Miserable sinner and the false god – 3

The embodiment of the false god happens in all sorts of institutions – not just the church and that includes in psychoanalysis itself. This is where one becomes merged with the embodied god and so there is no space for creative capacity. Bion called this state of mind the living relic of a primitive catastrophe – it stems from a traumatic event that has become fossilized, and the trauma was a wound to the narcissistic system probably early in life.

What happens is that the thinking process has taken a back seat and the embodied thoughts of the god have been substituted.  The person then operates in submissive identification with the god. This, incidentally is why ‘following the will of God’ can be problematic – is it the true God or a false god. Through this identification the thoughts and thinking processes of the god are understood and yet there is always distortion.

For example Wilfred Bion was once at a group relations conference, and he kept hearing speakers saying ‘Bion said …’ and ‘Bion did not think …’ etc. He turned to a colleague and said ‘This chap Bion sounds as though he was an interesting person.’ He had become ‘a god’.

The main point is that our creativity becomes crushed through such an embodiment – though submission is usually followed by rebellion, usually at the point when we try to break free from the narcissistic bondage. You can find this often in people who perhaps through a convent or monastic education have been submissive, but grow to hate the submissive act. While it is being submissive that is hated, this, too, gets projected out onto the object – sometimes the church or Jesus or god. But here again the trying to break free has been distorted. The liberation is in the insight of what has happened in one’s own psyche. Why did I so readily submit to this, and how can I understand it enough to dig deep and really free myself. We know if there is submission when we attach words like ‘ought’, ‘driven’ ‘compelled’ and so on. The false god ‘demands’ and says ‘do it this way’ and so on.

The true disciple pursues their creativity and recognizes how they are in themselves in relationship with the true God; this is about respect and acceptance of the self or as Jung would spell it the Self with a capital. Here we follow our conscience respecting the Absolute which we share with each other, and the whole of creation. Following our conscience then benefits not just me (as in the closed miserable sinner syndrome), but the other person too and indeed the world.

Miserable sinner and the false god – 2

In 1986, Roger Dorey, a French psychoanalyst, published an interesting paper on the relationship of mastery. In it he explores what happens between the two parties – so in this context it would be the ‘miserable sinner’ and ‘the all-powerful false god’. The main point is that each needs the other to be in the relationship. If I am the miserable sinner then I need the false god to seduce me, to take me over so I become fascinated by the process of trying to please and placate this god, until what I think the god wants from me becomes the way I behave and respond. In other words, I, too, become false to mirror the false god. The irony is that I am really enraptured and captured by an image, but an image based on reflection of part of me – a part that I don’t want to own and so on. Yet in being only a miserable sinner, I gain a great deal of gratification – a gratification which is partly about depriving myself of my own wishes and sense of personal being, and so nothing but a faithful replication. Dorey writes about this as a narcissistic perversion, and perhaps this can also explain what happens in certain religious settings where the desire to ‘annihilate’ desires and so on can lead to serious self-harm.

In her extraordinary early autobiography ‘Through the Narrow Gate’ the author Karen Armstrong as a nun in the 1960s writes about mortifying the body in order to become closer to god:

‘It has to hurt, really hurt, I thought, or else how can it work … It was not just my body I wanted to hurt; it was myself. But as I went on [with self-flagellation] I no longer felt the pain. Just a dark reckless excitement that grew steadily, blotting out everything but itself. And then there was a huge sense of release.’

Here there is the erotic aspect of this seductive slave-master relationship; ironically turning to her superior for advice Armstrong is instructed to beat herself harder and increase her fasting. The false god demands the punishment of the miserable sinner; and the miserable sinner is only happy when being punished. And because the psycho-spiritual life of the miserable sinner has been appropriated by this false god there is no space to think about what is being demanded. An analytic understanding would see that the ‘miserable sinner’ has suffered a deep wound to the narcissistic part of the personality and so the god arises and takes over – leaving the rest of the personality utterly crushed. It needs to be added that this god can also take over in groups.

