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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition


God does not demand that we be perfect before He will love us. Nor does He hate us because of our sins. He simply asks us to accept His guidance so that we can learn from our failures and grow in perfection.


Catholic Psychotherapy  |  Spiritual Counsels  |  Books  |  About CSF

Introduction | The Refusal to Acknowledge Wretchedness | Scrutiny | Wretched {period} | Conversion? | Hidden Spiritual Pride | The Mistake of Self-punishment | Bypassing Denial | Wretched {gracefully} | Summary

SAINT Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reminds the members of the Roman church that they “have been freed from sin” (Romans 6:22). This statement, however, does not mean that Christians do not sin. Even though many heretics and so-called mystics over the years have tried to make the claim that they are “above sin,” the fact is that all of us—Christian or not—commit sin.

“Freedom from sin” means that when Christians live out their love for Christ in a genuinely devout and holy lifestyle—that is, if they desire God above all things—they will be given a grace that shields them from the desire to commit sin.

Nevertheless, no matter how ardent our love for God, we all fall short in our attempts to live holy lifestyles. No matter what we do, we leave something undone. Our desires are not always pure. All our actions are flawed and imperfect.

In short, we are wretched creatures.

The Refusal to Acknowledge Wretchedness

Sadly, many so-called Christians refuse to acknowledge their own wretchedness. They go to Mass, they practice their devotions, and they say their favorite prayers. Their lives go smoothly, and they give thanks to God for their blessings. They are in control of their lives, they say. They are content and at peace, they say. All is well—so they think. They practice their faith intellectually, rather than live it from the depths of their wretched hearts. They aren’t wretched, they say.

Why won’t they accept the truth? Well, they fear to acknowledge their own wretchedness because they don’t understand the difference between being wretched {period} and being wretched {gracefully}.


The only way to understand this difference between being wretched {period} and being wretched {gracefully} is through deep and profound self-examination (or scrutiny).


It does not matter how many virtues a man may have, even if they are beyond number and limit. If he has turned from the path of self-scrutiny, he will never find peace. He will always be troubled himself, or else he will be a source of trouble for others, and all his labors will be wasted.


—from the teachings of Saint Dorotheus, abbot,
Office of Readings, Monday,
Ninth Week in Ordinary Time

Saint Ignatius of Loyola called for deep self-examination in his Spiritual Exercises. Saint Louis Marie de Montfort in his True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin called for self-examination in the preparation for the Consecration to Jesus through Mary.[1] In fact, all the saints, in one way or another, have realized that a truly devout life depends on self-knowledge, for as we look deeply into ourselves, we cannot help but see our pitiful wretchedness.


By nature we are prouder than peacocks, we cling to the earth more than toads, we are baser than goats, more envious than serpents, greedier than pigs, fiercer than tigers, lazier than tortoises, weaker than reeds, and more changeable than weather-cocks. We have in us nothing but sin and deserve only . . . the eternity of hell.

—Saint Louis Marie de Montfort
True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, 79

Well, there you have it. That’s wretched {period}.

Wretched {period}

I said above that many persons refuse to acknowledge their wretchedness. Many other persons, however, wallow in it. They have had wretchedness pounded into their heads since childhood. Sometimes the pounding was literal, as in physical abuse. Sometimes the pounding was emotional, as in sexual or emotional abuse. Sometimes the pounding was very subtle, the cumulative result of parental threats and manipulations in botched attempts at discipline. But, however severe or subtle the abuse, it ends up leading the child to one inevitable conclusion: This all happened to me because I must be a wretched person—a piece of garbage—and I deserve nothing but condemnation.

And then a profound psychological twist happens. Feeling wretched—hopelessly trapped with no escape—we run and we hide. We do whatever we can to push our wretched helplessness out of awareness. So we seek out ways to make ourselves feel important and satisfied. We turn to entertainment, sports, sexual pleasure, cigarettes, overeating, alcohol, drugs—and on and on down a barren road on a quest to “feel good” about ourselves.


It sometimes happens that, because of a surprise slap-in-the-face with divine grace, some of us will open our eyes as if waking from a dream and, finding ourselves in the middle of that barren nothingness of self-satisfaction, will turn back to the Church. But, unless that conversion is followed by a profound self-scrutiny, we will continue to cling unconsciously to our being wretched {period}, and we will remain attached to whatever the world can offer us in our continued unconscious need for recognition. We will say, “Listen. I can’t be a saint. I’m just afraid of going to hell.”

