Always Hope

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I’m happy to announce my new podcast, Always Hope. The show comes out of my years of counseling experience and knowledge of the Catholic-Christian faith. Each episode focuses on a potentially thorny issue in life, relationships, or culture. I invite guests (who are generally smarter than me) onto the show to have an engaging and thought provoking conversation. So far, I have been getting great feedback and I hope that it continues to bless those who hear it! Always Hope is a production of Willwoods Community, Faith and Marriage Apostolate.

You can check it out at faithandmarriage.org/alwayshope, or search for it on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or Stitcher.

Also, faithandmarriage.org/alwayshope is my new home for my blog. Please visit it and let me know what you think about the new posts!

Loving Your Inner Gollum

fares-hamouche-677535-unsplash(This post was originally published on faithandmarriage.org)

I’m currently reading the Lord of the Rings for the third time; 12 years have passed since I last read them and I am picking up more of the rich nuances in the novels than ever before. The whole story is an allegory for the struggle of life, the battle against sin, and Providence at work through it all. There are many rich characters in the story, but the most intriguing and contradictory one is the treacherous Gollum. He is conniving, manipulative, dirty, slimy and solely fixated on his “Precious” (The One Ring). Because the Ring is an embodiment of sin, Gollum, therefore, reveals the true effects of sin: he is isolated, obsessed, fractured, and less-than-human.

Gollum and Frodo stand in contrast to one another. The villain and the hero. Gollum is the character who is almost beyond redemption, so twisted in his own evil and lust for the Ring that his personality has literally been fractured into two: the naive child and the sociopathic killer. Frodo takes the Ring not for lust, but for charity. He feels and knows its power but resists its seduction for a greater good: to destroy it. One of the many marvels of this story is that Frodo empathizes with Gollum’s plight, unlike many of the other characters in the story. Everyone wants Gollum dead, but Frodo is moved with pity for him. Frodo clearly understands the power of the Ring and knows that it would not take much to end up like Gollum. That is empathy. Mercy is loving that which does not deserve it.

We all desire to be the hero, but the truth is that there is an inner villain inside of us all (as Jordan Peterson likes to remind us). Gollum embodies that inner demon; that part inside of us that we hate about ourselves. The vice that we fear. The thorn in the flesh. The sin we regret. All of that is Gollum. It is the part of us that we would kill if we could. We ask ourselves, “Why won’t it just go away?” “Why does it keep showing up and ruining things?” We try hard to ignore it, forget that it is there, or stuff it deep down.

I think it is safe to say that most of us struggle with being our own worst critic. We continually condemn ourselves for not being enough. Yet, I think Tolkien is inviting us to consider another option. Rather than constantly trying to kill those things in our lives that we identify as Gollums, we should begin to see them for what they are: a lost part within us that needs saving. Rather than meeting our anxiety with contempt, greet it with love and affection. The way of redeeming that villain within is not through condemnation but through mercy and clemency. Self-Compassion, as Kristin Neff calls it, would be the answer.

We often reject our weakness because we do not understand it. Therefore, let’s turn our attention to Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians.  St. Paul proudly proclaims that “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (2 Cor 11:30). Huh? What? This is the missing piece and why it is important to not be ignorant nor condemning of your struggles. Paul boasts of his weakness, because our Lord tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9). It is in those moments of weakness that we encounter our human limitations; ergo our need for salvation. We run from those struggles because we fail to see how God can use them for his Greater Glory. But the mystery of the Cross is that in our poverty we are most likely to encounter Jesus. Paul understands this, which is why he can see the purpose behind the “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7). It is given to him to keep him humble and prevent him from developing pride. See it this way: God loves Paul enough that he didn’t want him to be an egomaniac because of his great preaching skills. That elusive thorn is the vehicle used God to make that happen. The thorn in the side is God’s mercy. That’s Providence at work in the mystery of sin.

Paul’s thorn was his own issue that he needed to understand, but we all have thorns and struggles that we are trying to make sense of in our lives. We have no idea how everything will play out. Frodo didn’t. He had no idea what mercy towards Gollum would do. In the end, it becomes the thing that saves Middle Earth. Yes, we absolutely should have a clear aversion to the sin in our lives and sincere desire to be free from it, but I reiterate my point… harsh criticism is not the answer. It only makes matters worse. Rest in your neediness and trust in God’s love to meet you there.

Learn to love your inner Gollum, because God does, and one day you will see why he was there the whole time.

