Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Spiritual Direction Is Not Psychological Counseling

Green Lake, Wisconsin
Henri Nouwen distinguishes between spiritual direction and psychological counseling. He writes:

"Spiritual direction and therapy or psychological counseling often appear to be one and the same thing. We are very familiar with words such as conscious and unconscious, depression and regression, frustration and defense mechanisms, dysfunction, addiction, and co-dependency. Psychological terminology is used more frequently in our society than spiritual words such as atonement, resurrection, sin, forgiveness, and grace. However, if you simply remain in the psychological world, if you raise only psychological questions, you will get only psychological answers, when your heart needs spiritual wisdom." (Spiritual Direction, 23)

Years ago Kenneth Leech wrote in his book Soul Friend how, in Protestantism, the spiritual counseling movement displaced spiritual direction and came to be mistaken for it and preferred over it.

Nouwen was himself a psychologist who taught at Yale and Harvard, so he does not despise psychology. He correctly distinguished spiritual direction from psychology. "A spiritual director... is not a counselor, a therapist, or an analyst, but a mature fellow Christian to whom we choose to be accountable for living our spiritual life and from whom we can expect prayeful support in our constant struggle to discern God's activity." (Ib.) A spiritual director is one who discerns the activity of God in another person's life, with their permission.