in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

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.


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