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Psychotherapy
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Not as man sees does God see,
because man sees the appearance
but the LORD looks into the heart.

—1 Samuel 16:7

 

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Introduction | A Story About Desire | Psychotherapy and Spiritual Counseling | Psychotherapy Techniques | Demonic Influence | Medications | Putting it into Practice | The Reason for Emotional Awareness | Summary: When You Feel Stuck

 
THE only true psychotherapy in the Catholic mystic tradition is prayer and fasting [1] combined with a sincere study of the faith. It’s that simple. If only we did exactly what Christ told us to do—to turn away from the satisfactions of the world so as to renounce sin, pray constantly, and live chaste and humble lives filled with loving sacrifices for the salvation of other souls—we would be spiritually and mentally healthy.

Many individuals through the ages have found healing for their emotional pain in this way. But such healing requires total surrender to God. It’s all or nothing.

  

Healing requires that you take up relentless, persistent prayer to God (and to the saints and angels for their intercession) that you will grow in holiness, and, at the same time, you must force yourself to maintain a calm trust in God’s protection and guidance despite your fears of admitting your own helplessness and despite your impatience with things not happening as quickly as you want.

  

It’s a sad truth that in today’s world, despite our prayers and confessions, many Catholics do not live lives completely ordered to the commands of Christ. We hesitate to make the total surrender to Him that Christ asked us to make because, despite our best conscious intentions, we constantly encounter psychological obstructions that hold us back from living holy lives.

  

If your boat is tied to the dock, no matter how hard you row you still won’t go very far until you untie the rope. In a similar way, no matter how hard you try to improve your life, you will be obstructed with self-sabotage and failure if you haven’t resolved the unconscious conflicts from your childhood that tie you to frustration and resentment.

  

Accordingly, many individuals today need psychotherapy to help them overcome the unconscious resistances to doing the very things they know consciously they should be doing.

 
A Story About Desire

I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but the story goes that a man came to an ancient philosopher desiring to learn wisdom. The philosopher took the man out into a river and then suddenly wrestled him down under the water.
     Just at the point of drowning him, the philosopher hauled him out again and said, “Now, what did you say you wanted?”
     The poor guy was just gasping and wheezing, begging for air.
     “Well, when you want wisdom as much as you want to breathe,” the philosopher told him, “then you shall have it.”

 
Psychotherapy and Spiritual Counseling

Many persons find it difficult to make a total surrender to God through their own efforts, and they discover that education and reasoning do little to overcome their resistances. In this case, spiritual counseling and psychotherapy must be used to understand and overcome the fear that puts up obstacles to the spiritual purgation necessary for living a holy lifestyle.

These obstacles are created by emotional resentments that begin in childhood and become the core of your unconscious psychological defenses. Such defenses have an original purpose of protecting you from intense emotional pain by hiding your resentments from conscious awareness, but as you get older these resentments can so erode your confidence and self-esteem with feelings of victimization, hate, self-blame, and self-punishment that they affect not only your mental health but also your social health and spiritual health.

In fact, individuals caught up in their unconscious defenses are stuck in the false belief that they are “in control” of their lives and their own mental health.

  

And why is this? Well, you may not want to admit this to yourself, but all of us have dark and hateful thoughts and imaginings that we keep shrouded in secrecy and don’t want to reveal to anyone, especially not to a psychologist. How many times have you said to yourself, “If people knew what I was really like, they would never want anything to do with me”? But the more you try to hide the truth of your life from others, the more you hide it from yourself, and the more you fall into pride—the pride of doing everything your way without need for total surrender to God.

  

 
Psychotherapy Techniques

Many various psychotherapy theories and techniques have been developed since the early 1900s when Sigmund Freud formulated the concept of psychoanalysis. All of these techniques have one basic objective: to help us do the things we would like to do, but, by ourselves, cannot manage to do.

Some of these techniques are based in conscious, rational thought processes.

Cognitive-Behavioral techniques, for example, focus specifically on changing thoughts and behaviors. Note that vocal prayer is the pre-eminent form of Cognitive-Behavioral therapy.

