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Sanity and spiritual sanity 1

In 2013 I gave a talk exploring Thomas Merton’s ideas on sanity and spiritual sanity. I’m going to take a few of the ideas from that paper and then in later blogs look at a couple of examples of ‘mad’ men and ‘mad’ women who may have been deemed insane by society, but who demonstrated spiritual sanity and great awareness.

In 1913, Albert Schweitzer as part of his doctoral thesis undertook a psychiatric study of Jesus and, against the opinion of a number of eminent psychiatrists concluded that there was insufficient evidence to pronounce Jesus insane. However, he could give him the benefit of the doubt only by discounting much of what he seemed to mean, and by culturally relativizing his world view. Jesus was counter cultural – he might have been spiritually sane but was he insane in the eyes of the world … In contrast worth remembering is that during the trial of Adolf Eichmann he was judged to be sane, suffering apparently from no guilt and no anxiety about the actions he had committed during the Holocaust.

When Thomas Merton raises the question of what constitutes sanity, he is not speaking just of individual emotional health but also of the influence of society and what is judged to be sane/insane in that context. Merton’s observations lead him to the thought that it is those deemed sane who are the most dangerous, and who, without any qualms or second thoughts, can initiate warfare and press the nuclear button. The sane will justify their actions with perfectly reasonable logic, and so there will be no mistakes. As Merton puts it, ‘They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command’.

Such sanity does not mean that such people are in their ‘right mind’, and it is here that Merton introduces the idea that sanity can have no meaning where spiritual values have lost their relevance. If we are ‘adjusted’ to a social environment without belief in actions of love, empathy and compassion towards each other then we may still be seen as sane by society, and this certainly can include those who are religious who only adhere to words. Merton makes a plea not just for spiritual values, but for a spiritual sanity that includes anxieties and doubts, admits to contradictions, anger, guilt and an awareness of absurdities.

Sanity is a difficult word to define. The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says that the word, ‘gathers up in its own furtive way, a vast number of mostly tacit preferences and assumptions, of prejudice and ideals about what we think we should be, or should be like when we are at our best’. Sometimes it appears that sanity, as in the judgement of Eichmann, means complicity with everything that is most dehumanizing and most deadening.

As R. D. Laing put it, pseudo-sanity or false sanity is ‘an estranged and estranging integration of bits and pieces of compliant but efficient adaptation to a world we are terrified of… we have been seduced or tempted by false gods’.

R. D. Laing on Hamstead Heath

Exploring the resonances between psychodynamic therapy and the Judaeo-Christian faith 5

Some of the posts on this subject might have felt a bit one-sided from the point of view of the therapist being the one who in some way ‘knows’, or as in the last post in some way ‘redeems’ through love. In psychodynamic work this is very much a two-way process when the unconscious dynamics between the person being seen and the therapist are used as ways of bringing into consciousness and speaking about feelings that may have been repressed.

Carl Jung was very insistent that both therapist and person being seen are affected by the relationship – both develop and change as a result of the encounters. Revd Chris MacKenna – also a Jungian analyst called this ‘the way of exchange’. Jung, himself writes that the personalities of the therapist and person being seen are often more important for the work than what is said or thought: ‘For two personalities to meet is like mixing two different chemical substances: if there is any combination at all, both are transformed.’ So, there is mutual risk and mutual possibility.

The idea of exchange is very much part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition – though often in a paradoxical form. Salvation is a free gift and anyone can have it, but it will cost us not less than everything. 2 Corinthians 8 v. 9 describes this way of exchange: ‘You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’

The Judaeo-Christian tradition is mostly now dismissed in the west partly because of its endless moralising and hypocritical judgements about how others ‘should’ live, there doesn’t seem much to replace it beyond a vague idea that people should do what they want so long as they don’t interfere too much with others. There is a sense of uncertainty and values are relative.

In psychodynamic work and in spiritual practices we seek for something of real value. And these can sometimes be experienced in luminous moments of insight or awareness. In both the therapy and in religion there is a searching for truth – truth that can be discovered and known, felt and integrated – and that adds deep meaning to life. Psychodynamic therapy is not a religion but there is a distinctive spirit to the work which resonates with many aspects of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.


