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When Heresy Meets Psychoanalytic Theory: Responding to the Religious Subtext in Psychodynamic Therapy

It is an honor and pleasure to be invited to Grand Rounds at Albany Medical Center to see if I can make something interesting happen around this topic of religion and psychoanalysis. When the minister died, he was seated in the 3rd heavenly circle. Then when the cab driver died he was seated in the 2nd circle. So the minister complains to St. Peter: “Listen, I preached my whole life and this cabbie is seated ahead of me?” “Well,” says St. Peter, “it’s true that you preached, but while you preached the people slept. And it’s true that this man drove a cab, but while he drove the people prayed.” I’ve been asked to talk nearly an hour, during which I’d rather be provocative than dull. I’d planned on delivering the complete integration of psychoanalysis and religion-the last word. But on the train up I realized that there are still a few glitches to be ironed out yet. Or, as Jim Ewing the former Executive Director of AAPC once said to me, he’s travelled the 48 contiguous states, Canada, Great Britain and the Continent listening to presentations that aim to integrate religion and psychoanalytic principles-but the truth is, we really don’t know how to do it. This morning I’m aiming to present one intersection, not the complete integration. (In other words, there is still plenty of room for argument.)

I’m making three assumptions as we start that nowadays are almost considered “wacky.” First, that you are here because you’re interested in psychoanalytic thinking. I know, I’ know, Freud can be dismissed as another “dead white male.” The American psychological establishment has always discounted Freud (often while reinventing him, as in the current “revolution” in cognitive psychology, or recent thinking about the impact of evolutionary biology on the individual psyche). I’m assuming that you’re interested in Freud’s understanding of a latent theme or subtext-that patients interweave obvious, manifest, even trivial thoughts in order to point to fantasy positions containing the psychic realities from which they operate, usually without being able to acknowledge or even recognize them.

Second, when we talk about religion, I’m assuming we’re here because of an interest in the Judeo-Christian tradition and its scriptural texts. I aspire. to avoid outright. stupidity when it comes to Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam; I’ve read the Koran and the Bhaqavad Gita, but I don’t claim any sophisticated understanding of what’s going on in these texts; thus I will be silent about these other religions.

My third assumption is that all of us in the field of mental health, whether we are religious or not, engage as we go about our professions in “acts of faith.” By “faith” I mean that, faced with a patient sitting opposite who has told a story, all of us must choose our responses in the faith that what we have focused on is the most meaningful, relevant contribution to bringing future benefit to this patient. So when patients present manifest texts-such as, “I can feel my brain going soft,” or “I’m more and more afraid to go out of the house,” or “I find myself feeling guilty for little things that happened a long time ago”-you might believe that your most beneficial contribution should focus on (a) levels of serotonin; or (b) rescheduling rewards and penalties in the patient’s daily activities (a behaviorist schema); or more psychoanalytically, (c) emotions and fantasies missing from the explicit text but still hinted at as unfinished interior business. A focus like any of these is not right or wrong-and that is why it contains an act of faith. The therapist’s risk is not mainly of being wrong, but irrelevant (i.e., offering a contribution that was believed to contribute to future benefit but somehow did not). Do not suppose when we respond to patients that we are merely being reasonable or scientific. None of us escapes this. act of faith, regardless of training or orientation. Whatever you offer a patient when you open your mouth reveals your own faith that what you are contributing will benefit this patient in this situation as you have heard it this time. None of us “knows” this in advance-but we operate out of our beliefs that to say this or do that will help. And when a colleague says, “Oh, no, that’s not what you should say. Here’s what I would do,” then you have entered into a faith dispute, not about knowledge, but about what each believes will usher in a better future.

