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Self-isolation and meditation

In The Sign of Jonas (p 330-2) Thomas Merton writes about when he sits in silence:

“Different levels of depth

First, there is the slightly troubled surface of the sea. Here there is action, I make plans. They toss in the wake of other traffic: passing liners… Where do they spring from?

Second, there is the darkness that comes when I close my eyes. Here is where the big blue, purple, green, and grey fish swim by. Most beautiful and peaceful darkness: is it the cave of my own inner being? In this water cavern I easily live, whenever I wish. Dull rumours only of the world reach me. Sometimes a drowned barrel floats into the room. Big grey-green fish, with silver under their purple scales … I close my eyes to the sun, and live on the second level, a natural prayer, peace… There is no sound. Soon even the fish are gone. Night, night. Nothing is happening… I half open my eyes to the sun, praising the Lord of glory. Lo, thus I have returned from the blank abyss …Ferns and fish return. Lovely dark green things. In the depth of the waters, peace, peace, peace. Such is the second level of waters under the sun. We pray therein, slightly waving among the fish…

Words, as I think, do not spring from this second level. They are only meant to drown there.

Third level. Here there is positive life swimming in the rich darkness which is no longer thick like water but pure, like air. Starlight, and you do not know where it is coming from. Moonlight is in this prayer, stillness, waiting for the Redeemer. Walls watching horizons in the middle of the night … Everything is charged with intelligence, though all is night. There is no speculation here … Everything is spirit. Here God is adored. His coming is recognized… This is the holy cellar of my mortal existence, which opens into the sky.

It is a strange awakening to find the sky inside you and beneath you and above you and all around you so that your spirit is one with the sky, and all is positive night.”


Self isolation – without the worry

One of my favourite talks given by Thomas Merton to the novices is called ‘A life free from care’ which you can find in Essential Writings selected by Christine M. Bochen (p. 67). Merton is writing about life in the monastery but I think we can make use of it at the moment too. He says that ideally in the monastery you put away all care. In this current crisis we may actually be in the equivalent of a monastic cell because we are in isolation, but we may be very much full of care: care for our health, care for our loved ones, care about the world, worrying about shopping – where can I find bananas – what about bread, what shall I do, and why can’t I make good use of this time …

Merton says that we are “devoured by care … and then the thoughts fears, reflections, regrets and anxieties”. Merton quotes the following suggesting that this is what we are supposed to do: “Since God offers to take upon Himself the care of our affairs, let us once for all abandon them to His infinite wisdom”, in other words God is taking care of everything. Merton says that if we can let go of all our cares that cloud our minds and vision, then he knows from experience that what this does,

‘is that in fact it is sometimes possible to see that things become transparent. They are no longer opaque and they no longer hide God…life is as simple as this. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story, it is true. And this is something we are not able to see. But if we abandon ourselves to Him and forget ourselves we see it sometimes and we see it maybe frequently: that God manifests Himself everywhere, in everything – in people and in things and in nature and in events and so forth. So that it becomes very obvious that He is everywhere, he is in everything, and we cannot be without Him. You cannot be without God. It’s impossible, it’s just simply impossible.’



I’ll return to the shame theme in due course but in the meantime and given the situation these thoughts seemed more relevant.

On retreat

Self-isolation offers an extended retreat – of sorts.

Seeing it as a retreat is one possible way of viewing what is happening and the enforced restriction on our activities. Thomas Merton wrote about how being apart from the other monks in the hermitage was his way of doing it. He wrote to Rosemary Radford Ruether in March 1967 about the hermit life.

The letter, Merton admits later, is somewhat defensive as he was reacting to her accusation that he, Merton, was cutting himself off in some ways from the world and the struggle for justice in the world by retreating into the woods. In our current pandemic we are not willingly retreating into the forest, but metaphorically we are retreating to our individual cells. In his defence of monastic concerns, Merton sees that these ultimate concerns are in fact human and universal. It’s about stripping off the veneer of the social world and reducing oneself to ‘a plain, simple’ person. Merton continues: ‘This condition of mere humanity does not require solitude in the country, it can be and should be realised anywhere. This is just my way of doing it. What would seem to others to be the final step into total alienation seems to me to be the resolution of all alienation and the preparation for a real return without masks and without defences into the world, as mere man.’

