I’ve spent quite a bit of my priestly life training to train seminarians to be priests, then doing just that, besides the everyday matter of helping priests themselves to be priests. Not that I’m anything special in any way, except that perhaps I’m rather acutely aware of my unworthiness to be a priest, which is a great asset. I think frequent confession is a great way to be in enthusiastic friendship with our Lord. Just to say, I myself have nothing to offer, nothing new, nothing novel. I just present what the Church has for us. My way of putting this across might be boiled down, I suppose, to just a few points upon which others revolve. These can take a year or two to hash out with any spiritual directee at the rate of, say, an hour a week. That’s my experience:
(1) No goals in the spiritual life. Christ is our Savior, and lifts us into a friendship with Him the depth of which we could not possibly set as a goal, so far beyond our present selves is this. The more erudite seminarian or priest will know that I have no time for Pelagianism, semi- or any other form. To the initial frustration and eventual great joy of directees, I mercilessly hack away at any hint, however slight, of any such goal of self-congratulation. This is, of course, taken by new-age, self-help, pop-psychology hippies to be a sign of my extremism. So, I guess the message must be hitting home. Good.
(2) Humble thanksgiving to Mary’s Son, Jesus. This is complimentary and simultaneous with the previous point. We are to to be at ease in clearly knowing our weakness, and this with enthusiasm, thanking the Lord for His goodness and kindness in bringing even us to Himself. This involves true Christian joy. It is the opposite of what the forgive yourself crowd and the self-esteem yourself crowd shove before unsuspecting victims of the lowest possible common denominator of statistical flattening of the unrepeatable drama of any human life. (Perhaps disciples of Luigi Rulla, S.J., would understand that last sentence if they stared at it long enough. I don’t. But, then, one can’t reason out the unreasonble, can one?)
(3) Living one’s marriage to the Church by way of the Sacrifice of the Mass one offers. The priest says in the first person singular, in Persona Christi, the wedding vows of Jesus with the Church: This is my Body and Blood given and shed for you in sacrifice. This is complimentary and simultaneous with both previous points, and provides the full breadth of everything that is relational about us. It is here that a priest will come to have great joy in, for instance, hearing confessions. This goes to the heart, the Sacred Heart of evangelization, the cura animarum.
(//) There are many other topics which come up in spiritual direction (such as the role of the angels), but the above points are sufficient for the purposes of this particular post.
An anecdote: Some contrast with all the above might be helpful, just in case anyone thought that the common sense approach to helping priests be priests outlined above was the same ol’ same ol’. The truth is never the same ol’ same ol. Living in union with the Church is to know that which is ever ancient but ever new at the same time. Recognizing how the Lord draws us to Himself is always awesome, always amazing, always captivating.
Searching for and finding some contrast. Easy. I’m always interested in how others go about helping priests. If there are resources that are worthwhile, I want to know about it. Some turn out to be darkly esoteric. I’ve heard horrific first hand stories of students of professors at a certain Institute on the mid-Atlantic sea-board, but let’s let that drop for now. That was a while ago.
More recently — when I was on the faculty and precisely because I was on the faculty of the Pontifical Seminary, the Josephinum — I was getting mailings from another crowd who got into the full time apostolate of helping troubled priests. They wanted donations and to make their presence known to formators. That’s nice, but I had heard some second hand untoward rumors about them, and so decided to write them a polite note, mentioning this as a courtesy, and, of course, as a way of testing the waters. They were furious and denounced me. Hah! Bad sign, thought I.
I never gave it a second thought until someone recently mentioned that I might have a look at their website, for, as I was told, there are some indications there that not all is well. Head-smack. Why didn’t I think of that to begin with? So, off I went into google-land and soon found them. I saw what I had suspected all along, the antithesis of what the Church wants for priestly formation. For instance, the named heroes essential to the “vision” of this group include the following:
(1) James Allen. He’s the “great” prophet of self-help literature. Blechhhh. He is more Pelagian than the heretic of yore, the perfect disciple of René Descartes and his Cogito, ergo sum… “I think, therefore I am”, a statement cutting oneself off from God, from redemption, totally individualistic, stuck on self. To align oneself with such free wheeling arrogance is no way to help priests. Really. This guy is about the most “Damned be God and my fellow man” freak-boy that one could possibly find. I mean, you know, kudos for finding him, because he can be used in the via negativa as an example of what not to do, but to hail him as a visionary in one’s apostolate to help priests…Honestly!
