"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Fundamental Rule of Prayer: Free Association?

Today's lovely feast, which of course brings the 40-day Christmas cycle to an end, is that of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, often known as Candlemas. And in the Catholic world it's kept as a day to remember consecrated religious who devote their lives to prayer and contemplation. But what is prayer, and what of our difficulties with it? Here are some thoughts on that question aided by two books I read back to back last weekend--quite unintentionally, I might add, or at least without conscious (!) intent.

But hear me out when I suggest that there are connections to be discovered between late Anglo-Irish Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe's God, Christ, and Us, and the contemporary Anglo-American psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas in The Evocative Object World.

I started with McCabe's lovely short book of sermons, God, Christ, and Us. If you are casting about for suitable Lenten reading material this year, permit me very warmly to recommend it. No chapter is very long, and none suffers from that kind of revolting treacle one sometimes associates with pious utterances such a sermons. McCabe was not pious in that sense at all, but very earthy and practical in a refreshingly straight-forward kind of way. The God preached by this member of the Order of Preachers is a God you actually want to meet, indeed might actually look forward to meeting, and quite probably over a drink or meal à deux. 

I first encountered McCabe's name in the 1990s when Stanley Hauerwas made an off-hand reference to him in connection to Alasdair MacIntyre. I paid no heed as Hauerwas didn't say much and I wasn't interested enough to pursue the matter. Later I would see MacIntyre himself in several places confess debts to McCabe, but without much detail to spur on an investigation on my part.

But the person who really convinced me I must read McCabe was and is Eugene McCarraher, whom I first stumbled across in articles like this (discussing Terry Eagleton's Culture and the Death of God) and then this deeply fascinating three-part interview, the third of which avers "I swear that reading McCabe has often kept me a Christian." In my more despairing moments recently, I know exactly what McCarraher means by that, and I suspect very strongly he had lines like this from McCabe in mind:
"Like Peter and the 12 we remain Christians because there is nowhere else to go: if Christianity is not the revolution, nothing else is" (Law, Love and Language1968).
McCarraher has also written a lovely overview of McCabe's life in this Commonweal article which notes, inter alia, that McCabe's "radicalism" was precisely and only possibly because of its deep orthodoxy. Rooted in the tradition, he could see its deeply subversive potential--even if, alas, that potential is almost always domesticated, tamed, thwarted by the powers and principalities of the present age. His orthodoxy, then, allowed him freely to explore socialism and Marxism.

Though my reading is still early yet, I have not see in him so far much exploration of Freud. But the language is clearly there. Repeatedly McCabe uses classical Freudian language in unmistakable ways, especially speaking of our tendency towards "projection" and our wallowing in "illusion" about both ourselves and God. In, e.g., Faith Within Reason, reflecting on the prodigal son, McCabe writes:
Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us…For damnation must be just being fixed in this illusion, stuck forever with the God of the Law, stuck forever with the God provided by our sin (155-56; my emphasis).
A little later on, McCabe uses language that very much echos the difficulties of psychoanalysis as Freud saw them for it confronts people with hidden, and often infelicitous, desires, images, and actions. But both Freud and McCabe argue that it is much better to face up to ourselves, sinful and infantile as we are:
We damn ourselves because we would rather justify and excuse ourselves, and look on our self-flattering images of ourselves, than be taken out of ourselves by the infinite love of God…Contrition, or forgiveness, is self-knowledge, the terribly painful business of seeing ourselves as what and who we are: how mean, selfish, cruel and indifferent and infantile we are (Faith Within Reason, 157).
But it is in McCabe's sermons on prayer, two of which are found in God, Christ, and Us that most put me in mind of what Bollas says in the first chapter of The Evocative Object World, and, come to think of it, what Adam Phillips has also said, as I noted here in discussing his ideas about distractions and frustrations; see also his book Side EffectsThe link between the two of them seems to be an unapologetic advocacy of free association, leading to my question: are prayer and psychoanalysis the only activities today where one's mind can range freely without being hectored and controlled by ideologues and capitalists (the two often being the same thing)? Are the pew and the couch the only places left to us today as places that do not demand anything of us but give us silence, space, freedom?

