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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

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If the cross is loved, it is easy to bear.

—Saint Teresa of Avila
Meditations on the Song of Songs, 2. 26

 

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The Way of the Cross | Parables | A World Filled With Impiety | Psychology and Spirituality | Asking While Doubting | Sacrifice, Obedience, and Prayer | Where Has Love Gone? | What You Can Do | Increase My Faith | With Trials As A Teacher | It’s That Simple

 
LIVING a devout Christian life, in general, does not require any great intellectual skills. Christ, after all, had no need for Plato and Aristotle in order to preach about surrendering to God in pure love. True religion is a matter of heart and will, not of reason. The essence of Christianity is not in feeling good about ourselves or  feeling special because of what we know or who we know or who we think we are; the essence of Christianity is in sacrificing ourselves in every moment through pure love so that we, and others for whom we pray, might be saved from sin. And, for that matter, that’s why Christ preached in parables: to bypass the intellect and pierce right into our hearts and souls.

 
Parables

In the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9; Mark 4:1-9; Luke 8:4-8), Christ poignantly described what would happen to the very Word He preached.

Some persons, because of indifference, ingratitude, and contempt, reject the Word even as they hear it and refuse to believe. Their hearts are like hard rock.

Some persons accept the Word intellectually and think they believe. But when trials afflict them they fly into a panic, abandon patience and prayer, and attempt to get satisfaction and revenge with their own hands—all because they have not set the roots of faith deep into their heart and will.

Some persons accept the Word in faith but then allow the attractions of the world to overgrow their lives and choke out the fruits of faith.

Christ also spoke about the Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat (Matthew 13:24-30), in which He described how evildoers and those who cause others to sin will co-exist with the faithful until the final judgment when the weeds will be burned.

 
A World Filled with Impiety

So in today’s world—filled as it is with anti-Christian lore and soaked in impiety and heresy—you need to apply yourself to some serious study and prayer in order to disentangle the truth from all the lies that have been sown over centuries of disobedient self-indulgence—lest you end up in the fire with all the weeds. 

Therefore, anyone who claims that being a Christian in today’s world is “easy” has sadly failed to understand a basic point about Christianity: the world hates true Christianity because Christ places restrictions on the world’s narcissistic self-enjoyment.

The preacher of God’s truth has told us that all who want to live righteously in Christ will suffer persecution. If he spoke the truth and did not lie, the only exception to this general statement is, I think, the person who either neglects, or does not know how, to live temperately, justly and righteously in this world.
 
May you never be numbered among those whose house is peaceful, quiet and free from care; those on whom the Lord’s chastisement does not descend; those who live out their days in prosperity, and in the twinkling of an eye will go down to hell.

—From a letter by Saint Raymond
(Office of Readings, January 7: Raymond of Penyafort, Priest)

And, I will add, there are many bishops and priests in the world today who, in the twinkling of an eye, will go down to hell simply because they have neglected Christ’s command to “feed My sheep”—yes, they have been feeding His sheep, but they have been feeding them to the wolves.

 
Psychology and Spirituality

But do you really need a psychologist to teach you how to live a Christian spiritual life? The truth is, you don’t. Both Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila had uncanny psychological insight into the workings of the mind and heart, and yet neither had any formal training in psychology, because psychology didn’t even exist as a science in their time.

This just goes to show that genuine mystic spirituality ultimately leads to accurate psychological insight. And it also shows that those who write or preach about spirituality while misunderstanding psychology—as in advocating a sentimental desire for happiness and self-fulfillment—don’t really understand mysticism.

Psychological healing, therefore, will be given to anyone who asks for it in prayer. But to be given what you ask for requires that you must pray properly, humbly and sincerely and in good faith, through total surrender to God and by detaching yourself from the corrupt and evil social world around you.

  

But if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and he will be given it. But he should ask in faith, not doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed about by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, since he is a man of two minds, unstable in all his ways.

  

—James 1:5–8

 
Asking While Doubting

What, then, does it mean to ask while doubting?

Well, realize that once you choose to live a devout spiritual life you step onto a path that leads out of the city and right to your own crucifixion. You have to walk out knowing you will never come back. If you turn back, there is nothing but hell. And if you begin to doubt and hesitate and look to the world to entertain you along the way, rest assured that the cross won’t come to get you—but the devil himself will soon show up, wearing a nice tuxedo, holding the door to his limousine, just for you.