(2) Ram Dass. This fellow is a convert to Hinduism from his upbringing as Richard Alpert. He allegedly found his god in “psychedelics”, which he allegedly pushed on an undergrad. He doesn’t seem to think there is anything of a disorder with his bi-sexuality. He recently spoke of the “emerging game” (quite the phrase for someone believing in successive reincarnations) being pushed along by helping himself helping others and vice-versa, what may seem an advance on what James Allen’s version of Pelagianism presented, but not really. With the self-projected trillion or so Hindu gods, and a rejection of Judaeo-Catholic understanding of grace, is there any hope that this cycle of “self-help” will amount to anything more than transference of whatever kind? Nope. But this fellow is the visionary hero of this group that has helping priests as it’s major apostolate. Uh-huh.
(3) Flora Edwards. [?!!?!?!?!?!?!?] Really?
/// Having said all that, let’s review a bit of our recent Church history in the United States these past few decades. Those who have had contact with such a group will have had even entirely different experiences than what I’ve related in this post. We thank our Lord for that. But they should know that insitutions can change over night. I’ve seen it time and again. Night to day and day to night. Just like that. It just depends on who’s newly in charge and how draconian they want to be in shoving changes through. Often, “very” is a good description in regard to draconian. So, I would say this to those who knew such a group in the past: they are not who they once were.
The super-over-optimism of the 1960s and 1970s — when discipline was ill-regarded and pop-psychology was coming to the fore — was eventually replaced by a more sophisticated presentation of nevertheless widely variant perspectives on psychology, some better than others, while those others were a total fail. Then came 2002, when a hell that was already present was revealed. This stunned “helpers” into a self-examination during which time many closed their institutions and retreated. But we’re going on ten years. Some are tentatively self-emerging with a no-apologies-for-tyrannical-relativism approach.
Conclusion! Get off the pendulum. It will keep on swinging in this world, with one extreme like the other. Jump off and get to know the three points I’ve mentioned at the beginning of this post. Those three points are important in that they don’t hail anything new. No novelty. No stupidity. Just the enthusiasm for all that is ever ancient, ever new, Jesus, Mary’s Son.
But Father, but Father! Does that mean that you reject psychology? Huh? Does it mean that?
Not at all. But we have to be careful about guaging health according to conformism with statisitcal “normality”. Even if this or that psychologist will verbalize tolerance of religious “goals and objectives” for a client, there is almost never an acceptance of what original sin and fallen human nature and carrying weaknesses as a glorious cross is for Catholics. I’ve never heard anyone successfully integrating systems based on “statistical normality” with a fully Catholic anthropology of sin and redemption. Anyone? Don’t comment unless you provide extensive proofs. (If I could solicite donations, which I can’t because of draconian state laws, I would ask you to send them to me!)
If one looks at the works of say, a Saint Paul, and then also a Saint Teresa of Avila or a Saint Thomas Aquinas, one can glean a most wonderful, balanced, accurate, helpful psychology, totally reasonable, totally humbling, totally liberating, as it is all in view of our being the redeemed sons and daughters of God, whom Jesus wants to save.
Grace builds on nature. Yes, that’s true. But the spiritual life grows in the midst of weakness, not after weakness is covered over with Pelagian cover-ups. What almost all today’s psychologists forget is that repression of weakness explodes in the most untoward manner sooner than later. Mere self-help is repression par excellence. I once wrote a critique of an edition of the USCCB’s PPF, which document on priestly formation had it that grace only builds on nature after that nature is self-helped to the point of not needing grace any longer. Uh-huh. This is nothing but an equation of psychology and the spiritual life. Not to be done. Pure Pelagianism. The horizon of grace and nature doesn’t come together in man apart from God, but by way of the God-man, Jesus Christ, hanging on the Cross for us. Our nature is lifted up, but not denied. And on this earth our weakness is transformed to be a Cross we are proud to carry, following Jesus.
Look, here’s the thing: Wake up and die right. Don’t drag people to hell. Help them with sound psychology and a sound spiritual life, not confusing the two, but having the two work together. And then see my three points at the beginning of this post.
Oh, and one last point: I don’t consider what I say here to be a mere debate among scholars. Error has no rights. It’s to be trounced thoroughly. Period. The doctrine of grace building on nature shines also in contrast to heresy, and the heresy does need to be put down. Correction coupled with encoragement to repent is part of the new evangelization. Otherwise we live in the tyranny of relativism, letting all things be aired except for the truth. Wimping out before the battle is no way to proceed. Some will complain, surely. Better that, and that they then repent and go to heaven, than for so many to risk going to hell, right? Right? This is not a mere debate. It is the proclamation of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.