This book, adapted from the distinguished Hale Lectures, presents material from a woman’s wrestling with death, showing how inextricably mixed are matters theological and psychological.
At a point when her life was blossoming in every way, Nancy was struck down by a terminal brain tumor which soon robbed her of her speech. She used paintings, many of which are here reproduced, to wrestle with this blow and to communicate what she was slowly discerning in the face of death, something from the ’other side.’
The author addresses a variety of related issues, including the place of language in analysis and the role of the feminine mode of being, especially in transference and countertransference.
Ann Belford Ulanov is the Christiane Brooks Johnson Professor of Psychiatry and Religion at Union Theological Seminary, a psychoanalyst in private practice, and a supervising analyst and faculty member of the C.G. Jung Institute in New York City. She is the author of numerous books, some of them coauthored by her husband, Barry Ulanov, and they have four children.
1. Religion and Psychoanalysis
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.