In Search of the Spiritual: Gabriel Marcel, Psychoanalysis and the Sacred

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Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), the first French existentialist and phenomenologist, was a world-class Catholic philosopher, an accomplished playwright, drama critic and musician. He wrote brilliantly about many of the classic existential themes associated with Sartre, Heidegger, Jaspers and Buber, prior to the publication of their main works. Marcel regarded himself as a "homo viator," a spiritual wanderer: "If man is essentially a voyager, it is because he is en route . . . towards an end which one can say at once and contradictorily that he sees and does not see." As a self-described "philosopher of the threshold" and "an awakener," his stated goal was to shed some light on the nature of spiritual reality, those moments when one experiences an upsurge of the love of life. In this book, Paul Marcus joins the best of Marcellian and psychoanalytic insights to help the reader develop an inner sensibility that is more receptive, responsive and responsible to the transforming sacred presences that grace everyday life, such as are experienced in selfless love, hoping beyond hope, and maintaining faith in the goodness of the world despite its harsh challenges. Whether one is reading "Re-finding God during Chemo-therapy," "Maintaining Personal Dignity in the Face of the Mass Society," "On Fidelity and Betrayal in Love Relationships" or "The Kiss," Marcus, with the help of his two spiritual masters, Marcel and Freud, points the reader in the direction of a greater everyday sacred attunement to the eternal presences that life mysteriously reveals to those with a discerning eye and an open heart.

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CHAPTER ONE: Introduction

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If man is essentially a voyager, it is because he is en route … towards an end which one can say at once and contradictorily that he sees and does not see.1

What matters today is that man should rediscover the sense of the eternal, and withstand those who would make his life subservient to an alleged sense of history.

—Gabriel Marcel

Autobiographical context

In the last ten years or so of scholarly reflection I have been “blessed” to have “fallen in love” three times and, quite astonishingly, without ever having to terminate my relationship with my wife. Indeed, my three French “paramours” utterly captivated different parts of my being, my “mind, heart, and spirit”: first, I fell in love with the deconstructive “mind” of Michel Foucault, then with the ethically demanding “heart” of Emmanuel Levinas, and, most recently, with the creative “spirit”, and spirituality, of Gabriel Marcel, “a sorely neglected philosopher.”2 While every scholar is “turned on” by a particular thinker for reasons that are conscious and unconscious, idiosyncratic, and always deeply personal, in my case, my attraction to Marcel’s writings is best understood in terms of Freud’s insight, that every love relationship is a “re-finding”. That is, we tend to “fall in love” with someone or, in my case, with a philosopher’s ideas, because in some way it calls to mind one’s childhood relationship with a parent or early caregiver. If we are self-aware, discerning. and frankly, a bit lucky, we “refind” that which was “good” in our childhood caregivers rather than what was “bad” in them, with the former being a “healthy” adaptation and reasonably satisfying sublimation, whereas the latter is a “neurotic” maladaptation that is bound to lead to personal suffering. Though Freud’s notion of the love relationship as the “re-finding” of a childhood love “object” is not exactly applicable in explaining my current attraction to Marcel, it is close enough, for I had steeped myself in Marcel’s writings, particularly his work on the phenomenology of hoping, when I was doing my PhD in psychology at the University of London about thirty years ago. My dissertation topic was “Psychological Aspects of Cosmetic Rhinoplasty (“nose jobs”) and Marcel helped me understand why this elective surgical procedure on the nose had such a powerful, sustained, positive impact on the patients’ lives, on their self-concept, self-esteem, and interpersonal effectiveness, even though in most cases the patients did not have particularly misshapen noses to start with and the casual onlooker hardly, if ever, noticed any improvement in their post-operative attractiveness! Now, over three decades since first reading Marcel, I had somehow found my way back to him and, yes, I “re-found” his writings on hope to be the most compelling of his entire oeuvre. In this context, Marcel the “believing” Catholic, the “neo-Socratic” or “Christian Socratic” philosopher, as he preferred to be called, greatly “moved” me, a traditional Jew and a seasoned psychoanalyst, and helped me get through, more-or-less in one piece, though changed to be sure, a challenging if not devastating diagnosis of stage three colon cancer, surgery, and chemotherapy. The first chapter of this book describes this daunting cancer experience. Needless to say, I am more than grateful for having re-found Marcel’s phenomenology of hoping just in time, as his insightful reflections decisively helped me to give some interpretive meaning to my personal ordeal while also comforting me.

