XII Why Religious Life Died
Before continuing the narrative, it is necessary to say something about the state of psychology and therapy at this time (mid- to late- sixties). While psychoanalysis had become popular among film stars, ('terminable and interminable'), it was still unusual as regards the general population, and certainly among religious. This was, in part, because analysis among many people had already begun to take on nuances of being 'guilt free' instead of 'appropriately guilty' and then resolving that guilt to add a building block to character. In other words, analysis was coming to be associated with license, which has degenerated into today's 'if it feels good do it' and 'have your cake and eat it' attitudes. 'Therapy' as distinct from the full analytic programme was just evolving; therapists and analysts who were not medical doctors were just starting to emerge. There also was still a stigma attached to therapy; it raised all sorts of difficult questions. To be in therapy was not something one readily acknowledged on the more conservative East Coast.
There were very few psychologies beyond those of Freud, Jung, William Alanson White, Melanie Klein, and Winnicott. The Esalen Institute had not yet become well known—or notorious, as was to be the case later in its history. Cognitive therapy (equivalent to putting a bandaid on a compound fracture, in my view) hadn't yet been invented, in part, I suspect, because Skinner had only recently been discredited, and most people who sought therapy quickly learned that for it to be effective they had to work; it wasn't a quick fix. The mechanistic view of the human had not yet entirely taken over. But there were already deep rumblings in the therapeutic community, along with those already breaking out in society at large.
Among a minority of therapists and analysts, however, there was still some concern for the question, What makes us human?, and above all for discovering the potential integrity in a person and building on that, along with imparting tools for living. This approach was badly needed; women's liberation was just getting off the ground, and many women in their twenties and upwards had led rather sheltered, stereotyped lives. Among religious, especially women, the number going into therapy was snowballing, although the mass exodus had not yet begun.
Suffice it to say that I was both very lucky in the person with whom I had therapy, and also very unlucky: lucky because he had an eclectic, lateral, interdisciplinary approach [he taught at three institutes: Freudian, Kleinian, and William Alanson White]; unlucky because he was much too soon to show signs of early onset Alzheimer's disease, one of which was being sexually predatory towards his patients. I had a few of his best years; I left, much to the outrage and cries of 'betrayal' of my colleagues in his seminars (see below), because I sensed something was going very wrong, not only with him, but with the whole situation. He was diagnosed with dementia shortly after my departure, and died in his mid-fifties.
Along with doing analysis he also ran some interdisciplinary seminars for professional analysts already practicing. I was admitted to these, and they proved to be foundational to the work I am doing now. He was one of the first to recognize the importance of ecology to understanding the human person—the word was barely known among the general population in those days—and of the psychological insights contained in texts of various religions. As I was already groping in the dark in this direction, these seminars were a godsend. He was way ahead of his time: the majority of the books we used—now generally available, often in multiple editions—were fabulously expensive, as in those days they had to be bought from Ann Arbor Microfilms. In addition to reading in theology and philosophy, we read biology, medicine, history of art, psychology, and literature. In an era of increasing specialization, whose devastating effects we are only now in the 21st century recognising as we come to dead ends in many specialities, and as many certifications are revealed to be less than worthless, these seminars were definitely swimming against the cultural and analytic tide.
After six months of therapy I realised there was no hope of a future for me in the community—and little hope for the community in terms of the solid monastic ways it had lived in the past, no matter how fumblingly. The pendulum was swinging wildly away from the contemplative towards the dizzying array of options opening up for communities, most of which were to prove to be the religious equivalent of junk bonds, heedlessly thrown like confetti from every passing bandwagon.
I knew by then that I was not crazy, though I was appropriately depressed and disproportionately anxious, and needed further work to alleviate the effects of my pre-monastic life—though they would never entirely go away—of what today would be called PTSD, a term and a problem then entirely unknown. Finally it was presented to me, very gently, by Sister C, that while there was no question about my vocation as far as the community was concerned, if I wanted to continue in therapy I would have to leave for the simple reason that the community had many professed sisters that needed therapy more than I did, and the community was too impoverished to pay for everyone who needed it.
By that time, even in the lunatic aftermath of Vatican II, and the maelstrom of material that therapy had exposed in my psyche, I had come to a kind of clarity and detachment about the directions this particular community—and religious life in general—would go next, and history has sadly proved these premonitions to be more or less correct. It was a bleak vision, which I shall describe in the next post. I dreaded leaving the context of religious life, which suited me perfectly: the silence, the beauty, the Office, the mystery and all the rest of it; but I also knew, that these were precisely the elements that unwisely would be discarded.
With $100 dollars, one dress, and a very heavy heart, I left the monastery for New York City.