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Prayer and Psychology Plus How We Can Understand Mental Illness and the Spiritual Life

August 6, AD 2013 3 Comments

Embark, once again, we do on this worthy yet controversial quest to present some basic principles on how psychology, properly understood and aided by Christian anthropology, can be a boon companion to the day-in/day-out of good ole timey Christian spiritual livin’ especially with regards to the all-important and all-mysterious encounter with God in prayer. In the words of Kanye West, Rosary beads, yeah, that’s my Catholic style.

If you missed the first article where I lay out the genesis and intention of my little series on yo’ brain and yo’ soul, you may find it ­here­ Otherwise, let’s begin.

Basically, the quest to rectify the oft-misguided findings of psychology with an authentically Christian spirituality that recognizes the existence of a soul will first butt-up against a single difficult fact. You see, the discipline of psychology seeks to heal and, where utilized by effective counselors and therapists, succeeds mightily in this regard. They seek to heal the mind and have uncovered some fairly successful tools and methods for doing so. However, psychology lags when it promises to provide “happiness” which, as with all human endeavors, is its constant quest. What psychology can provide is greater self-acceptance, more stability, and the ability to interact and project oneself out into reality in a more confident and truthful manner. For some, this state-of-being may seem like that happiness which is the end goal of all human existence, but peak behind the veil and you see that pesky little soul crying out for more. It is this soul which receives that peace which surpasses all understanding as the gift of Beatitude with God often enjoyed throughout Christian history as a mystical and contemplative union with God. So, psychology lags.

On the other hand, where it is the mind that is being treated with, psychology can and even should take the forefront in the approach to healing our wounded human nature. We are a body, mind, and soul and each aspect of our personhood must be treated with according to the most suitable methods. For the body, we eat healthy and, when ill, go to the doctor. For the soul, we pray and encounter God in the sacraments and, when ill, go to confession. For the mind, we have to think about whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious and, when ill, attend to the helping companionship of a solid therapist. (As an aside, it’s fascinating how much St. Paul just seems to understand the way humans work. He gets the life of prayer like few others. One of you professors out there has to write a solid book on the spirituality of St. Paul. Please?) Just like the Catholic intellectual tradition found with philosophy, where there is truth to be found in the realm of psychology, it reflects the plan of God for your mind and can be utilized to great effect.

Essentially, we have to generously reap the benefits of each discipline in its proper context and not be surprised or frustrated when psychology isn’t bringing us to mystical union or our prayer life isn’t ridding us of our problem with anxiety. This is one of the most common mistakes we Catholics make. In over-spiritualizing our prayer life (I still blame 19th century Lives of the Saints books), we turn God into a sort of force without fully enfleshed personal motives and desires for relationship.  We expect each encounter in prayer to be some sort of exalted spiritual state and anything less seems like it must not have been God because it didn’t blow my mind. This over-spiritualization has also led many to not account for their natural dispositions in the practice of the spiritual life because they consider them as something separate from an experience of prayer. Your circumstances, both physical and psychological, deeply affect the way in which you recognize the working of God in your soul. For instance, if you smash a Burger King value meal before you head to the chapel, your prayer time will surely be less profound. You will be sluggish and have to go to the bathroom 12 times during your holy hour. To our point, if you struggle with anxiety, going to the chapel will not stop you from being anxious. In fact, being unwilling to confront your anxiety will stop you from praying in such a way that it will effectively aid your battle with anxiety.

Now, it must be said that these circumstances affect your perception of the communication of God’s love to your soul. Really, He is always doing that. The cheeseburger or your depression just stops you from recognizing it. Are you baptized? State of grace? He’s constantly pouring love into your soul through the Holy Spirit. Prayer is simply a turning of our attention toward that fact. Paragraph 2563 of the Catechism says of prayer that the “heart” is the source of prayer which is the “place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives.” The cutting-edge of salvation is inside-out friends. That new self is tryna break out, y’all.

I will close this article with one final and incredibly important point. Because you have a mind as well as a soul, there can be an incredible amount of spiritual good happening in your life outside of your perception. Consider the Dark Night of the Senses or the Soul. God has so arrested the soul with the beginnings of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in His contemplative presence that the mind and the body cannot catch up. The individual undergoing this work cannot perceive any of His workings in their soul and believe He has abandoned them. It’s a deeply painful process for the devout person. However, what He’s actually doing is immersing them in passive purgation so as to bring them into deeper union. Up until that point, they have not experienced so much spiritual good.

It is the same way with mental illnesses including, and especially, depression, the common cold of mental illnesses. Depression has a variety of causes and origins but in some cases, the negative belief systems the depressed individual has developed about the world and herself have placed such strain on the brains workings that it ceases being able to properly function and transmit serotonin. So, the individual slides back into the Funk or the Fog. One cancer-survivor once remarked she would rather have her cancer come back than go through another depressive episode. To give you the context of what we’re dealing with here.

Consider the Dark Nights that we dealt with before because I believe they provide us with a great context to understand the possibility and even reality of a profound spiritual life in the midst of such a depressive episode. To the perception (read: mind) of the person receiving an exalted spiritual union with God, they were abandoned. Similarly, the depressed person’s perception will be an extremely negative one, especially of their spiritual state if they be Christian. Recall though that the Dark Night-ed one actually has an incredible amount of good going on at the level of the soul that they just can’t perceive. I would argue that it is the same way with the depressed individual and reveals the utter importance of distinguishing between mind and soul. At the level of body/brain/mind, the depressed individual can see no spiritual good. If there is one theme to the witness of Scripture, however, it is that the Lord loves the downtrodden, hears the cry of the poor, and is close to the broken-hearted. Blessed are those who mourn. At the level of the soul, the Lord is very near to the depressed individual and is pouring His love into his/her heart. The mind, though unable to perceive it, would do well to remember that fact.

Though it is a different experience than the Dark Night, as the originating cause comes from the mind itself (or body in the case of thyroid issues etc.) and not the soul, the inability of the mind to properly understand the state of their soul and God’s interaction with it is the salient point.

Until next time, stay thirsty, my friends.

Author’s Note: In conversation, it’s been made clear to me that it would aid my reflections to be more specific with the word “mind” especially with the predominance of the mind/brain debate. Though I want to focus on it more later as a full-on post, I will provide this article for reading … …
I’m essentially using the same anthropology he is.

About the Author:

Tim Glemkowski believes that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. He teaches high school sophomores about the Sacraments and morality. His first love, American football, has in recent years been replaced with a love for futbol, as it were, and you can find him most Saturday mornings watching the EPL matches that week. He loves to find the "seeds of the word" in our culture as a means for the re-evangelization of that culture and will often write about that very thing.