Teaching and reasoning are also forms of psychotherapy. Note that this has been a preferred method of Christian psychotherapy, beginning with Christ Himself, continuing with the Apostles, and fully exemplified by men such as St. Thomas Aquinas, whose work is often recalled by modern Catholics in their practice of psychotherapy, and St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises.

Still, some persons develop such deep resistance to changing their lives for the good that psychotherapy must reach deep into their unconscious minds, well past their conscious thoughts.

Guided Imagery helps you visualize things that could or might happen so that you can achieve them or avoid them in the future. Note that St. Ignatius of Loyola anticipated this concept in his Spiritual Exercises.

Mental Prayer (or contemplative prayer) calls upon inspiration by the Holy Spirit to reveal and understand unconscious mental conflicts. Note that Catholic mystics through the ages have had much to say about this. 


Dreams [2] can be interpreted to help you understand emotional elements of your life that you have not yet recognized consciously. Note that the Book of Daniel provides a practical example of this, while the Book of Sirach (34:5) warns us that dreams are not meant to be taken as predictions of actual future events.

 
Demonic Influence

Some persons falsely believe that psychological disorders can be the result of demonic influence. The truth is actually the other way around. Psychological disorders result from emotional resentments that have been stuffed away into the unconscious, and then, if the resentments are especially strong, the anger and hatred underlying them will attract demons the way blood in the water attracts sharks. Remember a fundamental point here: demons cannot get into us unless we invite them in, and one clear invitation is through the door of hatred and lust. Consequently, prayers of deliverance—and formal exorcism, if necessary—can help to clear the path for further psychological healing. Note well, though, that the demons will keep coming back as long as there is hatred and lust for them to feed on. To stay free of the demons it will be necessary to resolve the resentments underlying the psychological disorder.

  

Even individuals in religious life—especially novices—can benefit from deliverance prayer or exorcism. Although some persons may say that unless a person can accomplish healing through prayer alone the person is not suitable for religious life, keep in mind that exorcism is prayer. And for that matter, psychotherapy, when conducted properly, is also prayer.

  

 
The Place for Medications

Psychological and spiritual healing is hard work. It will often seem counter-intuitive because it does not examine only what is on the surface of your life. To be able to cure the pain and confusion of your life, you really have to examine and change what motivates you to act in ways that cause pain and confusion, and, for the most part, this motivation is unconscious and under the surface of your life. Therefore, your true motivation cannot be examined directly. It must be examined indirectly by digging through all the dirt and filth hidden under the surface. It’s no wonder, then, that most people fear psychotherapy—and fear psychologists.

Consequently, psychiatric medication has a special appeal to it, an appeal that is seen more and more today in advertising. Rather than go through all the hard work of constantly monitoring your feelings, thoughts, and actions, why not feel better without having to do anything at all? Why change your lifestyle? Just take some pills a couple times a day and go about your life as usual. 

Now, the truth is, psychiatric medications are generally mandatory for the treatment of disorders such as schizophrenia and mania. For other disorders such as depression, PTSD, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, psychiatric medications can, in some cases, be a helpful adjunct to psychotherapy. That is, medications can suppress debilitating anxiety or alleviate your depressed mood such that you can then feel comfortable enough to do the hard work of psychotherapy.[3]

  

Note carefully, however, that psychiatric medications are not curative. The medications merely suppress unwanted symptoms for as long as a person takes the medications. If the medications are stopped, then the symptoms will flourish again in full strength. I fear for such persons because, although on the surface it may seem that they are living devout lives, all of the hatred and anger suppressed by the medications still lurks in the depths of their hearts.
 
But if psychotherapy is used in conjunction with psychiatric medications, the psychotherapy holds the possibility of a genuine cure by resolving the deep unconscious issues that lie behind the symptoms—and then the medications can be discontinued.

  

 
Putting It Into Practice

In the form of psychological and spiritual healing I practice, and as I describe on this website, you can be guided—through the sacraments, vocal and mental prayer, fasting, study, and the insight resulting from the psychotherapeutic relationship—into understanding the roots of your unconscious conflicts and defenses; you can learn to identify the events of life that have wounded you and to understand the emotions surrounding those events.

