Psychology of Religion

Lacan As “Spiritual Director” – On The Relationship Between Psychoanalysis And Christian Mysticism, Part 1 (Mark Murphy)

The following is the first installment of a three-part series.


Spiritual direction is defined as the help one gives to another in developing one’s relationship with the sacred, while the treatment of psychological symptoms is what defines  the psychological[1].  One can see the similarities between what we can call the analytic situation and the spiritual director’s situation- two people sitting in a room talking about ‘serious things’ which affect their lives. One can see the similarity between spiritual direction and psychology in their dual focus on spirit and the psyche.

Today these terms are seen as separate, but they have a similar etymological root. The term spirit comes from the from Latin spiritus and spirare which means ‘breath, spirit’ while the term psyche comes from Greek psukhē  which means ‘breath, life or soul.’  There has been much work in outlining the relationship of psychotherapy to spiritual direction as both practices merge into each other due to their functional similarity[2]. One can see how the treatment of psychological symptoms becomes a spiritual issue as much as it is a psychological one[3].

Most modern spiritual directors will be as familiar with the writings of John of the Cross as they would be with the writings of Carl Jung[4].  However, Lacanian psychoanalysis is pretty much ignored by the modern discipline of spiritual direction.  It is taken for granted that Lacanian theory is more compatible with the more abstract theoretical disciplines rather than those of a practical nature[5].

Furthermore, certain Lacanian analysts bolster this perspective by arguing that Lacanian theory is emphatically not a guide to life and therefore not spiritual in the slightest[6]. As a result, the majority of practical writings one can find on the dialog between spiritual direction and psychotherapy are dominated by the schools of analytic psychology and psychodynamic therapy[7]. “Experientialism” has become the locus from which both disciplines function.

In spiritual direction, this has become associated with what is known as the transcendental method associated with Bernard Lonergan[8] . We can also find something similar in the psychology of William James whose experientialist methodology created a bridge between therapeutic methods and forms of spirituality and spiritual direction [9]. We further find this drive toward an experientialist understanding of the value of the religious in the psychology of Carl Jung[10]. These perspectives start from the premise that if psychology and spiritual direction are to have any thereapeutic value, they must  aim toward experiences of wholeness, healing and happiness:

In our culture, people even have become accustomed to hearing the message of the Gospel presented in the language of emotional and psychological healing, recovery, and human wholeness[11].

Psychoanalysis: Against Adaptation and Against Experientialism

However, the primacy of ‘experientialism’ is a modern phenomenon for both psychology and theology. Indeed,  Freud was clear in stating that one cannot promise happiness in psychoanalysis:

Activity in another direction during analytic treatment has already, as you will remember, been a point at issue between us and the Swiss school. We refused most emphatically to turn a patient who puts himself into our hands in search of help into our private property, to decide his fate for him, to force our own ideals upon him, and with the pride of a Creator to form him in our own image and see that it is good. I still adhere to this refusal[12]

Lacanian psychoanalysis, reflecting its Freudian origins, states that psychaoanysis must not focus on the promise of happiness. Lacan writes in Seminar VII:

I have set out to show you this year the distance travelled since Aristotle, say, by choosing among some of the most crucial concepts. I wanted to make you feel the extent to which we approach these things differently, how far we are from any formulation of a discipline of happiness[13].

Lacanian analysis concerns itself with desire and ‘jouissance– ‘objects’ which problematize the very idea of enjoyment from the outset[14]. What is more they cannot be understood directly in the locus of ‘experience’[15]. Its structuralist axioms preclude any recourse to anything as phenomenological as the “subjective” for its theoretical and practical foundation. Lacan states this in his seminal paper ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function’:

“But were I to build on these subjective data alone[…]my theoretical efforts would remain exposed to the charge of lapsing into the unthinkable, that of an absolute subject. This is why I have sought[…]a method of symbolic reduction as my guiding grid[16].”

Therefore, any dialogue between spiritual direction and Lacanian psychoanalysis seems prohibited from the outset since its technique explicitly undermines the phenomenological, experientialist methodology that dominates current methods. Moreover, the charge that Lacanians are more interested in analyzing the intricacies of language rather than exploring the significance of ‘affects’most likely puts off many of those involved in the discipline of spiritual direction from considering it seriously[17].  Indeed, who would want a spiritual direction that aims at fragmentation, the lack of positive experience along with a tendency to nitpick at linguistic formations?

