in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Friday, 28 February 2014

Preparing for Lent - The Redirection of the Appetites...


As I prepare an Ash Wednesday address for next week in Salisbury I am drawn once again to the counsel of St John of the Cross (surprise surprise!). In particular the distinction he makes between the ‘natural’ and ‘voluntary’ appetites. I include below some of my address which I am presently editing for ‘Picturing the Soul’ that Dharmaram will publish in the summer. I still find this the best way to approach the mortifications and process of Lent… really the ‘redirection of the appetites’ to that which is life-giving and sustaining.

Following earlier postings these last few weeks have seen an increase in light and warmth as spring starts to take hold. George Mackay Brown, as I stated a few weeks ago, saw 1st March as the beginning of Spring. So I wish you all a very Happy Spring and a very Happy Lent. May it be a time of great renewal and wonder as we return to the sources of life.


Best wishes





‘Chapters 3 – 13 of The Ascent of Mount Carmel present John’s deepest account of what he terms los apetitos – ‘the appetites’. At first sight his definition of them seems largely negative:


For the sake of a clearer and fuller understanding of our assertions, it will be beneficial to explain here how these appetites cause harm in two principal ways within those in whom they dwell: They deprive them of God's Spirit; and they weary, torment, darken, defile, and weaken them. (A 1.6.1)


The appetites are wearisome and tiring because they agitate and disturb one just as wind disturbs water. And they so upset the soul that they do not let it rest in any place or thing. (A 1.6.6)


Yet to see John’s anthropology of los apetitos as largely negative, as some commentators have done, is, I would argue, to miss out on the subtlety of his approach to human nature.  The first distinction to draw is the difference John makes between what he terms ‘natural’ and ‘voluntary’ appetites. The former, he informs us ‘are little or no hindrance at all to the attainment of union’ (A 1.11.2) for ‘to eradicate the natural appetites, that is, to mortify them entirely, is impossible in this life’. Thus, as with the anthropology of the desert fathers and mothers, to which we have seen John is heir, there is a basic substratum to our human nature that cannot be eradicated. These passions are there and are to be seen as part of what makes us human. John, never talks about eradicating the appetites, but always redirecting them, John is not, as some commentators suggest, advocating destruction of the self, but transformation of the self. So, just as the natural appetites will remain and cannot do harm, the voluntary appetites, the consent to the natural appetites, will have to be redirected.

To help clarify this we could translate what John is attempting to describe here into contemporary psychological language. Here I am helped by a letter written in the 1960s by the British Benedictine Bede Griffiths. Writing to a friend of his, Dr Mary Allen a Jungian analyst, Bede Griffiths makes some startling analogies between the psychological insights of the twentieth century and the ancient Christian ascetic traditions of the desert fathers and mothers. For Bede the life of prayer is essentially a ‘reordering’ of the unconscious through the reflection of God’s love: ‘The point is that though these sins (Pride, Lust etc) are largely unconscious: our will has consented to them. This is the mystery of original sin’. Much of the life of prayer then, becomes for Bede, a purification of the unconscious on this radical level:


We are all by nature under the power of these forces of the unconscious… these forces may be kept down, to some extent a kind of balance established, and that is the normal human condition, but it is very inadequate. (Griffiths 2005:4)


Struggling with the forces of the unconscious we have two choices – to repress them or to give way to them in an undiscriminating fashion – ‘becoming slaves to passion’.  The first option, so common in the West, represses these forces so much that we become slaves to them, in which case we are controlled by the all-controlling, all-powerful, all-knowing ego. ‘The average Christian’ says Bede, ‘simply represses the unconscious like everyone else and lives from their will and reason’. However, in baptism in Christ we have entered the deepest depths of the unconscious to allow their purification:


It is Christ alone who can set us free from the unconscious. Baptism is a descent beneath the waters, a conflict with Satan (in which the soul is mystically identified with Christ) in which the daemonic powers are defeated and the healing powers of the unconscious are realised to give birth to new life. (Griffiths 2005:6)


This, for Bede, is what should happen in our Christian life – ‘The Holy Spirit should penetrate to the depth of the unconscious to the ultimate root of being, and transform us.’