Exploring the resonances between psychodynamic therapy and the Judaeo-Christian faith 4

There are other characteristics of psychodynamic therapy that resonate with aspects of Judaeo-Christian faith and one is the idea of the wounded healer. No one gets involved in this sort of work unless they are in some way wounded. The key issue here is to be aware of it, which is why personal therapy is a requirement and the ongoing commitment to self-knowledge and self-examination is central. Taking ‘the log’ out of our own eyes’ is the priority before rushing to remove the speck from someone else’s – to paraphrase Jesus (Matthew 7, 3-5).

This links with the motivation behind doing the work. I like the account from Gerald Priestland a previous BBC religious affairs correspondent who said he was converted on the couch of a mid-European Jew. Chris MacKenna says whilst this is a wonderfully teasing statement, he thinks it is about how on the couch, Priestland learnt the meaning of grace as a deeply integrating experience – freely given, unmerited love. MacKenna also comments that to want to pass on this love is understandable, but this is where self-knowledge comes in, and he quotes the memorable comment by C.S. Lewis about the person who went around doing good, and you could tell who he did good to by the hunted look in their eyes!

In psychodynamic work we agree to keep to the function of the work so we behave ‘schematically’ – there is technique and arrangements, but there is also acceptance and a genuine depth of feeling – linked here to St Paul’s hymn to love in Corinthians 1, 13, v 5, which includes the sentence translated rather literally as ‘love does not behave itself a-schematically’.

The idea of accountability in therapeutic work can be seen to resonate with the idea of judgement – here this is only condemnation for those who are wilfully perverse rather the more usual meaning of judgement is ‘sorting things out’. Most believers and therapists would expect to give an account of their thoughts, actions and words albeit in different contexts.

Is it too much to suggest that depth psychology is a form of redemption – we need others to help us on the journey to wholeness? As in religious belief we accept that we cannot manage by ourselves – the psycho-spiritual journey begins with the appearance of another who is prepared to stand with us. Redemption by love is about the shared cost of the therapeutic endeavour and the power of really being seen by another human being who accepts the uniqueness of our being. As with Christ ‘then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’ (Corinthians 1 13, v 12).



Exploring the resonances between psychodynamic therapy and the Judaeo-Christian faith 3

The idea of internalizing an experience of being with a therapist is a powerful one – it’s a gradual process of taking in the core values and attitude of our therapist. It’s a bit like being a young child with parents, but there is not the same imbalance of authority and often the attitudes of the therapist work to soften or change the values we grew up with. After a good therapy has ended it is often as though the therapist or counsellor is living inside us – still available as a reference point – though as Chris MacKenna adds there is now what joy – no fees. In psychodynamic work we are being opened up to the unconscious processes that we may have been unaware of before the psychodynamic work took place and that were inhibiting and hurting us.

Here there is a similarity with the disciples’ discovery after the resurrection which was that the Spirit of Jesus whom they had lived alongside was now dwelling within them. The Holy Spirit or the Spirit of Jesus became the internal inspiration of the Christian life.

Carl Jung was critical of Christians who tried to imitate Jesus rather than live their own life to the full which would in Jung’s view be the true way of following him. I like the way Chris MacKenna explains here the helpful use of Winnicott’s idea of transitional space which can be found between the therapist and the person they are seeing and between the believer and Jesus. In this space the distinction between ‘me’ and ‘not me’ is clouded and some mysterious process of exchange takes place. So, there are powerful processes of identification and internalization that leave both parties changed.

There is though always the shadow side to this, so we might also internalize the prejudices and blind spots of the therapist alongside their creativity towards unconscious processes and events in the external world. Similarly, as a believer we inevitably take on much extra baggage usually this has next to nothing to do with God and more to do with the community, family or religious group.

In both there is the on-going need for self-awareness and openness to find the true ‘spirit’.


Exploring the resonances between psychodynamic therapy and the Judaeo-Christian faith 2

A further link can be seen in the belief found in psychodynamic work that there is a remedy through stablishing a different kind of relationship. In this relationship the therapist or counsellor is prepared to enter deeply into the person’s pain and confusion. By doing this the therapist or counsellor can get a sense of what is going on in the inner world of the person, though it can create disturbance too in the therapist. Christianity offers redemption also through relationship where another steps into our darkness and share sour suffering with us. The person of Jesus can become an intense companion and reality in the mind of the believer. I like the way Revd Chris MacKenna, priest and Jungian analyst, puts it:

‘There is loving identification with one who has shared our life and died our death. There is a powerful dynamic of projection and introjection through which all our sin, muddle and confusion is put “into” the figure of Jesus on the cross, but then detoxified and offered back in changed form by the risen Christ. Jesus’ death is the depressive nightmare: we seem to have destroyed the source of love, and to be left in total, hopeless darkness. His resurrection, though, shows that not even all our envy, shit and rage can annihilate the power of love.’

