Every son wants from his father to gain a sense of mission in life and receive permission from an elder male to pursue the mission; to feel a strong, loving masculine ground beneath his feet so that he will not, once he’s an adult, have to say to his wife, his children, or to strangers, “I don’t
know what a man is, please teach me”; to be challenged toward a vision of faraway stars—impractical dreams and ambitions, that he may make, one day, possible; to learn what part of the sacred circle of human and spiritual life he will be responsible for; and to be mirrored by an intimate elder male and found, in that mirroring, to be a loving, wise, and powerful man. – Michael Gurian, The Wonder of Boys

Idealizing transference and religion

Had some thoughts after church today, coming from worship and also from many experiences as a chaplain. As one who gravitates towards psychoanalysis (especially Kohut’s theory of Self Psychology) and spiritual direction (especially the tradition of the Christian mystic), there are some things that stand out to me differently from when I did my theological training in seminary. As one who has merely scratched the surface of Self Psychology, I may butcher the theory as I reflect on this, but I hope it provides some usefulness as we think about God, religion, and a deeper awareness of the Self.

Self Psychology breaks down the three basic self object needs into mirroring, idealizing, and twinship. Mirroring is hearing from caregivers that I am wonderful, special, and valuable. Idealizing is having someone I can rely on who is a image of “calmness, infallibility, and omnipotence.” Twinship is having those who I can feel similar to and be in like relationship to. When these needs are not met sufficiently, an individual suffers from self object need derailment and will seek to meet these needs in increasingly unconscious ways – self object need transference.

It is the Idealizing transference that I pick up on a lot with religion. It makes sense to me and it fits when it is minor. It can be helpful, good, and stabilizing to the self to give God

There is significant benefit in seeing the God who exists both in light and darkness, in presence and in absence.

the role of a perfect, stable, faithful foundation. After all, to make this transference with a human makes for a much quicker “frustration” as a human is soon to let us down at some point. But this frustration is what we need to form a health sense of self. In religion this idealizing transference can go overboard, with some potential life-shattering results.

Essentially, an idealized transference happens when there is a low sense of self worth, an ingrained feeling of not being able to do it on my own. Often fathers and elders meet this basic idealizing need, and in recent history of suppressed emotional expression, working away from home, and at times, narcissistic tendencies, many men and women suffer from a deep woundedness in this area. If we have not had good relationships with idealized figures who show their lack of perfection and therefore encourage us to hold ground in our self, we will constantly be looking for others (God/Jesus included) to be that foundation.

Sadly, and often, life happens for people and their faith is shattered because God doesn’t seem to pull through for them. This is very real and frankly, many of our worship songs don’t prepare us for this. I see this in the hospital, and it is one of the reasons I say to people, “I have come to learn that often the answers we easily come to in church, don’t really fit in the hospital.” There is significant benefit in seeing the God who cannot be so easily pinned down and understood, the God who is at times unexpected (the Wild Goose in the Celtic tradition), the God who exists both in light and darkness, in presence and in absence.

This is such a scratching of the surface, but it gets me thinking. Here’s a really good from a therapist/mother’s perspective: Demigods on Eggshells.

Another thing I’d like to throw out there is that I want to release trying to be right and just try to be true. Is there a difference? I don’t know, but the perspective feels different for me. And it changes the conversation. There is more of a responsibility when true-ness is on the line.

I can’t believe that I literally thought for a time in my life that I could, with observation and keeping my mouth shut for a time, never be wrong. I really did believe that I was always right… what a bunch of crap. This is definitely not true, that someone is always right.

So is it true or not true? I guess that is a good question to hold and one that moves one out of argumentation and into real contemplation. And can one be true and not right, or right and not true?

Why I don’t want to tell you about my intentions

Having moved to Oshkosh now, some six weeks ago, I have set some intentions that I hope will move towards change. I don’t like to tell people of the things that I hope to change ahead of time, because I have, so many times before, passed from one thing to the next before any real habit sinks in. Fads, my friends call them. And yes, there is truth to that. So I keep a lot of these intentions to myself until they are well under way.

Now that I am here, though, in this new community, with a new climate a new schedule new rhythms new house new job and new habitat, some things feel easier. An easier flow. So rather than saying, as I have said so many times before, I want to write more or I think I want to start working out at the gym, I wait until I can say I am a writer (or I really enjoy my regular writing routine) and I work out on a regular basis. These are things that I already do. I set the intention a long time ago, I just didn’t share it with you. Make sense? Maybe? I guess it doesn’t really have to make sense to anyone else as long as I am doing it. I’d rather doing something well and consistently than talk about it. But that’s just me. Unless you are talking a lot about something you have not really committed to doing… then we have something else to talk about.

Maybe I don’t want to talk about my intentions simply because I am afraid of failure. That very well could be true as well. If I tell you and then don’t follow through, it feels like failure, and God knows I really don’t want to fail. I don’t know… it’s all a part of my own process, just like you have your own process, and the person who just got a cancer diagnosis or that conservative pastor or the homeless guy on the street all have their own processes.

So now that I am in this new place, I’m just doing stuff. I don’t want to talk about it too much. I trust my heart and what God has taught me these last many years and I trust the wisdom that I have gleaned from those who have come before. I am going to do it, and I’m going to do it fully. How about you?

The Limbo of The Unknown

The Unknown. It feels so often, especially at certain times in our life, as if it is all around us. Sometimes the Unknown is all we know. It is everything. Nothing is known. Everything that could be known is a fog, a darkness, a shadow. And we are floating in it. Looking for some firm ground to place our foot. Some limb to hold on to. It doesn’t even have to be much, but something. Something to hold onto is better than nothing.

Remember moments in your life, maybe when you were younger, when you would get the wind knocked out of you? Gasping for breath, you wondered if the next breath would come and nothing you experienced before could prepare you for that moment. You were absolutely present in a terrifying limbo of unknown.

How do we live in a life, or even in moments, of absolute unknowing?!? What do we hold on to? What do you hold on to? Some have objects that help them remember times that felt safer. Some pray with all their might, to God, to the universe, to their ancestors who have weathered these storms before them… sometimes there is an answer and sometimes there is nothing. Some breathe, remembering that for everything that is unknown, we at least have this moment, breathing in… and breathing out. We fight for that breath, don’t we? As Reiner Maria Rilke writes, 

When we win it’s with small things,  
and the triumph itself makes us small.  
What is extraordinary and eternal does not want to be bent by us.  
I mean the Angel who appeared to the wrestlers of the Old Testament: 
when the wrestlers’ sinews  
grew long like metal strings,  
he felt them under his fingers  
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel  
(who often simply declined the fight)  
went away proud and strengthened 
and great from that harsh hand,  
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.  
Winning does not tempt that man.  
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,  
by constantly greater beings.


David Whyte writes:

To keep despair alive we have to abstract and immobilize our bodies, our faculties of hearing, touch and smell, and keep the surrounding springtime of the world at a distance. Despair needs a certain tending, a reinforcing, and isolation, but the body left to itself will breathe, the ears will hear the first birdsong of morning or catch the leaves being touched by the wind in the trees, and the wind will blow away even the grayest cloud; will move even the most immovable season; the heart will continue to beat and the world, we realize, will never stop or go away… (from ‘DESPAIR’ From the upcoming book of essays CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words)

We face the unknown daily, deeply, and painfully. Each of us have things that give us reason to fight for that next breath. Feeling the unknown, wrestling with it, sometimes even being defeated by it, we find ourselves stronger and we find the way through.

Spiritual Direction and reflections on Spirituality


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