 

CHAPTER TWO: Creative experience as the birthplace of the transcendent

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As soon as there is creation, in whatever degree, we are in the realm of being [the eternal].

—Gabriel Marcel

Nietzsche observed that the emotions “have a phase when they are merely disastrous, when they drag down their victim with the weight of stupidity—and a later, very much later phase when they wed the spirit, when they ‘spiritualize’ themselves”. That is, the “passions”, as Nietzsche called the emotions, are often a source of considerable psychic pain, if not despair, in everyday life. Nietzsche’s antidote to this sorrowful state was not to suppress, repress, or in other ways jettison strong emotions, but, rather, to work at a process of “spiritualization” of the passions: “The spiritualization of sensuality is called love,” while the “spiritualization of hostility” involves “a profound appreciation of the value of having enemies”. Such a recommended “return to nature”, as he called it, is not a return in the way imagined in Rousseau’s romantic outlook. Rather, Nietzsche recommended “not a going back but an ascent—up into the high, free, even terrible nature and a naturalness where great tasks are something one plays with, one may play with”.1 For Nietzsche this recommendation of “a going up” points to the individual’s efforts at self-overcoming, self-mastery and, most important, self-fashioning the basis for a “transvalu-ation of values”, of sublimation in a novel form, as Freud might have described it. It is at this point that Nietzsche the atheist and Marcel the Christian believer are briefly on the same existential ground, for they are both emphasising that the great-souled man is one who is a creator, someone who brings something into existence. Marcel, sounding similar to Nietzsche, asks, “Might it not be said that to create is always to create at a level above oneself?”2 As Marcel further notes, the elemental freedom a person has is the “creative power”3 to decide what kind of person he wants to be: whether to live with reasonable self-control or be a slave to his desires, whether to be receptive, responsive, and responsible to others or inaccessible and self-centric,4 and whether to live a life mainly devoted to the “lower” values associated with our over-functionalised, technique-dominated, possession-driven “mass society”, as Marcel called the “having” mode, or to the “higher” values of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, the “being” mode: “At bottom, I can validly assert that I belong to myself only insofar as I create, as I create myself.”5 Elsewhere, Marcel elaborates, “There is doubtless no sense in using the word ‘being’ [“that which is eternal in human experience”]6 except where creation, in some form or other, is in view.”7 Thus, to be capable of encountering being, the transcendent in the immanent, to engage the impossible-to-adequately-describe plenitude, the infinite depth and eternity associated with embracing life without reserve, requires liberal access to the creative impulse. Indeed, as Kenneth Gallagher notes, “The conception of being as creativity is the synoptic insight binding [Marcel’s] whole philosophy together.”8

 

CHAPTER THREE: On refinding God during chemotherapy

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I hope in Thee for us.

—Gabriel Marcel

At the age of fifty-six my life was going along pretty well—my twenty-three-year marriage and two children were flourishing, my psychoanalytic private practice was steadily busy such that I did not have to worry about where my next fee cheque was coming from, and my creative life, my book writing, was thriving. I lived in a comfortable home in a nice neighbourhood and was part of a nurturing faith community, traditional Judaism. I had a few very good long-standing friends and solid relationships with my brother and sister and their young adult children. I also had my faithful Harry, a thoroughly lovable and loving dog. All in all, I would say I had a reasonably good life, and even a constitutional pessimist like myself, a man prone to depressive moodiness, was able to acknowledge that I was “blessed”, as they say in religious lingo. And then I got the call from my internist (physician specialising in internal medicine), a close friend, who had received the report from the gastrointestinal doctor who did my routine colonoscopy: “I have some bad news for you, you have colon cancer, probably stage three.1 You are going to need surgery and chemotherapy. I am sorry.” “You’re kidding,” I responded, “how can that be, are you sure?” “Yes, I am as shocked as you are, you are the last person I would have expected to get cancer, I don’t know anyone your age who does as much as you are supposed to do to stay healthy: you eat right, exercise, don’t drink or smoke, have no family history of cancer. I am stunned.” I hung up the telephone, turned to my wife and said, “This is my worst nightmare, I have been trying to prevent this kind of thing since age nine,” (when I had radical colon surgery for a condition that at the time I was told was cancerous and which I only learned in my twenties was not, a bizarre scenario that no doubt made my current diagnosis that much more troubling). Hearing this very bad news, my “blessed” life was suddenly, massively, and decisively subverted, changed for the worse—and as I will here be suggesting—also changed for the better, forever.

