An experience of spiritual direction
An interview with Don Bisson on spiritual direction and Jungian psychology
The Hindu-Christian Dialogue
Welcome to Newsletter #6 of The Christian Prayer and Contemplation Forum. The Forum is for and by Christian practitioners who want to reflect on the serious questions that emerge out of their own practice. The Forum deals with central questions like: the current revival of interest in Christian mysticism, the dialogues of Christian spirituality with depth psychology and Eastern religions, and a simpler and more ecologically sane lifestyle that would be more conducive to the Christian journey.
This issue is going to focus on spiritual direction, and look at the responses to the last Newsletter on kundalini energy and the Hindu-Christian dialogue.
A renewed Christian spirituality ought to be accompanied by a renewed art and science of spiritual direction. A candid letter from one of our Forum members gives us a vivid glimpse of some of the problems that surrounded spiritual direction in the past.
An experience of spiritual direction: I prayed over whether to fill out the prayer questionnaire, but my reluctance to do so has not changed; it is not that I am unwilling to share what the Lord has done for me, but that - since I am, myself, very unclear as to what is his doing and what should properly be attributed to other factors directly, even though he can work through whatever happens - I fear to mislead others. Actually, my "way" is incredibly ordinary: daily Mass and Communion, morning and evening prayer, and some spiritual reading, regular confession (about every six weeks, usually. I have a regular confessor.) and a visit to my spiritual director (a wise and holy nun at a retreat house about an hour away) every other month. Since I can't manage the time to get to her monthly, I usually stay overnight and get about 24 hours of quiet and prayer. And an annual retreat of 7 to 10 days. My "ascetical practices" are even more ordinary: to accept interruptions gracefully ( "woman is the interrupted sex") and not take the stress out on other people.
I can, however, say a good bit about the question on spiritual direction. I have had a regular spiritual director/confessor since the age of 14. Some were superb. That was in the early years: high school, college, graduate school and the first 4 years of marriage. But - partly because of busyness and even more, of my own immaturity (human and spiritual), I was not able to take advantage of all they could have given me. What had moved me to seek direction in the first place was a conversion experience about the time I turned 13 (1 had been an atheist for at least a year before, and had given up all religious practice).
In January of 1965 when I was on maternity leave with a I year old and a 3 year old, I had another, much more intense experience. On only my husband's salary we could not afford a baby sitter. So there was no way I could go looking for anybody. I went to one of the priests in my parish.
He was quite unequal to it. When I said I felt a need to make a general confession, he had a fit, and would not hear of it. He even wanted to forbid me to go to daily Mass. (I used to go to the 6:45 Mass, putting the diapers in the washing machine on my way out, and in the dryer on my way in I'd be back before 7:30 when my husband and the children were just getting up.) The Lord worked in the situation, but "in spite of" my confessor/director, who hadn't a clue as to what was going on. What guidance I had was from my reading.
By the time I returned to teaching, which meant more money and therefore more freedom, I had learned to be wary of young priests who, all too often in those days, had never really been in love and were ripe to be smitten by any woman they got to know at all well. So I chose a priest who let slip, in a homily, some bits of personal information that indicated to me that he had already had his first love experience. He thought he had, too, but he was wrong, though it took nearly a year for me to see this clearly, and by then it was not easy to withdraw from the relationship which was becoming very destructive for me. I needed help - first from a professional therapist, but even better, the priest who had been his spiritual director.
This man was both learned and holy, so I thought I had, at last, found someone I could trust. And, indeed, he was most helpful in the early years. Then he had a heart attack and was unable to see anyone for several years. I had completed my own studies while on maternity leave with our third child, but again, had little free time until she began school.
Having learned that it was possible to do the Spiritual Exercises part time, I asked for a list of local priests who could direct a 19th Annotation Retreat, and chose the man most conveniently located. He was half-way decent as a retreat director, and agreed somewhat hesitantly to continue as my spiritual director. A year or so later he abruptly terminated the relationship in a letter stating that he was no longer able to help me.
So I went back to my previous confessor/spiritual director because I saw no other option, and he knew me. But this time it wasn't good. As a friend later explained when Teresa said: "choose a learned man over a holy man" she meant "learned in the ways of the spirit," and he wasn't. He knew only his own way to God and our personalities are very different.
