Conversatio Divina

Experiencing the Divine

Gerry Brawn-Douglas and David Benner in Conversation

Gerry Brawn Douglas & David G. Benner

Gerry Brawn-Douglas is a psychologist living and working in Auckland, New Zealand. Since first meeting him several years ago, I have appreciated the openness and fertility of his mind, his passionate spirit, and his deeply contagious playfulness. Until now, I have not had a chance to ask him about his experience of God. This interview seemed the perfect way to include others in the conversation.


David:    Gerry, perhaps we should start your story with some of your early formative spiritual experiences. Tell me about one of those.

Gerry:     As I look back, I see that from a very early age I was drawn to performance and music. When I was four years old, people noticed I could learn the words of songs very easily. The pastor’s wife saw an opportunity in this talent and soon began to read me her poetry and then, about once a month, placed me on a table in the lounge of the local “old people’s home,” where I would perform a recitation. This is my earliest memory of being aware of feeling excited and fully alive while impacting the experience of others.

David:    As you look back at this incident, does it seem like a kind of preview of your destiny, perhaps a glimpse into some important part of who you were that had implications for who you were to become?

Gerry:    In a word, yes. I have three wonderful and amazingly different children. Once you have had this experience as a parent [of recognizing differences among your children], it is self-evident that we do not come into the world as a tabula rasa. I believe we come into the world predisposed to attaching attention, significance, and meaning to some environmental stimuli rather than others. This was certainly true for me. When I was a child, my attention was drawn to the experience I had of feeling truly alive while giving the recitations. Looking back, I would say that I gave this experience the significance of a sign (if that’s not a tautology!) of endowed potentiality for my life. And the meaning I place on this is that the thing or things we do that bring life to us are most likely to be an indicator of the particular incarnation we uniquely embody. We are made in God’s image. When we identify, develop, and give expression to our gifts, we allow that image to reflect more fully the creative, loving nature of God. This is one of the ways in which God continues to come into our world.

David:    I really like the way you put that—our calling as the discovery of things that bring us life, and then living out this calling as our unique expression of the face of God. Ignatian spirituality talks about choosing God as choosing life and choosing life as choosing God. This takes a lot of trust, doesn’t it? How did you find your way into being able to trust your passions as somehow telling you something reliable about God and who you are in God?

Gerry:    I experience a deep irony as I contemplate how to answer this. At one level, I feel I can’t answer it definitively because life keeps bringing circumstances that stretch my faith, and hence my ability to be certain about what I have just said. But then as I think about the question, what come to mind are experiences that I choose to understand as God’s speaking into my life in quite definitive ways.

I recall certain people such as the Reverend Rob Yule, the chaplain for the teachers’s college I attended. He said things to me that were like seeds planted in fertile soil. Another was a priest at St. Mary of the Angels in Wellington. At a time when I was discovering the richness of Catholic spirituality, I wound up leading some singing with my guitar at an informal gathering of young people at this church. After we were done, the priest came up to me and quite matter-of-factly told me that he thought God had given me very special gifts. That incident stayed with me.

Another defining moment comes to mind. At one point in my post-graduate training, I received some soul-destroying personal bad news. Several months later, my morale was still extremely low, and I seriously started to question if I should complete my training as a psychologist. One summer morning, I remember getting up very early and seeking a quiet place outdoors. At the end of an hour, I felt so low I could hardly walk back to the farmhouse where I was staying. I had to tell my legs to take each step. I had said in prayer that I needed a sign that day to tell me what to do. As I approached the house, I determined to try to be a little brighter for the sake of my then young children (four- and six-years old). I decided I would take them and another six-year-old child being cared for at the house that day swimming at the local hot pools. My children ran and jumped into my arms in the water. This other child watched for a few minutes, and when I gestured that he do the same, there was intense eye contact between us, and he then joined in and had a thoroughly confident and good time in the water. When we arrived back at the farmhouse, I told his mother about this. Her mouth dropped open with total surprise, and she told me this boy had been totally phobic of water for years. Later reports indicated that he remained free of this difficulty. I felt alive and joyful in this interaction with the children. I felt I was exercising my gift for enthusing and encouraging, and within that context a healing had taken place. I understood this event to be God talking to me in answer to my prayer, and the answer came as I exercised a gift I believe God has given me.

