Any relevance of psychoanalysis to

our Christian faith?

By John Hughes


Father Kyrillos has asked me to make a few observations about any relevance psychoanalysis might have to our Catholic faith. I have practised as a psychoanalyst for twelve years in the private sector and have also seen many acute patients in the out-patients clinic of a public health inner-city psychiatric hospital. I trained in the context of the psychiatric wing of a large general hospital. 

At first sight it might appear that Christian faith and psychoanalysis are at odds. Much psychology, psychotherapy and counselling seem to be rooted in the humanistic notion that there exists a model man or woman, and particular ways of life and of relating, and that happiness can be secured by adjusting our own identity and lifestyle accordingly. Of course, to we who hold that there is only one true model, namely Our Lord Jesus Christ, such a notion is merely a latter day form of idolatry. Jungian psychoanalytic theory on the other hand appears to be a modern form of Gnosticism. 

All that being said, I still believe that psychoanalysis (particularly as developed in the Freudian tradition) can have a useful role to play both in theory and practice. We use words like identity, self, personality, self-confidence, mind, soul, spirit without considering very carefully what we mean and how they relate to body. St Paul uses the Greek word Sarx in his letters which is often translated into English simply as body, but Sarx refers to much more than our anatomy. Some of our difficulty in reading St Paul derives from the modern Western history of ideas starting with Descartes, which rooted our sense of being in our capacity to engage in rational ‘thinking about’ and which reserved the word knowledge only for that which is thought about.  

Freud on the other hand developed a theory that argues that much of our thinking is something that happens to us (unconscious thinking), much like dreams or bodily functions, and that this is quite distinct from the conscious activity of ‘doing some thinking about something’. He arrived at this conclusion by accident: he was sent patients who had inexplicable organic illnesses, and demanded of his patients that they talk, faithfully reporting to him in their speech whatever came to mind – he found that this, together with the patient reporting dreams, not only had a beneficial therapeutic effect (the unconscious spoke in words instead of ailments), but also gave rise to the discovery of the transference effect. One might say that Freud stumbled upon the interface between thinking and body, and I will suggest later that this might cast some useful light on what we are doing when we pray, what we mean by ‘confession’ (not in a sacramental sense), and even what we mean by knowledge and conscience. 

Some of Freud’s students and successors, particularly Jacques Lacan, went on to discuss the relationship between the speaking subject that emerged in the course of this unplanned and apparently meandering monologue, and what the speaker asserted was his personality or identity. Lacan’s point was not only that the subject that emerged was at odds with the ‘identity’ of his patient, but that the speaking subject that came to light in the course of an analysis couldn’t possibly be fitted into an identity because it was inconsistent with itself, it was, as he put it, a divided subject. Indeed he went on to debunk the whole theory of identity and personality as understood as being certainties or even desirable in the field of human experience! 

In my experience of working in this field the most common, conspicuous and inevitable phenomenon in every analysis is the reluctance (bordering on refusal) of the client to follow the fundamental instruction: speak whatever comes to mind. Freud referred to this as resistance (perhaps placing excessive emphasis on the sexual as the source of resistance, but more on that below). Having been through an eight-year analysis myself I know how difficult it is ‘speaking whatever comes to mind’. The speaker is accustomed to speaking about matters in a well ordered way, he is anxious about just what he might find himself saying, about losing control of the persona he presents to the analyst, is uncomfortable with the experience of words presenting themselves to be spoken without the prior consideration of the implications of speaking them, and is disturbed by the disruptive effects on the speakers sense of self possession and identity. From the end of our childhood we seek the comfortable position of being consistent with the person we believe ourselves to be, and our commitment to this ‘sensible project’ is reinforced, supported and encouraged by our friends, relations and colleagues. The psychoanalytic session is not about talking about oneself, but for finite periods abandoning the security and comfort of our identity by means of just ‘speaking our thinking as it occurs’.

Most of us like to be (and present) a consistent, rational, sensible and coherent figure; just as we like to look in the mirror and recognize ourselves as who we think we are, so in the company of others we speak as the person we believe ourselves to be, seeking recognition from others in support of this mirror-like identification. Thus we confuse ‘being’ and ‘being like’, and experience a sense of alienation from whom we pretend to be. We not only mimic others but mimic our ideas of who we are. Our relations with others become tainted with this process of mutual identification support, and our speech with each other is often empty, bereft of that quality of ‘confession’, speaking what and how it is, risking not making much sense in the course of the attempt of revealing who we are (and disturbing our friends and loved ones as well!) 

