Top 5 Lessons I Learned in the M.A. Program

 The top 5 lessons I learned in the MA in Spiritual and Pastoral Care Program in no particular order are:

1. Be careful sharing your theology with others – What you believe about God may not be what another person believes, and even if you are well meaning you may hurt someone else by imposing your views.  In Theological Anthropology, Dr. Gerry Fialkowski told us many stories.  One that stands out for me was the story of what one well-meaning, but misguided person said to a child grieving for her mother.  It was not a pastoral response.  She said, “God needed your mommy in heaven, which is why she died.”  That child needs her mother.  Only a cruel God would deprive a child of her mother.  Is that the God I believe in? 

2. God is mystery – God continues to reveal Godself to us, God is continuously creating, and God’s work is never finished.  All we have are metaphors to describe God.  Our human minds do not have the capacity to fully understand God.  If you think you understand God, drop that concept you think you know because you have got it all wrong.  St. Augustine said, “God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand.  If you understand, you have failed…”

I now live by that concept.  Surprise and discovery are what I find here at Loyola on this journey toward union with God. I am constantly reminding myself to stay open to new possibilities, new understandings, new invitations, and new calls from God.

3. Self-Care is Sacred.  – It is not selfish to practice self-care — it is self-preservation for someone in a helping profession.  We are so highly prone to burn out, and when this occurs we can cause harm to those for which we care.  “Physician heal thyself.” (Luke 4:23).  I have studied the wounded healers (like Henri Nouwen) who bind up their own wounds, and in so doing learn empathy/compassion.  They sooth others’ wounds because they first tended to their own.

4. I AM capable of being a spiritual director  – In my tradition of Roman Catholicism, priests and religious do most of the spiritual guidance.  It is only in the last generation that lay men and women have taken on a greater role in Ministry within the Church.  There are still many traditional and conservative individuals who would rather go to a priest or nun with a spiritual matter viewing him or her as “more qualified.”  I had carried this with me and it made me doubt my ability to be a spiritual director.  But then, I took Spiritual Direction with Fr. Brian McDermott, SJ.  He showed me that I do have what it takes, that I can be a spiritual director, and that anyone who has a true calling regardless of whether or not they have been ordained can companion someone in their spiritual journey.

5. There are distinct differences between spiritual direction, pastoral care, pastoral counseling, and psychotherapy – As I sit with someone in a spiritual direction session, often relationship issues enter into our space and that is okay.  The Spirit is there between us continuing God’s work of creating by mending fences, changing hearts, calling to conversion, reconciling, nurturing, tending, and challenging.   My directees and pastoral care receivers constantly teach me what they need from me. If I can assist them with that need then I will; however, if I cannot then it is time for me to refer them to another professional.

A plethora of personal growth and formation takes place here at Loyola.  I could communicate so many more lessons I have learned.  This is just a sample of life at Loyola as an MA student in the Pastoral Counseling Department.

Hearing my Heart for the First Time: When faith is challenged

            Friday’s Human Development class began with the question, “On what is my heart set?”  My initial answer is Christ although my actions don’t always point to that.  Where does my faith truly lie?  Is it in the Catholic Church where I grew up?  Is it possible God is leading me to a different faith tradition?  He has shown me parts of Himself in each religion I’ve encountered.  This question had posed itself before and each time I have pushed it aside, feeling guilty for even considering it.  Friday night I was surrounded by people who had faced that question, answered it, and ultimately found peace.  Their acceptance, openness, and honesty made all the difference.  I felt no guilt in considering the question and shortly I had the answer.  My heart is set on Christ, my HusbandMy marriage to Him is the most important thing in my life.  Our union is that for which I live and will die.  Since the Catholic Church is the only institution that honors our marriage, I will stay.  My anger at current leadership remains.  So now what?

            We discussed Fowler’s stages of faith.  During stage IV, a person’s faith is challenged.  Something happens that contradicts what she believes to be true and she is then forced to question:  Do I continue to follow blindly?  Do I leave behind that which I once knew to be true in order to follow new truth?  Do I reconcile the two – and if yes, how?  Certain events have happened that are challenging my faith.  I question the character of God – not doubting Him, but to better understand Him – and I am seeking advice from every wise man, not despising any useful counsel (Tobit 4:18).  With the religious diversity at Loyola, wise men and women are abundant.

