by Claudia Lopez

God created us with a mind, a body, and a spirit. When one gets physically sick, one visits the doctor. When one feels spiritually dry, one visits a priest. Yet, when we don’t feel well emotionally we don’t always know what to do or who to turn to.

What is therapy and how is it different from spiritual direction? Is it acceptable for Catholics to search for therapy? As a Catholic therapist, these are the questions that I hear people struggle with when looking into therapy.

Let’s start with some definitions: 

According to “therapy is a form of treatment aimed at relieving emotional distress and mental health problems.”

On the other hand, Spiritual Direction is a three-point encounter. An encounter between the Lord, the directee, and the spiritual director. This encounter intends to have the directee grow in their relationship with our Lord through prayer. 

Mind, Body, and Spirit 

As human beings, we live in a material world and at the same, we are always being intersected with the spiritual realm. We tend to see ourselves separate from our bodies, but God made us whole. Even with the sacraments, God gives us other tangential substances for us to receive His graces because he knows we are not just spiritual beings. God himself became incarnate in Jesus and he lived his humanity by growing in wisdom and also by experiencing his emotions. Jesus cried when his friend Lazarus died, celebrated with his friends at the wedding of Cana, and felt betrayed by his friends the day of his Passover. Jesus shows us that, to be human, is to be emotional. Yet when we have problems we tend to over-spiritualize them. I’m not stating that is not important to pray because it is- prayer is essential. However, sometimes we are called into action especially in regards to our mental health and our emotions. 

So how do we decide if we need to visit the priest or the counselor?

Spiritual direction is a great opportunity for us to grow closer to God. It is about addressing those spiritual blocks that prevent us from communicating with God. The spiritual director will help us with growing our spiritual life, which will, in turn, help us in our day-to-day life. The priest or the spiritual director may meet with the person weekly or on a monthly basis. Unfortunately, I also know that due to the high demands, not every priest has the ability to take on more than a few people for spiritual direction. Usually, when problems arise at home or within our lives that is the first place we turn to for support. However, it may be impossible for the priest or even the deacon to follow up on every need of the community. As much as their hearts are there to meet that desire, they are also only human with limited resources. 

I recently received a phone call from a Deacon in need of help on how to handle a situation where parents were getting divorced, and how that was affecting the kids. As we were talking about the situation, I was unsure of how much time he could have with the family. As I heard him speak, I thought about how important it was for the Deacon to develop a relationship with the child before they even began to discuss the situation. Again, due to limited resources, he may not be able to meet with the child and family on a weekly basis as much as he would want and needs to do so. So how did he proceed? He was able to provide pastoral support and yet felt it fell outside of his scope. This is a perfect example where the family was looking for spiritual direction, but in turn, probably needed counseling for support. 

Counseling is an opportunity to be able to talk about day-to-day things that affect our emotional well-being. Counselors will not give you spiritual direction because that is also outside of their scope. However, they can help with listening and with different interventions, provide safe spaces for conversations that point towards healing. When we feel emotionally well, we are able to grow spiritually. Both go hand in hand. We need both to really flourish as human beings on this path of holiness. Jesus is the ultimate healer, and He gives us the tools and resources to help us deal with the situations that we cannot deal with on our own.

Spiritual direction is a great place to start if I’m having problems with prayer or feel spiritually stuck. Counseling, on the other hand, is great if I have problems that are interceding with my day-to-day activities either at work, school, or in personal relationships. I have some people in my office that get the opportunity to do both and grow immensely. Therapy and spiritual direction may not be something I need all the time, but I do believe that when things get tough they provide a perfect place to start. Don’t be afraid of going out and reaching out. I know that many priests can refer to counselors if they see the need, either through confession or spiritual direction. I also know that I personally have referred my clients to get closer to God through confession and Holy Hours. There is nothing shameful about going to therapy. It is an opportunity to talk about what is going on in our lives and get a different outside perspective. If you are on the edge to take that leap, I want to invite you to take the jump. You have nothing to lose but an opportunity to grow and to get clearness in your being that can help you in return in your daily activities. 

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