 
Sacrifice, Obedience, and Prayer

Many persons come to a psychologist complaining of the pain they suffer at the hands of another. My friends neglect me. Lovers abuse me. My husband is unfaithful. My wife is critical. My children are disobedient. And most of them balk when they hear that the only way they can find genuine healing is to accept responsibility for their part in all the suffering around them.

Except for very young children abused by their parents (or other adults), no one is innocent psychologically. We all share responsibility for everything that happens around us. A wife may not have caused her husband to have an affair, but perhaps she dreaded the warning signs along the way and shrank back from doing anything about them. The teenage boy may not have caused his abusive father to beat him, but perhaps, in his anger over his mother’s divorce, he provoked his father with disobedience.

And so, whether through timidity or through provocation, we contribute to the suffering around us. And we don’t like it when someone shows us that fact.

But Christ showed it to us anyway.

He showed it in His Body and Blood; the Apostles proclaimed it; the mystics through the ages have confirmed it: If we want peace in our hearts, we cannot escape our responsibility to others around us. Remember My Passion, and if you do not believe My words, at least believe My wounds.

Christ Himself took full responsibility for the world’s suffering by taking it all on Himself. And He called us to do the same. And we crucified Him for it.

Thus, for those who repent the fact that during His bitter Passion we all tore at His Body and Heart, only one trinitarian action can lead to genuine healing and peace: sacrifice, obedience, and prayer.

Sacrifice can also be referred to as suffering, or fasting. Fasting, in its literal sense, means to do without our accustomed food so that in feeling physical hunger we might be aware of the presence of God and recognize a spiritual hunger for holiness; suffering, in its literal sense, means to endure pain that we may have done nothing to deserve. But the broad sense of sacrifice means that we must give up what we don’t really need, so as to give to others what they do need. In other words, we must give up the psychological defenses that protect us from feeling unloved by the social world so that we can give true love to others. And so we must feel the pain of all the sins of the world, including our own, and we must bear that pain patiently, and we must offer our patient acceptance of suffering as our own daily “fasting” for our own sake and for the sake of all those souls who might turn back to God because of our constant sacrifices for them.

You shall accept all sufferings with love. Do not be afflicted if your heart often experiences repugnance and dislike for sacrifice. All its power rests in the will, and so these contrary feelings, far from lowering the value of sacrifice in My eyes, will enhance it.

—as told to Saint Faustina,
Diary, 1767

Obedience can also be thought of as our call to charity and mercy, for Christ Himself, who in His love for us obediently died on a cross for our redemption, commanded us to love others as He has loved us.

Prayer refers to our unceasing communion with divine will. Because our lives belong to God, not to ourselves, we must dwell in God’s presence in every moment of our lives. We must pray constantly for God’s mercy, for nothing else in life has any enduring meaning. And we must pray for the repentance and conversion of anyone who injures or insults us, lest our lives remain stuck in bitterness and vengeance.

How to pray the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy

 
Where Has Love Gone?

I’ve seen it over and over again, in church and in my office: people are all smiles and devotional behavior on the surface, but once they are pushed the slightest bit against their own will they become very hostile, very quickly.

  

In the church, they hear about horrific tortures inflicted on the martyrs—beatings, stabbings, bodies torn apart and burned. They pray to find strength from the martyrs’ courage and to rejoice in the martyrs’ triumph. Then, no sooner have they left the church than they experience a tiny pinprick of an insult or inconvenience, and they fly into a rage. What happened to the prayers that were on their lips just moments ago? Where have all the martyrs gone? Where has love gone?

  

For most people, love is just an intellectual concept—a surface scratch. So understand that love doesn’t get real until, as an expression of sacrifice, obedience, and prayer, it rips right into your heart. 

  

Many persons shopping for a spiritual life will inquire of the Catholic Church, “This wisdom and peace you offer—how much does it cost?”
    The reply is simple and straightforward: “Everything you have—all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and all your strength.”
    They shake their heads. “No, that’s too expensive. We want something the ordinary person can afford.”
 

  

Read an excerpt from a writing about the martyrdom of love
by Saint Jane Frances de Chantal

 
What You Can Do

Here’s what you can do, then, to discover real love:

Deny yourself.  Do what Christ told us all to do. Stop seeking your own pleasure and your own imaginary identity; instead, follow the spiritual counsels so that you will be in a proper state of mind and heart to perceive—and receive—the graces that God sends you. In this way you will be able to recognize and repent your own sins while assisting others to recognize and repent their sins.

