Spiritual And Psychological Horizons
And Your
Spiritual Direction Paradigm

Chapter 33,  Orientations, Vol 2 Part B

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        This chapter explores the relationship between spirituality with its practice in spiritual direction and psychology with its practice in various forms of psychotherapeutic counselling. It explores the connections between the two fields and how they overlap. After a further discussion of their different but complementary roles, the chapter indicates how our practices and views of spiritual direction may be culturally programmed. It suggests a paradigm of spiritual direction that may help spiritual directors reflect upon their skill and art in our culture at this time. In order to retain the horizon of mystery in the practice of this art, the chapter recommends that spiritual direction be allowed to remain a "generalist specialty."

        To begin, let us imagine the field of spiritual direction and the field of psychotherapeutic counselling as the overlapping circles in the Venn diagram above. The B section represents a common and very large portion of the two fields; the A and C sections, their differences. The differences between the two fields can be explored by making an analysis from the A and the C stances, but to do this without an analysis from the B stance downgrades both perspectives. For spiritual directors who lack an appreciation of or fear psychology, a stress on the differences furthers their inattention to the psychological realities of their directees. Likewise, for psychotherapeutic counsellors who disbelieve spiritual realities or who claim a more `scientific' or `value-free' approach, such a stress furthers their inattention to and trivialization of spiritual realities in their clients. Comparing the two fields from the A and C perspectives only, inevitably leads towards stereotypical thinking and misses the ambiguities in the B section of each perspective.(1)

        However, when we reflect carefully on our own personal histories and on those of other people, it becomes obvious that a relationship with God often contributes to our emotional growth and integration. Many people who struggle with psychological difficulties find, in their relationship with God, strength to cope with life and to grow into greater human integration. Emotionally disadvantaged or challenged people often manifest a profound awareness of God's mystery which they find sustaining.

Common Boundaries
        In the mystery of the human person, it is problematic to try to separate the fostering of emotional growth from the personal experience of God. Spiritual experience is received in and for the totality of the human person and his/her context of conscious and less-than-conscious emotions, desires, feelings, deeper thoughts, etc., which have been affected by and have an effect on one's personal history. While psychotherapeutic counsellors may concern themselves primarily with one's emotional growth and spiritual guides with one's relationship with God, most of the time these aspects are intertwined and must be dealt with in an intertwined way. Consider, for example, a directee who is having difficulties in coping with her peers because she is not dealing appropriately with her own underlying hostility. A competent spiritual director, at some point, would judge that her spirituality, specifically as spirituality, is wanting unless she is also open to dealing with the hostility that has been influencing her interaction with others. Depending on his level of competence, the spiritual director would help her deal with that hostility, some of which would be surfacing from her less-than-conscious psyche.

Gospel Sometimes Presumes A Mature Integration
        Jesus said we could judge a tree by its fruits and that means on all levels -- the God-and-me level, the you-and-me-and-us level, and the level of our interaction with the broader world and its systems and structures. He implied that spirituality, specifically as spirituality, is manifested on, is affected by, and has an effect on, each of these levels.

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        When Jesus tells us not to judge rashly, he is pointing out how we are often more adept in attempting to remove a match-stick from our neighbour's eye than the log from our own. Psychology has come to name this phenomenon `projection.' But Jesus tells us that if we are to be authentic disciples, we should be dealing with our projections. He teaches us that calling our brothers and sisters "Raka" makes us "guilty of hell-fire." One who recognizes the potential destructiveness of one's own projections has a mature level of psychological awareness. The person, who can truly appreciate how calling one's neighbour "Raka" contains within it a movement that leads toward hell, is psychologically and spiritually quite mature.

        Other teachings of gospel spirituality presume a similar combination of spiritual and psychological maturity. When Jesus says, "The Sabbath is made for human beings and not human beings for the Sabbath," he is implying a stage of maturity beyond that of the law-and-order stage of moral development.(2) Jesus is also implying a high degree of psychological integration when he tells us to "turn the other cheek." One has to feel good about oneself and have a sense of one's own self-worth to turn the other cheek. It is not the work of the psychotherapeutic counsellors alone to foster such a level of integration; it is also the work of mothers and fathers and teachers and social workers and spiritual directors and prayer guides.

