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franciscan - January 1998

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1997

Reflecting Religious Life

by Brother Alistair SSF

Recently, in a discussion with other psychologists and psychotherapists, one of our number had asked the question of whether, in principle, a computer could be built which exactly imitated the human mind. I thought not, but was met with the reply – “I suppose you think that you couldn’t baptise it”. I was rather confused. My ‘opponent’, I believe, would call herself an atheist. She knows that I am a friar. My confusion arose because, in what I thought was a psychological discussion about the objective existence of the psyche or human mind, she had suddenly introduced an idea from a completely different realm of discourse, that of the Holy Spirit. She was right in suggesting that the religious dimension would have ‘priority’ in my thinking, but in that psychological context the language of my Christian faith seemed awkwardly incongruous.

I feel some of the same confusion addressing the topic of the Divine in my human relationships as a friar within SSF. As a psychologist, I think that I have a very useful and comprehensive account of the development and dynamics of human relationships without feeling the need to introduce God. As a Christian, I lack such particular detail, but I believe that Christ is in and with and through all my relationships, that I am called to love my neighbour as myself, and that by God’s grace in giving up his Son for crucifixion on Calvary – a specific event in time and space, an incarnation – I am saved. I must not confuse the psychological with the theological. Yet, equally, I cannot separate my psychological human-ness from my Christian spirituality. I do, after all, have only one brain, and I have one set of experiences.

My approach will be to reflect on the interplay of the psychological and the theological. I take as my texts a few things my brothers have recently said which, for me, had ‘incarnational’ significance.

“I need God and my brother. Nothing makes sense without both.
It can’t be just one or the other. At the heart it’s always both/and.”


When I joined the community I did so with a very conscious desire to pursue the ‘inner life’. I had discovered this ‘realm’ several years earlier and had found that I could draw not only consolation, but also intense emotion and excitement from it. My fellow novices and the professed brothers seemed generally companionable, which was nice but, on the whole, rather incidental. Everyone was rather incidental – although presumably at some point they might become the object of one’s compassion!
Needless to say, time and the encounter with more destructive aspects of this ‘inner life’ disabused me of what I came to see as a self-preoccupation and, psychologically at least, the cultivation of an auto-eroticism, albeit in a spiritual guise. No, it was personal, human relationships which really mattered.

An additional consequence of this apparent volte-face was that the Gospel became merely a social gospel, a ready vehicle for my new psychological understanding, but drained of a transcendent God. With further immersion in the psychological, theology appeared increasingly unreal, perverse and redundant.

Disappointingly, the brothers aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Should I – could I, with integrity – remain in the community? My answer became ‘Yes’ when I realised that I need both my brother and God. I cannot know (nor know how to love) the one without the Other. Equally, I only begin to know the Other in as much as I begin to find myself open to the very otherness of my brother, paradoxically through mutual disclosure, intimacy, in Love. This process is both crucial for psychological growth, and a sign of the grace of revelation.

“I believe more and more in less and less”

I remember the first time my brother (by birth) came to stay at our large friary in Dorset when I was a novice. He stayed in the guest house. He said that he liked the brothers because unlike the guests they didn’t talk about religion all the time. And we don’t talk about religion amongst ourselves very much – well, it can be so divisive. Absorbed in our talk of the world, or in psychology, are we in danger of believing less and less of the ‘faith’? Well, I still believe everything I’ve always believed. Indeed, I increasingly understand and value the fullness and coherence of a theology developed over 2000 years. However, what I unreservedly assert with more and more passion is essentially being refined into something less and less utterable.

From within a psychological framework, one could read this faith as a god-of-the-gaps. However, working with people who may be in extreme psychological pain and despair, and also from personal experience, one learns that this is not the plugging of a gap but the recognition of a vast chasm. And, if we ever have the courage to look over the edge into the void, the very meaninglessness of our potential, ultimate abandonment, there are no psychological answers – this pit is terrifying, malign and bottomless. But we believe that Jesus Christ has gone before us into these depths of isolation, overwhelming despair and death ..... and on the third day rose again, and leads us, his friends, into the loving heart of this mystery. Our ‘hope in things unseen’ is neither psychological nor trivial, but most profound.

The above are two reflections on the Divine and the ‘faith’, experienced within the context of one-to-one human psychological encounters. However, living in community is, importantly, being a member of a group. So, how may we locate the Divine in community living over and above God’s presence in a network of multiple individual relationships?

“We ought to spend more time together making community”

Every so often, when brothers gather for formal meetings, some such sentiment will be expressed – and you know that at least half of the brothers are already inwardly groaning. Given that most Religious are by nature introverts, this is not really such an odd response to the call ‘Let’s party’. Moreover, one already spends a good part of the day eating and praying with a group of men of absurdly varied background and character whom one had little or no say in choosing. “And now someone’s suggesting we also spend our free time together!”

There are various psychological formulation which might explain the relative stability of our life together despite this acknowledgement of some of the strains of community living. Many such accounts are, perhaps, less laudable than the (misunderstood) rhetoric of ‘vocation’ or ‘self-sacrifice’. Would many of us otherwise have had successful marriages or partnerships? The security of institutional living is without the dangers inherent in a commitment to one other person, and the Religious Life can tolerably solve many of life’s problems for those of us who tolerably fit into the life of this odd single-sex community.

As with any group there are cliques, secrets and power struggles. Most disturbing, is the force of the group dynamic unexpectedly engaging my own stubborn psycho-pathology. I find myself behaving badly, very badly; and this is most insidious when I am unconscious of it. Conversely, the group can offer particularly powerful opportunities for insight, psychological healing and maturing, acceptance, and the many community occasions of genuine, mutual enjoyment in each other, with a deep sense of belonging.

Yet, belonging to what? Although, psychologically, there is a great strength in belonging to SSF, this perspective treats the Religious Life essentially as a type of tribalism, wherein my commitment to my group becomes a loyalty to the group as an end in itself and, as such, is over and against the claims of ‘outsiders’. The Divine is not located in SSF as a religious community, but only in the Body of Christ of which we brothers and sisters, like all Christians, are a part, with Christ as the head of the Body. God has called us into community for God’s purposes, and for our own good. Whatever psychological healing, increase in faith, or self-sacrifice and service after the example of St Francis this achieves, these are signs of God’s grace at work amongst us. But equally, when we fail to see these signs, our belief in the power and efficacy of this grace is not compromised.

For at the heart of our community life we celebrate the Eucharist. Along with the whole Body of Christ, together, and only together, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to assert, in faith, the real presence of the Divine among us. And together in the Eucharist we encounter the Other, and find ourselves, despite ourselves, and over and against all (psychological or otherwise) that would threaten to negate our faith, drawn into the loving heart of the mystery of Christ. And before this Other our understanding of human-ness-in-relationship is transfigured. §

Brother Alistair SSF (Dr Alistair Collen) is a clinical psychologist working in Cambridge

 

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