As a practising psychotherapist I can attest to the truth of Bede’s words in my daily dealings with clients. So many of us, especially in the West, lock up the forces of the unconscious and are terrified of opening up their contents (often with good reason), alternatively we see around us total unconscious ‘acting out’ of the destructive unconscious forces of the psyche. The Life of Christ penetrating into the darkest depths of the unconscious can bring liberation and healing in a most unexpected and profound way. The goal, following Bede, is to bring about a marriage of the conscious and unconscious, the male and female, animus and anima in which each is preserved and reintegrated in Christ.

In contemporary terms, then, we can see John’s ‘natural appetites’ as equivalent to the Freudian or Jungian ‘unconscious’ (which we shall return to in the following chapter), whereas the ‘voluntary appetites’ are equivalent to conscious choices arising out of deeper unconscious motivations.

Yet, over and above his seemingly harsh counsel, is John’s gentle exhortation that the end to which we strive, the redirection of the appetites, will only be achieved through ‘the other stronger love’ that comes from God:


A love of pleasure, and attachment to it, usually fires the will toward the enjoyment of things that give pleasure. A more intense enkindling of another, better love (otra inflamación mayor de otro amor major), (love of the soul's Bridegroom) is necessary for the vanquishing of the appetites and the denial of this pleasure. By finding satisfaction and strength in this love, it will have the courage and constancy to readily deny all other appetites. The love of its Bridegroom is not the only requisite for conquering the strength of the sensitive appetites; an enkindling with urgent longings of love is also necessary. For the sensory appetites are moved and attracted toward sensory objects with such cravings that if the spiritual part of the soul is not fired with other, more urgent longings for spiritual things, the soul will be able neither to overcome the yoke of nature nor to enter the night of sense; nor will it have the courage to live in the darkness of all things by denying its appetites for them. (A 1.14.2)


John recognises a profound insight here that only by this otra inflamación mayor can we be moved to tackle the steep and rough ascent of Mount Carmel which is the redirection of the appetites. We do not fight the will or the ‘love of pleasure’ (Freud’s ‘pleasure principle’) rather we strive to cultivate the ‘other, better love’ which will ultimately lead our appetites back to their true home in God.

To conclude, contrary to many popular misconceptions of John’s doctrine, he does not disparage the things of the world but rather our attitude to them. In as much as we are ensnared and enslaved (like a bird, he says, with its leg held by a thin wire, unable to fly) we will never be able to find the freedom we desire. A brush of the wing, he says, is necessary to remove these disordered appetites.

          John’s counsel of non-attachment is a counsel for redirection of the will, and by so doing, a working on the deepest levels of unconscious desire and attachment. A reordering of self away from a centre of gravity based on the hungry ego and its insatiable demand but towards the eternal freedom and love that is life in peace with Christ. For John, negation is no end in itself but rather it is a negation which arises from the ‘other stronger love’ of God. This, for John, and Ignatius, is the only process that will ultimately lead us to the ‘place we know not’: the place of the theological virtue of faith.’





Monday, 24 February 2014

Opening the Chakras

One of the most talked about aspects of the day of reflection at Molesey last Saturday was the meditation I led through the chakras. It is not something I would do with every group but from the beginning of the day I realised that the group had a thorough grounding in contemplative prayer and was open to experiment with new things. As I led them through the chakra meditation we did a ‘sounding’ for each chakra, the beautiful sounds that resonated through the group were very healing to us all. Unfortunately I cannot post the meditation here as I wrote it 17 years ago for my first book ‘The Way of Ecstasy: Praying with St Teresa of Avila’ (Canterbury Press 1997) and I think it was written on a floppy disk for an old style computer- so I don’t possess an electronic copy (perhaps Canterbury Press does?). However the book is very cheap to buy on Amazon ( I think you can get it for under £2) and the meditation is in Chapter Seven on Teresa’s Sixth Mansion. As compensation I attach the youtube link to the Bhajan, Om Jagat Jyothi sung by Joseph J Palackal OMI with which we began the day. It is a beautiful Bhajan that extols Christ as universal light of the world and makes a good start for the morning meditation:

I am going shortly to central London to record a radio programme to be broadcast over Easter on Teresa of Avila in her jubilee year. Once I have the details of broadcast I will post them here.


In the meantime, may Christ’s Light fill your hearts and special thanks to all those who took part in the day of reflection last Saturday.