        The person who is called to die to oneself must have a "self" to die to. If a spiritual director is to encourage such a dying to oneself as he must, then he needs to help his directee have a strong enough self to which to die. A psychotherapeutic counsellor might need to encourage an overly responsible client to develop a strong enough self by taking less responsibility for others. A spiritual guide might consider such over-responsible behaviour a form of selfishness and sensuality and name the process of learning to be less responsible a form of `dying to oneself,' `mortification,' `carrying the cross,' or `self-denial.' While a co-dependent directee might find this very difficult to do, her spiritual guide, knowing how the process of moving toward mature responsibility develops through risking mistakes and/or doing actions which appear selfish, might encourage her to do it. In this process, she would be helped in moving from the `false self' to the `true self.'

        On the other hand, a psychotherapeutic counsellor who does not lead a client away from self-preoccupation to placing other people's needs before one's own, at times and realistically, is practising a very truncated and harmful psychology. Psychotherapeutic counselling fails within its own realm when it does not encourage one's intimacy with self to be open to an intimacy with life which includes play, wonder, and some form of ultimate or deeper meaning. For human persons, such deeper meaning cannot happen unless one's personal growth is blended with a realistic concern for the common good and community beyond oneself.

        Because they continue to reflect upon their respective skills from the A or the C stance, as illustrated in the Venn diagram above, some spiritual guides and psychotherapists continue to separate the psychological realm too much from the spiritual realm and vice versa. Unfortunately, psychology, along with its applied techniques in various forms of psychotherapeutic counselling, was born in the early part of this century when spirituality in the various churches was almost non-existent. Where spirituality did exist, as in the monasteries, its understanding and the articulation of this understanding were often reduced to the clear and distinct ideas of the prevailing rationalism. In addition, the churches, and consequently the spiritualities which they were supposed to foster, stressed institutional good over individual good. They also fostered the belief that the "really real" was from the neck up rather than from the top of the head down.(3)

        Psychology leapt into the individual and affective gap and began to locate those aspects which spirituality always referred to as the "heart" or "inner person" or one's "depths" as being below a person's immediate consciousness -- the preconscious and the unconscious. It claimed for its own, the experience of human growth. As such, psychology was understood as personal and developmental while spirituality was stereotyped as static and something fixed.(4)

        The use of psychological tools and therapies has become so universal with such perceived success in helping people to understand themselves and to cope with their emotional wounds that educated persons, in our present culture, are expected to be psychologically literate. This includes the skill of focused listening to one's own and another person's more significant feelings along with the knowledge of how human maturing processes are connected to both personal history and unconscious development. In all of the helping professions, the most fundamental level of listening to a person's experience is to listen for, hear, and notice how one expresses one's significant feelings and how all of this is related to the way one makes judgements about life. A helper has to know what the human experience means before he can know what it means in any other context including the faith context. Though persons in the various helping professions ought to stay away from using techniques in which they have no competence, not to use the skills and learning from knowledge based on the study of psychology and the art of psychotherapeutic counselling would be to render their own professions ineffective. As an educated adult, one cannot help but think in psychological categories. The real issue is to recognize one's personal limitations in their use.(5)

        Like others in the helping professions in our culture, a spiritual director needs to be psychologically literate in order to listen to a directee's interior experiences. This basic literacy will also help him recognize his own limitations with regard to the use of more psychological techniques available to him. This basic literacy will help guard against the harm that can arise from projection and transference. Exceptions to the requirement of this psychological literacy occur with those rare persons who are so gifted by both nature and grace that they can compassionately read another's heart as Jesus did with the Samaritan woman at the well and with Nicodemus, who came to him by night. The stories around the giftedness of the Curé of Ars and Brother André of Montreal exemplify this. Persons such as these should not be bothered with this discussion. They already have a wisdom that training can not give them.

