an eccentric. Her experience of having felt lost in her desire to be with God and her deepening sense of the joy of his presence meant that her spirituality carries an intensity and strength and this evoked strong feelings in others.

In 1919 she lays out in her journal her resolutions; these are just some of them:

self-examination every day at a set time; very frequent short and fervent prayer; total abandonment to God; free my heart from everything it clings to most …; consent to be completely inactive and useless better to allow God to work in me; be attentive to divine impressions; be attentive to all movements of my heart; see to the purity of intention of all my acts, to perfect sincerity.

And there are more …

 

Resurrection experiences

Extracts from the further notebooks from Raissa Maritain will be posted in the future, but as this is Eastertide the reflections by Stephen Verney on the resurrection seemed timely to write about.

His book Water into Wine is about John’s Gospel and he shares two experiences of his own whereby he came to know what he had previously believed as an article of religious doctrine, ‘that those who have died really are alive, in another order of being, and in communication with us within a new consciousness of faith and prayer.’

The first account follows the death of his first wife, who after an operation felt that she had lost her inner spring of energy and used to say, ‘They have taken away my horse’. After her death, Stephen Verney and his children spent a week together at a place where the family had holidayed every year in Anglesey.

‘We were walking round the cliffs and had come over a little rise, when suddenly I saw, two fields away a horse grazing. I have walked round those cliffs almost every year of my life, and I had never seen a horse in that field before, and have never seen one since. It raised its head, saw us, started whinnying, and galloped across the fields, through a gap in the wall, and up to the stile … she pushed her muzzle over the fence, and snuffed us with delight. I cannot say, “It was as though my wife, my children’s mother, had come to greet us”, the experience was far more powerful than that. We knew that she had come to greet us, and that she was saying, “Look I’ve got my horse back, and I’m so happy you are here on holiday.”’

The second experience involved the death of a day-old son born to Stephen Verney before writing the book and with his second wife. Born, baptized in an oxygen tent, he died – this was the extent of the baby called Harry Stephen’s earthly life,

‘and we were left in a dark place where things did not seem to make sense. One morning, some weeks later, I got up early and was walking along the landing when I looked out of the window, and saw in my garden two sheep with two little black lambs. There have never been sheep in my garden before, and never again since that morning. I went outside, but they had gone leaving their footprints in the soil’.

It was the fortieth day after Harry’s death and Stephen Verney remembered the Eastern Orthodox tradition that the fortieth day after death the soul is set free and enters into anew relationship with heaven and with us. The scripture reading for the day was about the Good Shepherd who carries his lambs in his arms. Stephen Verney’s wife who was Welsh and to whom he had given when they were engaged a dress made of black Welsh sheep’s wool told him that she had always thought of Harry as a little black Welsh lamb.

‘Again, I cannot say, “It was as though Harry had come to tell his parents that he was alive and happy and cared for.” He had really come, using a language which would make sense to his mother and father on that particular morning.’

The veil between this world and the next can becomes very thin in times of deep loss,

‘They have gone through it, and they draw us with them into an intensity of awareness, so that in the depths of the present moment we become open to another order – “the inrush of timelessness” where everything is held together in the mind of God’.

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.