SOMETIMES DOES HELP OUR PERSONAL
PSYCHOLOGICAL GROWTH -- OR DOES IT?
John Veltri, sj
Yes It does!
The popularization of healing prayer in all the mainline churches over the past 35 years gives a simple image of how prayer promotes psychological growth:A year or so ago, one of the women in our community said to me in passing that I had a lot of bitterness in me. I was busy at the time and busy afterwards with a lot of things, so I did not do anything about it. From time to time her remarks reoccurred to me, and I did realize that occasionally a sharpness would develop in my tone of voice, a certain harshness would colour my relations with others. I would ask forgiveness when I could and move on. A few months ago I had occasion ... to use my prayer time to be healed of the effects of bad experiences in my past.Such a testimony as that above has been repeated over and over again through retreats, prayer sessions during the past twenty years. Some examples are more profound, some more superficial.
I began by settling quietly in God's presence, and after reminding myself of His perfect love and of His desire to heal me, I asked Him to bring to my mind the memories of the experiences which were at the root of this buried bitterness. The first memory came back almost at once. I saw myself on the stairway of my high school that first day of my freshman year. I was a fat little twelve-year-old between two much larger boys. It was a scene that I hadn't thought about in over 25 years. I saw their faces clearly and I even remembered their names. A priest walked by and I said, "Hello". I had served mass for him many times. The other boys did not know the priests and began to ridicule me for trying to "get in" with them. I was both hurt and confused. I wanted very much to be friends with my classmates, but it looked as though I was getting off to a very bad start. I really couldn't understand why saying hello was so misunderstood. At that point in my recollection I forgave each of them. Then in my imagination I walked back into that scene with Jesus by my side. I could imagine each of the boys becoming self-conscious and confused as they saw Jesus. I could see Jesus forgiving them and urging them to be more loving and understanding. Then He turned to the little boy (me) and He let me know that what I did was all right, that the other boys were wrong in what they did and they were sorry. I really felt His love. I could see the little boy begin to smile, and then we walked out of the recollection. In the course of a week's prayer I had about fifty experiences like that, and I find that much of the bitterness and harshness has disappeared from my behaviour.... Praise God!.(From Lange and Cushing, Freedom and Healing,
Paulist Press, 1975.)
In the course of giving the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, that month long intensive prayer experience, many directors have noted that their exercitants have progressed psychologically. The kinds of self-knowledge, the kinds of self-acceptance, the kinds of dealing with darker parts of the inner self, the kinds of healing and self-actualization that appear as a secondary result of the Spiritual Exercises are the results that one would expect from a year or two of bi-weekly psychological counselling sessions.
But Psychological Growth Also Helps Our Prayer --
We speak of the spiritual life and life of prayer as a journey with God, the inward journey. Scott Peck referred to this as a Road Less Traveled. Thomas Merton refers to this journey as a movement from the false self to the true self. The purpose of all psychological growth as it is of spiritual growth is that a person comes to accept oneself in one's world with love. In the latter part of his book, Peck uses two cases to demonstrate that the inward journey can begin either with prayer/faith experiences or with psychological therapy experiences. Both are vehicles. For some persons however only one of these vehicles will help them begin this journey and later continue this journey. In other words, the instrument of prayer can help with psychological growth; and the instrument of psychological counselling can help with the life of prayer.
When I speak of the inward journey I am implying that a person grows in consciousness of her/his relationship with the loving God. Through intimacy with God one grows in intimacy with self and intimacy with life. The journey moves through self-knowledge and self-acceptance towards attitudes of self-forgetfulness and compassion for all. This journey inward is a movement of integration and wholeness. It implies a kind of psychological growth with which a person deals with the hidden aspects of the psyche which block the normal maturing processes of adult life. For the person of faith and prayer this journey hopefully is a movement towards holiness.
Holiness And Wholeness Are Not Interchangeable !!!
Prayer does not always lead to or help psychological growth. Fanatical people pray. Evil people pray. Neurotic people pray. Closed people pray. Some persons who have prayed for years remain rigid. Other persons of prayer are blind to their selfishness and greed.
Yet some very neurotic persons who pray find prayer helpful. People suffering from bouts of chronic depression may find prayer a way of coping with life. Often for many persons, prayer is a way of putting up with life, a way of keeping sane and sustaining meaning in otherwise intolerable circumstances. Though prayer in these circumstances may not lead to psychological growth or wholeness as I described above, nevertheless it can help in stemming further deterioration. There are many prayers from many tortured persons in hidden prisons throughout the world of violence which unite with the prayer of Jesus, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me (Ps 22)" and in that cry discover a kind of strength that helps to reserve one's dignity.
For many persons prayer simply helps them cope and accept life as it is. I witnessed prayer as helping my grandmother in this way. It sustained her and helped her find meaning in a difficult life of poverty, with a large family, uprooted from an impoverished section of Italy and relocated in central Canada. I remember her kneeling by her bed -- two pillows in front of her; two dozen or so gold-edged oily, 1920 style holy cards against the pillows, a candle burning on the dresser, some whispering, a handkerchief on her head and a rosary moving slowly through her fingers.
I have always thought of her as a holy person -- perhaps a mystic -- certainly a woman of deep prayer. Prayer sustained her, gave her purpose, helped her put up with a difficult life perhaps in some way helped her keep her own personal demons at bay! But prayer did not help her name, get in touch with her real feelings, deal with and become free from the personal oppressions of her life, namely her superstitious beliefs she brought from Southern Italy, her fixed ideas about roles as mother and wife; her inability to communicate easily. There wasn't much "wholeness" and "psychological integration" that went on through her prayer. Yet prayer helped my grandmother survive. In her own way and through her ritualistic symbols my grandmother grew in holiness. She was in touch with the transcendent in the normal workings of her life and through this "in-touchness" she came in her own way to accept what was, grew in humility and extended love to others. Persons can be UN-whole and still be holy!
