Behind the Edifice and Under Construction

Have you ever had that book that just keeps coming up in your life? Maybe someone suggests it, and then you see it at the bookstore, and then your favorite podcast brings it up again? Maybe the universe just wants you to read it? I doubt it though, since the universe is a cold, infinite void that can only “want” entropy and a slow decline towards absolute zero. In any case, that book for me was The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila. Honestly, it was one of those times I am glad I procrastinated in acquiring it. Having finally gotten the book, there have been lots of times reading it when I just nod to myself and say, “Okay, I guess there are people in the world that experience things like this,” and then move on humbly. But there were many good teachings in that book, and I now know that I might have started with the easier book The Way of Perfection (plenty of irony there). Still, I wanted to share a few bits of what I have gained from reading The Interior Castle.

First of all, St. Teresa of Avila wrote the book specifically for one target audience: her fellow religious sisters of the monastery of which she was superior. Most of us are not that audience. But, being able to step in and listen to St. Teresa’s words gives one the chance to reflect on those faithful women. These are the kind of special people interceding on behalf of the rest of us “in the world” through their unique gift of self, and I feel very grateful for them. “Pretending” to be the recipient of St. Teresa’s words can also inspire us to imitate something of what she and her sisters did. Below are three considerations I have taken away from her urgings.

Life is about the protection and development of the soul. The entire book is dedicated to clarifying how the soul can take right paths to grow closer and closer to God, even if that sometimes means a person does nothing more than what is required of him by vocation. While she emphasized more than once that the body is to be cared for, the soul is what is most precious and is the dwelling place of God within the person. How often do we even think of our soul unless we are in mortal sin or peril? For these sisters, life seems like an early purgative state in which they journey towards God and, with their prayer, draw others up towards God too.

Can anything like this be a part of one’s worldly life outside a cloister? It made me think with more humility about the therapy work I do. To be sure, working to improve someone’s mental health means that their body and mind are better ordered, and so grace works more easily on it. However, am I working as diligently on my vocation such that my soul grows? St. Teresa wrote that mundane tasks done in obedience do much good for a soul, even if that person would rather be in contemplative prayer. How often do our own desires take precedence over legitimate duties or callings? Put another way, how often do we get caught up in earthly progress with little consideration to how that progress affects the soul?

Do not seek divine favors. Petitionary prayer is an important type of prayer. We do it every week at Mass. But what St. Teresa cautions her sisters about is the inordinate desire for spiritual favors sometimes received in prayer. Put another way, she tells them not to look for or hope that God will act with special grace in their souls or fill them with consolation. She approaches this point from several angles in The Interior Castle. For one, St. Theresa does not want us to be misled in prayer by the Devil and his agents who appear as impostors. Second, she indicates that divine favors are granted by God for His good reasons and for the benefit of the soul. She adds that divine favors are not granted due to merit and makes a point that many who are less holy and less worthy often receive special graces. Third, she emphasizes that if we are to grow in humility before God, then we ought to surrender to His plan rather than our preferences. We are not to be common workers (e.g., handmaids of the Lord) who think ourselves worthy of kingly treatment and deference. We are better off trusting that the Lord knows best how to bless us. Fourth, St. Teresa offers interesting advice about how we are to view the reception of divine favors in our life. On one hand, she encourages the person who receives them to be ever grateful and give glory to God. What is interesting is that she also encourages us to think little of the special graces we might receive in prayer. Put a different way, the grace received from God was His doing, for His purpose, and will fulfill its function without us having to do anything. We would do best not to become obsessed or preoccupied by it. St. Teresa seems to always usher her sisters back to a place of humility before God, and perhaps receiving special graces in prayer only increases the need for this.

Suffering is an honor and gift of which we are not worthy. St. Theresa has a way of writing that entices the reader to consider things that, from a popular perspective, do not make sense. The popular stance in this case being that suffering is bad, and we do not deserve to suffer. St. Theresa points out that suffering continues in a person’s life no matter how advanced they are in the spiritual life. She helps us find and grasp the conviction that progressing in prayer does not mean the end of suffering. But she goes further and challenges her sisters to develop a desire for “many crosses.” This already is a great challenge for many of us: to muster any desire at all to suffer for Jesus’ (or a fellow sinner’s) sake. But in my opinion, she sheds a greater light still on the subject when she declares that the more advanced a person becomes in prayer, the more they understand that suffering is a precious gift. She would encourage us to consider bearing suffering, ultimately, as a task in the salvation of our soul, the souls of others, and in glorifying God. To put it a different way, we are not worthy to be admonished (and thus redeemed) by suffering; God is loving us when He allows us to suffer. We are not worthy to suffer with Christ for the salvation of others. Thus, suffering, big and small, is a privilege.