The difference with the true God is that the true God is reached through deeper understanding  and contemplative reflection on the nature of reality … It’s been pointed out that those with the deepest understanding tend not to use the word ‘God’ but terms like ‘the THAT’, ‘the Absolute’, ‘the Divine’, ‘Presence’ or ‘Reality’, the analyst Wilfred Bion called this same Reality ‘O’. There is a sense of experiencing the absolute character of reality and also that it is contingent – in other words it is a contradiction or paradox: changing and unchanging – our minds cannot grasp this, it is both a ‘Beyond’ and a ‘Within’.

Miserable sinner and the false god

There’s quite a bit of encouragement to feel terrible about oneself in Christianity: confess one’s sins, feel remorse and acknowledge guilt and then be forgiven and so be relieved and grateful – before the whole sequence starts up again. In his spiritual exercises Ignatius of Loyola quotes St Francis: ‘Ah! Lord who am I? and who are you? I, a worm of the earth, a miserable sinner, am to receive a God! You, God, of infinite majesty, are to be received by a worm – a sinner, such as I am!’

How can this sort of dynamic of what one might call the miserable sinner syndrome be understood? There seems to be a relationship between the miserable sinner and the punishing/false god – it is I think to do with a masochistic-sadistic relationship and sadly a dynamic that is sometimes encouraged in institutional religion. It’s worth taking a psychoanalytic look at it as well…

Here’s an example taken from the writing of Neville Symington of a patent who was late one day because snow on the road had delayed her, and she was angry. In supervision with Wilfred Bion, Symington is told: “You must say to her that god has sent down that snow to get between you and her.”

As Symington discusses this is then a god who gets in the way of two people coming to know each other; it’s similar to

‘a god who interferes with my thinking; there is also a god who demands that I follow his instructions even if this is not in my best interests and indeed against my wishes; there is a god who punishes me if I think for myself; there is a god who sanctions my sadism, a god who encourages my masochism, a god who fosters my greed, who fosters my envy, who fosters my jealousy, a god who possesses me but despises me, a god who solves problems by obliterating them.’

Aspects of this portrait of god can be found in the Bible, the Torah or the Koran, so it is also part of a collective cultural expression but with traits that can be found in the individual psyche too. This god is a narcissistic object seen from one particular angle but is many-faceted and using analytic speak it is a part of the self that has been expelled and embodied in a figure, or figures, outside the self. Like its ‘maker’ this god is extremely sensitive to hurt or rejection. If we install these aspects into god then we see the figure as an elevated being but one who like us in our narcissism is fragile and liable to hurt, sensitivity and potentially uncontrollable anger. And of course we are warned by the prophets in the Old Testament for chasing after false gods:

‘What use is an idol once its maker has shaped it – a cast image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in what has been made, though the product is only an idol that cannot speak.’ Habakkuk 2: 18.

December with Thomas Merton – week 5

Merton writes about the year ahead – it’s 1968.

The year struggles with its own blackness.

Dark, wet mush of snow under frozen rain for two days. Everything is curtained in purple greyness and ice. Fog gets in the throat. A desolation of wetness and waste, turning to mud.

Only New Year’s Day was bright. Very cold. Everything hard and sparkling, trees heavy with snow. I went for a walk up the side of Vineyard Knob, on the road to the fire tower, in secret hope of ‘raising the sparks’ (as the Hasidim say) and they rose a little. It was quiet, but too bright, as if this celebration belonged not to the new year or to any year.

More germane to this new year is darkness, wetness, ice and cold, the scent of illness.

But maybe that is good. Who can tell?’

Kentucky Knobs in Winter

The next day in the evening the snow has become very hard and Merton writes of the dark pines over the hermitage. He looks at the graceful black fans and branches of the tall oaks between his field and the monastery. As he says Compline looking out of the cold valley he tastes the peace. ‘Who is entitled to such peace? I don’t know. But I would be foolish to leave it for no reason.’