  

When Christ and the Apostles found themselves with only a few loaves of bread and one fish, in the midst of thousands of hungry people, Christ could have said to the Apostles, “Just enjoy what you have; the others can fend for themselves.” But no. Instead, He proceeded to give away what He had and, in the process, multiplied it. In a similar way, when you make sacrifices, you don’t deprive yourself of anything; instead, you multiply love.

  

Learn to pray.  As you pare away worldly distractions, turn to prayer for true sustenance. But understand that unless you learn to surrender yourself totally, renounce your own desires, and follow the discipline of both vocal and mental prayer, the answers to your prayers will most likely be your own wish-fulfillment fantasies, not God’s will. Prayer is not something to be taken casually, or your own unconscious psychology will lead you astray.

Read.  Read and study as if your life depended on it, because it does. You need to study the truth so as to protect yourself from getting infected by the indifference, ingratitude, and contempt of the corrupt world around you. As you are learning to pray, begin reading the Imitation of Christ. Read it straight through once, quickly, but thereafter open it at random and read bits of it in depth, as a sort of daily guidance, while reading the other books, including the Bible.

Confess your sins.  Be careful, though, not to look just at the surface of things. For example, if you have troubling sexual temptations, you might confess merely that you have troubling sexual temptations. But if you study this website and realize that troubling sexual temptations are an unconscious, psychological way to comfort yourself when you feel weak or helpless or abandoned, then you can confess the real problem: that you are prone to “take matters into your own hands” when you feel weak or helpless or abandoned, that you try to find your identity through the approval and acceptance of others, and that you avoid bringing your fears directly to God because you love the world more than you love God.

  

“I’m not a psychologist,” a priest will say. And well said; it’s a fact. And it’s also a sad excuse to hide the mistakes priests make in preaching and in directing the confessional process. The truth is, if more priests would deny themselves and live ascetic lives then perhaps they might receive the mystic gift of cardiognosis—the ability to “read” hearts—which can compensate for a lack of formal psychological training.

  

Understand humility.  Understand love. Understand that mystic Christianity is not a matter of knowledge for its own sake. It is not a matter of intellectual prowess or of philosophy. It is not a matter of arguing with others. It is not a matter of displaying your holiness for others to see and admire. It is not a matter of visions and ecstasies. It is simply a matter of emptiness of self and pure love. Holiness is measured not with “spiritual” feelings but with obedience.

To be taken with love for a soul, God does not look on its greatness, but on the greatness of its humility.

—St. John of the Cross
The Sayings of Light and Love, no. 103.

You can see visions, hear locutions, and pray in tongues, but what good are these things if they do not lead you into ever deeper humility and ever greater acts of suffering and self-sacrifice for the sake of mercy to others?

The Litany of Humility

See yourself, then, as a nobody. Put yourself at the service of all. Give all you have and be a living example of that divine grace and glory you most ardently desire. Feel the pain and the sadness of all the sin in the world around you, but do not pay attention to what others do—focus instead on your own yearning for chaste and humble purity of heart. For just as sin is the punishment of sin, love is the reward of love.

Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to His friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the words of the Apostle, “What hast thou that thou hast not received from God? and if thou hast received it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?” But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory, because, as the Apostle says again, “I will not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi
Chapter VII

 
Increase My Faith

Just realize, though, that none of this comes easily. If you pray, “Lord, increase my faith,” don’t expect God to magically anoint you with a large dose of faith. Instead, you will have affliction after affliction heaped upon your head, and as you graciously cope with it all through loving perseverance, you will emerge from the struggle to find that your faith has, indeed, increased.

 
With Trials as a Teacher

You might wonder why some persons grow to such great spiritual heights and why others make so little progress. Well, Saint John of the Cross explains it.

  

And here it ought to be pointed out why so few reach this high state of perfect union with God. It should be known that the reason is not that God wishes only a few of these spirits to be so elevated; He would rather want all to be perfect, but He finds few vessels that will endure so lofty and sublime a work. . . . There are many who desire to advance and persistently beseech God to bring them to this state of perfection. Yet when God wills to conduct them through the initial trials and mortifications, as is necessary, they are unwilling to suffer them and they shun them, flee from the narrow road of life [Mt. 7:14] and seek the broad road of their own consolation, which is that of their own perdition [Mt. 7:13]; thus they do not allow God to begin to grant their petition. They are like useless containers, for although they desire to reach the state of the perfect they do not want to be guided by the path of trials that leads to it.”

  

—Saint John of the Cross
The Living Flame of Love, Stanza 2.27

 
It’s That Simple

It’s that simple—and that demanding. Which is why you will see so many “Christians” happily waving to you from their limos as they ride by.

 

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