 

CHAPTER FOUR Reflections on moments of grace

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Grace can only really be thought as unthinkable … . To think grace is to deny it … .

Grace remains the transcendent and nonobjectifiable postulate of the act of faith.

—Gabriel Marcel

Marcel, like many great Catholic theologians and philosophers, believed that the sacred obligation of a person is to learn gradually how to live in a manner that evokes the eternal, the divine within him. Being is a “sacral reality”, Marcel declares.1 Living a life infused with Beauty, Truth, and most of all, Goodness is, in part, conceived as the “royal road” to serving God and being like Him. Grace, at least as I am using the term, is “an event of pure disclosure”, often “a sudden epiphany”.2 It is the term that is used by believers to describe the experience of God’s sublime, spontaneous, and, perhaps most important, unmerited love (grace is not “earned” by living a godly life though it does require an “active receptivity”, says Marcel). That is, grace refers to those moments and experiences when God allows us to glimpse his divine nature, to feel his transforming healing presence without our being able to adequately account for why we have received this mysterious gift. “We are”, says Marcel, “again in the order of what can be found and taken into account rather than of what can be understood.”3 Grace cannot be “understood, but only recognized and affirmed”.4 That is, for Marcel, “Cognitive knowledge does not exhaust the whole of reality,”5 and grace “lies outside the categories of modality” and “reflection”.6 Such an experience of “divine quickening”, as grace has been called by one believer, is often further narrated in terms of feeling an invisible “embrace of … divine tenderness” or love, experiencing His “pure presence”, His “numinous depths”, and/or His “nearness”.7 There are many examples of what believers take to be acts of grace, especially in the ethical realm. For example, as described by Karl Rah-ner, the greatest modern Catholic theologian on the subject, the presence of grace is suggested in a person “forgiving someone who remains thankless, sacrificing something without feeling personal satisfaction, or loving God in spite of doubt and emptiness or when the world seems senseless and absurd”.8 Other examples of what I am calling “moments of grace” are acts of “goodness”, of neighbourly love in which the self-giver transcends his egoistical nature and acts “for the Other”, with little or no concern about being paid back. Encountering great beauty, such as coming upon a dazzling sunset or watching an elephant give birth also intimates what I mean by grace. As Marcel said, there is a “nascent grace which stirs at the heart of nature”.9 Finally, witnessing a great moral truth unfold before your eyes, such as the Beijing citizen standing in front of tanks on the Avenue of Eternal Peace in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989, also points to grace as I am using the term.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: On the quiet virtue of humility

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True love is humble.

—Gabriel Marcel

W“hoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted,” says Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and indeed in most other great world religions, humility, dictionary-defined as the quality of being modest and respectful, is considered the “mother of all virtues”, for it is the virtue by which a person assigns to God all the good, the “blessings” he possesses. Psychologically speaking, humility implies much more than the rudimentary dictionary definition suggests, for it is the way a person, religious or secular, “breaks open the closed and separate selfhood”, the “limited selfhood”1 that is the root of his problems in living, and apprehends what Marcel describes as a transforming “authentic transcendent reality”.2 Whether this transcendent reality is called God or some other less divinised term, it always intimates the “sacred or holy”, and tends to evoke emotions of “awe, love, and fear” and a reverential comportment of worship or other forms of veneration.3 Humility always moves against the prison-house of the self-centric, against inordinate narcissism, selfishness, and other such neuroses; in religious terminology this is called “pride”, a malignant form of self-love in which the person “seeks to dethrone God and enthrone itself”.4 Pride, one of the “seven deadly sins”, says David Myers, eats away at our sense of human community and undermines our reliance on each other and, for the believer, his dependence on God. Moreover, Myers claims, it is pride that is probably at the root of much of the hatred in the world, of much of the “racism, sexism, nationalism and other types of chauvinisms that cause one group of people to view themselves [sic] as more moral, deserving or able than the other”.5 Humility in Christian thought is the antidote to pride for it pries open the self to the transcendent and infinite “by accepting its relativeness to God and to others”.6 For Marcel, the Christian believer, humility is the mindfulness “of our own nothingness”, alleging that, “By myself, I am nothing and I can do nothing in so far as I am not only helped but promoted in my being by Him who is everything and is all-powerful.” Here lies the difference between humility and modesty, continues Marcel: humility points to a sacred realm, whereas modesty is merely a natural or profane phenomenon.7

