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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Responsibility

Love exhales a continual sweet perfume
by which man suffers himself to be allured,
and so powerful is this fragrance that however great
may be the torments through which he passes to salvation,
there is no martyrdom he would not suffer gladly to attain it.
 

—Saint Catherine of Genoa

 

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Introduction | Liability and Tort Law | Lawsuits and Christianity | Christian Spiritual Liability | Purification, not Compensation | Responsibility | Victimization | Blame and Hiding | Practical Examples | Summary 

 
TO SPEAK about responsibility in the spiritual sense we must distinguish it from the concept of liability in the legal sense. Therefore, I will first make a short digression into a discussion of law and then come back to the concept of spiritual responsibility.

 
Liability and Tort Law

Liability refers to being legally bound to make good for any damages caused. For example, if two cars collide in an intersection, the police investigation will determine which driver caused the crash, and if the damage is serious enough, the offending driver may not only face criminal charges but also may be vulnerable—that is, liable—to being sued for damages according to tort law, in a civil lawsuit.

 
Lawsuits and Christianity

Christianity, however, places limits on the concept of civil liability. All the principles of Christianity—turn the other cheek, forgive offenses, and so on—stand opposed to some aspects of tort law. When you are injured, or your property is damaged, seeking justice according to criminal law, or seeking compensation for damaged property, is one thing, but suing for personal damages, such as pain and suffering, against another Christian is another.

  

Now indeed it is, in any case, a failure on your part that you have lawsuits against one another. Why not rather put up with injustice? Why not rather let yourselves be cheated? Instead, you inflict injustice and cheat, and this to brothers.

  

— 1 Corinthians 6:7-8

Moreover, if you should ever sue the Church itself for your personal damages, as in allegations of child molestation, then things can get even more spiritually dangerous, because not only are you refusing to do what Saint Paul told us to do—“put up with injustice”—and refusing to trust in God’s justice, but you are also demanding that Christ Himself pay you for injuries inflicted on Him. 

  

Keep in mind that whatever anyone does to you is done to Christ Himself.[1] When you are mocked, Christ is mocked; when you are cheated, Christ is cheated; when you are molested, Christ is molested. Every sin inflicted on anyone is inflicted on Christ.

  

Now, it would be important that someone who was molested would seek to have the offender tried on criminal charges, or at least brought to discipline by his or her superiors. Moreover, if a person who was molested is freely offered psychotherapy or some other sort of good-will settlement, then fine. But if that person sues the Church for compensation for what has been “lost” from life, then all that money will purchase nothing but a one-way ticket to hell. Some lawsuits, after all, are just a “civilized” form of revenge, a desire to hurt the other person just as you have been hurt. Do unto others as they do unto you. That’s the Satanic inversion of the Golden Rule which says, “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). All forms of revenge, therefore, derive from an obstinate refusal to forgive.

But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.

— Matthew 6:15

 
Christian Spiritual Liability

Notice that what I said above about lawsuits pertains to cases in which you are the injured party. When you are the one causing the injury, however, things become different. In this case, you have a spiritual liability to God for your sins—that is, for the injuries you cause to Him directly, for the injuries you cause to others, or for the injuries you cause to yourself. Even after you repent your behavior, you will still have to “make good”—either in this life or in Purgatory—the real damage you have done. This “making good” can be thought of as your own personal spiritual purification.

 
Purification, not Compensation

Life’s purpose is not measured by how much one can accumulate in terms of wealth, or status, or education; therefore, demanding compensation for lost wealth or lost status or lost education will get you nowhere. Nor will clinging to resentment over your injuries get you anywhere—except for where that one-way ticket will take you.

Life’s real purpose is measured in terms of purification of heart, and this purification happens both because of injuries and in spite of injuries. If you fail to achieve a pure heart, it will be because you have failed to utilize the life opportunities God has given you, and no amount of blame or finger pointing will justify your failure. It’s all on you.

Now, that sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But it’s all based in love, and training ourselves to love is the basis of our spiritual purification.

  

O love, powerful and sweet, happy is he who is possessed by thee, for thou dost strengthen, defend, and preserve him from all ills of body and soul. Thou gently guidest all things to their end, and never dost abandon man. Thou art ever faithful, thou givest light against the deceite of the devil, the malice of the world, and against ourselves, who are so full of self and so perverse. This love is so illuminative and efficacious that it draws all imperfections from their secret caverns, that we may apply the remedy and purge ourselves from them.
    This love, which rules and governs our will, in order that it may grow strong and firm to resist temptation, so occupies the affections and the intellect that they desire naught beside. The memory is engrossed, and the powers of the soul are satisfied, so that love remains her sole possessor and inhabitant, and she allows nothing else to enter there. Love exhales a continual sweet perfume, by which man suffers himself to be allured, and so powerful is this fragrance that however great may be the torments through which he passes to salvation, there is no martyrdom he would not suffer gladly to attain it.

  

—Saint Catherine of Genoa
Spiritual Dialogue, Third Part, Chapter IV

 
Responsibility

This, then, brings us to the psychological meaning of responsibility. To “take responsibility for your own life” means two things.

