Prayers for helping professionals: St. Theresa of Avila’s “Let Nothing Disturb Thee”

Many years ago I came across this prayer by St. Theresa of Avila, a mystic and nun of the 16th century.

Let nothing disturb thee

Nothing affright thee

All things are passing

God never changeth

Patient endurance

Attaineth to all things

Who God possesseth

In nothing is wanting

Alone God sufficeth

I have recited this prayer in times of stress and anxiety during my life. Let nothing disturb thee herald’s back to countless biblical passages where God’s people are exhorted to fear God, not men ( eg Psalm 56:4: God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?). 

As a social worker working with people experiencing profound mental confusion, crises, and chaos in their lives it is essential to have a firm anchor in God.  Especially when it seems like even the best therapies fail, medications only provide minimal relief, and support is refused.  Ultimately, God is present and I will trust and pray for him to be with this client and myself in this mess we call life.  

It seems so simple, just trust in God, He never changes He’s always there. But we are afraid, we are disturbed by what we see. That is why we get into the work we do- because the state of the world disturbs us and we want to do something about it. 

And it seems at first glance that this prayer provides no recourse, no action to take about that which disturbs us.  Are we left retreat to our personal prayer with God away from these disturbances or claim that these disturbances are perceptions of reality that create suffering (a more Buddhist viewpoint)?

I think this prayer could be interpreted this way but one line challenges me toward engagement: “Patient endurance attaineth all things”.  Patient endurance is an active choice, not a passive observer stance.  It’s like seeing a rushing river that you need to cross and instead of sitting on one side and fretting about it to instead decide to get in up to your waist in rushing water, hold on to whatever you can to get you across and endure the cold water as long as you have to until you reach the other side. 

This is what our life is like, but to patiently endure we must be “possessed” by God.  When we think of the word possessed we often have images of demon possession and exorcism by Catholic priests.  Very rarely do we hear of being possessed by God. Being possessed implies being owned or filled in its entirety. In being possessed by God Saint Theresa rightly says that nothing is wanting.  There is no need if God lives fully in us and through us.

As a social worker this is not easily done.  My place of work, like many of you, does not have its sole purpose in serving and loving God but is there to control and fix situations.  Very rarely can we offer people God’s solace and grace as a salve to their problems.  Mostly we can offer the accepted wisdom of our profession. 

This makes it difficult to be wholly possessed by God.  Maybe St. Theresa had it right in setting up convents and encouraging people to pray and seek God after all. 

How do you manage to keep centred and “possessed” by God as you engage in a secular helping system?

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Prayers for helping professionals: St. Francis’ Prayer

A couple of months back my husband and I decided to adopt a few short prayers for certain times of the day.  We decided to go with the Lord’s prayer in the morning, St. Francis’ prayer midday, and use a liturgy (commonprayer.net) together for the evening, or open prayer.

According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer_of_Saint_Francis) the earliest written manuscript of this prayer was published in a French Catholic journal in 1912, and likely was not penned by St. Francis.

Its inclusion into our daily prayer rhythms was suggested by my husband.  I was hesitant to add it because I have always found its content quite difficult.  I balk at a prayer that is all about taking action for others as much of my life is spent supposedly in that direction.   Aren’t we supposed to emphasize God’s love and grace for us rather than focus on performing deeds? There are so many cautions in our modern-day about giving too much to others.  In the helping professions there is a constant emphasis on “self-care”.  This prayer, in contrast, seems like an invitation to burnout to those in the field.

However, today, unlike most days, I remembered to pray in the afternoon a few minutes before I had a counselling appointment with a client.  It was in those moments of prayer that I let go of my disdain for this prayer and I saw that this was the perfect prayer for helping professionals.

Each line contains a purpose for our encounters with people; they are not idle or random moments but defined moments of grace for God to work through as his instruments of his peace.  As a counsellor preparing to meet someone with depression I pray that through the grace of God (and my training and preparation) that where there is darkness there will be light, and where there is despair there will be hope.  Meditating on such concrete concepts helped orient myself from theory and practice to faithfully entrust this client to God’s hands.

In that moment of being fully present to someone, at its core, is an opportunity for deep healing for another person rather. This is in contrast to it being just another opportunity to meet our needs or our skill or knowledge.   As we do this, like the last few lines of this prayer describe, we realize that through this process of dying to ourselves and giving of ourselves we do find life and receive.

As someone who helps others, how does this prayer make you feel, does it speak to you or feel inauthentic?

Healing from God and Healing from Therapy

The most visible part of Jesus’ ministry was healing people.  Jesus healed people of long-lasting illnesses, defects from birth, demon possession, raised the dead, but most of all he healed people from their sins.  His physical healing always had the ultimate message that pointed to the redemption of the whole person: body, soul and spirit.  I similarly believe that God has the power to heal today into our broken world- that this is his way of showing signs of his Kingdom for the lost and weary travellers of this earth.

