Therapy and Spiritual Direction - Evil Twins?

Let me state my bias right up front. Within my vocation, I make distinctions between the following:

  1. PASTORAL Counseling
  2. PROFESSIONAL Counseling
  3. Professional THERAPY
  4. Spiritual Direction
  5. Confession

I can do “Pastoral” Counseling. Someone comes in and asks, “Father can I talk to you about something?” Priests do this all the time. We can do this by nature of the training we have had in the seminary. It’s a conversation of equals, led by the Holy Spirit, to resolve - most times - a human challenge with the help of spiritual insights, wisdom and personal experience.

I can NOT do “Professional” Counseling. You need to be board certified with a license issued by the State to do that. And you get paid for the service. It is NOT a conversation of equals. The professional counselor stands above the patient. The counselor has more specialized education, training, experience to give insights into the emotional challenges that face people. It also assumes that the patient has the emotional and physical resources, strength, wherewithal and will to understand, accept, appropriate, apply and implement the “counsel” provided by the counselor.

In the case of professional “Therapy,” the person is so emotional damaged and/or has suffered such severe trauma that they do NOT have the emotional and physical resources, strength, wherewithal and will to even begin to understand any “counsel” provided much less to accept, appropriate, apply and implement it. They must be “wedded” to a strict, therapeutic program which must be closely monitored and usually involves hospitalization and medication. Again, it is NOT a relationship of equals.

“Spiritual Direction” is also NOT a relationship of equals. It does involve a relationship but the relationship is between the one directed and Jesus Christ. It is NOT between the one directed and the Spiritual Director. The Director is merely a compass, the “spiritual GPS” ALWAYS pointing towards Jesus Christ. When I notice that a person needs to change Spiritual Directors and the one being directed “flips out” a little (Or a lot! I’ve seen it happen), then something was going on there but it wasn’t all just “spiritual.” Certainly a move to a new spiritual director will involve inconvenience and discomfort. Change is messy but it should not involve something that looks like trauma. When it does, an unhealthy connection had developed and an inappropriate relationship was formed between the director and the one directed.

Confession - well - it’s a sacrament and involves the “seal of Confessions.” I hope that I don’t have to explain that one.

So I noticed that Jennifer Fulwiler had written a blog “Therapy and the Spiritual Life.” I’ve read Jennifer’s stuff before on “Conversion Diary” and I like her style. What she wrote reminded me of a course that I once took at the seminary on “spiritual direction.” The professor (a Dominican) does a LOT of spiritual direction and knew his stuff. He provided not only professional advice and information based on his experience, but also based what he taught on the Scriptures, the teachings of the Church (going WAY back) as well as the spiritual classics and the Church Fathers (All of the “religion” stuff that nobody wants). The interactions and relationships listed above are different and are to be kept separate. They are designed to accomplish different purposes. He said that you don’t mix them. If you do, it could be unethical, it certainly will be unprofessional and people get hurt.

I thought her article echoed what I believe about a healthy interconnection between therapy, spiritual direction/guidance and the sacraments. It’s worth the read in a society that is so keen (and VERY confused) about “being spiritual but not religious.”

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