LONDON, ONTARIO – One of the unanticipated delights of my dotage has been the emergence over the last decade of a sort of electronic chain letter that is in constant circulation among me and my three older brothers. When we’re each doing our bit to flesh out some particularly gripping conundrum from the very dawn of our consciousness, the correspondence can see multiple updates in a day. Then the fraternal forum can cool into a kind of dormancy when a two or three-week silence is broken by nothing more than a hoary round of jokes about our feefers. But even such apparently retrograde fare can turn out to have unexpected pertinence. For instance, an early exchange among the elder trio which I found pretty mystifying, compared how many times each night they were hauling themselves out of bed to whiz. Little did I suspect that in a few years as one spent more time sleeping at less depth, that actually becomes a thing.
Most recently the brotherhood has been examining the extensive efforts our mother made to inculcate us in the Christian faith. Our father actually served a couple of terms as a church elder but he did so entirely at the behest of Mother who fitfully attended a Baptist Church as a child and continued that erratic adherence as an adult and a mother when, for a few months at a stretch, she would pack us all off to Calvary United Church in South London every Sunday morning and then for some mysterious reason – and with no objections raised by my father or my brothers and I – we’d suddenly drop it for a few months. In a similar, scattershot way, my brothers had all been baptized shortly after their births and I was not. This wasn’t the result of some decision Mother came to. It just slipped her mind and by the time she noticed the oversight, I think she was a little flummoxed at just how she’d go about gracefully rectifying the lapse.
While my two oldest brothers got to attend a week-long Christian summer camp through some perk relating to their paper routes, in my ninth summer Mom enrolled me at Vacation Bible School at Wortley Road Baptist Church which I attended every weekday morning for a month and didn’t absolutely hate. And when I was six or seven she packed all four of us off to an after-school Bible Class that took place one day a week at a neighbour lady’s house for a full year. As a result of these experiences, we had a much better grounding in Bible stories and Christian precepts than a lot of our friends.
However erratic her adherence, I know my mother considered herself a Christian all of her life. And when I announced that I was becoming a Catholic, she was genuinely thrilled with the news and proudly sat with my Dad throughout that three hour Easter Vigil service where I finally got baptized at the age of 32. It was only at the time of her death on the – get a load of this – 25th anniversary of that 1984 Vigil that I fully appreciated the efforts she had made in her dear and scattered way to always keep God before my eyes. At her funeral service just before they closed the lid and wheeled her casket away for the last time, I impulsively dug the Rosary out of my pocket and laid it in the crook of her right arm.
If it was my mother whose example and concern predisposed me to Christian belief, it was, surprisingly enough, undergoing Jungian analysis in my late twenties which called my bluff on a long postponed showdown with God and led me into the Church. Why this sudden need for the divine just when I’d begun to sort myself out by paying attention to what my dreams were telling me? Well, when you’re interpreting and learning from unconsciously generated stories that come whiffling into your sleeping brain every night from . . . where exactly? . . . it opens you up to a wider range of cosmic possibilities in the universe. For the full saga of how that went down, see this Hermaneutics from August 6, 2018: The Boa Woodman Enlightenment Axis.
Twelve years after that first round of analysis and nine years after coming into the Church, I checked back into dream analysis for some psychic retooling with a new shrink in town. I was feeling unmotivated and confused in a couple of areas (nothing so drastic as the first time) and my practice of the faith was also lapsing into something close to indifference. Once again, when a little dream work got the sludge moving through the arteries of my psyche, then my spiritual life also became renewed. I started attending Mass again on a weekly basis and was going to confession and deriving at least as much illumination and direction from those sacraments as I was from analysis, much to the consternation of my shrink.
Two years into that new round of analysis, there occurred an event of perfectly stunning synchronicity. Or so I thought. But my shrink, who’d written an entire book on Jung’s theory about coincidences loaded with meaning, wasn’t buying any of that. For months I’d been cranking up the pressure, letting him know that I was fed up with bouncing between the church and his office in such a way that their respective spiritual and psychological exercises were seemingly required to undercut or negate each other.
“I want a new working model for soul work,” I told him. “I want to find a way to bring these two processes together. And don’t make me choose between one or the other because you won’t win. St. Peter’s Cathedral is a far grander clinic than your pokey little office and the per-hour pew rental is a bargain compared with your couch.”
