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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition



The punishment of fear is fear,
and the reward of love is love.



Catholic Psychotherapy  |  Spiritual Counsels  |  Books  |  About CSF

Fear | Fear of Love | Do Not Be Afraid | Fear and Anger | Feeling Afraid vs. Being Afraid |
Self-sabotage and Fear of Dreams | Accepting Love | Fear of God | Fear of Hell | Unforgiven | Deprivation | The Solution


One small word, and yet so much hangs on it.

Fear keeps alcoholics drinking, addicts addicted, and wretched sinners stuck in sin like quicksand. In fearing the darkness of the human psyche you never get to feel the true joy of real light. Because, after all, the light of truth illuminates the dark and shows the darkness for what it is. So there you are, in full irony: in your fear of the dark, you end up fearing love itself.

Why should this be? Well, in the early years of our lives, whether they are filled with abuse and trauma or just ordinary childhood trials, we learn to defend ourselves from the pain of life. There’s nothing wrong with defenses. In fact, they often keep us alive. But if you cling to your childlike defenses and carry them on into adulthood—as most everyone does unconsciously—you can end up with a lifestyle that causes you more problems than it’s worth. But the thought of changing your life is terrifying, because your defenses are all you know. There are just too many comfortable illusions to lose if you want to see the truth and face the pain of life directly and honestly.


Before I started studying psychology, I worked as a woodcarver and cabinetmaker. One day I brought home a pile of dirty, moldy pieces of wood. My father looked at it and said if it were up to him he would throw it all in the garbage. But I patiently cleaned, sanded, filled, glued, refinished, assembled, and polished the pieces. In the end I had a beautiful antique oak dining table.


So let that be a psychological—and theological—lesson. No life, however dirty and broken, is beyond redemption. Or beyond hope.


Now, my father never abused me in any way. And he never told me that I  was garbage. But imagine how it feels to be a child whose parents are abusive, critical, neglectful, and manipulative. These parents not only break down their child into a pile of sticks, but also, when the child stands there covered in guilt and shame, they tell the child, “Look at you! You’re just a piece of garbage.”


And why are there so many lives headed for the garbage dump? Fear. Fear of the hard work of the deep scrutiny necessary to clean themselves off. Fear of letting go of the dirt, because dirt is all they know, and, even if it’s dirt, at least it’s comfortable.

Fear of Love

Believe it or not, most of us are brought up in modern culture to fear love. This is a radical statement, so pause a bit and consider it.

How often did you, as a child, yearn for gentle teaching and guidance, only to be told, “Shut up and just do what I tell you to do”? How often were you, as a child, criticized and laughed at for expressing your honest feelings? How often are you now used, in our culture of merchandising, as an object to be manipulated in order to satisfy some other person’s desire for profit and power? How often do you shape yourself—with fad diets, workouts, cigars, cosmetic surgery, makeup, dyed hair, body piercings, tattoos, a shaved head, fashionable clothes (or lack of clothing)—in order to meet the expectations of someone’s desire?

So what does a person learn from childhood experiences other than that this is a world of competition, strife, and conflict, geared toward the survival of the “fittest”—or in today’s world, the meanest—in which honesty and compassion are foolish weakness? 

And how often, in the midst of all this exploitation, has anyone ever done anything for your own growth and welfare, without thought of what could be had in return?

spacingTo offer real love—“to will the good of another,” as Thomas Aquinas defined it [1]—is to be satisfied with one’s own weakness, humility, and insignificance. Love is an act of free will, not something that you “fall” into. You can fall into desperate desire, and you can fall into fatal attraction, but you can’t fall into love. Love is a sacrifice of sorts, and it’s a sacrifice of all that the culture in its perversion deems valuable. So to offer this real love, or true love, is to stand against the culture—not as a revolutionary or terrorist but with a humble offering of something better than what others “see” in their blindness.

True love, therefore, forsakes the prestige offered by the culture in its illusions. And, when we have been taught from childhood to covet this illusory prestige as our very identity, is it any wonder that we fear love?


Every child will suffer some form of emotional misunderstanding in his or her family. If this misunderstanding is damaging enough—for example, if the parents are emotionally distant, hypocritical, or abusive—the child can adopt several powerful defensive beliefs:

“I’m bad.”

“I don’t deserve to be cared for.”

“It’s wrong to want anyone to care for me.”

“God hates me.”

