The Return to the Mystical: Jacques Lacan, John of the Cross, and the Christian Tradition

While at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, I studied with Professor Peter Tyler who took a Wittgensteinian approach to his research, but applied it directly to questions of spiritual formation in the Catholic tradition. As is generally known by those interested in philosophy, Wittgenstein wrote two primary works: the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the Philosophical Investigations, which respectively represent his early and later thought. In the Tractatus, he explored the idea that the structure of language reflects the structure of reality, proposing that the limits of language are the limits of the world. His later work, however, critiqued this earlier view, emphasizing the varied and practical nature of language games in our daily lives. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s reflections on language and meaning have influenced several twentieth-century philosophers of religion. While in these lectures learning about how the limits of language impact our lifeworld, I learned about figures such as D.Z. Phillips, who emphasizes the distinctive nature of religious language, arguing that it should be understood within its terms, drawing inspiration from Wittgenstein’s concept of “language games.”

Moreover, I learned how Norman Malcolm and Peter Winch, also engaged with these ideas, promoting the perspective that religious practices and beliefs must be comprehended within their unique linguistic and cultural contexts. This Wittgensteinian lens, also explored by philosophers like Rush Rhees, shifted the discourse in the philosophy of religion, steering it away from merely validating or refuting religious claims and towards a deeper understanding of the religious life from which these claims arise. Another figure of major importance in the charge to take a linguistic theory that moves beyond correspondence theory to that of coherence is Herbert McCabe. At the heart of his thought was a concern with language and how it relates to God and the soul. He argues that language imparts a novel form of life and self-transcendence to human animals, unlike any other species. He further suggests that the human ability to process forms as thoughts correlates with integrating these forms into a wider linguistic structure, a connection symbolized by a word’s relevance to the whole of language.

For McCabe, the human soul is not some ethereal, Cartesian agency inside us. Rather, we are living creatures with an uncanny ability to speak. To be ensouled, among other things, is to be a speaking being. McCabe, in particular, tried to reinterpret Aquinas’s theology through the lens of Wittgenstein’s insights into the practical use of language. This meant, for McCabe, recognizing that religious language has its own rules (or “grammar”) and should not be expected to conform to the rules of other kinds of discourse. The goal is to navigate the complex relationship between language, truth, and reality in a manner that respects religious belief’s integrity while acknowledging the linguistic and cultural conditions that shape our understanding of the world.

In other words, Herbert McCabe’s “Grammatical Thomism” seeks to find a middle ground between a naive realism that ignores the role of language in shaping our understanding of reality and a radical constructivism that denies any stable or objective reality beyond our linguistic constructs. My training in philosophy was, therefore, primarily analytic in scope. Still, I was consistently drawn to the continental tradition of philosophy, which (from my perspective) seemed to be much more open to those thinkers and theologians in the Catholic tradition.

Tyler is also a practicing psychologist and spiritual director and taught me about Carl Jung, William James, and others. We discussed the increasing focus on experience in religion. My interest in spirituality, mystical theology, language, and psychoanalysis grew because of Tyler. Psychology holds a vital place in Catholic Spiritual Direction. By understanding human behavior, emotions, and thought processes, a spiritual director can more effectively pinpoint and address challenges an individual faces in their spiritual journey.

Effective communication about spiritual matters is key, and insights from psychology can enhance the clarity of dialogues between the director and the individual. The connection between spirituality and mental and emotional well-being is also noteworthy. A spiritual director knowledgeable in psychology is better equipped to detect signs of emotional or mental distress, offering appropriate spiritual counsel or suggesting further professional help. By incorporating psychological perspectives on human development, motivation, and behavior, spiritual guidance can be tailored more closely to an individual’s unique needs.

One of the primary issues that challenged my understanding of the faith was Tyler’s overarching critique of religious experience. I also considered how many psychological concepts were grounded in what, in Wittgenstein’s terms, is referred to as “the problem of private language.” This problem suggests that if a language were truly private—known to only one person and inexpressible to others—it could not have any meaningful criteria for correctness. Such a language would be incoherent because its terms could not be consistently understood, even by the individual to whom it is private. This concept unsettles traditional conceptions by questioning the foundation and reliability of introspective psychological and religious experiences, implying they might be incommunicable or even incomprehensible in shared linguistic frameworks.