It is a challenging but immensely edify teaching. Imagine understanding this teaching, believing it, and then being diagnosed with cancer. Such a person would know that this disease and its treatment will change his life forever. But more than that, he would feel grateful. If his humility is sufficient, he could see this disease as a gift he is unworthy to receive. He might also feel the more typical feelings someone has when they are diagnosed with a deadly disease, but, for some, these emotions might be transformed by faith, humility, and gratitude for the gift of suffering.

If you do not have a book that is haunting you, I would recommend The Interior Castle, especially if you would wish to learn from a mystical doctor of the Church. Many of us, myself included, have desired a speedy ascent in the spiritual life. While desiring to be closer to God is laudable, I came away from this book with a greater humility and trust in God’s gradual work in the soul. He may work great wonders or labor subtly over years. Regardless, The Interior Castle helps us know more about His work in our souls and our part in this process.

Communion in Quarantine

Masks.  Social distancing.  Cancelling events.  Virtual meetings.  Dispensations from Mass.  Quarantining.  These are some of the isolating, unprecedented hallmarks of 2020.  Those in authority justify these measures as short-term strategies to slow the spread of COVID-19.  Whatever their short-term benefit, many people are understandably concerned about the long-term impact of these drastic actions on individuals, families, and society as a whole.  Man — as we know from Theology of the Body — is not made for isolation but for communion.  How then, are we to navigate a time when something so fundamental to our very being is challenged on every side?

Back to Basics

One of the key concepts that Pope St. John Paul II returned to again and again in his various writings, especially Theology of the Body, was communio personarum – communion of persons.  While

this term can analogously be applied to marriage and family, the Church, communities and societies, the prototype of communio is the Blessed Trinity.  In God, we see that the Source of our very being and the End to which we are called is nothing less than an eternal Communion of Persons.  God is not a static, isolated being but for all eternity is a Personal Exchange of Love.  In the Trinity, revealed to us by Christ, we see maximum distinction (each divine Person is fully distinct from the Others) and maximum unity (the Divine Being is in no way fractured or divided such that we can fully affirm One God).  In the One Divine Being, Father, Son and Holy Spirit give and receive one another in an eternal exchange of love, which John Paul II termed communio.

In reflecting on the nature of man who is made in God’s image and likeness, John Paul II further saw communio as essential to understanding our identity and our calling.  In the Second Vatican Council’s document Gaudium et spes, which JP2 helped to write, we read:

John Paul frequently referred to this passage, citing it in all his major documents as pope and in his Theology of the Body.  The bottom line is this:  man is made for communio.  We cannot understand what it means to be human — nor what is healthy for humans – apart from this.

The Hell of Isolation

As we have seen, God is a Communion of Persons, and man, being made in His image, is called to reflect that Communio on Earth and participate intimately in it in Eternity.  It follows, then, that Hell is utter isolation, being definitively cut off from the Divine Communio.  Indeed, if we were made to participate in the Divine Exchange of Love, what could be more painful than to be utterly isolated, cut off from God and others forever?

Indeed, we see glimpses of this even in this life.  Psychologists have known for decades that isolation is inherently threatening and damaging to human beings.  It goes against our fundamentally social nature.  This is especially true for children who come into the world with an innate drive to form lasting emotional bonds with their parents and others.  Their healthy development hinges on growing up in an environment rich with socioemotional cues that they are known, loved, valued, and cared for.  Much has been written in theology and psychology about the essential role of the parents’ smile in communicating a sense of delight that forms the basis of a child’s self-worth.

This drive to form and maintain emotional bonds remains with us throughout our life and is a basic hallmark of human nature:  we are made for connection!  When we are cut off from others at any stage of life, our bodies and our minds are more prone to illness and early death.  Indeed, social rejection has been found to stimulate the same pain pathways in the brain as physical injury as well as increase the risk for a host of mental and physical illnesses.  Experimental studies have even shown that such rejection negatively impacts our cardiac and immune functioning.

Cultivating Communio

In order for us to survive these difficult times, we need to work together to build a culture of communio.  How can we do this?  First, we have to recognize that relationships are always risky.  During this time of pandemic, people have a heightened awareness of the physical risks of being together.  However, we have to realize that any time we reveal ourselves to another and make space for another in our hearts, we accept the possibility of hurt, rejection, betrayal, as well as the inevitability of loss.  We can either allow fear of these experiences to drive us toward isolation, or we can draw strength from our Lord and follow the example of Him who made himself vulnerable out of love in order to give new life to us.

We must seize any opportunities we have for true connection.  When in-person togetherness is blocked, we do well to avail ourselves of the various virtual tools at our disposal to communicate with others, especially those who are most isolated right now.  However, virtual connection can never replace the value of incarnate presence.  Just as Jesus gave us His True Body and Blood as His Real Presence among us, we too need to eagerly look for opportunities for incarnate presence with others.

