in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Thomas Merton Reads Freud

Yesterday I had the privilege of giving some lectures at the London Centre for Spirituality as part of my current 'Pursuit of the Soul'. We had some lively conversations so I didn't cover everything I had prepared. Here is a part I omitted, for those who were there yesterday, and to give a flavour to those who weren't there. It seems I am on the trail of Merton right now! I have some more news about our Catholic Dialogue Conference in June which I will be posting shortly... watch this space!

Best wishes


Freud, the ‘godless Jew’, may not have been a militant atheist but the mental map he developed is essentially a godless one. There is no room for the transcendent in Freud’s schema and it would prove to him and his followers at best a distraction and at worst a hindrance to good mental functioning. It is perfectly possible to follow all the ideas of the object relations school without any place for the transcendent. Freud himself vacillated during his life from being actively opposed to the transcendent to seeing it as an irrelevance. The key aspect for good mental functioning was appropriate ego strength and an ability to be open to the ‘unknown thing’ with a listening ear to its demands.[1]

          When we survey the current practice of spiritual direction in the West, and indeed much writing on Christian spirituality, one of the most surprising things is the extent to which so many Christian writers take the paraphernalia of Freudian analysis and apply it unthinkingly to the Christian position. As Freudian language became widespread in the mid-twentieth century so Christian writers, at first sceptical, adapted it to their musings. A good example of this is the twentieth century Trappist monk and social activist, Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968).

As a young man wanting to reject Christian values Merton had turned towards psychoanalysis. At this point he saw analysis as offering an opportunity to ‘indulge the appetites’:


I, whose chief trouble was that my soul and all its faculties were going to seed because there was nothing to control my appetites – and they were pouring themselves out in an incoherent riot of undirected passion -  came to the conclusion that the cause of all my unhappiness was sex-repression! ( Merton 1948:124)


This quote comes from the Seven Storey Mountain, his best-selling autobiography published in 1948 and charting his journey from pre-war hipster to post-war monk. In it he is censorious about psychological analysis and suggests ‘if I ever had gone crazy, I think psychoanalysis would have been the one thing chiefly responsible for it.’ This sense of mistrust towards analysis is typical of the time.

However, as he continued to live at the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani in Kentucky, coming into increasing conflict with his abbot, Dom James Fox, and wondering if the Cistercian vocation was right for him afterall, he became increasingly interested in psychoanalysis. Prompted by meetings with the psychiatrist Gregory Zilboorg he began to take this element of the personality more seriously so that by the time he was addressing his conferences to novices in the abbey in the 1960s he begins to use a lot of psychological, and Freudian terms. He also became increasingly interested in types of what we would today call ‘transpersonal psychology’ that took the spiritual life seriously and sought to integrate it into psychological development to which we shall return at the end of this chapter.

Of all Christian writers in the latter half of the twentieth century interested in Christian spiritual direction, Merton is something of a pioneer. Although flawed, his last books reveal an attempt to integrate the findings of psychological analysis with spiritual insight. In Contemplative Prayer[2], for example, the integration of the two is almost seamless and he writes with mastery of the spiritual life using tropes from the early Desert fathers, John of the Cross and metaphors from Freud such as ‘the ego’ and ‘the unconscious’ with ease:


The ‘flame’ of which St John of the Cross is speaking is a true awareness that one has died and risen in Christ. It is an experience of mystical renewal, an inner  transformation brought about entirely by the power of God’s merciful love, implying the ‘death’ of the self-centred and self-sufficient ego and the appearance of a new and liberated self who lives and acts ‘in the Spirit’. (1973:110)


In this respect these later writings come close to the ideal of psychological language as ‘mystical discourse’ which I am presenting here. The only problem with such appropriation is that it can tend to blur the original significance of the terms for a writer such as Freud: a significance we have described in this chapter. For Merton, the psychological tropes of Freud offered a means of examining his life as a ‘reintegration of the self in Christ’ through the marriage of different poles of the self. Merton, living from the unconscious as a young man embraces the hard ethical demands of the Christian life when he enters Gethsemani. Only with age and experience does he realise that the hard edges of ego-control have to be surrendered to allow a softer entrance of the spirit into all aspects of the self, bringing about what Blake, his great inspiration, calls the ‘marriage of heaven and earth’. This is far from the inner psychic conflict that Freud imagined and points more to influence of his one time collaborator and student, Carl Gustav Jung.

[1] For an extended recent discussion on Freud’s relationship to religion see Chapter Five in Beverley Clack’s Freud on the Couch (Clack 2013).
[2] Published posthumously in 1974.

No comments:

Post a Comment