It became apparent in writing this paper that to honor the notion of an intersection of the paths of therapist and clergy, the paper needed to be a dialogue. So what you will hear is a letter from clergy to therapist.
I enjoyed meeting you in New York last month and hearing about your psychology practice. Thanks for your recent note seeking my thoughts on the ISTSS abstract you enclosed: spirituality issues where the paths of therapists and clergy intersect.(1) As you anticipated, I have some thoughts on the topic and look forward to hearing yours.
Let me start with the word "spirituality".
I experience spirituality as an energizing life force. This perspective strikes me every time I talk with a survivor of major trauma. In the face of unspeakable experiences, there is something that keeps them alive, moving forward. Sometimes their pain or their problems seem overwhelming, but a step back for perspective puts in view the tremendous courage and commitment many trauma survivors exhibit - not only just to keep going from one day to the next, but in many cases showing tremendous creativity even while coping with major unresolved issues in their lives.
I experience spirituality as systems of meanings. Typically this perspective is displayed in the practices and beliefs we associate with religion. Practices and beliefs are the easiest aspects of spirituality for scientists to observe and measure, but one should never forget that these things are important only because they mean something to someone - they're an expression of something, not the thing itself.
I experience spirituality as a relationship. With whom? Most people would answer "God". You mentioned you'd left your childhood religion at college, so I don't know if the word "God" is a problem for you. I wish there were a term that worked for everyone so we could focus on the spiritual relationship and not the words. Some people use the term 'Higher Power." Theologian Paul Tillich's phrase "Ground of Being" works better for me - I picture myself like a tree and the object of my spirituality like my roots and the soil that nurtures them. I tried to be even more universal and coined the term "Unseen Beyond." One person loved it and several others hated it. So forgive me if I just use the common word, "God". The important focus is on the universal relationship with an aspect of reality outside of ourselves that like any relationship brings us nurture and acceptance, novelty and grounding, certainty and surprise.
Most important in this discussion, when traumatic events like combat, rape or child abuse overwhelm us, they assault our spirituality. Impacted by traumatic events, survivors ask spiritual questions or make spiritual accusations: "God, how could you let this happen to me? God, why? Why me? Why my loved one? God, are you punishing me? God, do you care about right or wrong anymore? God, have you abandoned me? Or God, have you no future for me any more? So traumatic events are very significant to me as clergy, not only because they hurt fellow human beings and their beliefs about their lives and the world they live in, but also because they hurt their relationships with God.
Given this, you can imagine how excited I was when you discussed your approach to therapy in New York. You talked about how one of your major resources in therapy was your own person, and the relationship you risked with your clients. You talked about how important it was to collaborate, to partner with your clients in the course of treatment. You talked about trusting the processes in circumstances where you didn't really know where the therapy was going to go - and how this opened up possibilities for healing and growth. Your description was so engaging, I personally wanted to sign up. Needing assistance is such a vulnerable and unsafe place that your approach has got to be experienced as fresh air and sunshine.
What struck me is how your approach to therapy complements my understanding of spirituality.
I'm sure your collaborative approach works because it respects and affirms the life force that despite everything has kept trauma survivors living their lives.
Your approach enables you to affirm your training and skills as a therapist - your own beliefs and practices in effect - as being an expression of your commitment to therapy and a set of tools to use, not the thing itself.
And most importantly, your affirmation of therapy as a relationship parallels my understanding of spirituality as a relationship. Your affirmation of moving forward where you don't know where things are going to end up, but trusting that the process will take you to the right place, is very much what I would describe with the word faith. You have faith that the therapeutic journey will take you and your client to the right place.
My hunch is that if you allow the logic of your client-affirming and collaborative process to take you where it will, many of the questions in the abstract will virtually answer themselves.
First, the deep questions survivors ask in the midst of trauma or remembering it need relationship and presence more than answers. From all I know, survivors need to develop their own understanding of their experience, their own meaning. The wisest answers reflecting the most profound theology are of little use unless it is the survivor who has achieved them. I will never forget a conversation with a trauma survivor who suddenly said, "I understand - this experience is about such and such." It wasn't the meaning I would have given him, but his face lit up, he was filled with energy and the conversation was at an end because he suddenly had a life to live again. So I really believe what is needed when dealing with trauma is not answers but presence, not solutions but relationship, not expertise but partnership - the partnership and collaboration that you offer. Ultimately, people have to answer the questions of meaning themselves, whether it takes a moment or a lifetime.
Second, lack of theological training or a bookshelf of answers should not be a barrier to exploration of faith issues in therapy. I want your thoughts on this. You told me you don't see a place for religion in your practice and you talked to me about collaborating with your clients in trusting a process that might take you to unknown places. Surely you are not telling your clients, "This is a safe place to work together on every issue you might have - except those that are most profound!" I propose that your therapeutic model will even allow you to partner in exploring issues of spirituality, and your presence, commitment, and confidence in collaboration will count for far more than theological training.