In the course of our everyday relations we often seek to manipulate our interlocutors to provide on demand appropriate supportive responses to us; we are all to some extent insecure in our identity and our sense of self is very contingent on others. A good psychoanalyst knows that one of his functions is to frustrate and outwit the patient’s demands for identity validation. I would say that ‘identity’ is necessary, but as a possession it is a worldly construct, a potential idol, in the sense of psalm 115:

they have mouths but they cannot speak, eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear…those who make them become like them.  

The practice of psychoanalysis is intended to subvert our ‘identity reinforcing’ project that started at the end of childhood (you might say it seeks to frustrate the industry of the accumulation of identity capital) – it seeks to introduce the speaking subject to an encounter with the unfamiliar and otherness of himself, that which to date would not have been included in any schedule of characteristics that might have accompanied moments of ‘self recognition’. This can be an experience calling for great humility, and I have in mind the origins of that word: humus, the fertile earth – the very soil of our being. I think this uncanny sense of meeting a dark stranger in the course of an analysis is what lies behind Freud’s interpretation of resistance as being the repression of the sexual, sexual difference often being an image of ‘otherness’. These are further causes of resistance in the psychoanalytic setting. 

But what ‘presents itself to mind’ is in fact what each of us can be most certain that we know, here and now. As Pascal said, we constantly flee this knowledge, this certainty of now:

We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is.

The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching…the present is never our end. The past and present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so. 

Pascal argues that Man’s greatness derives from his capacity to chose to linger in this place of now and ‘know’ something for certain: Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched: a tree does not know it is wretched. Thus it is wretched to know that one is wretched, but there is greatness in knowing one is wretched…it is the wretchedness of a dispossessed king…all our dignity consists in thought. In speaking of wretchedness Pascal is not referring to melancholic feelings, but to a sort of knowing thinking about our existential contingency: and I have in mind the older uses of the word ‘know’ that included close familiarity with the object of the knowing, even intimate physical familiarity. For example, don’t most of us truly come to know of our own mortality through aches, pains and sickness? I would say we are speaking of self-knowledge, but for the implication of that term that there can exist in us a place of knowing which stands aloof and independent from who is to be known. Haven’t most of us experienced the physical suffering that can accompany the labour involved in unearthing truth from ourselves? 

Our own mortality is proof of our ‘wretchedness’, and so much of our life and thinking is organized to hide from ourselves this wretched truth. Years ago I had a client who visited me three times a week for three years. She was a medical doctor in her early thirties whose anxieties had brought her career to an end, and who was living at home with her elderly parents idling away her days. For two years she fought against ‘speaking what came to mind’. Instead, having abandoned pyschologising about her problems and seeking culprits from the past to blame, she turned on me, and session after session accused me of causing her distress, illness, even insanity; she told me that she was writing letters of complaint to the authorities. One day, pushed to the limit I said to her “before you give up, give it a go, speak what just comes into your mind”. “What’s the point” she retorted: “its so meaningless and trivial and irrelevant, it’s just my credit card bills, I never pay them off in full, even though I can afford to, what’s the point of talking about that?” She did carry on though, and within a few minutes was sobbing with inconsolable sadness at the prospect of her mother dying. She had noticed her mother was aging, and knew that death was approaching. Uncovered was a thinking of death at work in her, which was concealed behind another conscious thinking process. It changed her life; she began to think as a moral creature. One must know oneself. Even if that does not help in finding truth, at least it helps in running one’s life, and nothing is more proper (Pascal). She later married and returned to her medical practice. 

At the place of ‘here and now’ we find ourselves confessing different things: love, desire, hate, lust, sex, longing, hopelessness, fear, emptiness, silence, death, the fragility of body and the awful contingency of existence on body, nothingness, joy…none of these discoveries fit easily into a new self confident sense of self! They a far more likely to lead to a scepticism about concepts like ‘self confidence’, ‘a sense of identity’, ‘personality’, ‘being in control’. 