Limiting my remarks now to psychoanalytic thinking and its relation to religion, two faith disputes during the last 75 years or so have been particularly consuming and, in my judgment, wrongheaded. There are two ways of approaching religion and psychoanalysis that go astray and lead only to dead ends, nothing helpful in bringing benefit to the patients we work with. One mistake, the “old fashioned method” popular in American psychoanalysis from, say, the 1920’s to the ’60’s was to make theory the template that “explains” religion. Freud recognized that the aspirations of each individual psyche-our quests for love, self-worth, identity, all the things we would like to believe about ourselves-are irreconcilably out of sync with the cruelty of nature and the fact of death. Since it is impossible to integrate such brutal facts into our sense of personal worth, we use the hypothesis of God, as a projection, to assign purposefulness to nature and benevolence to the fact of death. (This morning we create space for the thought that what we are doing in this room is meaningful via a process of normal denial, which does not admit the possibility that we might be sitting on an active geological fault line. If an earthquake erupts in the next five minutes, then the notion that any of my ideas are important would become ridiculous; normal denial would break down.) Now to be fair, Freud only objected to religion when it became a preoccupation with vague ideals at the expense of solving problems in life. (My patient who worries about the purity of his motives in the sight of God, as a substitute and distraction from working on articles he must publish on deadline, has borrowed religion to fuel a pathological obsession.) But where Freud stopped short, American psychoanalysts blundered ahead and tried to make the theory of projection the “explanation” for religion: If you are religious, then you must be projecting some hidden unresolved oedipal needs (and we need to “cure” you of that).

This position has become a dead-end for three reasons: First, the best available evidence simply does not show religious people to be pathologically disturbed as the old-fashioned view predicts. The best research we have (summarized by Bateson and Ventis, 1982) indicates that, when the variable of social desirability is factored out, adults intrinsically seeking to nurture their religious faith score higher than the general population on measures of mental health and show greater tolerance and sensitivity to the needs of others. Even in the crusty, atheistic climate of the modern era, leadership and funding for human rights, opposing apartheid, imperialism, and nuclear overkill has continued to come mainly from the religious community.

Second, the objection to religion has been more and more revealed as the theory’s own prejudice. If therapists do not automatically label pathological a patient’s struggle for meaningful relatedness in the midst of unavoidably limited, fragmented, and uncertain relationships to parents; friends, lovers, and self, then why is this same uncertain struggle for relatedness pathological in the religious domain? The answer, “Well, because the theory says so,” dangles unfounded as a prejudice.

Third, psychodynamic theory has shown itself to be remarkably naive about religious texts and traditions themselves. The easy comfort supposedly gained by religious projections is nowhere in the texts themselves. As Harold Bloom has recently reminded us, the unredacted Jehovah was impish and dangerous, devoid of warmth, compassion, or interest in human feelings. Once in all the scriptures Abraham dares to negotiate with God (over the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah), and even then it turns out that Abraham loses because he has his headcount wrong. Jonah is thrown overboard, swallowed and vomited up by the whale, delivers his sermons in Ninevah where the people repent-and then he sits on a hill bitter and puzzled because none of this bizarre intrusion into his life makes any sense to him; he still considers it ridiculous. There is no indication in the Christian scriptures that Jesus was comfortable in his mission or happy in his identity. So it is one thing to note that patients sometimes invent easy religious answers for personal soothing, but psychoanalysts went astray in claiming to explain religion as neurotic soothing. Moses, Peter, Maimonides, Calvin, and Martin Luther King were hardly soothed, but quite the opposite. Paraphrasing C.S. Lewis, “This explanation leaves the puzzle still a puzzle.”

