Welcome to Episode Five of Peace Be With You. Today we will explore the second sub-discipline of spiritual direction — Pastoral Counseling.
When spiritual directors seek to help parties reconcile their relationships through mediation — or when they seek to help a party improve their relationship with God — they often slam into barriers.
These barriers are the result of unhealed mental, emotional, or spiritual wounds. These wounds inhibit reconciliation. They prevent people from opening their hearts to their fellow man. Such people fear being hurt once again, as they were hurt in the past.
And they cannot open their hardened hearts to God. The pain of previous upsets has killed any affinity they may have had for the supernatural or the divine.
In many cases their unhealed wounds cause them to assume that God does not exist. Or they assume God is cruelly ignoring their pain and suffering. You might hear them complain, “How can God allow evil? How can God allow me to be harmed?”
Their minds and hearts close. Past trauma sequesters their reason. The light that once shined in their life dims and leaves them in the darkness. When spiritual directors encounter these troubled souls with hardened hearts, they must deliver pastoral counseling — they must attempt to remove the personal barriers that cripple the party.
Saint Bonaventure captured the situation: “The mirror presented by the external world is of little or no value unless the mirror of our soul has been cleaned and polished.” Pastoral counseling is cleaning the mirror of the soul.
Just this morning someone asked me, but isn’t that therapy? Isn’t that psychology?
No, it isn’t therapy. But sometimes the need for pastoral counseling is confused with the need for psychological counseling. Sometimes people mistakenly substitute therapy when the person needs pastoral counseling.
There are very important differences between pastoral counseling and psychology or therapy. The two disciplines are based on different premises. They hold different visions of the nature of man.
For starters, psychology and psychiatry, as overall disciplines, do not believe in the existence of the soul. Therapists assume they are addressing a biological entity — a highly evolved animal. They consider a person’s emotional or mental problems are the result from pathology rooted in biology.
In the view of therapists — psychologists and psychiatrists — the brain — a material substratum of tissue and chemicals, generates all thoughts and feelings and beliefs. In their view the person sitting before them is a by-product of physical processes.
Psychologists, usually working with psychiatrists, turn to chemical treatments — psychiatric medications. This makes sense to them — as they consider all problems have a physical origin.
In stark contrast, pastoral counselors see the person to whom they minister as an immortal soul. They believe consciousness resides in the soul. They believe the person is a divine creation with properties that extend well beyond their mere physical existence.
In the pastoral view, all mental or emotional or spiritual barriers arise from the condition of the soul. Thus, they seek spiritual treatments or spiritual solutions.
Spiritual directors must be mindful that pastoral counselors and therapists differ in how they view those they seek to help. They should not confuse pastoral counseling with psychology or psychiatry.
“But” you might ask, what if a person arrives at a spiritual direction center seeking therapy? What if they want psychological counseling? Here’s how I reason through that situation:
If a person considers they suffer from a physical illness that demands intervention with drugs or therapy — they should be advised to return for spiritual direction — after they have addressed those conditions.
This clarifies what spiritual directors actually deliver. So is a wise approach.
In my view, with which you may disagree, spiritual directors should avoid the inherently atheist disciplines of psychology and psychiatry. They have no place in spiritual direction.
This brings to mind a wonderful book on spiritual direction: Spiritual Direction: A Guide for Sharing the Father’s Love. The only flaw with the book is that the authors — Father Thomas Acklin and Father Boniface Hicks — recommend principles of psychology, which are inherently non-spiritual. It is my guess that they simply have not spent time doing a deep-dive analysis of the discipline of psychology. In any event, I hope they omit such endorsements in future editions.
The Church has a role to play in helping people choose the spiritual discipline over the atheist discipline. The Church needs to offer pastoral counseling on a broad scale as an antidote to the dominant role of psychology in the secular culture. Those who adhere to the faith need the opportunity to address their problems from a spiritual viewpoint.
In later episodes, these conflicting worldviews will be explored in more detail. For now I simply suggest that spiritual directors ask people who are receiving therapy to return AFTER they have completed their treatment.
This may not be a universally popular view today — even within the Church. Nonetheless, I feel that perhaps there has been no more troubling development in the Church than the widespread integration of atheist psychology and psychiatry into the Church’s ministry.
Put simply, given that the primary mission of the Church is the salvation of immortal souls — it makes little sense to embrace disciplines that deny the very existence of the soul.
So we might ask, how does a spiritual director approach pastoral counseling? Pastoral counseling is a type of spiritual healing that addresses old unhealed wounds that have since morphed into a type of bondage that traps a soul. When pastoral counselors seek to untie the knots of that bondage, they honor and respect the nature of the soul. As they work through a person’s pain, they adhere to protocols with a spiritual foundation.
If one imagines a soul’s wounds as gaping holes — one can imagine filling them with divine love. Where pain and confusion bring a loss of peace, divine love brings stillness. In essence, pastoral counselors heal spiritual wounds with Christ’s love.
Though that description is accurate, it may sound a bit poetic. The processes and procedures for healing are obviously more detailed — and a high level of skill is required.
Therefore, in future episodes, those steps will be explored in more detail. For now I simply want to impart the overall focus of the approach — divine love heals.
Peace is diminished when souls are unable to reconcile with their brothers and sisters. Relationships are damaged when personal mental, emotional, and spiritual barriers block the path to reconciliation. This is when pastoral counseling comes into play.
When mediators, pastoral counselors, and spiritual directors crash into these barriers they must not consider they are addressing psychological pathology. Rather, they have encountered fallen-world impediments to a soul’s salvation.
Pastoral counselors help souls escape from vicious mental, emotional, and spiritual traps. They dispel falsehoods clouding a soul’s existence. They help parties chisel away false-self attributes — attributes that blanket a soul’s endowment of the divine image and likeness.
They rescue spiritual beings rather than treating biological pathology. They rescue those who have become ensnared in traps. This has a healing effect but, as much as it is a healing endeavor, it is also a rescue mission.
In future episodes, we will explore two key concepts that underlie pastoral counseling:
The first is the concept of a false self. This self is an accumulated blanket of worldly traits and identities that smother a person’s divine nature. False self obscures one’s true nature. These clusters of counterfeit traits must be stripped away to reveal the divine self.
The second concept is the ultimate healing power of the Holy Spirit. The pastoral counselor does not work alone — but instead relies on the supernatural power of the Spirit to heal those who have become troubled.
So we arrive at a very important conclusion: the key role of pastoral counseling in spiritual direction sets it apart from secular therapy — which holds a very different view of man.
In your reflection you may seek to recall if there were times when you needed pastoral counseling but received something different. As a result of your reflection, you may want to plan for the future. How will you make sure you work with someone who sees you as you are — as an immortal soul?