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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.

Connecting up psychotherapy and religion – personal relations theorists 2

Jeremy Hazell asks what is it that people are wanting when they come into psychotherapy. Clearly a sense of their significance as a person, quoting here Ronald Fairbairn: as ‘mattering for their own sakes as persons in their own right,’ and perhaps also through an experience of mutual valuing. I like the way that Hazell answers ‘how’ this happens:

‘surely through a steadily evolving knowledge and awareness of each other, through every kind of weather, in season and out of season, in and out of transferences, moving unevenly towards a state of sanctuary, of resting together.’

It is only through this quality of safe relatedness that the anxious mind can be stilled and the true nature of the self can be restored. To achieve this as the patient, one has to believe that the other person is fully with us – on one’s side – there ‘in spirit’, alongside and not ‘working out something in their head’ or ‘working towards an ending’ – not in fact consciously ‘working’ but rather present. It’s rather about seeing the latent natural health of the human psyche: ‘Seeing this living potential in the other person, and fostering its growth by ourselves becoming the medium for its realisation is the purpose of psychotherapy.’ So it is the capacity to be with the person, and this is surely true also in spiritual direction and pastoral work.

Hazell wonders how psychic maturation occurs and here I think are clear links to the idea of spiritual maturation as what he highlights is that emotional maturity isn’t to be measured by the extent to which we can cope or survive or thrive without connection but rather ‘by our willingness to acknowledge our absolute dependence on relations with others for the full realisation of our proper nature.’

‘Emotional maturity comes about when a genuine experience of relatedness supports and nourishes the heart of the self, and when this experience is able to be enjoyed (consciously or better still unconsciously) either in solitude or in contemporary personal relationships.’

This is the idea of ‘mature dependence’ and so similarly it is reliance and dependence on relationship with God and God in others that allows us to think about what spiritual maturity might look like. However this maturity is always relative as Guntrip put it:

‘Even when analysis reaches down to the deeper level, as I believe mine did with Winnicott, there is no such thing as a “full cure”. But while the past is never fully outgrown, one is put in a stronger position internally to experience with fuller understanding the way the bad old relations patterns are aroused and disturbed by present day events’.

And ‘if the past is never outgrown, neither is the whole personal self static while a genuine personal relationship is being experienced.’ This links to the idea of what Winnicott called ‘living spontaneously’ once again something that is alive and happening when one is engaged in a genuine experience or glimpse of an experience with God.


Connecting up psychotherapy and religion – personal relations theorists

Earlier this year Jeremy Hazell one of the founding members of the psychotherapy training that I undertook died. He had originally trained in theology and had become a vicar but following a dream whilst in a first therapy where he was seeking help for anxiety neurosis and palpitations he had seen that his ministry was to be predominantly pastoral – working with people. The dream shaped his future and he writes:

‘I was sitting in a small chapel which opened directly onto a busy city street. I was not being active, but was simply being there for any passer-by who felt in need of spiritual solace. There were no services, and the place was deeply peaceful amid the bustle of the city.’

Following this Hazell worked for the Samaritans alongside his work as a vicar then realizing that he needed more therapeutic experience he embarked on a five year personal training analysis with Harry Guntrip in the 1960s. Guntrip (who had originally also trained in the church as a Congregational minister) at the same time as seeing Hazell was himself in analysis with Donald Winnicott so as Hazell writes he, Hazell, reaped the fruits of this. Guntrip saw the purpose of psychotherapy as one of facilitating a genuine relatedness in which the person being seen could recover and develop. This fits with the thinking that the ego is the core of the personal self intrinsically relationship and identity seeking and Guntrip’s ideas came to be known as personal relations therapy. Hazell writes that Guntrip took,

‘a personal delight in finding the lost aspects of the personality, restoring relatedness and attending the growth of the original natural self. Thus I found energies which had long been subverted by anxiety to structure a “false self” gradually becoming free for reinvestment along lines of genuine personal interest…I experienced a profound sense of inner security, of on-going being and inner purpose, at first in the sessions themselves, and then increasingly in my family and the outer world … Guntrip sought to reach, repair and restore the emotionally weakened core.’

Looking back at sermons written whilst he was in treatment Hazell believed that they began to reflect the transforming experiences that took place in his analysis, as for instance ‘Love is man’s growing-power and God is love’ (Harvest festival 1965); ‘We carry within ourselves the seeds of our own maturity’ (1967); ‘Our own love and longing to love with which we are born, is the spring of our personal life’, and ‘When perfect love casts out fear, the energy expressed in anger is recalled in the service of the soul in loving, and the individual begins to realise his potential as a child of God’.

