Religious phenomena regularly manifest themselves in psychoanalytic work, but in subtle ways, often difficult to discern. The religious elements in psychological happenings must be looked for. We must be attentive, tuned to their frequencies. We open ourselves to the persistent skepticism of our neighbor and even to scathing self-condemnation when we ask, Did we put the religion there? Is it really there at all? For grace and goodness come in ambiguous forms in the shadows of this world. The great presence of the infinite does not easily fall into the small footprints of our finitude. Sometimes the coming of the transcendent bursts all our boundaries and we float into that liminal space at once so threatening and liberating to our space-time perspective.
What then do we do with the All, the Vast, the Radiance that stands steadfastly behind and through the near and the familiar? We make pictures - primordial images of the primordial.1 Judeo-Christian tradition speaks of the Holy coming to us - in prophets and kings, through daring women and priests of the sacred.2 The New Testament tells of the startling stepping into history and time and space of the Holy One who brings all images and religions to an end. But still, we must make our way to seeing who is there, receiving what is given, offering our all in response. Our coming to the One who comes to us is our soul journey and for that we need pictures.
Our journey is always marked by pictures of some kind, images that mark us. Through them we project onto what is there and take account of it. We are, as depth psychology makes so clear, symbolizing creatures, drawn and driven to make images that express our consciousness of self and other and world.
Jung stands out among depth psychologists for his passionate investigation of our religious images. Among our instinctive faculties, he said, is a religious instinct, a consciousness of our relation to deity.3 This sense of relation expresses itself in God-images that we might understand as the religious instinct's perception of itself, or the self-portrait of the religious instinct. Here we find and create what acts as God within us, within our group, within our religious traditions. By entering these images of the center we climb our own Jacob's ladder toward the transcendent, only to discover that the ladder stops and breaks, and that we cannot reach to God on it. God reaches to us, crossing the gap between us and the Holy from the divine side. That is the never-ending miracle.4
But miracles can shock and break us. We need to ready ourselves to correspond.5 We do that by wrestling with our God-images and the gap between them and the Holy. We get tangled up in paradox: we need our God-images to project ourselves toward God in terms we can grasp, but the images break down and fall apart, unable to mediate the incommensurable. We experience the breakdown of our God-images as an unutterable loss that plunges us into darkness, and yet it is the only way we can be sure to notice what is there. Our images both distort God and help us notice God. Our loss of images feels both like the loss of God and God finding us.
This wrestling forms the link between the psyche and the soul. Through it the unconscious makes itself felt in theological education. Theologically, we systematize the implications of our God-images given in scripture, in exegesis and hermeneutic. We draw out ethical and practical implications for life in the world and in sanctuary. We study the history of communities wrestling in similar fashion, shaped by differing cultural forces. In depth psychology we confront these God-images directly. Jung puts it bluntly: "We need some new foundations. We must dig down to the primitive in us ... what we need is a new experience of God." 6 We can find it in the daily work of psychoanalysis where we meet God as a living reality, as Marie-Louise von Franz says, "who can speak in our psyche. One never knows what God will ask of an individual. That is why every analysis is an adventure, because one never knows what God is going to ask of this particular person." 7
I have chosen to present concrete material to demonstrate such an adventure, which shows us in a woman's wrestling with death how inextricably mixed are matters theological and psychological.8 We will see how a gap necessarily exists between them and that we cannot reduce one discipline to the other. Indeed, the gap honors their meeting and uniting as well as their separateness.
If we reduce religion to psychology we get pushed into a narrow box. Psychological theory is just one step removed from living experience and rises out of a very small community of authors compared to the twenty centuries and millions who made and lived by dogma. Reducing all religion to psychological theory is like stuffing an enormous downy quilt into a small coffin. On the other hand, if we reduce psychology to religion, we impose fiats on living people that dictate how and where they should arrive before they have ever begun their journey. We do not then leave the bottom open to ferns of ideas, to slimy frogs and talon-toed beasts to slither up from below. We do not dig down to find new foundations in God but think we know all about God ahead of experience. The soul is cramped by a preordained scheme. The psyche is forced to repress what does not fit.
See, by comparison, Lady Julian of Norwich, who took fifteen years to discern what her visions meant, and St. Teresa of Avila, who prayed in the dark and with a bad case of scruples - a neurosis in religion - for eighteen years before she felt God had answered her!9 These women teach us we must grow our way to truth, and more especially, our own particular way of living in relation to it, all of it, including our problems, "for all religions are therapies for the sorrows and disorders of the soul." 10
In the case of the extraordinary woman at hand, wrestling with the religious issue meant wrestling for life in the face of death, wrestling with paradox until she could touch and talk about religious matters through the symbolic discourse of analysis. The exercise of analysis gave her a voice in facing death's silences and made it possible for her to see the value of life right up to the last. She had something to say and determined to say it even when she no longer could speak. Her death was delayed; she hung onto life until she could communicate with nonverbal eloquence the religious impact of what confronted her. Thus she conquered darkness as she went down into the dark.
Nancy was a woman in her late thirties, just completing a six-year analysis to embark on what Jung calls "the second half of life," when she was struck down by a terminal malignant brain tumor.11 I focus here on our analytical work which then continued for a year and a half, until the day before she died. Now we embark, you and I, on a joint adventure in religion and psychoanalysis, of a patient and analyst, of verbal and nonverbal communication, of language and picture, of life lived up to death.
We begin by wrestling with paradox. We are all aware in the religious life of the in-between spaces of creative illusion that ritual and prayer create. There the miracle of wine-becoming-blood-becoming-wine of the Eucharist occurs. There we risk open response to the God who confronts us in prayer. We find a similar space framed in a work of art where we can imaginatively experience the suicidal agony of an Arshile Gorky when we behold the bits and pieces of color and shape fragmented all over his canvases.