No It Doesn't !!!
There are large groups of people whose prayer and prayer life hinders all psychological growth. For such persons prayer is a positive block to any movement along the inward journey. These persons think of prayer as a help in coping with life. In reality their daily, weekly rituals of prayer only add to the illusion that they are on the right path. They have their lives "on hold". They see life as static and not developmental. They have fixed answers which they claim to get from some holy book such as the Bible or Koran. They are living a false kind of conversion described by Morton Kelsey:There are basically two quite different kinds of conversion. In one kind the rejected aspects of our inner being emerge and are integrated into what we are and have been. In the other, which Jung calls enantiodromia, there is simply a turning upside down of the personality, with the former life being buried securely in the unconscious and the unconscious coming to the surface. People who experience this second kind are then likely to become as rigidly "righteous" as they were thoroughly dissipated and angry and destructive before .... Most people with this frame of reference bury their former evil impulses and actions and then project them out onto others. They become standard-bearers for law and order and righteousness .... Genuine conversion brings us to the realization that there is a part of us that is open and seeking God and that there is before us the long and arduous struggle to become whole and integrated. Genuine conversion results in that kind of life that Paul describes in 1Corinthians 13.For these persons prayer and its practice is a way of NOT dealing with life at all. Prayer helps in keeping a "righteous" structure in place by aiding the rich establishment. In North America these persons help to entrench white male dominance. Fearful and unconscious of what is inside their own psyches, these persons use prayer and regular worship and church activities to prevent themselves from looking inward. They often project on others those unwanted and hateful parts of themselves. Life for them is a question of fixed roles, fixed answers and a fixed God.(Kelsey, Companions on the Inner Way,
Crossroad, 1985, p192.)
When I reflect upon the lives of people and the effects that prayer has on their personal psychological growth I come up with these observations:
By Their Fruits You Will Know Them
- For some persons prayer is simply an act of worship with no effect whatsoever on their personal growth.
- For many persons prayer helps them cope with the vicissitudes of life; through it, some of them will grow in holiness.
- For some persons prayer helps further their psychological growth.
- For some persons prayer helps them enter and move along the inward journey which implies not only a movement toward wholeness and holiness but also a consciousness of one's relationship with God on that journey.
- For other persons prayer actually prevents and hinders their personal psychological growth and prevents entrance into the inward journey.
In making such observations, I am not implying that the main purpose of prayer is to foster personal and psychological growth nor even to enter into the inward journey. Not at all! Rather the main purpose of prayer is to foster union with God -- creature with Creator; ordinary with the Transcendent. Hopefully this activity we call prayer will not hinder one's personal psychological growth, nor one's journey inward. Prayer is good in itself, just as friendship is good in itself. Yet we judge the health or authenticity of friendship by the effect on the growth in each person. Personal growth through the friendship would seem to be an indicator that the friendship is healthy. Thus the ability to cope with life, personal psychological growth, greater openness on the inward journey (i.e., b.c.d. above) are all indicators that prayer is not an illusion!
On Being Real With God
Having said all this what are the conditions necessary to foster the growth implied in c. and d. above? Henri Nouwen summarizes these conditions with the phrase "discipline of the heart":This discipline makes us aware that praying is not only listening to but also listening with. The discipline of the heart makes us stand in the presence of God with all we have and are: our fears and anxieties, our guilt and shame, our sexual fantasies, our greed and anger, our joys, successes, aspirations and hopes, our reflections, dreams and mental wandering, and most of all our people, family, friends and enemies, in short all that makes us who we are. With all this we have to listen to God's voice and allow him to speak to us in every corner of our being. This is very hard since we are so fearful and insecure that we keep hiding ourselves from God. We tend to present to God only those parts of ourselves with which we feel relatively comfortable and which we think will evoke a positive response. Thus our prayer becomes very selective and narrow. And not just our prayers but also our self-knowledge, because by behaving as strangers before God we become strangers to ourselves.This discipline of the heart implies a kind of attitude, a stance of stillness or listening that allow those unwanted parts of ourselves to surface before ourselves and before God. This allows grace to enter those hidden parts of ourselves. Thus God's word can have its effect through our prayer:(Henri Nouwen, Reflections,
January, 1981, Yale Divinity School)The word of God is something alive and active: it cuts like any double edged sword but more finely; it can slip through the place where the soul is divided from the spirit, or joints from the marrow; it can judge the secret emotions and thoughts....With these secret emotions revealed both psychological and spiritual growth take place. Through such revelation is born further healing and reconciliation of the self with self, greater enlightenment concerning oneself and others and later loving insight and desire for one's world moving toward responsible service.From the early edition of the Jerusalem Bible, Heb 4:12
Intimacy with self -- intimacy with God -- intimacy with others (the world) ... these are all interchangeable! If one grows in one of these intimacies one can grow in the others. The example that this article started with in some way shows each of these aspects. T. Cushing (writer of the experience quoted at the beginning of this article) was open enough and had a sufficient relationship enough to be told and hear that he had a lot of bitterness. Later, he as intimate with himself enough to notice a kind of sharpness in his behaviour. Finally he took time to enter that kind of vulnerable prayer in which growth can take place.