By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW
“. . .To make it through life without conspicuous incident
is not enough. Life’s goal is not to live safely, not even to
live forever. It is to live fully, even to die before we die,
that we may be reborn, recast, refired in the furnace of
pain, hope and possibility.”
Forrest Church, Former Minister at All Souls Unitarian Church
Compassion, Transcendence and Transformation
Why is compassion one of the positive spiritual emotions, as opposed to other related concepts such as “empathy,” “sympathy” or “altruism”? What is there about compassion that elevates it to the spiritual plane? The answer is that compassion has something basic in common with other words that we associate with spirituality, including “love,” “beauty” and “awe”. What ultimately unites these words is that they all convey a sense of transcendence. Whether we are the giver or the receiver, the experience of compassion has the power to take us beyond our ordinary limits. We achieve a special connection or sense of belonging that can transcend our normal ego-driven concerns.
Transformation is another word to describe what can happen when vulnerability or grief is exposed and met with compassion. What was suffering, sadness or fear can shift to a feeling of relief or release, which can be quite dramatic or can also be more subtle. But either way, both people generally experience it together. In that moment, both are transformed.
There is a longer-term transformation as well. Psychotherapy gives us an opportunity to challenge the safe life, to “die before we die” in order to be “reborn.” When we humble ourselves enough in psychotherapy to allow banished parts to emerge, we challenge the whole of our being. We offer ourselves the ultimate healing, but in doing so our old selves must die in a way. When we expose and explore our deepest thoughts and feelings, we change who we are.
What is most noteworthy about the Forrest Church quote is that it inspires us to want to take the leap, to enter the furnace and experience that magical mix of pain, hope and possibility that will allow us to be reborn and to live fully. When we read his words, we know instinctively that exposing ourselves to that furnace and the pain that goes with it is essential to our mission. Like clay that has not yet been molded to show its true beauty, we yearn to achieve our potential– to be “recast” and “refired” in “the furnace of pain, hope and possibility.”
Parallels with Religion and Spirituality
While these dynamics play an important role in psychotherapy, it is clear that the miracle that I am calling transformation or transcendence through the experience of loving compassion was not just invented or discovered by psychotherapists. It is more accurate to say that what makes these dynamics so effective in psychotherapy is that we have created a structure that is well-suited to facilitating basic human emotional processes that have been with mankind for many centuries and are related, I believe, to religious experiences of feeling redeemed or saved. What in psychotherapy we call transformation might be called salvation or redemption in a religious context.
Of course, these words do not describe exactly the same thing. But the themes of religious salvation and psychological transformation are parallel in the sense that salvation is about being forgiven and finding a home with a merciful God, while in psychotherapy we work with a therapist to find a compassionate and forgiving home for ourselves. In today’s world, psychotherapy is one of the few institutions (along with what is offered in twelve step programs and in certain religious or spiritual communities) where we are encouraged to let go of control enough to experience the kind of shift that might be called transcendent or transformational.
I introduce here some poetic words from the world of religion or spirituality that may help bring to life this experience of transformation and also highlight some of the parallels between the experience of loving compassion in psychotherapy and in spirituality.
“Amazing Grace” that Can Save Our Souls
“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind but now I see.”
Sometimes the best way to find truth is not to read the philosophers or the academics or the religious theory, but to look at the words of the songs that have withstood the test of time and have the ability to speak directly to the human condition. Being popular doesn’t make it ordinary; it proves that it is powerful. In the case of “Amazing Grace,” what it means to us undoubtedly has changed from its original meaning in the 1700s. In those days grace probably referred to religious salvation–something bestowed directly from a merciful God who could forgive us, redeem our sins, and save our souls from eternal damnation.
After undergoing a period of obscurity, the hymn re-emerged, and those same words now speak to us once again. Contemporary man still responds to the concept of salvation. At some visceral level, most people relate to an experience of “grace.” Not a subtle grace, but a magnificent and amazing grace that is sweet and loving and compassionate and ultimately forgiving, a grace that is so amazing that it can save us. It may not save us from eternal damnation in a fire and brimstone hell, but it can save us from alienation and from other modern versions of damnation.
It is the ultimate transformation, from being lost to being found, from being blind to seeing. And since we can believe in grace without believing in a personal or omniscient God, it doesn’t require a deity to make it real. Ultimately it is about mercy, the human emotional experience, and the ability of loving compassion to provide a home for us.
A number of years ago there were attempts to remove the word “wretch” from “Amazing Grace” and substitute something more benign, such as “saved a soul like me” or “saved and strengthened me.” But many objected, and it now appears that the public has voted and the word “wretch” has been reinstated. I believe that this is as it should be. If we acknowledge that we are wretched, that we are lost or that we are blind, this humbled position may be the best vantage point for finding grace.
The “Sisters of Mercy” Are Waiting For Us
What better way to be reminded of the possibility of grace than Leonard Cohen’s beautiful song “Sisters of Mercy”. His words help bridge the gap between a religious understanding of salvation through grace and a more psychological understanding of transformation through the power of loving compassion. He is letting us know that there is hope: the sisters of mercy are not departed, they are not gone; they are waiting to help us when we really need them. He has proof, since in his time of darkness, when he felt that he just could not go on, when he was brought to his knees, they were there.