 •

First, taking responsibility for your own life means that you stop blaming others for anything that happens to you. It means that no matter what happens to you, you, as a Christian, have an obligation to pay the price yourself for its remedy.

No matter what your parents—or anyone—ever did to you, you have an obligation to work in the present to achieve your healing. Only you can do the work because it is you who will stand before God in judgment when you die, and part of that judgment will concern how you treated those who hurt you—your enemies—and how well you trusted in God’s justice.

Even self-loathing and self-punishment—even to the point of suicide, believe it or not—are all veiled forms of blaming others as a way to avoid facing up to the truth of your unconscious past.
 

  

 •

Second, taking responsibility for your own life means that you assume spiritual liability for the injurious consequences of your actions. This will lead you to feelings of sorrow and to the desire to do anything it takes to alter your behavior. To shirk this responsibility, however, will lead you into the dead-end trap of victimization.

  

  
Victimization

To achieve healing it is psychologically necessary to feel the pain of what happened to you, and to come to terms with that pain through intense scrutiny, in or out of psychotherapy. But you can’t blame anyone for that pain without betraying your baptismal vows. Christ, after all, was not victimized [2]—He freely sacrificed Himself for us. So no one who genuinely lives a Christian lifestyle can be victimized. Martyrs freely accept the abuse of the world, and saints patiently tolerate it, yes. But they are not “victims.”

And why aren’t they “victims”?

In the ancient sense of the word, victim means an animal offered in sacrifice. These sacrificial animals, however, did not offer themselves—they were taken from the flocks—and so, through the ages, the term victim became unconsciously associated with the idea of someone who (a) loses something against his will or (b) is cheated or duped by another. Consequently, in modern secular society at least, the meaning of a holy victim has been lost to us, and our use of the term victim carries with it all the unconscious resentment we feel for being cheated, duped, or unfairly treated. In essence, according to today’s language, a victim is someone who has been victimized.

And so, when we call someone a victim today we imply that the person suffered unwillingly and unfairly; moreover, according to modern sensibilities, we unconsciously assume that this injustice deserves some compensation. If the compensation does not come freely, we demand it. We sue. We protest. We even kill.

This very attitude, this bitterness and resentment for having been treated unfairly, is the poison that prevents emotional wounds from healing.

In contrast, those who entrust their pain to God free themselves from unconscious resentment and blame; in letting their suffering joyfully flow through them in imitation of Christ as the true holy victim, they choose not to feel victimized. No matter what happens to them, they never lose the mystical peace of healing through divine love.

  

Some persons, however, will avoid the work of psychotherapy because they believe that admitting the truth about their parents amounts to blaming their parents. Consequently, they will drive their resentments out of sight into the unconscious. But this unconscious resentment locks them into everlasting unconscious blame which prevents them from ever taking responsibility for their own lives.

  

 
Blame and Hiding

Now, the story of Adam and Eve is actually a story that makes this very point, for it is a story about the original sin of finger pointing and blame. Look at the story. The serpent tempts Eve, and she in turn tempts Adam. God finds Adam hiding and asks what happened. Adam points his finger at Eve and blames her. And he blames God in the process: “This woman you gave me—she made me do it.” God turns to Eve. “Is that true?” Eve points to the serpent: “He made me do it.”

So what is the sin here? It’s the failure to trust in God and forgive others after having been hurt or misled—and the failure to trust in God and seek forgiveness after having made a mistake. It’s the hiding and the blaming—out of fear—that turns away from God’s mercy and points a finger at others to make them responsible. Adam and Eve victimized each other, and all of humanity followed. But in His freely choosing to be a holy victim—the Paschal sacrifice—Christ offers us freedom from the poisoned trap of victimization.

Notice well: Adam and Eve both fail. The story is not about whom to blame, it’s about the emptiness of fear and blame itself. When, because of our pain, we fear the world, we end up blaming the world. But, when we fear God—that is, when we stand in awe of his majesty and mercy—we are then led to the pure and healing fragrance of his divine love.

 
Practical Examples

To learn how to take responsibility for your own life, it can be helpful to distinguish several aspects to the concept of responsibility: recognizing your own imprudence, respecting the time of others, respecting a promise you make, and not trying to protect others from their own feelings.

Imprudence

There can be times when it is necessary to take responsibility for any loss or injury you cause because of your imprudence.

 •

Let’s say you make a reservation for an event that has a 24 hour cancellation policy; that is, if you don’t give at least 24 hours advance notice to cancel, you must still pay the fee. On the day of the event, you decide that you could do some errands before the event and still be able to arrive just at the start of the event. While doing the errands, you lose your wallet and your mobile phone. You fall into a panic as you try to deal with the loss, and you miss the event entirely. The next day you try to explain what happened and that your missing the event was not your fault. But you are still charged for the event. So, are you responsible for paying?

Yes, you are responsible. It was imprudence on your part to have expected that everything would go as you planned. You did not consider that anything could have gone wrong, and that your plans could have been thwarted. Had you been prudent, you would have considered the loss you would have incurred if you did not arrive on time for the event, and so you might have left more time between the errands and the event, or you might have scheduled the errands for some other time, such as after the event.

