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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.

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.

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.