Best wishes





Friday, 21 February 2014

The Discernment of Spirits

Tomorrow I shall lead a day of reflection at the House of Prayer, Molesey for the delightful Sisters of the Retreat. Below is an extract from part of my talk on the discernment of spirits based on the Rules of Ignatius Loyola.

Best for now


Ignatius bases his rules for discernment on the ‘disposition of the soul’. Is the disposition of the soul directed towards that which is life-giving, up-building and creative or is it directed towards that which is life-denying, destructive and ultimately futile. The ‘rules’ which follow help the individual to assess if a particular course of action or way of life leads to a building up of the self or to greater disintegration and fragmentation.

Someone may be pursuing a way of life that they find exciting and fun but ultimately it is becoming destructive. Ignatius cautions us to look at the effects of any action or decision and this is the basis of such discernment. Similarly, Teresa of Avila (1980, see also Tyler 1997:90) in the ‘sixth mansion’ of her Interior Castle stresses that we should not so much pay attention to the spiritual experiences that we have as the after-effects that they have upon us. Are they bringing us a greater sense of peace and fulfilment or are they leading to more unhappiness and dissatisfaction?

In these periods of dissatisfaction there is often a desire to go back on decisions made when all was going well, the sun was shining and the birds were singing. Now, as the rain pours down and the skies are gloomy (metaphorically speaking) we go back on the decision made ‘in consolation’. Ignatius cautions against this and gives one of his ‘rules’ as follows:


When we find ourselves weighed down by a certain desolation, we should not try to change a previous decision or come to a new decision… At a time of desolation, we hold fast to the decision which guided us during the time before the desolation came on us. (Exx 318)




Although we should not try to make new decisions at a time of desolation, we should not just sit back and do nothing. We are meant to fight off whatever is making us less than we should be... The important attitude to nourish at a time of desolation is patience.


Likewise, when all is going well, when we experience a certain spiritual peace and ‘can see the bottom of the well’  we should use this time wisely to make plans as a bulwark against possible future times of ‘desolation’:


When we are enjoying a consolation period, we should use foresight and savour the strength of such a period against the time when we may no longer find ourselves in consolation. (Exx 323)


Such ‘periods of consolation’ should be distinguished from the technical working out of plans that follow them:


When the consolation experience in our life comes directly from God, there can be no deception in it… A spiritual person should be careful to distinguish between the actual moment of this consolation-in-God-himself from the afterglow which may be exhilarating and joyful for some period of time… it is often in this second period of time that we begin to reason out plans of action or to make resolutions which cannot be attributed so directly to God as the initial experience which is nonconceptual in nature. (Exx 336)


Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Path of the Desert

Dear All

For those of you who want to hear more about my Indian experiences I will be talking about India and the Desert Path at the House of Prayer, East Molesey, this Saturday (10 -4) I give details of the whole programme below. Fortunately the river has subsided a little so you won't need a boat to get there. Please contact the sisters directly if you want to book a place (their website is I plan to give a short Indian liturgy too!
See you there!

best for now


Saturdays 10am – 4pm. Cost £20.
Please bring a packed lunch. Booking essential.


THE PATH OF THE DESERT: Purity of Heart and Contemplative Prayer
Led by Dr. Peter Tyler
22 February

In our day of reflection together we shall use texts from the Desert tradition, especially from Evagrius, Cassian and Benedict, to open up a path to contemplative stillness in the heart of our busy lives. No prior knowledge is required.

DR PETER TYLER is Reader in Pastoral Theology and Spirituality at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London. He writes and lectures extensively on spirituality and is the editor of the Bloomsbury Guide to Christian Spirituality (Bloomsbury 2012).


THOMAS KEATING: His Contribution to the Recovery of the Contemplative Dimension
Led by Jill Benet
29 March

Intimacy with God is rooted in inner silence. Centering Prayer leads us through the process of letting go of thought to the stillness at the core of our being. We shall look at Fr. Thomas Keating’s teaching, the method and dynamics of Centering Prayer and related contemplative practices.

JILL BENET is the London Coordinator for Contemplative Outreach that teaches Centering Prayer. She has attended several retreats led by its founder Fr. Thomas Keating and leads retreats and quiet days. She is a trained presenter and facilitator of groups. Jill is co-founder of Silence in the City.