  

Respecting the Time of Others

There can be times when it is necessary to take responsibility for causing the loss of someone’s time (and financial loss).

 •

Let’s say you make an appointment with someone who charges an hourly rate. He blocks out that time for you on his schedule and promises to wait for you. On the day of the appointment, you have a family emergency, and you forget about the appointment entirely. Several days later you try to explain to the man what happened and that your missing the appointment was not your fault. But he explains that he waited for you for the entire hour you had scheduled and that he is charging you for his time. So, are you responsible for paying?

Yes, you are responsible. Certainly you suffered distress because of the family emergency, but this person suffered the loss of his time as well as a financial loss because you did not notify him that you would not keep the appointment.

  

Respecting a Promise You Make

There can be times when it is necessary to take responsibility for causing inconvenience to someone because you fail to keep a promise.

 •

Let’s say you have promised to drive someone to the airport, but on the day of the flight some unforeseen obligation occurs and you have to change your plans. What do you do?

You can take responsibility for your promise. You can tell the person what has occurred, and then you can offer to pay for any alternate form of transportation.

  

The matter of keeping a promise is not just an insignificant thing. In dysfunctional families, though, children will often say anything to appease their parents, and so the act of telling a lie becomes a commonplace reality for the children. Nevertheless, a broken promise is actually a sinful betrayal of the truth.

Therefore, someone endeavoring to live a holy life—and a responsible life—will maintain a constant, prayerful scrutiny of anything he or she says and will resist any temptation to automatically say anything just to appease another person.
 

Not Taking Responsibility for the Thoughts and Behaviors of Others

There can be times when you cause distress and anxiety to yourself because you are always “walking on eggshells” in fear of how other persons will react to something you do or say.

 •

Let’s say you are at work and someone brings in a plate of homemade baked goods. She holds out the plate proudly and asks you to have some. You are careful about your health and don’t eat between meals, but you are afraid of hurting her feelings. So what do you do?

You can thank her for her efforts and say politely that you do not eat between meals. You are not wrong or cruel or insensitive for declining to eat anything you do not want. Your coworker’s feelings are her responsibility, not yours, and if she feels disappointment, then it’s her responsibility to learn to cope with it in a psychologically and spiritually healthy manner and not get entangled in negative thoughts and behaviors related to you or to herself.

  

 
Summary

If you want to be spiritually healthy and take responsibility for you own life, then keep the focus on your life, not on the lives of others. Learn to recognize the ways in which you can be tempted to shirk responsibility for your life by subtly pushing blame onto others or onto external circumstances, and at the same time be careful not to believe that you must take responsibility for the thoughts and behaviors of others.

  

In dysfunctional families, especially where there is physical abuse, irrational outbursts of anger, or “discipline” that uses shaming to control children with fear, a child will be unconsciously trained to be wary of doing anything that might “cause” an unpleasant reaction in a parent. When these children become adults it can be difficult to overcome the fear of “hurting the feelings” of someone. In such cases, these persons are really more afraid of getting punished with violence or shame than they are concerned about some other person simply experiencing disappointment.

  

Nevertheless, you don’t have to fear speaking the truth even if someone might go into a silent sulk for several days or fly into a rage. Remember that the inappropriate behaviors of others are not caused by you, they are acts of free will on the part of the other; that is, they may be unconsciously motivated, but, if they become outward acts, a conscious choice has been made to not restrain them. Hence such acts are offenses against charity and so are spiritually directed against Christ, not against you. So pray for the courage to remain firm in protecting your boundaries and not be manipulated with fear and guilt.

 

Who wrote this web page?
 

Notes.

1. “Then He will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave Me no food, I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink, a stranger and you gave Me no welcome, naked and you gave Me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for Me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to Your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for Me’” (Matthew 25:41-45). Remember, too, that, at the height of Saul’s persecution of Christians, Christ asked him, “Why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4).

2. Christ was, and is, a victim in the ancient sense of the term, which referred to an animal offered in sacrifice: as the Paschal Lamb, Christ willingly offered Himself in sacrifice on the cross for our salvation. Keep in mind, though, that in His sacrifice, Christ neither lost anything nor was He cheated or duped. He did, however, “cheat” death of its power over us, and, in that sense, death itself was made a “victim” of His sacrifice.

 


 
Recommended Reading
 
A treasure of a resource for psychological and spiritual healing. Information gathered from my websites (including this webpage) is now available at your fingertips in book form.

 

Healing by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. explains how psychological defenses help to protect us from emotional injury. But if you cling to the defense mechanisms that were created in your childhood and carry them on into adulthood—as most everyone does unconsciously— your quest for spiritual healing will be thwarted by overwhelming resentments and conflicts. Still, God has been trying to show you that there is more to life than resentment and conflict, something so beautiful and desirable that only one thing can resist its pull: hate So now, and in every moment until you die, you will have a profound choice between your enslavement to old defenses and the beauty of God. That decision has to come from you. You will go where you desire.

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