December with Thomas Merton – week 4

In December 1965 Thomas Merton writes about going down to midnight mass from the hermitage where he was living.

‘I found it storming with rain and huge winds in the dark woods. The walk down was exciting. Coming back the rain had stopped. I came up through the field was glad to get into the silence of the hermitage which made more sense than ever. I made my Thanksgiving quietly said Lauds and had a snack and some wine (the last of what Brother Clement gave me a couple of months ago) and so went back to bed for a couple of hours. Got up again, said Prime and read… It is the kind of day I like, and like Christmas to be too: dark, cloudy, windy, cold with light rain blowing now and then. I have had wonderful Christmases (Christmas weeks) here with this kind of winter weather, unforgettable. Days not too bad for walking out on the wooded knobs, cold and lonelier than ever and full of apparent meaning. They talked me of my vocation.’

Merton goes on to describe the midnight mass feeling that the community was fully involved, although, for him, the celebration was still spoilt by what he saw as a sense of a certain falsity and wilfulness which some infected into it – ‘They always overdo a good thing.’ ‘Yet at the same time, I was moved by the simplicity and sincerity of Brother Cuthbert kneeling before the crib.’

He writes that he didn’t get the awful depression that he had had a couple of times at Christmas in recent years. And he thanks God for that wondering whether this comes from his thoughts about death that were opening out with the last days of Advent:

‘seeing death is built into my life and accepting it in and with life (not trying to push it out of life, keep it away from contaminating a life supposedly completely other than it. Death is flowering in my life as a part and fulfilment of it – its term, its final chord).’

December with Thomas Merton – week 3

By December 1958 Merton was noting his 17th anniversary in the monastery. By now Merton is much more questioning and at times restless with his vocation. He ends up going into town – ironically he notes this is a kind of ‘retreat’. Seeing what life looks like outside the monastery walls, Merton qualifies his earlier entries about being in the monastery for ‘nothing’ by stating: ‘really I am here for everything. Being out “in the world” would really be nothing and an awful waste. The “waste” of one’s life in a monastery is the fruitful thing; or at least it is for me.’

Looking around him Merton is appalled:

‘The overwhelming welter of meaningless objects, goods, activities – the indiscriminate chaotic nest of ‘things’ good, bad and indifferent, that pour over you at every moment – books, magazines, food, drink, women, cigarettes, clothes, toys, cars, drugs. Add to this the anonymous, characterless,”decoration” of the town for Christmas and the people running around buying things for no reason except that now is a time which everybody buys things.’

[FG: incidentally not of course happy about Merton’s reference to ‘women’ as ‘things‘]

And Merton too buys ‘things’ – a pile of paperback books and two or three magazines; the rest of the time he goes to the library where he is trying to sort out pictures for his book that incidentally never got published, on Art and Worship. Merton, and George, who was driving him, stopped here and there all of the way back and got home so late that Merton had supper in Bardstown he writes,

‘Walking up and down in Bardstown outside Krogers, in the cold, saluted by man, woman, and child. I thought that never, never could I make sense of life outside the monastery. I am a solitary and that is that. I love people o.k., but I belong in solitude. It was so good to get back and smell the sweet air of the woods and listen to the silence.’

Bardstown in the 1950s

December with Thomas Merton – week 2

In the second week of December 1948 Merton writes in his Journal that he is beginning the eighth year in the community at Gethsemani.

‘One of the things that makes me happiest is that, by some miracle, I have been able to get out into the woods a few times this month to the common work. The work has never, as far as I remember, been so far away: more than two miles out, and on the other side of the knobs.’

Merton wonders about the last seven years:

‘I think – where did the time go? I caught myself thinking: have I changed? Not that it matters. I have and I haven’t. I’m balder. Somehow I have more of an interior life, but I’d have a hard time trying to say how.’