That is, it’s not enough just to “know” intellectually what happened—it is important to feel the pain and then be able to identify and “name” the emotions associated with your pain.

This process happens through your speaking about your life in a therapeutic setting so as to interpret unconscious connections through spontaneous associations to your intellectual memories and through other techniques, such as dream interpretation.

Eventually, you can recover a full awareness of your emotional life that in childhood you learned to suppress as a psychological defense.

  

The goal of all this work is not to blame your parents for what they failed to do but to get past your hidden resentments at your parents for what they failed to do, so that you can take full responsibility for your life and ultimately forgive your parents and honor them. Remember, so long as you have unconscious resentment for your parents, it will be impossible for you to honor them—and trying to honor them without admitting your unconscious resentments for them is just a lie.

  

 
The Reason for Emotional Awareness

Some persons will say that they want nothing to do with “touchy-feeley psychology” and will insist that their lives are quite fine without it. Those who say this, however, have usually experienced family dysfunctions such as alcoholism, or emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. In an environment of lying, broken promises, arguing, and violence, they grew to fear emotions as something dangerous.

Nevertheless, in order to live a true Christian lifestyle, everyone, male and female, needs to be able to manage his or her internal emotional reactions to external events, so as to remain always in a place of Christian purity of heart. Two common “emotional traps” illustrate this.

1.

Let’s say that someone says something critical to you. Your immediate reaction, based upon learned behavior from childhood, will be to defend yourself. That can provoke more criticism, and more arguing, until you get so exasperated that you start saying hateful and vengeful things—and right there you have abandoned purity of heart and fallen into sin. This all happens because interpersonal conflicts result from failed emotional communication.

2.

Let’s say you’re on your way home from work and suddenly you feel a temptation to stop at a bar and drink—to use drugs—to shoplift—to stop at a strip club—to get a “massage” from a prostitute—to masturbate. So right there you have abandoned purity of heart and fallen into sin. This all happens because behind every temptation is an emotional reaction to some event that has shaken your self-confidence.

Emotional awareness, therefore, is a psychological tool that provides protection from sin. Interpersonal conflicts result from failed emotional communication. Temptations do not just appear out of nowhere; behind every temptation is an emotional reaction to some event that has shaken your self-confidence. It is impossible to stay in the place of Christian purity of heart if you fail to understand your emotional reactions to the events around you.

Thus through psychotherapy you can learn to respond to every moment of the present with a complete understanding of the emotions involved—and this understanding gives you the ability to respond honestly and appropriately to the situation.

  

For example, if someone says something that hurts you, you can say to yourself, “OK. I’m feeling helpless and abandoned.” In the midst of these feelings, you can recognize how you responded defensively to similar feelings as a child. Then you can choose an appropriate, non-defensive, mature, and psychologically honest response to your current feelings.

But if you haven’t done your psychological work, instead of naming your feelings you will just feel a vague yucky inadequacy and then get angry or go off and drown the yuck with food or drugs or some other dysfunctional behavior. The sad thing is that when you drown the yuck, right along with it you drown the possibility of forgiveness.

  

 
Summary: When You Feel Stuck

People often tell me that they feel stuck and unable to make any spiritual progress, and they ask me what to do.
 

Learn to Pray Properly

Well, first of all, pray. But be careful here. Just going to Mass and praying the Rosary isn’t sufficient to inspire healing. Prayer must be a constant moment-by-moment communication with God in the heart. Prayer can also be a matter of deliverance prayer (with a priest) and exorcism (by a priest-exorcist). Moreover, healing prayer is not simply a matter of asking for specific things to happen or for material objects; instead, pray for God to inspire you and to give you guidance. Furthermore, pray for the wisdom and courage to perceive and carry out that guidance so as to make meaningful changes in your beliefs about yourself and, consequently, to change your physically and spiritually unhealthy behaviors.

