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Ten Lectures on Psychotherapy and Spirituality

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This volume is a much-needed exploration of contemporary theories on psychotherapy and spirituality, moving away from the more traditional, non-spiritual aspects of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. The book consists of a dialogue between the opposing sides; most of the papers have responses from the "other" side. This dialogue mirrors the early communication between Freud and Jung regarding spirituality, and opens up doors for continuing collaboration between psychoanalysis as a pure science and the spiritual and religious dimensions within.This inspiring collection of papers grew from the lectures held in 2002 at the London Centre for Psychotherapy. In the time of increased interest in more scientific schools of psychoanalysis such as neuropsycho-analysis, there is also a surge of interest in spirituality within psychoanalysis, as demonstrated by the great interest in these lectures.

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LECTURE ONE: The strange case of the missing spirit

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Rosemary Gordon

One makes a path by walking. This was written to me by James Roose-Evans on the fly-sheet of his book Ritual Today, and it seems to me helpful to all of us who seek to think, to reflect, and, with luck, to achieve some comprehension and, possibly, some experience, of spirit.

When I try to say what I mean by spirit the best definition that comes to mind is the word Kwoth; a term used by the Nuer—a simple Nilotic people in East Africa (Evans Pritchard, 1940). It is an onomatopoeic word, suggesting wind or breath. But it is what the Nuer say about Kwoth that I find so very impressive. They say of Kwoth that it is invisible and ubiquitous, like wind or air; it has no fixed abode, no material or sensuous quality, and therefore it cannot be experienced directly by the senses, and they say that therefore they do not know what Kwoth is “like”. They say that they are “merely simple people” and cannot be expected to know about such matters, or to understand the mysteries of life and death. For spirit is such a mystery; it has no earthly form, is entirely indeterminate, and has no sanctuary. It cannot be thought of at all, and can only be contrasted with the material world that we know through the senses. What the Nuer say about Kwoth is quite astonishingly close to how Michael Eigen has tried to describe Bion’s “O” in his book The Psychoanalytic Mystic: “‘O’” is inaccessible, yet nothing is more accessible, since ‘O’ is everywhere and everything. One cannot know ‘O’, but what else can one know?” (Eigen, 1998)

 

Response

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After I read Dr Gordon’s paper I looked in Lao Tzu for words that express in their own way her theme of making a path by walking.

The way is empty yet use will not drain it.

Deep it is like the ancestor of the myriad creatures.

Blunt the sharpness, untangle the knots, soften the glare.

Let your wheels move only along old ruts.

Darkly visible it only seems as if it were there.

I know not whose son it is.

It images the forefather of God.

[Lao Tzu, 1963, p. 8]

In anticipation of her paper I sought out passages that would contribute to her themes. We start with Bion, who has what may be a unique account of the psychoanalytic nature of spirituality and the conditions for it:

… It is quite common for psycho-analytic students to observe patients whose references to God betray the operation of “memories” of the father. The term “God” is seen to indicate the scale by which the magnitude, wisdom and strength of the father is to be measured. If the psycho-analyst preserved an open mind to the mental phenomena unfolding in the psychoanalytical experience … he would not be restricted to interpretations of God as displaying a distorted view of the father, but would be able to assess evidence, should it present itself, for supposing that the analysand was incapable of direct experience of God and that experience of God had not occurred, because it was made impossible by the … degree to which memory → and ← desire obstruct the patient’s relationship to an absent breast or penis on a level of mind, or at a time of life, when such an object would be so important as to evoke feelings analogous to what would in an adult be religious awe. This could be represented by desire. Taking the evidence in its other aspect, the sense memory, its significance would be its disclosure to the extent to which the patient’s relationship with God was disturbed by sensuously desired models (or C category elements) which prevented an ineffable experience by their concreteness and therefore unsuitability to represent the real-ization. [Bion, 1967, pp. 144-145]

 

