Counselling, Dreams, Hope, Narratives, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being



I came across this comment by the Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill. She is writing about beauty:

“So, too, all who are sensitive to beauty know the almost agonising sense of revelation its sudden impact brings – the abrupt disclosure of the  mountain summit, the wild cherry tree in blossom, the crowning moment of a great concerto, witnessing to another beauty beyond sense… when we take it seriously, it suggests that we are essentially spiritual as well as natural creatures.” (The Spiritual Life)

I find myself uncomfortable with this idea. I acknowledge the sense of the numinous that we meet at times and places. I remember being moved to tears the first time I saw Rodin’s sculpture of the Prodigal Son. But what moved me was its humanity. Nothing to do with the Divine. I can listen to a great concerto, see a moving play, look at a landscape and be  moved. And be challenged to think about my life, its purpose and meaning. But I do not necessarily intuit the Divine in this.

Speaking of religion, Freud noted that:

“The psychoanalysis of individual human beings, however, teaches us with quite special insistence that the God of each of them is formed in the likeness of his father, that his personal relation to God depends on his relation to his father in the flesh and oscillates and changes along with that relation, and that at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father.”

I find Underhill’s view one that demeans humanity and our creativity. I dislike the gothic cathedrals that, in my experience, seek to dominate man and propagate a view that reduces us to nothingness in the face of the grandeur of the Divine. I have no wish to be involved with a God who subjugates humanity. Following Freud, one has to wonder at the forces and influences that shaped the  inner world of the architects of the buildings. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote  “I never weary of great churches. It is my favourite kind of mountain scenery. Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral.”    For the most part I disagree.  There are cathedrals that inspire. Liverpool’s Catholic cathedral is one. Its light, its space and potential offer me a feeling of celebration and creativity. I always  want to dance when I’m there. Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona has a similar impact.

My point here is not to criticise gothic cathedrals per se. Coleridge saw them as “infinity made imaginable”. Perhaps he was right. For me, I prefer the image of an exalted father to be one of a father who can sing and dance with his children and teach them to celebrate life. I do not want to exalt a father who is remote, distant and intimidating.

Counselling, Mindfullness, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Spirituality, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Holding Space 2

This post continues yesterday’s theme of a holding space. I wrote about my responses to Liverpool’s two cathedrals, commenting that this time I had enjoyed the Anglican one more than its Catholic counterpart. I have been musing about why this might have been.

I remember a friend telling me about a church he had gone into-one that he knew and KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAliked. He said that from the moment he went in, he felt that something was different, That something was missing. As he walked around he saw that the Reserved Sacrament had gone. (This is bread and wine that has already been consecrated and is “reserved” in case anyone urgently needs communion.) He then understood why he felt that the church was empty. “Christ” was absent.

To go back to the Catholic cathedral, I was aware that they are currently ‘fatherless” with the current Pope having retired and a new one yet to be appointed. (And the Anglican cathedral has a new father to make room for. But there is a father present here.)

I have several patients where their father has been absent in some way. If not necessarily physically absent, then absent in terms of being a  Father who has any potency. The OED gives as one of its definitions of Father “One who institutes, originates, calls into being. One who performs the offices of a father by protecting care etc.” One of my patients was made to sit outside on the doorstep for several hours if she had been “naughty”-regardless of the weather. Another had a father who was probably psychotic and at times violent towards his wife. Another patient’s father killed himself when his child was five years old. I have another patient whose father was a violent alcoholic who tyrannised his family.

Listening to my patents it is interesting to see how they have managed their internal fathers. My step patient when I asked what her father did to protect her simply shrugged. “Nobody argued with mum”. Two of my patients who had violent fathers have both internalised an angry parent and have significant difficulties with their own anger. Both, at times, becoming the father they hated and feared. All but one of them have problems making and sustaining intimate, nourishing relationships. Each of them is trying to use their relationship with me to understand their anger. (Which invariably comes from a terror of – and a refusal to be- vulnerable.)

My patients had-and have- mothers. but like their fathers, these mothers seemed unable to meet the requirements implicit in the title “mother”. The OED gives as one of its definitions of mother “Applied to things regarded as giving birth, or standing in the relation of a mother, e.g. a condition that gives rise to another, the Church, Nature, one’s native country, one’s university.” Mother here seems to have some kind of holding, containing, enabling role. Not a solely biological one. And as a counsellor I am experienced as both male and female; mother and father depending on my patients and their need.

Next time I am in Liverpool I will revisit both cathedrals. It will be an interesting experience.Cathedral 1




Counselling, Mindfullness, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Spirituality, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Holding space 1

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWe recently visited the two Liverpool Cathedrals, the Anglican and the Roman Catholic . I have seen both before and enjoy being there. In the past I have always favoured the Catholic cathedral, finding the Anglican one too intimidating. I dislike places-or people- where I feel ” put in my place”. (This usually means that I  feel small and unimportant- “a worm and no man”, as the Psalmist puts it.It is usually done by people who themselves feel unimportant or overlooked. I do wonder about the mentality behind the increasingly tall buildings going up around the world. What statement is being made?)

What I usually enjoy about the Catholic cathedral is its relative intimacy. Along with the art work and the fact that it is in the round, thus diminishing some of the traditional hierarchical structures that often prevail. In religious language it is the difference between the Immanence of God and the Transcendence. The maternal and paternal aspects of God.This element being mediated by our own experience of our parents.

This time, however, my experience was reversed. We visited the Anglican cathedral first and went up to the top of the tower, looking out over Liverpool.My wife and our friends spent much longer at this than me. I gave up after one walk round and came back to the main cathedral. I stood in the transept and found myself feeling unusually “held” in this space. Whether that was in contrast to the huge city scape I had just been seeing or a response to the space itself, I am unsure. Simply that I was  in no hurry to leave it.

Later in the day we went to the Catholic cathedral, which I was looking forward to visiting. We went up the steps and went in. I quickly found that it felt emptier than I had remembered it being. I was quite unprepared for this reaction- and a little disappointed. I spent a quarter of an hour walking round, trying to find the “magic” that was usually thee for me. But no magic appeared and we left.

I wondered about this experience of absence-and presence. And its reversal. Finding what I had not expected. And not finding what I had expected.  The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott offers the idea of potential space. He suggest that that the place where the baby and the breast meet is a shared space that is not the property of either mother or baby. Rather it is a shared space. “From birth, ” he writes, “… the human being is concerned with the problem of the relationship between what is objectively perceived and what is objectively conceived of, and in the solution of this problem there is no health for the individual who has not been started off well enough by the mother.” (Playing and Reality 1971)

I will write more about this in my next blog and link together some these ideas so that they make a single piece rather than a scattering of thoughts.
Cathedral 1