Thoughts on Therapy, Church and Us
“I’m in therapy.”
Has anyone ever said this to you, or perhaps confessed it? People say this for various reasons. It may be that they are having a health-related physical issue that requires rehabilitative physical therapy. In these instances people usually just tell you if they are so inclined. It could be that they are in counseling for mental health reasons and have the courage and spiritual sense to seek help. Usually people adopt a confessional tone, rather than simply tell you this because of the stigma of psychotherapy. It could be some people are in both types of therapy. If I were to ask you, as a Christian, if you were in therapy, what would you say? If you were neither seeing a physical therapist or a psychologist or another counselor of some type is the answer no? It actually depends.
I have had the privilege during the past few years to spend a fair amount of time with Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. However, I will never forget the first time I met him. It was April 2, 2005. He was speaking, along with some other priests, at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore. We had a luncheon followed by the speaking event. The Church was packed with all types of Orthodox Christians as well as some Roman Catholic and various Protestant Christians. The Metropolitan’s popularity and teachings, like. C.S. Lewis’s, appeal to many Christians.
Halfway through the event, one of the priests came to the microphone and announced that “our brother, Pope John Paul has fallen asleep in the Lord.” He said that he, the Metropolitan, and the other priests were going to lead prayers for John Paul who was also loved by many different types of Christians beyond just Roman Catholics. He then said the following to the Catholic and Protestant Christians in the audience. “When we say these prayers and do the things we do, we believe something organic is going on.”
I think it is often easy to either forget that the Church is a living breathing organism or never see it that way in the first place. It’s too easy to see it as just a building, or a community, or a place to go on Sunday’s to be spiritually refreshed and have fellowship. Not that any of these things are bad things, just that these perspectives, and experiencing the Church only from these perspectives, are limiting. The Church is the living body of Christ and we are all part of this living body.
Abbott Tryphon, who does daily podcasts for Ancient Faith Radio called The Morning Offering and wrote a book with the same name, writes: “[The] Church is a hospital for the soul and a living, therapeutic organism that can make us whole and bring healing of body and soul. It is not a legalistic or juridical institution wherein we are expected to plead our case before an angry judge, trying to convince him we are worthy of mercy. The Church is not about rules or ritual, but about participating in the spiritual therapy intended to cure us of the sickness of sin and to restore us to spiritual wholeness and health.”
If we embrace this thinking in our hearts as truth, go to Church regularly, live sacramentally every day, then we are indeed in therapy whether we are also in secular physical therapy or mental health therapy, or even in Christian counseling based mental health therapy. The reason we are in therapy is because each one of us is on a journey with and toward Christ and becoming the person He created us to be. Continuing his thought from above, Abbot Tryphon writes, “It’s all about becoming, not being; it’s about transformation of ourselves and our restoration to holiness, not making God keep a bargain with us to give us what we want or expect. This is because each one of us has a different complex of illnesses, and we respond in different ways to the various spiritual, therapeutic regimens available to us in the Church.”
I have heard mental health counselors tell me that people come to psychotherapy saying they want help but then often resist the help being offered. One therapist told me that’s why psychotherapy can take so long. It’s not that the problem (or set of problems) is typically difficult to identify; rather, the difficulty is getting people to address the very problem they identified they need help with.
It’s the same with Church. For us to gain the great benefit the Church offers us - Christ Himself and wholeness and restoration - we have to acknowledge we have a problem and then do what it takes to continually address the problem. We have to understand that we are not whole and need Christ. The problem is that if we are physically healthy, have affluence or comfort, and life is generally good, or even just okay, we may fall into what I call a delusional apathy. We may go to Church regularly, or fairly regularly, but we are not bringing our real selves to Church. We are bringing the generally self-satisfied self and the heart that goes with self-satisfaction. We may even think we are whole for the most part and just need a bit of self-improvement thus reducing Church and God to a self-help mechanism.
The truth is we are not whole. And it’s ok. God knows we are not whole. Having the “good things” in life shouldn’t obscure this understanding of ourselves though it often does. Our lack of wholeness is why Christ came in the first place, says we must die to self to gain our true self and gave us the Church. It is not a place for self-improvement. If we seek and experience Church for this purpose we will gain very little. Rather, it’s place for our radical transformation. But to experience this transformation we have to bring the right heart, leave our sense of self at the door, and allow Christ to refashion us into who we are meant to be.