Rats in the Wall

A conversation between Dick Schoenbrun and Donald Schell

Christian teachers send us looking for God in our own deep gratitude, unexpected joy, and other radiant and grace-filled human experiences.
At a dinner party I heard Dick Schoenbrun, a Jungian psychiatrist, once suggest that we each have characteristic openings to God and that his was terror, which was why as a child he had been drawn to horror fiction.
I wanted to hear more about Dick's experiences of knowing God in his fear so I asked him to continue our conversation.

--Donald Schell

DONALD: Do healthy children long for fearful or horrifying experiences?

DICK: Yes. My five year old grandson and I make up stories together. Here's one of his: there was this Spider who got into the water and the Shark got him! Just night before last I was reading to him from The Wind in the Willows, the chapter called "Into the Wild Wood," where Mole and Rat go deep into woods at night, and dreadful eyes peer out from dark cavities in the trees. He allowed me to read him this. Then, next night, his mother read it to him, and when she left, he had her put the book just outside his door for the night.

DONALD: Both desiring and fearing it.

DICK: Yes, and he'll want it read again and have her leave it outside the door again.

DONALD: And in this reading and imagining are we practicing for bigger experience, the real thing?

DICK: I think God is in our biggest emotional experiences, whatever the emotion be, like "If God's BIG, God's going to be in the biggest places." If fear and terror are your biggest experiences, that's where you find God, but you can't make these big experiences happen and you can't copy them from somebody else. They're hard to come by.

DONALD: After the Oklahoma City bombing, Bill Clinton said, "We must tell the children of America that this could never happen to them and this kind of destruction won't ever happen again." We don't know that. He asked us to lie to comfort children.

DICK: That just won't work. You can't make these experiences just go away. Somehow real theology must include the dark side.

DONALD: So exaggerated reassurances of safety hide hard truths that even children long to hear.

DICK: Real spiritual development vacillates between some comfort in one's life and discomfort at the pull of this other experience.



DONALD: After the 1989 earthquake, a gas main down the hill from our house exploded. We watched the flames against the darkness. There was no light but the fire fighters' emergency spotlights on their arcing streams of water. Firefighters kept losing water pressure as we watched flames leap higher and higher. The radio said it was under control, but the flames were getting bigger. My son Peter, then aged nine, asked if we would be all right. There was no wind just then, but remembering the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, I knew how easily this fire could come our way. I told Peter, "We'll do our best to keep us all safe. I don't think the fire's coming this way, but we'll keep on eye on it. If it's still getting bigger by bedtime, your mom or I will stay up to watch. If it starts this way, we'll all leave." Peter squeezed my hand. He and I felt communion in fear spoken, and our shared fear felt more open to God than any attempt to hide from fear with a facile, "God will take care of us."

DICK: Good. Now, my question to you as a theologian is, "How can Christian theology find a place for this experience?" Without the dark side of God, theology's in trouble. Psychology has a way of dealing with it, but I want something more.

DONALD: First, let's hear your own experiences of terror.

DICK: All right. My fascination with a dark hallway and horror reading came many years before any spiritual experience of fear. When I was a little boy, to get a glass of milk from the kitchen at night, I had to go down a hallway that ran past the dark black opening into the living room. God Only Knew What might be in there; I knew I didn't know. Some evenings, I just couldn't make it across that dark opening without reaching round the corner to turn on the lights. By sixth or seventh grade, I felt drawn to horror literature. I had that mentality. I was reading H.P. Lovecraft and absolutely loving "Rats in The Wall."

DONALD: After the dark opening and "Rats in the Wall," what grabbed you as you got older?

DICK: I saw Edvard Munch's woodcut, "The Scream," in college and felt drawn to it before I had any anxiety-provoking experiences. It has moved me more than any other work of art. Let me read you Munch's first version of the poem he wrote to go with his woodcut.

  I walked along the road with two friends
          and the sun went down.
  The sky suddenly became blood and I felt a breath of sadness.
  I stopped, leaned against the railing, tired to death.
  Over the blue black fjord and city lay clouds
          of dripping steaming blood.
  My friends walked on,and I was left in fear
          with an open wound in my breast,
  A great scream went through nature.

That poem with the picture puts the thing in sharp perspective for me.

DONALD: So your fascination with terror continued as you became an adult. When did you discover this might be an opening to God?

DICK: Just before my fortieth birthday, in 1973. That's when I could name this experience of Terror and Fear, and "Big Dreams," an experience of the Holy.

DONALD: What happened when you were almost forty?

DICK: Well, my moments of fear aren't just storms that blow out of the blue sky and through my life; they come out of compelling events, always when I'm searching to come to a decision that requires action on my part. The action I had to take this time might sound trivial: I had to buy malpractice insurance. When I left my psychiatric residency the year of my fortieth birthday, I felt for the first time that I was taking responsibility. I'd had jobs and responsibilities up to that point, but my university had covered me. I only felt my full responsibility when I went into private practice and applied for malpractice insurance. Then I had my series of Big Dreams and strange events.

DONALD: Was the responsibility you felt in knowing that people would entrust their well-being to you as their psychiatrist and trust you to keep their hope alive?

DICK: Yes, terror at personal and professional responsibility.

DONALD: As a priest, when people entrust themselves to me that way, I often feel gratitude and joy at their trust. But I can see your recognition that the work commits us to carrying fearful responsibility and provokes an "Oh, my God!"