We learn faith from those around us.  I’m sure some would argue the opposite because many leave the faith tradition they grew up in, either finding a different one or abandoning organized religion altogether.  But the bottom line is this:  faith is what drives you, it is that on which you have set your heart. I live by faith.  I question my faith but that is necessary – if I don’t ask, I won’t receive.  I am discovering that my Husband, though Jewish when He walked the earth, is not necessarily Jewish.  Or Catholic.  Or Muslim.  Or Hindu.  Or Buddhist.  But He is certainly present in all these traditions.  We are a people who, as Dr. McGinnis says, have written on our hearts to seek God.  I am reminded of a phrase in Slumdog Millionaire, spoken by Jamal to the girl he loves, Latika.  Tragic events transpire in their lives yet he persists in looking for her.  She asks why and he responds, “We are meant to be together.  It is written.”  It was written on his heart.  It was his faith in a love so profound that he could not imagine a life without her in it.  Whatever transpired to that point was unimportant.  As Victor Frankl said, “A person who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”

It is my love for my Husband – and my desire for our union – that drives my life trajectory.  It is my anchor through the storm, keeping me grounded in my faith in the Eucharist even as my faith in those consecrating it is deeply shaken.  I will continue to search for those ways in which I can reconcile my faith to my religion.  Why?  Because it is written.

Is “Diversity” really about Differences?

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I am a person who doesn’t like to be around people who are like me, but instead different.  I have always sought out friendships and experiences that expand my understanding and love for people, and I’m often marveled at how our heavenly Father beautifully crafted us together.  So when I first began Loyola University’s career development class, I felt like a fawn frolicking amongst a meadow of diversity.  My class represented a variety of religious beliefs, nationalities, sex, ethnicity, professions and talents.    But as the class came to an end, I found myself less amazed by our differences, and more in tune with our commonalities – our personhood – the very life, breath, and heart of God’s creation.

Our final assignment was a demonstration from each student expressing his/her personal life path and addressing the question of identity, “Who am I?”  Sharing of the “self” is not easy or comfortable for many.  However, each student was given the creative liberty to demonstrate meaningful moments, persons, or experiences that have helped shape their identity.   In my personal journey, for example, I’ve come to realize that my life isn’t really about “who am I?”  For me it’s about, “knowing who He is – knowing Jesus.”  Instead of what I know or do, it’s about Who I know and what He does.  It has especially been through my struggles and weaknesses that God has proven faithful and strong.

My peers expressed themselves through drama, sand art, music, poetry, pottery, film, media, and scrapbooks.  It was a beautiful moment of how sharing of the “self” causes all other differences to become less definitive of “who we are.”  As my classmates grew increasingly comfortable sharing their stories with one another, I witnessed a group of people become “one” — I believe just as God describes in 1 Cor. 12:12-14.  It wasn’t our stories of success, achievement, or credentials that united us, but it was our openness about life’s failures, hurts, and mistakes.  To be open and allow others to see “you” — each one a masterpiece, yet also so human, fragile, and dependent on Christ — unveils all differences.  We are what I like to call, “commonly different.”

It was as though God intentionally pulled pieces from his human fabric – my peers — from across the globe to weave together one majestic tapestry.  Each thread so unique and exquisite, yet when hidden or separated, unable to fulfill God’s common purpose and good.

As counselors, I believe it’s so very important that we embrace diversity and extend compassion to people from all walks of life.  But, beyond diversity, are hearts and souls … the highest calling for Pastoral Counselors.

“Forgive my ignorance, but I have never heard of Baha’i before: An introduction to the Bahai’i Faith

by Karla Wynn

One of the things that struck me as a new student in the Pastoral Counseling and Spiritual Care Department at Loyola was the welcome that I received from the faculty, staff, and students. However, upon embarking on my first semester here at Loyola, aside from my professor of Human Development, Frank Richardson, Jr. Ph.D., few of my professors and the vast majority of my academic colleagues never heard of Bahá’u'lláh, the Bahá’í Faith or Its Teachings. Most of the time, when introducing myself as a Bahá’í, the usual responses received are blank stares, or “forgive my ignorance, but I have never heard of this before. How do Ba-what did you say, yes, Bahá’ís feel about Jesus?”

Here is my short description: the Bahá’í Faith (www.bahai.org; www.bahai.us) is the latest chapter in the Eternal Book of God’s Revelation, and was founded by Bahá’u'lláh (1817-1892). As Bahá’ís, we believe that He is the Mouthpiece of God for the time in which we live and that He is the Return of Christ, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth come in the Glory of the Father (John 16:7, John, 16:13, Mt, 25:31, KJV). Hence, Bahá’u'lláh, is one of the many Divine Messengers, Teachers, and Manifestations of the God that include Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Christ, and Muhammad.