My shrink was in the process of moving his home and office into a property he’d bought about ten blocks south. The synchronistic event which I found so meaningful and he found so irritating, was that he was moving into the very house where all four Goodden boys had attended their weekly Bible Club almost forty years before. My shrink was clearly miffed when I confirmed this domiciliary coincidence before our first session in his new home.
“Yup, this is the place, all right,” I said, dragging him through to the long back room with the western wall full of windows that still looked out on a back yard with half a dozen large pine trees. Watching the snow pile up on those boughs in the early falling light of a December afternoon as our teacher talked about Mary and Joseph’s arduous trek to Bethlehem, was the most spell-binding Christmas narrative I’ve ever experienced. That woman had an inexhaustible pile of cut-out felt shapes – camels and palm trees, dozens of Biblical characters with distinctive costumes including a jazzy little jacket of many colours for that other Joseph with the lousy brothers – and she’d put them up on a board as that day’s story went along.
“Come to think of it,” I told my shrink, “Joseph’s interpretive work for the Pharaoh was my introduction to the whole concept of dream analysis.” He didn’t seem to find that observation as interesting as I’d hoped he would. “Mrs. Carrie lived here then,” I continued. “It was her house but she loaned this space to another woman who actually taught the class. I wish I remembered her name because she was excellent. We’d come in the back door, hang up our coats over there on some wooden pegs, pile our boots on the mat and come through here to sit on the floor in front of the big felt board.
"Once we were ready for the class to begin, we’d join hands with our neighbours on each side and sing our gathering song. My brother Bob still remembers all the words and sang them to me on the phone last night: ‘On time, on time to Bible Club today / On time, on time, I would not stay away / Since the savior asked to meet with two or three / I would not want Him to come and not find me’.”
I offered to regale my shrink with a verse of another Bible Club favourite, Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam, but he couldn’t stand anymore of my pious nostalgia. It was a little more than a year later that I bailed out of analysis altogether. I was looking forward to the psychiatric savings of $80 per week but I was frustrated by the apparently irreconcilable antipathy of the Jungian and Christian world views and wished it didn't have to be this way. Particularly galling was the way my shrink kept telling me in the impoverished lingo of his trade that Catholicism just wasn’t a big enough “container” for all of my spiritual needs. "Oh yeh?" I muttered under my breath. "Are you seriously suggesting that you've got a bigger one?"
In Catholic terms, analysis can seem like too frequent and neurotically scrupulous confession without absolution. You unburden your sins and shortcomings (though no analyst will let you get away with a value-laden word like ‘sin’) not with a view to receiving God’s forgiveness and striving to change your behavior but rather to rid yourself of moralistic guilt and repression so that you can more fully realize and integrate your true and total nature. And potentially there’s a blueprint there for real moral disaster. To push ahead doing something selfish or mean just because it’s part of your willful nature, is guaranteed to rot your soul and blunt your senses. No, it doesn't have to go that way but it can. I frequently bump into the lonely refugees of self-actualizing therapies who have shucked spouses, ignored their kids or placed their parents into quarantine just because they threatened the full flowering of some new and mesmerizing self-image.
My first shrink used to say that notions of ‘should’ were what screwed people up more than anything else. I could see what he meant but only in a limited and temporary way. Certainly for a young man hacking his way through all the bores and tyrants and bad faith teachers who try to tell him how to live, it’s essential to set aside imposed notions of obligation for long enough to ascertain your capabilities and deepest convictions. But eventually – and the sooner the better, I’d say – you’re going to have to give yourself to something more than your own exquisite cause of self-actualization (and thus set yourself up for a lifetime of delivering on ‘shoulds’) or else you’ll find that you’ve left yourself thrashing with nothing but air.
Will I ever go back for another round of analysis? I used to say it was conceivable, for a limited term, but I find even that hard to imagine today. The day of my final session was also marked by a synchronistic event. When it came time to leave, I couldn’t get out the front door of my analyst’s house. It literally would not open. The lock had seized up and jimmy with it as much as my shrink and I liked, it simply wouldn’t budge. I had to slip out the old Bible Club door at the back of the house and as I cycled home, I wondered if my shrink was right when he said, “See? This means that our work isn’t finished.” Or did it mean that I was actually completing some far larger process? And that to mark that greater consummation most fittingly, it was important on this last occasion to leave by the same door as I first came in?
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