LECTURE TWO: The challenge of evolution and the place of sympathy

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David M. Black

Preface

In considering the topic of “Psychotherapy and spirituality” I soon came to realize that one specific question particularly interested me. It was, essentially: can we find a use for the word spirituality or for its meaning, in a scientific age? Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene quotes with approval a zoologist who asked the question: “What is man?” and answered: “… all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless, and we will be better off if we ignore them completely” (Dawkins, 1976). 1859 was the date of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Such “scientism” may strike us as naïve, but with the ever-increasing power that science gives us over the life and death of our species it is important to be in touch with the truth it contains. Therefore, instead of talking about spiritual questions in general, I shall address this one question, of spirituality and science, in particular.

Introduction

The excellent science writer and palaeontologist, the late Stephen Jay Gould, recently published a book entitled Rocks of Ages, in which he argued that science and religion need in no way be in conflict (Gould, 2001). Science and religion, he said, are two entirely separate domains of intellectual authority, two “non-overlapping magisteria” as he majestically put it, and the religionist and the scientist are each free to go about their business without in any way needing to glance over their shoulder to see what the other is up to. This can’t be right, in my view. Religions are bound to make reality claims—indeed, perhaps the profoundest of all reality claims—and therefore, like the sciences, they are bound to be interested in all the questions to do with our knowledge of reality. Such questions are: how do we know what we know?; what persuades us that something is true?; what do we regard as evidence?; how can we tell—and can we tell?—what is delusion and what is truth-telling? All these questions, known by philosophers under the heading of epistemology, set us thinking about the impact of the growth of the scientific mind upon religion, and in particular on our thinking about spirituality. Spirituality is a vague term with many meanings. It is, in origin, a metaphor from a world-view that few of us now subscribe to. But I want to address in particular one rather important and specific meaning: what gives force and stability to values? I shall have fulfilled my intention in this paper if I can show that there may be a place, in a scientific world-view, for values that have force and stability in their own right and are not merely subservient to the real politico of evolution.

 

Response

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David Black’s paper takes us on a huge trajectory, an intellectual and emotional journey that leads back to past controversies in order to find a place for spirituality in a post-Darwinian age. In fact, he goes back as far as Galileo, who initiated the scientific method by making a basic distinction between the primary qualities of matter and the secondary qualities of subjective experience. This relegation of our inner experience, which includes religious belief, to a secondary status carries the implication that it is not “real” in the way that matter is real. So it is little wonder that Galileo was threatened with torture and death by the Catholic Church.

The major scientific assault on the foundations of religious faith came later, with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, and continues to the present day. David Black quotes a contemporary zoologist who responded to the question: “What is man?” with the comment: “… all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless, and we will be better off if we ignore them completely”. Black comments that such “scientism may strike us as naïve … but it is important to be in touch with the truth it contains”. Spirituality, he observes, is a vague term with many meanings: a metaphor derived from a world view “that few people now subscribe to”. His aim in this paper, he says, is to show that there is a place, in a scientific world view, for values which have force and stability in their own right and are not merely subservient to the realpolitik of evolution.

 

LECTURE THREE: Have objects got faces?

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Kenneth Wright

“Let them not make me a stone….
Otherwise kill me”

Louis MacNeice, “Prayer before Birth”

Introduction

It is just a hundred years since William James (1902) delivered his famous Gifford Lectures on The Varieties of Religious Experi ence and almost fifty since I stumbled upon them and was bowled over. I had never before known that the world of religion in which I had grown up could be viewed so dispassionately, yet sympathetically. I had been trapped in the confines of a dogmatic world view and James appeared as my liberator. His thoughtful overview of the world I inhabited was entirely opportune and without hesitation I granted him “great man” status in my personal academy.

James’ lectures were breathtaking in perspective and erudition. By contrast, I shall start from my own small corner of the universe. For not only would I find it hard to offer a Jamesian overview; I also think that a personal and autobiographical approach has strengths of its own. Spirituality is subjective by its very nature, and the fact that it involves solitude and communion with one’s own self gives further grounds for taking one’s own experience as a starting point.

