Friday, 6 December 2013
The Disciple's Call
I have just received my copy of this book. It arose from an initiative of Abbot Christopher Jamison, well known to many from his excellent programme ‘The Monastery’. Abbot Christopher invited a number of us to discuss the nature of vocation on the contemporary scene. I wrote the chapter on the ‘psychology of vocation’ and attach the introduction here…
The Psychology of Vocation: Nurturing the Grail Quest – Lessons for the Discernment of Vocation
Dr Peter Tyler
Introduction: What does the Psychologist Do?
Before embarking upon the task of looking at the psychology of vocation it might be worth describing what I see as the role of the psychologist and how they might help the discernment of spiritual vocation. This is no easy task, but, for simplicity’s sake, I would summarise the role of the psychologist as that of providing an alternative view of the world. Following this line of argument I would suggest also that the therapist, counsellor or spiritual director is not a second-rate scientist or empiricist but is working from a different ‘world view’. One, if you like, where ‘all possible world views’ are held in balance. The therapist is allowed an insight into all world views and then presents them to the listener. In the same manner the spiritual director has to offer a ‘transcendental position’ that holds the possibility of the eternal perspective or what Wittgenstein terms the view from sub specie aeterni (Tractatus) . In this respect Wittgenstein saw the value of Freud’s contribution to our understanding of the mind being not the observations of a pseudo-scientist but of someone who ‘changes the perspective’ of their interlocutor:
When a dream is interpreted we might say that it is fitted into a context in which it ceases to be puzzling. In a sense the dreamer re-dreams his dream in surroundings such that its aspect changes…
In considering what a dream is, it is important to consider what happens to it, the way its aspect changes when it is brought into relation with other things remembered, for instance. (LC: 45-46)
Following this thought-way, a key point I would like to make in these opening comments is that we should view the practice of spiritual direction, counselling and therapy as unlike other modes of healing, in particular, scientific based modes. There is a tendency today to relate counselling to scientific and observable, quantifiable and empirical ‘outcomes’. I would argue such a position is doomed to failure as therapy, counselling and spiritual direction themselves are modes of operation other than and in many ways alien to the operations of the dividing and cutting cognitive mind.
The Nature of Vocation (not just clerical, but lay too)
Having given some indicator of how I locate the role of psychology in our quest I turn now to the second part of our investigation: the nature of vocation. When I consider this, as a lay person myself, I find the words of the Council Fathers in the 1965 decree on Lay Vocation of the Second Vatican Council, Apostolicam Actuositatem, a good place to start:
With a constantly increasing population, continual progress in science and technology, and closer interpersonal relationships, the areas for the lay apostolate have been immensely widened particularly in fields that have been for the most part open to the laity alone. These factors have also occasioned new problems which demand their expert attention and study. AA:1
As with so many of the Vatican II documents, re-reading of Apostolicam Actuositatem reveals how forward-thinking and innovative the Council Fathers were. Almost fifty years later I teach pastoral theology around the country to lay Catholic adults and find they are often still of the mindset that the priestly ministry is the most important in the Mystical Body of Christ and that the laity’s role is their to support this ministry. I would imagine most readers of this chapter would have a more enlightened view. In this respect the key scriptural text for any consideration of vocation is St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:
Christ is a single body which has many parts; it is still one body, even though it is made up of different parts… there are many parts but one body…
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit gives them. There are different ways of serving, but the same Lord is served… The Spirit’s presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all… As he wishes he gives a different gift to each person. (1 Cor 12: 4 – 20)
As St. Paul makes clear we must all consider our vocation for the building up of the Body of Christ. All are involved and no-one is excluded.
Having said that the next question many people will ask is ‘Well, what exactly is my vocation? – How do I discern it?’ This, of course, is a different and trickier question and refers to the whole nature of discernment.
Over ten years ago I was asked to write an article for The Way journal about vocation and commitment for the contemporary generation (Tyler 2000). As I thought about what to write in this article I felt myself drawn to the figure of Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) and how he too had struggled with a vocation to the celibate monastic life, especially in the light of (then) recently published journals which showed his intimate relationship with a woman known as M. What Merton’s journals revealed to me at the time was what St. Ignatius of Loyola would call ‘indifference to all created things.’ Merton, through his discernment of vocation began to understand that the most important thing for him as a human being and member of the Body of Christ was to find God in his own authentic self. This ‘authentic self’ was the key to vocation, as opposed to what he called at the time (contemporary with the Second Vatican Council) a ‘false’ or even (and shockingly) ‘religious self.’ What he meant by this was our strange desire as humans, as Christians, as Catholics, to do what we think we ought to do for some (usually imaginary) fictional entity. As a psychologist I would call this nowadays the ‘superego’ – that residue remaining from our parental upbringing which encourages guilt and ‘drivenness’ in our desires and actions.
How difficult it is for many of us to get some distance from this ‘religious’ or ‘false’ self. Indeed, it can become a demon driving us into false alleyways. I believe too that this can be one of the factors that blurs the spiritual perceptions of people when they consider their vocations in the building up of the Body of Christ. The driven-ness of the false self may prompt initial moves into the seminary or religious life, but ultimately it will be a deceptive mirage that will lead to increased isolation, alienation or worse.
Vocation, then, I would define as the search for the true self – not some false, or even ‘religious’ self that is often a hangover from unresolved childhood parental complexes. Professor Price, in an earlier essay, suggested that the search for ‘vocation’ was not unlike the search for some ‘small, furry beast.’ I would go further and suggest that the word ‘vocation’ is not a denotative or informative word but a performative word. ‘Vocation’ in this sense thus becomes a way of describing a new ‘point of view’ which a person finds themselves adopting to the world and their lives. They will now ‘see the world arite’ in a way they did not before. This we can describe as the ‘discernment of the true self’, or, perhaps better, ‘finding right relationship with the world.’
How then can we facilitate the discernment of this true self or help people to find their ‘right relationship’ with the world? This brings me back to my first remarks regarding the view ‘sub specie aeterni’ – for, as believers we understand human anthropology as being essentially grounded in transcendental terms. True self identity can only be found when viewed sub specie aeterni in the light of faith and God’s gentle presence.
I propose, then, to explore the nature of this encounter with the transcendent, especially by a young person, with the help of a foundational text of the Western psyche – the 12th Century Romance of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes. Why this text? Beginning with Carl Jung and then following on through his students such as Marie-Louise von Franz, James Hillman and Robert Johnson, many 20th century psychologists saw the ‘mythic’ texts of Medieval Europe as offering a pre-modern insight into the Western psyche that underlies so many of our contemporary concerns. In this respect, I would see the contemporary ‘search for the sacred’ – of which the individual search for vocation is part – as a wider ‘search for the Spirit’ that haunts the Western mind from its inception in the High Middle Ages. If we study the text of the Grail-search carefully – and I propose here to concentrate on the call of the young Perceval, the ‘pure-fool’, to the transcendent Realm of the Grail – we have in microcosm a view of how the Western mind views the transcendent and clues as to how we can deal with the present ‘crisis of vocation’ within which we find ourselves. In this way we can develop another key theme of this book – the use of the imagination and its role in developing a theology of vocation. In this respect this chapter can be viewed as a ‘thought experiment’ to help us understand the dynamic of the encounter with the transcendent for the young person as well as drawing some (clinical) observations of how this process can inform the contemporary discernment of vocation.