Beginning the Journey of Informal Counseling from a Theistic Existential Approach: A Personal Perspective from a Catholic Christian
Dr. Charles Eick
A Catholic Christian learns about the existential therapeutic approach in a counseling course in graduate school, and adapts it to his future work in pastoral ministry. He relates how a theistic existentialism best explains the human dilemma and what it means to live authentically from his religious perspective.
Keywords Theistic existentialism, psychotherapy, Christianity, mindfulness, religion
The Theistic Existential Journey Begins
I am not a psychotherapist but a university professor who has spent numerous hours over the years in spiritual direction as a Catholic Christian seeking his way in the world. I had been in therapeutic counseling a few years ago because of the sudden onset of a heart condition that led to anxiety and sleeplessness. With the help of another caring psychotherapist and my own resourcefulness, I worked through these issues and became a stronger, though changed, person because of it. Through a humanistic approach the therapist listened to me as I talked about my condition, situation, and the changes that I thought that I needed to make in my life in order to get well. This situation led me to take responsibility to begin reorienting my life and life’s goals in my middle age. I decided that I wanted to live a more meaningful life, a life that would matter, even in small things. As a Catholic Christian, I decided to seek a path of service within my local parish in a small rural community. To further my new direction, I soon enrolled in a summer program of pastoral ministry for laypersons at a well-known urban Catholic college in the United States. Now, I am gaining the knowledge of religion and spirituality to better teach and minister to my fellow parishioners and their spiritual needs, including working with young adults, adult catechesis, and prayer and bible study groups. As part of this programme, I have elected to take a course in counseling and psychotherapy. I immediately found that it resonated with what I would do in my future work of service to and with 314 others. What I initially viewed as an elective soon seemed essential to working with others who also struggle in life and who sought meaning through Catholic faith and spirituality.
The theoretical approach that both shocked and amazed me in its relevance to who I was, where I had been, and where I was going was the existential approach (Cooper, 2003; Corey, 2013). With many variants of existential therapy, the ones that resonated most with me were the forms that took into account human spirituality, including faith, values, and conscience (Cooper, 2003). I was looking for an approach to psychotherapy that addressed the deeper issues of life and living, while also integrating issues of faith and spirituality that was based on a belief in God (Daniels & Fitzpatrick, 2013); a theistic existential psychotherapy (Bartz, 2009; Frankl, 2000). This approach to existential therapy would take into account the whole individual including the spiritual nature (van Deurzen, 2009) and allow the integration of religion into traditional psychotherapy (Daniels & Fitzpatrick, 2013). Championed by the theistic writings of early figures such as Kierkegaard, Tillich, and Buber, a theistic existentialism is rooted in life having ultimate meaning in God, and not necessarily the concerns of non-existence as espoused by existentialists like Yalom (Bartz, 2009).
In looking at my experience as a client in therapy, and as a religious person, I felt that my crisis in living and my anxieties were existential in nature. I had to encounter the fact of my own mortality and my avoidance (i.e., resistance) to living a more meaningful life. I had to draw heavily on the resources and practices of prayer and meditation from my spirituality to promote my own healing. I also had to begin overcoming my existential fears in living, to accept who I was, and find greater meaning in my life that resonated with my belief in a personal, loving and merciful God (Bretherton, 2006). Ultimately, I found most of these things before knowing about a theistic existential approach. I am beginning to now live a life that takes more seriously the existentials of life, the spiritual dimension of existence, and one that is ‘pulled by faith rather than driven by fear.’ (Bartz, 2009: p 75)
An Existential Base for Authentic Catholic Living
As a future pastoral minister, I would be meeting people at seminal events in their lives, encountering the happy moments and the painful ones, such as family milestones, vocational decisions, illness, and death. These events form the heart of spiritual challenges and crises (Daniels & Fitzpatrick, 2013). Existential therapy takes into account key events in life as it addresses the four existentials in life of freedom, isolation, meaning, and death (Cooper, 2003).
Freedom and free will. As a Catholic Christian, my religion is based on human being’s ultimate free will in life, including freedom to believe. Dr. Charles Eick 315 We all make decisions in how we will live our lives, where we will work and play, and whether we will reflect on a deeper meaning for our lives. This deeper meaning comes from reflection on how we look at our past in light of the present and the future that awaits us. It critically underlies a life lived in faith, and not one simply going through the motions of daily life or even formal religious rituals. Van Deurzin shares, ‘We can only learn how to live, by actually looking life straight in the eye, collecting what we can from the past for the future and valuing the present, no matter what.’ (van Deurzen, 2009: p 231) The ultimate goal of a Christian life is to live responsibly to the best of one’s conscience in making personal choices for God and for neighbour. The Church can only guide us. Making such choices is never easy and leads to our theistic existential anxiety in life.