There is a religious theme throughout this song, although the metaphor is not about a God figure, but rather about “sisters.” It brings to mind the image of merciful nuns in flowing robes, the kind that are humbly dedicated to those whom the rest of the world are most inclined to neglect. This is not the symbolism of a powerful male God who saves our souls from sin and offers redemption in exchange for belief or commitment, but rather these lovely sisters who offer mercy, kindness and comfort with no strings attached.
O the sisters of mercy they are not
Departed or gone,
They were waiting for me when I thought
That I just can’t go on,
And they brought me their comfort
And later they brought me this song.
O I hope you run into them
You who’ve been traveling so long.
Yes, you who must leave everything
That you cannot control;
It begins with your family,
But soon it comes round to your Soul:
Well I’ve been where you’re hanging
I think I can see how you’re pinned.
When you’re not feeling holy,
Your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.
Well they lay down beside me
I made my confession to them.
They touched both my eyes
And I touched the dew on their hem.
If your life is a leaf
That the seasons tear off and condemn
They will bind you with love
That is graceful and green as a stem.
When I left they were sleeping,
I hope you run into them soon.
Don’t turn on the light
You can read their address by the moon;
And you won’t make me jealous
If I hear that they sweetened your night
We weren’t lovers like that
And besides it would still be all right.
Sisters of Mercy by Leonard Cohen
Compassion as the Path from Alienation to Belonging
In the second verse the topic of sin is introduced, but not sin in the religious sense of specific indiscretions that need to be confessed. The sin in this song is about the psychological position of contemporary man and our efforts to control. When we cannot control something, such as the emotional dynamics in our families, there is a tendency to want to leave it behind. But once we establish this pattern of needing to control, we are in danger of losing our souls. Our souls must be free to live and breathe; we need the full aliveness of our souls, since it is that aliveness that helps us to recognize our souls in the first place.
The narrator is sympathetic with our present day version of sinning. He knows exactly how we are pinned, since he has experienced it himself. When we are not feeling holy, it is our loneliness that tells us that we have sinned. This brings to mind the words of Brother David Steindl-Rast on the subject of sin in contemporary life. He uses the word “alienation” in much the same way that Leonard Cohen uses the word “loneliness.” Brother David believes that what used to be called sin could now be better described as alienation and that, for contemporary man, the goal of “working out our salvation” means “overcoming alienation in all its forms.” According to Brother David, “The contemporary term for salvation is belonging. The path from alienation to belonging is the path from sin to salvation.”
“Sisters of Mercy” reflects these same sentiments, although with different words. The narrator is released from his loneliness when the sisters lie down beside him and he makes his confession to them. There is touching involved, but not in a sexual way. They touch both his eyes, and he touches the dew on their hem, conveying great respect and humility. The sisters bring a compassionate love that overcomes the alienation. As the song goes, if your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn (literal uprootedness), they will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem. They offer a graceful and binding love that reconnects us to life, just as the leaf that has been torn off and blown about by the seasons once again finds a stem. What had been an experience of alienation is transformed to an experience of belonging.
The narrator tells us that this is not really his song. Rather, the sisters brought it to him, and, in his gratitude, he wishes to share it with us. The narrator knows that we, too, have been traveling for a very long time. Unlike the possessiveness that we associate with sexual or romantic love, he would not be jealous if the sisters sweeten our night; this is a different kind of love, and there is plenty to go around. But he warns us that finding the sisters is a mysterious process, not a direct, rational undertaking. He leaves us with an intriguing image: rather than turn on the light, he invites us to read their address by the moon.
We Must Seek in Order to Find
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find;
knock, and it will be opened to you.”
“You will seek me and find me when you
seek me with all your heart.”
It makes sense that we need to first seek in order to find. If we are doing OK and going about our normal lives, we are not open to dying and being reborn. But when we are lost or wretched, that is the time when we might risk the encounter with the self. We need to be in touch with our suffering or our vulnerability if we are to experience grace or “run into” the sisters of mercy.
Psychotherapy offers a contemporary version of seeking. Just the gesture of going to therapy implies that we are relinquishing a certain amount of control and are admitting that we cannot solve our problems on our own. We must go in and face another person and, in effect, make our “confession” and explain our problems and challenges. We open up and speak honestly about our lives, our fears, our hopes, our pain and our failures. We need the courage to confess, to acknowledge our powerlessness and to seek with an open heart.
And in our confessional mode we sometimes find, often to our surprise, that the sisters of mercy are waiting for us. Even though psy chotherapy has nothing to do with forgiveness of sins by a merciful God, most therapists would agree that, in our work, we witness many moments of what could be called “grace.” But it would be wrong to suggest that psychotherapists represent the sisters of mercy. Psychotherapists are facilitators for the power of loving compassion, and this is what “sisters of mercy” represents.