Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, a Surprising Place to find TOB

When I sat down to watch Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, I was not expecting much. I was never particularly fond of the Shrek series and found the first Puss in Boots movie to be mediocre, at best. I would have completely overlooked this latest addition to the franchise had my husband not prodded me to watch it with him after watching a glowing YouTube review from a notoriously critical film connoisseur. Let’s just say, the glowing reviews were merited. I was pleasantly surprised to find it was a visually stunning, morally compelling, family-oriented film that tracked thematically with Theology of the Body!

As an aside, I would not recommend this movie for small children due to the level of violence and some adult humor (e.g., bleeped out language). In addition, it has some rather dark themes. Nonetheless, the film’s merits are many and make it worthy fair for older children and adults.  Warning: If you don’t want the plot spoiled, stop reading here.

While the stage is set with pretty colors and a charming, somewhat conceited, agile, swashbuckling cat, the movie deals with some heavy themes. The plot weaves in themes of abandonment and the desire for love as well as the importance of family, commitment, and sacrifice.  A central focus is how the fear of death can get in the way of our ability to love.

The main character has always been careless with his nine lives. He previously mistook his carelessness for fearlessness, touting himself as a legendary hero. When he comes down to his last life, he can no longer fight with the same reckless “bravery.”  In a duel with death, he is wounded and overcome with panic and fear. His mortality is made real and his existence fragile.

He becomes focused on escaping death and restoring his nine lives as the only way to ensure his future, reduce his fear, and restore him to his former glory. He embarks on a desperate quest to find the mythical Last Wish, to regain his lives before death finally comes for him.

While on his journey, he encounters his former feline love interest, whom we learn he previously abandoned at the altar. He admits that it was the worst decision he ever made and that it was made out of fear. When she sees his newfound vulnerability, her heart softens, and trust is rekindled. Nevertheless, his fear resurfaces and motivates him to abandon her again for the sake of false security. However, in the end, he is able to overcome his fear and choose love. In the process, he discovers himself and even becomes courageous, not reckless, in the face of death. He shows his love that he is willing to risk his very life and face death to fight for an opportunity to spend his last and most important life with her.

This is the very fight we are called to enter when following the life of Christ. He calls us to love fearlessly, to let ourselves be loved deeply, and to be willing to sacrifice our lives for the sake of that love. This struggle to overcome fear and selfishness so that we can love authentically is central to the Christian life. Theology of the Body teaches us that we are made for communion of persons, and this requires making a gift of self. Christ Himself showed us this by pouring out His life out of love for us on the Cross and calling us to follow His example. Indeed, it is only when the love of another becomes the central inspiration for our lives that we find the courage to live boldly, even in the face of death.

In case this wasn’t enough, there were a few other things I found refreshing about this movie. They included several nods to the importance of gratitude and being present to the blessings in life. One character coped with tremendous hardship by focusing on what he had instead of what he was missing. Another came to realize that she had her wish right in front of her all along. I also was pleased to see that the filmmakers allowed the bad guy to be a bad guy. While appealing to our natural desire to see good in all people and give the bad guy a chance to redeem himself, the movie made space for the harsh reality that some people have genuinely malicious motivations and no intention to change. One character even admirably attempts to stimulate the villain’s conscience, but in the end, it became clear that he lacks all sympathy and is solely focused on pursuing power and domination. The profound truth here is that while God extends us innumerable opportunities for redemption, He ultimately respects our gift of free will through which some may condemn themselves. Overall, it was an enjoyable adventure with a surprisingly deep message. 

Made in My Image: Disembodied Communication & Transgenderism by Dr. Emily Dowdell

I have a theory. If you’re trained in social sciences or loosely familiar with statistics, you have probably heard the phrase “correlation is not causation.” But there’s a trend in society, the spike in gender dysphoria and transgender identification, that I wonder about. Many suggest that the sudden rise in popularity of transgender identification is connected to greater openness and reduced social stigma around sexuality and gender. There could be something to that. But what if it has less to do with the acceptance of the belief that sex and gender are separable and more to do with disembodied communication? Is it merely coincidental that it trends alongside increased internet-based communication?

Internet communication, especially through the creation of social media and dating profiles, is reductionistic. It is common for people looking for connection on these apps to peruse and rule out potential relationships based on affiliation, appearance, opinions, and interests placed on a profile. We become accustomed to limiting our understanding of others to these external attributes. Making friends or romantic connections online is more about curating the perfect collection of interest or putting up the perfect picture to attract similar people, than it is about building a relationship through shared experiences. When you add videogames and virtual character customization to the mix, it changes the way people interact and think of themselves. There are so many video games out there that let you tailor your character to look, sound, and move in almost any way you like. As technology continues to advance, it seems that the options for custom digital creation approach only the limits of the imagination. Is it not surprising then, that the body is often seen as a limitation or something to be customized to match internal preferences? When the body is separated from the person and becomes an obstacle to self-revelation, we begin to view it as an object that can be shaped and changed according to my will.