This is the risen Christ as the indestructible container and in the Eucharist, we place ourselves as the symbolic bread and wine on the altar so we can be made into the Body of Christ. In both the practice of the Eucharist and in psychodynamic work we grow through relationship with an Other.

In therapy we begin to put together – helped by interpretations from the therapist a new story that helps us understand our experiences. There is a meaning to be gained from our symptoms and this can be added to the new narrative to explain ourselves to ourselves. Again, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition narrative plays an essential part – memories of slavery; stories of the life of Jesus. The message is that life comes through death and the narratives help to locate us. The search for meaning is central to the inner sense of the truth of our existence. Ready-made religious stories can be stultifying and stunting but the narratives are often archetypal and we can find our own struggles within them rather than hearing them as history. In therapy a new story is elicited and put together in religion the stories are already present but in both we are trying to locate and find the truth of our experiences.

Exploring the resonances between psychodynamic therapy and Judaeo-Christian faith

In a paper written back in 2002, Revd Chris MacKenna – priest and Jungian analyst – looked at the resonances between the Judaeo-Christian faith and the modern discipline of psychodynamic therapy and counselling. He wasn’t suggesting that either of them could be collapsed into the other, but rather that both put us in touch with a deep vein of human experience. Both are about spirituality and inner work, and both in tune with a very ancient tradition of pastoral care. The paper called ‘Counselling as Spirituality’ offers ideas which I have taken to reflect on.

Psychodynamic therapy and counselling emerged from the parentage of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung: both imbued their work with their highly developed attitudes to life which (and despite Freud’s rejection of religious belief) reflect the spirit of each man. Such manifestations of the spirit as a force that animates, was then bequeathed to their respective disciples and movements. Psychodynamic work which is not particularly affiliated to either the Freudian or Jungian school of thought, does not come with a ready-made spiritual ‘spin’, but there are core values and processes which resonate with elements of Judaeo-Christian faith.

One of these is the value which is attached to the individual. The current trend – fostered by economics and demands for outcome analysis – is for short-term work and this is shown in the pushing of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) or CAT (cognitive analytic therapy) and various forms of brief psychotherapy. Traditionally psychodynamic work offers an open-ended approach. I often worked with people for ten or twelve years and often 2-3 times a week, and both my own analyses lasted into double figures. So that’s hundreds and sometimes thousands of hours working with an individual, or being worked on. This value may be easily critiqued in all sorts of way (time, cost, access, privilege etc.), but it surely resonates with the Judaeo-Christian tradition which claims that human beings are of almost infinite value because each is made in the image of God.

Another central value of working psychodynamically is that there is a tragic sense that something has gone wrong, there has been a dislocation in a key relationship and often very early in life – perhaps through birth trauma, or the attitude of a parent or some disruption in the home environment. So, there is a belief in developmental theory – the past does affect the present, and with the understanding that one will need to work through it before we can be free to move forward. This can be linked – however unconsciously – by the mythology attached to the idea of the fall. Once life was harmonious then there was catastrophic dislocation, and in the story of Adam and Eve serious trouble began. The belief that early catastrophe disturbs us, our relationships with other and with God is present and leaves a sense that life hasn’t realized its full potential.


Eveleyn Underhill -letters of encouragement 5

As the last contribution from Evelyn Underhill’s letters, I couldn’t resist part of her correspondence to C. S. Lewis about animals –

She begins by commenting on some of his ideas from his book The Problem of Pain and how for her Christianity does not explain suffering, but does show us what to do with it. Rather than attributing all the evil and pain of creation to humanity’s rebellious will, she senses a fundamental disharmony between creation and God. But the point where she firmly disagrees with Lewis is about his chapter on animals where she takes exception to his idea that ‘The tame animal is in the deepest sense the only natural animal … the beasts are to be understood only in their relation to man and through man to God.’

Evelyn comments that this seems an intolerable doctrine and a frightful exaggeration in what might be involved in the so-called primacy of man.