Moreover, Wittgenstein critiqued the very idea of “inner processes” being the primary grounds for understanding psychological phenomena. For Wittgenstein, meaning arises in the public, shared use of language. Freud’s method of psychoanalysis, which involves interpreting dreams, slips of the tongue, and other “manifestations” of the unconscious, is an attempt to give linguistic expression to these supposed inner processes.

In Return to the Mystical, Tyler offers an interpretation of Teresa of Avila, emphasizing that in spirituality, it is not necessarily the change in experience that counts but the transformation of a linguistic worldview. I believe this linguistic perspective on mysticism is largely valid. It counters the prevailing trends of secularization and internalization in mystical studies, presenting a fresh lens to interpret recent theological notions.

This is what led me to Lacan and the question of spirituality. I explored the question of spiritual direction from a Juanist (John of the Cross) perspective concerning Lacan’s writings. If Tyler focused on Wittgenstein and Teresa of Avila, I would do the same but through the linguistic-psychoanalytic theory of Lacan.

However, Catholic spirituality’s relationship to psychology is becoming increasingly polarized. On the one hand, there are strict adherents to the teachings of Garrigou-Lagrange, while on the other, proponents of sentimental reductionism, emphasizing experientialism. Both these standpoints present significant challenges, especially when addressing issues of spiritual direction. Traditionalists in the Garrigou-Lagrange camp tend to dismiss any intersection with psychoanalysis and psychotherapy outright, whereas others often risk conflating the psychological with the spiritual.

These are questions of Christian anthropology. We often use old scholastic and Platonic concepts to understand ourselves. But we need to balance those with today’s views. We do not want to ignore valuable older ideas. If ancient thinkers were here today, how might they use modern theories to explain their understanding of the structure of the soul? There is, for instance, an absolute imperative for us to balance the insights of the writings and spiritual practice of John of the Cross with modern pathologies of trauma (he is a writer who starts from woundedness) but it would absolutely be a mistake to see John of the Cross’s concept of the Dark Night of the Soul as being synonymous with either depression as such or the seeking out of some kind of ineffable dark experience that can only be detected by some emotional faculty, “deep” inside us.

Theologian Denys Turner has offered a distinctive perspective on John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul.” Contrary to popular psychologized interpretations that categorize the “Dark Night” as a mystic experience characterized by spiritual desolation and an absence of God, Turner underscores the non-experiential nature of this profound phase. For Turner, the “Dark Night” is not something that one undergoes or feels; instead, it challenges the frameworks of experience and feeling. It represents the apophatic, or negative, aspect of mysticism, where God transcends all human categories of understanding and comprehension. By emphasizing the non-experiential dimension, Turner brings to the fore the radical nature of John’s mystical theology, wherein God remains profoundly present yet beyond the confines of human conceptualization or experience.

Lacan and Catholicism

In The Triumph of Religion, particularly in his “Discourse to Catholics,” Lacan engages directly with religious themes. Lacan focuses on the distinction between belief and knowledge. For him, the Church’s strength lies in its understanding of the nature of faith. The Church knows where belief resides, which is why it will “triumph.” According to Lacan, psychoanalysis operates in a similar space, dealing not with objective truths but subjective truth, even as it attempts to emulate the discourse of science.

Moreover, in his “Discourse to Catholics,” Lacan shows that although Freud was indeed an atheist, the echo of monotheism and theological presuppositions haunt his writings. He also shows that although Freud’s ethical trajectory does not cohere with what he calls the ethical outlook of the ancient world, it does imitate Christ. But what he means here is that ethics is about examining the Word (logos) that overdetermines man, not as a superstructure, but as a substructure that leads him to his sacrifice and desire. Lacan also takes directly to task the problem of Jung’s mysticism and its appeal to the Catholic milieu as being too on the side of vulgar Gnosticism.

However, the question of Lacan’s approach to mysticism as such is found in Seminar XX, “Encore,” where Jacques Lacan navigates topics of love, sex, and the enigmatic nature of feminine jouissance. His treatment of the mystical is nuanced and provides a unique perspective within his psychoanalytic framework. Lacan distinguishes between the phallic jouissance and another form associated with femininity. This latter type aligns with the mystical, representing a dimension of satisfaction that is not bound by the usual linguistic structures. Within Lacan’s triadic conceptual system of the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary, the Real represents what is elusive to direct representation.

