Out of the Spiritual Closet

first printed in the July/August 2009 issue of Tikkun.

by Michael Eigen

Philip Groning, a German filmmaker, asked monks of the Grande Chartreuse for permission to make a documentary of their day-to-day life. Sixteen years later, he received permission to do so. He lived in this reclusive world in the French Alps for half a year. The result, the film Into Great Silence, is a moving testament to a life of prayer.

The documentary shows the monks in their daily routines of prayer, work, ritual, discussions, haircuts, and hikes. The vow of silence is a thread that knits life together. Even when monks are interviewed, one can feel how quiet prayer informs their words.

Watching the initiation of new monks and an older man’s steps toward death, I did not experience the prurience of the camera so much as the affirmation of the human spirit that it revealed: in this case, the human spirit in contact with divine reality. If not a window on the soul, the camera provided glimpses of soul-states not usually honored in ordinary life, and I felt a sense of relief that I would like to try to share.

I had an immediate sense of recognition, particularly when seeing the men’s faces in prolonged, silent prayer. The movie touched something in my spiritual core and had the effect of diminishing shame. When I saw the faces in prayer and meditation, I felt shells of shame begin to fall off my soul and inner body. Their faces were the way I felt, and seeing them gave me a kind of permission to live that part of me more fully, less apologetically, less defensively.

In our society, to be a man often means to be aggressive, achieving, and out for power, sex, or money. Yet these faces, these supplicants, were unashamed of the deep intimacy with God they touched and courted. To court God in deepest intimacy seemed a freeing gift. The term “supplicant” resonates with “supple.” Instead of harsh, to be supple. To unabashedly spend time with Intimate Presence-as much time as one wants or can.

Witnessing the priests’ supplication helped free me to meditate and pray for longer periods, following the moment, on my knees, standing, sitting, head in hands, hands uplifted, head bowed, head lifted, heartfelt, ordinary, bored, caring. It is a wonderful thing to give oneself this time, this contact with the Deep One. Perhaps at my stage in life, moving toward the end, time is more precious and the need for the Deepest of All is pressing.

I needed the faces of these monks but didn’t know it. As soon as I saw them, I felt my own face more, my inner face. What the faces of the monks gave me was permission to come out of closets I didn’t know I was in: spiritual closets. To come out in the open, again, in new ways, touching silent depths-freeing depths that one fears and needs but, all too often, rushes past and fails to access.

Michael Eigen is a psychologist in New York City. His books include Flames from the Unconscious: Trauma, Madness and Faith, Feeling Matters, The Sensitive Self, and The Psychoanalytic Mystic.

6 Responses to Out of the Spiritual Closet

  1. Cynthia Stone says:

    Thank you, Michael, for articulating the inarticulate sense of Divine Presence, the awe, mystery and profound intimacy that we all seek at our deepest level. As psychoanalytically oriented therapists, we need to be open to the entire human being, especially the aspects that are still in the closet.

  2. Michael Eigen says:

    Thanks, Cynthia, for your response to “closet”.

    You’d think a sense of the Divine is taboo the way so many threads of society relate to it. Reifying it, turning into dogmatic belief systems, analyzing it in terms of what it isn’t, tracing destructive ways of using, exploiting, relating to it, and so on. All sorts of ways of defending against it, even in affirming it.

    Yet to so many of us – there is something that we feel, that touches us from within, and is inexaustible, keeps us always beginning. A favorite quote from a physicist, Eddiington, about the universe: Something Unknown is doing we know not what.’

    A favorite quote of mind from Bion (I’m aware it can be used various ways):

    “The fundamental reality is ‘infinity’, the unknown, the situation for which there is no language – not even one borrowed by the artist or the religious – which gets anywhere near to describing it.”

    W. R. Bion, Cogitations

    Why do we keep apologizing for it? Do we feel guilty for the way the human race misuses it?

    God tells Adam to tend the garden. Isn’t this sense we speak of one of the gardens to tend? Such a precious garden…

    mike eigen

  3. Melanie Zarabi says:

    Thanks for this illuminating vignette of the Monks’ path toward divine, intimate communion with the infinite though silent presence as well as your own.

  4. Mike Eigen says:

    I receive this J D Sallinger quote from Robert Berley of Seattle:

    > Zooey’s sister Franny is in the midst of a “nervous breakdown” and has > come
    > home from college to sleep and cry on the couch in their parents’ > apartment.
    > Zooey is having a heated discussion with Bessie, their mother, about > trying
    > to get her some help.
    >
    >
    > “I don’t know,” he said. “It seems to me there must be a psychoanalyst > holed
    > up somewhere in town who’d be good for Franny – I thought about that last
    > night.” He grimaced slightly. “But I don’t happen to know of any. For a
    > psychoanalyst to be any good with Franny at all, he’d have to be a pretty
    > peculiar type. I don’t know. He’d have to believe that it was through the
    > grace of God that he’d been inspired to study psychoanalysis in the first
    > place. He’d have to believe that it was through the grace of God that he
    > wasn’t run over by a goddam truck before he ever even got his license to
    > practice. He’d have to believe that it’s through the grace of God that he
    > has the native intelligence to be able to help his goddam patients at all. > I
    > don’t know any good analysts who that along those lines. But that’s the > only
    > kind of psychoanalyst who might be able to do Franny any good at all. If > she
    > got somebody terribly Freudian, or terribly eclectic, or just terribly
    > run-of-the-mill – someone who didn’t even have any crazy, mysterious
    > gratitude for his insight and intelligence – she’d come out of analysis in
    > even worse shape than Seymour did. It worried the hell out of me, thinking
    > about it, if you don’t mind.”

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