‘… is the cow which we have turned into a milk machine or the hen we have turned into an egg machine really nearer the mind of God than its wild ancestor? … You surely can’t mean that, or think that the robin redbreast in a cage doesn’t put heaven in a rage but is regarded as an excellent arrangement.’

She lambasts his illustration of the family home plus family dog as smug and utilitarian, comparing it to ‘the wild beauty of God’s creative action in the wild jungle and deep sea. Adding:

‘And if we ever get a sideways glimpse of the animal-in-itself, the animal existing for God’s glory and pleasure and lit by His light (and what a lovely experience that is!) we don’t owe it to the Pekinese, the Persian cat or the canary, but to some wild free creature living in completeness of adjustment to nature a life that is utterly independent of man. And this, thank heaven, is the situation of all but a handful of creatures we have enslaved. Of course I agree that animals too are involved in the Fall and await redemption and transfiguration.’

Transfiguration can never come by taming though, but rather by loving and reverencing the creatures enough to leave them free – and we might add now by not destroying their habitats.

‘When my cat goes off on her own occasions I’m sure she goes with God – but I do not feel so sure of her theological position when she is sitting on the best chair before the drawing-room fire. Perhaps what it all comes to is this, that I feel your concept of God would be improved by just a touch of wildness.’

The second verse of a poem by Evelyn Underhill called Immanence seems to express this relationship between God and animals:

‘I come in the little things,
Saith the Lord;
Yea, on the glancing wings
Of eager birds, the soft and pattering feet
Of furred and gentle beasts, I come to meet
Your hard and wayward heart. In brown bright eyes
That peep from out the brake, I stand confest.
On every nest
Where feathery Patience is content to brood
And leaves her pleasure for the high emprise
Of motherhood—
There does my Godhead rest.’


Evelyn Underhill’s letters of encouragement 4

Although some of Evelyn Underhill’s comments feel so much of her time (1875-1941), I find myself attracted to the seriousness of her work, and the mixture of spiritual and psychological insights present in what she writes. In the early 1930s she has a long correspondence with someone initialled DE. Here’s a flavour of what they discuss.

The correspondent is wanting to ‘let go of the self’ and Evelyn counsels: ‘we can never become un-selfed on our own – it is God’s work in us. We can only open the door and say, “Do what you like.” In the next correspondence she responds to DE who is in bed suffering the strain of what being open to God means.

‘We have to feel utterly helpless, weak, and unable to stand up to it, if we are ever to learn real trust and abandonment … Don’t struggle to find proof of God’s existence when He seems to vanish … von Hugel [EU’s own early spiritual director] in his little book of prayer compares this experience to meeting a sandstorm in the desert – and says the Arab, then, doesn’t struggle with the situation but accepts it, lies down in the sand, covers his head with his mantle, and just waits. That is what you are asked to do.’

Clearly DE is struggling, as during the following Lent, Evelyn repeats the above advice: ‘I am so sorry things are being hard … Just lie down quietly as you can in the dust and wait for the Lord; don’t struggle – it is perfectly useless at such times, and merely exhausting…’

Six months later:

‘After all, if you choose Christ you start on a route that goes over Calvary, and that means the apparent loss of God as a bit of it. There is no by-pass. But as long as you were getting the assurance of God, your offering wasn’t absolute, was it? … So face up to it, and thank Him (for He is there all the time …) Apart from this attempt at acceptance, don’t do anything. It isn’t your fault, it is just part of the route – and God will again show Himself when you are through this bit. Don’t struggle with prayer you can’t do – just say “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit”. Continue your Communions quite steadily … Remember it is you who are temporarily blinded, not the world that has gone black. Early bed, novels, the flicks and so on are all good and help to minimize the nervous strain … it is a normal experience in spiritual growth. … As von Hugel says, “it is so much more He who must hold us, than we who must hold Him”’

DE visits the doctor with nervous strain and is given a sedative (!). Evelyn responds that it is all ‘psycho-physical and should be dealt with from that end’ – again advising DE to accept what is happening and what has happened to her in the past and trust that God is somehow present. She diagnoses it as ‘a psychic illness’. (Perhaps some time in therapy might have helped, but would DE have been able to find a therapist sympathetic to spirituality and religion at a time when Freudian analysis was so central …)

A few months later Evelyn writes:

‘I don’t know when anything has made me so happy as your letter. I’ve always felt that if only you could be protected from discouragement and persuaded to carry on, God would show himself to you – and then you would know it was, in spite of all the difficulties and sufferings, more than worth while …it is so wonderful.’