As an apophatic element, the mystical resonates with this concept of the Real. Venturing into the realm of femininity, Lacan introduces the “not-all” concept. He proposes that those who speak from the feminine mystical position are not entirely encapsulated by demarcations assigned by normative discourse. A segment of the feminine remains untethered, intersecting with the mystical or a sacred form of jouissance. Moreover, this “feminine way” is precisely the goal of analysis as such.

Lacanian Practice

I firmly believe that all spiritual directors should possess a solid understanding of psychology and psychotherapy, echoing a longstanding tradition. Lacan’s approach to psychoanalysis aligns more closely with the foundational orientation of John of the Cross. And part of me genuinely thinks Lacan astutely understood the Catholic mystical tradition—this was an understanding that was distinctly pre-modern and took it outside of the generally more “experientialist” psychological view in development. Indeed, Lacan says this clearly when he says:

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.[1]

Lacan is clear; he openly says that spiritual direction has historically sought truth, even if it portrayed this quest through an essentialist lens. This approach tried to apophatically purify people’s deepest feelings. Though overlooked by academic psychology, this realm is crucial for the psychoanalyst. Nonetheless, Lacan, being Lacan, had to present these theories to his seminars obliquely, as to an audience deeply suspicious of theology.

Drawing parallels between Denys Turner’s interpretation of John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul” and Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic approach reveals a shared skepticism toward experientialism. Just as Turner posits that the “Dark Night” resists categorization as an “experience,” Lacan’s work critiques the experiential and introspective emphasis found in ego-psychology and depth psychology.

For Lacan, the depth of the human psyche cannot be comprehended merely as a series of experiences, feelings, or introspections; it is structured like a language with its enigmatic unconscious desires and symbolic networks. Therefore, analytic work focuses not on immersing oneself in experiences or plumbing the depths of the ego but exploring the intricate play of signifiers and the spoken truth of the analysand. This mirrors Turner’s emphasis on God’s presence as beyond human conceptualization or experience, reminding us that some of the most profound aspects of existence evade easy experiential categorizations.

In contrast to McCabe, who advocates for understanding the human soul as essentially linguistic, Lacan emphasizes language’s symbolic and structural dimensions and their effects on the unconscious. For McCabe, the soul is structured like a language to the extent that we can use language. While for Lacan, it is the unconscious that is structured like a language. If McCabe was about dispelling the illusion of the soul as a little ghostly thing inside of us, then Lacan was doing something similar with his concept of the unconscious.

This is not to say that Lacan was secretly a believing Catholic—although some tendentiously argue this—but that there is almost something mystical about his concept of the Real and its application. And why would this not be a surprise since Lacan speaks about this directly in Seminar XX?

I will not discuss the intricate details and challenges of the Lacanian corpus; others more versed than I have already done so. My main point here is that Lacan held the Catholic mystical tradition in high regard. His views on developing the self through language, and its use in clinical practice, find relevance in Catholic spiritual practices. By applying some of Lacan’s theories, we can navigate away from the rising trend of experientialism that is currently shaping many spiritual practices.

Listening Sideways to the Soul

Familiarizing oneself with Lacan’s theories and understanding their clinical application would benefit many. There are three key aspects of Lacan’s work that I find especially valuable:

  1. The emphasis on language and the art of listening.
  2. His exploration of “The Real” as the limit.
  3. The prioritization of subjective transformation and encounter over mere experiential phenomena.

Spiritual direction is a sacred form of listening encompassing three integral components: the Holy Spirit, the spiritual director, and the person seeking guidance (the directee). At its core, spiritual direction aims to foster a deeper relationship with God. The Holy Spirit acts as the guiding force, actively participating in the lives of both the director and the directee, prompting them to recognize and connect with God’s presence. This is one of the distinguishing factors of John of the Cross’s spiritual direction.