Moreover, don’t expect that God will tap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey [N]! This is what I want you to do.” God’s answer to your prayers will come though ordinary daily events. It will be up to you to open your heart to believing that ordinary events—under the influence of constant prayer—can help guide you. For everything that happens (especially for tribulations and distress), say to yourself, “What is this telling me about what I need to learn about myself and how I need to change?”

One really good prayer is the following prayer of my own. (It really works, because I used it during my conversion.)

O HOLY SPIRIT,
take me as Your disciple.
Guide me; illuminate me; sanctify me.
Show me what is holy,
and I will pursue it.
Show me what is unholy,
and I will turn from it.
Command me, and with Your grace
I will obey.
Lead me, then, into the fullness
of Your Truth and Wisdom.
Amen.

 
Detachment from the Social World

Second, as a way to detach from the unholy influence of the social world, follow the Spiritual Counsels on this website.
 

Hidden Anger

Third, if you find that you have difficulty praying and keeping the counsels, then consider that your stuckness could be a form of anger, directed at others, especially your parents. That is, you may be unconsciously creating a disability so as to send yourself to hell to prove to others that they have failed you. In this case, you may need psychotherapy techniques to resolve this problem.

 

Who wrote this web page?

 

Notes.

1.When prayer is combined with fasting for psychotherapy, it is important to understand both prayer and fasting in a very specific sense.
   In regards to healing, prayer must be more than “standard” formal prayers (such as the Rosary); prayer must be an intimate communication with God as an appeal for deep personal scrutiny (both psychological insight into past emotional injuries and psychological insight into the ways current thoughts and behaviors are affected by those past emotional injuries) and an appeal for the desire and courage to alter dysfunctional life patterns through a dedicated surrender to, and trust in, God’s will.
   In regards to healing, fasting should be considered to be an act of distancing oneself from anything that is not necessary for nurturing a state of life governed by total love for God. Hence we can fast from worldly activities (e.g., entertainment and sports) that bring material pleasure to life but that actually distract us—and often lead us away—from an awareness of God’s holy presence in our lives. In this regard, the most benefit will result from perpetual fasting. (Note that perpetual avoidance of mortal sin could also be considered a form of fasting, but this sort of fasting must be considered mandatory for every Christian.)
   We can also fast from food and drink that our bodies do not really need for optimal functioning. In this regard it is important to understand that fasting does not amount to a ruthless act of merely denying ourselves pleasure from good food; instead, fasting has two aspects. First, it can refer to cutting back on—and even eliminating, if possible—unhealthy foods (e.g., junk foods, sugary foods, processed foods). Second, it can refer to a selective reduction of the usual amount of food for a limited time, so as to effect a purging of physiological toxins from the body and also to stimulate a greater awareness of a spiritual hunger for the presence of the holy in our lives.

2. Note that a traditional Catholic guide such as the Baltimore Catechism claims that dreams are irrational and meaningless and should be ignored. But note carefully that this Catechism was written at a time when the psychology of the unconscious was not scientifically understood. It just goes to show that scientific knowledge—in contrast to Catholic dogma—is always limited to the current culture. If you want to believe the Baltimore Catechism about dreams you may as well believe that the world is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth.

3. Be careful not to be deceived by “medical marijuana.” Marijuana is an evil substance, and any use of it, for any reason, opens a hellgate to demonic influence. As politically correct as “medical marijuana” may seem, it’s all a demonic deception.

 

Books from this website

Healing
 
 
 

Though
Demons
Gloat

 

Anger
&
Forgiveness

 

Falling Families,
Fallen Children

 
 

Disasters
and
Trauma

 

Psychology
from the
Heart

 

 
Psychological healing
in the Catholic mystic tradition

 
True Christian
identity
in confronting
evil

 
How to turn the emotional wounds
of daily life into
psychological growth.

 
The psychological and
spiritual remedy
for our cultural
disintegration

 
The psychological
and spiritual battle
against
evil

 
Collected texts about the spiritual depth of clinical psychology

 
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CATHOLIC PSYCHOLOGY

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A Guide to Psychology and its Practice
 

 
Copyright © 1997-2017 Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
 

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Where Catholic therapy (Catholic psychotherapy) is explained according to Catholic psychology in the tradition of the Catholic mystics.