Girl Talk

Hey Everyone! I had the pleasure of being on two episodes of the radio show Girl Talk with Sister and Sarah. It is a show produced by Catholic Community Radio and broadcasts in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas.  The show covers topics related to being a Catholic women in the world. I’m not sure what expertise I offer in that department! But it was fun talking with them on air. They’re great. Here are the links: Part 1 and Part 2. Listen and let me know what you think.

Join Us in Kentucky!

Come and enjoy a romantic getaway with your spouse in the serene setting of the Lake Barkley Lodge in Cadiz, KY.  The Diocese of Owensboro is hosting the “Living the Gift of Marriage” married couples retreat.  This retreat blends modern marriage counseling theory with the vision of marriage God has for us. It will be a wonderful opportunity to grow in faith and deepen your marital bonds!

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Together as One: Theology of the Body and Married Life

unnamedI am pleased and excited to announce that along with my good friend, Dr. Greg Bottaro, we will be conducting a four-day marriage seminar-retreat for The Theology of the Body Institute. Together as One: Theology of the Body and Married Life will immerse your marriage in the riches of St. John Paul II’s vision of marital love. Couples will gain a deeper perspective to their understanding of the Sacrament of Matrimony through the Theology of the Body and be provided direct applications of the teaching to the lived experience of modern family life. The retreat will be held at St. Mary of Providence Retreat Center in Elverson, Pennsylvania during February 11-14, 2016.  Come spend Valentine’s Day with us! We look forward to seeing you there.

If you are interested, please visit the Theology of the Body Institute’s website for more information on how to register or click here  for a pdf flyer.

Inner Healing Prayer: Theological, Psychological, and Practical Concerns

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in healing methods that are overly based on spiritual practices. As a Catholic psychotherapist, I felt that it was time to begin a discussion regarding these approaches and how they fit within an authentically Catholic model of psychological healing. While I recognize that there are slight variations in these approaches, I wish to comment on concerns regarding Inner Healing Prayer as a counseling theory and the ways these “prayers” are generally taught and practiced.
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The reason for this series of posts is not to speak ill against anyone who incorporates these methods into their counseling practice, but rather this is a humble attempt to articulate and clarify the errors in this approach to healing, while honoring what is good. Moreover, this is not a blanket criticism against the Charismatic Renewal, since many of these approaches are born out of Charismatic spirituality. My hope is that these posts simply offer clarity and begin a much-needed discussion on their role in Catholic life today.

Let me start by saying that there are more organic ways of integrating our Faith into counseling than what is offered by Inner Healing Prayer or any other version of overly spiritualized healing methods. What is presently being offered is another iteration of the same line of thought that has been around for some time. I am not the first to speak against these approaches, nor will I be the last. In general, I discourage these practices because the risk far outweighs the reward and I have seen these approaches hurt many people.

As a former recipient of Inner Healing Prayer and as a one who used to incorporate it into my practice, I understand the attraction. It seemingly offers a quick solution to people’s problems through simple prayers. As one who works with people’s emotions all day long, believe me, I sincerely wish that I had a quick fix to life’s problems, but there usually is not one available. As the saying goes, “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.” This applies to our spiritual lives as well. I will further explore this quick-fix mentality later in the posts.

However, knowing that people come to these healing events with many hurts/wounds and are looking for solutions, claiming to offer quick fixes through ‘healing prayers’ often lead to emotional manipulation and spiritual abuse. Over the years, I have wanted to use softer language regarding this practice, like “it lacks balance” or “it is off a bit,” but as I grow through my reflection and study, I am convinced that what is going on is manipulation of people’s emotions. To make matters worse, it is done in the name of the “Holy Spirit” or branded as Authentically Catholic; which is spiritual abuse, because it deeply wounds people and confuses their spirituality and relationship with Our Lord. I encourage each of you reading these posts to encounter in a fresh light the great spiritual masters of our Faith: St Benedict of Nursia, St Gregory the Great, St Ignatius of Loyola, St John of the Cross, or even modern powerhouses like St John Paul II (JPII) and Benedict XVI. In doing so with an open heart and mind you will see that this brand of “prayer” does not fit within any of those rich spiritual traditions.

Let me explain why I make these claims by examining some of the major areas of concern found in these practices: 1) presumption that all of life’s problems are rooted in some wound from the past and that true healing can only occur by unlocking that traumatic memory, 2) emotion is the single greatest gauge used to determine the presence of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life, 3) supposed formulization and expectation of miracles, 4) exaggerated attention drawn to demonic activity.

I will further expand on the four areas of concern over the next few blog posts.

