Christian Spirituality Blog

We understand Christian Spirituality to be the practice of the presence of God in daily life.  As such it includes both the mundane and the mystical dimensions of Christian faith and practice.  This Blog is intended to provide thought provoking information and discussion in the categories of Christian Spirituality, Spiritual Direction, Sacred Psychology, Interfaith Relationships, Peacebuilding, Spirituality/Religion, and Book Reviews of interest. 

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St. John of the Cross and Dr. C. G. Jung:

Christian Mysticism in the Light of Jungian Psychology

James Arroj; (Chiloquin, OR, Inner Growth Books, 1988), 199 pages

This life-giving book aspires to help lay foundations for “a renewal of the life of prayer and a practical science of spiritual direction.”  It is written by James Arraj, who with Tyra Arraj, is a writer, craftsperson, homesteader in the Oregon wilderness and co-editor of Inner Growth Books.  He gives us a good look at the processes of individuation and contemplative prayer.  The material covered is often difficult and complex yet meticulously researched and clearly articulated.

The three major parts of this work are: Jung’s psychology and Christian faith, the dawn of contemplation, and a psychological light on St. John of the Cross and the life of prayer.  The first two parts attempt to resolve misgivings about the compatibility of Jung’s psychology and Christian faith, and a long-standing misinterpretation of St. John’s doctrine of contemplation.  The final section outlines the relationship between individuation (as understood by Jung) and contemplation (as understood by St. John).

Part one is an introduction to Carl Jung and his lifelong desire to come to grips with meaning, religion and God. Arraj writes, “A psychology like his shakes our sense of being experts about who we are and challenges us to a journey from ego-consciousness into the unconscious in order to find a deeper and truer self.” Arraj pays particular attention to the process of individuation, “an inner movement towards psychic develop-ment, “ and “the journey to a proper balance between the ego and the unconscious.”  Pragmatically, Jung found that it was essential for the well being of his patients to rediscover a religious, meaning-full perspective for living.  This meant that “the ego had to experience something beyond itself and even submit itself to the healing powers that come from the unconscious.”  And so Jung could talk about a “psychological cure of souls.”  Yet Jung felt that he could not distinguish between the experience of God and the experience of the unconscious, and took pains to say that he could not presume to talk about God as God is, but only about the image of God within humanity.  Arraj does a thorough job of examining Jung’s philosophical and cultural premises and summarizes:  “Jung’s statements on the scope of our ability to know should be interpreted only in relationship to his natural science of the psyche, and not extended to philosophy and theology.  Once the distinction is made between the essence of his work and the context it developed in, the way is open to employ it as an instrument in Christian theology.”  Arraj has synthesized two extreme positions here:  confusing Jung’s psychology as a substitute for theology and rejecting it altogether as a threat to Christian faith.

Part two is an introduction to the person and thought of St. John of the Cross, born three centuries earlier than the Swiss Jung, in Castilian Spain. Like Jung’s work, St. John’s formulations on contemplation are to be experienced and practiced, not merely grappled with intellectually.  For instance, what St. John called “infused contemplation” meant a real, abiding experience of union with God in daily life. Impacted strongly by both poverty and family love, St. John (born Juan de Yepes) entered a Carmelite monastery at age 21.  After being ordained a priest, he was on the verge of leaving the order for one more austere when he met St Teresa of Avila, who had already initiated a reform among the sisters.  She persuaded him to stay and help her in this new work.  It was while on an extended stay at her convent, as both confessor and spiritual director that St. John was kidnapped by friars who deeply opposed his reform.  He was imprisoned in Toledo, brutally treated and feared for his life during these eight months.  It was in this context, in 1577, that he underwent his “dark night of the soul” out of which much of his magnificent poetry was born.  After escaping, he wrote his major works: Ascent of Mt. Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul, masterpieces of the interior life.  In these he develops his concept of “infused contemplation --a concept central to Arraj’s concern—a phenomenon independent of the will of the person who receives it, a divine gift. In con-templation a person knows God “not as an object or thing about which something is known, but simply as a whole, a subject. God is present to him in a way analogous to the way he is present to himself.”

It was perhaps twenty years later that the term “acquired contemplation” began to appear in Carmelite writing.  Claiming to be congruent with the thought of St. John, “acquired contemplation is an act of will in “an affectionate and sincere knowledge of God and his effects which is gained by our own industry.”  Arraj writes insightfully, “Acquired contemplation is rowing the boat, while infused contemplation is having the wind fill the sails and drive it along.”  He counsels us to acknowledge that “infused contemplation” is at the heart of St. John’s teachings, and it is to the relationship between it and individuation that he turns next.

Part three turns to a psychological look at St. John of the Cross, identified as an introverted, intuitive type.  After his life-threatening prison experience, St John emerged a transformed person.  Successfully and fruitfully shouldering many responsibilities (which went against his natural inclinations), he spoke and wrote freely about what was most important to him.  Seeing the world through new eyes, he found that the “physical beauty of the earth had become a symbol of the spiritual journey “ for him.  Both his subsequent poetry and his prose came to reflect the power of his mystical experiences and his ongoing process of individuation, an ever-broadening path of integration and joy.

Arraj’s chapter on psychic energy and contemplation is particularly strong.  He concludes, “It would be precipitous to conclude either contemplation represents some kind of individuation or it is the result of the resolution of these tensions of psychic energy.  At the same time it would be a valuable undertaking if the contemplative life could be examined from the point of view of Jung’s psychology.”  He points especially to the transformations of psychic energy that occur on the spiritual journey.  He rightly indicates the lack of spiritual direction available (“explicit guidance in how to progress in the life of prayer”), indicating that the most fruitful path of development is under the guidance of St. John, with help from Carl Jung.

James Arraj has made a good beginning at reflecting on Christian mysticism in the light of Jung’s work.  His book is going to be important for all of us who, like him, consider the magnum opus to be a “renewal of the religious life of the west.”  This is not light reading. He bogs down in a few places in his attention to detail; he exclusively uses the male pronoun in his writing.  Yet his intelligence and faithfulness shine through each chapter. His own journey through the book reflects the words of St. John:

I went without discerningAnd with no other lightExcept for that which in my heart was burning.

Linda Kusse-Wolfe, reviewer

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