Isolation and communion. Catholic Christians also believe that life is lived in both isolation and communion – the polarities that propel our lives, prayer life, and spiritual growth. As theists who believe in a personal and loving God, we do not believe that we are ever alone. However, there are times in life when being isolated in prayer and recollection is favoured as we personally grapple with our journey, our life’s direction, and the painful moments when we face decision and change, and attempt to re-order our lives. These are times when we grow spiritually and change by facing the deeper meaning of life itself and how we may be missing the mark; a better way of looking at the concept of personal sin (Bartz, 2009; Bretherton, 2006). For those who dwell here, they continue a form of depth inquiry that can lead to an emergent social and spiritual consciousness, a different way of being in the world (Bugental, 1978; Schneider, 2003). In this isolation we are also better prepared to live with each other. Hence, Catholics emphasize community, the church and worship with fellow believers as the People of God. In communion with each other and in worship, we derive strength and support through solidarity with our brothers and sisters. The communal life with others is where we find God in each other (i.e., Buber’s I-Thou relationship) and in word and sacrament. Faith is ultimately expressed in life through loving care and service to one another.
Meaning and authenticity. Living a life full of meaning is living the realities of life to our fullest potential, not hiding from it in a false sense of comfort and fear (van Deurzen, 2009). The Christian scriptures also echo this sentiment in words attributed to Jesus that He came so that we might have life to the full (John 10:10). Though Christianity claims to have the ultimate meaning of living and dying in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, each individual Christian must still appropriate it in order to find personal meaning for his unique life. Finding this personal meaning for each of us who believe is the same quest for all Beginning the Journey of Informal Counseling from a Theistic Existential Approach 316 human beings. Christians still seek answers to the same big question in life that existentially exists for all, but within a theistic framework: How do I best live my life for God and for others? To live a meaningful life is to live an authentic one (Jacobsen, 2007). This is a life that is genuinely open to life’s existentials and finding personal meaning for living based in one’s identity and orientation. This includes who one is as a unique individual, or what Christians would say, a unique child of God. Jacobsen (2007) describes how this authenticity resonates with inner beliefs, values, and person:
Authentic means genuine or known to be true; to live authentically means to live truthfully, i.e. in accordance with one’s deep convictions, beliefs, values and goals. Some writers would add, and in accordance with yourself and your bodily nature and temperament.” (p 291)
In finding personal meaning in our lives, we can begin to live a more unified life that is not swayed by the vicissitudes of life. We become more authentically who we are in fulfilling our unique potential as we learn to also listen to our conscience in making our way in the world as moral beings. Existential guilt even for the Christian provides a guiding light in attaining this authenticity of living. Death and fullness of life. Coming to terms with death, one’s finiteness, is the ultimate exitential that we face in living. Confronting death instills the greatest anxiety in our lives. We all put up various defenses in our lives in our attempts to ignore, avoid, and deny the reality of death (Cooper, 2003). Coming to terms with our mortality is difficult even for Christians. The more that we can accept and embrace that our lives on earth will come to an end, the more we can live a better life. The Hebrew Scriptures say it best in praying to God for an ever-present cognizance of death in order to grow wise sooner (Psalm 90:12). Each one of us can appreciate life more in the present with an acceptance of its inevitable and soon-to-be end. We can begin to live each moment of our existence more resolutely, more vibrantly, and with a greater existential awareness, as we learn to stop putting off authentic living (Jacobsen, 2007). As Christians, we learn to become more authentically ourselves in our spiritual journey as we serve God and each other. At the end of life, we can face death with a greater acceptance and without fear if we address this existential dimension sooner in our lives.
Incorporating Spirituality into Theistic Existential Psychotherapy
Religion and mental health. Spirituality in private and public forms has and continues to play a role in the lives and wellness of human beings. In North America today, a majority of people claim to have spiritual beliefs, often theistic in nature, yet counselors are ill-trained in how to address or incorporate the positive aspects of spirituality into therapy (Daniels & Fitzpatrick, 2013). An integration of spirituality into existing theories of counseling is warranted because research shows that on balance religion plays a positive role in mental health (Koenig & Larson, 2001). In a systematic review of 100 studies, Koenig & Larson found that in 79 of them religious beliefs and practices related to ‘greater life satisfaction, happiness, positive affect, and higher morale.’ (p 71) Also, they found similar levels of positive association with hope, optimism, purpose and meaning. In addition, positive correlations were found in studies between religious affiliation and reduced (or reducing due to religious interventions) levels of anxiety, depression, fear, and suicide. The authors also found greater levels of social support in religious involvement that was a factor in wellness. In their interpretation of these outcomes, they share:
First and foremost, religious beliefs and practices promote an optimistic, positive world-view that gives experiences meaning. Meaning, in turn, provides a sense of purpose and direction that enhances hope and motivation. Consider the religious view of a forgiving, merciful, all-powerful God who is in control of life’s circumstances and even the eternity that is beyond life, who is interested in people…. This world-view sees the universe as personal and friendly, even designed for humans…. the mental health consequences may be profound – particularly during times of severe stress, loss, or prolonged suffering – when finding meaning may even be the key to survival.” (p 72)
Theistic existential psychotherapists can recruit clients’ spirituality and religious beliefs in their strategies and practices for promoting healing. Through sharing a mutual theistic journey in life, the counsellor can strengthen the therapeutic alliance through greater presence (Daniels & Fitzpatrick, 2013). The first step is to better know and understand clients’ backgrounds regarding these beliefs. This information can be obtained on intake surveys where clients answer questions about the nature of their spiritual and religious affiliations, beliefs, and interests regarding therapy (Koenig & Larson, 2001).