Was Christian Spiritual Direction Always Concerned with Positive Experientialism and Adaptation?

However, this is just one understanding of what we mean by the “spiritual”.   The term “spiritual” is a relatively modern device within Christianity. In the past, it was inseparable from what we now know as mystical theology[18]. However, over time, the term spirituality has come to replace it[19]. What has resulted, is the notion that the spiritual has more to do with the experiential impression made upon the community of individual believers while theology is its intellectual expression[20].

One can argue that this has resulted in spirituality being intellectually silenced and pushed to the fringes of feeling while its intellectual element is boxed off and understood as operating on an almost different register[21]. This approach can seen in the work of Jacques Maritain who argued that Thomas Aquinas was the master of discursive theology while John of the Cross was the master of the incommunicable, ‘affective’ element behind it[22].

Amy Hollywood has argued that historically there have been two forms of spirituality, one which aims at wholeness and the other at fragmentation[23]. It is fair to say that what has taken place is a reduction of the latter to what can now be considered ‘theoretical mysticism,’ while the former is now what is considered “spiritual” and the ‘object proper’ of the discipline of spiritual direction. Hence, we find academic explorations of the kenotic concept of the “dark night of the soul” and its relationship to the will and intellect at an exact theoretical level.

However, at the level of spiritual direction, we find  that the Dark Night is merely reduced to psychological categories like“depression”-an obstacle which is placed before us on the way to “ emotional wholeness”[24].  Arguably it also results with the tendency to find many of the modern practical treatises on spiritual direction to have the same formulaic framework as self-help books insofar that happiness is their overarching goal.

Carrette and King have argued that in the 21st century we now see that this drive to experience spiritual happiness everywhere[25].  Everything within our neoliberal paradigm is presented as a type of reductive psycho-spiritual direction. In other words, the logic of capital is a logic of spiritual direction insofar that it shapes our desires toward happiness. Every product comes with the promise of a positive spiritual experience which one can integrate into the very fabric of life.

McGowan, following the work of Slavoj Žižek, has argued that there has been a paradigm shift from a society which used to operate on “Duty” to one which now focuses on satisfaction[26]. So, whereas in the past, society functioned through a paternal logic of deontological Kantian self-sacrifice, today we see a society where one is commanded to “enjoy[27].” This injunction-to-enjoy- a demand for a positive experience, is what binds modern forms of spiritual direction to current therapeutic methods as adaptive technologies-of-the-self-a model which also resonates with current medical models[28].However, this demand for happiness results in anxiety and pain:

Happiness, once an intangible quality of individual temperament, has today emerged as an object of analytic clarity, measurable and actionable as never before[…] Today it is not unrealistic to speak of a “technology of happiness” in human resource management, education, business and executive leadership, in family and marriage therapy, in career coaching, physical fitness, and in all facets of personal and organisational life[…]Happiness is today an asset cultivated by a solitary, Psychologically truncated subject, for whom emotional self-manipulation is a simple technique. Happiness has been rendered a depthless physiological response without moral referent, a biological potential of the individual[29].

Reflecting this Ian Parker has suggested that this cultural shift in psychology taking charge of such positive experiences has resulted in their accumulation of what he terms psychotherapeutic capital [30] Parker explains that this transition took place in early modern psychology where therapists believed that they could bypass language and representation to delve directly into the emotional content of the subject.

The psychologist became the provider of positive emotional content while the patient became its passive recipient[31].Parker further argues this capitalization of positive pseudo-spiritual experience is one of the underpinning devices driving our modern era.  He further claims that as our society drives us further and further into more complex modes of production, this psychological and spiritual complex which deals in providing positive emotional content (what he calls the psy-complex) has been crucial in mapping, tracing and creating the subject who enjoys producing and consuming ‘happiness’[32].

Therefore, happiness and wholeness- through a numinous “self-knowledge”-is what is offered by the therapist. This is a self-knowledge which is ultimately  always adaptive in the end. The late psychotherapist James Hillman writing in the 70s describes the dangers of understanding ‘soul work’ regarding this drive toward enjoyable experience:

Whenever the importance of experience is determined only by intensity, by absoluteness, by ecstatic Godlikeness or God-nearness and is self-validating, there is a risk of possession by an archetypal person and a manic inflation[33].