When we are able to be with others but suffer the obstruction of facial coverings, we can concentrate on the other person’s eyes.  The eyes have long been regarded as the window to the soul, and psychologists have shown how it is possible to decode the emotional state of another person with remarkable accuracy simply by observing the expression of the eyes.   Look at the eyes of the people around you and try to guess what they are feeling.  Allow yourself to feel with them, resonating with their emotional state.  Take a risk and draw this aspect of the encounter into the open:  for example, “As we talk about this and I look in your eyes, I sense how sad you are.” Or, “It feels good to see each other again, doesn’t it?”

Original Solitude —  Divine Communio

Lastly, we must all seek to deepen our communio with God, the source of all love and connection.  Solitude — not isolation — is an important and healthy component of a fully human life.  We must intentionally choose regular periods of solitude to turn our hearts to God in prayer, worship, and sacrament.  It is also a good practice to spend time interacting with the natural world, enjoying the gifts of Creation that are signs of God’s love for us.  These moments of solitude serve to orient us toward God, the ultimate fulfillment our deepest longings for intimacy, and empower us to enter into communio with others, despite the risks.  In the end, we must accept the call to divine and human communio anew every day and place our trust in Him who did not spare His only Son to draw us into communion with Himself.

Our Thoughts About Feelings

“Feelings? Yea, I try to ignore those as much as possible.”

“Feelings? You want some? I got way too many!”

“Emotions? I’m more of a rational person. I don’t give in to emotions.”

“What’s my gut reaction? I could tell you, but my reaction is wrong. I don’t trust it most of the time.”

I’ve observed all of these different reactions in therapy when discussing emotions. People have mixed sentiments about feelings, but, nonetheless, feelings we have. It’s strange how we can have an aspect of our being so essential to our survival and liveliness that we don’t fully understand. But, to be honest, I love emotions. And the ickier the better, really. Why? Because emotions don’t “just happen.” They aren’t nearly as random or fickle as they are stereotyped to be. I would argue that thoughts are much more vulnerable to sudden shifts and distortion, but I won’t digress into that.

I put the spotlight on emotions because I come from the perspective that psychological healing often involves emotional processing. Such processing involves becoming aware of one’s feelings, experiencing them with adequate fullness, remaining aware of them without becoming overwhelmed, relating those emotions to past experiences, and accepting the congruence between the emotions we feel and the circumstances from which they arise.

That’s a lot. Emotional processing in its entirety can be a complicated and halting task. And in our very busy lives we often don’t do it. It takes time and focus, and external demands may appear more urgent or important. However, with that being noted, I think our varying reactions to and lived experience of emotions also contribute to how often we sit quietly and prayerfully with our emotions. Indeed, one of the first steps to utilizing this method is getting better acquainted with how one relates with his or her emotions. Here are a few patterns of relating with emotions that I’ve noticed.

Some folks are unaware of their feelings. This very common experience can occur for a number of reasons and may not cause major problems. This is especially true when an individual has trusted others who offer them direct feedback and help them realize, for example, how sad or angry they appear. However, some individuals are not so much benignly unaware of their feelings as they are unwilling to experience them. Feeling can be rather unpleasant. You can probably relate to this – who wants to really feel how scared they are? Or how deeply sad they are? The emotion(s) we tend to resist feeling varies depending on the person. For example, many depressed individuals are aware of their sadness, and can even grow somewhat accustom to it, though they might be quite unaware of feeling angry. A narcissistic person may be aware and accustomed to feeling energized and self-confident, but may be somewhat blind to deeper feelings of inadequacy. It may go without saying, but it is difficult to process emotions that one isn’t aware of having, especially when such awareness means looking deeper into oneself or deeper into feelings that seem unacceptable. How to make it better? Ask yourself how willing you are to become aware of feelings that you really don’t want to have. Am I willing to go through the discomfort that emerging emotions could cause? In addition, consider seeking feedback from others about what emotions they regularly perceive in you. Work on fostering bravery and seek the support of others if becoming aware of an emotion that was previously veiled becomes overwhelming.

Some folks don’t have words for their feelings. This observation comes from a range of experiences with patients. On one end of the spectrum is the person who has never talked about feelings and struggles to find the words. On the other end is the person bearing traumatic experiences from the past. Speaking in general, emotional experiences are not stored with convenient word-labels in a person’s brain. This is especially true of sharp emotional experiences, and profoundly true of traumatic experiences. Some such memories are stored in a more “raw” form as bodily sensations. In order to apply words to emotional memories, they have to be evoked and felt to some degree. If a person can do so, they can reflect on the meaning of the feeling and try to apply a word that resonates with it. When an individual experiences his feelings and integrates them with words, understanding, logic, narrative, as well as any other relevant feelings, he will attain some healing of that pain, though the work may have only begun.