        So far, I have attempted to make the point that spiritual direction and psychotherapeutic counselling are connected through psychological literacy. But there are also many other connections:

1) Both frequently deal with common aspects of human growth such as grieving 
    issues and life-transition issues.
2) Both are concerned with the transformation of interior images since images of 
    God are connected to images of self and to images of the world and vice versa.
3) Both use such techniques as the exploration of feelings, the reframing of the 
    way one views and experiences negative situations, guided imagery to allow 
    memories to emerge, remembrance and discussion of dreams, etc.
4) Both deal with the conscious and the less-than-conscious.
5) Both deal with the influence of one's history on one's inner life and outer 
Differences and Complementarities
        On the other hand, it is not difficult to perceive their differences when one compares the trained and focused skills of a psychotherapeutic counsellor in unblocking past unconscious scars with the trained and focused skills of a spiritual director attentive to movements happening in prayer and in the directee's ongoing relationship with God:
Psychotherapeutic Counsellor
Spiritual Director

Helps the client to attend first to her present life experience and, then, to work backwards to relieve blockages to human growth. At times, the blockages needing relief and/or healing are below consciousness and emerge out of the primordial character structure or the repressed unconscious.

If the spiritual director helps the directee deal with unconscious or character-structure material, it is because such material has surfaced (due to the directee's own less-than-conscious permission) within the dynamic of her prayer.

If the psychotherapeutic counsellor helps the client to consider the future and move forward with good decisions, it is by way of presenting options and strategies for coping with life's hurdles and transitions.

Attends to the directee's present experiences of prayer (which inevitably(6) are related to the directee's life) and then, through this, helps the directee to discover God's present call to move forward in companionship.

The skilled focus of the psychotherapeutic counsellor is primarily on the client's self and on the conflicts within the self in order that the client will be empowered to cope more effectively in her circumstances of life. If the focus is on the person in relationship with other persons, it is through the therapist's dealing with the client's self.(7)

The skilled focus of the 
spiritual director is primarily on the directee in her experiential relationship to other persons; that is, to God as manifested through the persons of the Trinity who are involved in our world. If the spiritual director's focus is on the directee's self and her conflicts in coping, it is through the spiritual director's attempt to deal with the directee's relationship to God.

        In many situations, spiritual directors complement the work of psychotherapeutic counsellors and vice versa. In situations where spiritual directors and psychotherapeutic counsellors have the freedom and luxury to deal with the same client and have the client's permission to consult each other, their roles are very clearly experienced as complementary but different. In these situations, clients or directees observe that both approaches further some of the same interior processes. Such hands-on experiences manifest more clearly the distinction made above: whereas the psychotherapeutic counsellor's focus is on the self (the client's inner conflicts or character structures), the spiritual director's focus is on the person in relationship with other persons (the directee's relationship with God and through this with others in the world).

The Healing Connection
        Both therapists and spiritual directors use terms such as growth toward wholeness, becoming integrated, becoming more human, wellness, etc. -- the implication being that both fields deal with the work of healing. Long before psychology and psychotherapeutic counselling came into existence as specialized knowledge with professional techniques for helping others, psychic healing was always considered part of the work of spiritual guidance and religious ritual.(8) The symbol of anointing with oil and prayers for healing were part of prehistoric religious practices.(9) Quite properly, spiritual guidance has always been involved with the healing of the mind.(10)

        Therefore, we must assume and take for granted that healing is one of the ordinary consequences of spiritual guidance according to our various traditions of Christian spirituality. Unfortunately, as it did over the centuries, popular religious culture, particularly now during the expectation of the third millennium, misuses this assumption by associating healing with cure, miracle, exercise of power, etc. Popular religious culture has obfuscated the nature of the healing that is more properly achieved through spiritual guidance; namely, the healing of meaning rather than the healing of integration.(11)

Healing Of Meaning
        In the Christian tradition, healing of meaning is ultimately not a matter of good counselling and therapeutic techniques. It is finding the self engaged in a relationship with God through one's encounter with the gospel story of Jesus. Healing of meaning has more to do with learning to tell one's own life stories and to re-establish them in the light of the gospel, thus opening oneself for the acceptance of mystery into one's life through the influence and companionship of God's Spirit. As suggested above, the focus is not on the self and one's conflicts within the self. Rather, the focus is primarily on one's relationship with persons -- the historical and present community of persons present to us in our life now(12) through the mystery of our caring God.