Allyson Davies
26 April

“Do you understand what would happen to this beautiful shining castle, this pearl of the east, this tree of life planted in the living waters of life itself, if the soul were to fall into grave error?”

This quote illustrates St. Teresa’s reliance on symbols to convey her understanding of the spiritual path. The day will explore the role of the symbol in the contemplative life and will look at the legacy of wisdom and guidance left to us.

ALLYSON DAVIES has an MA in Christian Spirituality and is a spiritual director based in London. She has a special interest in the work of Carl G. Jung; the relationship between philosophy, psychology and spirituality and the Christian Humanism of Renaissance Italy and the works of Plato. Allyson also works in conflict resolution and coaching and is currently training to teach yoga.


Led by Revd. Chris MacKenna
31 May

Mindfulness Meditation, based on Buddhist meditation practice, is proving effective and influential in managing certain mental health conditions, as well as assisting people who live with chronic pain. During the day, we will explore some aspects of mindfulness practice, and also think about their resonance with certain forms of Christian prayer.

CHRISTOPHER MACKENNA is an Anglican priest and Jungian analyst who leads the ecumenical team of psychotherapists and spiritual directors working in St Marylebone Healing and Counselling Centre, London.


The Bible as Contemplative Pathway
Led by Sarah Prime
28 June

How might we approach the Bible both from the perspective of historical exploration (the author’s world) and from the perspective of our faith journey (the reader’s world)? How do images of God presented in the Bible enrich and illuminate our search for God? We will explore some different approaches to the Bible, and there will be time for discussion and reflection.

SARAH PRIME is a visiting lecturer at St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham, and has an MA in Biblical Studies from Heythrop College, London. She is experienced in retreat facilitation, both in the UK and overseas.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Schooling our Desires

 Matthew 5:17-37

21 'You have heard how it was said to our ancestors, You shall not kill; and if anyone does kill he must answer for it before the court.

22 But I say this to you, anyone who is angry with a brother will answer for it before the court; anyone who calls a brother "Fool" will answer for it before the Sanhedrin; and anyone who calls him "Traitor" will answer for it in hell fire.

23 So then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,

24 leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering.

25 Come to terms with your opponent in good time while you are still on the way to the court with him, or he may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison.

26 In truth I tell you, you will not get out till you have paid the last penny.

27 'You have heard how it was said, You shall not commit adultery.

28 But I say this to you, if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

29 If your right eye should be your downfall, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of yourself than to have your whole body thrown into hell.

30 And if your right hand should be your downfall, cut it off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of yourself than to have your whole body go to hell.

31 'It has also been said, Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a writ of dismissal.

32 But I say this to you, everyone who divorces his wife, except for the case of an illicit marriage, makes her an adulteress; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33 'Again, you have heard how it was said to our ancestors, You must not break your oath, but must fulfil your oaths to the Lord.

34 But I say this to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, since that is God's throne;

35 or by earth, since that is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, since that is the city of the great King.

36 Do not swear by your own head either, since you cannot turn a single hair white or black.

37 All you need say is "Yes" if you mean yes, "No" if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the Evil One.


I have always felt sorry for preachers faced with today’s gospels. Jesus seems to be insisting on standards of morality that are way above what we can ordinarily handle in everyday life. And in one sense the bar has been raised here to a considerable height. Yet, if we look at the other readings for today from Corinthians and Ecclesiasticus then the message comes into focus. In Ecclesiasticus we hear:

If you choose, you will keep the commandments and so be faithful to his will.

16 He has set fire and water before you; put out your hand to whichever you prefer.

17 A human being has life and death before him; whichever he prefers will be given him.


... ‘Whichever we prefer will be given to us...’  This seems to be the key for unlocking the whole meaning of today’s readings. Our desire will create our destiny. From this perspective Jesus’ teaching reveals itself as a lesson in the education of desire. As you will know from my postings in India I am interested at the moment in the Hindu and Buddhist notions of ‘fields of personality’. We could apply this to Jesus’ teaching here and see that we create, by our desire, a ‘field of personality’ around ourselves. In the three instances Jesus gives us – anger, sex and lying – we become enmeshed by our reactions to these powerful human urges. If we live the angry life, always following the path and reaction of anger, then we shall indeed ‘be given’ anger: we will literally become ‘angry people’. If we follow our libido in an undiscriminating fashion then we shall be given what we create. We become enmeshed in the lies that desire creates within us... leading to the inability to confuse truth and falsehood Jesus describes in the final passages.

