Reflecting on Identity: Frankl, Merton, Assagioli and The Role of Faith

I don’t often post my sermons on this blog, but here is one I shared today with the congregation at All Souls’ in Belfast:

Reflecting on Identity: Frankl, Merton, Assagioli and The Role of Faith


I often think of the Bible, that collection of widely divergent genres – history, biography, allegory, metaphor and so much more – as an extended meditation on identity and relationships.  The very core of our sacred text -Genesis 1: 24-31- at least as far as I can discern, focuses on these two issues.  Not only that, it can be distilled even further – we can see the Bible, in its entirety, as the outworking of a journey through which humanity struggles to figure out how it fits in to the natural order, and then how it relates to the divine and vice versa.

The spiritual journey that we all undertake has much commonality – we continually question our own identity.  Who am I? How do I fit in to society? Who do I love? Who do I have most in common with? And then there are other, more vexed questions: How do I relate to those I have little in common with? How do I relate to those I dislike…..or those who dislike me? And then we go even deeper in our questioning: and this is the most crucial of all our reflections……how do I relate to God?……and how does God relate to me?

None of this is easy! But it does make sense to mull these questions over in our minds. And days like today, when we celebrate one very specific aspect of personhood – that of fatherhood – it can pay dividends.

No doubt some of us who gather here today have had very positive experiences of parents who were loving, nurturing and inspirational.  And there will be those who could be described as ambivalent towards those who were, for better or worse, the main role models in their lives.  And then…..well then there are those who had a negative experience…….an experience that they may have pushed to the back of their minds and don’t particularly want to revisit.

Perhaps one lesson we learn very quickly as we reflect, is that we are limited in how much influence we can have on those around us.  Trying to change those we love is a difficult enough, if not impossible task, never mind for those we come into conflict with! In that respect, I’m convinced that the Cistercian spiritual writer Thomas Merton got it right when he so perceptively said this: The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them’.


I like Merton….and I like this quote in particular.  We project elements of our personality on to others more frequently than we think.  But there is something else that we must be aware of – our own image……. Who exactly are we?

I think of myself as an example.  In terms of relationships…well I’m a father, a husband, a brother, a son, a grandson, an uncle……..And in a professional context I’m a marine biologist, a mental health advocate, a blogger, a trainee therapist, a mindfulness teacher, a poet and a Christian Minister. But there’s so much more to me than that….I could quite literally spend hours going through my life and writing down the quite divergent aspects of the image I project to others, whether consciously or sub-consciously.

When you have a moment, do this exercise for yourself; you’ll be surprised as to just how complicated you are as a person and how you’ve changed over the years…..and continue to change. The image you have of yourself at fifteen will be very different to the one you have when you’re forty…or sixty…or eighty.


When Things Get Difficult

Sometimes, when we find ourselves in a difficult situation, we become all-consumed with one aspect of the self.  We over-identify with a role that’s been assigned to us and it makes life incredibly difficult and can impinge very negatively on our health and well-being.  How many times have we hear someone saying ‘I’m depressed’ or ‘I’m bipolar’ or something similar? Of course that person may suffer from depression or has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but that diagnosis is only a part of who they are. What about the fact that they function as a loving mother, a very valued member of their local community and so on?  We have a tendency to adopt a reductionist viewpoint when it comes to these issues.

Consider what the Psychiatrist and therapist Viktor Frankl had to say about identity in his book ‘Will to Meaning’, this time in relation to Joan of Arc:  “There is no doubt that from the psychiatric point of view, the saint would have had to be diagnosed as a case of schizophrenia; and as long as we confine ourselves to the psychiatric frame of reference, Joan of Arc is ‘nothing but’ a schizophrenic. What she is beyond a schizophrenic is not perceptible within the psychiatric dimension. As soon as we follow her into the noological (spiritual) dimension and observe her theological and historical importance, it turns out that Joan of Arc is more than a schizophrenic. The fact of her being a schizophrenic in the dimension of psychiatry does not in the least detract from her significance in other dimensions.

 There is another psychiatrist who died a number of years ago, who among many other things, just like Frankl, recognised the value of looking at ourselves, our identities, in a holistic manner.  Roberto Assagioli, was the name of the psychiatrist in question; he understood that for all of us, synthesis of the self proceeds with the resolution of those inner conflicts that we wrestle with, followed by the bringing together of diverse personality traits.  The aim? Wholeness and integration.