I like the idea of returning to the world after time apart without masks. The actual face mask has become such a symbol of our contamination and fear of being infected by or infecting one another; but the infection that does not recognise nationality, race, faith, gender and sexuality reminds us that there is more that unites than divides us. The psychological masks and defences are usually what we use to present ourselves to the world; if they begin to be dismantled as we have time out maybe we can see that they are less needed.

The Hidden Ground of Love pp.508

Shame – 2

The word ‘shame’ comes from a word that means ‘to cover,’ that is, to hide. And shame truly is the hidden affect. The parts of ourselves we wish to hide are the shameful parts, and we also wish to hide the fact that we are ashamed. In this way, to use Jungian language shame is strongly connected with the shadow. If we can’t prevent it, we hide it. In common language when we talk about embarrassment, humiliation, or mortification we are talking about shame.

Shame occurs typically, if not always, in the context of an emotional relationship, as shame is experienced both through the actual eyes of the other, and the internalized parental eyes that come from our infancy. ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself’ and ‘shame on you’ – both exclamations which we have probably all heard at some time, and to which we have reacted accordingly – reacted with shame. Because the sharp increase in self-attention, (and sometimes the increased sensitivity of the face produced by blushing) causes the person to feel as though they were naked and exposed to the world. Shame is a feeling of loathing and condemnation toward oneself, about the state and nature of one’s whole sense of self. Shame motivates the desire to hide, to disappear. We cringe, shrink, wish to disappear at the thought that these ‘facts’ about ourselves might be observed by another, and thus shame characteristically leads to concealment, to hiding, and to deception. Loss of face, disgrace, and dishonour are close relatives in the family of shame. Shame can also produce a feeling of ineptness, incapacity, and a feeling of not belonging. And so we defend strongly against shame by withdrawal, avoidance (which can take many different forms), attacking others, and attacking the self.

Deep shame is primarily an inner experience that comes from an internalised sense of being unacceptable, unlovable. We might even be enjoying some good fortune when seemingly out of nowhere comes the knowledge of our unworthiness, this previously unthought inner reality. We don’t deserve to be here – who do I think I am? Who did I think I was? There’s no one to hide from, nothing to hide from, nowhere to go, and certainly no going back. That person is mortified, dead:  what do people say: ‘I was so embarrassed/ ashamed I could have died.’ This is existential shame that implies fear of total abandonment and a fear of psychic extinction.

There’s a powerful description of spiritual shame in Thomas Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain where he writes of a sudden realisation that he was living ‘as if God only existed to do me temporal favours’. From this arises deep unease and memories of his past; Merton calls this the ‘false humility of hell’ and ‘an unending, burning shame’ of what he calls ‘the inescapable stigma of our sins’ and ‘it is pride that feels the burning of that shame.’

Shame – a soul eating emotion

The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Masaccio – this is before (on the left) and after restoration. 

It was the analytical psychologist Carl Jung who wrote that ‘Shame is a soul eating emotion’, and it certainly is something that lingers long after anger, or sadness or happiness have passed. In the next few posts I’m including some of the ideas that came from a talk that I gave about ‘Shame’.

I distinguished between an inner shame and outer shame, and used the biblical story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise which is the most influential myth in our culture dealing with shame. In it we are told that, after eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve suddenly felt ashamed of their nakedness. Before this incident, they had been naked without feeling ashamed. But the fruit of knowledge gave them the capacity to distinguish between ‘I and Thou’, subject and object, and thus they awoke to the realization that they were two separate beings – her naked body was different from his, as was plain to see.  Feeling ashamed, and ashamed in front of God about what they had done, they stitched together garments of fig-leaves to cover their ‘private parts’.