DICK: Sometimes, when things open for a patient, my responsibility feels absolutely unmanageable except by some extraordinary response. I can't go into the particular details of the patient, but one time when it was "God give me the strength to get through this," my wife [Zoila Schoenbrun, an Episcopal priest], who has been my lifelong spiritual guide, suggested some things I might read. I had to consult the Psalms.

DONALD: When else have you had these frightening big experiences?

DICK: In ordinary life. Moments of fear or terror, feeling my own culpability, or the awesomeness of "how would I ever do this?"

DONALD: So are these moments a frequent part of your ordinary experience?

DICK: No. The experiences are rare. I may have had three periods in my life when Big Dreams, a state of fear, other events, all coalesced to produce a memorable experience over several days (and once over several weeks) before any sense of resolution came. In one of these experiences of fear and terror, there was enough push and follow through that it drove me to get baptized, but my baptism didn't resolve it; it was done too much out of fear, on the run, like, "throw the water after me, I'm still running, they might be gaining!" The light dimmed afterwards, so I'm still struggling to establish a spiritual practice. I haven't thought through how one should prepare prior to baptism. Do you think baptism should be in a settled place, from a still point?

DONALD: You're wishing it brought clearer resolution, but maybe your unsatisfied, persistent longing continues drawing you closer to God. Not, "I had this experience, got baptized, and now it's all resolved," but the undeniable, hard fact that it's unresolved points to its Big. . .

DICK: Ah, good point. So "drawn closer," like my original interest in horror literature was drawing me closer to these bigger experiences.

DONALD: I interpret your seeking these experiences as longing.

DICK: You're right, that's exactly the point. For me the literature came before these experiences because I was seeking something that had no name, that I felt in literature and in Munch's woodcut. I was seeking something that went with that feeling.

DONALD: When we seek God, doesn't the longing persist even when we have found part of what we long for?

DICK: Perhaps so.


   --Gregory of Nyssa,

Adapted by Michael Barger

DONALD: I want to touch on something else. Munch's vision of the sky dripping blood seems to be about natural dread and danger. The scream is at seeing a dreadful mystery rather than witnessing some evil human act.

DICK: That's right. In my life, these threatening images have been like a wolf eating a kitten, which is something a real wolf might do. It's bigger than, say, somebody sitting up in a tower and shooting people. It's raw nature. But this overpowering, threatening force in nature will guide me to a very human and do-able action, to straighten out my human responsibility in a human context, even in a professional context. The possibility for action is right there and very wonderful. In 1988, my being baptized was taking the best idea that was around, Christianity's idea of love and loving people. When you're reduced to terror you certainly turn to the people who love you, and the feeling of being loved produces some calm. The language of baptism and the people who were around me at the time of baptism, though they didn't know all that was going in my life, made such a loving environment that I felt comfort in love, which was enough, or nearly enough. Still, I wanted it to be one of those truly creative moments that push you . . . to what? - it's hard to put the object into the sentence, but certainly push you into this unknown you can't escape.

DONALD: So baptism didn't make the fear go away. Just as getting your malpractice insurance gave you a way of being more present to your fearful knowing that you would be responsible for people's lives and souls.

DICK: Yes, having love doesn't deliver me from making the decision, and love doesn't tell me the answer. If I do wrong action, I will still be exposed to my own inner demons, like being eaten by my own ravenous wolf, though there's something rather natural about the wolf, not perverse.

DONALD: For me "raw nature" was being stuck on a high ridge in Southern Colorado in a thunder storm. A narrow rocky spine and nowhere to go and nothing to do but wait as the lightning struck above and below.

DICK: You had to go through it. I know that one. Harold Searles, a Freudian psychoanalyst, says being in nature calms us precisely because it isn't human, isn't a city, isn't composed of the familiar human irrationality. A wonderful storm draws you straight into nature, removed from your humanness and held in your animalness. To be out in a terrifying storm is magnetic.

DONALD: So does this magnetism and holy discovery show us the beast in us, the dangerous, impulsive animal?

DICK: Yes, that's part of it, but it's not something I seek in order to get off on the feeling. It's what operates at a time of perceived jeopardy and compels me to right action. I could build a moral theology on this experience.

DONALD: You're not making a psychological observation, but pointing to an experience that grounds you and opens you to something larger than yourself.

DICK: Yes. In my life this force is so poignant and powerful that when I get talking about it, I want to bring it back into Christian metaphors and make it a way into a Christian life. There must be common experience out there. I certainly don't think my life is unique.

DONALD: Well, we've both drawn on bits and pieces of experience. We're trying to listen to experience and ask where it opens, to avoid forcing experience into ready-made categories. We're trying to hold authentic experience holy.

DICK: That's part of my inspiration here - first being open to this kind of experience, and only then seeking for the theology.

DONALD: Of all the different ways people have talked about the cross, from simplistic moral formulas like "Jesus paying the cost and satisfying God's wrath" to avoiding any theology of the cross and just trying to see Jesus as teacher, I see Julian of Norwich's long unflinching meditation on the mystery of Jesus' fearful physical suffering as exceptional.

DICK: It's her dark night of the soul.

DONALD: Julian is so merciless with herself - she lets herself be drawn into imagining and feeling Jesus' terror and darkness, and she won't comfort herself saying something like, "God had to do this, so it's all right." She sees God's huge freedom and barely imaginable suffering. She rests before the raw destructive power of death knowing that Christ's great suffering expresses a love that will carry her forward in love, and that's enough. From that alone she can say, "All shall be well," even as she admits she does not understand how it can be so.

Donald Schell is an Episcopal priest and a presbyter of St. Gregory's Church.

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