With these beliefs in place, the child effectively pushes love out of his or her life. Left unhealed, these beliefs will remain in the unconscious like psychological time capsules even into adulthood. Fear of love will persist, it will seem impossible to trust anyone, and God Himself—who is love and our only real help—will be pushed away as well. 


To overcome this fear of love, then, is not a simple task. It requires far more than the conscious intellectual assertion that you accept God. It requires far more than being a “good” person out of a sense of duty. [2]   It requires something totally different from the illusion of “being in control.” It requires that all those unconscious defenses which push love out of your life be shattered. It’s a process—a conversion—that will turn your life upside down and inside out. And, if done properly, it will leave you saying, just as Saint Paul said, “The life I live now is not my own” (Galatians 2:20).

Do Not Be Afraid

Now, let’s pause here and wonder about something. What is the one thing that Christ repeats over and over throughout the Gospels? Do not be afraid.

Christ doesn’t say this as if He were a humanistic psychologist telling us to stop whining and get on with life. No. When He tells us not to be afraid, He speaks from the place of His own real presence. That is, He so much as says, “When I am with you, I will protect you from your fear.”


wolfThe wolf, seeing all this multitude, ran towards Saint Francis with his jaws wide open.

As he approached, the saint, making the sign of the cross, cried out: “Come hither, brother wolf; I command thee, in the name of Christ, neither to harm me nor anybody else.”

Marvelous to tell, no sooner had Saint Francis made the sign of the cross, than the terrible wolf, closing his jaws, stopped running, and coming up to Saint Francis, lay down at his feet as meekly as a lamb.


—from The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi
Chapter XXI

Imagine what Saint Francis must have felt as the wolf charged at him! The saint had such a complete trust in Christ, as evidenced by the Sign of the Cross he made, that his body did not sweat even a single drop of fear. And the wolf, sensing this profound peace and calm, in obedience to Christ Himself closed his gaping jaws and lay down meekly at Francis’ feet.

There aren’t many persons in the world today who trust in Christ so completely as Saint Francis did. Even Francis’ own friars held back in fear at the mere thought of the wolf.

Many of us think we trust in Christ. Nevertheless, behind our pious thoughts—and for some persons, religious habits—we hide a private treasury of fears and phobias and anxiety and addictions that block us from living a genuinely holy life. Yet if we really believed that Christ is really present, there would be no grudges, no jealousies, no phobias, no anxiety disorders, and no addictions.

Fear and Anger

The matter of phobias brings up the connection between fear and anger. A phobia of insects and animals, for example, can be explained by the fact that, in folklore, vermin are symbols of demons, and demons, by nature (that is, by their fallen nature) are creatures of anger. Now, if anger lurks deep in the heart of any person, that person’s anger will be “accused” by demonic anger. Thus such persons will be reminded of the anger “crawling” within their own hearts when they see crawling vermin.

Feeling Afraid vs. Being Afraid

Now, please don’t get me wrong here.

We are all weak, broken creatures, and we will always feel afraid of something. Vulnerability is a fact of human existence; every day brings new difficulties that loom in front of us, and, because we cannot foretell the future, it’s simply impossible not to feel afraid of something.

Still, in spite of all the fear we feel, we don’t have to get caught in trying to protect ourselves with our own hands and our own wits. We do not have to let fear possess us. In other words, we don’t have to be afraid.

When Christ said, “Do not be afraid” He did not mean that we should never feel afraid. He meant that fear should not become our being because our being should be His being, and that, when we encounter frightening situations, we should trust in Him and, rather than take matters into our own hands, we should look only to His protection.


I was caught by the cords of death;
   the snares of Sheol had seized me;
   I felt agony and dread.
Then I called on the name of the LORD,
   “O LORD, save my life!”
Gracious is the LORD and just;
   yes, our God is merciful.
The LORD protects the simple;
   I was helpless, but God saved me.


—Psalm 116:3–6

Now, to trust in Christ so genuinely is a task requiring years of spiritual growth. But at least if you understand how profound the task really is, then perhaps you won’t go around fooling yourself into thinking that you have achieved such trust when you haven’t even come close. And, when you finally decide to stop fooling yourself, you will have learned the first step to overcoming fear, for then you will have the real presence of Christ’s truth illuminating your darkness.

Self-sabotage and Fear of Dreams

In speaking about dreams here I am not referring to the dreams that happen in your sleep. I am speaking about your profound inner ambitions for your future. For example, some children have simple dreams about a birthday present, a social event at school, or a family vacation. Some children have profound dreams about their professional careers, about Holy Matrimony and family, or about acts of service to humanity.