It is important to note that every human being acquires some painful emotional memories through the course of life. Emotional processing is likely to help such a person obtain healing and closure. However, traumatic memories are qualitatively different. Deliberately attempting to re-experience such memories without sufficient knowledge of trauma or without professional help is unwise and may do more harm than good. At times, such attempts may re-traumatize the person, which is counter-productive to the healing process. Traumatic experiences can include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, car accidents, close encounters with death, abortion, as well as many other examples. How to make it better? First, understand that traumatic memories and related emotions are not to be trifled with. Seek professional help and the comfort of trusted loved ones if these emerge. Second, for emotions that are merely unpleasant, uncomfortable, or unwanted, sit quietly or prayerfully with them for a time. Allow yourself the space to feel them. Do not get in a hurry to move on (notice such feelings too if they arise. You may need to sit prayerfully with those as well). Then, attempt to give that feeling a word or label. It’s okay to think about your feelings (that is part of the point) once you are feeling them adequately. It is also okay to step back from strong feelings if you don’t feel you are ready to explore further.

Some folks get overwhelmed by their feelings. Here are a couple of concepts that often get confused or used interchangeably. Coping capacity is the general measure of how much stress and emotion a person can tolerate without getting overwhelmed. Coping capacity varies from person to person. However, no degree of coping capacity makes one completely immune to being overwhelmed at times by the circumstances of one’s life. Coping strategies (or coping methods) are distinct from one’s coping capacity – these strategies are what one does either consciously or unconsciously to address or react to stress and emotion. Coping strategies are not created equal (e.g. drinking alcohol to cover up unwanted feelings is less healthy than prayerfully journaling about unwanted feelings). Individuals get overwhelmed when their coping capacity is exceeded by stress and emotion. Being overwhelmed by feelings manifests differently depending on the person. Some show outward signs, start to cry, ask for help, and become less functional, while others appear stoic, begin to over-function, and use internal coping strategies to push unwanted emotions away. Therapy offers the chance to increase one’s coping capacity and learn healthier coping strategies.

Being overwhelmed by feelings is something we all have experienced, and being overwhelmed from time to time is just a part of life. But how frequently do we find ourselves in such a state, and when does it become problematic? Is feeling overwhelmed for 10 minutes, once a week normal? What if you have to admit feeling overwhelmed every day? These are very difficult questions to answer, but two scenarios seem to be dangerous in particular: being chronically overwhelmed (more than that individual can handle, over time) and being dramatically overwhelmed (so struck by the intensity of a situation that our emergency survival systems have to take over). We are capable of overcoming both, but both should be taken seriously. How to make it better? Do yourself the kindness Christ would by not ignoring either of the two dangerous situations when they apply to you. Consider seeking therapy, talking to your family doctor, or attending a support group for trauma.

Some folks feel numb. Emotional numbness is an experience often following intense and chronic emotional pain that isn’t (or can’t be) adequately addressed by the person’s current coping capacity. In most cases, numbness is a protective callous formed to protect a person from feeling more pain that he can’t escape or address. Unfortunately, while such a coping strategy can anesthetize someone to emotional pain, it also affects one’s ability to experience joy and other positive emotions. Some experience this numbness as highly unpleasant and life-deadening. Others experience numbness as a better alternative to the pain that caused it and may have mixed feelings about healing it.

How to make it better? Numbness can be a sign of significant pain or suffering in a person’s life and is generally a more extreme coping strategy. Bring compassionate understanding to the reality of numbness. Sometimes being cut off from certain feelings is something our psychology does to protect us. This helps us survive, albeit  temporarily. However, folks that experience ongoing numbness  should consider seeking professional help to address not only the numbness itself but also the pain that lies beneath.

Whatever the emotions we have, they are there to help us. That’s why I like the icky ones too. They are a chance to understand ourselves in a deeper way and to grow in our capacity to empathize and love others. When we grow to understand our anger, we can start to empathize with Christ as he flipped the tables of the money changers. When we grow to admit to and understand our bitterness towards those that hurt us, we can marvel at the mercy of Christ, dying on the cross for our sins. There is much truth and hope in emotions, especially when we bring those emotions to God and our loved ones and share them with vulnerability.

Happy Birthday Papa

This May 18th is the 100th anniversary of the birth of our beloved Pope St. John Paul II.  Typically, only people who have had a truly historic impact have their birthdays celebrated long after they are deceased.  John Paul II was one such historic person.  I would like to reflect briefly on some of the long-lasting impact he has had and will continue to have on the Church as well as some of the impact he has had on me personally.

