Now and then I’m asked to comment or consult on issues pertaining to psychology and the pastoral life of the Church. Not unexpectedly, I’ve noticed that I usually asked to offer assistance after something has gone wrong in a parish or the life of a clergyman. While I’m always happy to oblige and offer what help I can, I think prevent is better therapy than even the best psychological and pastoral response. My thinking on this isn’t profound—I just think it is better for people to grow and develop in a healthy fashion rather than not.
What I’ve also noticed is that for all the anthropological depth and sophistication of the Church’s tradition, we very easily fall into thinking about healthy parishes or clergy in merely functional terms. However understandable this is, a functional approach lends itself to thinking of psychological, spiritual or pastoral health as the absence of pathology or problems. But the absence of evidence, as the saying goes, is not evidence of absence. A merely functional approach to the psychology of pastoral care is simplistic. We not only cannot but must not assume, for example, that simply because a priest can serve Liturgy or the parish meets its financial obligations to the diocese that all is well. All may of course be well until it isn’t well and this is usually when my phone rings or an email appears in my inbox.
In this series of posts, I want to outline for you the psychological foundations of the spiritual life and pastoral care. As valuable as it is to focus on the various liturgical and practical skills needed for ministry, a merely functional approach invariable does violence to the person and so the parish. Why do I say this?
As I pointed out in an earlier post, sentimentality—the tendency to see the world of persons, events and things as I want them to be rather than as they are—is the source of violence in human affairs. This isn’t simply my view. In his discussion of the vice of anger, St John Cassian says that anger is not a matter of affect, that is of emotion, but of spiritual blindness. We all suffer from this blinding of “the eyes of our hearts” because of sin. As a consequence “we can neither discriminate what is for our good, nor achieve spiritual knowledge, nor fulfill our good intentions, nor participate in true life.” And all of this, the saint says, is because we are “impervious to the contemplation of the true, divine light” (“On the Eight Vices,” Philokalia, vol I, p. 82).
Without prejudice to divine grace or human freedom, my next post will look at the psychology of spiritual blindness. What are the personality or character traits of someone whose suffers from blindness of “the soul’s eyes”? Cassian offers us a hint when he says that the person so inflicted is held in the grip of his “own impassioned or self-indulgent thoughts” (p. 83).
After looking at the psychological of spiritual blindness, we’ll turn briefly to a description of the personality that is relatively free of anger. Again, Cassian offers us a hint as to what we are looking for when he say that we are healed of anger, we come to see spiritually in other words, not “through the patience which others show us, but through our long-suffering towards our neighbor” (p. 85). Again, without prejudice to divine grace or the practical skills ministry requires, the question here is what kind of personality is psychological able to be appropriately patient with others (and not incidentally, himself).
Building on this foundation, I will look at three different models of parish ministry: the passive, the functional and vocational.
Until then, and as always, your comments, questions, and criticisms are not only welcome but invited.