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Spiritual and psychological difficulties

30 November, 1999

Tony Baggot SJ identifies a common problem of people who earnestly seek to develop spiritually – the problem of not coming to terms with their psychological experience and trying to graft a spiritual outlook onto this unresolved reality.

Many so-called spiritual difficulties are psychological, or at any rate associated with psychological difficulties. This could happen with a middle-aged man who is feeling frightened and guilty because he has lost interest in religion and Mass, and is experiencing what he never had before, anger towards God. As his story unfolds it turns out that he has become redundant because of cutbacks in the firm where he has worked happily for twenty years. Full of sadness though he is over the loss of his job, and numbed by the sense of insecurity about the future, he has kept a brave face and never let himself grieve away the blocked energy of dejection and of annoyance about the manner in which the changes in the firm to which he had been so loyal took place.

Take another case, that of a woman who, dutifully visiting an elderly aunt every week, often comes away feeling upset and guilty for being somewhat impatient and irritable. So weighed down is she by her own tiredness and efforts to cope with the difficult times she and her husband are going through, that she finds the complaints and demands of the aunt who is a very needy person, frequently more than she can take. Giving herself no credit for all she has done by her care and concern over the years, she blames herself saying that if she were a better Christian, she would control her impatience and frustration. These two good people, making no allowance for themselves, have separated the psychological from the spiritual part of themselves. For their troubles are not simply spiritual. They are primarily psychological spilling over into the spiritual. Both people are out of touch with what is happening in themselves. Forced spirituality which overlooks the laws of human nature gets them nowhere, and actually deadens the life of the spirit.

Our spiritual life is not a separate section split off from the rest of living. It is rather the deepest current in the flow of our life which puts us in touch with the Sacred Source of all. This carries a sense of the Holy Mystery which pervades the vast movement of the universe. In the language of the mystics to those who, in tune with the mystery of life, are keenly sensitive to the presence of the divine being in whom we live, move and have our human being, God is an underground river. As spiritual human beings our small spirits yearn to be in union with the Great Spirit. This spiritual craving runs through our whole human nature of body, soul and spirit, the three levels of physical, psychological and spiritual energies which interact and interflow with each other. From the centre of ourselves we long to enjoy an inner harmony of these three worlds seeking to have a peaceful steady flow. Too easily we forget that our spiritual experiences as embodied spirits take in our humanity. The spiritual self has to be grounded in the physical body.

Mistakenly we spiritualise what goes on in our lives by referring it to God. While disconnected from our feelings and sensations, we turn to God with the mind while cut off from what is happening in the body. So we pray to be resigned to God’s will while denying our anger towards those who have hurt us. We ask God to take away our loneliness without working out of our system its painful energy. Our spiritual self operates through the mental, emotional and physical parts of our human nature. It has often been remarked that “holy” people can be very stubborn in that, once they get an idea into their heads, especially about what they consider God’s will, they are immovable. Might this not be a case of bringing their own cut and dried mental and emotional and, indeed, bodily rigidity into their spiritual outlook? This is then spiritualised and canonised as they seek to remain secure in their own convictions and positions. Well-intentioned spirituality which ignores or denies the full range of human nature is not sound. Spiritualising glosses over reality. It is an escape from genuine experience and does not bring enduring peace of heart. Real spirituality follows from deep experiences, inner joy as well as inner pain. Then head and heart start to flow together, and in our inmost selves, we experience a sacred kind of truth and reality in our lives.

Acceptance of self
At the heart of authentic spirituality is acceptance of self. Love of self which is an essential foundation for life may grow very slowly. Many at the commencement of the inward journey have no idea of who they are, who the real self is, where it is to be found, or how it could be worth anything. External success and personal qualities or the praise and friendship of others do not fill the emptiness within or enliven dullness of spirit. Love is first of all received from outside self but it has to be taken in to become part of oneself. There is then the spiritual experience of knowing one’s own unique worth and dignity. The origins of difficulty in receiving love frequently lie in infancy and childhood. Spiritualising is not the answer and does not bring lasting healing. A person may believe with the head and try to convince self that she is loved by God but it may not fully take root because she still has inside her a lost child, unhealed and uncared for from the early stages of her life. So she is unable to be open at a deep level of her being. We come to divine love through the experience of human loving. If isolated from self we are isolated from God. Reasoning with ourselves does not mend a wounded heart.