Inner Healing Prayer Concerns, part 2

Presumption

While there are certainly some issues that are related to our past, we are not all traumatized in childhood. We all have issues to deal with from upbringing, but the solution is not always to fester on the past and dig for the one moment where everything went array. This is a myopic approach to healing. To pigeonhole the work of healing by only focusing on the past, runs the risk of causing someone to ruminate on their wounds and a prayer life that only looks inward. Moreover, it is a modern version of Gnosticism because it is trying to find that one secret memory that will bring about healing/salvation.

This approach to healing does not inherently lead someone outside of himself or herself, which is a central tenet of JPII’s thought. As many of you well know, JPII often quotes from Gaudium et Spes, 24:3, where it says that “man… cannot fully find himself except through the sincere gift of himself.” The Program for Priestly Formation (80) states that human formation is a three-fold process of self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-gift. Nowhere does the late Holy Father or the USCCCB speak about staring at your wounds as the primary source of divine healing. Yes, we need to reflect on our past but that is different than constantly digging and hoping to find that one memory that will unlock it all. To overly focus on it is erroneous and disregards the mystery of the person and God’s salvific work in their soul. I believe that the methods adopted in these types of healing prayer ministries overly focus on the first of the aforementioned three-fold process of human formation and fails to take into account the fuller picture of human growth. Yet, by confusing the fundamentalist Christian approach of “inner healing” for the fullness of truth, it leads to hurt, confusion and manipulation of the recipients of these methods. In other words, there needs to be more balance and focus on the growth of virtue and self-gift; which is where man comes to discover who he truly is and the realization of his full potential.

Furthermore, I know that these methods are branded as “just prayer,” but I do not find this to be the case; rather I believe that they are psychotherapeutic interventions. To just pray for someone’s healing is simply that, offering an intercessory prayer to the Lord, petitioning him, yet leaving room for his response. Benedict XVI does a far better job at articulating this type of petitionary prayer for healing in his book, A School of Prayer (p312). Explicitly guiding someone through their personal memories crosses a line and is an intervention that requires skilled hands. We must be clear with our terms; Inner Healing Prayer is more akin to a guided meditation of memories than “just praying” for someone.

Inner Healing Prayer Concerns, part 3

Emotionalism

As stated above, these overly spiritualized methods of healing place far too much emphasis on emotion as the single greatest criterion used to determine the presence of the Holy Spirit. In a “prayer session”, when the “prayer minister” is leading the recipient through their memories often the question is “what do you feel?” and then when it is time to ask the Lord to reveal his truth, it is again emotion that is looked for to determine whether the person has fully accepted the Lord’s message in their hearts. Yes, I see the value of leading people to a cathartic moment, which can be very powerful in someone’s life in helping them reconcile their past. I practice marriage counseling from an Emotionally Focused perspective, too. However, I once again raise caution on making on-the-fly assertions of the work of the Holy Spirit. Time ultimately will tell if what occurred produced genuine fruit from the Lord. Humility is in order here, not presumption.

IMG_0428Furthermore, what tends to occur in these “prayer sessions” is that a direct correlation is made between crying and Holy Spirit’s presence. Cardinal Suenens, who wrote much about the need for balance in the Charismatic Renewal, calls this phenomenon of excess emotionality the fabrication of an artificial spirituality (Nature and Grace, pgs. 2-3). In other words, over spiritualization of healing that is primarily governed by emotion is not the work of the Holy Spirit, but some artificial experience. This is a major problem. Often people walk away from the ‘healing prayer experience’ thinking that it was God and that they are fully healed, yet they may not have been. This disrupts the inner sensors and sensibilities of one’s soul to properly discern God’s presence. Precisely for this reason, St John of the Cross in the Ascent of Mt Carmel, cautions one seeking these types of visions and signs in prayer; because the devil can deceive us with visions, too; God rarely grants them; and when we do receive a vision or sign, we are prone to misinterpreting them or cling to them instead of God himself (Book Second, Ch. 18). God’s ways are not our ways and to make quick assertions of God’s will is often a foolish enterprise.

Along these lines, another problem arises when there are teams of prayer ministers that are not sufficiently trained in authentic Catholic spirituality, theology, or sound counseling techniques leading ‘prayer sessions’ at conferences. What then occurs is that they are only trained to look for wounds of the past and emotion as the presence of the Holy Spirit. To place a vulnerable soul in this care is negligent behavior. It stands to reason that the unskilled “prayer minister” will only look for what they are trained to look for and as the adage goes, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Again, the method alone does not leave room for the nuances of grace and reason, and ignores the complexity of the human condition. People get hurt in these situations, and it is extra painful because we are talking about claims of God’s presence.

