Pursuing Religious Freedom

by Rev. Shelly M. Mohnkern

Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not.
C.G. Jung

This country’s exploration of the ideas of religious freedom has been on my mind a great deal over the last couple weeks, and different states struggle with what it means to allow the freedom of religion, in balance with legally excusing discrimination. The states will make mistakes, and hopefully learn from them, just as we in our pursuit of knowledge and learning seek to understand our own, and those of our predecessors. I am simply grateful that here, at least, the students and professors seem to get something that lawmakers still fail at.

Over the last two years that I have been in attendance here at Loyola, I have had many opportunities to express myself and my faith, my beliefs and my personal gnosis, this blog being one of them. As a pagan, I am in the minority here, in a sea of more traditional faith-paths, and yet I feel as valued and respected as any of my more traditional colleagues. It is the truest form of religious freedom, to be able to study how to bring Pastoral Counseling skills to a faith that does not have the centuries of established centers of learning and seminary enjoyed by more established churches. I enjoy this religious freedom. I revel in it every day as I attend classes, have discussions with my peers, and challenge the boundaries of established understandings of the universe and traditional views of our place within it. This is truly religious freedom done right.

It is my feeling that it is the atmosphere here at Loyola that America’s forefathers had in mind when they established a new country where faith was not mandated by the government, but was instead the freedom of every individual to keep to and live by as they saw fit. I hope that all of us here at Loyola will remember that when we step out of this world and into the larger one, so that through our practices we can spread our tolerance, acceptance and love to the larger world outside these doors, and let this country see what religious freedom truly means.

You readers may not realize that you are providing this grace to your fellow students, but believe that we have noticed receiving it, and are grateful.

 

Hungering for Justice

by Dayna Pizzigoni

Today I drove past four tents near the on-ramp to a local highway. I could hardly stand to consider the frigid cold the homeless would experience in another snow storm decorated with daggers of freezing rain. I feel sad and angry when I sit with awareness of people being hungry and homeless in a society of abundance. It’s infuriating to see commercials about new super-glossy lipstick, but no comments about hungry mouths.

I imagine people do not want to hear about the poverty in our neighborhoods. Poverty is not a pretty or comfortable reality. I have volunteered in city soup kitchens. I have had the honor to serve in the intimate space of someone’s home in Appalachia. I’ve sat with saints in the scarred and sacred space of Salvadorian advocacy communities. Despite my varied service, I still feel some discomfort every time I volunteer to serve people who are marginalized in our society.

My discomfort likely comes from a deep knowing that the world is not the kingdom on earth that God intended. The discomfort is also an urging to respond more fervently to my call to serve and do my part in creating a more just world. As a doctoral student, I have found it difficult to make time for this call. Thankfully, a wonderful opportunity called HungerworX has come my way through the Center for FaithJustice, an awesome non-profit dear to my heart that inspires the youth to connect their faith to a call to serve and shape the world to be a better place.

HungerworX is a mission-centered fundraiser that raises awareness about food insecurity in the United States. As a participant, I commit to eating for less than $4 a day for seven days in solidarity with the 1 in 6 Americans that struggle with hunger and food insecurity. [You are welcome to join me or support this initiative with a donation; check out my personal page, http://hungerworx.causevox.com/DPH.]

The truth is that reaching out to others and stepping outside of ourselves would not only help our communities, but would likely help our mental health too. Alfred Alder named social interest as a characteristic of mental health. Dr. Lisa Machoian suggests volunteering as a tool of empowerment for teenage girls who are struggling with depression. Serving others can get us out of our own worried minds and into a place of humility and gratitude.

A priest once proposed that the miracle of the loaves and the fishes was not that Christ Jesus multiplied them, but that strangers, who would not have traveled to see Jesus speak without provisions, all shared what they brought with the crowd. I am no scripture scholar to comment on what happened, but this message of sharing from what we might need, not our excess is beautiful. In this long winter, I hope you find some way to give of yourself. Our human family and our psyches are in great need.

The Survival of the Friendliest

by Kate Gerwin

Ahhhhhhh, the Olympics. A test of skill and brawn, speed and agility. A time when the most honed and talented athletes take the world’s stage, ready to compete until only the fittest, most capable is left; standing atop a platform, basking in his or her glory. It’s enough to make Charles Darwin proud.

Or is it?

The term “survival of the fittest” has long existed in our common lexicon and collective memory. We seem to have a primal recognition of the phrase, using it to explain—and defend– all sorts of human behavior, from harmless competition to deadly greed. The idea that competition is at the very core of who we are as a species has gone unchallenged for so long that we have come to view it as gospel, even going so far as to base many of our financial, political, social and even religious institutions on it and its implications. Human beings, we believe, have evolved and survived thanks to competition.