Children and adolescents being raised in this digital environment of crafting their own identities and appearances in a virtual world may think the real world abides by the same principles. In one way, the transgender movement feels appealing, especially to adolescents, because it matches the culture of online communication – that I can make myself into whomever I want and should have complete control over how I appear and am perceived. The pressure of having to determine one’s own identity and know how all of these different traits will be received by others generates significant distress, anxiety, and self-consciousness. Building friendships becomes more about gauging feedback and less about discovering oneself and the other through shared interests and experiences. Theology of the Body emphasizes the unity of body and personhood, affirming the reality that the body reveals the person. From this perspective, identity is a gift to be discovered, rather than created. When our identity is anchored in a relationship with God, who creates us male or female, it is fundamentally more secure and constant.

Human beings are more invigorated when we feel a sense of connection over a common cause or shared interest and belong to a group. Unfortunately, there are downsides to this effect. To preserve the sense of community and protect the ideals that bind the group, the group may suppress dissent, stoke fear of outside information, and focus exclusively on content that supports the group agenda.  When group members hear only one perspective exclusively, their ideas become more entrenched and more extreme.  If you mix this extreme, emotionally driven attachment to the group cause with a sense of anonymity, individuals lose their inhibitions and act in ways discordant with their prior moral sensibilities. This is what we often see in the destructive acts of violence within a mob.  No one individual is culpable for the violence; it is attributed to the group or the movement as a whole.  The Internet encourages this kind of group formation. People get sucked into the power of groupthink and ideology. They lose the ability to connect on a personal level.

I strongly believe that as human beings we are called to approach one another with humility and reverence.  I am very saddened by the ways in which individuals who are questioning or exploring their identity are mistreated, ridiculed, and feel marginalized. I can empathize and have compassion for the experiences of individual members of larger groups feeling oppressed or unseen. However, I find myself frustrated when group identification becomes the focus. Group identification is inherently polarizing. It is as if to offer respect to one group, the other group needs to be completely stripped of all value. Speaking at this group level creates more division and the person is often lost in the mix. That is because speaking in such broad terms can never truly capture the fullness of a person’s experience. Psychosexual development is a deeply personal and complicated process. When we apply broad stereotypes and terms to something so individualized, we lose a sense of the person – who that person is and how that person came to be. I want to create space for difference and discussion. To me diversity is not about dismantling preexisting systems and creating new ones that accommodate for every permutation of human experience. It’s about working together to broaden understanding at the level of each individual person.

Playful Parenting: Bluey as a Model of Child-Centered Play
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

You may or may not yet be aware of Bluey, a television show designed for preschool children. Bluey is an animated series about the playful adventures of a family of blue heeler dogs. The show premiered in Australia in October 2018 and in our home in the summer of 2020, and we absolutely love it.

In graduate school, I learned about the integral role of play in how children process emotions and work through the many challenges they face. Children need play. It is often their only outlet to express the feelings they cannot put into words. Play helps children learn how to share their inner life, regulate their emotions, and heal their wounds. 

In an episode called Daddy Putdown, Chili (Mum) goes to a baby shower and leaves the girls in Bandit (Dad)’s capable hands. Bluey is stuck on missing her mum. Bandit pulls out all the games in an effort to distract Bluey from her feelings. The games only take her mind off them for a little while. Seeing that Bluey is still struggling, Bandit gets down on her level:

Bluey: Please, can you tell her to come back?

Bandit: Okay. [dialing] It’s just that she was really look forward to this baby shower.

I don’t understand it. Why would you want to watch some stinky baby have a shower?

Bluey: Daaad! That’s not what a baby shower is!

Bandit: Yeah, it is. Mum and all her friends go into town and give some dirty baby a wash.

Bluey: That’s not a baby shower! You don’t really think that, do you?

Bandit: Well, then, what is it?

Bluey: It’s a party for a lady who has a baby in her belly!

Bandit: Really?

Bluey: You know that.

Bandit: Are there presents?

Bluey: Yeah! But they’re all for the baby.

Bandit: Ohh! What presents does a baby want?

Bluey: Oh, I don’t know. Like bibs and rattles and stuff.

Bingo: Yeah, and onesies.