There are some of us, for a multitude of different reasons, who have more disparate senses of self than others.  And there are others who exist at the other end of the spectrum.

Now, by way of an illustration of someone who in many ways retained and developed a healthy and well-balanced self-image and identity despite the hardest of circumstances, I want to take a few moments to introduce you to someone who has had a positive influence on my own worldview.  I’ve already introduced you to him……and I’m conscious that you may already be familiar with this man through his books and therapeutic work.  I’m talking of course about Viktor Frankl.

Viktor Frankl was a Viennese Neurologist, Psychiatrist and later Philosopher who developed what came to become known as the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy.  Frankl’s ‘Logotherapy and Existential Analysis’ sat, and continues to sit, alongside Freud’s ‘Psychoanalysis’ and Adler’s ‘Individual Psychology’.

I was first drawn to Frankl many years ago now when I read his best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning, chronicling his epic struggle to survive the Holocaust. It was in this slim volume that I found myself transfixed by Frankl’s character, will and endurance.  He refused to let his identity be subsumed under the overarching and demeaning moniker of ‘prisoner’.  Although he may well have been nothing but another Jew, or a number, for the Nazi’s who imprisoned him, Frankl continued to work, when he could, as a physician and therapist.  But there were times when he could not live out his vocation – during these periods he was a slave labourer, braving the cold, starvation diet and cruel taskmasters; words cannot begin to describe the utterly sub-human conditions he and his fellow prisoners were subjected to.

Man's Search For Meaning

Despite the Nazi’s callousness, Frankl retained his identity.  He preserved his identity as a son, a husband, brother… well as a doctor and academic.  Frankl’s victory over the regime was spawned in his mind and lived out through his unshakeable character.

There is one particular segment of Man’s Search for Meaning that I think of in this respect. “If only our wives could see us now!’” said Frankl’s fellow prisoner as they set off on a pre-dawn march to the site where they would labour for hours on end in atrocious conditions. Frankl continues the story in thoughtful and evocative prose:

 ‘And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another upward and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking about his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look . . . . A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the highest goal to which man can aspire . . . . I understand how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss . . . . In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way-an honourable way-in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfilment. For the first time in my life I was able to under-stand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in divine contemplation of an infinite glory.”’


The Role of Love

Beautifully insightful words.  Here we find Frankl contemplating his wife Tilly and moving beyond the label of prisoner and fulfilling his personhood in its entirety.  And yes, here we find Frankl living out those words of Thomas Merton that we heard a few moment ago.  But there’s more…….Frankl sees love for what it is: the gel that keeps relationships healthy and vibrant, and the cement that solidifies and enables the relationship between the believer and the divine, and vice versa.  And crucially, Viktor Frankl understood the role of love in understanding identity, and keeping those often disparate elements of our personhood together and operating healthily.  Although he didn’t always articulate it in such bold terms, in my opinion, for what it’s worth, it shone through the therapeutic relationships he developed and his philosophy of personhood.

As people of faith, we know of the centrality of love. Nowhere is that expressed more vibrantly than in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, where it is written:

‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a]but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly,[b] but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love’.


What Next?

It’s tempting to leave it there….but then again the words of Merton come to the fore, weaving those strands together.  Here we have in a few words, written in his book ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’, the essence of personhood and identity viewed through the lens of faith: “Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny….To work out our identity in God.”

That, in a nutshell, is our task.

And then once again…..just when we think we’re done, we hear the prophetic voice of Merton asking us to think and reflect even further, when he writes in ‘The Waters of Siloe’: “After all, what is your personal identity? It is what you really are, your real self. None of us is what he thinks he is, or what other people think he is, still less what his passport says he is… And it is fortunate for most of us that we are mistaken. We do not generally know what is good for us. That is because, in St. Bernard’s language, our true personality has been concealed under the ‘disguise’ of a false self, the ego, whom we tend to worship in place of God.”

Wise words indeed.  And so in a few moments of silence, let us reflect on who we are, above and beyond what Merton has identified as the false self. Let us reflect on the issue of identity, not just at the superficial level, but much deeper….at the very core of our being.  Who are we….in the light of God’s loving presence?  Who is God calling us to be…..and how can Assagioli, Merton, Frankl and others accompany us, and inform us, as we walk along that path to enlightenment?


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