Still, I hung in since I saw no one I felt more inclined to trust. Finally I learned that a colleague had a good list and I asked for a referral. She sent me to a wise and loving woman who is an Episcopalian priest, and all the raw places in my soul began to heal. But the only sort of retreats she leads are parish retreats for Episcopalian ladies.
That is why I decided to take a chance on a retreat house on the recommendation of my friend. She said one could still do a silent retreat there, and spoke very highly of one of the nuns. I agreed to a private directed retreat with the latter only because I figured she must be at least intelligent and well read. Talking to her would be a respite from the effort to pray. Well, that was quite a surprising experience. I felt that this was the director the Lord had chosen for me.
And it is a great relief not to, in effect, be my own director, trying to decide whether the guidance I'm getting is really relevant. Perhaps, when one is further along, the road will be clearer, but I've not come to that yet. I've no idea what is going on, and just trying to do what seems right, one minute at a time, no matter how I'm feeling, I'm back in the empty silence again, but not like before. This time, I know that it is all right, even though it is painful. It is none of my business to try to label it, or try to decide where it fits on any sort of scale, nor have I any desire to do so - quite the contrary.
Anyhow, so far as spiritual directors go, "beware of unripe gurus"!
Comment: This letter is all the more revealing because it is obviously by someone who valued spiritual direction and did not let past disappointments stop her from trying to find a suitable director. It also highlights one of the most pressing needs if a renewed spiritual direction is going to emerge: deep personal psychological knowledge, both practical and theoretical. Without it the director will not know just who she or he is directing in terms of their specific temperament. Nor will she or he be able to avoid unconscious psychological projections, whether in the form of falling in love or rejection.
An interview with Don Bisson on spiritual direction and Jungian psychology: In order to get a better grasp of this psychological dimension of spiritual direction, we interviewed Don Bisson, a Marist brother and pioneer in creating a new style of spiritual direction which joins spiritual direction to Jungian psychology. Active in the field of retreats and spiritual direction, he is now a master of novices.
Forum: How would you characterize the old style spiritual direction and its strengths and weaknesses?
Don: The more traditional style of spiritual direction seems to be less able to gather the movements of the soul. It was more focused on specific prayer periods and not on the totality of the person and the messages from the psyche. Since its emphasis was more exoteric, one prayed to a God who was "outside" and the formal structures of organized religion played a more significant role.
The old style spiritual direction had greater clarity about what prayer was, who God was, and how one was to move towards this God. Yet, it could not grasp the deeper language of the soul such as dreams, which might reveal the urgings of the divine. Unconsciously, there was a split between the movements of individuation and the explicit spiritual quest. This is a very significant weakness, because I believe the old system could work against the truth of God.
Forum: How extensive was it outside of religious orders?
Don: In our not too recent past, it was nearly exclusively limited not only to religious, but religious in formation or those on retreat. This is an extremely selective group in Christianity. I believe the need for spiritual direction directly corresponds to the deeper searching of people, which was no longer contained in denominational communities, Catholic or protestant. Today, spiritual direction is available beyond denominations and Christianity; church goers as well as those disenfranchised by religion search for spiritual direction.
Forum: Tell us something about this new interest in spiritual direction.
Don: The charism of spiritual direction seems to be exploding throughout the U.S. and English speaking world. Spiritual Directors International now publish a periodical, sponsors meetings, networking and supervision in developing new programs. Formation programs of immense variety are being initiated throughout the country. Catholic retreat centers, universities offering degrees, ecumenical and non-denominational theologates, institutes of transpersonal psychologies are now offering a myriad of opportunites for training spiritual directors. They all seem to emphasize a more inclusive perspective to this ministry.
These programs can vary immensely in terms of quality and professionalism. Some have a shadow side, which is nearly anti-Christian in perspective. It is so difficult to find a balance!
Such movements as feminist thought and 12 step programs have had far-reaching effects on spiritual direction, which are still being integrated.
Forum: What was the principle weakness of the old spiritual direction from a psychological point of view?