Well, if therapists can do so much, where do clergy fit in this intersection?
First, clergy "name" the presence of God. Like a parent helping a child to understand and manage her world by giving her the names of the things around her, clergy in their relationship with congregants point out aspects of spirituality in the world around them and name these by the words appropriate to their faith tradition. In mine, we use words like God, sin, grace. Almost alone in our secular world, clergy are comfortable talking about God as an integral presence in our world. From this perspective, clergy represent a more holistic perspective than the secular world can offer, and clergy help others obtain this holistic perspective.
Second, clergy provide congregants with resources. One of these resources is a faith community of other believers and seekers, among whom the spiritual connection can be obtained in the context of human connection. Clergy and their faith communities - Muslim, Christian, Jewish Buddhist, other - also provide resources for meaning: inspired writings, stories of the great faith heroes, stories that define who we are as a faith community, codifications of beliefs. These are tremendous bodies of resources from which trauma survivors can draw in helping to understand both the place of trauma and of God in their own lives. Many of these resources specifically present meanings that faith communities have developed out of traumatic experience - like the Jewish Passover that celebrates the end of oppression by the Pharaohs; or the way Christians look at the tortured death of their leader and transform the experience into a symbol of the love and faithfulness of God and the hope for personal new life.
Finally, clergy and other faith leaders, in one way or another, offer spiritual direction. While there is specific training in leading a process of spiritual direction, all clergy whether priests or pastors, imams or rabbis, offer some form of spiritual direction through their concern for the spiritual wellbeing of their congregants and others around them. At its core, spiritual direction is a mentoring relationship employing focused conversation about the state of one's connection with God, the effectiveness of one's prayer life, and the extent of one's openness to guidance. In our role of spiritual direction, clergy often emphasize personal renewal and rebirth. Clergy are uniquely able to represent standards of objective right and wrong, and this enables us to deal with guilt as well as guilt feelings. So we can offer the adult survivor of sexual abuse the assurance that she has done nothing wrong, and offer the combat veteran who has participated in the evil of war, no matter how it might have been politically justified, the cleansing of repentance, grace, absolution.
This intersection where the paths of clergy and therapists meet seems increasingly full of possibilities and needs to be expanded. Make friends with different kinds of clergy. You may find some to whom you can refer clients in confidence to deal with specific spiritual issues. Of even greater importance, I think, is the opportunity to strengthen trauma survivors' capacity to establish connection, rather than doing it for them. Talk with your clients about the faith connection they seek, and help them think through where they might find it. Give clients the tools by which they can seek out faith communities and clergy most appropriate for them, the tools to identify who is sincere and phony, who can offer a place of safety and who can't, who is competent and who is merely well meaning. Be with them to work through the inevitable mistakes. In so doing you will help them find their own strength, their own spiritual abilities, their own relationship to a faith community, their own meaning to their trauma, and their own relationship to God.
Canda, Edward R., and Furman, Leola Dyrud (1999) Spiritual Diversity in Social Work Practice: The Art of Helping. New York: Free Press
Cheston, Sahron E. (1984), As You and The Abused Person Journey Together. New York: Paulist Press
Croley, Joanne (1987) Spiritual Direction: Orientation, Relationship, Process. Spirituality Today, 39, 100-113
Herman, Judith (1992). Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.
Mahedy, William P. (1986). Out of the Night: The Spiritual Journey of Vietnam Vets. New York: Ballantine Books.
Plante, Thomas G., (1999). A Collaborative Relationship Between Professional Psychology and the Roman Catholic Church: A Case Example and Suggested Principles for Success. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 30, 541-546
May, Gerald G. (2001). Contemplative Spiritual Formation: an Introduction. Washington: Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, Inc.
Saakvitne, Karen W.; Gamble, Sarah; Pearlman, Laurie Anne; Lev, Beth Tabor (1999). Risking Connection: A Training Curriculum for Working with Survivors of Childhood Abuse. Lutherville: The Sidran Press.
1. ABSTRACT: Experiences of trauma can damage spirituality in the areas of trust, faith, values, beliefs and self-worth. Therapy necessarily involving healing in these areas, therapists find themselves addressing areas of
spirituality with which they sometimes may be uncomfortable or feel untrained compared to clergy. Therapists
may seek greater competence in addressing spirituality, and/or may refer clients to clergy. Each alternative poses
questions addressed in this session: Must a therapist have answers to theological questions (such as why there is
suffering) in addressing spiritual issues? How much information about beliefs and practices of specific faith
communities (e.g. Jewish, Baptist) should therapists have? Does clergy training better equip clergy to understand
and address clients' spiritual and theological issues? How beneficial to therapy is the ability of clergy to speak on
behalf of faith communities, and, by extension, for God? For instance, in giving the client permission to let guilt
feelings go? Do acts such as confession and absolution enhance the process of healing in therapy? When should
therapists refer clients to clergy, and should they know individual clergy in order to feel comfortable making a
referral? To what extent can participation in such faith communities concurrently with therapy enhance the