Thomas Merton lists some of the things that have led to his changes: taking solemn profession, theology and the trials he has had with people here and there to do with writing, singing, and contemplation. He sees these little crosses as always the very best thing about the life in the monastery. There’s an irony as they seem so small – but they do their work.

‘How God works on your soul by these obscure and unremarkable sufferings that cleanse and drain your wounds. I am glad of every cross I have had and thank God in advance for all those that are to come.’

There are other graces too: the minor orders, the writing work and he includes in this the books and hours of prayer and through these Merton feels that God has taught him to find himself more in God, and, to lose himself more which, he says, comes to the same thing.

‘I am richer, now that I am poor, than I ever was when I was a bourgeois with a well-to-do grandfather … And the most precious thing I had today was an hour of silence behind the church. It has been warm and damp and the knobs are hidden in mist… I escaped to my

silence and stood out there all alone, drugged and    happy, with a book under my arm.’

December with Thomas Merton – week 1


Guido da Siena Madonna and Child

In the first week of December 1940 Thomas Merton writes in his Journal about silence. At this time of his life Merton is teaching at English at St Bonaventure’s College at Olean. The idea of joining the Franciscans has receded, as Merton notes: ‘I am impressed and awed by the fact that I cannot join an order’. In the Journal accounts we read of Merton’s reading, some linked to his teaching, and some to his increasing religious devotion. He describes the room he is staying in at the college:

‘I am glad I am in this room. Tacked on the door are pictures of Saint Dominic, Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, two of the Blessed Mother and Child, and one, a Durer, Guido da Siena, The School of Giotto. On my desk, Kierkegaard, The Biographia Literaria, Metaphysical Poetry – Donne to Butler, Saint Bonaventure, Saint Theresa of Avila, Hopkins, Lorca, Aristotle, The Pearl, Little Flowers of Saint Francis, Saint John of the Cross. Wait and see how fast I throw away Byron! Then also Saint Augustine, but waiting to be returned to the library. Two volumes of Skeat’s big Chaucer, also. Somewhere – Blake: not my own. Modern Library and its paltry edition!’

  It is from Kierkegaard that Merton reflects on what a vow of silence might be like, and how contemporary life is forcing people to the desert – away from it all.

‘The world is full of the terrible howling of engines of destruction, and I think those who preserve their sanity and do not go mad or become beasts will become Trappists, but not by joining an order. Trappists in secret and in private – Trappists so secretly that no one will suspect they have taken a vow of silence.’

Musing further, Merton says that seeking silence is the only response to, ‘the increase of the unbearable sound of the world’, yet, at the same time, doesn’t think ‘the higher vow of silence is to be sought after.’ Picking up Kierkegaard’s thinking on the type of silence demanded by Abraham in the trial over Isaac, and the similar vow of silence imposed, ‘on the Blessed Mother by the incomprehensible mystery of the annunciation’, or of Saint Francis alone in the presence of the Son, ‘is not to be idly asked for by a terrible coward, afraid of a toothache.’

Despite this we know that by December the following year Merton would enter the Abbey of Gethsemani where he would stay for twenty-seven years under a vow of silence.


Connecting up psychotherapy and religion – personal relations theorists 4

Harry Guntrip, Jeremy Hazell’s analyst, was originally a Congregational minister and had turned to a life in the church after his unhappy childhood. His own father had been an evangelical preacher described in an extraordinary interview given by Harry Guntrip to Bernard Landis in 1981 as a ‘hell-and-brimstone preacher who conveyed drama and excitement and attracted many people’. Unfortunately his father couldn’t handle Guntrip’s domineering mother and so stayed away from home most of the time. Whilst his father made many religious pronouncements, he was never seriously concerned with Guntrip’s existence leaving him feeling utterly isolated.