The only trouble is, Darwin doesn’t seem to agree. Darwin is best known for his first book, Origin of Species, from which we derive the phrase the “survival of the fittest”; what is less well-known, however, is Darwin’s second book, entitled The Descent of Man., In this book he explains the process of human evolution as distinct from that of the animal world.  It may then, come as a shock to discover that in this 828 page tome, Darwin only mentions “survival of the fittest” twice. What does he focus on instead? Themes of love and mutual cooperation. Darwin refers to love or pro-social behaviors over 95 times, and moral sensitivity over 92 times. In contrast, the role of selfishness is only mentioned 12 times, while the need for competition is mentioned a mere nine.

What is one to conclude from these surprising statistics? In short, that we as a species owe far more to our ability to come together than our ability to compete.

Ahhhh, the Olympics. An opportunity for nations to cease the business of politics and war-making, and come together to share in our common humanity and desire for a more peaceful planet. Charles Darwin would indeed be proud.

Finding the Face of God

By David Gosling

“Each thing hath two faces, a face of its own, and a face of its Lord; in respect of its own face it is nothingness, and in respect of the Face of God it is Being. Thus there is nothing in existence save only God and His Face, for everything perisheth but His Face, always and forever.”

-Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali

This quote from the famous medieval mystic al-Ghazali, one of the most important figures in historical Islam, demonstrates the curious predicament one finds in the modern application of counseling within a pastoral context. There is the immediate need to treat a person suffering from a variety of psychological conditions, someone deeply hurt by the world and their experiences within it. Yet, there is also the deeper and greater need to treat the soul of the individual, to acknowledge the Face of God that lies behind and beyond each physical being. Indeed, through this statement al-Ghazali demonstrates the ultimate futility of tending to the finite self while ignoring the Infinite: all paths converge on the Oneness of Being despite our intentions to the contrary.

It is an utterly human quality to forget such esoteric realities when concerns of the present come calling, and to our credit (or discredit) we often do such a good job that they are virtually forgotten altogether. On one level, this preoccupation with the present manifests itself in the record number of psychological and psychosomatic problems experienced these days. On a more profound level, and perhaps in conjunction with the previous crisis, our spiritual selves are being denied their rightful place within the framework of a healthy, well-balanced life. Every generation seems to forget anew Christ’s teaching to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength. We also seem to forget that it is through this continued remembrance of God in our lives that we are able to truly love our neighbor, thereby fulfilling the remainder of Jesus’ command.

The relevance of pastoral counseling seems more than ever to be in its ability to address both the psychological and spiritual dimensions of the human condition, in this age of continued crisis and lackluster faith in anything beyond the scientific method. May we each continue to search for the uniquely divine Face of God behind every person who seeks our counsel.

Alhamdulillah (Praise to God).

An Advent of Humanity – No Cape Necessary

by Dayna Pizzigoni

What does it mean to have a God that was born in a manger and died on a cross? About five years ago I wrote this question in an untitled notebook on a page without a date. As my spiritual community closes our liturgical year with Christ our King on the cross and begins our celebration of Advent, I ponder this question and its personal meaning in my faith journey again.

The reality of a God born in a barn and murdered after healing the sick and feeding the hungry means that Jesus was not a super hero. He participated in the messiness of humanity. I need to remember that if God did not step into the world as a super hero then She probably doesn’t expect me to be a super hero (despite how fun it might be to have super powers as a doctoral student).

I am a human being. God does not expect me to be perfect. He intentionally did not give me a super hero cape. My humanity, like my need for rest and play, is not a flaw. The most significant joy I will celebrate, pain I will suffer, and contribution I will offer the world will be done cape-less-ly as a regular human.

Now it must be said that sometimes we, as humans, do put on wonderful capes of determination and resilience. Single fathers, abuse survivors, refugees, and struggling students probably have made good use of metaphorical capes. It is beautiful how we can survive, stretch, and grow, but this strength becomes a liability when our expectations for ourselves become too high. We are not made to be “on” and heroic all the time. Following Christ is not about being a super hero. It is about being fully human.

There is nothing as tempting as a doctoral program to make me wish I could be a super hero; however, doctoral classes are not crises. I do not need a cape for my courses. I need to plan for adequate time to do my work and trust my intelligence. My studies call me not to heroism, but to humility with which work and be ever grateful for the privilege of higher education.

