Spirituality & Psychology: How they help each other

One of the great beauties of the Catholic Church is the anthropology she professes and defends: the human person, made in the image and likeness of God, possesses an inherent dignity and infinite value. And further, that the human person is made up of both body and soul. We are physical and spiritual beings who also possess an intellect and will, have infinite desire, a deep need for relationship, and can feel many emotions. And this is always true, all the time!


While this robust anthropology serves as a north star in navigating our humanity, it does not mean that understanding ourselves is always so simple.


Fr. Robert Presutti, L.C., former director of the Spiritual Direction Certificate Program at Divine Mercy University, spoke on this question in a SDC webinar, “Spirituality and Psychology: How They Help Each Other.” Fr. Presutti specifically unpacked how the spiritual and psychological aspects of ourselves, though distinct, have a deep relationship. In fact, there are unique benefits of incorporating the psychological sciences into the study of spiritual direction.


Here are some highlights from his talk:


1. What is spirituality?


Fr. Presutti began with offering clear definitions for spirituality and psychology. He defined the spiritual with recalling St. Augustine’s famous line, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Fr Presutti described spirituality as our human need for an Ultimate Meaning, our “built-in” longing for the Transcendent, and our deep need for union with the Living God. This need is written in every human person. We desire something greater than


ourselves, something, rather, Someone, beyond our humanity. Fr. Presutti highlighted this restless desire for God and our search for Him as a fitting definition of spirituality. And within the Catholic Christian framework, spirituality is the encounter with the Triune God through Christ Jesus. It is a dynamic, ongoing conversion process in which one’s soul, with the help of grace, grows toward the Lord. As a result of this relationship, we grow in the virtues of faith, hope, and love.


2. What is psychology?


According to Fr. Presutti, psychology is a broad term that can mean many things: how does the human mind work? What is human development? Drawing from the ancients, early Christian writers, and important Christian thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas, we have a classical Christian psychology. Then, add to these the observational sciences and empirical method of modern thinkers, and we have a more systematic study of the human mind, emotions, and behavior, rooted in a Catholic anthropology. Fr. Presutti did warn, however, that while modern thinkers have contributed greatly to the study of psychology, one must make distinctions between the good science provided by moderns and the philosophical baggage they have often brought with it. Modern psychology provides statistical information


in helping identifying patterns of human behavior, but can carry with it a reductive view of the human person that does not acknowledge or plays down our being made for the transcendent.


3. The relationship between the two


That being said, it is important to acknowledge the ways in which spirituality and psychology can and are meant to complement one another. Fr. Presutti explained that St. John Paul II captured the essence of this complementarity when speaking to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota in 1995:


“Only a Christian anthropology, enriched by the contribution of indisputable scientific data, including that of modern psychology and psychiatry, can offer a complete and thus realistic vision of humans.” - Address to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, 10 Feb 1995


Fr. Presutti unpacked this further by comparing this complementarity to that of St. John Paul II’s explanation of the relationship between faith and reason in his encyclical, Fides et Ratio. In essence, faith and reason are both modes in which we come to know truth. In this case, spirituality and psychology are both modes in which we come to understand our humanity more deeply, a humanity with a telos, or God-given purpose.


4. How does this apply to spiritual direction?


With a proper understanding of this relationship, a spiritual director can have a better sense of human development, what is normal and what is not, and how we experience ourselves and relationships as a result. This can help a director understand more deeply what is going on in a directee’s life and the relational dynamic between the director and directee. More concretely, there are solid human relating skills which the human sciences have studied and developed that a director can bring into spiritual direction to make it more fruitful. For example, good listening skills and learning to help a directee slow down to become more aware of Lord’s voice in the depths of the heart are ways in which the human relating skills can help spiritual direction. As a result, spiritual direction becomes more of a deep listening to the directee and the way in which the Holy Spirit is working in his or her life drawing out their identity in Christ and their mission in life.


With the spiritual and psychological as both integral elements of our humanity, it is important to understand the ways in which they are distinct and yet beautifully complement one another.


To learn more, the Spiritual Direction Certification Program provides the knowledge, skills, and supervision for future spiritual directors.



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