Now if the theory of projection dead-ends because it leaves us with unexplained religious puzzles (and religious patients), a second way of “integrating” psychoanalytic theory and religion has gone astray in the opposite direction. In this mistake, gaining in popularity during the last 30 years or so, religion is merely a way of talking, a metaphor, albeit a splendid metaphor that is useful in expressing the “deepest feelings, longings and struggles of the human heart.” In this view religion and psychoanalysis are not at all antithetical but rather good bedfellows in that religion offers a language that helps patients express their interior dynamics in deeper ways. Hey, some patients talk about their relation to God, others talk about their relation to their fathers. It’s a free country, psychic conflict can be talked about in lots of ways, patients can- pick any language that’s meaningful to them. Or, to be more sophisticated here, there really are elusive, poignant, uncanny moments in life that none of us can explain in conventional rational categories, so what better language than religion to express them as best we can? Now religion has been turned into the therapist’s “friend,” since whatever the patient happens to say in the religious domain becomes automatically valid. Unfortunately, this approach contains a sleight of hand. Although religious language does regain its validity as an expression of what happens to be going on inside the patient, this is not automatically a religious validity from the standpoint of our religious texts and traditions. We may temporarily manage to sidestep wrestling with the truth value of a statement like, say, “God answers my prayers,” by saying instead that the words are valid simply because the patient is expressing thoughts and feelings that “really and truly” are part of the patient’s thoughts and feelings; yet our religious texts may not affirm these words as authentically religious (as Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane illustrates). So this modern-day “integration” dead-ends because the religious tradition itself finally objects. Kosher is not whatever you happen to feel it is in your heart. If your way of defining Kosher is just your metaphorical way of speaking, you’re not Kosher. The early Church seriously debated the possibility that the resurrection was a collective, wishful hallucination but concluded that this explanation could not account for all the data. You can disagree with this conclusion, fair enough, but you cannot claim to have discovered that the early Christians were just using a metaphorical way of speaking-that they didn’t realize it, but you did.

So we have come to two dead ends: Is the patient’s belief in God a pathological projection explained by psychoanalytic theory? No clear answer. Is belief in God an authentic witness to authentic human experience? No clear answer.

I propose, therefore, that the issue of the patient’s belief in God is irrelevant, a detour, a misstating of the issue. I propose that we throw it off the table never to return to it. Rather, it seems to me that psychoanalytic theory and religion do intersect during actual clinical practice in the following way: The patient’s problem is not belief or disbelief in God; the problem is that the patient has inevitably developed a private, idiosyncratic religion, a set of beliefs that, no matter how earnestly felt, contradict the established texts and traditions to which the patient manifestly subscribes. Every religious patient I have ever worked with in the struggle to resolve psychic conflict has also been unaware of the private heresies operating internally to fuel conflict. What the patient believes as heartfelt religion is invariably at odds with the religious texts of the patient’s own tradition. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, what I am here calling the patient’s heresies is also called idolatry. It is patently obvious that we creatures establish various high-minded ideals, rules, and images that we pronounce sacred-have faith in, believe in, and put our’ trust in-and just as obvious that the religious texts themselves warn repeatedly that the land is full of idols. We are creatures prone to inventing gods that have nothing to do with Jehovah or the terms of his Covenant. (During the hey-day of American Ego Psychology, misunderstood in academic psychology right into the present, the theoretical construct called “adaptation”-to mere cultural conventions-has tended to function like a sacred cow, a goal believed in without question, an idol that is actually no more worthy of trust and loyalty than the gods of Babylon.)

Here are some common heresies that patients may well believe are deeply religious but contradict scriptural texts and are identifiable heresies:

1. “God sends pain and sorrow in retaliation -for my sins and in order to make me a better person.” The text of Job is very clear that God is not the one who sends Job’s afflictions. Furthermore, after the encounter with the whirlwind, Job disappears in the text with no indication whatsoever that he had become, or needed to become a better person. Nor is there any indication that his faith ever answered any of his. questions or made him feel better.

2. “Because I try to be religious, I am obligated to try to soothe the feelings of anyone I may have upset.” Whatever else this is, it is not Christian. The scriptural text is quite clear that after the rich young ruler asked Jesus what to do to belong to the Kingdom of God, Jesus gave a very upsetting answer (“Sell what you. have and give it to the poor”). The rich man went away “sorrowful,” according to the text, and Jesus made no attempt to stop him or run after him to assuage these upsetting feelings.