        In this work of healing of meaning, spiritual directors may have to make use of those same psychological techniques used by other professionalswhose main work deals with the healing of integration. At times, a spiritual director's level of skill will not be appropriate for a directee's needs. Then, like other professionals in our culture, he will need to refer his directee to someone who has the appropriate level of psychological skills. This need becomes quite evident when, after a period of time, a spiritual director perceives that the spiritual-guidance focus is not sufficiently helping his directee. Some simple illustrations can help us reflect on the inter-relationship between spiritual guidance and psychotherapeutic counselling. The first is the image the DNA model. The two strands of the double helix in that model move in the same general direction. There are cross-over bridges all along the way. Think of one strand as the path of spiritual guidance and the other as the path of psychotherapeutic counselling. At any point along the way, a directee or client may cross over to use the other path to move along her personal life journey. However, sooner or later, a person will inevitably need the healing of meaning of the spiritual path which ultimately moves beyond the scope of the healing of the psychological path. Another illustration comes from elementary science. It is the image of the instrument used to demonstrate how gravity causes water to seek the same level. If water is poured into any one of the cylinders of the device, the water rises to the same level in all the other cylinders. Each of the cylinders can represent a perspective of understanding and dealing with the experiences of a person. As "water" is poured into the spiritual-direction cylinder, in time, it rises in the psychotherapeutic-counselling cylinder and vice versa, etc.

Healing Of Meaning -- Our Spiritual Direction Horizon
        The distinction between healing of integration and healing of meaning is a "slippery" distinction. In practice, it can easily be lost. We are so psychologically literate in our culture that we do not recognize this literacy when we use it -- like the proverbial person who, one day, was surprised to discover that he was speaking in prose. We now live and breathe psychological literacy. Our movies and bookstores are filled with this reality. We assume this way of thinking as the key way of understanding human experience. Therefore, we can trivialize our own work of spiritual direction at those times when we do not recognize that we are using only a psychological paradigm in the work of spiritual direction and not a spiritual direction paradigm with its specific instruments. In those moments, we run the risk of "doing psychology in a faith context." Without such a recognition, we may foster "cheap grace" through our unwitting use of cheap psychology.

        Psychotherapeutic counselling often uses its tools and knowledge to help a client become freer in managing one's life by fostering the healing of one's psyche from the emotional effects of one's past history. Spiritual direction and spirituality, on the other hand, give a directee meaning and strength to use these and its own proper tools to live life meaningfully even when the effects of such obstacles are not totally relieved. This context of meaning is most aptly demonstrated through the theology and attitudes toward life implied in the following examples. They indicate moments in the spectrum of meaning for which a directee is disposed through the work of spiritual direction.

        The first example is "The Serenity Prayer" by Reinhold Niebuhr. This is a good summary of Christian spirituality. It is very consistent with many other spiritual traditions.

The Serenity Prayer
Implied Theology & Spirituality
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change .......
  • -- It begins with our personal and caring God who is involved in our world as a whole and with each of us individually. I am part of a universe over which I do not have control and there are many things over which I am helpless.
  • I am dependent on God's activity to achieve the balance (serenity, freedom) that I need.
  • There are many external events and internal bodily and psychic events that happen to me which I may not want and I can do nothing about them except to accept what is.
  • Courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference .......
  • With God's help, I do have the ability and responsibility to change some things about myself and my world.
  • Most of the time, total healing from the psychic wounds of the past is illusion.
  • By embracing my own brokenness, I am led to wisdom.
  • Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time ......
  • In fact, I have but a minuscule "now" of the present moment, not even one day, with absolute certainty. 
  • Because everything I have has been given, it is only by welcoming life as gift with a humble spirit that real joy comes.
  • Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace .....
  • Hardship, mixed as it is with the mystery of iniquity, is built into the very fabric of our evolutionary life.
  • I, like everyone else, am confronted with the necessity of carrying my cross daily; in the paradox of "dying to myself," I can find peace which is not completed until after my own actual death.
  • Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it .....
  • Through Jesus, God embraced the world as it is; I can do no less; I am not God.
  • Trusting that God will make all things right if I surrender to God's will ......
  • God journeys with me and helps me to surrender to life's mystery and its overall purposes. 
  • I "do God's will" by accepting my role in cooperating with others to further the process of creation.
  • That I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with God forever in the next.... Amen.
  • Life is brought to completion only in eternity. 
  • I can only hope to be reasonably happy during my lifetime. 
  • Since we are made for intimacy with God, our hearts are always restless and unfulfilled until God brings us to God's self.
  • This second example is Pedro Arrupe's entry(13) in his diary towards the end of his life:

