Updated: Jul 6
For me, my faith has to have room for all my parts. The thinking and feelings parts. The active and contemplative parts. The free and constrained parts. The body and soul parts. The strong and weak parts. When it doesn’t I feel torn apart, duplicitous, hopeless. I feel afraid of others who might find me out or live out those parts of me. I get stuck in pits of shame, resentment, addictions (in whatever form) and escapes.
But working out how my faith can hold all the different parts of me - well, that’s been a lifelong journey. However, what has seemed key is who I am, what parts I can bring, in prayer. And the different facets of my experience of prayer that have most helped me I now find most motivate me as I approach clients who have struggles in living.
Prayer as confession
Confession can bring great relief. The unsaid wields disproportionate power. Yet, in my experience, there are two types of confession. One leaves the confessor without understanding: ‘I’m backsliding. I’m lustful. I’m angry. I’m just not strong enough. All because I’m a sinner.’ This might be a helpful first step, a first crack in the armour, but I’ve found it inadequate for any real change to occur. The second leaves the confessor both with a greater self-awareness and a feeling of being understood: ‘Someone sees my helplessness, my struggles, my loneliness and why I end up doing what I do.’
I suspect that a fundamental axiom of Christianity, that ‘the truth will set you free.’ (John 8:32), or alternatively, that the word, the logos, brings order to chaos (c.f. John 1), has played a part in this drive towards truthful, authentic self-expression and self-understanding. Yet, I find that when a word or phrase is spoken that matches my experience, the chaos of inauthenticity, unawareness and ‘bad faith’ (Sartre) somehow dissolves into relief, freedom, and a sort of compassionate hopeful view of life.
So, psychotherapy’s axiom that talking and feeling understood - perhaps about what we don’t usually get to or about what we usually hide, perhaps at levels that were previously outside of our awareness - resonates deeply with me. I easily align myself to these principles and it often drives my thinking in sessions: ‘What is not being said between us? What is not being being seen yet?’.*
Prayer as intimate wrestling
When we confess, when we risk authenticity, we meet various responses. One might be the absence of the other. This can manifest in clichés, quick and overlooking responses, a nice sort of sympathy that tries to show a desire to understand that we know isn’t really there, an attack often based on a preferred misunderstanding or narrowing of us, or we might even just get silence. Another response is one of meeting another person who is other. They have other viewpoints, other values, a separate personality and story, and yet are present too. This usually involves feeling understood and a certain warmth towards us, but it also often involves a sort of wrestling with their otherness and them with ours.
In the biblical story of Jacob, the angel of the Lord wrestled with Jacob. It’s at a point where the protagonist, Jacob, is running from his uncle who he has both betrayed and been betrayed by. But he is also running straight into the face of his original fear and betrayal, the deserved wrath of his brother who he robbed the family inheritance from. He’s scared. He sends everything he has, and all his family, ahead of him to face his brother first. Perhaps he’s going to run away again and repeat his life-story of betraying and betrayal yet again. At this point, the angel of the Lord comes and wrestles him. At the end of this exhausting night, Jacob is blessed but also permanently disabled with a limp. He has a new name and cannot run away any more.
I believe that it is easy to offer a client a nice sort of sympathy that tries to show a desire to understand. or that offers quick explanations or responses. Ultimately, this is all a sort of absence, letting the person continue running away from their fears and repeating the same old stories. I suspect that what the client needs is more of a wrestle: a relationship where we feel the other person in their otherness, where we’re in contact discovering each others’ strengths and weaknesses, power and wounds. The therapist here tries to jar, disrupt, push and pull, as much as support and hold. They don’t hide behind professionalism, expertise or unnecessary boundaries. They care enough to disable our normal thinking and living. Whilst this encounter gets exhausting, and perhaps they inflict their own sort of scars on us, it is also mixed with a sort of blessing at some deep level. Another person cares enough to be right there with us and not let us go on in our self-sabotaging ways.
Prayer as love
I didn’t really know how to word this. It could have been worship, reverence or trust. It could have been contemplation following a mystical christian tradition. But love seems to capture this best - so long as we keep away from notions of ‘falling in love’ that can happen in therapy and religion, but aren’t the parts I have found most profound. By love, I mean those moments when I stop wrestling, stop confessing, in a sense surrender my ego and sit in some sort of state of loving and being loved, a state of intense peace, joy and solace. It’s a sort of gaze or being gazed upon, often following some intense wrestling or quiet confession, where 'meaning shines forth.'. It’s filled with a delightful unexpectedness, profoundness, mystery, with-ness and preciousness of the Other.
In therapy, we might call these moments of ‘relational depth’. For me, they are characterised by: curiosity, even fascination, rather than foreclosed certainty about my hypotheses or interpretation; a deep sort of prizing of the person in front of me, rather than a caricaturing of their life and story. It’s like I’ve reached the edge of my knowledge and skills and reached the boundaries of their otherness, their mystery, and I’m getting to gaze at someone’s depths, spaciousness and truest value - their soul if you like. These, I believe, can be the most profound and moving moments of therapy. Yet I wouldn’t say I am seeking them. They are far too out of my control for that. Rather, I try to create the conditions where they can occur. I ask myself, ‘What parts of me can’t connect with this person? What parts of me aren’t curious and fascinated, but avoidant, bored, frustrated or offended? What parts of them can't connect with me yet and why?’
Confession, wrestling and love are intimate and potent experiences to have when we are in the presence of another. When they are present, all the different parts of us are welcomed and belong. When one is absent, the pain of self-betrayal, self-hiding, self-exclusion and self-torture must persist, for how else are we to be in this world and be OK? For me, these facets of prayer that have been the nourishing heart of my faith are inextricably linked to how I approach the other who is struggling in life. I bring with me my own confessions, encounters with others, wrestling scars and blessings, and I sit with another wondering where these facets of prayer might emerge between us.
*Note, I’m not saying that I offer the forgiveness you might seek for in a priestly figure, a divine sort of forgiveness or cleansing. Although the experience may be similar, I would suggest that you see someone ordained if that is what you seek.