In the field of the transference, self-knowledge is gained as a product of speaking in response to the desire of the other. Is this not true in our lives as well? It is a fantasy to imagine that any one of us can sit in a room on our own and gain self-knowledge by means of diligent and sober reflection. Confession (not in the sacramental sense) is not listing failures or revealing concealed shameful actions or transgressions, it is speaking fully, engaging in the social project of self-knowledge. It depends on trusting our listener, both his powers of forgiveness and his desire to hear; what better listener than God, and so it is in the social project of confession to God, i.e. prayer, that we can hope to reach the greatest perfection of self knowledge. If there is such a thing as an ‘authentic identity’ to be found here, it is not the sort of ‘worldly construct’ we devote so much of our lives to embracing and depending upon. 

The truth that we discover, this product of our social confession, however humiliating or shameful, of this at least we can be certain, that it is true, and that we are the sole experts on this truth of ourselves; it is this that each of us alone and uniquely can offer up to God.

Thus we can know God properly only by knowing our own iniquities. Those who have known God without knowing their own wretchedness have not glorified him but themselves…Knowing God without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride. Knowing our own wretchedness without knowing God makes for despair. Knowing Jesus Christ strikes the balance because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness. (Pascal) 

All the successful psychoanalyses I have conducted have involved the client at some stage expressing hatred for me, but this usually heralds progress in the treatment. Why is this? The experienced psychoanalyst frustrates the patient’s demands that his analyst should become the expert on the patient, to authoritatively deliver the patient the truth about himself: this attempt by the patient to short circuit the path to self knowledge in any case would fail, because the patient must confess the truth of who he is. Self-knowledge is the product of this confession, not the subject matter. When we anticipate revealing to another something about ourselves or what we have done which we fear the other will condemn us for, we often seek to provoke that condemnation even before we speak. However, if the condemnation is not forthcoming, even after we have made our confession, we find we experience love for our forgiving and patient listener, and repent our provocations and hatred of him. Indeed, it was this same listener who desired us to speak the first place and sustained our discourse with that desire. Forgiveness isn’t just about debts and trespasses. Who can forgive our emptiness, our lack of love, our lack of faith, our sense of wretchedness, meaninglessness, futility and hopelessness at our mortality? Only God, of course, so psychoanalysis is very limited! 

On encountering unexpected patience and forgiveness in a thorough and well directed analysis the patient is moved to love the analyst; in the course of that speaking that we call prayer, how much greater is the love we experience! In the Interior Castle Teresa of Avila says

in order to profit by this path (of prayer) and ascend to the dwelling place we desire, the important thing is not to think much but to love much… 

It is from this point that a psychoanalysis is rich in the ‘product’ of self knowledge, as the client, so to speaks, falls backwards into that ocean of words that he owns up to as his own. But where does all this lead? Sadly, in analysis, all too often in patients becoming analysts! Whereas I believe the next step after analysis is prayer and life in the sacramental Church, because as Pascal said,  only God as revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ can love so perfectly to enable man to speak his all, to bear and thereby know his emptiness, wretchedness and neediness, his utter dependence on gift, faith, truth and love. Only in the company of Jesus can Man truly know himself and survive the shame and despair. 

I am often asked whether I see a connection between the confessional box and the psychoanalyst’s couch. I think this betrays a fundamental misconception of the sacrament of penance. Psychoanalysis is a sort of ‘artificial relationship’; ideally we would each engage in the sober humbling endeavour of knowing ourselves over many years through loving relationships with parents, siblings, friends, spouse, colleagues and children; but for many alas this doesn’t happen. Prayer is another such loving relationship, but isn’t a substitute for the other relationships. We shouldn’t use our religion to evade the ‘confessional’ dimension to our personal relationships! The sacrament of penance on the other hand is dealing with fact – the Church, in the place of God, forgives sin and removes obstacles to redemption. 

Finally I would like to say something about the word conscience. We were taught that we should start prayer with an examination of conscience, suggesting a sort of search for transgression so far unmarked with guilt (often a fruitless exercise which can easily become a selfish, self-preoccupied, and narcissistic concern for being right and correct, in the eyes of others and oneself). A little study of the history of the word conscience, with its relation to the word ‘consciousness’ and its origins in the Greek Stoics concept of Oikeiosis (the opposite of which, allotriosis means alienation) greatly enriches what it might be understood to mean: a recommendation to lovingly share what is nearest to us, our self awareness, in sober wakefulness during prayer. 

I hope these reflections have been helpful enough to some to outweigh any irritation I fear I may have caused to others better versed than me in theology, philology and the theory of psychoanalysis!


  ©John Hughes. February 2006.


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