Our core beliefs are that there is One God, that there is One Eternal Faith of God, and that Humanity shares One Common Ancestry. Bahá’u'lláh teaches that humanity is in its turbulent adolescence and is in the process of entering a stage of adulthood that includes the unification of the entire human race under one spiritual umbrella. However, in order to achieve unity of the entire human race, the Bahá’í Faith promotes these principles – which we wholeheartedly believe are spiritual principles: the abandonment of all forms of prejudice; the assurance to women of full equality of opportunity with men; the recognition of the unity and relativity of religious truth; the elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty; the realization of universal education; the responsibility of each person to independently search for truth; the establishment of a global commonwealth of nations; and the recognition that true religion is in harmony with reason and the pursuit of scientific knowledge (http://info.bahai.org, 2010).

My personal encounter with the Bahá’í Faith happened in 1976 when I was 12, and a neighbor in my native Brooklyn, New York neighborhood, introduced my mother, younger sister and me to the Teachings of Bahá’u'lláh at a dinner meeting that was held at her home. There, we met some people whom I thought were a “new brand of Puerto Ricans who ate green rice.” Since that night, we began attending Sunday Public Meetings at the New York City Bahá’í Center in Manhattan, and eventually my mother joined the Faith. I followed suit on the eve of my 17th birthday in June of 1981. My sister did the same in 1985.

What attracted me to the Faith, initially were not the teachings – per se, but the early history of the Faith itself through the pages of a book called The Dawn Breakers: Nabíl’s Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá’í Revelation, 1887-1888, (Trans. from the Original Persian and Edited by Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, IL). Following that, my interest in the Bahá’í Teachings remained alive by the principles of the elimination of all forms of prejudice, the eradication of racism, the equality of women with men, and the need for universal education for everyone regardless of socio-economic class, ethnicity, gender or the like – all spiritual teachings in the Bahá’í Faith that others consider to be “social justice issues.” Incidentally, the Bahá’ís in Iran where the Faith was born, are being denied basic human rights and I wish to direct your attention to the documentary entitled “Education Under Fire” at http://educationunderfire.com/.

Inasmuch as there is limited space elaborate on the Bahá’í Faith, please visit the following websites for more information: www.bahai.org, www.bahai.us, http://bahhai.org, and a recent CBS News broadcast “What they Believe: Zoroastrians, Hindus and Bahá’ís” at:  http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7405258n&tag=api.

When Feeling Bad is Good

When feeling bad is good for you

Barbara Kass

Just as our bodies signal us to tend to our physical well-being, so our emotions act like messengers to mind our emotional well-being. When we are rested and energized, we can take on life’s challenges with ease. Feeling tired indicates we need to retreat and relax. Likewise, feelings of joy, contentment, and love say “everything is fine” while feeling angry, anxious, or depressed make us uncomfortable and think “something is wrong.”

The happiness road beckons all of us yet trying to follow that path by avoiding painful emotions is a gateway to living a less-than-authentic life. Meeting difficult emotions face-to-face is the foundation of resilience and can help guide our lives. When struck by a spark of rage or held immobile by despair or fear, we must ask ourselves: What purpose does this emotion serve for me? What am I trying to tell myself? How can this emotion best guide my decisions and actions in the next moments?

In his book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, author James Martin points out that any emotion can overwhelm us. We might feel a joy out of proportion to a particular event or moved to tears for something insignificant and wonder: What is wrong with me? In those distinct moments, we don’t quite feel right. There is a certain emptiness, a longing, a desire to connect with a larger understanding that seems just outside of our reach. Martin calls those moments invitations from God asking us to communicate with the greater power of our origination. And if we connect with the power that gave us this life – the power that wants us to have a good life – we know we are getting the best counseling available.

I frequent a blog, Domini Canes, where a recent post reminded me that we look to God for answers through prayer, but prayer is not a man-made action. Rather, prayer is a gift, a door eternally open to connection with God. We are both the seeker and the sought.

Our lives shout at us through our feelings and in the silent circumstances of our deeds. Your emotions will tell you everything you need to know about your journey. As you sift through the results of your decisions and actions, look at how your trials made meaning in your life and know the presence of God within you.

Counseling Programs: Secular or Pastoral?

Shared Counseling Program Experiences—“Something Beautiful for God”

By: Tara Mastoris

My boyfriend, Anthony, and I are both in graduate counseling programs. Anthony does not go to Loyola’s Pastoral Counseling program. He attends another school’s clinical counseling program. I thought it would be interesting to share Anthony’s experience of being a faithful person in a secular program versus my experience of being a faithful person in a faith-based program.