Happy Easter!

Evelyn Underhill letters of encouragement 3

Later in her life Evelyn Underhill revealed the pull to the Roman Catholic church, but her feeling that she was following God’s will by staying in the Church of England. In the early 1930s she wrote to one correspondent about how awful on occasions the church can make one feel.

‘As to feeling rather dismayed by the appearance of the Church Visible at the moment – that is inevitable I’m afraid to some extent. But keep your inner eye on the Church Invisible – what the Baron [Baron Von Hugel – her own earlier spiritual director] used to call “the great centralities of religion”. That is what really takes one up into itself “with angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven” not only the Vicar and the curate and the Mother’s Union Committee. But there is something entrancing, don’t you think, in a supernatural society, so wide and generous and really Catholic, that it can mop up all these – even the most depressing and still remain the Bride of Christ? The Church is an “essential service” like the Post Office, but there will always be some narrow, irritating and inadequate officials behind the counter and you will always be tempted to exasperation by them.’

Evelyn passed onto others her own experience which is that the question should not be “What attracts and helps me?” but “Where can I serve God best?” – and usually the answer to that is “Where He has put me”. Again, she reminds her correspondent that the C of E desperately needs people who can pray and help people and to leave that for the devotional atmosphere of Rome is like abandoning the trenches and going back to the barracks. Referring to Newman’s conversion as “spiritual selfishness” she counsels her correspondent that “there is a great deal still to be done and a great deal to put up with, and the diet is often none too good – but we are here to feed His sheep where we find them, not to look for comfy quarters! At least that’s my firm belief! And the life of prayer can be developed in the C of E as well as anywhere else if we really mean it.”

Her advice to another is to keep your Christianity wide as well as deep – there is the Church Universal. God enlightens us bit by bit – as we can bear it and where we are.

‘Don’t strain after more light than you’ve got yet: just wait quietly. God holds you when you cannot hold Him, and when the time comes to jump He will see to it that you do jump – and you will find you are not frightened then … just be supple in His hands and let Him mould you (as He is doing) for His own purposes, responding with very simple acts of trust and love.’



Evelyn Underhill’s letters of encouragement 2

Evelyn Underhill’s correspondence with the same person as discussed in the previous post continued apace, so that six months later, Evelyn is able to write that from the correspondence, she thinks that things are going well. She reassures the person to not get caught up in what the Church of England says is there during the Eucharist, or indeed what anyone else says it is about, but rather to be present to what is there. ‘Direct spiritual experience is the only possible basis; and if you will trust yours absolutely you are safe’.

A couple of months later she responds to the correspondent by saying that all she can do is tell of the things that Evelyn has found out for herself – on the chance that they might be relevant.

‘Now it seems to me that one’s life only attains reality in so far as it is consciously lived in the Presence of God … attained and clung to by a definite act of will … Once you can breathe that atmosphere, it will determine most questions … as a means of getting at this, there is the regular and systematic practice of meditation: by which of course I do not mean thinking about a pious subject but the “deep” meditation which tends to pass over into unitive prayer. You probably know that experience already … once the will is in proper control you can always enter into the silence, though often enough without finding anything (consciously) there. That I think does not matter much. What does matter is, never to give up, once you have started on the way, in spite of the horrid discouragements and ups and downs.’

Clearly this letter has a mixed response, for in the next Evelyn tells the seeker not to dwell so much on sin – too Calvinistic – ‘refuse to pander to a morbid interest in your own misdeeds. Pick yourself up, be sorry, shake yourself, and go on again’. Meditation has proved difficult, so some advice follows on how to close down the active mind. Evelyn suggests:

First of all putting oneself in an easy and natural physical position and shutting the eyes.

Secondly to have a phrase, or a truth that you can keep in the mind ‘turning it over as it were, as you might finger some precious possession’.

Thirdly by an act of will to deliberatively shut oneself off from the senses and turn oneself inwards:

 ‘… allow yourself to sink, as it were, downwards and downwards, into the profound silence and peace which is the essence of the meditative state. More you cannot do for yourself … it is the “shutting off of the senses” and what [Jacob] Boehme calls the “stopping the wheel of the imagination and ceasing from self-thinking” that is hard at first.’