Giftedness and emptiness—both now seem to be familiar friends of mine. And out of a place of being in the company of either of them and sometimes an odd mix of the two, sixteen years after this incident, I can now think of many, many times I have seen God’s healing come to others and myself in similar ways.

David:    I seem to recall that your early childhood religious experiences were within a fundamentalist denomination. Tell me a bit about the God of your childhood.

Gerry:    That’s true. I was brought up in a very small fundamentalist church. The single saving grace of my childhood religious experiences was that at least I grew up believing God is, rather than God isn’t. That in itself, in New Zealand’s secular society, is quite an achievement. Two central features of this god were that he (this god was definitely male) required a church-centered family routine, and that he might “return” at any time. The latter was to be feared and yet somehow looked forward to. At one time when I was in mid-childhood, the sun was very red at sunset for several weeks (caused by smoke from bush fires in Australia). This was taken as a sign that this god could return very soon—perhaps that very night. My fear was intense. I scurried through my memory-verse knowledge of the Bible and remembered that God would return like a thief in the night, when least expected. Bingo! I decided to lie awake all night to hear the Trumpet of the Lord, thereby holding off the required condition of the unexpected return. It worked. Each new dawn was clear evidence of that.

I suspect that among the many people who still believe in such a god, many might feel they owe me a vote of thanks for this effort!

David:    Yes, I suspect they might!

Gerry:    However, it saddens me to think how much damage was done by this induced anxiety at such an early age. A greater tragedy was that this particular belief was merely a subset of a more pervasive subcultural trance—the belief that every word of the Bible was to be understood as absolute truth and applied prescriptively. Further, verses could be linked together in a variety of often-repeated formulaic structures. These structures formed the basis of how I was tranced into early understandings of God, the world of nature, people outside of the church, people inside the church, and, most significantly, myself. When one is “certain” about such big issues, a basis is laid for a misplaced sense of self-confidence. President Bush and I understand each other on this one.

David:    The President of the United States and you may understand each other on this, but since it’s you I have in conversation at the moment, I guess it’s you I need to ask more about this. You seem mistrustful of the certainty that you had about things at this early stage of the journey. Are you implying a danger—to yourself or others—that was associated with this view of God? And what was the implication of viewing God as you did on your actual experience of God?

Gerry:    Yes, I am definitely implying a mental and spiritual danger. You see, the thing about this certainty was that it was supposed to be accompanied by that other characteristic of triumphalism—the “joy of the Lord.” This just wasn’t my experience—which naturally led to doubting my salvation. When the evangelist/superintendent of the denomination for New Zealand would stop the song “Just as I Am” to tell the story of a teenager who “didn’t know Jesus as his savior” and then died that night in a car accident and went to hell, I knew this was serious stuff. In the black-and-white world of fundamentalism, I knew what that meant—if you’re not in, you’re out. And I couldn’t be sure I was in, whereas everybody else who was in knew it and certainly appeared to be joyful. In response to this, I remember the many times I sought counsel from visiting evangelists or church camp leaders in my early teens because I knew I didn’t experience that joy and happiness anywhere near 24/7. This anxiety was very destructive. To avoid feeling it, and probably to compensate for the perceived lack of joy, I became much more fervent as I progressed through my teens.

David:    Let’s begin to move closer to the present. Tell me more about how your view of God and experience of the divine developed from this point forward.

Gerry:    At age sixteen, I left my hometown of two thousand people and arrived in Wellington, a city of three hundred thousand. By this age, my adapted self was a reasonably confident persona, an independent spirit, yet keenly seeking security through attachment, with some musical and dramatic performance ability and a well-honed ability to hide anything about me that I thought would bring shame.

I can see now that the God I didn’t know, the God of unconditional love, acceptance, and forgiveness, was going to have to find me, as I wasn’t acquainted with this God at all. Although I was unaware of it, my sense of myself was largely based on other people’s stories. How could grace break through and enable me to start hearing God’s story about me, in place of all these imbibed other stories?

