Spiritual Director or Shrink? How Does One Discern? (Part II of II)

Dear Fathers, Brothers, and Sisters,¨I have long been dealing with a deep sadness and lack of joy in life.  The vortex of emotional suffering seems to revolve around my unanswered prayers for a spouse and romantic love, but when I look at myself honestly I see that I am not selfless enough to have been a good wife.” I pray that the Lord changes my heart, and makes me a better person, and I am trying to curb my faults.  But I’m too old now to have the romantic bond and marriage that I long for (especially since a man willing to date a woman who won’t sleep with him is almost impossible to find). ¨I can’t get past the unhappiness and loneliness.  I know I have to forget my dreams, and focus on serving others, like a good Christian spinster-lady is supposed to do.  But every time I try to turn Holy_Sepulchre_cross for post on spiritual director or shrinkmy thoughts and heart in that direction, everything inside me screams “noooooo!” I need help, but I’m unsure if it is spiritual direction I need (as with so many others, I haven’t been able to find a director) or if it is a (Catholic or other Christian) psychologist / psychiatrist.¨ It seems to me that my emotional and spiritual “symptoms” may have roots in matters that psychologists and psychiatrists deal with, or may have spiritual roots — or maybe that’s not a very meaningful distinction and I ought to explore both.¨ So how does one discern whether to turn to a Spiritual Director or a Shrink?¨ With gratitude and prayers!

In the first post, we looked at a third possibility to your situation — that of God bringing you to a new mode or level of spiritual work, so you can enter into a deeper communion with Him. In today’s post, we will look at the spiritual and psychological connections that emerge as God begins to act more directly in our lives, and I’ll offer some practical considerations.

Spiritual and Psychological Connections

Do you know what the roots of our root sin usually are? Emotional and psychological wounds – subconscious tendencies and attitudes, emotional coping patterns, that gradually emerged during our formative years as we dealt with the imperfections of growing up in a fallen world with fallen parents and siblings. These experiences affected our capacity to trust, and trust is the very core of the spiritual life. As God begins to act more directly in our lives, he will begin to uncover these wounds and patterns and needs, with a view to helping us learn to trust him more and more. We will begin to discover things about ourselves that we didn’t know before. This is part of what our tradition calls the “illuminative phase” of spiritual growth: God illuminates the depths of our souls with his merciful and healing light, and begins to grace-ify, so to speak, the hidden corners of our soul.

When this happens, the insights of psychology (good psychology, psychology in harmony with the philosophical and theological truths of our Catholic faith), can be a useful tool. God can use it to help us deepen in our self-knowledge, and to give us new avenues through which we can engage in the faith-filled surrender to him that will lead to further spiritual growth.

So you can see what I’m getting at, right? It seems to me that you may be in the season in your spiritual life when God needs to work more directly in your soul – your own efforts to be a “good Christian spinster-lady” will not suffice for you to satisfy the deep yearnings God is stirring up in your soul. Your prayer will begin to change. Your attitudes and your self-knowledge will take on new dimensions. Your crosses will begin to look and feel very different than they have in the past… All of this is a spiritual reality with psychological connections.

Getting Practical

So, what to do? I would encourage you to seek both spiritual guidance and some counseling. Many parishes that don’t have spiritual directors do have pastoral counseling services. You can meet with a pastoral counselor just once or twice – a long term commitment or relationship isn’t strictly necessary, though it can sometimes be useful. You could also look around for someone who is neither a counselor nor a spiritual director, but who could serve as a kind of mentor for the season you find yourself in. Since you are having trouble finding a regular spiritual director, you can also try to find (ask around) confessors with good reputations (often you find them at retreat centers) and bring up some of your concerns in the context of confession.

What you are doing is seeking more light, seeking to discover what is blocking you from living in Christ’s peace in the current, objectively difficult situation you find yourself in. You want to know how to tap into the strength of the Holy Spirit so as to carry this cross more lovingly and joyfully. You want to know what hidden, as yet unidentified fears or expectations may be inhibiting you from doing this… You are on a quest to follow Jesus more closely by discovering what and how he is acting in this season of your life.

God himself will be the one who guides you as you seek guidance through fellow human beings. In the meantime, stay very close to him through your daily prayer, some good spiritual reading, and through living the duties of your state in life (even if you don’t have a spousal relationship to attend to, you have many other relationships to attend to) with humble and simple generosity, going the extra mile at least once a day out of love for Jesus. And remember, Jesus truly is capable of fulfilling all the deepest yearnings of your heart – after all, he planted them there, and he did so because he wants them to be fulfilled!

I hope these reflections have been of some assistance. I promise to say a prayer for you. I have to admit, I am excited for you, as I think you are just beginning to embark on a new stage in your life journey that will be full of truly amazing discoveries. God bless you!

In Him, Fr. John

Fr John Bartunek, LC, ThD


Art: Wooden crosses near the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre Church, Own work by uploader Adiel Lo, October 2006, Permission: other versions, Category H; Wikimedia Commons.

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