When my life broke down in late 1991 I went to stay at the little Redemptorist house in Chawton, in Hampshire. It is a quiet and beautiful place at the end of the village street, with the Greyfriar pub at the other end, a very welcome oasis of calm for me during that time. But peace and quiet and beautiful surroundings are not enough for a shattered soul. Before long I was desperate for human help and asked for it from the priest who was my superior. It was arranged that I would go to see Sister Clare, a trained therapist in counselling in a particular branch called psycho-synthesis. Sister agreed to take me on and for the next fifteen months I poured out my life story and my hurts and confusions, and through the skilful art of conversation I came back to life and to tranquillity of soul and received for the first time the grace to be able to take full charge of myself. Self-authority was the great gift that counselling brought to me. I became at that time the captain of my soul.
When people are in trouble and sore distressed they are often encouraged to go for counselling and just as often they back away from the very idea. This is because the suggestion seems to say that ‘there is something wrong with us’ and none of us like to be told that. Physical ailments are fine. We are happy to say that we are ill and need medicine. Yes, tuck me up in bed now and come and brings me warm drinks. But the notion that there is something wrong with our head, our mind, our mental health as we say these days, is not acceptable and we keep well away.
That would have been my reaction too had it not been for the fact that I was at the end of my tether. Keeping the show on the road was no longer an option for me. In that sense a breakdown is the kindest thing that happen to us, for now we have collapsed and we are no longer required to put effort into trying to face the day.
Perhaps in trying to urge people to go for counselling we are going about things the wrong way. We all need help on the road through life and one of the traditional ways is to have a ‘soul friend’. A soul friend is someone you can go to regularly and share your spiritual feelings and condition with them, trusting them to hold your confidence and to listen in a positive and constructive manner, and who will offer guidance and advice as needed. This habit of having a soul friend puts us all on the level playing field. You are no longer regarded as a suitable case for treatment. You are a fellow traveller on life’s journey and your soul is never neglected.
In religious life there is the tradition of spiritual direction. This always sounded to me like handing over your life for someone else to direct and I distinctly hated the thought of that. After all, I had no control over my life as it was, and now I was being invited to tie myself up with double chains and padlock. No thank you. But if the name was forbidding, the experience can be very healthy, having someone to talk to and to allow that person to reflect things back to you. Like looking in a mirror.
Which reminds me, the other day I got the shock of my life looking into a mirror. I went to Marks and Spencers here in Stirling to buy some new trousers and went into the changing cubicle there where they have these huge mirrors. You cannot hide from the truth that they tell. I took one look and realised that I needed a haircut and that my clothes were dowdy and I needed to smarten myself up big time.
Now if that is what a mirror does for our body and its appearance just think how great a transformation will occur in your soul if you take yourself to a spiritual mirror. The Church has been very keen on getting people to confess how bad they are in the confessional, and let us be clear, whatever the political spin about conversion and renewal of life, the overriding effect of confession has been to make us feel down about ourselves.
Perhaps the Church ought to promote spiritual counselling more and confession less and see what mighty oceans of life they might encounter. And tap into the gifts of the spirit at large in the parish congregation and let go forever of the Tridentine emphasis on priests and their special powers. Let the priests become the spiritual motivators of a community of caring.
The prayer of Saint Paul addressed to the people in Ephesus relevant here. Out of his infinite glory, may he give you the power through his Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, you will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; until, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God.
The ‘hidden self’ is the great issue. Our soul. The world we live in does not know soul, except perhaps for soul music. The world knows the brain and the teeming mind and the chemical analysis of our physical make up, and it is great how much we know like that. But the soul is the hidden reality that many do not know. How often we live our days, as strangers to our own inner self!
The feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus calls us to attend to the affairs of the heart, to take good care of our hidden self and to befriend the souls that are here all around us.
”The whole purpose of spiritual direction is to penetrate beneath the surface of a person’s life, to get behind the facade….which one presents to the world, and to bring out one’s inner spiritual freedom, one’s inmost truth, which is what Christians call the likeness of Christ in one’s soul.”
More useful information on spiritual direction/guidance/accompaniment can be found on the websites of the All Ireland Spiritual Guidance Association http://aisga.ie/ and of Spiritual Directors International http://www.sdiworld.org/
“… if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us.” No act of reaching out in loving kindness to another is ever wasted and the ripples of reward can increase and multiply.
Have always believed this quote from Dostoyevsky and was very moved by Brian’s account above and thank him
for the prayer from St Paul which I have shared with someone who badly needs support at present.
Re confession I have rarely had a negative experience these last few years, finding priests much more inclined to emphasise the positive and to leave the penitent with encouraging and affirming words. My generation ( born early 1950s) grew up in a world which almost encouraged self-hatred although perhaps at times the pendulum has swung a little too far in the opposite direction. We still need to chastise ourselves but ultimately anyone going to confession has already taken a step in asking for forgiveness and just needs firm affirmation and encouragement to being a more loving person. Love begets love. Kindness breeds kindness. Compassion reaps results far better than chastisement.