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And I

A few years ago, a friend asked to let her practice massage on me. She was learning to be a 'body psychotherapist' - a version of psychotherapy which includes stethoscope-informed massage into their practice, on the principle that tensions and stresses manifest in how someone holds their muscles and joints, and (more amusingly) that listening to their stomach gurgles helps the psychotherapist understand how to direct the massage.

After being pleasantly pummelled a few times the free masssages ended as she moved into some other part of her course, but a year later she suggested I might want to have a few paid sessions with one of her colleagues, I think in partial response to my having said that the counselling I'd been taking from a sense of not having dealt with my father's death properly.

I won't say it resolved my every issue, and I've gone on to see a couple of other psychotherapists but it's given me a very valuable self-reflective place to try to make sense of myself.

I'm always reminded, when I talk about psychotherapy, of the quote from Crocodile Dundee concerning people who tell their troubles to therapists: "Don't they have any mates?" I have mates like most people, but while talking to mates works for things where they've experienced similar things; for more specialised things like early death of parents it seems that you'd need a specialist, in much the same way that lung cancer can't be cured by a mate bandaging your arm.

I don't propose to go into any detail about the consultations, but will happily say that it's very refreshing to be able to dig down into the dark corners, the tiny corners, the corners that niggle, embarrass, and so on - the sorts of corners we all have but don't often have the opportunity to share or the insight to discover - and to be taken seriously and respectfully as I try to understand them, see why they arose, what needs they were trying to fulfil, how and if they helped me, and whether there's a way of thinking that would more usefully and healthily resolve the original issues at this far remove; and helped in all that puzzling by an independent point of view.

Curiously, psychotherapy collides with my amateur interest in theology, in the teachings of an early Christian hermit - a guy who lived with other hermits in the Egyptian desert, and whose teachings were misinterpreted into what is now unhelpfully called 'The Seven Deadly Sins': Evagrius. I was introduced to him by my vicar in Cambridge who wrote this book about him, summarised here, and spoken here.

I was talking with Angela at a church picnic, and ended up discussing something about how I found it hard to see how God would condemn anyone: Jesus talks about having come to help sinners: only the sick need a doctor, and the Bible talks about how we will know ourselves even as God currently knows us. The most interesting villans in books are those who believe they're doing something for good reasons, and in that instant when they know themselves as fully as God and understand their motives fully, how could anyone help but recant? Should anyone cling to their flaws even with that sort of revelation, that in itself would be evidence of their need of healing. Thus I take the traditional understanding of sin to be unhelpful: simply repressing things simply doesn't work because it simply doesn't get to the root of why you want to do whatever it is. Angela said something about my thoughts being similar to Orthodox Christianity, and that I might be interested in her book when it came out.

I prefer talking about folks' consciences and societal conscience rather than 'sin', because nearly everyone has a sense of right and wrong, even if it doesn't agree with the wider society they live in. The word 'sin' is almost valueless these days - it's not something anyone who isn't religious pays any attention to (positively a turn off, in fact), and I'm guessing at least half of the religious world is beating itself up about how sinful it is - rather than drawing strength from accepting having been forgiven freely, or because they've given money to charity, or whatever their particular religion says is the right way to deal with their sin.

The motives and reasons for what we do (or in fact, don't do but might like to do, or things we get all angry about, etc) are clearly important: Jesus said that looking at a woman lustfully was as bad as committing adultery with her, and that calling your brother a fool would put you in danger of hell. In the story of the Prodigal Son, the spotlight is rarely turned on the son who stayed behind, and who clearly resents the behaviour of the returning son - he might resent the generosity of his father to his miserable brother, but I'm pretty sure there's an element of envy: his brother's been having a great time - wine, women, and song - while he's been living a hard, humdrum, and presumably moral farming life; I can't help but think of those Christians who either resent or are in denial about not being able to run amok because they've already converted - already used their 'get out of jail free' card.

It would be easy to blame the trivialisation and devaluation of 'sin' on raving Bible-thumping preachers in tents with overly simplistic ideas, but the Western wing of the church fumbled Evagrius' teaching well into the past, and asserting a trivialisation presupposes a decline in understanding from some golden age.

Evagrius might be quite wrong, of course, but while the Christian message is undeniably one of a God who welcomes people who want to change, the message from the Western church on sin tends to an unintelligible one that leaves people feeling any or all of alienated, furtive and guilty, for which reason while it's important to stop calling your brother a fool, it's also important to understand yourself well enough to see why you yourself are also a fool.

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This page last changed Tue Jun 5 16:20:24 2012