It is claimed that there may be suffering in an individual’s life, yes there may be pain but with the right direction, the right way of listening, with the right prayers along with the right therapy, you can open yourself up to happiness and healing:

[Negative experiences] are evidence of the lower, unactualised rungs of the ladder. Our way shall be around them. Meditate, contemplate, exercise through them and away from them, but do not dwell there for insight. Analysis of them leads downward into fragmentation, into the bits and functions and complexes of partial man and away from wholeness and unity. This denial sees in psychopathological events misplaced energies by which one may be scourged by which ultimately shall be transformed to work for one and toward the One[…]Divinity is up at the peaks, not the swamps of our funk, and not in[…]anxiety[…][34]

Hillman sees this perspective as being antithetical to older forms of spiritual direction and forms of spirituality. He could see the gradual transformation of the language of the soul into something which negated some of its most fundamental aspects.   It is this drive toward ‘positive experientialism’ which allows our modern neoliberal society, which has consumption and production at its very heart, to utilize the disciplines of therapy and spiritual direction to create a subject who is shaped by this drive toward experiential enjoyment.

The outlines of this technology-of the-self were detected by Lacan when he stated that ‘happiness has become a political matter’[35]. This is also reflected in his comment also that the medical apparatus had become involved in the regulation of enjoyment[36].  This drive to enjoyment is then fed back into current models of spiritual direction.

The Similarities Shared Between Lacanian Psychoanalysis and Pre-modern Christian Mysticism

However, there is a long tradition within Christian mysticism and spiritual direction which starts with axioms similar to Lacanian analysis.  Even as early as Seminar I he states that everyone has read John of the Cross, but nobody “understands him” and implies that the goal of psychoanalysis is akin to that of the Dark Night of the Soul [37]. In seminar XIV he suggests that the Juanist Dark Night is important because it teaches us about the contradictions, messiness, and difficulties that one faces in an analysands discourse. He states that it is this discourse which makes the mystics “less stupid” than philosophers, just as how analysands are less stupid than the analyst [38].

In Seminar XIX, he implies that the skill of’mystical non-knowledge’ is the ‘skill’[39] needed in the work of psychoanalysis[40]. In seminar XX he goes on to interpret the mystical in term of non-knowledge or what he calls “other jouissance” and not a mere enjoyment which aims at some sort of experientialist “whole”[41].   In the same seminar, he states that one should locate his Ecrit in the same order of writings as John of the Cross[42].  While in the Ecrit themselves there is a direct reference to the centrality of the practice of spiritual direction where he categorically that psychoanalysis needs to evolve in the area of spiritual direction as a discipline that psychology has only considered from afar[43].

Lacan understood the value of spiritual direction insofar that it was inherently attached to this ‘excessive’ mystical element as found in the Jaunist concept of the Dark Night of the Soul[44]. This element challenged many of the “experiential” and “adaptive” foundations which are now universal in the current methods of psycho-spiritual disciplines. I will argue that although Lacan only mentions the discipline of spiritual direction once in his writings, his thoughts on the practice allow us to make sense of why the “mystics” played such an important role within his oeuvre. I will now systematically unpack this quote to explore its implications.

Lacan’s Argument for the Value of Spiritual Direction for Freudian Psychoanalysis

Lacan states the following about the discipline in Psychoanalysis and its practical focus:

The perplexities of spiritual direction which have been elaborated over the centuries along the path of a demand for truth—a demand linked to no doubt a cruel personification of this Other, but which did a fairly good job of sounding the folds in striving to clear out every other affection from people’s loins and hearts. This suffices to force the Psychoanalyst to evolve in a region that academic Psychology has never considered except through a spy-glass[45].

This quote appears in his seminal paper ‘Psychoanalysis and its Teaching.’ The primary thrust of the paper concerns itself with demonstrating the linguistic nature of psychoanalysis and how its work is fundamentally different from the work of what he called ego-psychology. The fact that he mentions spiritual direction in the context of such a critical text entails that we should not overlook its importance.

Mark Murphy is a PhD student at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, United Kingdom.  He teaches philosophy and theology at St. Francis Xavier College in South London.  His specialties include mystical theology, spirituality and Continental philosophy.


[1] William A Barry and William J Connolly, The Practice of Spiritual Direction, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper One, 2009).

[2] Lynette Harborne, Psychotherapy and Spiritual Direction: Two Languages, One Voice? (London: Karnac Books, 2012).