And yet some individuals have no dreams at all.

Or, to be more correct, it seems as if some persons have no dreams when really they squash their dreams as soon as one gets started.

Why? Well, children who suffer emotional pain in childhood because they are mistreated by parents, family, peers, teachers, or others learn from experience that if they express any of their needs, they will be punished or rejected by others. Caught in this mess, then, children will learn to fear rejection and criticism and will conclude that denying their needs—holding them back, as it were—will prevent their being rejected.

So, as soon as a dream materializes, BANG! they shoot it down before it has a chance to get off the ground.

These are the persons who say, “I don’t know” when asked what they want. These are the persons who say, “I don’t know” when asked what they feel. These are the persons who say, “Whenever I try to do anything, it never works out. This is how it will always be. There’s no point in trying.” These are the persons who will say, “It isn’t fair! God hates me!”

But God doesn’t hate them; they hate themselves—they condemn themselves, they punish themselves, they sabotage themselves—in fear of having dreams.

Accepting Love

“I know I am afraid,” you say. “So what do I do now?”

Well, to begin, think of hell, the tragic consequence of pushing love—and God—out of your life. Then think of Purgatory and consider that whatever impurity you voluntarily purge from yourself in this life, through the process of ever-continuing and ever-deepening conversion, will not have to be burned out of you in Purgatory. Then pause and realize that everything you just thought about hell and Purgatory is absolutely useless in helping you understand anything about love.

In real love for us, God knows that the free will of a hardened sinner cannot be brought to sorrow and contrition through force or threats of punishment. Such tactics only drive a sinner deeper into sin.

So think of Heaven and contemplate the fact that our true purpose in life to be filled with the utter fullness of God’s love in Heaven. Think of love itself, and realize that the intellectual sentimentality that passes for love in the hearts of most of us is not real love. What many Catholics call love is nothing more than duty warmed over. To understand real love, contemplate the Blood of Christ. This is pure love. This is the Blood He shed on the Cross for our salvation and the same Holy Blood He gives to each of us, individually and personally, through His real presence in the Eucharist. This is the same Blood the Blessed Virgin dedicated her life to protecting.

We can share in this love if only we would accept it by surrendering to it with the same love it offers us. Christ spoke about our need to “take up this Cup” and shed our blood for Him, but does it mean that you literally have to become a martyr? Well, no. Blood is life, and so, to shed your blood—or pour out your blood—is to pour out your life. And what does it mean to pour out your life? It means to use all of your talents not for your own profit but for God’s service.

Fear of God

As you can see from everything said above,  fear  refers to a narcissistic concern about possible damage to our pride and safety. In contrast,  fear of God  refers to our awe, reverence, and service before God’s great glory and mercy. Thus, whereas psychological fear pulls us away from God, fear of God leads us directly into the embrace of divine love.

For some persons, the fear of God is sporadic and momentary. It comes and goes with circumstances; it can be plagued with doubts and tears. For others, such as the mystics, the fear of God is constant and leads to a constant awareness of the presence of God. Let’s just say that any fear of God is a good thing because it’s an opening to real love. But without the fear of God there is nothing but hell.

Fear of Hell

There are two kinds of fear of hell: genuine and false.

Genuine fear of hell isn’t the fear of hell per se; the genuine fear of hell is the fear of losing heaven. This is a grace given only to those who truly love God.

False fear of hell isn’t the fear of hell per se either. A false fear of hell is the fear of loving God. Why else would those who say they are afraid of going to hell not do anything it takes to learn to love? They know that love is lacking in their hearts, they know they are betraying God, they know they are in danger of hell, and yet the thought of meeting God—the price of change—seems impossible.

Therefore, threats of hell mean nothing to those who do not love God.

And why is this? Well, such persons have been so miserably treated in childhood, and experience so much anger and resentment at how they were treated, that when they feel hurt and wounded as adults they seek out the only comfort they know: sin. And in persisting in sin, they reveal their real fear: the fear of love.

So, in the end, the fear of hell won’t save you from hell because it’s the fear of love that condemns you to hell.


Years ago, I saw a Clint Eastwood movie, Unforgiven. I still remember one scene very clearly. Standing over the wicked sheriff, Clint Eastwood’s character pauses, his gun cocked, his finger on the trigger. He looks down at the sheriff. The sheriff looks up at him and says, “I’ll see you in hell.” And, as Clint Eastwood pulls the trigger, he acknowledges that, yes, they will meet in hell.