 

Response

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I hope that I can make a resonant response to Kenneth Wright’s evocative and poetic paper with its strongly autobiographical flavour. I was often put in mind of the young Wordsworth of “The Prelude”, as the boy Ken rode down country lanes on his beloved bike, picking flowers for his mother, or at home, offering her musical tit-bits, as he began experiencing the growth of his creative sensibility.

I am very much in sympathy with the central tenets of this paper. I, too, feel that the mother’s face, and indeed the total experience at the breast are at the roots of our spiritual and creative life. I also feel that the consequences of failure of this primary interaction are potentially damaging. The Medusa-like gaze of a mother can, as it were, turn the infant’s mind to stone, whether that look comes from within mother, or is projected into her by the infant as an interpretation of the absence he sees in her face. This can lead to other petrifications in later life when, trying to deal with the hostile gaze, or indeed the hostile regard or hostile view of the other, we become paralysed, impotent. We can also feel overwhelming shame in the face of the other’s objectifying or accusing gaze, when it meets with not enough selfhood nor enough sense of capacity to restore or repair. We lower our eyes to avoid being seen, or to avoid seeing that we are being seen in our exposed state. It is often because of “loss of face” that we become involved in road-rage incidents and, more tragically, choose to go to war.

 

LECTURE FOUR: The spiritual dimension in psychotherapeutic practice

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Nathan Field

There are two key terms in this paper: psychotherapy and spirituality. Let me begin by indicating what I broadly mean by them. Psychotherapy I see as a practice whose aim is the healing of troubled minds. Spirituality is that ingredient in human behaviour characterized by understanding and compassion, combined with a sense of the sublime, the good, the beautiful, and the true. Having juxtasposed these two sets of ideas, it must seem virtually self-evident that psychotherapy and spirituaIity are profoundly interconnected, and possibly even different aspects of the same process.

Yet this was not the view proposed by the founder of psychoanalysis. On the contrary, Freud (1911b) promoted the idea that the human psyche was biologically driven by the twin desires for personal survival and sexual gratification and was fundamentally narcissistic; that is, incapable of concern for others, and devoted to the “pleasure principle”. As a doctor and scientist he followed Darwin in regarding humankind as primarily members of the animal species: in this context the appreciation of beauty, truth, and goodness was by no means self-evident. Although he later refined this view it remained the basis of the way he saw human nature.

 

Response

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I want to thank Nathan Field for asking me to respond to his paper, “The spiritual dimension in psychotherapeutic practice”. Doing so has enabled me to think more deeply around the many interesting points that he raises; my aim is not to express a closed or definitive point of view, but rather to open up a discussion. To do this I shall write about the thoughts I have had that were stimulated by his paper, and comment on some linked aspects of his work. I hope by showing how my thinking diverges from his to open up a dialogue with the reader, and a space for further thoughts.

I should make clear that I do not link the practice of psychoanalytic psychotherapy with spirituality. Spirituality I take to mean something that is linked to religious belief in the broadest sense. I make no claim for spirituality in my work nor in the language I shall use to describe it. To best describe the practice of psychotherapy as I aim to practise it I turn to Thomas Ogden:

the sort of unconscious engagement with the analysand to which I am referring results in the creation of a third subject, the “intersub-jective analytic third” … the experience of analyst and analysand [and of] the analytic third represents an experiential base, a pool of unconscious experience to which analyst and analysand both contribute and from which they individually draw in the process of generating their own experience of the analytic relationship. [Ogden, 2001, p. 19]

 

LECTURE FIVE: The use of theological concepts in psychoanalytic understanding

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Ronald Britton

The great American scholar, M. H. Abrams (1973) wrote that the romantic writers of two hundred years ago, such as Goethe, Wordsworth, Holderlin, or Shelley, undertook to save traditional concepts by reformulating them within a two-term system of subject and object, man and nature. A hundred years later Freud suggested that one could venture to resolve religious myths, and transform metaphysics into metapsychology by the psychoanalytic understanding of the unconscious. I accept Freud’s premise that the internal world described in psychoanalysis was represented in theology in terms of the relationship of the individual to his Creator. I believe that we confront in our work similar problems of the inner and outer world but in earlier centuries we addressed such problems in theological terms. Therefore, I find it useful, when trying to understand problematic transference and counter-transference situations, to draw on theological concepts such as Justification and Grace, and rival belief systems such as Idolatry and Fundamentalism.