[3] Israel Galindo, “Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Counseling: Addressing the Needs of the Spirit,” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling: Advancing Theory and Professional Practice through Scholarly and Reflective Publications 51, no. 4 (December 1997): 395–402,

[4] James Arraj, St John of the Cross and Dr C.G Jung, 1st ed. (Chiloquin: Inner Growth books, 1986).

[5] Amy Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History (London: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Marcus Pound, Theology Psychoanalysis and Trauma (London: SCM Press, 2007).

[6] Ian Parker, Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Revolutions in Subjectivity., ed. Keith Tudor, 1st ed. (New York: Routledge, 2011).

[7] Galindo, “Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Counseling.”

[8] Barry and Connolly, The Practice of Spiritual Direction.

[9] Raul Moncayo, The Signifier Pointing at the Moon: Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism (Karnac Books, 2012).

[10] C. G. Jung, Man and His Symbols (Random House Publishing Group, 2012).

[11] Galindo, “Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Counseling,” 395.

[12] Sigmund Freud, “New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis,” in Freud The Complete Works (England: PDF, 1937b), 2846.

[13] Jacques Lacan, The Seminars of Jacques Lacan Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960, ed. Jacques Alain Miller, 1st ed. (London: Routledge, 2007), 292.

[14] Jouissance is a French term which paradoxically means enjoyment in pain and pain in enjoyment. The paradoxical nature of it is redoubled when we further take into account that Lacan argues that we are mostly unaware of this enjoyment in the economy of our psyche.

[15] Jacques Lacan, Ecrit:The First Complete Edition in English., 2nd ed. (New York: W W Norton & Company, Inc., 2006), 652.

[16] Lacan, 79.

[17] Colette Soler, Lacanian Affects, 1st ed. (New York: Routledge, 2015).

[18] Mark A McIntosh, Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology (Challenges in Contemporary Theology), ed. lewis Ayers Jones and Gareth, 3rd ed. (lonodon: Wiley-Blackwell, 1998).

[19] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Spirituality: An Introduction (John Wiley & Sons, 2013).

[20] McIntosh, Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology (Challenges in Contemporary Theology).

[21] McIntosh.

[22] Maritain in Bernard McGinn, Mysticism in the Golden Age of Spain (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2017), 317n.

[23] Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History, 65.

[24] Iain Mathews, The Impact of God, 1st ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995).

[25] J. Carrette and Richard King, Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, 1 edition (London ; New York: Routledge, 2004).

[26] Todd McGowan, The End of Dissatisfaction? Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment, 1st ed. (New York: Sate University of New York Press, 2004).

[27] McGowan.

[28] Parker, Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Revolutions in Subjectivity.

[29] Sam Binkley, Happiness as Enterprise, 1st ed. (New York: State University of New York, Albany, 2014), 12–13.

[30] Parker, Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Revolutions in Subjectivity.

[31] Parker.

[32] Parker.

[33] James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology (HarperCollins, 1977), 66.

[34] Hillman, 66.

[35] Marc De Kesel, Eros and Ethics: Reading Jacques Lacan’s Seminar VII, 1st ed. (New York: State University of New York Press, 2009), 292.

[36] Rik Loose, The Subject of Addiction: Psychoanalysis and The Administration of Enjoyment (Karnac Books, 2002), 2.

[37] Jacques Lacan, The Seminars of Jacques Lacan Book I: Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954, 1st ed. (New York: W.W Norton, 1988), 232–34.

[38] Jacques Lacan, The Logic of Phantasy: Seminar XIV, trans. Cormac Gallagher (Unpublished, 1966), 195.

[39] In this seminar Lacan states that scholars are interested in the “non-knowledge” of the mystics because its now chic.  This is in reference to the interest people have taken in it due to the work of Bataille. However, he keeps using this term. Knowing Lacan, he is playing on its etymological root which traces its way back to the german from German Schick ‘skill’.

[40] Jacques Lacan, Seminar XIX The Knowledge of the Psychoanalyst 1971-1972 Part 2, 1st ed. (Unpublished translation by Cormac Gallagher, 1972), 13.

[41] Jacques Lacan, The Seminars of Jacques Lacan Book XX: On Feminine Sexuality The Limits of Love and Knowledge 1972-1973, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, 2nd ed. (New York: W.W Norton & Company, 1999).

[42] Lacan, 76.

[43] Lacan, Ecrit:The First Complete Edition in English., 381.

[44] St John of the Cross, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (ICS Publications, 1991), 353–59.

[45] Lacan, Ecrit:The First Complete Edition in English., 381.

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