Don: The main problem of the older model, which is still in use by most people, is the exclusion of the unconscious. The dialogue has been too much in the light and not enough in the shadow darkness of the human soul. The soul's desire for union with the Mystery becomes increasingly frustrated when it is not truly heard and recognized by the ego. The ego, as choice maker, then becomes more and more attached to social and religious personas. The direction process should facilitate the ongoing conversion towards the Divine. The truth of the soul is a shocking revelation which demands a response to a power greater than one's ego.
Forum: How did you discover a marriage between Jungian psychology and spiritual direction?
Don: This process was not fundamentally a theoretical issue, but a deeply personal one. During my thirties transition, I underwent a severe period of confusion and pain. I was going to a spiritual director. Though a good person, she did not have the knowledge or skills to be with me during this spiritual crisis. The soul was crying for recognition from God; my director was powerless. I was having enormously powerful dreams and I could not grasp their meaning, yet I knew they were critical to the process. I began Jungian analysis, and studying Jung. I have been at it now for fifteen years. I received a Doctorate from the Pacific School of Religion. My work was on a theoretical reworking of spiritual direction through analytical psychology.
Forum: Just what do you do in this kind of spiritual direction?
Don: The most significant word that comes to me is "dialogue." This form of direction is a dialogue between the directee and the Mystery we call God. The dialogue is in the depth of the soul as experienced in dreams, active imagination, shadow work, and our contrasexual journey to wholeness. The individuation process is consciously integrated into the spiritual quest.
The "dialogue" also encompasses an expansion of traditional spiritual processes which include material from beneath the surface, i.e., dreams and discerning God's will in our lives, the contrasexual and our call to love God and neighbor, shadow work with forgiveness and healing. The ministry, as I see evolving from this Jungian context, needs a much greater intensity of training.
Forum: What would you like to see happen in the future of spiritual direction?
Don: I believe we are at the cusp of a radical form of ecumenism, which this form of spiritual direction alludes to. I also sense a deep awakening to the inner, mystical depths of the Christian tradition. When people "return" to their faith traditions they are seeking more than a standard bland Christianity. They are searching for a meaningful link to their souls.
Forum: Given this new kind of spiritual direction, what would the training look like?
Don: I have
experienced many spiritual directors with a peripheral knowledge of Jungian thought, yet
they would not be able to do this integrative model. The problems are:
Any training would have to address these weaknesses. I hope some day to help create such a program to empower men and women to become spiritual directors of the 21st century.
(For more on Don's work in creating a renewed spiritual direction, see Jungian Psychology and Spiritual Direction: A Visit with Don Bisson - a 53 minute video.
The Forum received a number of responses to the last issue on kundalini energy and the Hindu-Christian dialogue.
The first responder had previously written the Forum about her own journey in which Hindu spirituality played a vital role. Here are her two letters:
Response #1: I've been listening to the tape you did on Christian-Hindu dialogue with Wayne Teasdale (The Heart of the Christian-Hindu Dialogue: A Conversation with Wayne Teasdale - an 84 minute video.) He talked some about the "danger" of Christians coming to advaita and remaining there rather than going on to experience the dynamic, personal dimension of the Godhead.
I'm not sure danger is the right word (and there really are no right words because language is an inadequate medium for the spiritual) to use because, at least in my own experience, I have no control over how God reveals himself to me - it's not something I can initiate.
Being brought up in Protestant Christianity - the side we see is the personal incarnational God of history. When I was about 30 God no longer revealed himself in a personal way - He left me in silence - leaving a very strong sense of the absence of God. I didn't know how to respond to this - it was totally foreign to what I'd been taught about God. I remained in the church and doing spiritual reading, but gave up verbal prayer entirely for 5 years. Then I started reading Zen and Hindu books on meditation and started sitting in silent prayer. The silence is no longer so empty - it often feels full to the brim. Is this advaita or a dynamic experience -inter-relational? I haven't the slightest idea.
About a year ago (after 2 years) I began verbal prayer again, but silent prayer is the mainstay. Many times I have longed for the personal dimension of God, but the impersonal remains. It seems to me that God gives what we need and what we're able to receive. Are advaita - impersonal unity - and personal unity different words to describe the same experience? Are they at different levels? Is one deeper than the other? For now, these are unanswerable questions for me.