We awaken to our value and beauty as we journey through the dark places of our infant and childhood past, and release the unresolved experiences of rejection, hurt, loneliness, anger and sadness, and discover underneath the wonder and sacredness of the person we actually are. Scripture’s words that we are made in the divine image and likeness come alive as we discover that we can mirror God’s kindness and goodness.

Gradually there will grow a sense of being lovable simply for ourselves and not just for what we do or what we feel is expected of us. As our hearts let go the blocked energy of stored pain, head and heart will come together. Then spiritual wisdom will rise from the depths of ourselves, properly rooted as we are, in our full human nature. Bit by bit, we will recover our lost power and through this, the freedom to risk being ourselves.

Spiritual growth
We block our spiritual growth when, even without knowing what we are doing, we are still acting and living out of unresolved attitudes, feelings and patterns of behaviour. A man who is very correct and exact about religious duties may one day wake up to discover that all his choices in life have been made out of fear, reacting out of the anxious knot in his stomach which magnifies and distorts the most ordinary situation. A woman leading a well-ordered life, trying to do what is right all the time and be available for others, can be horrified that she cannot put down the fury that sometimes comes upon her or check the resentment towards those who appear to take her for granted. She feels very bad in not being the sort of person she would like to be, particularly as she thought she had risen above the dislike and annoyance that take hold of her. She knew that as a child she had a terrible temper but reckoned that she had got over all that once she began to take her spiritual life seriously. Her spiritual growth however must include the discovery and acknowledgment of the disorder that lies within.

While aspiring to lead good lives we have the seeds of all kinds of evil in us. By admitting my darkness as well as my light, I learn to deal with all of myself, not just the pleasant part. Rather than being a saint or a sinner, I am both saint and sinner. Sin in this context is not just conscious wrongdoing but includes the inner destructive forces that lurk beneath the surface and motivate behaviour. It is not by denying them or shoving them down out of sight that we tackle them. Rather we tackle them by entering into them and releasing their harmful energies. By so doing we bring body, soul and spirit into closer harmony and have the transforming experience of becoming more complete, and inwardly more fulfilled. This is in happy contrast to a negative spirituality in which body and soul are seen to be in conflict. Alienation from our true selves is an inherent feature of human life but our aim is not to have one part overcome the other, but for the two to be reconciled.

Inner pain
“I prefer to deal with my inner pain by praying and asking God to take it away”. Some confusion lies behind this. Praying is not a substitute for our human contribution, and of itself does not heal psychological wounds any more than physical ones. A Dutch proverb advises that when caught in a small boat in a storm “Say your prayers and keep rowing”. May we not say that through our human cooperation, God may take our grief away, since ultimately all life and power flow from the divine source? We are, under God and with God the Creator, the creators of our individual and communal lives. Praying does not take away depression or alleviate the hunger of starving children. Meditation does not dispense us from the human effort of head, heart and hands but deepens our sense of awe about the mysterious universe of which we are part. I can carry my worry, hopelessness and fear to God not simply by praying about them up in my head but by breathing with them and thus integrating them into myself and defusing their pent-up energy. In this way I am with God as I actually am, trustingly acknowledging and exploring the dark parts of myself. Many in acute distress reproach themselves saying, “I can’t pray”. An earnest worrying type of person can twist herself into emotional and physical knots by adding her effort to pray to the suffering she is going through. Her best intentions are self-defeating. Humble acceptance of inner anguish does not take away the harsh reality of a shattering accident which cripples for life or the disastrous loss of a parent who was the centre of the family home. Yet it can ease and mitigate turmoil of spirit and bring some calm. The peace promised by Christ does not remove life’s struggles but can give courage to meet them.

We are in deep waters here. “By his wounds we are healed,” we read in Scripture. Christ experienced in himself the extent of humanity’s pain, and surrendered himself and all he was going through to the God he called Father. From this dying to himself as well as his actual death, he released a new spirit into the world. So the account of his appearance, his visible presence on Easter Sunday evening, says that he showed his apostles the marks in his hands and side of his human struggle. It seems, indeed, that through our wounds we are healed, that it is by entering into our woundedness we move towards wholeness of body, soul and spirit. The mystery of living is linked to the mystery of our wounds and the manner in which we deal with them.