Bluey: Oh, yeah. Babies love onesies.

Bandit: And are there games?

Bluey: Oh, yeah. I think so. Like Guessing the Baby Name game and stuff.

Bingo: Yeah, and Pregnant Lady Obstacle Course.

Bandit: Well. There you go. It’s ringing.

Bluey: Wait. Hang the phone up.

Bandit: Oh. Okay… Hey where you going?

Bluey: I think I thought of a game.

Just then, Bluey’s face lights up and she runs off. The show follows her into another room where she reenacts the evenings events, role-playing the mother and casting her younger sister Bingo as her daughter. She coaches Bingo to be sad when she climbs into her cozy coupe to head off for the party. She has all her little dolls set up in a circle for the baby shower and rushes in apologizing for being late. She explains to her dolls that she was late because “Snowdrop” was sad that she had to leave. She then plays out the baby shower. When she returns home in her cozy coupe, she emerges from her play ready to spend time with dad.

I could go on about the many valuable lessons for children and parents packed into these short episodes. If you want to see a mom hit the limit of her frustration tolerance, re-center, and reengage with her kids – watch the episode Sticky Gecko. My personal favorite is Sleepytime, when Bingo dreams about being a big girl… in space!  At one-point in the dream, she flies up to the sun and perches on a nearby planet, taking in the sun’s light. After basking, she says, “I have to go, I’m a big girl now.” She then hears her mother’s voice say to her, “Remember, I’ll always be here for you, even if you can’t see me, because I love you,” with the majestic musical theme Jupiter from Holst’s The Planets reaching a climactic crescendo.

The thing is, Bluey is not just a children’s show. It is a show that reveres the small moments, fills the minds and hearts of children with wonder and imagination, is packed with meaningful life lessons, and can be inspirational to parents and children alike! In another post, I may write about the significance of the portrayal of an engaged father-figure in children’s television, but that’s for another day. It is truly amazing what they manage to accomplish in just seven-minute episodes. Most importantly, Bluey is an homage to the power of play.

Let Dragons Be Evil
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

The heroic protagonist fights the evil dragon and rescues those in mortal danger. We are attracted to these stories and the excitement of the challenge. It can be a source of hope when we struggle in our own battles to see the stark victory of good over evil. In the last thirty years, many children’s stories have drifted away from these themes. Our legends are less legendary, the line between the heroes and villains has become blurred.  But there’s a developmental reason that we need exaggerated all-good or all-bad characters in children’s stories. Children need to be able to recognize what is good and what is bad, to develop their conscience, and it starts in these extremes.

The hope is that child-logic, which tends to categorize in black-and-white terms, is outgrown by adulthood. As the brain develops, it becomes more capable of discernment and critical thinking. With that comes the ability to recognize the multifaceted reality that no one is truly all-good or all-bad. However, the all-good and all-bad characters of our childhood stories help us as adults develop the extreme constructs from which to evaluate others in a more nuanced and compassionate way. Without them, there are no moral absolutes we can no longer appreciate the difference between virtuous and vicious behavior. In a General Audience in 1999, John Paul II predicted that a society with no moral framework would end up in a state of confusion. He said, “Evil exerts a frightening power of attraction which causes many types of behavior to be judged ‘normal’ and ‘inevitable’. Evil then grows, having devastating effects on consciences, which become confused and even incapable of discernment.”

There is an attractive element to retelling the story of the Disney villains in a light that makes them seem more human. These characters become less of a caricature of evil and much more relatable. Perhaps the adults who grew up watching Disney movies felt a sense of pity for the misunderstood “bad guy” or wanted to find a way to redeem the parts of themselves or close others that they saw in these evil characters. I know I did. I imagined that the evil sultan Jafar of Aladdin, while ambitious for the throne, was really out to protect Jasmine from a thief and a liar. I reversed the hero and the villain in this and many other stories growing up to try to make sense of the good and bad in my own story.

I am still extremely sympathetic to a good redemption arc, but I have come to realize that redemption only occurs if we retain a sense of what is good and bad. To suggest that all people are all good all of the time is simply untrue. It does not make space for the terribly evil actions that ordinary people can knowingly, or unknowingly, commit. I have had my utopian fantasies where I live in a world where every person feels completely understood, loved, and valued as they were created. Seeing individuals in my family long for that kind of affirmation, I too long for them to receive it. I want to believe that it is possible to get there. I want to believe in the inherent goodness in every person. But to get there, we can’t ignore the reality of evil. To get there, we have to recognize the truth of each person’s capacity for both good and evil. We must become aware of the good and bad within us and reorient ourselves to the good, again and again. We cultivate a sense of morality in ourselves and our children by encouraging growth in faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. We tell them stories where the hero defeats the dragon, to give them hope that they can, with God’s grace, overcome the darkness in their own minds and hearts. Because the truth is, the Savior has already won and His kingdom, while not yet in its full glory, is established. So, we fight for the good so that we and those we love can inherit a place in this kingdom.