For many younger people today, it is difficult to truly appreciate the immensity of John Paul II’s impact on the Church.  To put his pontificate in context, we have to recall the significance of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).  Ecumenical councils are rare and only called when the Church needs to face major challenges in its mission.  Vatican II, as it is often named, was in many ways an attempt to bring the First Vatican Council to completion as it was cut short by the Franco-Prussian war.  The scope of Vatican II was immense:  nothing less than reexamining the relationship of the Church with the modern world.  As a newly ordained auxiliary bishop and later Archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła participated in all four sessions of the Council.  His stature and reputation as an outspoken, courageous young bishop of immense intellect grew to the point where he was appointed to the committee that drafted what became perhaps the Council’s defining document, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes).  

Inspired by this experience, Archbishop Wojtyła became the only participating bishop to write an entire book summarizing the teaching of the Council and giving guidelines for its implementation (Sources of Renewal).  Not long after, Pope Paul VI named him a Cardinal of the Church, perhaps as a way of thanking him for his contributions at the Council and for serving as a key theological advisor in preparing the encyclical letter Humanae vitae (1968), which dealt with thorny questions concerning marriage, sexuality, and birth control and reaffirmed the traditional Catholic teaching that sexuality is meant to unite a man and woman in marriage and must always be open to life. 

It is difficult today to imagine the shock that the Church and even the world experienced when Cardinal Wojtyła was elected to the papacy in October 1978 and took the name John Paul II.  He was the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years, and he hailed from – at that time – a communist country (Poland).   This alone would make his an historic pontificate, but it was only the beginning.  Whereas his predecessor, John Paul I, reigned for merely a month, John Paul II reigned for over 26 years, making his the third longest pontificate in the history of the Church.  He accepted his mission from Christ to serve as the Church’s principal interpreter and implementer of the Second Vatican Council as well as to lead the Church into the Third Millennium.  He did so with courage and faithfulness.

There is hardly an aspect of the Church’s life that was not impacted in significant ways by the teaching and leadership of this saintly Pope.  Under his guidance, the Church produced a new Code of Canon Law governing all major aspects of ecclesial life.  Later came the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first universal catechism since the Council of Trent.  It will remain for generations “a sure norm for teaching the faith.”[1]  Among his many gifts to the Church include is 14 encyclical letters, 14 apostolic exhortations, and thousands of speeches, audiences, and other documents.  His writings covered everything from the Persons of the Trinity; evangelization; the dignity of the human person; social issues such as the dignity of work, distribution of resources, and human rights; priests, bishops, consecrated religious, and the laity; marriage and family; the Eucharist; Mary; the rosary; sin, mercy, and reconciliation; fundamental principles for morality; and much more.  Incredibly, he canonized 482 new saints and beatified 1338 new blesseds.  He gave us the Luminous Mysteries of the rosary and instituted Divine Mercy Sunday.   Liturgically, he oversaw the reform of the reform, so to speak, which culminated in the publication of the third edition of the Roman Missal, which we use today.  Then, there is his pivotal role in the fall of Communism in Poland and across Eastern Europe.  The list goes on.

Of course, we at Ruah Woods are especially indebted to him for his Theology of the Body, which he gave to the Church at his Wednesday general audiences in the early years of the pontificate as well as the founding of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family and the Pontifical Council for the Family.[2]  These gifts were meant to help the Church proclaim the nature and dignity of the human person, love, marriage, and sexuality in these confusing, uncertain times. 

For me, personally, I regard myself as a “JP2 Catholic.”  I was actually born during the interregnum, i.e., the time between the death of John Paul I and the election of John Paul II.  I had little awareness or appreciation of John Paul II until, as a college student, I began to learn more about him and his teachings.  My wife and I were blessed to be taught by a priest who earned his doctorate at the John Paul II Institute as we were preparing for marriage.  We read John Paul II’s documents on marriage and family at that time and were taught aspects of Theology of the Body in class with other young people.  We fell in love with the Church’s vision for marriage and family as expressed through the Pope’s writings.  For me, it became my principal inspiration for becoming a Catholic psychologist.

In graduate school, I immersed myself in studying John Paul II’s teaching.  As an aspiring Catholic psychologist, I wanted to understand the human person as he did.  I studied all of his encyclicals and many of his other papal documents, books, and pre-papal writings.  I took graduate seminars on his thought, including Theology of the Body.  The more I read of his teaching, the more I wanted to know, and the more I fell in love with this man.  He became for me a spiritual and theological mentor.  Even more, as I read his thought, I felt a closeness to him.  He became a father-figure for me who was teaching me how to see the world, how to live, and how to be a Catholic man in the Third Millennium. 