Sometimes I think of God as the Beloved who is hiding from me; the longing is very great, an unquenchable yearning. More of a dualism.
And sometimes a quietness, with peace at the center, is within, and there is a sense of unity with nothing lacking.
Do you or Wayne have any comments or other thoughts/insight ts you'd like to share with me?
I joined the Catholic church this year but also incorporate some Hindu practices in my personal worship. There is sometimes a tension - how to integrate what I learn from Hinduism and retain Christian identity - but I'm not worried about it like I used to be. This seems to be where God wants me and I figure he'll lead me on the path. It's certainly not been a path I consciously chose except to decide to respond to the silence.
I've been mulling over Philip St. Romain's comments on Christianity and Hindu experiences and have some questions and thoughts about it. He wanted to avoid a "two-tier system" that puts Christian mysticism above Hindu, but somehow his explanation still came across that way. He implied that the experience in meditation of emptiness, the experience of "being", is simply a precursor to a more mature phase of Christian contemplation which would be the true fullness we're seeking.
This emptying and putting aside, to me, is in the tradition of Christian mysticism, straight from John of the Cross (although we are made empty to ready us for union). At the very least, there seems to be some overlap here, between what a Christian experiences and a Hindu experiences when they are in silent prayer.
In issue #5 St. Romain gives an explanation of what he calls natural metaphysical mysticism and says it's not identical with Christian contemplation or "supernatural interpersonal mysticism." Perhaps it would be helpful for him to explain in another issue of Forum what he means by "Christian contemplation," in a similar manner to how he explained the Hindu experience.
On his distinction between natural and supernatural, it's hard for me to see a dichotomy here - I see the entire contemplative journey as being initiated by God, and a function of grace. I don't distinguish between 'natural' and another aspect coming from grace.
Sometimes I wonder if the differences among the traditions in describing contemplation are primarily a difference in semantics. For example, the Hindus say the soul is God and we Christians say there is a difference between the two. In my own mind, the center of our being is that which cooperates and is in union with God, and whether I call that center divine or a separate soul is a matter of semantics. At the deepest level, it seems hard to distinguish between the soul and the Holy Spirit, or the experience of God within.
Another example (of possible differences being on semantic): When I've read what Hindu sages have to say about God and the experience of the Absolute, they don't speak of Christ but to me the aroma is of that same Love. They know that love, they are that love - the terms may be different but the experience may be on the level of ,Christian contemplation. What they speak of as sat-chit-ananda (Being-Consciousness-Bliss) may be what we refer to as the Trinity. When they speak of prema, the overflowing love that is oceanic and excludes no one, is this fullness akin to Christian divine union?
To give a few examples - Ramakrishna and Mata Amritanandamayi (Ammachi) - two Hindu sages who experienced both advaita and a more dualistic devotion to and union with Krishna or the Divine Mother - their lives and teachings exemplify this prema. Even the severe advaita of Nisargadatta Maharaj (dialogues in I Am That) gives a glimpse of this same Love.
I'm less familiar with Buddhist works what I have read seems to focus more on emptiness and void than the Hindus do.
We're in new territory here, trying to dialogue with and learn from Eastern traditions. My thanks to P. St. Romain for sharing his insights. I read his book on kundalini a few years ago - not because of experiencing kundalini - I've had no physical symptoms - but in trying to integrate learning from Hinduism and Zen with a Christian perspective. The Hindu teachers I've learned from don't prescribe kundalini yoga, and if they mention it at all, advise that it only be done under the direction of a teacher who can help one deal with the effects. The emphasis in the Hindu tradition seems to be on cultivating faith, love, integrity, the same areas we Christians emphasize.
Wayne Teasdale mentioned on his tape that Hindus tend to just add Christ to the Hindu pantheon, whereas we Christians see Christ as unique and Christianity as being unique, not to be subsumed under Hinduism.
On the other side of the fence, we Christians tend to look at other traditions and assume that the true fullness can only be found in Christian mysticism. Is this the latest version of the old Christian chauvinism? There are so many difficulties anyway when we begin to compare and use conceptual frameworks to try to describe the indescribable.
