Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House
For some years I have been working with a Christian counselling organization in an advisory capacity. There are obvious overlaps with spiritual direction – they both involve listening and they both involve enabling the ‘client’ to become aware of their own inner life, its dynamics and direction. In spiritual direction there is a third person, the Holy Spirit, and he too must be heard.
As part of this involvement I was asked to contribute to a training exercise for the counsellors on the subject of’dreams’. The main speaker was a psychoanalyst who also had training as a neurologist. She spoke about the nature of consciousness, what it is and how it relates to the unconscious, remarking in passing that much recent neurological science gives support to Freud’s and Jung’s emphasis on the unconscious in mental health and development.
It seems to be a well-established fact that the unconscious mind is the place where most of our thinking and decision-making takes place. The part of the mind we experience as consciousness acts merely as a ‘management tool’, an executive to expedite what has happened in the unconscious. The big question is ‘what goes on there?’
I found this fascinating, and encouragingly my own experience teaches me that the gifts of discernment and insight that God gives to provide understanding lie somewhere beneath consciousness. I have always called it intuition – a kind of instinct, a sixth sense.
The ability to connect this level of mental and emotional activity with the conscious mind is at the heart of Christian prayer and ministry. No wonder so many mystics agree with Julian of Norwich: ‘with thought is God never holden; only with love.’ Prayer is in essence honouring the place of the unconscious and many of the most widely used methods of prayer are techniques for holding the conscious mind in check and freeing the unconscious to respond to the Holy Spirit; I am thinking here of the Rosary and the Jesus Prayer.
Spiritual direction is important in this regard because it permits the director and the directee to explore the experience of the whole area of feeling, dream, memory and vision which are so obscured by the surface activity of the mind. One function of spiritual direction is to assure the directee of the reality of the unseen and unheard reality that is the experience of God.
Individuals need to know that they are not going mad! Where individuals pray with Scripture, this whole area of experience, this locus of revelation, is enriched and enlivened. Think of the psalms – their language is the language of classic archetypes: floods, mountains, streams, fires and even sea monsters. Implanted deep within our psyche is a language through which God reveals himself to us. We have to learn to listen.
Neurology and psychology cannot agree if consciousness and the mind are one. But in the Christian understanding, the Word who made all things speaks to us in every atom of creation and reveals himself in the language and light that is at the heart of human being. It is listening to this inner voice and standing in this light that is adventure of prayer. Begin by trusting your intuition – you won’t go mad!