What does it mean to be fully alive? What does it mean to be a fully functioning person?
While they have distinct roles, spiritual direction and therapy are both means of helping a person grow in becoming more of who he or she is called to be. They both provide space to access to the interiority of a person, each focusing on a separate locus of that interiority. Therapy has its locus in healthy functioning within human nature, whereas spiritual direction would enter into the sacred arena of a human’s interpersonal encounter with the Living God.
“The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”
To know what it means to be a “human person fully alive”, we must first know the fundamental anthropology of a human being and how the various “arenas” within a human person develop.
“Human person fully alive”
The human person is created by God as an act of self-giving love. In Gn. 1:26, God says, “Let us make man in our image.” The human person reveals the inner life of the Trinitarian God. And Scripture adds that “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good.”
In other words, we are very good! Givenness is at the core of our identity.
However, the reality of sin and its effects means that we experience brokenness at all levels and places, though this never changes the fact that we are fundamentally very good.
Additionally, because of Christ’s Incarnation and Redemption, God makes all things, including our brokenness, work together for the good of those who love him. God embraces all of reality as it is. He takes suffering and death and radically changes its meaning. Within the purview of God, he embraces everything of our human experience.
This gives us great hope because by participating in Christ’s Redemption, all of our lives, even our brokenness and suffering, can be redeemed by Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. We can be made whole because he can “make all things new” (Rv. 21:5).
The Quest to Become Fully Alive
The journey of becoming whole doesn’t happen immediately, however. It is a process that begins here in this life and will not be fully realized until Heaven.
Our experience in this life shapes us and how we position ourselves in relationship to God molds us.
Spiritual direction creates the space where the meaning of our experiences within God’s narrative can be revealed. However, we sometimes need accompaniment in the healing of our own interior human functioning, which is where therapy can be an aid to spiritual direction.
Spiritual direction and therapy
A true interplay of therapy and spiritual direction means that we can pursue both healing and wholeness in our humanity while also looking for the Lord from within the limits of our brokenness, allowing Him to reveal its meaning.
Hence, both spiritual direction (striving for holiness here and now) and seeking to better my interior functioning (through therapy) are always in the purview of God’s plan.
There are many different competencies within the world of the human professions that help individuals improve their functionality and quality of daily living: psychologists, counselors, social workers, and life coaches.
Psychologists can look at processes that led to the development of a client’s personality, counselors focus on honing strengths of the person, social workers seek to help a person function in a larger environment of relationships, and life coaches focus on helping people with plans and solutions to improve their lives.
With the help of these professionals who support growth in healthy human functioning, we can see how therapy can help heal a person’s capacity for relationship. Because we are made for relationships, topics surrounding God, others, and the meaning of life often come up in therapy.
Similarly, spiritual direction is focused on relationship, but with the particular focus of the seminal relationship between the directee and God. This focus on the meaning of life in relationship to God unfolds the deepest regions of human interiority where only God can enter.
The deepest part of the human person is the heart, the place of truth and decision, where only God and the directee have access to. It is beyond even the reach of our own reason. Spiritual direction seeks to cultivate that space within the heart of the directee. (cfr Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2562).
However, a person’s capacity to enter into that space can be impeded by areas where their interiority is not fully functioning or wounded.
Because both spiritual direction and therapy point to inner processes and functioning, it is important to note how they can concretely support one another.
Supporting the work of healing
What does it mean for a spiritual director to work with a person who is in therapy?
It’s important to support the work of healing in the directee and be careful not to divide the directee’s trust or confidence. Keeping spiritual direction in its proper focus of listening with the directee to the voice of God allows the healthy interplay between spiritual direction and therapy.
It’s also important to note that there are different levels of involvement a spiritual director may have with a therapist in supporting the healing and flourishing of a directee.
It can range from no involvement or simply referring a directee to therapy, or it could be as much involvement as communicating with the therapist or even collaborating with a therapist, particularly in situations of addiction, OCD, and scrupulosity. All involvement must be done in an ethical way with consent given by the directee.
It can also be helpful to refer a directee to a therapist when bad things happen, particularly adjustment disorder, when a person is having a hard time adjusting to some change in life or a traumatic experience. Or if the directee is struggling with depression and anxiety and may need special care.
Some resources to find therapists to which to refer directees include the Catholic Psychotherapy Association, Divine Mercy University, the Catholic Therapist, or asking other spiritual directors.
If you are interested in working with people in their spiritual journeys and accompanying them in their walk to becoming fully alive, learn more about the Spiritual Direction Certification Program at Divine Mercy University.