I had an unsettling experience as a social work intern in the department of child psychiatry at a major children’s hospital. In supervision a case was discussed in which the family of a child in treatment had become Christian. Over the course of therapy it was noted that great improvements had been made in the child’s behavior at home and school. The concern was the family’s new profession of faith. The clinicians, unfamiliar with spiritual experiences, considered what was reported alarming. The experience left me wondering about the integration of faith and psychology and how to address “mystical experiences” from a Christian and psychological perspective. Needless-to-say, it was fascinating to read Spellbound: Modern Science, Ancient Magic, and the Hidden Potential of the Unconscious Mind by Daniel Z. Lieberman.
I made immediate connections to Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Dr. Lieberman notes that for psychologists, “stories reveal what can’t be seen.” He continues, “Myths, fairy tales, and legends are about struggle.” The myths Campbell wrote about served a similar purpose to that of iconography. They present a window that helped reveal truth and the universal struggle of humanity. I took a similar approach looking at the unconscious mind through the lens of magic, fairy tales, alchemy, mystical numbers, and the Tarot. Though unsettling, it opened up a way of seeing what I believe are God-given desires within human beings to seek wholeness, purpose and meaning in life, to be curious about the unseen, the unconscious, the eternal, and who want to understand the mystery that is life and Spirit.
Dr. Lieberman writes, “Scientists study matter and force; theologians study spirit.” He goes on to say that we can explain scientifically mystical experiences but can’t determine the cause of mystical phenomenon because it is an issue of faith. It is encouraging that faith and mystical experiences are not pathologized and how an academic view of “Ancient Magic” is offered as a window to the unconscious mind. This is an unexpected approach. How do we integrate the disciplines of science and religion, the mystical and the rational, the conscious and the unconscious in effort to become our truest self and remain grounded in our faith?
Understanding Mystical Experiences as Encounter with God
Mystical experiences are not new to the Christian faith. The Bible is full of people encountering God in unusual ways and being changed in the process. Jacob’s dream and his wrestling with God left him proclaiming, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” That experience was so transformative that God changed his name. Dr. Lieberman uses terms like magic moments, mystical experiences, genius loci or “spirit of the place,” and “numinous experiences” to describe such events. The use of the word “magic” to explain what I would describe as divine presence is uncomfortable, but I understand the point. These experiences are aspects of real life that we often miss, can’t easily explain without being misunderstood, find challenging to navigate, move us deeply, and at times trouble us.
Christianity offers ways to understand these experiences. In Celtic Christian spirituality, mystical experiences and locations are referred to as “thin places” in which we feel the heartbeat of God. In Braving the Thin Places, Julianne Stanz writes, “Thin places exist not only outside us but also within us. Each of us stands at the threshold of our own pain or wonder, our own thin place.” In Christian Mystics, Ursula King writes of Christian mystical experiences as “an all-consuming love for both God and the world. It is an experience of a profound spiritual integration that holds the promise of joy, passion, ecstasy and suffering overcome, a spiritual wholeness and completion that reaches its goal in God.” St. John of the Cross writes of “the dark night of the soul” in which suffering cleanses and instructs us in love. Teresa of Avila envisioned the soul as an interior castle, describing the soul’s journey moving through a “castle made of a single diamond in which there are many rooms” noting prayer and meditation were the door of entry. These are just a few examples of the mysterious ways Christians describe transformative encounter with God.
Integration and Spiritual Practices
The Jungian concepts of accessing the unconscious mind and integrating the shadow self are not unfamiliar to me. Many of our choices are not as rational or conscious as we would like to believe. We all have moments when we are not quite sure why we do what we do, why we say what we say, or from where our greatest sources of inspiration and creativity arise. At times we are frightened, embarrassed, or ashamed by what comes forth; at other times delighted and surprised. My question: How do we safely explore our unconscious mind which is full of mystery, wonder, and possible danger?
Dr. Lieberman explains, “When we permit ourselves to think about disturbing ideas, the conscious mind can process them and work the associated difficulties. But if we disavow them, they lie in wait, raw and unprocessed. It’s a serious matter.“ Accessing our unconscious mind begins by welcoming all parts of self, including those parts that feel shameful and we prefer to deny. A variety of wise guides, safe practices, and a belief that we are deeply loved by God make this a worthy endeavor.
Our Christian faith and spirituality are gifts that come along side to help us safely engage the unconscious mind. Dr. Lieberman lands on meditation with the appropriate caveats and warnings which also apply to our spiritual practices. Christian spiritual practices offer us ancient ways of engaging with our unconscious mind and integrating our shadow self. Spiritual practices that have aided my journey thus far are lectio divina, the examen, centering prayer and breath prayer, and spiritual direction. All encourage awareness of God’s presence and activity in my life, center me on God’s loving-kindness, and gently move me closer to my truest self in Christ.
 Daniel Z. Lieberman, Spellbound: Modern Science, Ancient Magic, and the Hidden Potential of the Conscious Mind (Dallas: BenBella Books, 2022), 7.
 Daniel Z. Lieberman, Spellbound, 24.
 Ibid., 31.
 Genesis 28: 16
 Daniel Z. Lieberman, Spellbound, 25.
 Ibid., 31.
 Ibid., 39.
 Ibid., 41.
 Julianne Stanz, Braving the Thin Places: Celtic Wisdom to Create a Space for Grace (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2021), xi.
 Julianne Stanz, Braving the Thin Places, x.
 Ursula King, Christian Mystics: Their Lives and Legacies throughout the Ages (Mahwah, NJ: HiddenSpring, 1998), 7.
 Bernard McGinn, ed., The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism (New York, The Modern Library, 2006), 385-386.
 St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castles, ed. and trans. E. Allison Peers (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 28.
 Daniel Z. Lieberman, Spellbound, 64.
 Ibid., 243.