 

Response

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“So what she gives God, she gives from earth’s two faces,
the pain, the festival; the tense surprise of sound and metre knitting.
And then is what she gives to us, clear under God’s sky—
The priesthood of her caring”

Rowan Williams, Angharad

Spirituality and pathology

With the elegance and depth that we have come to associate with his widely respected contributions over the years, Ron Britton has spoken on a psychoanalytic understanding of idolatry and fundamentalism. He makes the interesting distinction between the “word worship” of fundamentalism and the “thing worship” of idolatry. Juxtaposing Freud’s notion that ordinarily word presentation and thing presentation are brought together in the pre-conscious, giving them the potential for consciousness, he contrasts this with the situation found in highly pathological states such as schizophrenia, where word representation takes on the equivalence of thing representation. Here, abstractions are treated as things, and concrete things as abstract. He evokes Melanie Klein’s concept of unconscious phantasy, in which internal objects become incorporated either into the ego, which he calls our sense of self, our “core self”, or into the superego, which he describes as a particular location for internal objects with which the self is related. The internal objects that inhabit the ego become our sense of “our hearts and souls”, giving us a shape in the world and protecting us from it. In describing the primitive state of part-object psychic reality, on the other hand, he notes that personifications of single ideas take on the diverse identities that belong to a panoply of mythological figures, such as angry gods, loving gods, jealous gods, or cruel gods. This is, of course, a way of describing what Jungians would identify as archetypal psychic contents, universal themes that we, by virtue of being human, all experience according to our capacities and inclinations.

 

LECTURE SIX: A new anatomy of spirituality

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Andrew Samuels

Introduction

The bigger and more important the theme, the more personal the author’s connection to it is likely to be. So I will begin by sketching my personal development in connection with the themes of this chapter. At about the age of eighteen, I was a highly political young man, but trying to realize my political dreams through the arts—specifically, theatre. We were a radical theatre company, in those days at the end of the 1960s when you could get money from the Arts Council for radical theatre companies. Then, after becoming a youth worker and a counsellor working with young people, I went into analysis and dropped out of the political world for a decade. So, when Thatcherism came in, I was busy writing Jungian books. Gradually, the political side of my personality and my interest in society came back in and merged with my analytic concerns, leading to the formation of “Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility”. Then, when I began to have children, a third strand came in that we could call “spiritual”, as often seems to happen with men. Psychotherapy, politics, and spirituality—three sides of a coin! After the impact of having children, and the turning towards organized religion and private religion fatherhood induced in me, I began trying to link up the practice of psychotherapy with my emerging spiritual and existing political concerns.

 

