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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Healing

You can’t carry your cross
if you’re carrying resentment.

 

Catholic Psychotherapy  |  Spiritual Counsels  |  Books  |  About CSF

 
Spiritual Healing | Hurt | Anger and Revenge | Another Option | Transformation Through Prayer | Victimization and Child Abuse | Giving the Pain to God (Acknowledge the Pain; Relax; Be Transparent; Pray) | “Offer it Up!” | It’s Really Hard Work

 
TO UNDERSTAND the process of spiritual healing, let’s look first at what happens when you are hurt in some way.

 
Hurt

Most people react to hurt by immediately trying to do something about it.

Physical injury often requires some sort of physical treatment. Physical injury can also be treated, in part, with mental imagery and prayer. A wound, for example, has to be cleaned and bandaged and cared for with positive thoughts of its healing while asking God for the grace and patience you need to endure the pain and to understand the symbolic meaning of the pain.

Emotional pain, however, presents more of a problem. Many people treat emotional pain by hiding it; that is, they do something self-gratifying—such as drink alcohol, use drugs, masturbate, gamble, watch TV or movies, eat sweets or fats, and so on—that numbs the pain but that does nothing to heal it. Many people also use anger and revenge to respond to hurt when the cause of the hurt can be identified as a thing or a person, as opposed to natural phenomena. 

 
Anger and Revenge

We all feel hurt or irritated when someone or something obstructs our needs or desires. The obstruction can be something ordinary, such as a child being told that it cannot eat ice cream before dinner; it can be something more serious, such as someone being late for a meeting; or it can be something that can bring us to the boiling point, such as a rude driver who gets in our way.

Unlike the feeling of irritation, though, anger is not truly an emotion. For many persons, this statement is counter-intuitive and confusing. Emotions serve to inform us about our spontaneous reaction to the reality around us; we are not morally responsible for our emotions, and therefore they are not sins. Yet in its true psychological sense anger refers to the desire to hurt the cause of the hurt, and revenge refers to ways in which that hurt can be accomplished, and so, unlike emotions, anger and revenge are both acts of will for which we are morally culpable.[1]

  

Because anger is not a feeling, it is possible to “be” angry even though you do not feel anything. This is the problem with unconscious anger: you don’t feel the anger, so, even as it works its poison in you, you believe it isn’t even there.

  

Revenge, too, has its way of being hidden from direct awareness. Although it can be enacted openly and actively through hostility, cursing, sarcasm, sexuality (pornography, promiscuity, adultery, etc.), or disobedience to authority, it can also be enacted secretly and passively through passive-aggression as well as through self-sabotage—for example, drug or alcohol abuse, obesity, smoking, suicidality, masturbation, or the inability to achieve goals.

But, just as with hiding the hurt, revenge does not heal the hurt either. That’s because all hurt, at its core, is simply a reminder of your essential human vulnerability and helplessness. We are all vulnerable to injury and death, and we are all helpless to overpower death. Even if you kill the person who hurts you, you still remain vulnerable to another attack from someone else. With all revenge, then, you might temporarily feel powerful, but that feeling is just an illusion. No matter what you do, you remain vulnerable to attack from anyone, anywhere.

 
Another Option

In contrast to all this human illusion—and folly—you have another option. That is, when you are hurt, you don’t have to fight back, trying to hurt others as they have hurt you. If you trust in God’s perfect justice to protect you, you can accept all injury quietly, peacefully, and without grumbling or protest. Despite your injuries, you can give patience, understanding, compassion, forbearance, mercy, and forgiveness to those who hurt you, all the while praying that they will repent their wickedness.

Moreover, even if others continue to treat you unfairly you can still achieve healing from your emotional and psychological wounds. If you remember always that nobody—not even God—owes you anything, then you will be able to grow in purity simply because you desire healing, regardless of what others around you do.

So let’s learn the process by which this can be done. 

 

Read the story of Saint Francis of Assisi
and the Wolf of Gubbio

 
Transformation Through Prayer

Emotional healing starts with your taking up relentless, persistent prayer to God (and to the saints and angels for their intercession) that you will grow in holiness; then it will be necessary to force yourself to maintain a calm trust in God’s protection and guidance despite your fears of admitting your own helplessness and despite your impatience with things not happening as quickly as you want.
 

HOW TO STOP PANIC AND RAGE

The part of your brain that pushes you into panic and rage when you experience emotional hurt is a primitive part of the brain that understands behavior, not language, and that has been conditioned by past traumas to equate emotional distress with physical danger. When your body feels the first distress of emotional hurt, your brain interprets it as a danger and sends a signal to your body to pump out fight-or-flight chemicals that cause physiological arousal.