Now, escaping the myth and fantasy of desire is no easy matter. Paul uses the word μυστηρί - ‘a mystery’ (a word he is not so wont to use) – when describing it, for this really is the heart of the Good News of Christ. By coming close to Christ, by listening to his words and allowing Him to touch our hearts our desires will be redirected so that we may finally receive that which we want.

The readings allow us, then, to see Christianity and Christ’s message as a ‘school of desire’, where ultimately, in the words of Ecclesiasticus, we choose life over death.

All good wishes





Friday, 14 February 2014

Psychosis and Spirituality

Yesterday I was doing a supervision session with a student on the topic of psychosis and spirituality. What was fascinating was how the student had really immersed themselves into the topic, refusing to accept the pure 'medicalisation' of spiritual/psychotic experiences and even going so far as to participate in a 'guided fantasy' inspired by some of the psychotic stories they had collected. As we talked I went back to the passages I wrote in my 'John of the Cross - Outstanding Christian Thinker' book on this very subject. Reading them again today I can see how perceptive and pastorally sensitive John's advice is. I think he found them helpful so I reproduce them here for your interest...

best wishes



When the original mothers and fathers of Carmel gathered on the Palestinian mountain eight hundred years ago they pledged themselves to enter into the mystery of God’s living presence in the world. In this respect they stood as heirs to a spiritual lineage that can be traced back to Christ and the first Christians – the lineage of the so-called ‘Desert Fathers and Mothers’ - who from the fourth century onwards had set out into the deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syria to encounter God through the ‘struggle with demons’ and the practice of ascesis[1]. However, as we have seen, as well as looking backward the early Carmelites looked forward and with the fall of Acre came to Western Europe, bringing with them a ‘desert spirituality’ which needed to be adapted to the new (often urban) circumstances within which they found themselves. Since its inception, then, the Carmelite charism has retained a tension between the past and the future, the desert and the city, contemplation and action. Accordingly, the Carmelite charism is not one that ‘hides under a bushel’ but seeks to engage with the movements, ideas and struggles of every successive generation of believers. Which is why such important Carmelite figures as John of the Cross often feel like our contemporaries. The Carmelite charism reinvigorates itself with each succeeding generation, ever renewing itself.

As twenty-first century people we are faced with new challenges in reinterpreting and embodying the Carmelite charism for our time. We are the heirs to great changes and movements that have swept the world and shape the world we live in today. The ideas of Marx, Freud and Darwin, although nineteenth century in origin, have required over a hundred years to be assimilated by secular society to an extent that they invisibly mould our thinking and action today.  This scientific and cognitive revolution has shaped our present world and creates what we nowadays call the ‘psychological mindset’. Today the ‘talking cure’ initiated by Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939) has spawned a whole subsection of culture that embraces as well as Freud’s original psychoanalysis, a whole range of transpersonal therapies, counselling, cognitive and behavioural therapies, the psychiatric and psychological sciences and many more too numerous to mention...

As was stated at the beginning of this chapter, the Carmelite charism looks backward as well as forward. When we immerse ourselves in Carmelite spirituality we inherit a great spiritual tradition but a tradition that needs to be interpreted and explained in the categories of today. One of these key categories is the psychological. However, as we will be apparent by now, this can be far from straightforward. We cannot, for example, talk about John of the Cross understanding ‘the unconscious’ or ‘personality’ as we do today – our psychological categories would have been alien to him. Instead, as we have seen, John would have been working with medieval scholastic categories of mind that presupposed a very different world-view. Rather than neurons, instincts and drives John talks of ‘the mind’ in terms of ‘humours’ and the action of good and bad spirits on the anima or soul. Accordingly when we come to apply twentieth and twenty-first century categories of mind to the classic writings of John we have to tread cautiously and carefully. It is possible to undertake the task but it is difficult.

            Part of this difficulty arises from the difficult and troubled interaction between ‘psyche’ and ‘spiritus’ since the inception of the psychological sciences in the middle of the twentieth century. On the one hand there has been a tendency amongst religious thinkers to ‘spiritualise’ away psychology and on the other hand there has been a tendency amongst psychologists to annex ‘spirituality’ as a suburb or province of ‘good mental health’...