In the famous painting of the expulsion by the Renaissance artist Masaccio you can see the particular gestures of Adam and those of Eve that depict the primeval couple’s shame according to traditional gender stereotypes. Adam, distraught, covers his eyes with his hands. Eve, agonized, clutches one hand over her breasts and the other over her pubic area. This shows the potential for clash and shame regarding ‘passive elements’ of the female as the subject of Adam’s masculine ‘active’ looking. In these stereotypes, the man, seen as a primarily rational being, experiences intellectual (or spiritual) shame and thus covers his face (or head) as the seat of reason, whereas the woman, seen as a primarily carnal being, experiences sexual shame and thus covers her erogenous zones.

Using analytic language the cherubim that guards and indeed blocks the way to the tree of life can be seen as a superegoic figure. In the picture the cherubim is painted floating above the couple and carrying a flaming sword looking judgementally down and reminding Adam and Eve of their shame. It can also be seen as the self-critical and self-conscious internalised figure of the parent or father God, which is projected out into the gaze of the other. The effect on Adam and Eve will be to inhibit, and withdraw, and curtail their ability to live fully without self-consciousness.

Interpreting this archetypal story, we may conclude that shame arises with the awareness of being seen by others. Shame motivates us to protect our intimacy, physical and emotional, under the cover of a symbolic fig leaf or loincloth, to keep for ourselves what is ‘no one else’s business.’ In this way, it reinforces interpersonal distinctness and a sense of one’s own individual identity. The fear is about vulnerability, and exposure of where we are defenceless. In this way it confirms that we are apparently different from each other with our own identity. But, at the same time, shame actually acts as a powerful inducement toward conformity.





Superstition and the false god – 4

One of the greatest superstitions is that of an image of God who is exclusive. This is the false god who calls a people just for him and excludes all those who do not fit in some way with what this might mean. This is a greedy God who wants things for himself; the alternative is of a God overflowing with abundance and generosity for all his creatures and creation. A great fallacy is that we all worship the same God because these are two radically different Gods – both of whom have their devoted followers. The image of God that is in us affects the way we behave – exclusively and judgementally or open to the world in all its different forms – or perhaps we alternate between the two. Incidentally according to Neville Symington, the psychoanalyst who was a priest, sees that everyone has such different Gods battling within them – whether religious or not.

Our attitude affects the way we behave, and our psychological approach to the things that we do. Superstition is bound up in this too, so, for example, sacrificial acts that may look wonderful to others may have been done to placate this greedy God and to win approval. If I say prayers then God will save me; if I help this homeless person then God will favour me. In other words this God is can be bribed – I will win his favour and so help myself. Or – there is the other God who loves me for who I am, and doesn’t need to be won over or bribed. Once again – we usually tend to have both views at different times, depending on where we’re at and how we are feeling. Whilst this is spiritual it is also of course psychological in the sense of our emotional orientation to life. At times I will be introvert and self-protective, excluding others, and at other times I can be generous and open trusting in other people.

Symington, writes how looking back he can see that as a priest he consciously changed from the savage God that he saw as external to himself, and who was lodged in what he calls ‘the superstitious church’ to an intellectual understanding of the loving God. He began to understand that all the external piety and rituals implied that God was bribable: ‘You offer God prayers, sacrifices, devotions, and so on, and thus the savagery of God is bought off. This had been my piety.’ He later understood that the idea of the savage God still remained with him, but he projected it in various church people or parts of the church.

‘When the focus is on the outside the reason is very often because the horror of what is within is so awful that it cannot be contemplated, so one flees to the outer for refuge which is prominent. The savage God is part of a self-protective, solipsistic manner of being’.

As Symington wrestled with this inner and outer God he decided to renounce saying the Divine Office and instead become ‘master of my own fate before God’. When he began to understand that the tyrant God came from within his own psyche, he ‘crashes into the most appalling depression’ and turned to psychoanalysis to try to understand, later leaving the priesthood to become an analyst – albeit one who wrote extensively and I think helpfully about spirituality.

Superstition and the false god – 3

Sometimes it is quite comforting to follow religious devotions without much thought or awareness, but Neville Symington sees doing this without being emotionally present as ‘a self-righteous middle class pseudo-religious attitude’ ‘self-centred and self-congratulatory’. He says that when he was ‘awake’ what he benefited from was a wider, more human understanding of life and the world. He is particularly critical of his own adoption of what he calls the worst of superstitious practices when he decided to become a priest. He traces the start of this back to when he received instruction aged about 8 on how to take the host at communion:

‘I was to flip it back and swallow it and not allow it to touch my teeth. To let it touch my teeth would be making Jesus fall when he was carrying the Cross to Calvary… It would be a mortal sin… I believed implicitly all these superstitious injunctions … I was a frightened paralysed child … and how I trembled before such a ferocious God.’