3. “The gods help those who help themselves.” I happen to like this concept, but it comes from one of Aesop’s fables (Hercules and the Wagoner) and has nothing to do with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I do not mean that therapy is a matter of religious education, since psychoanalytic theory is clear that education is virtually useless unless treatment has brought the patient face to face with the struggle against the patient’s preference for a privatized fantasy life at the expense of solving problems and interacting in the world of other living beings. Similarly, religion does not consider scripture an “educational textbook” but rather an encoding of a foundational understanding of the nature of living which the people, in the hardness of their hearts, have a preference for misunderstanding and ignoring. So the first intersection between psychoanalysis and religion occurs in this preference for self-deception and misunderstanding. (I prefer to misread my own motives just as I prefer to misread and misremember scripture.) The second intersection returns us to those “acts of faith” I mentioned’ earlier: In psychoanalytic treatment, the act of faith required if the therapist is going to make any meaningful therapeutic contribution involves hearing and responding to the latent subtext within the patient’s manifest material. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the leap of faith required to transform mere social religiosity (e.g., attending services to enhance one’s stature in the community) into an authentic religious quest is captured by the concept of the sacred, that is, the claim that these texts contain an elusive validity that must be sought out and wrestled with, whether or not each individual or generation is “up to speed” in grasping what they have to say.

My task now is to demonstrate the intersection between the patient’s psychic text, what is called the latent theme or subtext, and the sacred texts of religion. One at a time, starting with religion.

The concept of the sacred is used here as a shorthand that stands for the fact that the texts of the Judea-Christian tradition have somehow survived thousands of years of scrutiny, criticism, and outright ridicule. Do not suppose that we are the first generation to claim to put forth dismissive hypotheses and explanations. To cite but one example, in the mid-1700’s David Hume presented one of the most scathing critiques ever to befall religion; meanwhile the Great Awakening was sweeping the American continent-a blatant dismissal of Hume’s dismissal. Those of you familiar with the work of the theologians, Walter Wink and David Tracy, know that they have rediscovered respect for how uncannily our religious texts do, in fact, survive unscathed, no matter how much they are attacked, explained, or supposedly reduced to psychological, historical, or sociological trivia. You and I today could decide that the whole tradition is bunk. We will not be the first to say so, nor will our pronouncement dismantle the power of the texts in the successive generations that encounter them. Or, as Wink has noted, you are free to say that the text contains only mindless, wrongheaded fancy-but then try your hand at writing some mindless, wrongheaded fancy and see if you have any impact at all, let alone the durable impact of a few thousand years. Something about these texts continues to tweak the hearts of listeners-and this is the second feature of the sacred text: Something new is always lurking within the text, something left over to be heard afresh after you thought you had figured it out. Rarely does the text actually say what you thought it did. Aaron’s golden calf was meant to be a symbol of deliverance from Egypt, a reminder of Hebrew identity, and an altar to the lord. In these reasonable intentions Aaron became famous for a prototypic misconstruing of the Covenant with Jehovah.

Several years ago at a conference sponsored by the Pastoral Counseling Training Program at Postgraduate Center, Walter Wink illustrated the elusive newness of the unpopular Christian text, “If anyone strike you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt. S:39b). Since it is well-documented that in the Middle East, use of the left hand was unacceptable, a person so struck on the right cheek with the right hand would have had to have received a backhanded slap, like an insult. Civil law prohibited such a gesture between peers, limiting it to masters and slaves. But now in the Roman slave economy, a master could strike a slave only for a limited number of specific infractions. Severe penalties would be imposed on the master for striking a slave-on the left cheek with the right hand-for casual or whimsical reasons.

Therefore Jesus is advising the powerless in this teaching not to respond to aggression on the aggressor’s terms. Turning the left cheek leaves an aggressive master no response. (Drawing heavily on this text in the 1960’s, the non-violent civil disobedience of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was instituted, not to idealize masochism or stir pity, but to prompt legal proceedings that landed’ aggressors in court-just as would have happened under Roman law.) So you thought you knew what this text was about-and so did I, until Wink insisted on reexamining the text itself, rather than relying on worn-out assumptions about what the text probably meant.