Another problem that arises from an overly spiritualized approach is a lack of structure and appropriate emotional boundaries. Often, there is an expectation within the milieu of these groups to expose your deepest wounds to a stranger or the group at large. This fails to honor the positive aspect of shame as discussed in JPII’s Theology of the Body (12:1). Simply stated, JPII recognizes that shame exists in our fallen world as a means to safeguard the mystery and inherent goodness of the human person. It is good for us to have a healthy sense of emotional modesty[1]. To fully expose oneself emotionally to a group or individual who have not proven themselves trustworthy, leaves people overly vulnerable and the potential for hurt is great. On this side of heaven, emotional intimacy is only capable with a small number of people; usually our spouses, family, close confidants, spiritual directors, counselors, and even in ongoing group therapy. To make the expectation that recipients should come for a weekend event and pour out all of their deepest secrets in a brief prayer session is reckless behavior.

[1] Certainly, one can go to the other extreme, repress their emotions, and never open up to a trusted other; this can lead to emotional isolation. I am merely proposing the need for a healthy balance with emotional vulnerability.

Inner Healing Prayer Concerns, part 4

Miracles

Often at these events, there is an expectation of miracles and signs and wonders. To claim that there is a formulated approach to getting a miracle can only mean one of three things: it is Liturgical (ie: Mass), it is superstition, or something on the natural plain is occurring. In Jason Evert’s book St John Paul the Great: His Five Loves (pg. 187) he states that JPII had many miracles occur because of his prayers while alive on Earth; but when he was asked about this JPII stated that miracles are up to God and no reason to dwell on it or attempt to figure it out. Generally, God honors creation and human reason and has given us many natural methods for healing; and while it is certainly up to him to bring about a miracle whenever he chooses, it is presumption on our part to claim that we have a foolproof way of getting that miracle.  Precisely for this reason, the “Guidelines for Prayers for Healing” issued by the Congregation for Doctrine of Faith in 2000 was written in a language that moved away from “healing prayer” to “prayers for healing.” Making this shift is crucial because ‘healing prayer’ denotes automatism while ‘prayers for healing’ puts the practice in the realm of intercessory prayer and leaves true openness to the response of the Holy Spirit. This echoes the previously used quote from A School of Prayer.

Practically speaking, often there is a claim that one is healed from the prayer experience when in fact they are not. They leave the conference thinking that they are healed and no longer continue the work of good psychotherapy. This is a problem and a direct result of false claims or assertions made by these leaders. Worse still is when someone is lead to a traumatic memory and there is no appropriate follow-up care to help them deal with their pain. They go home far worse and without care.

We must trust and appeal to the prudential ways of the Catholic Church. It is hard to determine the work of grace in our lives. Precisely for this reason, the Church is slow to make determinations about miracles, sainthood, and apparitions. Inner Healing ‘prayer’ disregards that prudential approach that is part of our Catholic tradition and falls well into the realm of presumption. Rather a healthier alternative honors both faith and reason, which as JPII stated in his opening of Fides et Ratio, “are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

Here it must be stated that emotional healing and spiritual healing are not synonymous terms. To do so leaves no room for the role of redemptive suffering in the growth of the person’s soul. Benedict Groeshel in Spiritual Passages (pg. 118) describes that as one progresses in the spiritual life, there is a decrease in deep existential anxiety. I believe this to be true, however suffering often is the vehicle that allows that deep peace to abide in our hearts. Let us not pigeonhole the work of the Holy Spirit through fundamentalist approaches to healing, but rather take a fuller approach that truly honors the whole person.

When Inner Healing “Prayer” does work it is because of the natural healing that occurs when we bear our deepest longings to another and feel their unconditional acceptance and love. As I alluded to earlier, this vulnerability needs to be done appropriately and not forced by groupthink. We absolutely need people in our lives that can see us as we really are, but usually that takes time and trust to be achieved. Brené Brown in, Daring Greatly, states that shame gets washed away in the empathy of another (pg. 75). JPII goes further in Love and Responsibility (pg. 181), by writing that shame gets swallowed up by love. True intimacy and relationship are what brings healing, not the overly spiritualized magic tricks. The real miracle is the grace of baptism and confirmation that allows one to become a sacramental sign of God’s love and to be capable of receiving that love. The body and only the body makes visible what is invisible, as stated in the Theology of the Body (19:4). This is the gift of authentic relationship that leads to Christ and it does not need to be contrived by emotionalism or superstition.