Acceptance and mindfulness. Arising from a Buddhist spiritual tradition, the practice of mindfulness also exists in the ancient Christian tradition through the monastic practice of contemplative prayer. Instead of negatively dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, individuals who practice Beginning the Journey of Informal Counseling from a Theistic Existential Approach 318 mindfulness focus on their experience of the present moment in being with it and accepting it. Mindfulness fits well into a theistic existential approach where it fosters freedom from notions of permanence, instead of uncertainty and death, in this world: ‘The practice of mindfulness moves us towards our freedom which lies in letting go of our attachment to notions of permanent structures of self, and reality, and in experiencing the present.’ (Nanda, 2009: p 150). The practice of mindfulness in particular facilitates an acceptance stance to one’s life from a ‘living in the present’ perspective, a more authentic and healthy perspective that fosters compassion for self and others (Claessens, 2009; Nanda, 2009).
Spirituality and wholeness. Human beings are also spiritual beings who must face inevitable existentials as we try to make sense of our lives in order to live a more authentic life (Jacobsen, 2007; van Deurzen, 2009). Theistic existentialism espouses that a greater sense is made of living and the ultimate meaning of life through facing existential fear and human suffering. Facing both of them is what leads to spiritual growth and development (Bartz, 2009) and living a more meaningful life (Frankl, 2000). Recently, psychotherapy has embraced the spiritual component of people as part of a holistic approach to wellness, and is showing how spirituality can be recruited for better mental and physical health (Sultanoff, 1997). Prayer, meditation, and belief in a higher power have been linked to wellness. The practice of mindfulness has capitalized on ancient forms of prayer and meditation that helps individuals face their fears in order to live fuller and freer lives in the present (Claessens, 2009; Nanda, 2009). Religion on the whole has played a positive role in mental health for various factors including positive world-view and strong social support (Koenig & Larson, 2001). However, theistic existentialists seek the deeper meaning in life, where pain and suffering must also be addressed as part of the human condition, but also where purpose and direction drive hope and motivation.
The Theistic Existential Journey Continues
Ministering through theistic existentialism. My work as a Catholic lay minister will provide numerous opportunities for informal counseling with fellow parishioners. I will not become a pastoral counselor like ordained clergy, but I will often meet people in prayer, catechism, retreats, and other religious events where they seek greater meaning, purpose, or direction in their lives through belief in God. In many cases, especially with older parishioners, I will be present during their times of suffering and pain. My approach in informal conversations and discussions will focus on their spiritual lives as they share their deeper struggles, longings, and difficulties in life. As a believer in God’s grace, I will ask ‘questions that create opportunities for insight.’ (Bartz, 2009: p 75) Based in my Dr. Charles Eick 319 Catholic belief in a merciful and forgiving God who loves us unconditionally, I will have many chances to help others through meditation on this love and acceptance.
In helping others grow in spirituality, I will facilitate the practice of Christian prayer and contemplation that can support this journey. Similar to mindfulness in psychotherapy, but divinely inspired, this practice also helps acceptance in the face of loss, failure, illness or other difficulties in life. Helping fellow believers live more in the present, and not be hampered by past regret or future fear, will allow them to lead fuller and more authentic lives as they also grow spiritually in the virtues of faith, hope, and love. As a theistic existentialist, my role is to accompany people on their journey, which is a collective journey to grow in wholeness, or holiness, through God’s spiritual inspiration and guidance in a world of change, suffering, and pain. We believe that this holiness also leads to greater wellness, or health in mind and body.
Hope for the future. My knowledge of theistic existentialism and supportive spiritual practices is a knowledge that is grounded in science and religion, in psychology and spirituality. Unlike today’s holistic approach to wellness, an existential approach does not deny the fear that comes from suffering, pain, and mortality. It faces life with brutal honesty (van Deurzen, 2009) but always seeks meaning amidst the difficulties and existentials that all human beings must face. Unlike existentialism, theistic existentialism is always hopeful in the ultimate meaning of all of our lives being hidden in God (Bartz, 2009; Frankl, 2000). If suffering and pain are part of the human condition, then as a Catholic Christian I also accept that Jesus came to accompany us in it, to deliver us from it, and to bring us to a fuller life that begins here and now. My practice in lay ministry will proceed in divine hope through a positive approach to Christianity grounded in theistic existentialism as I share the good news of the gospel (Bretherton, 2006).
2 thoughts on “Beginning the Journey of Informal Counseling from a Theistic Existential Approach: A Personal Perspective from a Catholic Christian”
Actually, Buber’s I-Thou is essentially a God and I relationship, especially drawing upon Kierkegaard’s sense of the God-subject relationship. There can be no other mediation…otherwise, this would ground the God-subject relationship in the ethical. I think that this unmediated I-Thou is corroborated in Buber’s ‘Eclipse of God’.