Image: Saint George Defeating the Dragon by Johan Konig, c. 1630

A Psychological Interpretation of Genesis 2:24
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

“Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

In Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, he begins with Genesis. What better way to tell the story of what it means to be human then to start at the beginning. In the Creation account, it is revealed that man was not meant to be alone, and God created a suitable helper for him. The relationship between the man and the woman was designed to be one of mutuality and complementarity. There were significant differences, yet they existed in harmony and complemented one another.

One of the goals of Christian marriage is to rediscover that original unity between Adam and Eve, through sacrifice, self-gift, and a shared movement toward holiness. Yet often, couples find themselves feeling isolated and alone, experiencing solitude and even despair within their relationships. The idea of marital unity can seem so far off, like a distant dream, when the day-to-day interactions are grating.  In Love & Responsibility, Pope St. John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) wrote:

True love, a love that is internally complete, is one in which we choose the person for the sake of the person, — that in which a man chooses a woman or a woman chooses a man not just as a sexual partner but as the person on whom to bestow the gift of his or her own life. It is put to the test most severely when the sensual and emotional reactions themselves grow weaker, and sexual values as such lose their effect. Nothing then remains except the value of the person, and the inner truth about the love of those concerned comes to light. If their love is a true gift of self, so that they belong, each to the other, it will not only survive but grow stronger and sink deeper roots.  Whereas if it was never more than a sort of synchronization of sensual and emotional experiences, it will lose its raison d’etre and the person involved will suddenly find themselves in a vacuum.

Ideally, when a man and woman enter a marital relationship, they are doing so freely and are able to make a full gift of themselves. Sometimes, however, this is not the case. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Theology of the Body, in order to give yourself, you must first have some sense of self-ownership.  

Some psychologists like to focus on “the unconscious” in their work and believe that the goal of individual therapy is to bring the things that are outside the person’s awareness into view. These are the therapists that like to ask, “so, tell me about your mother…” There is a sense that if we can become more aware of our true intentions, motivations, and desires, we can make more informed decisions and increase ownership of our choices. To uncover the truth about ourselves, we go back to the beginning, to our origin stories.

When we carry unresolved pain from our past in our unconscious, we can react to our current relationships and life events from a place of fear and self-protection without even realizing it. There is a defense system in place to keep negative past experiences from recurring. It is a very natural process. As a kid, you touched the stove and found out that it burns, and you will never touch it again… In our interactions with our parents as children, we were constantly using them as a sounding board, taking in and adapting to their feedback, and learning how to be. Our parents were not perfect people and sometimes their reactions were not the most reliable. In such cases, we developed beliefs and reactions that may have helped us navigate childhood, but do not generalize well into adulthood. The journey of self-mastery involves untangling the past from the present, recognizing when we’re reacting based on our history instead of the here-and-now. In order to be fully present to the person in front of me, I need to see the reactions that are coming from my own unmet needs or history and make a conscious choice to reorient myself to the person before me. It is a brave and difficult thing to explore some of the dark corners of your story, but once illuminated the fear no longer reigns.

So what does all this have to do with Genesis 2:24? My working theory is that most marital conflict is rooted in an inability to see past an original wound and truly orient to the other person. Maybe I’m reacting to something my spouse said and interpreting it through a lens colored by my past experience.  That coloration, while true to my experience, may affect my ability to see my spouse’s intentions clearly or interpret them accurately. I’ll give you a personal example. My dad was not around very much when I was young.  That generated an assumption in my mind that men are naturally selfish. For a longtime, I had no idea that I even had that assumption, never mind that I was using it to interpret the behavior of all the men in my life.  You can imagine how that filter might affect my interpretation, in moments when my husband would choose to do something for himself, instead of for our family. Thankfully, I’ve learned to identify when that thought-train is leaving the station and choose to reorient myself to my spouse ­– who by the way is incredibly devoted to family – and see that in the moments he’s choosing something for himself, it’s to replenish and rest, to make himself more available to us in the future. What a different reality! So, I like to think that to leave the father and mother and cleave to the spouse, can speak to that process of untangling the past from the present, ultimately restoring the freedom needed to fully commit to loving the person before me in the present moment.