David:    I think that’s the universal challenge, isn’t it? To know our story in the light of his story—this being, of course, our true story. But I recall hearing you once say it is often in your work as a psychotherapist that you most deeply encounter grace. Tell me more about that.

Gerry:    That is true. I have given some detail of my earlier years because in a growing way, I have been coming to realize that God’s story about me in my adult life as a therapist comes out of those formative years. The one characteristic of the negatively impacting events and circumstances was that they were inescapable—I had basically had no control over them. Who of us has effective control over events in our formative years? It has become apparent to me that these uncontrollable, wounding circumstances potentiated the wounded healer motif.

Whilst as a psychologist I acknowledge the importance of keeping in mind diagnostic characteristics, at the same time, one can develop an eye to see and an ear to hear beyond labels and categories. I am continually moved with compassion as I recognize that the people God sends to my door are united by the common experience that I know something of—being challenged to the breaking point by circumstances that are beyond control. And so somehow in this setting I find the audacity (or is it humility, or perhaps a mixture of the two?) to become the loving and accepting eyes, ears, hands, and voice of Jesus for my clients. As these moments happen, both client and therapist are changed. Healing for the client is the more obvious. For me, the therapist, God knows how often I need to observe the way in which the power of compassion, acceptance, and love characterizes these healing moments before I start to dare to believe that God sees me in this way as well. So, as God sends those who need healing, I develop the courage and faith to see myself a little more as God sees me. And in so doing, God’s healing settles deeper and deeper into the relevant places of my own life.

David:    Apart from your work, what else serves as a means of grace for you?

Gerry:    First, I think of the things that happen in my life over which I have had no control. Eventually these provide me with the richest opportunities to become more aware of God’s presence. This took a while, but I have now come to understand that this is how the passion of Jesus is most meaningful to me. Jesus eventually got caught in a situation that, barring the miraculous, was one in which he had lost control. These are the most terrifying times in anybody’s life. For God truly to understand me, God, too, would need to experience this. What a profound act of love—for God to love me, and all of us, enough to place God’s self knowingly into a terrifying, out-of-personal-control situation, truly experiencing what it is to be human at the worst moments. Eventually, there was an acceptance that this moment had arrived, and he surrendered to the inevitable. And then, as we now know, newness of life came out of this darkest of times.

The Easter passion calls me to accept the part of being human I might otherwise fear the most—unavoidable, unwanted circumstances I can’t control—and gives them a special place in my life. The Easter passion gives me the courage and hope I need for each time life’s circumstances call me to recognize and embrace what I can’t control. And, like Jesus, my experience has been that a depth of healing and newness of life are always found on the other side. That which would otherwise be destructive in my live is being redeemed. This ongoing process is a major way in which grace continues to come to me.

The mystical writers and traditions within scripture and the church’s history also find a central place in my heart. The liturgical church calendar, with its highest point of mystery and transformation being the Easter season, also helps me to stay in contact with this central feature of Jesus’ life. Whilst aware of the church’s bloody and controversial history, I am nevertheless grateful for the way in which the church has preserved and proclaimed the good news of Jesus coming into the world.

David:    Finally, tell me a bit about what it means to you to experience God in these ways. How do you respond?

Gerry:    An interesting question. At times I doubt that “underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27). And yet each season of serious questioning has led to a time of knowing once again that those arms are there. The other image that comes to mind as I contemplate your question is that of Jesus meeting me on my many roads to Emmaus, encountering me when I am most disoriented, confused, and disillusioned. Like an older brother, he draws near and offers beautiful conversation, its essence clarifying and contextualizing. The arms are there, and my heart understands. And even that which I don’t know about myself is understood. I am left knowing the peace that passes understanding. This is how I respond to grace coming to me.

Footnotes

Dr. David G. Benner is an author, lecturer, and retreat director. For the past thirty years his work has focused on the development and practice of a spiritually sensitive depth psychology and the nurture of a psychologically grounded Christian spirituality. He currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Spirituality at Psychological Studies Institute (Atlanta, Georgia) and as the founding Director of the Institute for Psychospiritual Health