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These difficult times 2

If all aspects of creation and the created order bear the mark of the Creator then they reflect the divine love and intention of creation. This makes our attacks and destruction of nature an attack and destruction on God. It is another crucifixion. We destroy what Thomas Merton calls the ‘Godliness that is in all things around us, that proclaim the immense and unfailing love of their creator.’

In 1947 Carl Jung wrote that people did not know that ‘the only true servants of God are the animals’. The problem for people was rather how we might become human and so more like the animals get further in touch with our intuitions. The difficulty would be to get us to understand that ‘any lousy dog is much more pious than they [Methodists and Baptists] are.’

We are animals too and like all living beings Jung believed that life’s journey was a striving towards wholeness – ‘everything living dreams of individuation.’ Part of the damage that we have done is to destroy that inner connection with nature and other animals. This means Jung believed that through our treatment of creations we have lost our appreciation of the ‘numinosity’ of animals. ‘They have become apparently harmless’ – here I think Jung is referring to our demystifying the spirit of animals so that they merely are seen as meeting our needs perhaps as food or as entertainment or as an inconvenience that need to be exterminated.

He continues,

‘instead we people the world with hooting, booming, clattering monsters that cause infinitely more damage to life and limb than bears and wolves ever did in the past. And where the natural dangers are lacking, man does not rest until he has immediately invented others for himself.’

Our difficult times reflect that we have lost our connection with nature, we have taken away the dignity of all animals. We cannot see the kinship of all creation. This is the model for how God intended and intends humanity to relate to the rest of creation. This is the Franciscan model – one of nature mysticism. This is where, ‘mystical experiences involve an appreciation of creation as God’s handiwork; nature manifests the divine.’ Surely we have been able to become more open to this during lockdown when the cars and aeroplanes stopped, the skies cleared and we could hear the birdsong. The ‘hooting, booming, clattering monsters’ were stilled and nature was briefly allowed to breathe again and have some space.

These difficult times 1

In 1953 Carl Jung warned a pastor of the danger of confusing ourselves with God. Seventy years later this seems like a prophecy that is being horribly fulfilled – although of course realistically humans have been confusing themselves with God for centuries. This links to the biblical idea that we are made in the image of God. We read in Genesis 1:27, ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’

It depends what the image of God means, but it is a short step to see it as to do with power and control. Jung saw the danger as seeing ourselves as the demiurge, in other words being responsible for the creation of the universe. Perhaps here in the sense that we arrogantly make the universe or recreate the universe to meet our own needs; as if everything in it has been created merely to serve us. Inevitably this means that we are also responsible for the earth’s destruction. In the almost seventy years since Jung wrote that warning, our powers of destruction have continued apace, and in our lack of humility we have inevitably usurped the cosmic powers of destruction. Indeed Jung warned of ‘a second Deluge,’ adding, ‘He [man] should become conscious of the tremendous danger of God becoming man, which threatens him with becoming God, and learn to understand the mysteria Dei better.

This has been especially so around the destruction of other creatures’ habitats and lives. We have not seen that they too were created by God and carry the imprint of their creator. Here the Franciscan Bonaventure is especially prescient. Dan Horan in his book on The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton explains Bonaventure’s theology of creation,

‘that highlighted the ways in which everything that was created by God was, in a sense, a vestige of the Creator. Each tree, blade of grass, bird, and so forth bears the imprint (vestigium) of the God who lovingly willed that aspect of the created order into existence.’

Thomas Merton connected to this Franciscan tradition. He wrote,

‘My idea of the world: first of all the world as God’s good creation. I have the good fortune to live in close contact with nature, how should I not love this world and love it with passion? I understand the joy of St Francis amid the creatures! God manifests himself in his creation, and everything that he has made speaks of him.’

Loving all of creation

As we continue to wreck the environment making it uninhabitable for so many animals and eventually for ourselves, it seemed timely to quote these two wonderful passage from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky:

Love all God’s creation, the whole of it and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day, and you will come at last to love the world with an all-embracing love. Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and untroubled joy. So do not trouble it, do not harass them, do not deprive them of their joy, do not go against God’s intent. Man, do not exalt yourself above the animals: they are without sin, while you in your majesty defile the earth by your appearance on it, and you leave the traces of your defilement behind you – alas, this is true of almost every one of us! Love children especially for like the angels they too are sinless, and they live to soften and purify our hearts, and, as it were, to guide us. Woe to him who offends a child.