Hazell writes that these remained his firm beliefs and though eventually leaving his work as a priest he felt that he had discovered the vocation of therapeutic counselling within the wider ministry.

Learning from Merton’s early experiences: God asks Merton to make a choice

When Thomas Merton receives a letter from the Draft Board ‘telling me that my number was up for the army’ he is surprised but completes a form trying to make clear his position about warfare. Merton puts it then in a different way ‘less abstract and stuffy’ which is that God was asking him to signify where he stood in relation to ‘the actions of governments and armies and states in this world’. And here we have glimpses of Merton’s later writings about warfare specifically nuclear war, about peace, about politics, about racism and about ecology and about a right way of living.

Merton writes in The Seven Storey Mountain that God:

‘was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice…’

Here Merton says that the choice is essentially an act of love for truth and for the gospel and for the mystical body. But he also adds that the choice is for him too as an individual … ‘He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do.’

After some thinking about the implications of war Merton is able to state: ‘To my mind, there was very little doubt about the immorality of the methods used in modern war’ so he applies to become a non-combatant objector using quotes from St Thomas and sees himself helping in the medical corp. This section ends with a funny account of Merton’s attendance at a medical for the Draft Board where he is told by the doctor to go home – ‘you haven’t enough teeth’. As Merton adds ‘So they didn’t want me in the army after all, even as a stretcher bearer!’

Of course the Draft Board returns just before Merton enters Gethsemani, he has already written to ask if he can return for a further retreat with a view to becoming a postulant and enter the novitiate and with that agreement also comes another demand from the Draft Board for a follow up medical – they’ve lowered their requirements – you can fight with bad teeth. Merton replies that he is entering a monastery and his spiritual adviser sees the timing as ‘a very good sign – I mean as far as your vocation is concerned.’

Perhaps learning from Merton in this situation means that each one of us is asked by God to make a choice about our response to ‘the actions of governments and armies and states in this world’ and when we make a choice then other doors open.

Learning from Merton’s early experiences: ‘this business of saying the Office’

Shortly after this disappointment of not entering the Franciscan novitiate Thomas Merton buys a set of four books; he shows his brother who he unexpectedly runs into:

‘I handed him one of the volumes. It was sleek and smelled new. The pages were edged in gold. There were red and green markers.

“What are they?” Said John Paul.


The four books represented a decision. They said that if I could not live in the monastery, I should try to live in the world as if I were a monk in a monastery.’

Gone is the pride and certainty instead Merton writes that he wanted grace and needed prayer and that ‘I was helpless without God, and that I wanted to do everything that people did to keep close to Him.’ He reflects that buying the books that day was one of the best things he ever did in his life: ‘the inspiration to do it was a very great grace. There are few things I can remember that give me more joy.’

He begins and the first time he tries to say the Office (and this is in Latin) was on the train:

‘I opened up the book and began right away with Matins … It was a happy experience, although its exultancy was subdued and lost under my hesitations and external confusion about how to find my way around in the jungle of the rubrics… I went on from psalm to psalm, smoothly enough. By the time I got to the Lessons of the Second Nocturn, I had figured out whose feast it was that I was celebrating.’

And so Merton starts saying and praying the Offices and gradually the anguish and sorrow reduces. Initially he found it difficult, as surely everyone does, in finding his way round the books, ‘every step was labour and confusion, not to mention the mistakes and perplexities I got myself into.’ Apart from getting advice on how to work out the feasts and so on Merton decides not to mention it to anyone: ‘half fearing that someone would make fun of me, or think I was eccentric, or try to snatch my books away from me on some pretext.’

And the benefit of the regular routine of reading the office has a gradual effect:

‘Yes, and from the secret places of His essence, God began to fill my soul with grace in those days, grace that spring from deep within me, I could not know how or where. But yet I would be able, after not so many months, to realize what was there, in the peace and the strength that was growing in me through my constant immersion in this tremendous, unending cycle of prayer, ever renewing its vitality, its inexhaustible , sweet energies from hour to hour, from season to season in its returning around.’

Learning from Merton’s early experiences: ‘the horrible humility of hell’

Learning from Merton’s early experiences: ‘the horrible humility of hell’

The description of Merton’s realisation that he might not be able to become a Franciscan and his subsequent thinking is powerful because it so well illustrates those hot and cold moments when one realises who one is in the light of some situation or how people have ‘wrongly’ assumed how one is from an immediate impression. Merton calls such self-knowledge ‘anguish’. He links it to a type of humility in hell – which is not the humility of the saints that leads to peace but is rather a ‘false humility of hell which is an unending burning shame.’ It is part of self-love because it is our pride based on how we see ourselves that is hurt and it is this pride that has to be burned away by God. This is of course Merton at his most zealous, unsubtle and unforgiving:

‘It is the proud that have to be burned and devoured by the horrible humility of hell … But as long as we are in this life, even that burning anguish can be turned into a grace, and should be a cause of joy.’