There is a statistic from the World Health Organization that in 2030 depression will be the world’s largest health burden affecting more people than any other disease.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8230549.stm

If this will be the biggest disease burden of this world, where is Jesus and how is he working in the world for the healing of this condition?

We have often looked to Jesus to only heal physical symptoms, and are hesitant to ask God to heal mental health conditions, like depression.  This is in part because the church has viewed mental illness with stigma and often blames the individual, or family.  It is also because people, like myself, have prayed for the healing of people’s minds and addictions to no avail.  It is hard to find many stories of God’s miraculous healing of depression or schizophrenia.  Perhaps we lack faith, perhaps we do not fully understand the spiritual-socio-biological interactions of depression.

In fact, this is probably one of the main reasons that I decided to get training in social work and counselling.  I wanted more skills and tools to support, love, and promote the healing of people around me who struggled with trauma, addiction, and mental illness.  In our little church of about 20 or so people on any given Sunday I would guess that about 50% of people in the room have a diagnosed mental health condition (including substance abuse).  Some are on the paths to healing by slowly regaining independence and faith in God, while others feel like they haven’t received much relief from God or from therapy or medications.

I wish God would simply heal people, that we wouldn’t need psychotherapy or pharmaceuticals for mental health issues. I also wish that we did not need anti-retrovirals or chemotherapy for HIV/AIDS and cancer, but we do.

As a Christian therapist I have read the scientific research on mental illness.  Most medications address symptoms, rarely do they provide a cure and its’ success varies widely depending on the condition and the medication.  Similarly, psychotherapy fails many people and is not the cure-all for mental health issues although some forms of psychotherapy can provide lasting and improving relief from symptoms.  Interestingly enough, some people do not develop long-term symptoms and may have spontaneous remission or “natural” recovery with limited or no pharmaceutical or psychological interventions.

Prayer does not always cure.  The church regularly fails to care and love those struggling in their midst.  We fail to be a family of faith that treats each person as an equally beloved child of God.

Although the role of the therapist is not explicitly a biblical one, it will become increasingly important as the mental illness becomes more prevalent and recognized in our world.  Being a Christian therapist allows one to offer the most effective treatment available, while also believing in God’s ability to take care of a person in a way that reaches beyond what our limited understanding has discovered. Being intentionally open to the Holy Spirit, while using sound therapeutic judgement and evidence-based practices are ways of operating ethically and faithfully as a servant of Christ working within a secular medical system.

What are your experiences with mental illness and Christian faith/the church?

If you are a Christian therapist, how have you seen God work or what success have you seen within therapy?  What has surprised you?

What tension do you see between healing from God and healing from therapy?

Through the eyes of a Friend

I want to tell you about the most interesting thing that happened in therapy with a client. I was working with a man who has experienced significant trauma in his life and we were doing a safe place visualization where he imagines a safe place and I ask him questions to enrich the visualization.

One of the questions I asked was “who is there with you”. He answered a friend, a childhood friend. This man reports having no friends and no close family, and no social support in his life but was able to go back to his childhood and find a loving and kind friend. When I asked him about this friend after the visualization I found out that he and his childhood friend both had a similar name.

What a discovery! Inside of himself was not just a friend, but a kinder, gentler, more accepting part of himself an alter ego of sorts, a companion to the blaming, negative “self” that has crept in to dominate his vision of himself accusing  of failure day in and day out. It is incredible what an experience with a good friend can do for a person, even if the friendship is no longer present. It is similar to the experience of the therapeutic relationship; it gives a person a chance to build an alternate reality than they are accustomed one that is trustworthy, and stable that can disrupt older patterns of thinking that have gotten a person or family stuck.

It reminds me of my and my friends personal journey with people in our neighborhood who struggle with addiction and have had abusive childhoods.  For many years we plod along, not perfectly, but trying our best to be loving friends to those who are not always easily befriended, and who need a lot more than we can give.  It can be easy to dismiss these relationships as of such a small value in their overall healing journey.

Afterall, our love for one another pales in comparison to the amazing love and forgiveness that God offers to each of us.  But for some reason or another God chose us to live in relationship with one another and be the bearers of His love for the world to each other.  It would seem a lot more effective that he could appear in visions with bright light and angels announcing his love to each person, but instead he works in mysterious, gentle, and sometimes quiet ways through our broken selves.

Let us find encouragement that through the loving gaze of a friend this man could feel love and acceptance that he would not otherwise feel toward himself, and that our commitment to love can go a long way.

Characteristics of a competent counselor?

Characteristics of a competent counselor?.

via Characteristics of a competent counselor?.

Here is a good article to follow-up with my post of wondering how to be an effective counsellor. 

I would agree with all of these points and recognize that I need to especially improve in the area of area of analysis/hypothesis skills and observations skills.  I’m hoping to hone these with time and more experience.

A Vision

Today I had a vision/idea. I have had this idea in my head for some time, but it is now taking shape.