In the prologue to The Ascent he promised to give us ‘signs to recognize this purification of the soul that we call the dark night; whether it is the purification of the senses or of the spirit; and how we can discern whether this affliction is caused by melancholia or some other deficiency of sense or spirit’ (A1.6). This he does in Book One, Chapter Nine of ‘The Dark Night’[2].

John begins this chapter by making a distinction between the ‘sensory night and purgation’ (spiritual sense) and the dark night caused by ‘sin and imperfection, or weakness and lukewarmness or some bad humor (algún mal humor) or bodily indisposition’. From a psychological point of view this statement is interesting. Often Teresa and John are dismissed as having relevance to the sixteenth century but not to the present day with our sophisticated developments in understanding mental pathology and illness. Their ‘ecstasies’ and ‘delights’ are dismissed as pathological ramblings of sexually deprived celibates. Yet, here as in many passages in Teresa previously mentioned, we see that they have a clear understanding of mental pathology – which they ordinarily refer to as ‘bad humors’ (mal humor) or ‘melancholia’ (humor melancólico/melancolía)[3].

To make his distinction between the two John proposes three guidelines.



As these souls do not get satisfaction or consolation from the things of God, they do not get any out of creatures either. Since God puts a soul in this dark night in order to dry up and purge its sensory appetite, He does not allow it to find sweetness or delight in anything. (DN 1.9.2)


As part of the nature of the ‘dark night’ John had proposed earlier that the individual seeker loses a savour for ‘spiritual things’:


It is at the time they are going about their spiritual exercises with delight and satisfaction, when in their opinion the sun of divine favor is shining most brightly on them, that God darkens all this light and closes the door and spring of the sweet spiritual water they were tasting as often and as long as they desired… they not only fail to receive satisfaction and pleasure from their spiritual exercises and works, as they formerly did, but also find these exercises distasteful and bitter. (DN 1.8.3)


According, then, to this first ‘guideline of the dark night’ John suggests that when there is a decrease in interest of things to do with the spirit there is not a corresponding increase of interest of the things ‘of the world’ eg. of sensual/sensory pleasure. However, John rightly perceives that such a distaste or lassitude towards the things of the world may also be found with ‘melancholia’ or ‘bad humour’. So he suggests the second guideline:


The memory ordinarily turns to God solicitously and with painful care, and the soul thinks it is not serving God but turning back, because it is aware of this distaste for the things of God. (DN 1.9.3)


As we experience the dark night of sensuality and spirituality, the one thing that distresses us more than anything is the thought that we have somehow lost our spiritual home in God. We could face anything if this was not the case, without this we are lost. It is this continual return to our spiritual root in God that drives ‘the dark night’ and it is to this that the soul ‘solicitously returns with painful care.’ The ‘melancholia’ leads to collapse of self and self-interest, the ‘purgation of the dark night’ leads to a deepening of self and understanding in God. The key passage in this section is:


The reason is that now in this state of contemplation, when the soul has left discursive meditation and entered the state of proficients, it is God who works in it… At this time a person’s own efforts are of no avail, but an obstacle to the interior peace and work God is producing in the spirit through that dryness of sense. (DN 1.9.7, my emphasis)


As with Teresa’s fourth mansion of Las Moradas, this is the point where we move from the natural to the supernatural, from our own efforts to those of God. Up to now our efforts have brought us closer to God – our discursive meditation, going on courses, going to church, working for peace and justice – but now that is coming to an end, not only do our efforts no longer help, they may in fact impede the action of God. We are entering the beauty and mystery of ‘the night’ – and very often our ego will do everything it can to resist and struggle.

The ‘sensory’ part of ourselves cannot ‘enjoy’ these spiritual ‘delights’, it is not ready yet. So it experiences this time as a time of dryness. As with Teresa, John emphasises the sensuality of the gustos[4] in bringing us closer to God. And like Teresa, he employs the strategies of embodiment of the medieval theologia mystica to stress this part of the journey[5]:

The reason for this dryness is that God transfers his goods and strength from sense to spirit. Since the sensory part of the soul is incapable of the goods of spirit, it remains deprived, dry, and empty. Thus, while the spirit is tasting, the flesh tastes nothing at all and becomes weak in its work. But through this nourishment the spirit grows stronger and more alert, and becomes more solicitous than before about not failing God.