Psychoanalysis creates a similar illusory space in its sessions. We talk, like painters, about the frame of the work that permits us to establish a space safe enough for a person to experience in transference the inchoate sadnesses, wolfish appetites, fierce angers, and lavish lovings of which we are all capable but rarely fully conscious. The frame maintains itself by the regularity of time and place for the analytic sessions, by rigorous devotion to what the person brings, and a minimal intrusion of the analyst's own personality and problems. The frame is itself an archetypal image of the marking-off of an inside space from an outer one, providing a safe container in which to experience a hard reality.12
We need limits and restraint to enter the territory of analysis and to protect the person living there during that fifty-minute hour. If the method of holding the frame becomes paramount the person gets injured. So the first thing the container of paradox shows us is that the limits of analysis will only be broken if they are first put firmly in place and can only be adhered to if they are transcended.
We cannot so construct a method of analysis that captures meanings around the truth it asserts because there is a human person there across from us, looking out from a center of existence. However much a person's center may be dented, damaged, maimed, or even lost, it will burst through any method. Life is not systematic. The center of the human person links to the transcendent, to something outside ego, patient's or analyst's. This center transcends, too, the group egos of family, class and race to which persons belong. It uses the psyche to call us into relation to itself, to our center of self, and to each other.
Jung calls this center the Self with a capital and the journey to it "individuation." Aniela Jaffé defines Jung's notion of individuation well, as our giving "an answer to God - to recognize what He put in us as human beings." 13 Wilfred Bion talks about this mystery as an "O" which denotes ultimate reality. Depending on our frame of reference, we speak of it as God, the infinite, or the thing in itself.14 We need the method, all our differing methods, to make room for the analytical work.
With Nancy the frame of the entire enterprise broke apart. The length of each session, its physical location in the office, its focus on unconscious materials of dream and symptom, the tensions of transference and countertransference - all were broken wide open with Nancy's first seizure and the diagnosis, soon enough, of a brain tumor called glioma blastoma, the worst in a ranking of four grades of gravity, because, as its name suggests, it blasts off, spreading wreckage in its wake. No one with the tumor has lived longer than three months without treatment. With treatment, itself life-threatening, the meantime is two years.
The obvious breaking of routine happened - the rescheduling and canceling of sessions, the trauma of endless tests, and several brain operations. It was a moment such as Heidegger describes when he calls our basic existence a "thrownness." 15 Like being thrown by a wrestler, Nancy felt catapulted into contingency, knowing death as her nearest neighbor. Nancy felt this metaphysical fact as a daily reality.
A still worse breaking of the frame happened that left Nancy feeling betrayed. The tumor slowly robbed her of her ability to use language, and with her loss of words stole from her her faith in dreams. She had had a large long reach into psyche through her dreams. Truly it was for her Freud's "royal road to the unconscious." In Jungian terms, she knew an unusual connection to the collective or objective psyche. Dreams mediated this other side to her and functioned as her bridge to what transcended both ego and psyche. It is not too much to say dreams mediated to her the unknown as it touched her; they functioned as a God-image. When Nancy no longer could gather what she dreamt into words the bridge was all but broken. As with Jacob, her wrestling with an unknown adversary left her wounded. Her connection to the transcendent was gone. Nancy felt lost, no longer held within a protecting framework.
The frame of analysis then became indispensable. We had to keep the container for the work intact, and Nancy herself created a new frame for her experiences. Both frames, hers and mine, proved durable and gave us entry to do the strong, revealing, finishing and beginning work we did in the last year and a half of her life.
We separated analytical work from all the other kinds of social and professional exchanges that now flooded into Nancy's life - her family, her many friends, countless technicians, nurses, radiologists, chemotherapists, interns, specialists, surgeons, scientists doing experiments. I was only her analyst and could provide only analytical sessions, sometimes in the hospital, sometimes at my office, sometimes in her home, at changing hours and at irregular intervals, for the first four months. Nonetheless, what we did took precedence in her life. In the hospital, for example, we would arrange a time after doctor's rounds and treatment procedures when she was well enough, which was often the case, for she was without gross pain except right after operations or tests or seizures. If visitors were there, Nancy would shoo them out, draw the curtains around her bed and we could go to work. When in the last 11 months of her life the sessions shifted to her house, we set a fixed time every week and adhered to it with little variation. Her analytical hour was accepted by nurses and family as a regular and necessary part of her life, entered into in the privacy of her bedroom. As you can imagine, certain technical and countertransference issues arose, which I will come to later.
Here I want to stress the paradox that the limits of analysis both persisted and broke apart. The limits made the work possible. The breaking of the limits, by life and death, made the work reach beyond itself. We could not reach new levels of communication and perception of existence in Nancy's experience of the infinite except through the durable limits of the finite. We would not have been able to tolerate the intensity of rage, indignation, terror, sorrow for her husband's pain, grieving for a life lost, and the cosmic loneliness Nancy suffered, without the frame of analysis and our willingness to break it.
I took heart from the fact many of the founders of analysis also broke the frame. Freud pounded the couch on which his patient lay, saying, "I am an old man - you do not think it worth your while to love me!" Winnicott bought a patient's groceries and put them in her refrigerator when she was too ill to look after herself. Masud Khan, famous - or infamous - for his tirades, flew to Spain to help the dying lover of a homosexual patient.16 These actions exceed the limits of analysis at the same time they confirm them. Jung sums up the paradox: "It is a remarkable thing about psychotherapy: you cannot learn any recipes by heart and then apply them more or less suitably, but can cure only from one central point; and that consists in understanding the patient as a psychological whole and approaching him as a human being, leaving aside all theory and listening attentively to whatever he has to say." 17