No one knows, of course, what God in his mercy will do with any particular soul, yet anyone can see that the mere desire to avoid hell is an act of selfishness, not love. Real love seeks greater and greater purification, at any cost (see Matthew 13:44–46), but lukewarm complacency can easily end up in the very hell it wants to avoid. Believing otherwise is nothing but denial of the truth.

Hidden Spiritual Pride

Moreover, even as we try to deny it, some persons can remain stuck in their wretchedness because their wretchedness, oddly enough, has become a sort of hidden spiritual pride.

Consider here that in order to learn confidence and faith, children need to feel special in the eyes of their parents. Children need the nurturing love of a mother and the protective, guiding love of a father. Children who grow up in dysfunctional families know the devastating emotional pain of wanting their parents’ love while finding it always withheld from them. They will try over and over to make their parents see them as special—and because of their parents’ fear of love, they will fail, over and over, to draw any parental love into their aching hearts.

Consequently, having tried and failed to make their parents look upon them as special, they make one last dramatic effort: clinging to their resentments, they throw themselves so deeply into dysfunction as to make themselves believe that God must be looking upon them as special in His contempt for them.


This explains why some persons’ lives are always in a confused state of panic, chaos, or melodrama. As painful as the dysfunction may be on the surface, and as much as they consciously complain about it, or even seek psychotherapy for it, they nevertheless cling to an unconscious enjoyment of the chaos and confusion because it gives them a special identity.


Maybe you cannot accept the truth of this, and maybe it does not make sense to you. Maybe it does not make sense to you because maybe you fear admitting that this is what you have been doing all along.

Still, excelling in wretchedness does not achieve anything except hidden spiritual pride. God is love; God does not look with contempt on anyone, not even the souls in hell who have pushed love away. But pride, in casting itself away from love—from the very love it yearned for as a child—condemns itself.

The Mistake of Self-punishment

The problem with self-condemnation and self-punishment is that it usurps God’s wisdom, and, in doing that, it pushes away God’s mercy. As long as you’re punishing yourself, you simply are denying any mercy that God could show to you. 


Consider, for example, the difference between Judas Iscariot and Saint Peter. Judas betrayed Christ and then, in despair, ran off to kill himself. Peter, too, betrayed Christ, but then, in tears and sorrow, he sought out Christ’s mercy. Furthermore, Christ built His Church on Peter to demonstrate that the Church, from the pope to the laity, must be largely composed [2] of those who (a) have the capacity to betray Him, (b) have an awareness of their wretched capacity for betrayal, and (c) seek out His mercy in tears and sorrow.


That’s why self-punishment is such a mistake: it puts up a profound impediment to all that you could offer in service to God. It’s as if you bury all of your talents. Your life hasn’t really been ruined by what others have done to you (or failed to do for you), but if you cling to your resentments and consequently sabotage yourself to prove to others how much they have hurt you, then it will appear to you that others have ruined your life when really you have been bringing ruin onto yourself. Moreover, it’s even more ironic that if you presume to punish yourself for your previous mistakes of self-punishment, you stay locked in self-punishment—and you never learn anything, and your talents remain buried.

Bypassing Denial

Only one solution, therefore, can bypass the denial of forgiveness and repair the ruin we bring on ourselves. We must die to ourselves, as Christ told us, as Saint Paul admonished us, and as all the Catholic mystics since then have reminded us.


If we do not die to self and if our holiest devotions do not lead us to this necessary and fruitful death, we shall not bear fruit of any worth and our devotions will cease to be profitable. All our good works will be tainted by self-love and self-will . . . . Consequently, when we come to die we shall find ourselves devoid of virtue and merit and discover that we do not possess even one spark of that pure love which God shares with only those who have died to themselves and whose life is hidden with Jesus Christ in Him.


—Saint Louis Marie de Montfort
True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, 81

To die to self is to step outside our own wretched psychology and into the completely different reality of divine mercy where Christ stands between us and the condemnation that we so wretchedly deserve. Christ’s mercy is a graceful reality—that is, it’s the reality of love, offered through a grace we don’t deserve but can attain if only we set aside our wretched desire to punish ourselves.