For the moment now, put on a side-burner this view of our religious texts- that they are not as easily understood as we thought, that there is a common resistance to understanding them, and that they have survived because they continue to startle us with material we did not realize was there. While this simmers on a sideburner, we turn to its counterpart, Freud’s idea of the patient’s latent themes-which are also easy to miss, which resistance tries to obscure, and which continue to startle us once we have heard them. Also leave aside id, ego, superego and all that stuff. The theory of the latent subtext was born in Freud’s understanding of dreams. All the rest is commentary on this single discovery. What did Freud mean by latent? As an oversimplified summary, the mind produces dream pictures that may seem absurd or unintelligible; yet when the waking person talks about these dream pictures, a therapist can hear overlapping and repetitive associations that have a coherence unrecognized and un-thought by the patient in any direct way. The mind that, in dreams, compacts a thought into pictures is the same mind that in waking life strings ideas together that interweave, criss-cross, surround and unpack this same unrecognized thought. This unrecognized thought occurs “between the lines.” Because it is not the same as the dream picture, not the same as the string of waking ideas-yet it is implied by both-we can properly refer to it as the latent thought or latent subtext. John dreams he is in a car showroom looking at a Jaguar. During therapy, he mentions Diane, that he is going out on his 9th or 10th date with her, that the Jaguar reminds him of how sexually exciting he expects this to be, and that he is pretty sure they are going to hit it off one of these days, “even though so far she’s been pretty uninterested and even when I kissed her good night last week, she just sort of stood there.” According to Freud, allegorizing dreams is always a mistake, way too easy, and leads only to convenient pseudo-insight, just as the allegory John draws between the Jaguar and courting Diane is a convenient dismissal of the more important latent theme. John’s dream picture succeeds in parking the Jaguar in a showroom, just as his waking thoughts imply (without his noticing) that this relationship with Diane is going nowhere. The latent subtext, if the therapist can hear it, is that John is willing to pursue any woman who will not respond.

Now even when no dreams are involved, Freud’s method of listening for the latent thought that is implied within criss-crossing, repetitive, interwoven associations lies at the core of the therapist’s task. Years ago as a hospital chaplain, I announced an unmistakable latent thought by remarking to a colleague that he had mannerisms and a physical appearance similar to one of my seminary teachers who, I added in all so-called innocence, “was a hopeless idiot.” My latent thought is obvious. The only issue was how long it would take me to recognize this. thought, – recognize own my feelings and engage them more directly without self-deceptive detours or useless protests that this “wasn’t really what I meant.”

Margaret’s career in the banking industry has contained spurts where she received highly-desirable promotions, followed by periods of self-doubt, lethargy, and a seemingly inexplicable sense of futility. Here are some brief associations lifted from one of her sessions:
“After the meeting, I took the proposal they were all arguing about and went’ into my office and re-wrote it. Frank says, That’s it!’ and by the afternoon he’s circulated it to the whole board. I was going to go to the gym-well, I did go to the gym-and then I can’t believe it. I got home around 7:00 or so and Michael says, ‘You know, we’ve got theatre tickets tonight.’ I had completely forgotten all about it. There I am standing in my sweatsuit, my hair is all a mess, and I thought to myself, ‘What is wrong with me? How could I do that?'”

In listening for Margaret’s latent thought, do not pounce one-dimensionally on the topic of forgetfulness since, in keeping with Freud’s primary emphasis on the interweaving of ideas, forgetfulness is just one of her ideas among many. What has Margaret accomplished in these few associations? The answer is that, following her first comment about a significant skill and achievement, she has turned herself into (a) someone who supposedly can’t manage her life; (b) a forgetful, symptom-ridden “neurotic”; and (c) ugly to boot. If the therapist does not take the bait of assuming that something has gone wrong-and especially avoids the bait of treating her as a forgetful error-maker who deserves to be set straight by the therapist’s interpretations-then one can hear the latent thought of a Margaret who curtails enjoyment of success by enmeshing it it in thoughts of minor foibles. “My successes deserve to be trashed, somehow.” It is by hearing this latent thought that the therapist becomes attuned to the anxious girlchild who adopted the stance of a bumbling penitent in order to suppress her capacity to enjoy her strengths. (Eventually, this was revealed to be a suppression of pleasure at her superiority to her mother.)