My young brother asked even the birds to forgive him. It may sound absurd, but it is right none the less, for everything, like the ocean, flows and enters into contact with everything else: touch one place, and you set up a movement at the other end of the world. It may be senseless to beg forgiveness of the birds, but, then it would be easier for the birds, and for the child, and for every animal if you were yourself more pleasant than you are now. Everything is like an ocean, I tell you. Then you would pray to the birds, too, consumed by a universal love, as though in an ecstasy, and ask that they, too, should forgive you your sin. Treasure this ecstasy, however absurd people may think it.

Compassion for creation

This is an extract from the writings of Isaac of Nineveh (who died around 700) that I found in a book of daily readings, in the section on readings from the Orthodox tradition. It seemed strangely moving to think about how far we have moved away from compassion for all of creation, and the damage this has caused, so seems relevant to how we find ourselves today. [I have changed it to inclusive language though].

‘What is purity, briefly? It is a heart full of compassion for the whole of created nature … And what is a compassionate heart? It is a heart that burns for all creation, for the birds, for the beasts, for the devils, for every creature. When a person thinks about them, looks at them their eyes fill with tears. So strong, so violent is their compassion … that their heart breaks when they see the pain and the suffering of the humblest creatures. That is why they pray with tears every moment … for all the enemies of truth and for all who cause harm, that they may be protected and forgiven. This person prays even for serpents in the boundless compassion that wells up in their heart after God’s likeness.’

Merton suggests that such openness and vulnerability comes from meditation. If we feel dry in our prayer life then he suggests that you can focus for example on a flower or a tree. Here he comments on the vase of flowers on the altar of the novitiate chapel:

‘Beauty of sunlight falling on a tall vase of red and white carnations and green leaves… The light and dark. The darkness of the fresh, crinkled flower: light, warm and red, all around the darkness…

This flower, this light, this moment, this silence: Dominus est. Eternity. He passes. He remains. We pass. In and out. He passes. We remain. We are nothing. We are everything. He is in us. He is gone from us. He is not here. We are here in Him … The flower is itself. The light is itself. The silence is itself. I am myself. All, perhaps illusion. But no matter, for illusion is the shadow of reality and reality is the grace and gift that underlies all these lights, these colours, this silence. Underlies? Is that true? They are simply real. They themselves are His gift. ’

Thoughts on the shadow

The world does seem a dark and difficult place at present though of course there are wonderful aspects too, but it seemed timely to have another look at the ideas of Carl Jung and about whether God is all good and if so what that might mean.

Basically Jung thought that the ‘shadowless’ spirituality of traditional Christianity means that good and evil have been split and so the church has denied its own collective shadow. Jung saw that failing to take its own evil into account, the community of faith frequently projects its negative side onto scapegoats and exercises the prerogatives of moral perfection at the expense of those it condemns. In other words righteous people become possessed and preoccupied by the inferiority and violence they wish to disavow.

If the world is not to be torn apart by the violent exercise of mutual projections, human beings must learn to tolerate their moral ambiguity and ambivalence. This for Jung was the aim of individuation – each person’s life journey was about acknowledging and incorporating all the different parts of themselves so that they stopped projecting out onto others all the parts that one doesn’t like about oneself. And of course this can apply to communities, societies, and countries too – there is always the personal and also always the collective.

Our hatred and dislike of others not like us and the violence that has taken place throughout the history of Christianity aren’t mere accidents, but rather the inevitable shadow side of trying to be ‘perfect’ – better to try to be whole even if that includes unattractive aspects. Jung believes in the process of becoming conscious of evil and bearing one’s own share of it – for him this includes God. To become a morally autonomous individual, Jung says is like being crucified because carrying one’s projections instead of letting them be carried by others is painful work.



Uncertainty and control

In an early letter written by Donald Winnicott to his sister Violet in 1919 when he was a medical student, he wrote about his interest in understanding the mind and the new treatment of psychoanalysis. Suggesting he might be accused by his sister of blasphemy, Winnicott writes that in his view ‘Christ was a leading psychotherapist’. He explains that most religious rituals and extreme acts are equivalent to mental disorders, but Christ was able to heal and bring people to a true and deep understanding of religion rather than superficially following unquestioningly what others told them to do. In psychotherapy, ‘many fanatics or extremists can be brought (if treated early) to a real understanding of religion with its use in setting a high ethical standard’. This would then allow them to stop causing a nuisance and religious contagion, and free them to develop along their own individual lines.