 

CHAPTER SIX: Summoned to courage

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Heroism cannot exist without a faith that is so strong it is scarcely imaginable.

—Gabriel Marcel

Where best to begin our psychological exploration of Marcel-lian-animated courage than with the inspiring words of the beloved Cowardly Lion from the immortal 1939 children’s musical fantasy film, The Wizard of Oz:

Indeed, the Cowardly Lion is pointing to two crucial aspects of the “cardinal” virtue of courage, at least as we shall be discussing this ambiguous though compelling notion: first, courageous action is frequently motivated by a strong wish to help someone, that is, it is for the Other, often before oneself. In the case of the Cowardly Lion, despite being scared to death, he did not abandon his friends when they needed his assistance to enter the frightening castle where Dorothy was held prisoner by the Wicked Witch and her grotesquely menacing monkey guards. Second, acting courageously requires overcoming one’s fear, at least enough to do what one feels and knows is the “right” thing to do. The Cowardly Lion was terrified of entering the castle and confronting the Wicked Witch and her guards, in fact, he clearly wanted to flee and nearly did, only to stop himself and complete his noble mission. At the end of the film, the Cowardly Lion is given a medal of honour by the Wizard in deference to his outstanding display of courage that we the audience utterly identify with, for we, like him, realise that the courage displayed was discovered courage that he always had inside him.1 Courage, in other words, is both an affirmation of some of the highest-value attachments associated with human social life, namely, loyalty, solidarity, and self-sacrifice in the face of personal risk, and it is also a testimonial to remarkable self-mastery, to facing and overcoming one’s inner fears and anxieties. It is for these reasons in part that Marcel noted, “Courage appears as the virtue essential to personhood.”2

 

CHAPTER SEVEN Maintaining personal dignity in the face of the mass society

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The problem in question is that of understanding what becomes of human dignity in the process of technicalization to which man today is delivered over.

—Gabriel Marcel

Asad, a bright and sweet fifteen-year-old Moslem youth I was seeing in psychotherapy, conveyed to me what his beloved father, a physician, had told him just before being deployed for about a year to Iraq during the height of the war: “Remember Asad, until I get back you are the man of the house, take good care of your mother and your younger brother and sisters, and never forget to always treat every person with respect and dignity.” Asad told me in his own sincere words that his father, who was not a particularly religious Muslim, but was “in his heart” God-loving and God-fearing, had expressed to him two of his most cherished values, values according to which Asad was raised, and that his father embodied in his everyday life: the responsibility to love and protect his nuclear family and never to dishonour himself by not treating all people with the respect and dignity that they intrinsically deserve. What was striking to me when I heard Asad tell me his father’s poignant and wise parting words was that this rather shy young man, who had come to me because he had social anxiety and some other related academic inhibitions, was more than willing to completely embrace his father’s ethically demanding words as his own. Love, especially conceived as responsibility for, and to the Other, often before oneself, and dignity, most elementally, the condition of being worthy of respect, esteem, and honour, are two interconnected themes that in many ways undergird Marcel’s entire oeuvre.1 As I have already written a chapter on Marcel’s views on love, mainly within the context of “creative fidelity”, as he calls it, in this chapter I want to focus on the all-important notion of dignity viewed as an inspired and inspiring way of comporting oneself, as this notion is one of the core values that animates Marcel’s quest for a spirituality worthy of the name. Indeed, as we shall see, Marcel’s views on dignity and its related concepts, especially integrity, resonate with the ancient wisdom of all great religious traditions and spiritualities. According to Rabbi Ben Azzai, as recorded in the Ethics of the Fathers, “Do not despise any man, and do not disparage any object. For there is not a man that has not his hour, and there is not an object that has not its place.”