LECTURE SEVEN: The role of projective identification in the formation

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Donald Meltzer

I will try to stick to this implication that I am going to talk about projective identification, but I can’t promise that it will be like that, because what I’m really occupied with these days is the contrast between invention and discovery, which I think is terribly important for psychoanalysis. I’ll try to explain why. It is a great consolation to me to read that other people have difficulties with this matter. I was given an article from the Review of Literature called “On not being able to play the piano”. I thought to myself, I know all about that. But it was very consoling because it was written by somebody who had really obviously broken his heart trying to learn to play the piano well. I thought to myself, if I could play it at all I’d be thrilled. It is the same thing with invention and discovery. In grazing through some mathematical books—which I cannot read but can only graze through—on the subject of negative and imaginary numbers, I realized that I was constantly hearing an equivocation as to whether this was about invention or about discovery. Well, I hope it’s not so vague in relation to psychoanalysis. I think, perhaps a bit heartlessly, I would classify Freud as being on the border—being a great discoverer but also a great inventor. The invention has to do really with nomenclature—the names that you give to things, and the fact that names become so concrete and so factual that one does really believe that they mean something. Projective identification is one of these things that you believe in. This raises questions about religion and spirituality—the whole question of belief. Was it Wittgenstein or was it Bertrand Russell who said that the correct linguistic method for expressing something is not “I can see that cat” but “I am cat-perceptive”? That seems to me to be quite correct. But to say “I am cat-perceptive” seems too trivial really for such an effort at correctness.

 

Response

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I very time I meet Dr Meltzer, in person or in writing, come E away with lots to be grateful for. This morning I have his lovely expression “miracle-perceptive”, which captures exactly the essence of what I want to talk about. I start with an apparent impasse, and then try to describe a way of avoiding it. The impasse is this: if someone talks to me of, for instance, Christian, Islamic, or Jewish spirituality I find no problem in knowing what they mean; since in each case there is a defined object of worship, and spirituality is about developing a relationship with that object. (Why anyone should believe in such an object is another question.) If the notion of spirituality is taken outside such a context, I begin to have problems. There are certain concepts: awe, reverence, holiness, miracles, wonder, mortality, and death, which are essential in exploring certain aspects of our world; and if that’s what spirituality means, fine. But I think that quite a lot of people want to take things further than that, to claim that somehow, however nebulously, there must be some sort of world mind, outside ourselves, because nothing can be made sense of otherwise. And I have to say that I see such a claim as an omnipotent, wish-fulfilling phantasy, whose function is to avoid the pain of having to acknowledge I just don’t know what to say here. Scientists such as Richard Dawkins or Steve Jones have been eloquent in expounding how marvellous the structure of the world is; how fascinating, for instance, is the mathematics that we need to describe, and then further to explore, the minutiae of the universe. Psychoanalysis is equally awe-inspiring in making it possible to describe aspects of the psyche. (I think especially of Klein’s elaboration of the depressive position and of Dr Meltzer’s work on the aesthetic perspective.) What more can one want? Of course, there are times when we don’t know how to proceed (yet). But to deal with the frustration of inadequate descriptive tools by throwing up a pseudo-explanation seems to me to be a perverse sort of dishonesty. Certainly those who think they can justify their appeal to some thinking power beyond ourselves will disagree; and I want to find a way not be drawn into a sterile ping-pong match sort of argument. So let me find another starting place.

 

LECTURE EIGHT: A personal journey through psychotherapy and religion

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Christopher MacKenna

Introduction

Some years ago I was one of a number of psychotherapy colleagues who met for a day to talk about spirituality. We gathered cheerfully but left deeply shocked, wounded by the violent feelings that the topic had aroused. At the meeting we discovered that we all had strong, but very diverse, spiritualities, for which we lacked a common language. Coming from different religious and non-religious backgrounds we struggled to articulate our most precious intimations about life, but found them sounding strangely insubstantial. Then, perhaps because psychotherapy was the one thing we knew we had in common, we began translating each other’s experience into psychological language. We all found this infuriating. Psychological language did not have the same resonance, for us, as our private spiritual languages; and we lacked the personal information about each other that would have made adequate translation possible.

Reflecting on this experience, I found myself wondering what we had hoped to achieve by meeting. We had been drawn by the word spirituality, but without an agreed understanding of its meaning. We tried to articulate our core values, and touched on some fundamental issues: love, sexuality, death, and god. To some extent we shared our pathology; but we could not leave it there because we had such powerful associations to each other’s language. Religious words sparked conflict and aggression in those whose struggle had been to attain selfhood through separation from religious entrapment. When someone spoke of the death of god1 as the moment when they came alive, this hurt people for whom god was still a source of life.

