Lighting the Winter Candle

by Shelly Mohnkern

“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”

Carl Jung, 1963

Winter:  The time of reflection, introspection, and thought;  the fallow time of the mind between semesters. We rest, but we are not still. We fill our days not with books and research and long hours at the library, but with family, food and fellowship. We prepare to re-engage in our scholarship by shopping for books, and supplies, thinking about our schedules, and waiting for the syllabi that will direct our efforts over the next five months. We reflect on the past year, and make resolutions for the upcoming one.

This is the time where we re-kindle Jung’s light, the light that will shine through us for the rest of the year.

I find myself looking inward, seeking that light within me, and searching for the knowledge I will need to nourish the flame to its brightest life. There are so many facets of that light. Much like the human housing it, it takes many different nutrients for the light to thrive and burn brightly. My light thrives on such lofty things as charity work, prayer, helping my tribe-of-choice, spiritual practice, and learning. It also thrives on more mundane pleasures like reading fiction, movies, time spent with children playing, vocal music, and indulging my theatrical side with role-play gaming. I give joy and receive it gratefully. I take “me time” and permit myself to be indulgent. It is a balance between doing for others, letting others do for me, and occasionally doing for myself.

Soon I return to classes. I’m excited and nervous.  I can’t wait to be learning again. In fact, I marvel at the idea that some folks stop learning, feeling they have already gleaned all they can from academic study. I came back to school later in life, and I marvel at all I have learned so far, and the horizons of learning yet to be achieved. I see my light begin to burn brighter, adding itself to the light of my peers, fed by the light of my instructors, the authors of our texts, and the scholarship of those who have gone before me.

Shine on, and shine well. The dark times are passing, now is the time of light.

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).

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 Power of Language

by Dave Gosling

A single word can brighten the face

of one who knows the value of words,

Ripened in silence, a single word

acquires a great energy of work.

War is cut short by a word,

and a word heals the wounds,

and there’s a word that changes

poison into butter and honey.

Let a word mature inside yourself.

Withhold the unripened thought.

Come and understand the kind of word

that reduces money and riches to dust.

Know when to speak a word

and when not to speak at all.

A single word turns a universe of hell

into eight paradises.

Follow the Way. Don’t be fooled

by what you already know. Be watchful.

Reflect before you speak.

A foolish mouth can brand your soul

Yunus, say one last thing

about the power of words–

Only the word “I”

divides me from God.

Yunus Emre

Every major faith tradition warns against the uninhibited use of words. The wise understand that human beings possess a finite amount of energy. To speak is to use that energy, to direct it toward an object with intent. A hurtful word to a friend, a shallow or pointless conversation, an internal dialogue with one’s own egoistic agenda, a curse against the universe….these are all ways language can deprive us of energy otherwise allocated for the accomplishment of Good.  Like Yunus, we should hold our words until the right one approaches, the one that “changes poison into butter and honey”.

The magnitude of this challenge is clear in the current global landscape. The rise of technology has not only given us a variety of platforms from which to use our words carelessly and often; it has also opened our psyches and souls to the millions of meaningless words spoken by others. We are encouraged to push the entirety of our lives–our hopes, dreams, desires, and accomplishments–onto others, feeding our habits for constant attention, affection, and desirability. How, then, can we possibly withhold words until they ripen with meaning and compassion?

Counselors are blessed with a professional setting that encourages this process of patience and growth. Words, when they are spoken, must be carefully weighed and measured. They must reflect the professional knowledge of the speaker, but only in relation to the patient’s anguish and concern. They must also contain compassion and understanding. They may even be graced by the light touch of Spirit. Too many words and the power of the message is lost. Too few and the message remains unclear, muddled. May we all learn with Yunus how to “withhold the unripened thought” until the timing is right. It seems a great challenge, but one that also contains an immense blessing in its power to change and improve lives.

Letting Go

by Dayna Pizzigoni

“Slowly, she celebrated the sacrament of letting go.

First she surrendered her green,

then the orange, yellow, and red…” Macrina Wiederkehr

About two years ago I decide to let go. I let go of my insistence to predict God’s plan for my life. I had just experienced a falling apart, a heart-break that invited me into a profound surrender. I held on to only two things: hope and a desire to know God anew.