There is something familiar to be taken from this dismay as we read how Merton comes to see that when he was meeting the various monks none of them knew ‘who I really was’.

‘They knew nothing about my past. They did not know how I had lived before I entered the Church. They had simply accepted me because I was superficially presentable, I had a fairly open sort of face and seemed to be sincere and to have an ordinary amount of sense and good will.’

Merton describes his agitation whilst waiting for the decision to be made and then experiencing his anguish and restlessness. He prayed to God for God’s will to be done.

‘My own mind was full of strange, exaggerated ideas. I was in a kind of nightmare. I could not see anything straight.’

After hearing that he was being turned away Merton goes to confession – which again because he is in deep distress goes badly wrong.

‘The priest was in no mood to stand for any nonsense, and I myself was confused and miserable, and couldn’t explain myself properly, and so he got my story all mixed up…The whole thing was so hopeless that finally in spite of myself, I began to choke and sob and I couldn’t talk any more. So the priest, probably judging that I was some emotional and unstable and stupid character, began to tell me in very strong terms that I certainly did not belong in the monastery, still less the priesthood and, in fact, gave me to understand that I was simply wasting his time and insulting the Sacrament of Penance by indulging my self-pity in his confessional.’

Learning from Thomas Merton’s early experiences: ‘living as if … for temporal favours’

The Seven Storey Mountain is (for me) a wonderful book to return to, either to re-read or to dip into from time to time. Admittedly the late Merton contains the deep understanding of his mature spiritual thinking but there is much to be learnt from Merton’s early insights.

One that has resonance is linked to the time of Merton’s realization that he could not join the novitiate and become a Franciscan. For those who may not remember this is a little while before Merton goes to the Abbey of Gethsemani and enters the Trappist order. It is in the summer of 1940 when Merton muses on what he might be called and how he will be as a Franciscan:

‘I would come humbly along the corridor in my sandals – or rather our sandals – with my eyes down, with the rapid but decorous gait of a young Friar who knew his business: Frater John Spaniard. It made a pleasant picture.’

And so the summer months pass before his planned autumn departure to join the Franciscans and it is only looking back that Merton can see that God wanted to ask more about this vocation – one which Merton can admit attracted him because of the teaching and writing and the surroundings where he would probably live. The questions were raised when Merton was reading the bible – chapter 9 of the book of Job. Merton quotes parts of the chapter, here from verse nine:

“‘Who maketh Arcturus and Orion and Hyades and the inner parts of the south…”

There was something deep and disturbing in the lines. I thought they only moved me as poetry: and yet, I also felt, obscurely enough, that there was something personal about them. God often talks to us directly in Scripture. That is, He plants the words full of actual graces as we read them and sudden undiscovered meanings are sown in our hearts, if we attend to them, reading with minds that are at prayer.’

Merton says he didn’t at that stage have the art of reading in that way but the following words began to burn and sear within him:

“If he come to me, I shall not see Him: if He depart, I shall not understand … If He examine me on a sudden who shall answer Him? Or who can say, why dost Thou so?”

From the grace of such reading came the realization of,

‘an accusation that would unveil forgotten realities. I had fallen asleep in my sweet security. I was living as if God only existed to do me temporal favours’.


The Courage to Be, 4

Paul Tillich sees that there is courage in taking on despair and doubt, such courage, ‘takes despair [into itself] and resist[s] the radical threat of nonbeing by the courage to be as oneself’. So if we are brave enough to accept the negative and face things as they actually are and not be seduced by temporary security Tillich thinks that we arrive at a deeper hope.

‘The faith which makes the courage of despair possible is the acceptance of the power of being, even in the grip of nonbeing…. The act of accepting meaningless is itself a meaningful act.’

There is an affirmation of life even as we suffer. When one has the courage to take the anxiety of meaningless upon oneself, a true power of being is revealed. ‘The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt’.

So how much did I get from this book over thirty years ago when I was trying to unpack and understand Tillich’s rather dense prose – a lot of which I just didn’t understand?  Realistically and consciously not that much but the title did mean something and perhaps at a deeper level I began to appreciate that psychology and religion did have meeting places and that one could inform the other and could co-exist and indeed nurture one another. Perhaps most importantly the gift of the book convinced me that my then psychotherapist understood what I needed and where I was coming from and that action in itself gave me courage.

When I looked through the book this week so many years later I found a card inside where I had copied out three extracts from psalms. I wouldn’t have called myself a Christian then though I was attending Quaker meeting and later became a member of the Society of Friends but I clearly did search for biblical inspiration.

