The Catholic Psychotherapist and Religious Experience: Theory, Practice, and Witness by Deacon Ray Biersbach PhD
All the great religions begin with the religious experiences of their founders. Yet, for many, those experiences seem to have been long ago and far away. Still, others, however, report spiritual experiences as motivating them to change their lives for the better. Though religious experiences always convince the person, far too often, they convince no one else. For clients and therapists, religious experiences are a puzzle. They are brief, hard to put into words, convey information about spiritual realities, have a timeless quality, and often come to those who don't even seek them.
My book, The Catholic Psychotherapist and Religious Experience: Theory, Practice, and Witness, reviews what psychological and theologians have to say about those encounters. I used a question-and-answer format to offer solutions and attached accounts of his own experiences.
The book examined four questions.
Question #1: Why are religious experiences a fit study for psychotherapists? The answer to that is that all the great religions begin with the spiritual experiences of their founders. Further, many believers have found religious experiences meaningful despite the reality that many people respond to such accounts with skepticism. Because of such cynical reactions, the more organized a religion is, the more cautious it tends to be about the very spiritual experiences that invigorate religious practice. The book includes essential psychological contributors to the understanding of spiritual experiences. The psychological contributors include William James, Abraham Maslow, and a whole list of current social scientists who reflect on religious experiences. Further, the book also outlines Catholic authors who have contributed to understanding spiritual/religious experiences. The Catholic contributors include St. Teresa of Avila, St. John Newman, St. John Paul, and many others. Dr. Biersbach has provided a rich set of professional references to bolster the book's inferences and, for those interested, further reading suggestions to learn more.
Question #2: How do language and culture mediate religious experiences? The book examined the complex and powerful ways in which language and culture influence how people perceive and respond physically, mentally, and emotionally to religious experiences. Each of the psychological and religious authorities cited in the book have helped clarify our awareness and response to spiritual experiences.
Question #3: How can someone sort through and assess the many psychological and religious understandings of spiritual experiences? In the book I used Aristotle's philosophical categories to compare the many approaches to spiritual experiences. His categories asked what the plan, the purpose, the process, and the concrete expressions of religious experiences as understood by psychotherapist authors. I compared the scientific approaches to the unique perspective the Church offers to Catholics. The book especially focuses on the Church's careful doctrinal language and sacramental culture as powerful shaping and mediating factors for religious experiences.
Question #4: How can Catholic therapists integrate religious experience into their psychotherapy practice? I outlined two tactics. First, I invited psychotherapists to reflect on their own spiritual experiences. Second, I encouraged psychotherapists to work toward competency in working with clients' religious encounters. I also proposed two long-term strategies. First, I advocated for a Special Interest Group (SIG) within the Catholic Psychotherapy Association and, second, urged research into spiritual/religious encounters. By anchoring his assertions within both psychological and theological sources, Biersbach provides a rationale for Catholic psychotherapists' essential work of "hearing" spiritual/religious experiences from secular and Christian perspectives.
The examples of my spiritual/religious experiences in the many appendices include examples of: 1. "Words" from God and how to understand and evaluate them. 2. Model interactions with clients reporting spiritual experiences. 3. Stories of spiritual affliction healings. 4. Reports of God's help throughout his spiritual journey may echo your experiences as well. The effort to link Catholic psychotherapy and religious/spiritual experiences is crucial for clients who seek someone who can both provide empirically validated psychotherapy and Christian appreciation and understanding of their spiritual experiences.
Hopefully, the book will be a valuable tool for clients and therapists who find encounters with God confusing, motivating, or a little of both.
Deacon Ray Biersbach PhD