Reading the lives of the saints as an adult Symington decided he too would become a saint and so he put a stone in his shoe to suffer pain, saying the rosary throughout the day, fasting, going on pilgrimage and saying confessions. ‘I had retreated into an awesome cave filled with the worst of superstitious practices.’ Looking back many years later, and writing in his eighties, he sees that he was in the grip of something that was crushing his individual creative self, but that he was determined to follow. Whilst acknowledging that giving oneself to something greater is ennobling, he saw that there is a difference in taking possession of something rather than being possessed by it. ‘The real difference which all great mystics knew is being possessed by being itself rather than some particular sensual part of being.’

Entering a seminary he continued in what he saw later as a renunciation of his own person and his own thinking to doctrines and dogmas, and to the ceremonial duties of the church.  However over the six years he was there, he moved from this immersion in what he called solipsistic principles to a gradual realisation about relationship and relating to other people. This he calls an ethic of compassion. It comes about he thinks from a move from hate to love and a movement from superficial thinking – ‘the packaged thoughts of others wrapped in a synthesised language’ to what he calls ‘deep thinking’ where new thoughts or ideas are generated, perhaps even from reading or having contact with something outside the usual.

A breakthrough into the true God and away from this dictator God who had become more benign over the years came when Symington, now a priest in the East End of London, recognised suddenly that he was not God’s slave but rather his free responsive partner: ‘God was not a dictator but a Being who invited me to be his friend.’

Superstition and the false god – 2

Neville Symington sees that our human task is to be lived by Life and here he means ‘Life as a transcendent principle’. He thinks a worthwhile test of whether or not we have lived worthwhile lives is this: is the world a better place for my having lived in it.

Following the superstitions surrounding the false god mean we are not open to life, but rather hemmed in and reduced by conformity to certain rituals, and ways of being not initially based on our own subjective experiences. During his training and work as a Catholic priest in the late 1950s and 1960s, Symington felt that his adherence to what was expected and what he saw as the associated superstitions meant that he had become as he puts it ‘hypnotized’ – false. This became a life long struggle, only become partially resolved in old age. He writes that he believes he will struggle with it up to the point of death. ‘I became a priest; I wore the outer clothing but inside I was not truly a priest. There was a priest-like person but not the priest whom people outside thought I was.’

He thought that if we remain false and bound by superstition of how we ought to be and so on, and then what happens is ‘a suicide of the heart’. But what he calls the ‘absolute in our being’ calls us to allow that reality to be the supreme motivating principle in our lives. If we turn away from this, then we have not allowed God to be God within us.  Symington questions what it is that paralysed him, and led to holding the person he really is prisoner within the outer conventions. His answer is ‘a savage God who hypnotized me’.

He quotes Teilhard de Chardin writing about meditation and finding the layers within himself of convention and superstition beginning to fall away as he searched for his inmost self; and his sentiment echoes that of Thomas Merton who wrote about the ‘disturbing stranger’ that is within each of us – our true self.

This is what Symington says:

‘Leaving the zone of everyday occupations and relationships where everything seems clear, I went down into my inmost self, to the deep abyss whence I feel dimly that my power of action emanates…as I moved further away from the conventional certainties by which social life is superficially illuminated, I became aware that I was losing contact with myself. At each step of the descent a new person was disclosed within me of whose name I was no longer sure, and who no longer obeyed me. And when I had to stop my exploration because the path faded from beneath my steps, I found a bottomless abyss at my feet, and out of it came – arising I know not from where – the current which I dare to call my life.’