    More than ever, I find myself in the hands of God.
    This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth.
    But now there is a difference;
    the initiative is entirely with God.
    It is indeed a profound spiritual experience
    to know and feel myself so totally in God's hands

            Both examples express the context of meaning of the spiritual journey of life. The first is from the perspective of the middle of the journey; the second is from the perspective of the end of the journey. You will notice that many of the themes expressed in these two pieces coincide with some of the themes nurtured through psychotherapeutic therapies: openness to the flow of life, self-acceptance, acceptance of life as it is, realism towards self and towards others, personal growth through transitions and crises. At the same time, there are basic differences.

            In summary, spiritual direction is connected through psychological literacy to the study of psychology and its practices in psychotherapeutic counselling. Both spiritual direction and psychotherapeutic counselling involve healing. Psychotherapeutic counselling focuses primarily on the self and the conflicts which arise within the self that surface as a result of a crisis in one's world -- healing for integration. On the other hand, spiritual guidance focuses primarily on one's personal relationship with God and, through this, on one's relationships with others and the world -- healing of meaning.

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    Endnotes for this part of the chapter

    1. In the North American climate of the late 1990s, there have been court cases where issues concerning the competency of spiritual guides have been challenged. As this may continue to happen, prosecuting attorneys will probably attempt to defend their cases by making their analyses from the A or C perspective. This will further exacerbate the stereotypical thinking.

    2. Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) demonstrates how individuals develop from one stage of moral thinking towards a higher stage of moral thinking. James Fowler gives us an understanding of faith development as happening through various stages of growth. Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984) and other theologians postulate that, on the journey of life, persons move through a variety of conversions -- religious, intellectual, moral, affective, socio-political. Spiritual growth implies growth through these conversions and stages. The spiritual director, precisely as a spiritual director, helps a directee move through some or all of these conversions or stages.

    3. Consult Morton T. Kelsey, Companions on the Inner Way (New York: Crossroad, 1985), Chapter 2, "Spiritual Guidance and the Western World."

    4. You need only to do a little research by going to a library and checking out the books dealing with spirituality written between 1900 and 1960 to understand historically why spirituality is considered, by some people with a psychotherapeutic counselling background, to be uninvolved with human growth.

    5. Spirituality needs psychology to reclaim the ambiguities of human experience; psychology needs spirituality to reclaim the mystery of human experience.

    6. Inevitably? ... Yes. And if a spiritual director perceives that the directee's prayer is unrelated to life, then he facilitates the integration between the two.

    7. Thank you to John English, S.J., for sharing this insight in one of our conversations.

    8. To verify this, you need only to look up the prayers from earlier liturgical sources in both the Anglican and Roman churches such as the Book of Common Prayer and the Roman Sacramentary. In both churches, the anointing with oil is for the mind as well as for the body.

    9. Confer Marc Muldoon and John Veltri, "From Symbolic Rapport to Public Rhetoric in the Roman Catholic Church," Grail: An Ecumenical Journal, vol. 11, no. 4 (1996), pp.25-43.

    10. This may be an important point in our present atmosphere of litigation in North America when lawyers may go out of their way to imply that since spiritual directors are not psychologists, they should refrain from dealing with a person's interiority. Consequently, in order to help protect potential spiritual directors against such an accusation, training centres may decide to require, over and above the psychological literacy of the educated adult in our culture, a psychotherapeutic training for spiritual directors. How could this affect the theory and practice of spiritual direction?

    11. I am grateful to Marc Muldoon for this distinction and the insight that follows.

    12. In the Catholic tradition, this is represented in the belief of the Communion of Saints.

    13. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., (1907-1991) became the general superior of the Society of Jesus in the years immediately after the Second Vatican Council. He wrote this toward the end of his life while suffering from a stroke.

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