Even today, I regularly read and re-read his writings for my own personal and professional enrichment.[3]  I pray to him daily, seeking his intercession to be the man, son, husband, father, and psychologist I am called to be.  He is my teacher, my guide, my father, and my friend.  For the last 10 years or so, I have been blessed to serve as an adjunct professor at the Washington, DC branch of the John Paul II Institute.  When I go to Washington to teach, I always make a visit to the St. John Paul II National Shrine to visit the museum of his life and venerate his relic.  Those visits move me to tears of gratitude.  Truly, I would not be who I am today – perhaps not even Catholic – without the life, witness, and teaching of Pope St. John Paul II.  With deep affection, happy birthday, Papa!


[1] John Paul II, apostolic constitution Fidei depositum.

[2] The Pope officially founded these two new entities on May 13, 1981, the same day he was shot by his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca.  May 13, of course, is the feast of Our Lady of Fatima who had given the three children of Fatima a vision of a pope being gunned down decades earlier.  John Paul II believed that he was saved by Mary’s hand.

[3] Currently, I am working my way through his general audiences from the years after Theology of the Body during which he gave a systematic catechesis on all the articles of the Creed. 

Getting Unstuck in your Marriage

When is the right time for marital therapy? When is the best time to commit the appropriate resources and seek a professional for help with marital problems? These don’t seem like questions that spouses ask themselves very often, and for understandable reasons. Similar to those who might consider individual therapy, married couples want to work at and solve their own problems before they seek outside help. Realistically though, how often do ongoing marital problems get the care and attention that they need to be resolved? And how bad does the problem need to be before both members of the marriage are cued in and concerned? It seems to me that rather than being addressed, the marital relationship is actually the very thing in some marriages that go unaddressed. Ignored. Taken for granted. For whatever reason, the bond of love between the two spouses gets sacrificed for everything else. The “right time” to refocus our attention, repair lost connection, and grow in love becomes obvious when we properly prioritize our marriage.

And for many, a formal recommitment focused on rekindling the marital relationship is difficult. Complicated. Because a lot can happen to that bond over the rough and harried years of marriage. Here at Ruah Woods Psychological Services we conduct marital therapy using a model that honors this bond, tracks how it has deteriorated, and guides the couple in regrowing it. The model is called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, or EFT for short, and was created by Dr. Susan Johnson. There’s a lot to say about how we use this model to help couples, but I’d like to highlight just a few things worth reflecting on in this post.

Call it marital atrophy, ongoing conflict, or falling out of love…  Whatever the term, the marital relationship often doesn’t feel the same as when it began years prior. Maybe it has gotten stronger in some ways, but for many, the relationship has endured consistent conflict and neglect that has wounded it and weakened the sense of closeness, security, and safety the couple shares. This automatic, repeated, injurious pattern within the couple is formally called “the cycle of conflict” in the EFT model. While this might seem like a strangely obvious insight to make, we are actually regularly surprised by how unaware couples are of their cycle of conflict (often referred to as just their “cycle”). And this is not to blame the couple! The truth is, the cycle is quite insidious! Such cycles are routinely formed in the context of both partners trying to secure the love and support they desire from each other. Though patterns vary, it often involves one partner trying to reach out to the other to reestablish a sense of security, often in a panicked or aggressive way, while the other partner tries to deescalate and withdraw from interaction in an attempt to preserve the relationship, prevent further damage, and protect a sense of safety and self-worth. This very common give-and-take sequence is called a “pursue-withdraw” pattern.

Both partners value the relationship and the other person, but their respective strategies aren’t always well understood or appreciated by the other. In both cases, there is a deeply rooted human need for safety and security that each is trying to acquire called “secure attachment” (more on attachment later). The stresses, trials, and wounds of the marriage (and past relationships) degrade a person’s trust and emotional responsiveness to their partner – in other words, they often bear wounds from current and past relationships deep in their hearts that make it hard to trust that their spouse will really be there for them when they need it. This mistrust then grows up over time like a nasty weed through many iterations of the cycle of conflict, each time pushing the spouses farther and farther apart.

So a very early task in our marital therapy is to take account of these deeper wounds (which will guide later therapeutic work), and, to become intimately knowledgeable and aware of the cycle of conflict. Not only has the cycle contributed to ongoing damage to the marital bond, but it is quickly and easily triggered in the context of marital therapy, making healing difficult. If the cycle can become acknowledged, understood, and rightfully be made the enemy of the couple, their conflict often cools off, and other productive emotions such as concern, curiosity, and compassion can be felt. “Why does he pull away just when I’m desperate to talk?” “Why is she so hard-up to talk, when we know it’s just going to lead to a fight?” Because under all the demanding criticism and thinly-veiled resentment, under the flat statement “I’m fine” and the shut-down countenance, are two wounded people that care about each other. But the cycle obscures this reality! Because of the cycle, each person grows in their conviction that their partner doesn’t care. And so the first task is to see this cycle clearly and to name it the great enemy of the couple.