Guntrip describes in the same interview how the most durable and shaping influence in his life was his domineering and incessantly critical mother, and for Guntrip the most puzzling and transcending issue in psychoanalysis was how to disengage from this kind of experience. His mother, destructive from the beginning, was remote, depressed, and cruel, administering frequent and violent beatings, screaming that she never wanted to be a mother. Once she beat the family dog so savagely that she gave it away to avoid murdering it. Her violence, as well as her complete disinterest in Harry, drove him from the house except to sleep. Guntrip recalled how he often would try to claim his mother’s attention, but she’d only become enraged and beat him, ordering him to buy a new cane when an old one broke. By six or seven, dispirited and despondent, he began spending time at the nearby Salvation Army headquarters, often following the band that played on the streets near his home. By the time he was sixteen the Salvation Army was practically his home, and Guntrip said that it literally saved his life. He spent most afternoons singing along with the band, and thought seriously of devoting his life to the Salvation Army, though in fact joined the Congregational church instead as an adult. He said that the nexus of his life-long struggle was the dread of aloneness.

Guntrip realized that insight was not enough and that for reparation to take place was the life interaction of two personalities where both people change as a result of the encounter. Additionally, in Guntrip’s experience, the analyst must be able to find something of substantial value in the patient that he can reliably affirm, something pertaining to the patient’s own capacity to nurture and create. Guntrip declared: “The fact is, I’ve become much less interested in theory. Theory—this is just a schizoid defense. It doesn’t lead to change. This only occurs through an enduring personal relationship.”  The incorporating of an affirming analytic relationship was the heart and means of cure. In the same way religious theory ‘dogma and doctrine’ can only mean something in the context of a personal relationship with God.


Connecting up psychotherapy and religion – personal relations 3

Jeremy Hazell wrote about the self as a unique centre of meaningful experience, but that it all depended on what a person can experience and use as an understanding relationship. So there has to be a varying response and a reciprocal relationship, in other words it grows out of the mutual attempt by the therapist and the person being seen to understand and experience together. Into this comes the transference and the chance for the therapist to introduce the person to an entirely unexpected response which can lead to freedom. I like here the quote from R. D. Laing who once said: ‘Not what happened before (transference) but what never happened before’ – a new experience of relationship.

This too can happen in relationship with God – if we bring past experiences, and, for example, expect a critical and ‘punishing’ God who rewards according to compliance and so on, nothing much will happen even though we may feel thoroughly involved in being ‘faithful’. In this case the faithfulness is to the past and not to present experiences. If we can stand aside from this embedded expectation, we might, as Gerard Hughes put it, be ‘surprised’ – by the God of surprises. In other words, set free into a relationship with God not based on what happened before, but on what has never happened before. Being able to be open to the new might feel upsetting and uncomfortable, but brings us to a new place of value and freedom.

How hard it is not to set the agenda and expectations. In an account of conversations with Harry Guntrip, one American researcher describes how on visiting Guntrip he was also introduced to the then director of psychiatry at Leeds Medical School who was opinionated and patronizing, and not a supporter of analytic work, but rather of pharmacology and short-term therapy. Guntrip had noted with amusement that the director had a reputation for diagnosing all patients as having agitated depressions. A friend of Guntrip’s had sat in with the director as he interviewed a patient, and was amazed at how loud, arrogant and hammering a person he was, so that he made the patient increasingly worried and jumpy. Later, the director, truly puzzled, asked the colleague, “Why is it that every patient I see is an agitated depressive?”

The view of Hazell and Guntrip is encapsulated by the idea of the need for affirmation of the core of personal reality, for the eventual resurgence of the patients’ ‘lost heart’, through ‘a secure inactivity’ and ‘receptivity to healing influences’. Hazell says that from his personal and professional experiences where genuine healing has come about, the crucial therapeutic factor has been the arrival of a state of ‘communion’ described as a ‘kind of one-ness (in which) all opposition and all ambivalence lose their sense and their reason d’etre’, this is where the essential reciprocity of the relationship is most apparent. Echoes here of the transcendent moment, when all opposites are held, and where there is a sense of deep communion in relationship with God.