If in the beginning the soul does not experience this spiritual savor and delight, but dryness and distaste, the reason is the novelty involved in this exchange. Since its palate is accustomed to these other sensory tastes, the soul still sets its eyes on them. And since, also, its spiritual palate is neither purged nor accommodated for so subtle a taste, it is unable to experience the spiritual savor and good until gradually prepared by means of this dark and obscure night. The soul instead experiences dryness and distaste because of a lack of the gratification it formerly enjoyed so readily. (DN 1.9.4)


Reflection at this point, he tells us, is so delicate that when we try to grasp it or name it, it is ‘like air that escapes when one tries to grasp it in one's hand’. Which leads to the third guideline for the dark night:


The powerlessness, in spite of one’s efforts, to meditate and make use of the imagination, the interior sense, as was one’s previous custom. At this time God does not communicate Himself through the senses as He did before, by means of the discursive analysis and synthesis of ideas, but begins to communicate Himself through pure spirit by an act of simple contemplation, in which there is no discursive succession of thought. (DN 1.9:8)


John’s third guideline relates to forms of prayer, meditation and contemplation. Psychologists have recently begun to appreciate the value of meditation for good mental health and recently many in the West have found much of interest in the great meditative traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Yet, within the Christian tradition there is an equally strong and well thought out meditative tradition, not least in the works of John and Teresa. Here we see John applying his knowledge of prayer and meditation to the subtle questions raised by the ‘dark night’. 

Commenting on this guideline he suggests that it allows us to distinguish ‘melancholic states’ from authentic spiritual movements, for the former are ‘by nature changeable’. St Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises suggests that we observe the ‘movements of the soul’ and note how these movements come and go – equally, John suggests that mental pathologies may come and go but the deeper ‘spiritual purgation’ of the dark night is something more permanent and lasting.

In John’s scholastic anthropology, God at this point:

Binds the interior faculties and leaves no support in the intellect, nor satisfaction in the will, nor remembrance in the memory. At this time a person's own efforts are of no avail, but are an obstacle to the interior peace and work God is producing in the spirit through that dryness of sense. Since this peace is something spiritual and delicate, its fruit is quiet, delicate, solitary, satisfying, and peaceful, and far removed from all the other gratifications of beginners, which are very palpable and sensory. This is the peace that David says God speaks in the soul in order to make it spiritual (DN 1.9.7)

Thus, John suggests, if a person is exhibiting the three signs shown here then what they are experiencing may well be the theological ‘dark night of the soul’ – not necessarily so but possibly so. Of course, as we suggested at the beginning this all takes place against the background of a life of prayer and serious dedication to the ‘things of God’. John worked with people within this context and assumed it was the context for the sort of phenomena he is concerned with.




[1] See Brown (1990), Harmless (2004) and Chryssavgis (2003)
[2] For more on the importance of this chapter see Green 2007 and Johnston 1991
[3] See footnote 48
[4]  As we saw in the previous chapter, this is an important word for both Teresa and John, but difficult to translate. Joys, tastes, favours and delights will all do. It is a deliberately ambiguous word and it is noteworthy that when Teresa first uses it in the Libro de La Vida it is in reference to sensual pleasures rather than the things of God. As she moves through the book it becomes more associated with spiritual matters. This studied ambiguity towards the sensual and the spiritual in both Teresa and John may account for increased contemporary interest in their work.
[5] See here my forthcoming article on Teresa’s use of the strategy of embodiment in the Conceptos. See Sources of Transformation: Revitalising Traditions of Christian Spirituality for Today. Continuum 2010.


Saturday, 8 February 2014

Psychology of Vocation - The Grail Search Begins...