Maybe the "apples and oranges" metaphor fits here. We taste of the sweetness of God - but just try to define that flavor or to decide whether someone else is tasting that same flavor! Are we all eating apples or are some eating oranges?
If you can locate Patricia Christian Meyer, her comments on Zen and Christian contemplation might shed light on the dialogue. She wrote a book, Catholic America - self-renewal centers and retreats. She included, quite reluctantly, some personal information about her spiritual journey. She speaks of the detachment of the non-Christian tradition (Zen) verses the Christian personal involvement in the love life of the Trinity. She also describes sitting in a silent Zen retreat, hearing a nearby churchbell tolling hymns to Mary and experiencing an overwhelming sense of love and joy," not a-personal" but "demanding that I call it a name." Maybe she would be open to an interview with Forum -either anonymously or not.
Since the Hindu path often includes bhakti - intense devotion to a personal God, maybe on this aspect at least, there are more elements in common between Hindu-Christian contemplatives than between Zen-Christian experiences. Here I'm speaking specifically about the experience of union. Zen, to my knowledge, doesn't use that language. Union implies a personal relationship (versus experience of the void).
Is the experience of "being" different from the experience of union? And if it is, can this be described in conceptual terms? I'm not going to try.
Response #2: Another letter deals with some of the same issues:
The last Newsletter centered on the experience of kundalini energy. It raised some old questions. In particular, the usefulness of the distinction between the supernatural and the natural sparked some thought.
I experienced during a massage on a retreat what my retreat director at the time suggested was one of the chakras. Toward the end of the massage I "saw", in my imagination, I suppose, a huge eye surrounded by a purple sea. It reminded me of the eye of a whale. I also saw an infant being rocked back and forth on huge waves. I have never gone any further with these experiences. It was suggested that more massage work could be helpful to my own spiritual journey. So far, I have not gone back to it.
I appreciate Philip's struggle to come to a better understanding of kundalini energy in the light of Christian experience. However, when he spoke of "two fundamentally distinct ways in which I can be united to God," it made me uncomfortable.
I would like to point out in particular the work of John Duns Scotus. His focus on the primacy of love in all of God's activity holds the key to a central insight of Francis and Clare about creation. It reminds me of Jung's vision of the central human call to individuation. In the Franciscan view of reality, each individual creature is held in existence by a loving creator. God did not have to create anything.
All is gift. All is grace right from the beginning of existence. In this creation reigns the primacy of Christ. Simply put, the primary purpose of the incarnation was not to redeem creatures from sin. If there had been no sin, the incarnation would have taken place anyway. The reason for the incarnation is first and foremost the love of God. Jesus came to say first and foremost, "I am here to love you." Not, "I am here to save you." Sin is not the essential focus but is dealt with in the process of loving.
Christ is the center, the reason for all creation and in him all things hold together. In light of this, I find it hard to relate to a natural end or goal for creation and a supernatural goal or final end for creation. In my view, there can only be one, i.e., the incarnation of Christ. There was not one plan before sin and another after sin--the "felix culpa" theological view.
I must admit I am still trying to understand this Franciscan approach to life and reality. We were trained in a Thomistic interpretation of the Gospel. I understand the desire to not confuse the creature and the creator, the fear of pantheism and the fear of investing too much divinity in the lowly human. However, as I continue to pray and reflect on the mystery of the Incarnation, I grow in an awareness that after 2000 years we have managed to unwrap only perhaps 2% of its depth and richness of meaning.
Perhaps the experience of kundalini is one more piece of the puzzle of "the ocean of being" we live in, move in and, in our great longing, desire to get to the bottom of in all its vast and seemingly endless, restless movement. Indeed, movement toward what? Toward whom?
Editors' Corner - Jim and Tyra Arraj
The Forum comes out roughly four times a year. We say roughly because this issue is late since we were away from the forest for a while. The winter here in the foothills of the east side of the Cascade Mountains started out untypically rainy. But when it did begin to snow, it just wouldn't stop. We barely got our 4-wheel drive truck out before the road went down, and then we discovered that neither our snowmobiles nor our cross-country skis would work - the snow was just too powdery and deep, and couldn't support their weight. We ended up with 4-5' of snow on the ground and were snowbound. As usual, Tyra had filled the root cellar with food, and we had plenty of wood, so we were in no particular danger. Our son, John, was staying with us, and in a tremendous burst of energy managed to break a ski trail 5 miles to the highway. Later the snow packed and we could snowmobile.