This Advent I hope to contemplate the beauty of our limited humanity. I can honor the holiness of my humanity and humbly invite Christ into the Bethlehem of my heart this Advent. Jesus will be ok in the messiness of my fragile humanity. After all, He was born in a manger and died on a cross.

Love What it Loves

by Kate Gerwin

“You can’t have my heart and you don’t own my mind but, do what you want, what you want with my body.” –Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga is a singer whose shock value tends to come more from her over the top ensembles than her lyrics; her latest song however, struck a chord with me.

Undertones of sexual assault aside, the lyrics aren’t any more sexually provocative than others you hear on any pop radio station and Gaga has every right to decide what she wants to do with her body.

What upsets me is the fact that the song speaks to a larger cultural attitude towards the body; one in which the body is at best, a vehicle to further the needs of the “real” parts of us (the heart and mind) and one in which it is, at worst, treated with apathy and abuse.

Gaga is not the first or the only one to voice the belief that the body is “less than” the other aspects of the self; turn on the radio or the television or peruse social media and it is not hard to see that Gnosticism is alive and well in modern day America. As a culture, we are conflicted masters of our bodily selves, oscillating between stringent contempt and debilitating over-indulgence.

On the one hand, we judge our bodies for what they are not, restrict them, deny them the basics of what they need (food, sleep, rest, touch, nature, play), push them beyond healthy limits and then chastise them for not working “like they should.” On the other, we abuse our bodies with over-indulgence and addiction. Even the arguments made for healthy living tend to come back to looking better and living longer, implying that the only two things that the body has to offer are attractiveness and longevity.

Religion and spirituality are often in on it too. Whether it is through the condemnation of sexuality, harsh ascetic practices or even just the subtle implication that “real” spirituality lies beyond our embodied selves, spirituality can proliferate the belief that the body need not be as valued as our hearts or minds.

What about a view of the body that cherishes it just as much as one would cherish a child? What about a view founded on acceptance, curiosity, appreciation and joy? One that celebrates the body not just as an essential part of the self, but as the true meeting place of self? What about a spirituality that understands that holiness or enlightenment is an embodied process? A view that tells us, in the words of the poet Mary Oliver:

“You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert; you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

The Need for Adequate and Appropriate Treatment and Care

It was breaking news that flashed across the screen just as I was about to turn off the television and head out the door:  An active shooter was at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC.  I was saddened by the news, but not shocked.  The occurrence of gun violence had happened so frequently in the last few years that a low-grade numbness had begun to take root.  As analysts talked to reporters and television cameras, the issue of the easy access to high-powered weapons was raised once again, and as expected, the state of the perpetrator’s mental health was called into question.

It turned out that the shooter did have mental health issues, and although he had been arrested twice previously, had gun related altercations, and had even sought help at two Veterans Affairs hospitals, he did not receive the necessary treatment that might have kept him and his twelve victims alive.  Maybe there was a concern about confidentiality, and while confidentiality is essential in therapeutic relationships, so is a duty to warn.  Could it be that his symptoms were masked, or were his treatment providers at fault?

As I mulled over this thought, I understood why it might be difficult to take the next step when dealing with the mentally ill.  Indeed, our Loyola community was affected by gun violence and mental illness when Mary Marguerite-Kohn was killed by a mentally ill homeless man in May 2012.   As social services are reduced due to budget cuts, the options for referrals are few, and mental health professionals are hard-pressed to work in a system with varying state laws, and a lack of public funding.  The result is that response to serious mental illness in many cases has been retroactive at best.

Yet I live in hope that eventually, maybe when the debate about gun violence is spent, the focus would shift towards addressing adequate care for the mentally ill.  The solution offered by the National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre on his recent appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press that “they need to be committed” could not possibly be the answer.  As more citizens are exposed to gun violence, some are becoming traumatized, providing a new demographic of citizens with mental illness.  Law makers should realize that mental illness is not a crime, and even when it may not be curable, it is treatable in the proper environment.   It is time for them to respond to the mentally ill with adequate and appropriate treatment and care.  This will be beneficial to both the patients and those whose paths they will cross.

 

When Things Fall Apart

“When things fall apart and we’re on the verge of we know not what, the test of each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize.”

– Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

Many clients come to us with their own versions of “falling apart” and it is our privilege as counselors to share in that space with them and to not flinch, (or to flinch but still not run). In that space and with the understanding that there may not be a specific “destination”, but a belief that the counseling journey will produce movement, a more enlightened person or both. And it is that universal love for the client that allows the counselor to be in that space without agenda, impatience or predetermined result. If universal love is the foundation upon which the counseling relationship is built, then acceptance would then be the framework of that counseling relationship. The universal love can lead to an acceptance of the client for who and what they are, which is many times far beyond their actions and behavior. That growing space of acceptance, supported by the universal love, allows the client to feel safe enough to open those dark doors and shine light on dark hallways within them. But acceptance also requires that the counselor accept a few things as well. The first acceptance is that of the counselor’s limitations. Even with the best techniques, theories and counseling presence, there is a limit to how much can be accomplished. That limit is based upon many factors, a good number of which are outside of the counselor’s control (client willingness, client support systems, environment just to name a few). There is also an acceptance of the fact that the effective and productive counseling process is not free of pain or discomfort. Many times I have found myself shying away from asking questions that may cause the client discomfort or even pain. And I have had to realize that the client was ALREADY in pain and discomfort. So yes a portion of my reluctance was based upon that concern for the client, but a portion of that was also for me. I wanted to avoid the pain and discomfort that I would feel, so I avoided certain lines of questions and inquiries in part because of my lack of acceptance that discomfort on both sides (the client and the counselor) are a natural and essential part of the process of truer healing.

 

 

The Rest that Comes After

Aside

“Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence. Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” ― Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

The other day I was abruptly reminded that I needed to rest. I had just gotten home after a long day and somehow between turning off the engine and opening the door, I dozed off for 20 minutes. I might still be there if it had not been for the sound of a car door slamming somewhere else. I got inside the house and a familiar chorus ran through my mind, “I will rest after . . . .” After the treatment plan is done, after the chapter is read, after the email checked and after the project for work is completed. Rest for me did not come until after midnight.

I have talked to many of my colleagues, and my experience (with the exception of the car incident) is typical. Rest becomes the thing that comes after. Rest will come after work, after class, after meetings, after homework, after family responsibilities, and after essentially everything else. Quite often, the “after” does not come. We all know that we need rest, but making that rest a priority is a significant challenge.

A 2012 CDC study reported that more than 40 million U.S. workers get fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night. This obviously is less than the 7 ½ to 8 hours that is generally recommended. Just take a moment to reflect over the last month of your life and think of how many times you have gotten proper rest.

To make matters worse, our society often applauds persons for working themselves to the point of exhaustion.

So, we have exhausted counselors sitting across from exhausted clients. We have to do better and also have to encourage our clients to do better as well.

Rest always comes “after” something, but make sure that rest doesn’t come after everything!

Leaning In to Those Awkward Moments

By Kathleen Gerwin

For those of you who have spent any time around teenagers, I’m going to wager that you’ve heard this sentence uttered more than once: “Oh my God, that’s SO awkward.” As a high school teacher, it’s a phrase I cannot seem to escape and one that seems to be applied to just about everything, from a parent’s overly enthusiastic greeting, to public speaking, and everything in between.

Some of this is just part of growing up. In adolescence, as your body and mind are betraying you, developing in new and strange ways, it’s difficult to not view things through the lens of awkwardness. Who among us can forget those painful adolescent moments when it felt as if the room was closing in on us and melting into the floor seemed like the best possible outcome?

What worries me about teenagers today, however, is twofold.

First, the fact that many normal, developmentally appropriate situations are being painted as awkward. For example: on a recent service trip with my students, I was driving a group of seniors from our Habitat worksite to the Church that was hosting us for dinner. Our GPS had taken us off-course, so I asked one of the girls to call the Church to inform our host that we would be a few minutes late. From the look on my otherwise extremely extroverted, socially adept student’s face, you would have thought that I had asked her to run through the parking lot naked. “Ms. GERWIN,” she cried, “That’s so AWKWARD!” The rest of girls chimed in, agreeing that calling a stranger —even for less than a minute to convey information—was in the 7th Ring of Awkward Hell.

The second, and potentially more troubling fact, is that this generation of teens seems to have far more ways to avert or avoid those awkward moments: texting has made it so every response can be edited and reviewed by a jury of peers; silent moments at dinner can be filled with time on your phone or the drone of the TV; in a photo-shop, Facebook-centric world, pictures and profiles can be cleaned up so only the most “acceptable” self has to be presented to the world. The danger is that rather than having to sit in those awkward moments, teens—and perhaps all of us—never have the chance to come to the other side of those uncomfortable situations and realize that they won’t, in fact, kill us. Awkward moments, like adolescence, are periods of growth—often far from pleasant, but necessary if we are to develop properly.

The gift of sitting in awkwardness is the realization that there is a Self within us that goes beyond feelings, situations, or judgments. And that is certainly nothing to feel awkward about.