I let go of my idea of God’s will for me because I had no answers anymore and the search seemed too clouded by my fear and will to control it. My sacrament of letting go began with re-discovering the grace inside myself. I couldn’t start to get to know God any other way. I had to accept the Truth inside me before I could trust the Truth anywhere else.

I can’t tell you how I got to know myself again. I did not take on this self-discovery like a project or goal that I had to carefully note and analyze. I accepted the beauty of uncertainty and let the process unfold. (By the way, this feat, by this recovering perfectionist, would not have happened without the gift of being broken open.) I remember doing things like going to yoga, eating at a restaurant by myself, attending mass during the week, seeing my therapist, and allowing time and space in my life to do whatever I felt like (eg coloring).

“And then, the sacrament of waiting began

The sunrise and sunset watched with

Tenderness, clothing her with silhouettes

They kept her hope alive.

They helped her understand that

her vulnerability

her dependence and need

her emptiness

her readiness to receive

were giving her a new kind of beauty.

Every morning and every evening she stood in silence and celebrated

the sacrament of waiting.” Macrina Wiederkehr

In this surrender, I waited for whatever life would present. I practiced trusting myself more and waited for God to reveal Herself however She wanted. I risked greater vulnerability and let God love me.

I sit writing to you now on a small porch outside my apartment enjoying the autumn sun with my husband inside. From heart-break to heart-bounty, I rest in the grace of letting go and waiting for God to surprise me again. Let go of something this fall as the leaves surrender. Wait for God to surprise you. Life is not a statistical analysis where we predict outcomes. Life is unfolding.

Serenity, Courage, Wisdom

Hanging on a wall in my office, is a glass picture etched with the first four lines of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer. At the end of each group session, my clients and I hold hands and recite the prayer together. As they leave, I pray that serenity, courage, and wisdom inform their decisions as they tend to their daily lives.

On Saturday, May 18, 2013, Loyola University Maryland held its 161st commencement ceremony. Among its graduates were members of the Pastoral Counseling and Spiritual Care Department. As they transition from the role of student to that of helping professional, I pray that serenity, courage, and wisdom inform their decisions as they tend to their clients.

The Pastoral Counseling program offers skills that graduates bring to the workforce. When they enter the world of work, they may realize that even with excellent skills, difficulties arise. Sometimes the difficulties are due to agency culture, or clients may not be motivated to change. During those occasions, we ask God to grant them the serenity to accept the things they cannot change.

For what can be changed, extra effort may be necessary. Pastoral Counselors are called to be advocates for clients. We hold hope and provide reassurance that there is light at the end of the tunnel. As clients respond to treatment, their accomplishments may radiate into our lives. Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda stated that “when one takes action for others, one’s own suffering is transformed into the energy that can keep one moving forward; a light of hope illuminating a new tomorrow for oneself and others is kindled.”  Recognizing the value of advocacy, we pray that God grant them the courage to change the things that they can.

The third attribute recalls Solomon’s response to God’s magnanimous offer to give him anything that he wanted.  Solomon replied “give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people that I may discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9).  In essence, Solomon requested wisdom, and God, delighting in his selfless request, made him the wisest man who ever lived.

Socrates stated that “wisdom begins in wonder.” As Pastoral Counselors enter the workforce filled with hope, wonder, and a burning desire for excellence, my prayer is for a spirit of discernment to accompany them so they recognize the times when change is not possible, and be at peace. For those times when they can facilitate change, they should have the courage to advocate for their clients. Yet most importantly, they should trust God for the wisdom to know the difference.

Our work as Pastoral Counselors requires us to facilitate change, advocate for our clients, and be discerning about their needs. The class of 2013 is equipped for these tasks, and I am convinced that the counseling profession has received a gift with the addition of these new graduates to their rolls.

Just One Step

by Andrea Noel

At a recent visit to my alma mater, I encountered a group of students who chose to participate in the annual Alternative Spring Break (ASB) Program. ASB is a weeklong service learning experience that students voluntarily substitute for entertaining vacations during spring break. ASB is spread nationally and internationally, involves graduates and undergraduates, and responds to the needs of marginalized populations.

