I was in Birmingham Cathedral recently and was looking at the stained glass window made by Edward Burne-Jones. In particular the East window which depicts the Ascended Christ. Mostly I am not an enthusiast of stained glass windows although there are exceptions. (The glass in Coventry Cathedral is beautiful. As is the glass in the Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona.) I spent about ten minutes looking at the window. Enjoying a sit down and just allowing myself to look at the glass in a “mindful” way. (Simply, I allowed myself to experience the window and its context without letting my prejudices get in the way.) I saw the figure of the risen Christ first. He occupies central stage in Burne-Jones’ window. Apparently he is looking down on humanity with compassion. He is surrounded by angels who hold their hands in gestures of prayer or praise. After about ten minutes I noticed a figure on the far left of the portrait (The left if one is looking up at the image from the floor.) I have no idea who he or she is. I thought of her as female although this gender is neutral. I was shocked by how long it had taken me to see her. My gaze was caught up by the Christ figure who occupies central stage. Yet he needs his companions to give him shape and meaning -certainly in terms of the balance of the window.
That a central, powerful figure commands our attention is not news. We see it every day in a classroom. A workplace. A hospital ward. The obvious individual gets noticed. As counsellor part of my work is to see the marginal figures in my patients’ characters. I read a piece recently called “The parts of me I don’t want you to see”. This , of course, is true of the therapist as well as his patients! We are able to hide some parts of ourselves by keeping to strict boundaries. But our patients find us out sooner or later. In the same way that the classic Freudian slip is viewed as an unconscious communication, so we do the same. By our time keeping; our billing; our diary keeping. We show our marginal selves.Which if we can allow this, can enrich the work. I remember being late for an appointment and talking to my patient about this .The response was “So you’re not perfect after all!” I had been put on a pedestal as some kind of perfect therapist. My lateness challenged that view! A good deal of helpful work came out of this error in my timekeeping.
I clearly remember a moment in my own analysis when one of my hidden parts came into view. I knew that my analyst had two daughters. One day I was going to my appointment when a young man came out in his running kit. I mentioned this in my session and commented on his enthusiasm considering that it was pouring down with rain. I said that I assumed it was her son, since he had come out of their house. The discussion about who he might be and my responses to him opened up a whole area of conflict that provided work for a long number of sessions. More importantly it allowed me to work on an area of great difficulty and to be able to move on. His appearance triggered a whole “hidden” part of me. I knew it was there but, like Burne-Jones’ Christ, I was preoccupied with the foreground.
I have had similar experiences with my patients. A chance question takes us into whole areas of previously unexplored territory. We are introduced to family members who have been banished to the margins for a very long time.Yet they form part of the balance of my patients lives. As a child I used to lie in bed trying to see what I couldn’t see. Or that was how I characterised it! I was aware that there were things on the outer limits of my perception that I knew were there. But I couldn’t name them. I was always struggling to bring them into focus. Then they would be in my range of vision and I would know what they were doing. This is the work of therapy. To bring into our vision those things that are on the periphery. “To make conscious the unconscious” as Freud put it
I now look more closely at stained glass windows. I look for the squirrel hidden in a Saint’s cloak. Or a halo on an angel that is a little lopsided. The old proverb says that the Devil is in the detail. I think that’s unfair. Lots of fascinating life affirming things are also in the detail.