Twenty years later and now an analyst, Winnicott returns in a letter to a colleague Dr Kate Friedlander to the need for some people to hold to very definite opinions and refuse any discussion on them. This can happen in religion and during times of crisis such as war and pandemics where survival is threatened.

‘Why is uncertainty alarming? This in turn leads to the idea of control. The greater the uncertainty the greater the need for control, and one method of control is by ideas and statement of words; even evil, when it is predicted is better than the prospect of uncontrolled possibilities.’

Winnicott sees that some must control in this way, whilst others are under much less of a compulsion. The people who must have their opinions heard in religious or political circles are trying to control magically what is happening. This is because the situation represents a part of the person’s own inner world (or unconscious fantasy) for which they cannot bear full responsibility. ‘This is half way between depression and elation, between carrying the sins of the whole world, and denying responsibility for anything.’

The people who refuse any discussion of their opinions and views have in their fear and uncertainty ‘made the last possible consultation, they had consulted God. Beyond that is the threat of depression or madness…’

If we are less anxious we can entertain other opinions and think through different options, but when anxiety is great then the idea of magical thinking increases, it is as if we have become gods making absolute decisions.

Self isolation and isolation

I find myself returning often to the work of Donald Winnicott. He died in 1971 but many of his papers have a timeless quality to them – perhaps because he is often writing about the unconscious.

His paper on ‘Communicating and not communicating’ begins with his stating the right not to communicate – his analysis of this is that there are various frightening fantasies attached to trying to communicate and one is the ‘fantasy of being found’. This he links to the fear of being infinitely exploited, or being eaten up and taken over. He links this non-communicating self later to the personal core of the self that is a true isolate. Perhaps this is a bit like the true self discussed by Merton where the inner core is the essence of the divine – God.

The communication that occurs with the world that comes from the false self, I guess this links here with Jung’s persona, can sometimes not feel real. The less of the true self that is present in the persona the more false it is, ‘it is not a true communication because it does not involve the core of the self, that which could be called a true self.’

Winnicott cites the artist where two trends are often easily seen to co-exist – the urgent need to communicate alongside the still more urgent need not to be found. The non-communicating self is an ‘inside’ experience – internal. Winnicott sees mystics as withdrawing into a personal, inner world. He sees this as a retreat to a position where the mystic can communicate secretly with subjective objects and phenomena, he writes, ‘the loss of contact with the world of shared reality being counterbalanced by a gain in terms of feeling real’. So as in contemplative prayer when we follow Jesus’ instructions: ‘when you praygo into your room, close the door and pray to your Father’. This isn’t just a literal instruction about finding a prayer room, but also a metaphorical space inside us – in our inner world where the door is shut against the external, and in that inner space we can pray and play with subjective objects – our experience of Christ and God and the phenomena of the Holy Spirit.

Winnicott sees that if we are healthy we do communicate and enjoy communicating, but it is also true that ‘each individual is an isolate, permanently non-communicating, permanently unknown, in fact unfound’ and yet I would add known and found only in God.

Self isolation and the ‘death-orientated society’

Thomas Merton had early experiences of death as both his parents died – his mother when he was six and his father when Merton was nearly 16. Looking back Merton writes that he ‘never doubted the fact that his father’s soul, or his mother’s, were immortal’, but as a child and adolescent he did not experience the comfort that religion can offer. When his brother John Paul died years later it was different as Merton’s faith allowed him to give this some meaning and to see death as no longer a wall, but rather a door to a homecoming, an act of complete liberation into a new mode of being.

As a monk Thomas Merton was taught how to live and how to die; he saw living solitude as a way of preparing for this. In December 1964 he writes, ‘How often in the last years I have thought of death. It has been present to me and I have “understood” it, and known that I must die. Yet last night, only for a moment, in passing, and so to speak without grimness or drama I monetarily experienced the fact that I, this self, will soon simply not exist. A flash of the “not-thereness of being dead”.’ This insight Merton thought was a real fruit of his increasing opportunity for solitude in the hermitage. Living in solitude was a way of preparing for death and influenced by further reading Merton saw death as a critical point of growth or ‘transition to a new mode of being, to maturity and to fruitfulness’. Eternal life is pure reality in the ‘hidden ground of love’ that is God.