Some difficulties Anthony finds being in a secular program:

1. It can be frustrating at times going to school with people who do not turn to faith in the counseling process (mentioning God and/or a Higher Power in counseling conversations seemed so foreign in the classroom environment).
2.  Anthony expected faith to be incorporated more into the classroom than it is. This became especially obvious when one of his professors discouraged prayer and talking about prayer with clients.

Some benefits Anthony finds in his program:
1.  Though faith is not prominently discussed, Anthony is encouraged by the informal discussions about faith among his classmates.
2.  In our conversations, Anthony has begun to discover more about the pastoral side of counseling. In his future practice, God will be the center of the therapeutic relationship between him and his clients.
3.  Anthony believes he is more aware of God’s presence in the counseling process because he has a growing awareness of the absense of faith discussions in classes.

Some of the benefits of a pastoral program for me:
1. I love that prayer is an integral part of the classroom discussion.
2.  Prayer has served as a vehicle to learn more about my classmates. Through conversation and prayer, I have been able to participate in their journeys.
3.  The faculty is committed to integrating spirituality and counseling.
4.  I am able to evaluate my progress not just as an academic student, but I am also able to reflect upon my spiritual growth.

I love Mother Teresa’s following words: “You can do what I can’t do. I can do what you can’t do. Together we can do something beautiful for God.” Anthony and I have discovered that the differences in our counseling programs have allowed us further reflection on the types of counselors we hope to be.  

When we share our different experiences and use our strengths and gifts to the fullest in whatever we pursue, we can “do something beautiful for God.”

When the Unthinkable Happens: A Loyola Student’s Amazing Recovery from an Ischemic Stroke

I could only imagine the thoughts that were invading his mind as he lowered himself to the bathroom floor and dialed 911.  My friend/classmate, who I will call Al to respect his privacy, was scheduled to graduate from Loyola University Maryland in four weeks, with a Masters of Science (“MS”) degree in pastoral counseling.  He had taken the National Counselor Examination (“NCE”) that morning, and was still in the building, when tragedy struck.  For the next two months, Al exchanged the classroom for the physical and occupational therapy rooms, as he relearned how to perform basic activities of daily living (“ADLs”), with the goal of regaining his independence. 

Al had suffered a stroke, specifically a right anterior cerebral artery ischemic stroke.  This stroke did not create facial distortions, nor did it affect his mind.  However, his left side was weak, and in addition to an inability to control the affected muscles and limbs, he experienced pain and intermittent muscle spasms.  What the stroke did not affect was his positive attitude and sense of purpose.  And as I read his daily posts on Facebook, and the e-mail updates from his wife, I developed an appreciation for his faith in God and his personal power.  I had no doubt that recovery would occur, and it would happen quickly.

The daily updates were, in essence, progress notes.  Each day offered a reason to celebrate, and on the rare occasion that a relapse occurred, getting back on track was almost immediate.  I knew Al was an active member of his church, and as I followed his progress, I recognized that his relationship with God played a more essential role in his recovery than I had originally imagined.  One evening during a visit, we discussed his faith and how it related to his current situation. 

Al’s faith is rooted in the sovereignty of God.  He is certain that God was responsible for his illness, and he supported his belief with the Biblical teaching that all of our days are written and established before one of them has happened.  Therefore, he accepted the stroke as a marker on the road he was destined to travel.  I suggested a comparison with Job where God allowed the devil to persecute him.  Al did not agree, simply stating “because Christ has ransomed us.”  He said that God’s purpose is to glorify his son, and that God is dedicated to transforming each believer into the image of Christ.  Al also hoped that his illness would benefit someone, and his stroke would not be wasted.  I assured him that he had inspired me, and if I ever were to become ill, I would find a positive role model in him.

After almost 5 weeks, Al transferred to Encore at Turf Valley  to complete his final phase of inpatient rehabilitation.  Encore is located across the street from his church, and he was able to attend Sunday service.  As I sat with him during his last evening at Encore, I wondered what, if anything, in our Pastoral Counseling program could have prepared him to negotiate his life-changing event with such a positive attitude.  Al had acknowledged earlier feelings of despondency, and his fear of being handicapped for the rest of his life.  However, his faith helped him to set aside those thoughts and focus on healing.  And as I looked into his eyes as he spoke, I understood that I had found my answer.  Al’s ability to use his faith to effect healing was pastoral.