Now, if you believe that there is a danger, and that you have to fight against it, you only encourage your brain to keep on pumping out more fight-or-flight chemicals, and eventually this process escalates and you succumb to an impulse of revenge. Moreover, you can’t stop the uproar just by telling yourself to stop it. As I said before, the part of your brain that pushes you into panic and rage when you experience emotional hurt doesn’t understand language. It only understands behavior—and this brings us to the real solution to the problem.

The only way to stop the emotional uproar is to act deliberately in a way that tells your brain that there is no danger. So, instead of fast, shallow breathing take long, slow, deep breaths. Instead of staring around in a frenzy, close your eyes. Instead of clenching your muscles, loosen them. Instead of allowing racing thoughts, set yourself some simple cognitive task, such as counting backwards from 100—or pray the Jesus Prayer as described below. These behaviors are body signals that tell your brain you are not in danger, and subsequently your brain will shut down the fight-or-flight chemicals, and you will experience a calm relief.

 
To begin to heal your emotional wounds, then, bow down before the Crucifix and, looking to divine justice, surrender the pride of taking matters into your own hands to avenge your hurts. In imitation of Him who accepted injury confidently, quietly, peacefully, and, without grumbling or murmuring, say, “Lord, I am wounded. I hurt. I am helpless. I am broken. I am vulnerable. Nothing I can do by my own hands can protect me. Help me, for without your mercy and protection, I will perish. Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. Help me to continue my work in your service despite the fact that I feel [betrayed, abandoned, unloved, insulted, falsely accused, etc.].”

Never forget that your tears are prayers. Although your suffering does not have any redemptive value—that is, it does not “make things right” between you and God, nor does it make you “special” in God’s eyes—your ability to suffer gracefully will lead to your spiritual growth. Let God, then, do what He will to transform your suffering into courage and perseverance and trust.   
 

VICTIMIZATION AND CHILD ABUSE
 

Many persons, especially those who have been abused emotionally, physically, or sexually as children,[2] tend to recoil from the idea of suffering, primarily because they unconsciously equate suffering with punishment—the same unjust, unfair, and irrational punishment they received at the hands of their abusers. It was this irrational punishment that caused their pain to sink down into the terrifying depths of rage and anger, to be hidden in the dark corners of the unconscious, shrouded in victimization. Therefore, even as adults, there will always be a child-like part of us who seeks some recognition of our pain and some compensation for any hurt we suffer.

Consequently, the resentment underlying this victimization can spawn either of two pernicious attitudes to life: disobedience and false obedience.

In disobedience, a person rebels openly against authority, using tactics such as protest, undermining of traditional beliefs, and flouting of traditional moral values. Such persons derive recognition from being seen as “free thinkers,” and they derive compensation for their wounds from watching destruction come to others.

In false obedience a person gives the appearance of obedience but instead of acting from love acts from spite: “All right. So you’re going to treat me miserably? Well, I’ll show you! I’ll take everything you can dish out and I’ll take it without a murmur, even if it kills me. So there!” Such persons derive recognition from seeing themselves as “victims,” and they derive compensation for their wounds from unconsciously making destruction come upon themselves. Hence the danger here is that such persons tend to slip into the belief that if only they suffer enough then those who have been unfairly rejecting them will eventually be moved to accept them—and this leads right into all the fruitless self-destruction of masochism.  

The biggest problem with masochism is that it clings to the false belief that personal suffering is somehow redemptive, and so it ignores the true redemption worked out in Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. Christ accepted all suffering willingly, not as a victim,[3] and, in carrying the cross, He bore for our sake the pain of all unfair, unjust, and irrational punishment. He gave meaning to suffering. That is, He bore it all openly and without anger for our redemption from sin, and, in doing so, He showed us that real love means the willingness to bear the emotional pain of others, suffering for them in the hope of their salvation. 

If only you would pray for others and take up your suffering as Christ did—not as self-punishment, but as a gift of forgiveness to others—then you would no longer need to hide your pain and you would no longer be terrified of your own capacity for anger; then you could listen honestly to your family and friends, to bear their anger without flinching from it, and to help them heal their pain and take up their own crosses.

This is hard work because unconscious defensive patterns of behavior get started in early childhood as protective mechanisms. To fall into these patterns of behavior does not mean that you are “bad”; such behavior can be changed through intense scrutiny (along with psychotherapy, if necessary) and a constant reliance on God’s mercy.