In ‘Love and Living’ Merton wrote about the ‘death-orientated society’ where ‘the fear of death becomes so powerful that it results in a flat refusal of life … the empty power of death creeps into everything and sickens everything …Thus we live as if death were always ready to exercise this inescapable power over us. Death is life afraid to love and trust itself because it is so obsessed with its own contingency and its own ending … in seeking to convince themselves of their own power to survive, men seek to destroy others who are weaker than themselves … In the society of men who are exclusively intent on their own pleasure and survival, even though it has no meaning, just because they are convinced that their life ought to be interminable, death begins to play a very important part … obsession with power and wealth inevitably means obsession with death … in a death-orientated society, even though it may seem very dynamic and powerful, death becomes the end of life in the sense of its goal, and this is made at least symbolically evident by the fact that money, machines, bombs, etc., are all regarded as more important than living people.’

Once again Merton’s prophetic voice speaks to our contemporary age…

Self-isolation and the fear of annihilation

Donald Winnicott observing a baby

When the external environment that gives us a sense of our place in the world is radically changed, and there is talk about who is ‘disposable’ and who is particularly vulnerable to dying from coronavirus then not only is mortality brought to mind, but also a fear of annihilation.

Shortly before Donald Winnicott died in 1971, he wrote his paper on ‘The fear of breakdown’ which was published in 1974. The idea he put forward is that fear of breakdown is the fear of a breakdown that has already been experienced. He saw it as a fear ‘of the original agony’ that led the person to develop various defences to avoid the experience. In other words the breakdown that is so feared has already been, but is still being carried around in the unconscious, because, at the time that it happened, the ego was too immature to encompass what was happening and integrate it. This general fear of breaking down can be specifically linked to a fear of death. As Winnicott writes this is a very common fear, and one absorbed in the religious teachings about an after-life – but if you fear death then the promise of an after-life gives no relief.

Instead, as Winnicott understands it, the person is compelled to look for death, and again this is the death that happened, but was not able to be experienced that is being looked for. When the poet John Keats was ‘half in love with easeful death’, he was, says Winnicott, longing for the relief that would come if he could ‘remember’ having died, but to do that he must experience death in the present. One solution that people consider is suicide, in other words sending the body to the death that has already happened to the psyche – but that is a despairing gesture.

‘Death, looked at in this way as something that happened to the patient but which the patient was not mature enough to experience, has the meaning of annihilation.’ The death that happened was a failure in the baby’s early infancy in his or her ‘facilitating environment’, perhaps a serious impingement in the baby’s sense of continuity of being.

To get this original experience of annihilation into ‘the past tense’, it has to be experienced and absorbed into the present time and so understood.  As Winnicott says, if we can accept this strange truth that what is not yet experienced did nevertheless happen in the past, then the way is open for the agony to be released, and the present life to be fully lived (despite the virus) and to be open to whatever may come.

Self isolation and the capacity to be alone

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about the capacity to be alone as one of the signs of emotional maturity. He is looking at this in a positive way rather than the fear of being on one’s own or being in a withdrawn and depressed state. He is not talking about actually being alone – as he points out you might be in solitary confinement, or as currently for some on your own in lockdown and yet not be able to be alone. Then, if you are actually on your own and without the emotional capacity to really bear it, there is great suffering.

Winnicott understood from his work with small children – he was also a paediatrician – that the capacity comes from having had the experience of being alone as an infant and small child, but, in the presence of another. Here is the paradox ‘the experience of being alone while someone else is present’. He sees this as a rather special type of relationship where the child is there and the mother or mother substitute is reliably present, even if at that moment represented by the pram, or a cot, or even the general atmosphere of the environment… so the implication is that the presence of each is important to the other, and this experience has become internalised in the child. Maturity and the capacity to be alone imply that ‘the individual has had the chance through good-enough mothering to build up a belief in a benign environment’. In other words there is the gradual building up of a safe internal environment within which the individual can discover their own personal life.

So, when the person has not had this good-enough early upbringing, the alternative is that the false self is built up with reactions to what is happening outside – the external stimuli and that can become very uncertain and anxiety making. Winnicott doesn’t discuss it but I can see here how a personal faith and relationship with God can gradually repair a damaged capacity to be alone that never got fully established, and, so, over time, how an internal world can be built on the repetition of good-enough experiences in the presence of the Divine – perhaps especially so through meditation and a deepening of the sense of the Other.  Here God becomes the M/Other and a benign environment built on trust and faith.