 

Response

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Chris MacKenna’s first story—about the meeting where the participants discussed their spirituality and felt, as the day went on, wounded and outraged—is very telling. “At the meeting,” he says, “what we seemed to be trying to do was to find a way of articulating our core values, the things we believed in and held on to when everything else was falling apart, the things which made life meaningful for us, the things which got us out of bed in the morning, that saved us from despair.” We are defensive, presumably, about such deep and personal things because we don’t know where we would be without them. But as his paper goes on, we see that he tries to name these deep things, to explore and analyse their nature, to see where they come from in him, within and without; and that nothing does, actually, crumble, but remains strong, tried and tested, rather than undermined, by the process of being thought about.

This is the first lecture in our Psychotherapy and Spirituality series in which the speaker has said: “I believe in God”. I think this is rather brave of Chris. Why should it be a difficult and a courageous thing to say? There are many bygone centuries in which it would not have been a brave thing to say and many parts of the world today where it still wouldn’t be. Quite the contrary. But this is the twenty-first century, and we are in London, and at a psychoanalytic psychotherapy institution.

 

LECTURE NINE: What happens between people

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Josephine Klein

My title, “What happens between people?” is intended to draw attention to a gap in our common language by means of which we talk about what happens when people affect one another. We all have theories about this, but no common language for comparing our theories. For instance, we tend to talk as though there were clear boundaries between people: “I am Jo; you are Jim”. Winnicott writes of a “limiting membrane” between one person and another (1958, p. 239; 1965, p. 148), but while this is a useful metaphor, there is in fact no membrane separating my mind from Jim’s—nothing analogous to the skin that visibly maintains our separate identities. How can we talk about this to one another?

I propose to take from algebra’s “set theory” a trick called a Venn diagram (Allwein & Barwise, 1996). Venn diagrams allow us to draw lines round sets of items that share a particular something. Thus, I can draw a line, for instance, around everything I think of as “not-I”, and I can draw lines around everything I think of as “not I”, and one can draw lines around everything I think of as “you”, and another line around everything I think of as “not-you”.

 

Response

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There is so much richness in Jo Klein’s paper that I think my best course is to pick out just some of the gems that I most valued, while also offering some of my own thoughts on her topic.

The ineffable

There is a striking paradox here as we attempt to address the ineffable: that which is “too great to be expressed in words” (New Oxford Dictionary). What we are able to conceive of, as we attempt to address the ineffable, can only be the merest shadow of what it is that lies beyond what we are trying to address. And, in relation to those we meet with, there is the “not I” in each other person that lies beyond anything that we can hope to know, if we seek to know it only through that process of “recognizing ourselves in others” that Searles speaks of.

It is, of course, a fundamental part of trying to tune into another person that we aim to put ourselves empathically into their shoes, in the context of their life story, with their particular experiences and sensitivities, in order to imagine how this person might see life and feel about its many vicissitudes. But, in our clinical work, this trial-identifying with the patient can only take us so far. What is most uniquely true of the other person will always lie beyond our own imagining.

 

LECTURE TEN: What is religion?

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Karen Armstrong

(This paper has been transcribed from the original tape recording and edited with the author’s approval.)

When I have previously discussed the links between psychotherapy and spirituality, I have usually concentrated on mysticism, which I regard as a discipline that descends into the depths of the psyche where one discovers a centre of meaning. I think, perhaps, that psychotherapy is a secular form of mysticism where, with the aid of a therapist, you go step by step down into the depths of the self in search of meaning.

But on this occasion I wish to consider the topic of religion generally, because mysticism, like psychotherapy, is only for a small minority. Only a limited number of people can afford psychotherapy, and very few, however religious they are, have the ability to be a mystic. I have tried for years and have been completely unable to do so. It is a talent, like being able to play the piano. You can take a few lessons but you soon discover whether you are a virtuoso or not. In the larger perspective, mysticism is a small though important religious enthusiasm.

 

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