On the Road
We spent part of March and April working in Europe. Over the next few issues we will fill you in on our adventures there. Our first destination was London. But after we had snowmobiled out of the forest, spent a night in Klamath Falls, Oregon with our daughter, another night on the Greyhound bus to San Francisco, and still another night after that on a Virgin Atlantic 747 on the way to London, sleep deprivation and jet lag had turned our brains into mush.
Luckily we recovered quickly, and got to work. We took the train north from London to Lancaster, and videotaped an interview with Adrian Cunningham of the University of Lancaster who has been instrumental in tracking down the letters of the Dominican priest Victor White to C.G. Jung, and who is now in the midst of preparing them for publication. Their close friendship and later estrangement is a fitting symbol of the unrealized potential of the Jungian-Christian dialogue.
In London we also visited the Irish Catholic Jungian analyst, John Costello, who has devoted a great deal of energy to creating an association where people can be trained in Jungian psychology with a special openness to Christian faith and spirituality. We hope that both of these interviews will eventually be part of a documentary on the current state of the Jungian-Christian dialogue.
One of our major goals on the trip was to do some research on the history of Christian spirituality immediately after the death of John of the Cross, especially in the Carmelite Order. We visited the British Library housed in the British Museum in London which contains a wonderful display of manuscripts, including one of the earliest Biblical codexes, the Sinaiticus, and an overwhelming collection of books. But our visit wasn't particularly useful for our project. We went to Liverpool to look at the papers of E. Allison Peers, the noted English expert on the history of Christian spirituality in Spain, as well as the translator of the works of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. His papers are housed in the archives at the University of Liverpool. We had hoped to find some drafts of his proposed fourth volume of his Studies of the Spanish Mystics. But no such luck.
Back in London we stayed with the World Community for Christian Meditation devoted to spreading the teaching of John Main, a Benedictine monk who, inspired by his stay in Asia, had dedicated himself to teaching people a simple form of Christian meditation. Communities inspired by his example are appearing all over the world. We taped an interview with Laurence Freeman, O.S.B. and several members of the community, and were impressed by the warmth of their welcome and their dedication to promoting Christian prayer.
Sad times here on the ecological front. Congress, under the guise of the so-called "salvage rider" which was meant to facilitate the cutting of dead and dying trees, has passed a bill that will destroy an invaluable part of the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. These are forests that are still green, very much alive, and irreplaceable. What happened? It is a case of short-sighted greed winning out, for the moment, over long-range ecological sanity and the wishes of the majority of the American people. Please contact your senators, congressmen and the White House telling them to stop this destruction.
Future Events: This summer we will be in the midwest giving presentations at a number of conferences.
July 27th the Centering Prayer group of St. Louis is holding a one-day conference. Our talks will be on the future of spirituality, and Christian spirituality and simple living. Contact: Susan Komis, Contemplative Outreach, 202 North Main, O'Fallon, MO 63366, (314) 978-2500.
July 27-August 3rd. The 5th International Buddhist-Christian Conference at DePaul University, Chicago. This is a major event in the world of Buddhist-Christian dialogue and is held every four years. It will feature innumerable talks and working groups, and participants from many religions and parts of the world. We will be part of a working group on practice in both the Buddhist and Christian traditions. Contact James Kenney, 980 Verda Lane, Lake Forest, IL 60045, (708) 234-8047.
August 2-9. Christian Spirituality and the Third Millennium held at the Spiritual Life Center of the diocese of Wichita where Philip St. Romain is one of the staff members. Presentations by Philip St. Romain, Sr. Carmen Echevarria, Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, Fr. Thomas Ryan, and us. We will give two presentations: one on God and the new physics, and the other on Christian spirituality and ecologically sane living. Contact: Spiritual Life Center, 7100 East 45th St. North, Wichita, KS 67226, (316) 744-0167.