Bringing John Paul II into Couples’ Communication
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

One of the reasons I am excited to be a part of the RWPS team is our commitment to making the philosophy of Pope St. John Paul II and his Theology of the Body more accessible. One area in which we do this is in marital therapy. 

Couples experiencing marital distress are almost always struggling with a breakdown in communication. One or both parties feel misunderstood, and they often find themselves in a power struggle. When couples get locked into these cycles of interaction, they lose sight of their shared humanity, and the love they have for one another. Each person digs their heels into their own individual experiences and demands authority. Many times, the desire for power or authority comes from a deeper desire to be known, heard, and understood at the heart of which is a longing for closeness and a fear of rejection or abandonment. When working with couples who run into these struggles, I often provide this analogy: 

Imagine you and your significant other are standing at the top of a long driveway at dusk. You can’t quite make out what’s happening at the bottom. You see two figures walking past the lamppost and share your observations with each other. One of you sees a couple on a nice evening stroll, the other fears someone is being stalked and in danger.  The two of you argue about who is right, adamant about your observations and opinions. You stay at the top of the driveway and try to convince one another that you really know what’s going on down there. Yet, neither of you have enough information. If we strip away the power struggle, we might have a more balanced interaction. Instead of arguing about who is right, you might be curious about each other’s perceptions. When you seek to understand the other person’s perspective, you might learn that the one who feels fear was once assaulted from behind. The one who saw an evening stroll finds going for walks in the evening romantic. After learning about each other and why you see the world as you do, you might decide to get a little closer to find out what is really going on at the bottom of the driveway.  As you get closer, you could discover that you were both wrong, and it was your neighbor and his son walking their dog. 

In this event, there is an opportunity for the spouses to learn more about one another and their shared reality. One of the beautiful things about the philosophy of Pope St. John Paul II is that he made space for subjective experience without denying objective truth. Some philosophies that aim to honor individual experience can go to an extreme and abandon the notion of an objective reality— we see this in the common phrase “follow your truth” and other mottos based in moral relativism. On the other hand, other philosophies are more rigid about following the rules and impose an objective framework that fails to take into account each person’s subjective experience.  Pope St. John Paul II found a way to recognize the both—and. He affirmed the unique experiences that form our individual thoughts, beliefs, and opinions and asserted that we are interacting with an objective, shared reality. We have a moral obligation to pursue truth and to refrain from treating others as an object, yet we also must respect and honor each other’s subjectivity. 

When we orient ourselves to the pursuit of objective truth — about ourselves and others — in a way that respects our subjective viewpoints, we can experience more harmonious relationships and experience more interior freedom and peace. As in the example above, instead of becoming entrenched in protecting one’s ego, defending oneself and one’s view as “correct” and alienating one’s significant other in the process, we can take a curious stance with oneself, one’s spouse, and the shared reality. In doing so, one might come to realize that, while one’s assumptions about reality were inaccurate, they were coming from a lived experience, thus not invalid. Becoming entrenched in one’s own view becomes problematic when one lacks insight into one’s perspective, presumes to have all the answers, cites assumptions as facts, and refuses to dialogue with oneself, others, and the world.   

If I am approaching a conversation with my husband looking for a certain response — perhaps I am looking for support, validation, or encouragement — and he does not respond in the way I expected, this can indeed be quite disappointing. I might spiral into thoughts about what this means about our marriage or become angry because I feel entitled to the response I wanted.  If instead, I have the awareness to recognize my need, see that I was treating my husband as a source of need-fulfillment, and instead seek to treat him as a person, this changes the dynamic. I can recognize my need, acknowledge my disappointment, and be curious about both of our reactions. I wish I was always able to “put my bags down” in conversations and focus on the good of the other, but sometimes it’s really hard. 

If you or your spouse is struggling to communicate, becoming overwhelmed with strong emotions in conversation, and is unable to be curious — it may be a sign of woundedness and a source of difficulty in your life. There is likely a lot of pain and suffering there, which deeply needs compassion. We are here to help.  By learning to understand yourself and your spouse more deeply, as well as healing underlying wounds that trip us up in our relationships, the RWPS team will walk with you as you seek the healing and growth in your capacity for love. It is also important to remain compassionate with yourself and your spouse through these struggles. We all struggle in our vocations and need the healing power of God’s grace and the support of others to live our vocations fully and faithfully.  In our struggles, we find the prayer of St. Francis a helpful reminder of our calling to seek the good of the other: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.” 


Behind the Edifice and Under Construction
by Dr. Michael Murphy

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
by Dr. Andrew Sodergren

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
by Dr. Michael Murphy

“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
by Dr. Andrew Sodergren

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.