Superstition and the false god

Being religious is about accepting a sense of mystery and finding a system that can enshrine it. The psychoanalyst Neville Symington, (who died in December 2019) writes in his autobiography A Different Path about the varying quality of soul he found in people who were religious or philosophical – in other words interested in life below the surface. He thought that this interest was to do with the person’s inner orientation to life: ‘It is a humble deference to something bigger, to an Absolute, to mystery. It is a spirit of enquiry.’

Symington was born into a Catholic family and lived in Portugal: ‘We Catholics had the truth. Protestants were simply wrong and were to be pitied. We knew we were right. We must have been the most self-righteous family and some of the English of Oporto, I suspect, hated us for it.’ Part of the struggle he documents is how to throw off this self-righteousness and the superstition which went with it.

An early experience that dogged him for many years was identical to the one I wrote about exactly a year ago that happened to Dennis McCort when he took a sip of water before communion on a Sunday, thus breaking the fast required from midnight. Symington writes about a similar injunction, when, very excited on Easter Sunday aged eight, he ate two chocolates he had been given. He then remembered the fast, but not wanting to disappoint his father he said nothing, so lined up at the communion rail he received the host: ‘I had committed a mortal sin. This deadly sin had cut me off from God and should I die now I would go straight to hell.’ Knowing he could go to confession he went a few days later, but was so terrified by what he had done he dared not tell the priest. This then he knew was a further mortal sin: ‘Now I knew I was deep in hell … I knew my soul was as black as pitch’. It’s not until four years later when he was a junior at a boarding school in England that he finally summed up the courage in confession. A kindly priest gave him a small penance and spoke the words of absolution. Yet, Symington, who became a priest in his twenties, but then left some years later, can look back and see that although he had apparently been forgiven, he had been such a frightened child that the inner belief and state of his soul, whereby he believed that he was wicked and deserved to be punished, was still present within him long into adulthood.

He can then write in his later years:

‘At a later time in my life I came to hate the Church which had made such an agony for me in my childhood. However, I now know that the fearsome God, although aided and abetted by superstitious injunctions, was a product of my own emotional state which I had projected onto and into the Church … Nevertheless I think the Church has much to answer for when it inculcates fears of this kind into its members.’

Miserable sinner and the false god 5

If parts of our self that are condemned as ‘wrong’ are then either repressed or hidden away or projected into others then it’s hard to be authentic. Instead the inner work is about taking possession of all the different parts of one self and this involves a creative act to bring a sense of unity – this is the sort of person that I am. This bringing into unity involves who we are with others and in our relationship with God, and the changes that can happen when we are in relationship. The changes that can move the ‘miserable sinner’ in a sado-masochistic relationship with the false god, into becoming a person in relationship with the loving God, involve moments of understanding and acceptance. The changes also involve a reconfiguring of how we see God.

The false god full of envy and jealousy and wrath interferes with acts of understanding and self-acceptance and so prevents creativity and personal growth and this is so different from the true God – the infinite, the absolute and ultimate truth that all reality is. The true God promotes them. To let go of the false god is – as Neville Symington sees it – an act of faith, an act of trust. He emphasises how helpful it is to use words such as ‘infinite’, ‘the truth’, or ‘the absolute’ which are part of a new dawning of consciousness and a realization of what reality is, and how it is, and that each of us are part of it. In the bible he sees an interplay the whole time between the false god and the true God as there is both individually and collectively always a tendency to go back to what is basically a powerful figure that dictates and overrides the creative inner power of conscience. The interplay is between an anthropomorphic idea of God with human characteristics and a much purer one. We have a number of the prophets telling us not to make statues or false images as God cannot be imagined in that way. In other words, this is the infinite – because God is not finite and the only way to describe him in that sense is what God is not. When Moses came down from the mountain he was furious because once again the people wanted an image – this time a golden calf, but that God could not be imagined in that way.

It isn’t so much that God was then angry, but rather that the people suffered because they had acted against their inner principles and therefore suffered from it. Symington writes how all religions contain this wonderful ‘pearl of great price’ and also superstitions and anthropomorphic elements here and there that have built up around the central wisdom

‘But they are not really essential – the important thing is to recognize what the reality is that is being spoken about. To speak of God being offended [and the associated miserable sinner syndrome] is an image, like the golden calf, from which we need to purify ourselves.’