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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Questions and Answers

I discovered your Web site . . . in the way almost all gold mines are discovered — that is, while looking for something else. What I had (perhaps foolishly) hoped to find was hard and fast rules about the competency of a person to give spiritual direction, and that is because I am distressed over the last meeting I had with my own spiritual director. . . . perhaps . . . my director is being controlled by his own flaws.

Outline of the Answer
• Learned and Spiritual
• The Director’s Personal Conflicts
• Interpersonal Aspects of the Direction
• The Necessity of True Love
• Asking Blunt Questions: Personal & Theological

  
Even Saint Teresa of Avila had her problems with spiritual directors, as she mentions in The Way of Perfection (ch. 5, no. 3). In her time, only priests fulfilled this role, so she referred to these directors as “confessors.” Many are the men who caused her suffering and led her astray. And so she learned from experience with these bad confessors that a confessor, to be good, had to be “spiritual and learned.” Even though priests were the only men who were formally educated and who understood theology, Teresa knew very well that the priesthood in itself was not sufficient for spiritual direction. Teresa insisted (ch. 5, no. 4-7) that her nuns have access, even outside of confession proper, to a confessor who was learned—i.e., to paraphrase things a bit, well-trained in Scripture and Tradition and the articles of Faith and with a good common-sense grasp of psychology—if the appointed confessor was not spiritual and learned.

In today’s world, many persons are spiritual and learned, even according to Teresa’s standards, and yet they are not priests, so lay spiritual directors can be legitimate. Still, as in Teresa’s time, the greatest danger today—aside from outright heresy—is that the director will inflict his or her unconscious conflicts on the person being directed.

 
The Director’s Personal Conflicts

In fact, we can learn something here from the secular practice of psychotherapy. Just as any competent psychotherapist must go through his or her own psychotherapy in order to avoid getting unconsciously tangled up with the client’s issues, so it could be a great benefit if a lay spiritual director were both a devout and spiritual person and also a licensed mental health professional well-trained in the practice of psychotherapy.

Nevertheless, personal psychotherapy can vary in quality and depth—and this is testified to by reference to all the incompetent psychotherapists in the world—so personal psychotherapy is only one path to interpersonal objectivity. It’s also possible for a spiritual director to avoid the entanglements of the unconscious simply by living a devout Christian life detached from the world and the psychological defenses a worldly life engenders.

 
Interpersonal Aspects of the Direction

Now, it may happen that events within the spiritual direction will upset you and provoke you, for example, to respond with anger. And there’s nothing wrong with that if your reaction is understood therapeutically and treated charitably. After all, you should consider it a blessing when your weaknesses are brought to light, for then you have the opportunity to overcome the very obstacles within your unconscious that interfere with true love.

Of course, the spiritual director must not take your anger or confusion personally or retaliate with hurtful (and sinful) behavior. There will be times when the spiritual director must be stern and blunt, but there can be no room in spiritual direction for hostility and argumentiveness. As Saint Paul says, “All bitterness, anger, fury, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ” (Ephesians 4:31-32).

  

Although many persons tend to believe that anger is just a sign of being human, all anger, at its psychological core, is a dark and cruel wish for harm to come upon the person who hurt you. And, like it or not, that dark wish stands totally opposed to Christian love.

  

 
The Necessity of True Love

The spiritual director, therefore, through his or her own attitude and behavior, must lead you into the reality of true love. If he or she is caught up in pride and intellectualism, and hasn’t truly “died” to the world, then you both are in danger. But when a person has “died” to identification with the world and through devout prayer has surrendered all personal ambition and desires completely to Christ, then he or she will be capable of responding totally to the good of those being directed onto the path of true spirituality.

The sad thing, of course, is that you will have to look far and wide to find anyone among the laity with these qualities, and you will still have to do some careful searching to find a competent director among the clergy or religious.

 
Asking Blunt Questions

One quick test to sort out the good from the bad (of those who meet the basic qualifications described above) is to ask some blunt questions. There are many questions that could be asked, but if anyone cannot answer an unqualified “Yes” to at least the following questions, then he or she probably will not be able to lead you very far into a life of purity and holiness.

Personal Criteria

Do you pray the Rosary every day?
 
(How can anyone whose life is not grounded in devotional prayer and dedication to the Blessed Virgin teach you to pray constantly, and in humility?)

Are you a non-smoker?
 
(Anyone addicted to any substance “loves” the addiction more than he loves God, so how can this person teach you to love God as Christ commanded us: You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind? Remember, any addiction can be cured, if a person loves God more than he loves the addiction.)

In the absence of any severe, untreatable medical disability, are you at or below the ideal weight for a person of your height?
 
(How can anyone guilty of the sin of gluttony teach you to deny yourself?)
 

Theological Criteria

Do you believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist?

Do you believe that the only path to the glory of the resurrection is through the suffering of the cross?

Do you believe that Christ will come in glory to judge the living and the dead, rewarding the pure of heart with a place in heaven, making the imperfectly purified pay for their sins in purgatory, while the unrepentant depart to hell?

Do you believe that abortion is a sin?

Do you believe that any sexual activity outside a valid marriage between a man and a woman, such as fornication, or a gay or lesbian or bisexual lifestyle, is a sin?

Do you believe that remarriage after a divorce (in the absence of an annulment) is a sin?

Do you believe that the use of artificial contraception is a sin, as an act in itself and also as an act of disobedience to the Magisterium of the Church?

 


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