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franciscan - January 2002

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2001

Soul friend or psychotherapist?

By John Hall-Matthews

‘The Glory of God is a person fully alive.’ Irenaeus, c130-200
For several years I have seen people for spiritual direction. They come to share their stories of faith, and I listen, acting as a mirror enabling them to see reflections of their pilgrim journey as they reveal themselves to me. I see myself as a companion, or soul friend; one who accompanies, rarely giving direction or advice. My wife Tricia, also accompanies people, as a psychotherapist. What is the difference between what happens in my study and her consulting room? And what is similar? Both are concerned with the health and development of the psyche – the soul or spirit.

There was a time when the spiritual director would tell pilgrims what to do; and they would be encouraged to keep the commandments and suppress feelings. Following God was a matter of the will, and not of the heart. The psychotherapist, following Freud, regarded God (out there) and religion as illusion. In recent years there have been significant changes on both sides. Feelings are now considered to be real indicators of the pilgrim’s relationship with God, and they are encouraged to reflect on them. Psychotherapy, changing its emphasis from individuals to people in relationship, now recognises that the Christian`s relationship with God reflects and nurtures human relationships.

Discovering ‘God within’ is a concept developed in spiritual direction in the late twentieth century. Psychotherapists following Jung honour the holiness innately at the core of each person, whose life`s task is to develop the personal Self, which is part of the universal Self which is God. Spiritual directors and psychotherapists are both concerned with nurturing the person`s relationship with this ‘core of our being’. Both purport to foster in a person the processes of inner healing and growth towards wholeness and being fully alive.

People feel they need someone who will be there for them, who will listen, and enable them to explore and reflect on their life experience, helping them to find ways of coping and understanding themselves and their reactions better. For psychotherapy patients their problems may predominate, while pilgrims, who may also have problems, want to focus on their spiritual journeys. For this reason there is a difference in the frequency of visits. The psychotherapist and patient meet each week at least, whereas the pilgrim, having an ongoing relationship with God (the real director), sees the spiritual director less frequently. This reflects another, fundamental difference. In both the crucible for healing is a relationship of acceptance and loving responsiveness. In psychotherapy this relationship is the therapeutic one which develops between the patient and therapist, dependent on frequent and regular meetings together. In spiritual direction the crucial relationship is that between the pilgrim and God – the frequent contact being in prayer – with the spiritual director an occasional observer. In psychotherapy, however, the deep relationship which develops between patient and therapist often has a numinous quality experienced by both, which Christians may interpret as a meeting with Christ in the other.

The spiritual director is primarily there to listen to the pilgrim’s journeys of faith, and to explore relationships with God. The context is quite specific; it is the pilgrim’s experience of prayer. But this can be all embracing. Father Andrew, one of the earliest Anglican Franciscans, who lived and worked in Plaistow, in East London, at the beginning of the twentieth century once said : ‘All my life is my prayer, and what I call my prayer is my effort to make it so.’ If life has a God focus, then everything is prayer, an offering of praise and thanksgiving to Him. God is in all things. So the spiritual director listens to life stories of the pilgrim, maybe their whole life experience.

Pilgrims often long to know what God’s will is for them. This is especially true when they are faced with having to make a major decision. Should they take a new job or challenge? Should they commit themselves to a close relationship? Should they leave a relationship, which appears to have broken down? The spiritual director tries to help pilgrims discern what is their deepest desire. God wants people to be true to themselves. God created each person with a purpose. Pilgrims find a deep sense of peace within when they discover what God wants them to be. A clue to discovering that sense is to find what each person desires most.

The spiritual director encourages pilgrims to find their deepest desire through their experience of prayer. They should pray as they can and not as they cannot. New ways of praying, if suggested, must become real for them. They need to experience ways of stilling the body and the mind, to be receptive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Using the imagination with a story from scripture can bring new insights. The ancient way of repeating a word or phrase from scripture as a mantra helps to focus the mind. Reflecting on prayer afterwards can be very revealing, especially when they pay attention to the feelings, which give insights into images and understandings of God’s relationship with them. If, for example, a pilgrim has felt very guilty during a prayer period, it may be that they have a false image, probably there since childhood, of a God who is angry with them or a God who punishes, perhaps based on early teaching or their experience of a parent. Encouraged to look at these reactions, they may come to a realisation of this, and then that they are indeed a loved sinner, with a new understanding of God as loving and forgiving.
The psychotherapist uses different language for a process which can be very similar. Imagination, mental images, dreams, fantasies, the stirrings of feelings and apparently-unconnected thoughts of both patient and therapist are the tools used in the technique known as free association. In the safe, reflective space of the psychotherapy session and within the accepting psychotherapeutic relationship, as in prayer, present-day feelings, thoughts and behaviour can be explored in the light of material emerging from the unconscious mind, often long suppressed.

Much time may be spent by pilgrims/patients discussing their sense of what is wrong in themselves. This may be thought of as sinfulness – separation from God, as disliked aspects of their humanity, involving such so-called negative emotions as hatred, greed or envy, or as psychic damage due to early life trauma. There may be strong feelings of guilt. However these things are described, they are the source of great inner pain. Addressing them, in either spiritual direction or psychotherapy, involves facing things hidden in the dark recesses of the heart, exposing them to the experience of forgiveness and healing – so closely linked by Jesus in the Gospels. The need is not to expunge all ‘negative’ aspects of ourselves – they are an innate part of our humanity – but to integrate them so that they can be acknowledged but not rule us.

In the right emotional environment children developing, and patients in therapy, come to terms with the darker aspects of themselves and others, allowing their innate love and goodness to flourish, thus becoming able to live fulfilled lives. Pilgrims who have had a good-enough early emotional environment can open themselves to God and progress towards fullness of life with the help of a spiritual director. Some, more damaged, may need the greater intensity of psychotherapy for a while to help them on their way. All need to be heard and held in love to experience the truth of Christ`s promise that ‘I have come that you may have life, life in all its fullness’ (John 10.10). f

The Reverend Prebendary John Hall-Matthews is team rector of the parish of Central Wolverhampton and a member of the Third Order of SSF. His wife Tricia is also a Tertiary.


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