Al is at home now, and after two months of being cared for by others, he is testing his independence.  On his first day at home, he posted:  “Today, I am at home.  I made a pot of coffee.  I had breakfast, cleaning up after myself.  I am using a walker around the house, trying to remember to go slowly and to stay safe. But, I’m smiling.”  Al’s sense of purpose, his personal strength, and his faith in God continue to be strong, and have helped him through difficult times.  He still has a way to go to complete his healing, but his prognosis is good.  As I look back on Al’s journey, I am proud to have been his classmate, and to call him my friend.

A Jesuit’s Journey: Maryland by way of Zambia and Lusaka

Excuse me, please” a voice called from the back. “What you are explaining, it is the one way ANOVA?” The voice came from an International student, Nicholas Penge. The class, Statistics and Research Methods.

Nicholas Penge

Nicholas Penge

Nicholas Penge is no stranger to education. His father, a teacher, first worked in the schools owned and operated by the Coppermines in Luanshya, Zambia.  At ten, Nick’s father moved the family north, as he changed his employment by working for the government as a teacher in the Primary school.

Nick loved learning. He admits that even from his earliest years, he also felt drawn to the priesthood. Thus he entered the minor seminary secondary school, and later joined the Franciscans. After two and a half years, though, Nick believed the fit not right and left.

Nick then enrolled in the University. But unrest and riots caused the government to shut it down, and again, he headed home. He could not help but wonder where his life-work lay. As he thought about this question, he found himself again attracted to service, and with the encouragement of his parish priest, he went to a “Come and See” hosted by the Jesuits in Lusaka.

“The ‘Come and See’ event really grabbed my heart,” Nick says now. He entered the congregation and was sent to Zimbabwe for his first studies. This time the fit felt right.

As Nick went through the various stages of his studies, he found that psychology interested him quite a bit.  When he went on to minister to various people, whether it was as an assistant in a parish, director of vocations, chaplain to prisoners or vulnerable mothers, he could see that he needed more when dealing with the cases brought before him. “I could see that the cases were not totally spiritual, but psychological as well,” he admits.

And so Nick began his search once again, this time for a program that would not only combine spirituality with psychology, but would offer him a Master of Science degree. He consulted with friends and colleagues, and found many who recommended Loyola University of Maryland’s Pastoral Counseling program. Nick applied and came to the United States in 2011.

As he finishes his first year, Nick says that this program is important to him. “Before, people came to me with problems that were psychological as well as spiritual. I felt my lack of psychological understanding did them a disservice.” Nick hopes he may continue on to the PhD program, but admits, that decision will be down the road.

Shamanic Revelations

When you hear the word “shaman,” what image pops up in your mind:

  • A short skinny guy wearing a grass skirt dancing dangerously close to a fire?
  • The dark hidden face of an ancient medicine man or woman chanting softly to the spirits?
  • Jesus? (Gasp! Yes, Jesus was a shaman . . . probably the best ever.)

In fact, the Society of Jesus and shamanism have common ways of being in the world. Before you stone me as a heathen, read on.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary has a woefully antiquated, inadequate, and unenlightened definition of a shaman: “a priest or priestess who uses magic for the purpose of curing the sick, divining the hidden, and controlling events.”

Yikes. Uses magic? Nope. According to the Foundation for Shamanic Studies:

“In a holistic approach to healing, the shaman uses the spiritual means at his or her disposal in cooperation with people in the community who have other techniques such as plant healing, massage, and bone setting. The shaman’s purpose is to help the patient get well.” (Shamanic Healing: We Are Not Alone).

Jesuits come from all walks of life. Shamans can be anyone and rarely use a title such as priest or priestess. I personally know of one shaman traipsing the halls and classrooms of Loyola University with the title “student.”

Like shamanism, Ignatian spirituality is incarnational – God is not “out there” somewhere; God is right here in ALL things: people, events, objects, elements, animals, insects, and the stars. Jesuits are “contemplative in action” and take their meditative and reflective way of being into the world to guide their actions. Shamans converse with the spirits of plants, animals, and divine beings and apply that guidance in life and administering to the sick.

A shaman does not “cure” anybody but instead provides the energy and knowledge that support healing just as a Jesuit might bring the presence of God through prayer to help people heal. Divining the hidden in shamanism is no more than providing something for a person to reflect on and respond to which is similar to pastoral counseling.

Although Jesus could control events, his primary interest was letting life unfold in accordance with God’s love, even when this resulted in his crucifixion. Almost 2,000 years later, today’s shaman will follow his lead and consult him as a spiritual teacher when it comes to life’s events.

Just ask me.