At the launch of ‘The Disciple’s Call’ (Bloomsbury 2013, ed C. Jamison) on Thursday I was told about a lot of interest in the article I had written for the volume on ‘the psychology of vocation’. One of the good Dominicans in Dublin, Fr Gerard Dunne OP, had even gone so far as to write: ‘The assistance that psychologists offer to vocations personnel and their teams are covered in one of the concluding chapters of the book. This piece, authored by Dr Peter Tyler, is quite simply essential reading for vocation ministers. It is by far the best exposition of this topic that I have seen in some years.’ I will have trouble putting my hat on after this! Abbot Christopher admitted he had to read it twice before he wanted to include it... so I’m glad he did! I have already posted one extract from it (in December last year) but here is another if you cannot get hold of the book... it is my description of the ‘beginning of the Grail quest’ from Chrétien de Troyes. I love this passage and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. And many thanks to Abbot Christopher and all at Bloomsbury, especially Anna Turton, for encouraging me to write this...


The Quest Begins

Chrétien of Troyes begins his account of the Grail legend thus:


  It was in the season when trees flower, shrubs leaf, meadows grow     green, and birds in their own tongue sing sweetly in the mornings, and   everything is aflame with joy, that the son of the widow lady of the           Waste Forest arose, effortlessly placed the saddle upon his hunter and,          taking three javelins, left his mother’s manor. (Chrétien:62)


Now, as a psychotherapist, I know that beginnings are very important (as are endings). When the client comes in the room I look to see how they arrive, what are the features? What is their appearance? How do they enter? Likewise we can look at this medieval tale in the same way. How does it begin? Who is it about? Where does it happen?

          Well, the first thing we notice is that it is the time of youth – the sap is rising, the birds are singing and all is full of promise and hope. This description of the Grail quest seems as good a description of the ‘glad confident morn’ of youth as we can hope to get. Everything, we are told, ‘is aflame with joy’. This is the world of the young men and women who come to us seized with the vocation. Or at least it is the pool of life out of which the vocation director must fish.

           What is the next thing we notice? Well, that our young hero has no name. He is simply described as ‘the son of the widow lady of the Waste Forest’. The book of Chrétien is called the ‘Song of the Grail’, in its title the name of the hero is not included. Later we shall know him as Perceval or Parzifal (which means, literally ‘pure fool’) but at this stage in the story he has no name. This is significant as we shall see. Those who come to us seeking a vocation have at this stage of their lives no name…

          Secondly, we need to note that this is the story of a boy not a girl. Our hero is a boy. Now, on one level we can just put this down to pre-modern prejudice. Yet, recent commentators such as Richard Rohr and Robert Johnson have seen in the story of the Grail a blueprint or, if you prefer, archetype, of the pattern of male spirituality (See Johnson 1989 and Rohr 1994). Whereas we must remain cognisant of the critiques of writers such as Nichola Slee, I think we must bear in mind that the legend has something to offer men in particular. However, having used the legend with groups and adapted it in my writings over the past few years, I think it has relevance for both men and women and make no apology for using it here to draw wider conclusions.

          The third thing to note is that this is an ordinary boy. He is a simple boy. At this point the story of Vocation is not that to a religious group or to the priesthood. The false sense of Merton’s ‘religious self’ has not asserted itself yet. The boy has not been initiated into a particular religious elite. As mentioned above, in this context, I would like to suggest that the process of discovering vocation is the same for lay people, clergy and religious. In fact, I would go further to suggest that too often the word ‘vocation’ is used as shorthand for ‘vocation to the priesthood’. What I will be discussing here are archetypal views of how the individual is encountered by the Transcendent and then works through that encounter. That, for me, is the theme of the Song of the Grail, and why it is of such help for our deliberations on vocation. From this I derive:


First Lesson for the Discernment of Vocation

The fundamental question for the person discerning their vocation is that of St Benedict (and indeed the Psalmist):


Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days? (Rule of St Benedict, RB Prol.:15, cf. Ps. 33:13)


Essentially, seeking advice on vocation is seeking advice on how to live a fulfilled and happy life. The question of the Vocation Guide should not be ‘what can you do for us?’, but rather, ‘what can we do for you?’ Her/his role is to help someone to live a happy and fulfilled life, regardless of whether that life is lived out as a lay person, a member of the clergy or of a religious order. Abbot Christopher talks in this book of developing a ‘culture of vocation’ in the present day climate. This ‘culture of vocation’ should, I feel, embrace help to young Christians to explore how their authentic self is manifest in whatever role they adopt for the bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth. As well as priesthood, religious life and married life I contend that this should also include helping young people to discern vocations to be teachers, artists, healthcare workers or whatever role will bring ‘life in its fullness’ and fulfillment in the mystical Body of Christ.