Art therapy, increasingly popular for treating patients recovering from trauma or facing other challenges, builds upon the idea that the capacity for beauty is built into the structure of human nature. Christians can add to this therapeutic insight the affirmation that part of the capacity for God is the capacity to recognize the beautiful, and this recognition is itself an encounter with transcendence that beautifies and heals.

Although there are a variety of psychotherapies that could be employed as a theoretical framework for art therapy, one of the more popular approaches has been Jungian ideas of the role of symbols and the active imagination. This was in part due to early centers of art therapy like the Withymead Centre in Devon founded by Irene Champernowne in 1942. Chambernowne had received therapy under Carl Jung during which time she became familiar with his ideas, which she used as the basis for her approach to art therapy.

In his Mysterium coniunctionis, Jung described the active imagination in terms of the symbol-making capacity of the self. Dreams and other images come before the mind as the means by which the unconscious makes known in non-discursive ways emotional states and other traumas that may have been repressed. These symbols mediate between the conscious and unconscious self, which Jung likens unto a waterfall that connects two pools. The active imagination harnesses the images that flood the mind by focusing on them and interpreting them in terms of knowledge about unconscious states.

Art therapy, then, unlocks unconscious states so that they can be integrated into the self and thus transcended. Symbols allow persons to begin to perceive the whole self, which represents a move to transcendence. The role of symbols and symbolic modes of thinking is intrinsic to Christian discourse as well, but it takes on a different function. While there is an agreement with Jung on the participatory nature of symbols, this participation is not primarily with the inner recesses of the self. When Hugh of St. Victor defines a symbol as the “weaving together of visible forms to show forth what is invisible,” he intends to underscore participation in the life of the other, the life of the world, and, most importantly, the life of God. Hugh is drawing on Pseudo-Dionyius’ view that creation and the liturgy within the church are interlocking symbolic modes of discourse that put humans in touch with the divine.

Art, then, is ultimately about a participatory encounter and this is what makes it transcendent. C. S. Lewis referred to this encounter with the word transposition, which he utilized to underscore how creation mediates divine joy. The therapeutic value of art is the creation of the porous self that participates in the life of the other with “sighs too deep for words.” It validates the social nature of human beings who require the other to receive wholeness and healing.

Symbols are not simply ways to participate in what is external to the self. They also shape and order the interior world. The use of an interior castle by Teresa of Avila, Noah’s ark by Hugh of St. Victor, or the ark of the covenant by Richard of St. Victor underscore the way in which symbols identify and organize the movements of the soul. Like an impression made in wax by a seal, they impress upon the soul a particular shape. This is because these symbols integrate the story of the self with another narrative, the story of God’s promises about the self. When Hugh of St. Victor asks his readers to visualize Noah’s ark, he wants them to internalize the entire history of God’s dealings with humanity. This cosmic history becomes integrated into the personal history of the individual to heal.

Many Christian mystical writers will also invoke the use of images to re-order emotions and desires. The flames of hell become a symbol of judgment designed to evoke the emotion of ordered fear, which is healthy for the person when it is balanced with symbols of grace. In these ways symbols not only express emotion and desire but order it. 

Once one begins to understand symbols as cultivating an encounter with the other so that the self can be shaped and formed, the ancient description of creeds as symbols of the faith becomes clear. Creeds are not simply confessional formulas by which believers declare their loyalty. When one recites the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed, one begins to glimpse what God says about the world and the self. One begins to look down on one’s condition from above as it were in the same way that the Book of Revelation speaks to churches in persecution by taking believers up into heavenly realms through symbolic discourse. Creeds narrate the self by mediating God’s story and the God who stands behind that story.

Art can become a powerful means of healing the soul because the incarnation reminds believers that creation can mediate the divine. Yet Jungian theory threatens to become a subtle version of secularity that closes the person off from anything beyond the self. There are no demons only demonic projections of unconscious states; there is no disordered desire that leads to sin, only unintegrated emotions. On the Christian view, however, the crucifix, the rosary, the icon, the works of human hands remind the self that God is at work by facilitating an encounter with God. And in this encounter mediated by the image, a beauty can be glimpsed that re-orders the soul because it communicates a love stronger than death. 

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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