Mistaken attitudes
There are many mistaken spiritual attitudes which stunt the growth of the spiritual self. One of these is thinking that love and understanding for others always means giving in, or taking on tasks that others will not face up to, or pleasing and humouring – all of which may stem from living out of tension and anxiety. Proper love of self includes a sense of self-respect which requires respect from others. Another instance is a feeling of guilt which is not so much moral guilt about actual sin or wrongdoing but is rooted in a feeling of not being good in oneself, undeserving as a person, unlikeable and difficult. Feeling unworthy in God’s eyes may be the consequence of being a failure in coming up to parents’ expectations or being valued only for what was acceptable to them, a conditional form of loving. The words of the centurion, the Roman officer, which we repeat at Mass “Lord, I am not worthy” do not mean that we are totally unworthy. They cannot in fact mean this if we hold that God loves us. “Not worthy,” was the officer’s way of expressing respect in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth, and awe at his healing powers. Unworthy in this sense is not the equivalent of worthless. Small though we are in comparison to the limitless greatness of the mystery of God we, with the Creator’s life and love in us, have dignity and value. The absence of a sense of personal worth can lead to the opposite extreme of dominating other people by controlling them or disregarding their rights and views even with the alleged purpose of helping or doing good.

Caring for oneself
The effect of lack of care for self might show up in a social worker who complains of an inner hollowness which is draining the spirit out of him. Whatever degree of belief in himself he had is now gone and the satisfaction he derived from helping others no longer registers. In his head he may say that people like him and turn to him with confidence for counselling and advice. With him it may be the old story so commonly found with those who look after other people. He is giving to them without receiving for himself. So the well has run dry. All the energy is flowing out and none is flowing in. Worrying about his plight and praying despairingly wear him out still more, and cause deeper depression. He feels caught in a situation from which he cannot break out. Analysis and logical reasons do not bring relief. He has to go down into the world of feelings to release the energy blocked in his body and thus open himself to receive his own spirit.

God cannot catch us
Unless we stay in the unconscious room
Of our hearts.
(Having Confessed Patrick Kavanagh).

Perhaps locked away below the surface is a history of a mother’s well-meaning but controlling rather than warming love, absence of affection and caring. He may have memories of crying himself to sleep as a small boy, followed later in teenage years by too much responsibility for the younger children during the father’s long illness leading to death. All that lies hidden behind the closed door of his heart has to be opened out. As his life’s energy is released and starts to flow more strongly, his spirit will come alive. His spirituality difficulties are tied in with his physical and psychological ones.

Response of the whole person
Our spiritual journey involves more than “believing” in God. It leads us to respond to the mystery we call God, through exploring the mystery of oneself. The two go together. In privileged moments along the inward journey, people may have the sense “of being connected to God in the very centre of my being”. Through our deep personal experiences, we co-experience God as a mysterious Presence. The first person however that I meet in my life and in my prayer, is myself. Yet there is far more to me than the limited self I ordinarily am aware of. The full self is wider and more profound. So the more I become present to myself the more I will become present to the Great Self that is God. If instead I confine myself defensively and protectively to my narrow self, I will not be opening to receive broader life from God, the Sacred Source of all life.

Spiritual growth, following the workings of human nature, will, along with prayer and spiritual guidance, welcome the place of counselling, therapy and various forms of loosening and transforming negative energies and encouraging the development of positive ones. Such means of releasing the springs of life within are more than additions to spirituality. They have a special spiritual quality of their own directed to the healing of the sacred human person. Effective spirituality, grounded in the body, is not laid down on top of unresolved destructive inner energy patterns of behaviour. These show up in all kinds of ways such as tightness of panic in the chest, anger held in arms and shoulders, grief gathered as a lump of energy in the throat, tension of loneliness in the solar plexus, bouts of despair and moodiness, dryness of spirit. Internal turbulence obstructs our inbuilt longing for some degree of harmony between the bodily, emotional, mental and spiritual parts of ourselves. We have to do more than cling desperately to religious practices when paralysed by fear or sick with worry. As confusion clears, and the conflict of disorderly and disturbed energies settles, we enjoy more freedom of spirit to seek and find the will of God in the depths of ourselves. Our true sense of self is derived not from abstract knowledge in the head but from wisdom gained from experiences of the whole human person. Rather than forcing ourselves along a spiritual path by trying to control and manipulate external circumstances, we will tend to let issues heal from within ourselves. ‘I am now feeling more real and out of that reality flows my spirituality’ is an actual summary of what we can discover on our inward spiritual journey.


This article first appeared in Spirituality (July/August, 1995), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.