 

CHAPTER EIGHT On fidelity and betrayal in love relationships

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Nothing is lost for a man—I am convinced of this and I firmly believe it—if he experiences a great love or a true friendship, but everything is lost for the one who is alone.

The essence of our world is perhaps betrayal.

—Gabriel Marcel

In my twenty-five years of work as a court-appointed forensic evalu-ator focusing on high-conflict child custody disputes, if there was one deeply troubling theme that emerged over and over in my evaluations it was the sense of betrayal of love that the divorcing couple felt towards each other. This betrayal—acting in a way that was radically contrary to the promise to love and to cherish the Other—not only included blatant acts of unfaithfulness, such as having an affair with one’s wife’s best friend two months after one’s wife gave birth to twins.1 In addition to these intensely enraging and profoundly hurtful actions, there was a wide continuum of acts of “smaller” betrayals, acts of unkindness and emotional unavailability (indisponibilit) that became the fertile breeding ground for serious marital conflict that ultimately culminated in a nasty divorce proceeding and brutal custody dispute. Moreover, for Marcel, betrayal is not only betrayal of the Other, it almost always involves a degree of self-deception, of lying to oneself, of self-betrayal. For in most if not all acts of unkindness and emotional unavailability there is an unacknowledged hostile and self-aggrandising wish that is being satisfied at the victim’s expense. “It seems”, says Marcel, “that the very constitution of our world recommends us, if it does not force us, to betrayal.”2 In our “broken world”, as Marcel calls it, where we have been “leveled” as people according to our functionality (by bureaucracy, technology, and social regimentation), betrayal and other forms of interpersonal treason are encouraged for practical purposes, for example, for a person to “get ahead” in his job or to stay in a loveless marriage for self-serving financial reasons. Sometimes acts of betrayal, of disrespecting the fundamental dignity of another person, are viewed as necessary for reasons of self-protection. In our dehumanising, depersonalising, and alienating hyper-technological world,3 a world where extreme violence and the fear of terrorism and nuclear annihilation is almost commonplace, betrayal and lying become other “legitimate” forms of self-defence, a perverse “moral” necessity to assure self-preservation. It is not by chance that modern philosophers and others are captivated by the memorable image of Diogenes the Cynic wandering around ancient Greece carrying a lantern and searching for one honest man!

 

CHAPTER NINE The kiss

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I am my body only so far as I am a being that has feelings … only in so far as for me the body is an essentially mysterious type of reality.

—Gabriel Marcel

S“ oul meets soul on lovers’ lips,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley in Prometheus Unbound. Kissing, touching somebody or something with the lips, either passionately or gently (or both), can exquisitely blend erotic and religious impulses in the consummate, if not blissful, co-mingling and migration of identities.1 Sacred erotica as it has been called, such as the magisterial Song of Songs, depicts this blending of the erotic and the religious from courtship to consummation: “Thy lips, O my spouse, drip as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under your tongue.” And again, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.” Indeed, while Marcel wrote extensively about religion as love, and the body as a mode of feeling, even describing his philosophical goal of developing a “sensualist metaphysics”,2 he never wrote in depth about human sexuality, including what the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described as the “essence of love”, the kiss. For the kiss, perhaps more than any other bodily expression discloses the deepest values and aspirations and anxieties and fears of a person. Moreover, as Michel Foucault and others have noted, as a manifestation of eroticism the kiss expresses the ideological commitments of a culture.3 Freud put forth that the kiss, conceived as an interrelated biological, psychological, and social act, at least in its “highest” adult expression, is on the side of life-affirmation and sublimation of the sexual instincts, that is, what I have called throughout this book, Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. As we shall see, for Marcel kissing, at least in part, represents the upsurge of the “lyrical presence of love”, an exposure point that allows the mystery of the Other, in her unique depth and presence, to reveal itself as vulnerability and invitation, as illumination and gift.4

 

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