The good news is, even for marital relationships that have been neglected or damaged, there is hope.  Prayerfully consider if now is the time to invest in your marital relationship – is couples therapy appropriate for you? An established, monthly date night? An hour, one night a week where you sit on a couch, look at each other, and talk about your relationship? Or maybe you could read a book together and learn more about the cycle and how to fix it? Consider Love Sense (we regularly suggest this to our couples in therapy) or Hold Me Tight, both by Dr. Sue Johnson.

Dealing with Family During the Holidays

“You are coming over, right?”

A lot of proclamations are made about Christmas time. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” “It’s magical and joyous!” “It’s a hectic time… there’s so much to do!” “It brings up painful memories I’d rather forget.” “It’s the time when folks feel coerced to visit their insane family!”

Overall, it seems like Christmas time #1) isn’t the same for everyone and #2) is such a mixed bag for most, especially when it comes to family gatherings. But it’s going to happen, right? The family is getting together (and if you don’t have much of a family, or you’re estranged, not getting together also matters). A lot of people are excited about it and for good reasons. Old cousins, new grandkids, time-honored traditions, tasty foods… But a lot of people are not excited… and for good reason. Too much alcohol, too weak social filters, dysfunctional family dynamics… these are enough to make the visit unnerving.

Whether such get-togethers are mostly good or decidedly bad, it’s important not to miss the point of it all: the birth of Jesus Christ! Wow, how could I forget Him? Oh yeah, He’s why we have even a shred of hope and joy during Christmas time. And if that hope and joy happen to be in abundance for you, you might multiply it within your family. But we can’t forget the point. We can’t throw the Baby out with the apple pie that Aunt Marie just burned and who will now be in an unbearable mood for the rest of the day! But how?

Give yourself permission to put Christ at the center of Christmas. Its outlandish advice, to be sure, but putting God where He belongs and positioning ourselves around Him is always stabilizing and nourishing. When it comes to family gatherings (and the whole Christmas season), begin by locating Christ within you. Use external cues (such as a nice manger scene) or a crucifix as a reminder if you can. Surviving or flourishing is more achievable if your relationship with Christ is present and primary when family dysfunction emerges.

If you can locate Christ within you during this Christmas season, foster your awareness and connection with Him. Consider Confession, Advent songs, or Eucharistic adoration as powerful catalysts for this process. Prayerfully meditate on the daily Mass readings. Talk to Jesus in your heart about all this holiday season brings up for you.  These practices will not only draw you closer to God but also help you as you make decisions during the Christmas season. Important decisions that possibly don’t match expectations that other shave for you or that you have for yourself. Decisions like…

Which family gatherings do I attend? If Christ is the center of Christmas, then this is a valid question. If the hectic logistics of attending 4 family gatherings in 3 days cause significant anxiety, it may be time to simplify. Foster the priority of celebrating the birth of Christ within your family. Prayerfully consider His will for you this Christmas. For some, this could mean greater involvement and investment in family gatherings. For others, this may mean less family involvement and more time in prayer, worship, and charitable works. If you’re not sure, set aside some quiet time with Him and ask.

But I have to be there! There is no decision! If I don’t go there will be consequences… Some circumstances are complicated and indeed consequences are certain to follow if someone “rocks the boat” and doesn’t come to the family Christmas party. Consider if these consequences are something you can live with or if they are a part of your growing pains towards healthy individuation from your extended family. If you are going to be there, prayerfully holding onto Christ is all the more important. Let Him weather the storm with you.

How long should I stay? We all have our limits. When preparing to attend family functions, honestly consider – given your current state – how long you can interact charitably with those in attendance. This does not mean how long you think you should be able to be charitable but how long you can actually be charitable right now. It also does not necessarily mean as long as people are charitable towards you. Indeed, we are called to bear with others patiently and extend forgiveness generously.  Nonetheless, if a relative is particularly difficult, and you are struggling to remain in a loving frame of mind, consider talking to someone else or switching rooms. Decide ahead of time about how much time you want to spend there, stick to your plan, and reflect on the experience later. Find out how much charity you are capable of sowing and accept your limitations.

What should I do proactively during these gatherings to make it better for me and my family?  While you can’t change or determine who will be at a big family gathering, what you engage in once you’re there is open-ended. Consider what typically happens at the gathering, which might involve preparing food and socializing. For the sake of keeping Christ in Christmas and keeping your own sense of peace and joy, what would you like to change or add? Could you start a“find the wise men” hiding game with the younger kids, not only to enrich their awareness of baby Jesus but also to give you a break from the adults? Maybe play a board game with the teenagers? Is there a member of the family you don’t know much about, or an in-law that is newer to the family? It might be worth shaking things up a little and showing some benign curiosity. They may feel just as refreshed as you to have some genuine, positive attention instead of getting lost in the usual family dynamics.