I am edging us into difficult terrain. Freud. needed 23 volumes to clarify how truly difficult it is for the therapist to hear a latent theme. In this “impossible” profession, we aim to hear what is being said and at the same time resonate to themes that are present but not exactly being said. The briefest sketch of this listening method would include attuning our third ears to (1) recurring words or concepts, (2) exaggerated opposites, (3) unexpected turns of phrase that jar our inner equilibrium, (4) trivial details standing in for major conflicts; (5) our own silent free associations that, no matter how nonsensical, may signal attunement to the patient’s un-said meanings; and as a summary of all these (6) bending our third ears to what the patient, in telling a story, has accomplished by it (within the self, the therapist, and the interaction in the room). The point is that hearing a latent thought is an “iffy” business, never routine or obvious. The best confirmation we have of accurately hearing a latent thought is that it comes to us unplanned, “lands” on us unexpected: We could not have thought of this ourselves.

Now the intersection of religion and psychoanalysis has occurred, for it is equally true of the religious text that its meanings and implications “land” on us unexpected: We could not, in fact, have thought of them ourselves. Or here is another way to say it: Just as in a religious quest, the qualities of sensitivity, openness, and willingness for adventure are required to get beyond the obstacle of prearranged, cliched meanings that have taken root since Sunday School, so too sensitivity, openness, and willingness for adventure are required for the therapist to get beyond the obstacle of focusing on the patient’s obvious, manifest text (and getting nowhere new). As bluntly as I can say it now: The patient’s story and the religious text intersect in the sense that the latent thoughts produced by psychic conflict reflect idolatrous beliefs that contradict the religious text-and hearing the religious text afresh, when listening to the patient, reveals the private heresies, idolatries, and religious misunderstandings that the patient uses to rationalize psychic conflict. (From here it is only a short step to saying that the therapist can’ make use of the language of the text and the patient’s own vernacular as equally helpful in clarifying the religious heresies that are duplicated in psychic conflicts.)

How does this work in clinical practice? Not simple. You can’t paste psychoanalytic theory onto the patient’s story without going astray: “You’re angry with God so you must really be angry with your parents,” is arbitrary, simplistic, and perhaps downright wrong. Nor can you simply paste the religious text onto the patient’s story. “You’re angry with your parents and really need to honor them” is equally simplistic, arbitrary, and perhaps wrong. Both of these simplistic approaches are useless because they sidestep the importance of focusing on the latent theme. The primary guideline for this latent focus is that what you grasp in your hearing of the patient and what you grasp in your hearing of the religious text must be simultaneously surprising. You did not arbitrarily make it up; this simultaneous surprise simply “fell” on you.

In his first session, a young opthalmologist is in agony over his religiOUS beliefs and homosexual impulses: “I’ve stopped going to church or talking to any of my friends there. It would be an insult to them and to God. I don’t even want to talk about the men in my life here, because that would make it sound legitimate-and I hate everything about it. No one should put up with me this way; religious on the outside and disgusting inside.” Of all that could be focused on here, two things “fell” on me as I listened: Overtly he is self-abasing, but the latent psychic theme, what he is accomplishing between the lines, is a removal of himself to a private, narcissistic prison beyond his friends, beyond me, and beyond listening to any input other than his own condemnations. He is set to defeat therapy, defeat religion, and defeat anyone who tries to talk to him. Simultaneously a text from Galations (5:19-21) “fell” on me that I had never “heard” or understood before in quite this way, namely that when Paul says, “The works of the flesh are plain,” (and then he lists a bunch covering the whole human condition, not just immorality, but hey, strife, envy, dissention, drunkenness and a whole lot more), then plain can mean ordinary, obvious, and unremarkable. I had previously assumed that this text was a Puritanical ranting, hammering home all our failures to be good. Suddenly I heard this text to be saying that it is plain as the nose on your face that a perfectly ideal, ethereal, spiritual life clashes with all our human urges-it’s the situation we all find ourselves in. I do not claim that my understanding is the only view or the theologically “correct” view. (Later, though, I did my homework and discovered that this has been an interpretation in the Christian tradition that I was simply unaware of before. The New English Bible actually reads, “Anyone can see that” … the flesh collides with the spirit). I do not claim unilateral “correctness,” but what I do claim is that this therapy encounter involved two essential acts of faith on my part: (a) Psychoanalytically speaking, it would be an error to focus on his overt self-condemnation by offering reassurance; I have faith that the critical latent theme pertained to his removal to a narcissistic prison. (b) Religiously speaking, the text says what the text says: “Plain” does mean common and ordinary. I have faith that the text allows my way of hearing it in this therapy hour with this patient. I have faith, in other words, that he and I are truly communicating in authentic psychoanalytic and religious domains because I was simultaneously surprised by hearing this text this way in response to this latent narcissistic theme. So I said to him, in the faith that it would bring future benefit, “Saint Paul says its common for our fleshy urges to land us in religious conflicts – ordinary, obvious. Since you haven’t managed to create a special class of problems Paul never heard of, I don’t see what makes you a special sinner who gets to skip, church or talking about your feelings.” If this seems haughty, I’d say well, maybe but probably not. All in all, it is usually a relief to patients to find that a latent theme can be said out loud, that it is not so powerful, magical and binding that it cannot even be uttered. (Saying “How do you feel about that?” would have made him feel much more hopeless and alone.) He responded by taking up the therapeutic task and said: “It isn’t that I want to leave the church, it’s that I don’t have anybody to talk about my feelings to”-and simultaneously, we both found ourselves saying “Until now.”