I’m very interested (like most social workers) in the influence of trauma in a person’s life.  The ACE study (Adverse Childhood Experiences- http://www.acestudy.org/) found that adverse Childhood experiences correlate with negative long-term health in generally, poor mental health and even a shorter life expectancy.

In the Downtown Eastside it is hard to find a person who has not experienced trauma.  It seems like drug addiction has become an ingrained coping method that effectively masks the emotional hurt of the past.  We have many health clinics, and outreach teams, and church missions in our area.  However, I wonder how much treatment for trauma is actually taking place.  Pharmaceuticals help with the pain, but I think there is more that can be done.

One of the obstacles in providing any kind of help here is the chaotic nature of people’s lives- which begs the question how much healing can take place within an environment that often recreates trauma (like our neighborhood).  I have a neighborhood friend who I have spent time on and off for the past 4 years.  It is hard to even make an appointment with her to do something fun like go swimming.  How hard would it for her to go to counselling, or even focus in a session?

I wonder about clinically skilled, but harm reduction outreach counselling for those at the margins?  Also: I would love to do this from a Christian perspective as I believe that God has an amazing unpredictable power to heal and comfort that even the best counsellor cannot provide.  I will have to do some research but for now I’m getting in touch with friends who are knowledgeable in this area of work in the neighborhood, and researching online.

I think especially the integration of horticultural and art therapy would be really neat to accompany first stage trauma treatment. When I say first stage trauma treatment I mean teaching skills like grounding, containment, and journalling (see Lori Haskell’s book http://www.camh.net/Publications/CAMH_Publications/first_stage_trauma_treatment.html).  This step is one that some suggest to provide a sense of safety and self-awareness  before they are ready to tackle intensive therapy for trauma like Cognitive Processing Therapy or EMDR with a skilled therapist.

An idea.  Let’s see where God takes it.  I love dreaming.

The Dialectics of God’s Love and Radical Acceptance (DBT musings part 3)

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy has the aim of teaching people to both accept themselves as they are and at the same time realize their need for change.  It works on shifting a person’s assessment of themselves (and the world) from one of dialectical thinking (either all good or all bad) to one of non-judgement, and acceptance.

In the previous post, commenter Sean challenged the view that Christians can be non-judgemental in all circumstances and clearly differentiated circumstances which warranted  refraining from judgement (being judgemental) and those that warranted judgement (i.e. to identify sin.).  This is a dialectic in itself and merges well with DBT’s aim to encourage its participants to both accept themselves and realize their need for change.

This dialectic of acceptance and change is one that is inherent in the Gospel.  We learn through Jesus that God loves the world so deeply that he gave his only son (John 3:16).  However, God’s love requires reciprocation, action, and relationship as the rest of the verse says “whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.

Time and time again in the New Testament Jesus demonstrates God’s extravagant love to those considered the most outcast, hated (not loved) and rejected including the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), the woman who lavished him with perfume (Luke 7), the tax collector (Luke 19), etc.  He was accused by the religious of frequenting with “sinners and tax-collectors”.  This likely aggravated the religious folk because they feared that he was accepting of sin, as it seems contradictory that you could both accept and reject at the same time.  Indeed it can be.

The key to handling this dialectic is forgiveness.  God’s amazing ability and offer to forgive to all who seek it provides a true and radical acceptance a bridge between being who we are and changing to becoming more like God/Christ.

When Jesus teachers his disciples to pray he teaches this practice of continually coming to God in for forgiveness, realizing that at the same time we are his beloved Children, we are also deeply fallen and sinful creatures who need God’s love.  Many people get stuck in this process.  They find it hard to let go and believe that God could truly love them and forgive the things in the past that were truly sinful.  Another problem we have is blindness to our own sinful nature- especially as people who have been trying to follow God for a little longer- we haven’t committed some of the “big” sins and so we figure we are “Ok” and fail to look more deeply at the nature of our selves and have come to accept too much of our desires and yearnings that are in fact more worldly (“Me” centred) rather than Godly (God-centred).  So we both need acceptance and forgiveness to engage in the radical acceptance and transformation that God offers through Jesus.

You may wonder how this differs from the “Radical Acceptance” espoused in current psychological treatments.   Radical Acceptance in DBT is based on Buddhist principles that we will endure pain but we have a choice to suffer- radical acceptance may entail accepting a situation or a person as they are rather than striving to change it, or bemoan it.   To stop dwelling on things that we may or may not have control.

There are passages in the bible and whole books (Job) which talk about suffering.  Paul regards suffering as purposeful,cleansing us from selfishness, as a place of joy (Colossians 1:24) and connecting us to Christ’s suffering (2 Cor. 1:5-7). Jesus also admonishes us that those who follow Him will be persecuted for righteousness. In this way Radical acceptance may at times be advisable to Christians.  In addition the reasons or results of enduring pain, for the Christian, may be different from those espoused by Radical Acceptance in DBT.

Enduring pain seems justified for those who suffer apart from their actions, but can Christians advocate radical acceptance when suffering is self-inflicted?

That’s a very good question.

What do you think?