It’s a horrifying thought to realize that these two men both know they are headed straight for hell and yet choose to just let it happen.

Now, if they were asked why this should be, they might have said, “Because we are bad men.”

But that’s just a psychological defense.

If pressed further, they might have said, “OK. Maybe we’re not really bad, but we do bad things, and we just don’t know any other way.”

But this, too, is a defense, an intellectual defense.

So, what is the truth, behind all the defenses? Well, it could be expressed like this: “I know I do bad things, and I was never taught how to do anything else, but I am afraid to surrender my life to Christ and ask Him to heal me.”

And what is it they fear? What is it everyone fears? We’re all afraid that if we really change our lives and witness the truth, our social status will change. We’re afraid that we will lose a nice, comfortable life. We’re afraid that our co-workers and friends will criticize and reject us. We’re afraid that our careers will be threatened. In short, we’re afraid of what we might lose if we allow ourselves to love.

And, in being afraid of what we might lose, we place ourselves at risk of losing everything nevertheless. Why? Because in always being afraid of what we might lose we do not allow ourselves to contemplate what we might gain by overcoming fear.


Because of social deprivation or dysfunction in their families, many persons will commonly ask, “How can I surrender my life to Christ if I have never felt the comfort of being taken care of by anyone or anything all my life? To surrender to God seems as insane as jumping out of an airplane without a parachute!”

Here, then, can be located the fear of and resistance to spiritual development. Such a person needs to experience some sort of comfort before any spiritual progress can be made.

Now, there are many different ways in which it may be possible to find comfort. Social life, education, work, and marriage can all offer some comfort in the context of human relationships. Yet one great danger lurks within them all: self-indulgence. In seeking comfort, we can end up making an idol of pleasure. When we seek comfort in material things, we get entangled in a quest for the pleasure of material comfort. And so, surrounded with pleasure, we lose sight of genuine comfort: God.

The Solution

Still, all is not lost. The solution is prayer. If you crave the guidance and protection that was lost or never even experienced in childhood, and that you have not been able to find anywhere yet, then one hope remains. In prayer you can experience a mystical closeness to God that is real and satisfying.

Yes, the solution to the problem of fear is prayer. Yet on hearing this, many persons will say, “I’ve tried it. Prayer doesn’t work. It’s not good enough for me.” So there is a new problem. Although prayer is the solution to the problem of fear, most persons have not been taught anything about the spiritual technique of prayer that can overcome fear.

To overcome fear, it is necessary to pray properly and to pray persistently. And one basic fact explains this. The satisfaction of prayer is not immediate.

The Satisfaction of Prayer Is Not Immediate

To learn to pray properly and persistently, realize that prayers of duty will bring little comfort. Dutiful prayer has the hidden motive of trying to prove to God how dedicated you are to Him. But God gives His love freely; there is nothing we need to prove to Him. Proper prayer is simply a matter of opening your heart to accept the graces God wants to give you but that you have not known how to accept. So learn now to become accustomed to making simple, short, and frequent heart-felt communications with God. Get close to God by telling Him your fears. Speak from the place of honest humility and helplessness. To pray persistently, say the following prayers over and over throughout the day, every day, knowing that you have nothing to prove and that you cannot say the prayers too much.

O God, I’m so alone. Have mercy on me.

God, I don’t know what to do. Show me how to get through this.

God, teach me how to love You.

God, teach me how to trust You.

God, guide me and illuminate me.

God, help me to do what is right, regardless of what others do.

God, help me to recognize the false beliefs that work in me to obstruct my love for You.

God, teach me purity of heart that I might overcome my desire to sin.

Be careful to say the prayers with a positive mental attitude, believing that satisfaction will occur in due time. If you have a negative mental attitude, then, when prayer does not provide immediate satisfaction, you will believe that “prayer doesn’t work for me.”

Praying Contemplatively

Learn also to make quiet time every day to pray contemplatively, such that you do not ask anything from God but only put yourself quietly in His presence. The most simple way to do this is to pray the Jesus Prayer. Take time to sit (or stand) quietly and, using Rosary beads, pray a Jesus Prayer on each of the beads, both large and small. Two circuits around the Rosary beads will be optimal.


LORD Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Putting Panic To Rest

The part of your brain that pushes you into panic when you experience emotional hurt and fear 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 panic. 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 when you experience emotional hurt doesn’t understand language. It only understands behavior—and this brings us to the real solution to the problem of panic.