Read an excerpt from a homily about saving others
by Saint John Chrysostom

 
Giving the Pain to God

Pray, therefore, that the healing process will happen within you. But pray for it specifically:

Ask God that you will be enlightened.

Ask God for the courage to see the truth of your life, especially its ugly and embarrassing resentments and temptations, especially those that lurk in the darkness of your unconscious.

Ask God for the strength to not flinch from the pain of seeing the truth about yourself.

Ask God that everything you do will be directed to your purification from anger and hostility and resentment and victimization.

Then, all it takes to give the pain to God is to work through four successive phases of understanding whenever you feel hurt.

 
Acknowledge the Pain

Feel the hurt, rather than push it out of awareness. Turn to Christ, and speaking to Him as you would speak to another person, tell Him what happened, tell Him how you feel, and ask Him for help.

If someone insults you, acknowledge to yourself and to God what that person did to you and admit that you feel belittled; if someone cheats you, acknowledge to yourself and to God what that person did to you and admit that you feel manipulated and vulnerable; if someone obstructs you, acknowledge to yourself and to God what that person did to you and admit that you feel helpless. And so on.

Admit your weakness, your wretchedness, your brokenness—and ask God for His strength to carry you through despite your feelings.

  

I willingly boast of my weakness, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I am content with weakness, with mistreatment, with distress, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ; for when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong.

  

—2 Corinthians 12:9b-10

Mind you, this does not mean disavowing human emotions; it’s a genuine embracing of human emotional life in its full reality—which leads us to the next phase.

 
Relax

When you feel injured, it will be humanly natural to want to take matters into your own hands to get revenge. So pay attention to your fantasies of revenge. Some of them will spring up right in front of you, but others will be hidden in the depths of your unconscious, and you will be tempted to believe they do not even exist and that you are “past” all resentments. So use psychological and spiritual scrutiny to recognize those fantasies, but resist the temptation to act on them. When someone hurts you, resist the temptation to respond with sarcasm or arguments or hostility or cursing—or self-blame and self-punishment. Look to divine justice, not to bitter revenge.

And when things, rather than other persons, obstruct you—such as traffic lights that turn red when you’re in a hurry, or things that break when you’re under pressure to get a job done—accept it quietly and obediently as God’s wise intervention for your guidance.

Just say, “All right. This is teaching me something, and in due time I will understand. Right now I don’t know why this is happening, but since this is what You want, then I will accept it. I trust in You in all things. But it hurts! So please give me the strength and courage to get me through this.”

  

What if it is the devil tripping you up, rather than God intervening for your instruction? How do you tell the difference? Well, you don’t have to know the difference. Just accept everything gracefully as a glorious act of obedience to God. If the devil trips you up and discovers that his efforts result in glorifying God, he will get tired of you very quickly and leave you alone.

  

 
Be Transparent

As you acknowledge and feel the pain, let it pass through you into Christ’s hands, like sunlight through a clean window.[4] Remember that whatever anyone does to you is done to Christ Himself.[5] When you are mocked, Christ is mocked; when you are cheated, Christ is cheated; when you are abused, Christ is abused; when you are obstructed, Christ is obstructed. Every sin inflicted on anyone is inflicted on Christ, and Christ alone has the power to administer true justice for all injury. So put your wounds in His hands and trust in His justice.

Healing is simply our return to God in humility. There is no healing for our brokenness except the broken bread of the Eucharist. There is no healing except through Him who accepted all pain, quietly, peacefully, without grumbling or murmuring—for our sake. There is no healing except in forgiveness.

         

But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.

         

— Matthew 6:15

 

For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy.

— James 2:13

 
Pray

After acknowledging and feeling the pain, resisting the temptations to revenge, and letting the pain pass through you, then pray. To give the pain to God is to stop trying to take matters into your own hands—by hiding your pain, by dwelling on resentments, by protest, or by plotting revenge—and instead to pray for those who hurt you and to pray that you will learn to approach God in humility so as to accept the true and perfect healing He offers us. So pray for your enlightenment—and pray for the repentance of those who hurt you.

  

It is not always within your power to control your feelings. You will recognize that you have love if, after having experienced annoyance and contradiction, you do not lose your peace, but pray for those who have made you suffer and wish them well.

  

—as told to Saint Faustina,
Diary, 1628

Pray also for those around you. For example, if you’re stuck in a long line at the post office because of a rude clerk, pray for the clerk and pray for the persons in line with you who have to suffer also. Good short prayers to be repeated over and over would be

Father, forgive them, they do not know what they do.
(Luke 23:34)

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.
or
Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me.