Throughout the week, students live together and work in teams at various sites providing services to forgotten residents in local communities. Each day, they reflect on their encounters at these sites. During my visit with the Washington D.C. ASB team, I witnessed meaningful thoughts students shared about people they met at schools, homeless shelters, and hospices.

One particular student shared that there exists this overwhelming need for change in the world. In Washington D.C. there are too many homeless people, individuals dying of AIDS/HIV, children abused and neglected, schools closing and over-crowded, violent crimes increasing, and fixed unemployment rates. This student said it seems impossible for one week of service to make any difference in the lives of individuals who encounter so much scarcity, violence, or disregard. The student believed the work of the week seemed hopeless.

After hearing this, I recalled a prayer attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero. This prayer was written by Bishop Ken Untener, of Saginaw, November 1979, in celebration of the lives of departed priests.

“…The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise
that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete…the Kingdom always lies beyond
us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith…

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission…

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development…

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an

opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master

builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.[1]
Amen.

May this prayer shape our ways of being present to those we serve as pastoral counselors and spiritual caregivers. Although problems around us seem monumental, let us do whatever we can with love and care.


[1] Untener, K. (1979) Archbishop Oscar Romero prayer: A step along the way. Retrieved from http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers/archbishop_romero_prayer.cfm

Vehicles for Change

by Beverly Sargent

If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. Matthew 17:20

You might have heard the radio announcements asking people to donate their vehicles to a non-profit organization.  The donated vehicles are meant to help make life easier for those with financial, mental, developmental and/or behavioral health challenges.

What does it mean to make life easier? Really, the recipient of the gift can best
express its meaning. Also, the meaning may change from day to day, week to week and month to month.  The change a vehicle can bring may be minimal to those in the organization but monumental to the family who receives it.

As Pastoral Counselors, we, too, hope to be vehicles of change. In a way, we give of ourselves as we study, write treatment plans, and share knowledge and compassion with our clients.  It is a relationship in which we give and we hope for change. To us, the change may appear minuscule; but, to our clients, it may have taken years of struggle to experience positive change.  The minuscule can be monumental!  The hope of being a vehicle of change is sort of like faith.

It’s not about the mountain. It’s about the mustard seed.

“I have a mustard seed; and I’m not afraid to use it!”

~Joseph Ratzinger: Salt of the Earth (Pope Benedict XVI)

 

Meaning Making is a Super Power!

“Each of us is questioned by life; and each of us can only answer to life by answering for our own life.” Viktor E. Frankl , Man’s Search for Meaning

Talk about “meaning making.” Dr. Viktor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor who came to understand that all of life—including life in a concentration camp—puts forth the possibility for life to be made whole. In many ways, this wholeness emerges in responses to our choices, even if our choices are limited by circumstances (like suffering imprisonment, losing every loved one in your life, or other unspeakable harm).

In such a case then, one’s choice is the option to grow and be something more than who s/he is today or to stay focused on current ways of being and knowing in order to survive. No one can stop us from new growth, unless we give our permission. No one can stop us from making meaning in our lives unless we allow them to do so.

  • Failures of the past or present, rather than stealing meaning, create NEW meaning as we use our new information to discern the path that is laying itself before us in this new moment.
  • Wounds that we bear, rather than create victims; create heroes with hearts of strength who choose to forge ahead despite all odds.
  • Challenges we face encourage us to remember that we can’t do it alone—we need help. Even as we step toward new horizons of meaning, we are walking with others as they do the same.

THIS is the privilege of being a pastoral counselor: Even as we seek to make meaning in our own lives, we are graced with the privilege of accompanying others as they make meaning in theirs. In this process, my life is changed. In this process, the lives of others are changed. In this process, our lives together are changed.

And therein the world is changed.

Now there’s a super power I can get behind. My life’s journey isn’t about questioning what is happening to me. Rather, life itself is questioning me about how I plan to engage my existence.

I’d love to hear about your super power. Whether it is invisibility, flying, million dollar metal suits, or “meaning making,” what are your super power’s effects on the adventures of your life?