The only way to stop the emotional uproar is to act deliberately in a way that tells your brain that there is no danger. If you practice the following steps you can put panic to rest.


Instead of fast, shallow breathing deliberately take long, slow, deep breaths as you continue with the following steps.


Instead of staring around in a frenzy, close your eyes.


Instead of clenching your muscles, loosen them.


Instead of allowing racing thoughts to overwhelm your mind, set yourself some simple cognitive task, such as counting backwards from 100—or pray the Jesus Prayer contemplatively (see above) for about ten minutes.

These steps will give your brain signals that tell it that you are not in danger, and subsequently your brain will shut down the fight-or-flight chemicals, and you will experience a calm relief.

Deliverance Prayer

When we experience an emotional or physiological wound, demonic spirits can attach themselves to the wound to obstruct or discourage healing. Therefore, when you experience any fear, panic or negativity, in addition to the other prayers described above, pray specifically for deliverance from the harmful spirit that may be attached to the fear or panic or negativity.

Remember, though, to be persistent. You may have to pray repeatedly before you experience relief, and you will have to repeat the prayer when fear or panic or negativity recur.


IN the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I renounce the spirit of [fear, negativity, panic, etc.] and the hold it has over me.
   And I ask our Lord Jesus to send it to the foot of the Cross.

Repeat as often as needed for any of these or other spirits.


Prayer for Peaceful Sleep


When you lie in bed at night in preparation to sleep, realize that in sleep you are completely helpless in the world and that only a complete surrender to God will be of any protection. Therefore, make a deliberate commitment to surrender yourself to God’s protection.

To do this, lie in bed calmly, relax all your muscles, and repeat to yourself, “Into Your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” But do it by coordinating the prayer with deep, calm, and regular breathing. Silently, in your mind, say the first part of the prayer while inhaling deeply, and then exhale deeply as you say the second part of the prayer.




Into Your hands, O Lord,


I commend my spirit

Make a disciplined effort to repeat this process over and over until you fall asleep, warding off any other thoughts. When thoughts try to intrude, do not allow yourself to dwell on them. If you do slip and lapse into them, immediately renounce the thoughts and return to the prayer and the deep breathing, until you fall asleep. Note that you may have to say the prayer for an hour at a time before you fall asleep, so be careful not to give up prematurely.


Whenever you wake up in the middle of the night and cannot immediately fall asleep again, then follow a process similar to the process of falling asleep initially, but it is often helpful to use shorter statements than when first falling asleep. You may use any of the following variations. Remember, though, that the prayers are not magical incantations whose efficacy depends on saying the exact words; rather, the efficacy of the prayer is in your intent and persistence.




Lord Jesus


have mercy.

- or -

Breathe deep


the holy grace.

- or -

To you


O Lord,

I commend


my spirit.

As when you first go to bed, make a disciplined effort to repeat this process over and over until you fall asleep again, warding off any other thoughts. When thoughts try to intrude, do not allow yourself to dwell on them. If you do slip and lapse into them, immediately stop thinking about anything and return to the prayer and the deep breathing, until you fall asleep. Note that you may have to say the prayer for an hour at a time before you do fall asleep again, so be careful not to give up prematurely.


Prayer done properly and persistently will allow you to comprehend the protection God offers you even now, but that, without the needed instruction, you have not been able to experience.


Who wrote this web page?



1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, 26, 4.

2. In its psychological sense, duty has nothing to do with love. When you act out of duty you are trying either to gain someone’s appreciation or to avoid losing someone’s appreciation. Love, in contrast, has no ulterior goal; the purpose of love is love. Love is its own reward.
    Nevertheless, it is possible to speak of one’s “duty” to love and worship God, but when used in this unique theological sense the word duty simply points us to a need to avoid being careless about, or ungrateful for, the ineffable love which God bestows upon us.


A Catholic Explanation of a Universal Problem
by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.
Includes the text of this webpage plus much additional information.

book spacing

Fear. One small word, and yet so much hangs on it.
Fear keeps alcoholics drinking, addicts addicted, and wretched sinners stuck in sin like quicksand. In fearing the darkness of the human psyche you never get to feel the true joy of real light. Because, after all, the light of truth illuminates the dark and shows the darkness for what it is. So there you are, in full irony: in your fear of the dark, you end up fearing love itself.
Still, despite the fear, there is hope. The shards of broken love can be repaired.

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