From ages 1 3 to 1 8 Phyllis cooked every night for her parents and then washed the dishes in an unrecognized effort to become an oedipal victor and avoid dating. She really is kind, sensitive to the needs of others, and as she talks her stories often tug at my heartstrings (a countertransference interference) over the countless ways others have treated her with indifference. This time I hear something new as she tells a story in the style of an empty monotone: “As soon as I found out that Shiela was in the hospital, I took her a xerox of the class notes and then went down to the chapel to light a candle. Her cats had been fed, but I went to the store and changed the litter. I thought the rest of the class might want to send a card, and they thought that was a good idea, but then some of them complained about the verse.” The latent theme that “fell” on me here is that indifference is ultimately the only response possible for me, because she has offered no “picture” of what she feels, wants, or needs. If she isn’t inwardly asking for any response, how am I supposed to have one? And simultaneously a new understanding of the story of Mary and Martha “fell” on me, leading me to say, “If Jesus’s response to Martha is anything to go by, if you just give and give, all you’ll get in the end is criticism.”

Years later, as Phyllis has struggled to put a life together and made enormous strides toward personal pleasure and autonomy, her parents mention that they are going to Atlantic City the weekend she is receiving her doctoral degree. She is not crushed, but she is stunned, sad, hurt, and wrestling with disillusionment. The weekend itself doesn’t matter much, but she is graduating at the top of her class, has accepted a prized job offer, and thought she was beginning to forge an adult relationship with them. Now it is clear that they really do not understand anything she has been struggling with or anything she has accomplished. Is God, she wonders in her wry sense of humor still awarding her booby prizes? And as she struggled with one of the most important issues any of us can confront, the possibility of reaching a personal goal only to learn that we are on our own without acknowledgement or understanding from those we had most hoped to touch, I found myself without answers but with a new hearing of a text from St. John. I said to her, “Even after the resurrection, Mary still mistook Jesus for a common laborer.” There was a time I would not have said this, because she would have heard it as expecting her to be as good as Divine. This time she heard it as I had faith she would, and after mixed tears and laughter at her own situation, she took a deep breath and said that the best thing about this feeling, happy and sad at the same time, was that she knew that the struggle between being herself and being recognized by others would never really end, but at least she was on the right track-and besides, since the struggle is thousands of years old, she might as well undertake it willingly, without kicking against the goads.

I hope I’ve been clear that the religious text is not magic, and neither is psychoanalytic theory. The old saying, “Every treatment corrects the theory,” means that the therapist learns something new from hearing any patient’s latent subtext. I’ve added here that to put aside cliched assumptions about religion also means that the therapist will learn something new about religion and the patient’s struggle to • move beyond private idolatries to a new engagement with the religious text. This is where the growing edge lies. The test for whether we have reached it in our work is measured by our own surprise at simultaneously hearing the patient and the text in ways we could not have imagined before.

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