In the book of Genesis we are told how both Cain and Abel made offerings to God, but that God looked with favor only on Abel’s offering. Cain “greatly resented this and was crestfallen” (Genesis 4:5). He felt wretched. But then God, in His mercy, reassured him: “Why are you so resentful and crestfallen? If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master” (Genesis 4:6-7). Cain, though, did not heed this advice to master his wretchedness and his anger. Instead, he killed Abel.


Unlike Cain, you can “hold up your head.” The process is simple, but not easy.

First, gather up all your emotional pain, acknowledge its truth, and present it to God. This is not self-pity, it’s an act of emotional honesty.

Then look to God and say, “I’m sorry; because of all the emotional pain I failed to acknowledge, thinking it was just self-pity, I made a mistake. I’ve made a mess of things. From now on I will get out of your way with my attempts to punish myself. I surrender to the truth. Teach me what to do from here. I will learn, even if it’s a slow process and even if I make more mistakes along the way. I won’t give up, though; I resolve to keep learning no matter what.”

Anything can be learned if only you ask—from your heart—to be taught. Anything can be forgiven if only you stop denying the forgiveness because you’re too preoccupied with punishing yourself. Remind yourself that you’re not a bad person because you didn’t know something or because you made a mistake.

Therefore, if we, unlike Cain, choose to understand God’s graceful mercy, we can then understand how to be wretched {gracefully}.

Wretched {gracefully}

We can understand that, in spite of our inclinations to self-love and self-will, in spite of our knowing that we can never do enough, in spite of all we don’t know, in spite of all our fear of making mistakes, in spite of all the wretchedness that separates us from God, we still have one chain of hope.

Like Saint Peter who denied Christ and ran from the cross, and then came back to Christ, weeping in sorrow, we can  admit  that apart from God we truly are wretched {period}.

In admitting it, we can  face  the helplessness and pain of it without hiding it in the unconscious through denial.

In facing it, we can  see  that even if we avoid all mortal sin we still sin constantly in small ways.

In seeing all those small sins through the illumination of grace we will be  moved  to love God more deeply, to repent those sins, to learn from them, and to seek greater and greater purification from our wretchedness.

And here, at the end of the chain, we find ourselves being wretched {gracefully} in God’s love. The more we admit our wretchedness, and the more we are willing to learn from our mistakes, the more we gain access to divine grace.


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

So ultimately we discover a great irony. When we stop trying to use psychological defenses to hide our being wretched {period}, and when we turn back to the Church in total obedience, and when we die to ourselves by detaching ourselves from the world’s attachment to sin, and when we give up trying to make ourselves feel good through our own efforts with our own bodies, then—in our very own self-examination—we find the opening to divine grace.

We can then be wretched {gracefully}, freed from that trap of hopelessness that is sealed and locked, like the last sentence of a paragraph, with the wretched period of sin.


What is the difference, then, between being wretched {period} and being wretched {gracefully}? The difference is that those who are wretched {gracefully}, despite knowing they are wretched, want to be holy and will do anything it takes to grow in holiness. It’s that simple.


Who wrote this web page?



1. Complete instructions for the Consecration to Jesus through Mary can be found in St. Louis Marie de Montfort’s book, True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin.

2. Some very, very few individuals, such as Saint John, purely through grace, can love Christ without ever having betrayed Him. In this context, consider why John and Peter are often paired together in the Gospels. The answer comes from the footrace to the tomb on Easter morning. John got there before Peter, but then stepped aside, waiting for Peter to enter the tomb first. This illustrates symbolically that John, who attained love before Peter, was able, as an act of love itself, to lead Peter, in his wretchedness, to attain that same love. Thus the Church was built on Peter, the penitent, rather than on John the innocent.


Recommended Reading
A treasure of a resource for psychological and spiritual healing. Information gathered from my websites (including this webpage) is now available at your fingertips in book form.


Healing by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. explains how psychological defenses help to protect us from emotional injury. But if you cling to the defense mechanisms that were created in your childhood and carry them on into adulthood—as most everyone does unconsciously— your quest for spiritual healing will be thwarted by overwhelming resentments and conflicts. Still, God has been trying to show you that there is more to life than resentment and conflict, something so beautiful and desirable that only one thing can resist its pull: hate So now, and in every moment until you die, you will have a profound choice between your enslavement to old defenses and the beauty of God. That decision has to come from you. You will go where you desire.

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