(The Jesus Prayer)

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on me.
(The Trisagion prayer)

O Blood and Water which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a fount of Mercy for us, I trust in You.
(Saint Faustina’s Diary, 187)

A good longer prayer would be the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy.

 
 

How to pray the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy

 
“Offer it up!”

These three words—“Offer it up!”—have probably done as much damage to the Catholic faith as they have done good. In its purest sense, the expression “Offer it up!” means the same thing as giving the pain to God. But “Offer it up!” has also become a cliché. Most Catholics recognize the words, and many Catholics say the words, but more often than not all they really “offer up” to God is a shell of colorful piety filled with hidden resentment for being a victim.

Unless you “offer up” your pain with genuine love it is meaningless, and you cannot offer it up with genuine love unless you have acknowledged your helplessness and weakness, recognized the resentments that lurk deep within your unconscious, rejected the urges to revenge that tempt you, made the conscious and humble decision to trust in God’s justice, and then have prayed for purification.

So beware. Real spiritual healing is more than a cliché—it’s hard work.

 
It’s Really Hard Work

It’s important to realize here that when you feel an insult, it can actually take several hours to calm down. Even though you acknowledge the feelings and the thoughts and tell God that you want to pray for the person and don’t want to fall into sin, you might still be assaulted with temptations to revenge for several hours following the insult. It can become a huge battle, but every temptation has to be met with the same technique: acknowledge the feelings and the thoughts and tell God that you want to pray for the person and don’t want to fall into sin. Over and over and over.

One additional technique I have found that helps in such a circumstance is to say the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me!) over and over as a way to prevent yourself from thinking any other thoughts. So when you’re injured, make the initial acknowledgment; refuse to do anything sinful, no matter how much the temptations intrude into your mind; pray the Jesus prayer; continue to refuse to do anything sinful, no matter how much the temptations continue to intrude into your mind; and continue to pray the Jesus prayer; and keep doing it all for as long as necessary. Eventually, the temptations will dissipate. Then give thanks to God for helping you get through it. And give yourself credit for persevering!

 

Who wrote this web page?

 

Notes.

1. In all things, God desires us to treat each other with the same love He has for us. Therefore, wanting someone to be emotionally or physically hurt removes you from God’s service and places you in the service of the devil. Consequently, just the thought of hurting someone is a sin—but being a venial sin (so long as it is an inner desire, rather than an outward act) it can be absolved with perfect contrition. An actual act of revenge toward another person that results in real harm is a mortal sin, and must be absolved formally through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Unrepentant sin will condemn a soul at the Last Judgment. Note that this condemnation is a truthful assessment of the soul’s unholy behavior, not a desire on God’s part for revenge.

2. Many persons have to struggle with the suspicion that they may have been sexually abused in the past, and many of them will never know for sure if any abuse actually happened. The psychological/spiritual task here is for them to acknowledge the emotional pain they feel now, to recognize the conflicts that the pain causes (e.g., impulses to promiscuity, pornography, masturbation, etc.), and to then work to overcome the urge to take revenge on the world now because of what they have suffered in the past.
     Note that worrying about whether any abuse actually happened won’t help you. Nor will trying to get the suspected person(s) to admit the truth help you. The best thing to do is vow to yourself and to God that, regardless of what others around you do, you will purge dishonesty and lust from your life.

3. Christ was, and is, a victim in the ancient sense of the term, which referred to an animal offered in sacrifice: as the Paschal Lamb, Christ willingly offered Himself in sacrifice on the cross for our salvation. Keep in mind, though, that in His sacrifice, Christ neither lost anything nor was He cheated or duped. He did, however, “cheat” death of its power over us, and, in that sense, death itself was made a “victim” of His sacrifice.

4. The more clean the window, the less the glass will heat up from the light. But no window can be perfectly clean. The more dirt on the window, the more it will heat up—that is, the more unconscious anger there is hidden in your heart, the more emotional anguish and turmoil you will feel because of any injury. Conversely, the more psychological work you have done to clean out your unconscious resentments, the more confidently and gracefully you will bear the Cross.

5. “Then He will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave Me no food, I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink, a stranger and you gave Me no welcome, naked and you gave Me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for Me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to Your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for Me’” (Matthew 25:41-45). Remember, too, that, at the height of Saul’s persecution of Christians, Christ asked him, “Why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4).

 

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Where Catholic therapy (Catholic psychotherapy) is explained according to Catholic psychology in the tradition of the Catholic mystics.