Bollas thinks that today's "attacks on psychoanalysis are thinly disguised attacks on unconscious life itself" because "there is a widespread contempt for unconcious life in modern culture." He doesn't say why this is, but it's not hard to figure out: both analysis and prayer, as activities in which our mind ranges freely in search of some outlet for our deepest desires and hurts, are precisely the vague, free-flowing, unproductive, dreamy, gimmick-free kinds of activity that cannot be monetized or commodified or turned into an app promoting "mindfulness" or some other bit of money-making chicanery.

Bollas's first chapter treats free association, noting that it's a mutual process of analyst-analysand freely associating together, creating the analysis together. As he nicely put it, this is an experience in which one can rightly and proudly say "You don't know what you're talking about!" But still you talk, and listen, and associate, and eventually certain things become clear. Other things may not become clear, but this is not necessarily a failure, for the value of analysis is not just the "what" or the content: it is also the process--as Bollas has said elsewhere, echoing D.W. Winnicott--of being held and contained, of developing a deep connection to another human being that in itself is worthwhile, not least in its transferential (and thereafter transformational) power. Furthermore, an analysis is worthwhile not just for the clarity of content that sometimes comes about, but also for the "psychoanalytic mind" it creates, as Fred Busch has so winsomely described.

The beauty of this, as I have long appreciated it, is that "psychoanalysis does not provide ready answers to patients symptoms or lives," as Bollas admits. This, he recognizes, is "disconcerting" for those who think that clinicians are supposed to be experts. In fact, Bollas--and here his thought closely tracks that of Phillips, as I have repeatedly shown on here--says that the free associating of the unconscious of both analyst and analysand "subverts the analyst's natural authoritarian tendencies as well as the patient's wish to be dominated."

In this regard, Bollas puts me in mind of how Maggie Ross describes the mistaken notions behind modern concepts and practices of "spiritual direction," much of which consists of attempts at "mind control" as she puts it, and the result of which is to reinforce one's narcissism. Silence, for Ross, whose book shows considerable familiarity with psychoanalytic ideas, is the goal, and is hugely valuable in itself--a point that also becomes abundantly clear in reading the psychoanalytic literature about silent patients who nonetheless get better--start with another fascinating English Anglican, the analyst Nina Coltart, for examples of this; see her Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

McCabe doesn't come right out and advocate freely associating during prayer, but he very much leans in that direction. This is something I'll have to think about some more, but it does seem to me a helpful way to conceive of prayer and the problems of being distracted during or bored by prayer, or restlessly wondering about the futility of it all.

Rather than fighting that, McCabe advocates letting your mind wander until you find what you really want to pray about, and then praying about it. Here, again without using the words per se, McCabe seems to me to establish the "fundamental rule" (cf. Freud's "On Beginning the Treatment") of prayer outside the shackles of whatever spiritual superegos may be trying to tell us otherwise. If we let ourselves pray for what we are really concerned about, McCabe says, those prayers not only will almost always be, but in fact should be "the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want," instead of all the pious and high-minded things we think we should pray about.

If we're distracted during prayer, it's because we're not praying for the right things (he notes those on sinking ships never report distractions during their prayers!), and constraining ourselves to pray for the things our superego tells us to--the "proper and respectable and 'religious'" things. Instead of that, as he drolly puts it, "you could let world peace rest for a while."And while you're at it, let your mind run to those distractions because they "are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer." (Lest we worry that this is an excuse for descending into infantile selfishness, McCabe says that if we are honest in prayer about our desires, the Holy Spirit will invariably lead us deeper, for prayer involves change and growing up.) If psychoanalysis involves, as Bollas argued in his first major book The Shadow of the Object, a certain "ordinary regression to dependence" for a time, does this not also describe how we are in prayer with our Father in heaven as we pray for the things closest to us that matter most to us?

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