The card is headed ‘Thoughts’ and includes the following extracts from The New English Bible version that I then used:

‘When in my distress I called to the Lord, His answer was to set me free’ (Psalm 118)

‘I love the Lord for he has heard me and listens to my prayer … I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living’ (Psalm 116)

‘So every faithful heart shall pray to thee in the hour of anxiety, when great floods threaten. Thou are a refuge for me from distress so that it cannot touch me; thou dost guard me and enfold me in salvation beyond all reach of harm’ (Psalm 32)

The psalmists knew about the courage to be…

The Courage to Be 3

Paul Tillich does look specifically at neurotic anxiety which he sees as avoiding nonbeing by avoiding being. So if one is totally wrapped up in the symptoms of anxiety one is not fully confronting life with courage. He writes that courage ‘is the readiness to take upon oneself negatives…for the sake of a fuller positivity. Biological self-affirmation implies the acceptance of want, toil, insecurity, pain, possible destruction…. The more vital strength a being has the more it is able to affirm itself in spite of the dangers announced by fear and anxiety’. This courage is not just individual but to accept that one is a part able to participate with others and so able to love. Tillich is saying that being courageous doesn’t work as a theoretical position or as taking a detached view of the world and life. Courage happens when one takes part and is involved – here I think ‘only connect’ comes to mind.

On the website Tillich Resources Tillich’s support of existentialism as a philosophy of life and self-affirmation is described, but his approach to religion as a way to counter meaninglessness remains in many ways ambiguous. He thinks the courage to be can be accessed particularly in mysticism where ‘the individual self strives for a participation in the ground of being which approaches identification…it is self-surrender in a higher, more complete, and more radical form…the perfect form of self-affirmation’. The mystic conquers the anxiety of fate and death by elevating the soul above the finite to the infinite. The other kind of religious encounter with the power of being is the personal encounter or communion with God and the ‘courage of confidence in the personal reality which is manifest in the religious experience’.

If we believe that we are forgiven by God then this facilitates ‘the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable’ – this helps with the guilt. This is the idea that it is the courage to accept acceptance – despite everything we are acceptable – to use the Winnicott expression relief can arrive with the acceptance that one is ‘good-enough’ – not perfect (which is impossible). In accessing the accepting love of the self that comes from beyond our self, the anxiety of guilt and condemnation is conquered. And holding firmly still to the balance of the opposites Tillich sees that faith can exist alongside doubt and despair – indeed that is the only way possible; and here he defines faith as ‘ the state of being grasped by the power of being-itself.’




The Courage to Be 2

Paul Tillich understood the need to balance the opposites – so that to have ‘being’ there has to be ‘non-being’ too but he sees this as the negation of everything; it has to be there as destruction has to be balanced as the opposite of creation. Non-being links to anxiety – for if we know that we are alive then we will also know that we can also not be alive. If we are fearful and afraid then that is usually about something in particular – in other words there is an object to focus on whereas anxiety is generalised and has no object. Fear can be faced and overcome but with anxiety ‘participation, struggle, and love with respect to it are impossible’. If we are left without a focus or a tactic to use as with fear then anxiety leaves us feeling overwhelmed and impotent often turning into depression. For Tillich it is the power of being that then stirs beneath anxiety so as he writes nonbeing strives toward being when ‘anxiety strives to become fear, because fear can be met by courage’.

Tillich distinguishes three types of anxiety: that of fate and death (ontological); that of emptiness and loss of meaning (spiritual); and that of guilt and condemnation (moral). Each of the three can be applied to the personal as realities in an individual’s life and to the social/ collective. Ontological anxiety the fear of fate and death applies to everyone and we cannot get away from it: ‘everybody is aware of the complete loss of self which biological extinction implies.’ Here he uses the word ‘fate’ to refer to ‘mini-death’ where we are open to any change at any time which leaves us aware of our weakness and vulnerability through disease and accidents. Nonbeing is not only felt through death and fate but also spiritually in the encounter with meaninglessness, the result of which is the second kind of anxiety; the antidote is spiritual self-affirmation, which ‘occurs in every moment in which man lives creatively in the various spheres of meaning’. Yet the second anxiety is spiritual anxiety which threatens our entire sense of self – here the antidote is to accept the possibility of the despair of emptiness and lack of meaning the danger is to deny this and so embrace fanaticism and deny all doubt. Anxiety linked to guilt (the third one) is when we fall short of what we know we could be and become and end up rejecting our self.

Interestingly Tillich sees the age in which he was writing (post-war 1950s) as visibly spiritual anxious – surely we are even more so in the 21s century with our emphasis on materialism and denial of the spirituality of nature.