We all need to find Christ somewhere in our mixed bag of Christmas. He is the beginning of our hope and the only substantial bulwark we have against the anxiety that weighs us down during this busy season. And more than that, He is our salvation after the storms have come and gone! Let us work to welcome Him in our hearts and in the hearts of those around us.

Untangling Things

If Catholic and Christian therapists have one primary advantage over secular therapists, it has to be that we have the privilege of knowing that in order to be truly successful with our patients, we must form and reform our lives around spiritual dependency on God’s love. I know, anyway, that there’s no other way I could do it, and I’m certain that my two colleagues at RWPS would agree.

God’s help comes in a variety of forms and through a variety of channels. One special lady I lean on for assistance in therapeutic matters is Mary, Undoer of Knots. To me, Mary is always working behind the scenes (the wedding at Cana, yes?) to bring about God’s glory. Therapy is often about recognizing and disentangling our most recalcitrant psychological knots. The process in some ways is mysterious and requires movements of the heart that neither the therapist nor patient fully understands. To offer more clarity about what I mean, I want to elaborate on the analogy of knots as similar to psychological issues, and therapy as a way of addressing psychological knots. I also want to indicate the assistance Mary, Unoder of Knots procures for therapeutic growth, reordering, and healing.

Knots are complicated. Sure, sometimes you can just vigorously shake a cord free of its tangle, but many knots are not so easily undone. The particular issue that brings a person to therapy is often like this latter, difficult knot. In some ways this is just the way it is, as most problems a person encounters are solvable without the help of a therapist. Until this is not the case, therapy is often viewed as unnecessary. Many people find their problems are a good deal beyond manageable by the time they enter therapy, which naturally contributes to the complexity of the therapy as well.

The solution isn’t always obvious. Loosening restricting knots (physical and psychological) sometimes requires trial and error. A bit of pushing or pulling, on this part or another, results in bits of progress – or not. Progress instills hope and gives the therapist and patient a sense that they are working in the right area. Mary is able to step into this process in a way that can be illustrated in a very concrete manner: The therapist and patient only see the exterior of the knot (or salient features of the presenting psychological issue) – Mary can see the interior. She is thus especially suited to guide our therapeutic efforts; the more complicated the problems, the greater her insight!

Undoing a knot is a process. A lot of knots are left alone because they don’t cause that much of a problem. I think of a wad of cords behind a computer desk, or even a pair of shoes with knots perfectly calibrated for just the right fit. This is rightly normal. But some knots persist even while they disrupt and annoy us (and others). Dealing with these requires more time and effort than we are usually willing to give in the moment. We try to ignore them, and sometimes do so for a long time (even if others can’t help but notice them). But when it comes to finally straightening them out, it takes time and sometimes they are so tangled that the process is a veritable puzzle.

Analogously, unraveling long-standing behavior patterns, ingrained beliefs, and tightly-bound emotions is similar. Patient and therapist are finite in their abilities, no matter how clever or competent. Happily, the therapist and patient are not alone in the work, and so enters the mystery of God’s glory through Mary’s intercession. Our (divinely willed) finitude is bolstered and altogether made-up-for by the Lord’s sufficient graces. These graces come both within and without the therapy room proper, as there are no boundaries to God’s chosen dwelling places. It appears to me, from the changes I’ve seen in patients, that God is characteristically generous with these helping graces, which touch and affect our psychology in unforeseen ways.

Sometimes untangling things leads to a bigger mess (initially). Once the person has sat down and committed to the process, it sometimes becomes clear that there is a lot of work to do. Not only that, but what was in some ways confined to the small area of a knot is now spread out, taking up more space, becoming more noticeable by others and yourself. Psychologically speaking, unveiling things that have been balled-up, over-simplified, unaddressed, or consistently ignored can be stressful, unpleasant, and even quite painful and debilitating. This is the normal course of things for many presenting issues, and Mary can help obtain the appropriate graces to help a person endure. The mess doesn’t last.

Knots are a pain. Therapy is often a great relief to patients at first, and in general. However, real change often involves suffering. Therapist don’t like to see their patients suffer, but are obliged to allow them to wrestle with past rejection, deeply-rooted convictions of sinfulness, and other painful interior experiences in order to find healing. Many of these experiences are analogous to the interior parts of a knot – unseen, neglected, denied parts of the person that are never brought out into the light because they are wrapped up tight and obscured. Even as Mary guides the unveiling of these parts of us, God’s presence accompanies us, bringing meaning and healing to our pain.

My colleagues and I at RWPS strive to know the saving power of God. We have the great grace of knowing that the inevitable suffering that life will dole out has been shared by Christ (God himself). Therapy can sometimes be a microcosm of that reality, but it similarly, though not as essentially, is redemptive. Our constant prayer is that God’s saving grace is infused into our work. I would have little hope for my patients and their brave work in therapy otherwise.