The role of the spiritual director is to attentively listen and discern the subtle stirrings of the Holy Spirit in the directee’s shared experiences, further facilitating their understanding of God’s role in their life. This process assists individuals in noticing God’s hand in their daily activities, understanding his callings, and becoming aware of obstacles hindering their spiritual progress. Everyone, including the spiritual director, irrespective of their stage in their spiritual journey, can benefit from engaging with a spiritual director to deepen their relationship with Christ.

Like traditional spiritual direction, Lacanian analysis is a listening discipline that functions differently. I suppose one could call it “apophatic listening.” It listens without listening to meaning. Central to this is the idea of the “third,” which refers to the symbolic order in Lacanian terms—the realm of language, laws, and societal norms that shape and structure our desires and identities. Lacan claims that "the Holy Spirit is the entry of the Signifier into the world.” This symbolic realm is distinct from the individual’s direct experiences (the imaginary) and the ungraspable, ineffable aspect of experience (the Real). In Lacanian analysis, the analyst does not listen in the traditional therapeutic sense of seeking meaning or trying to understand the patient’s narrative directly. Instead, the analyst “listens sideways.”

This means that they attend to the slips, breaks, and inconsistencies in a person’s discourse. By doing so, the analyst listens for the manifestations of the unconscious, aiming to discern the underlying structures and desires expressed indirectly through language. In this way, the focus is less on the overt content of what is said and more on the way it is said, the gaps in the narrative, and the linguistic peculiarities, as these often reveal more about the unconscious desires and conflicts of the analysand.

In these sessions, it becomes evident that analysands grapple with something indescribable and elusive. This elusive aspect is what Lacan terms the Real. A pivotal aim of the analytic journey is to meet this boundary. Upon facing this edge, the language framework that weaves our perception of the world starts to unravel. This moment of profound self-unraveling paves the way for the birth of something novel.

For John of the Cross, the dark night represents a profound spiritual crisis when all familiar concepts of God and self seem to dissolve. It is a purificative stage, where the soul is stripped of its attachments and comforts, plunging it into desolation. Similarly, in Lacanian analysis, the confrontation with the Real—a point beyond language, symbolization, and experience—results in the breakdown of one’s established worldview. Just as the Dark Night serves as a transitional phase leading to a more intimate union with the Divine in John’s mysticism, the encounter with the Real in Lacanian analysis can usher in a transformative new understanding of oneself. As Marie Helene Brousse articulates in reference to the feminine mystical-like goal of analysis apropos the “pass”:

Passing from analysand to analyst is to mobilise the logic of the not-all, a plunge into the unknown. Homophonic in French, you may read this as you will: “un” or “One.” In fact, it is a matter of agreeing to occupy that place which J.-A. Miller, in his 2007-2008 course, characterised as the place de plus personne—the place of no-one anymore. The void, the null . . . Noting here that truth is related to Jouissance, he proposed, the truth says of itself je me demens, je demens, je me defile, je me defends—I’m ducking, I’m dodging, I’m flitting, I’m fending off.[2]

Both approaches emphasize the necessity of traversing a challenging, often painful, void or emptiness to arrive at a deeper truth or realization.

It is vital to emphasize that the spiritual teachings of John of the Cross and Lacan’s psychoanalytic approach are distinct entities. This does not undermine the significance of experiential dimensions in spirituality and spiritual direction. However, in a modern context where there is a rampant commercialization of what might be labeled as “positive experientialism” by the digital world, coupled with a watered-down therapeutic approach often mistaken for ethical principles, there is a compelling case for a spiritual path aligned with a form of psychoanalysis that does not solely prioritize experience or stringent legalism. There is an urgent need in spiritual direction to revitalize a language centered on an encounter with God, leading to profound transformation, rather than merely amassing spiritual or emotional capital. 

[1] Lacan, J. (2006). Ecrit: The First Complete Edition in English (2nd ed.). W W Norton & Company, 381.

[2] Brousse, M.-H. (2022). The feminine: A mode of jouissance. Lacanian Press, 66.

Featured Image: Antonio de Paz, John of the Cross, 17th c.; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Mark Gerard Murphy

Mark Gerard Murphy is Lecturer at St Mary’s University, Scotland, Gillis Centre, where he convenes courses on ethics, philosophy, mystical theology, and spirituality. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The Direction of Desire: John of the Cross, Jacques Lacan and the Contemporary Understanding of Spiritual Direction.

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