Survivor friends of mine who have sought counseling over the years in their lifelong journey of recovery and healing from clergy abuse tell of how some therapists resist their attempts to grow spiritually on their own faith terms. One friend even told me of being “fired” by two of them! The intention may not be malicious, but it is indicative, I think, of a tendency in contemporary culture to see religion, or any reference to the non-material or transcendent, as unreal or even dangerous. This materialistic bias in a professional counselor can damage the well-being of a person who is seeking holistic development and deserves respect for their personal identity, including their religious beliefs.

Professed atheists like Bill Maher often opine with the secular suspicion of all things religious as stupid, unscientific or even signs of a neurological disorder. Religious faith, however, has helped countless survivors to find a path to true freedom by turning to the Lord as their center and source of security, indeed their own heart in the safe space of his heart. Salvation worthy of the term, after all, means freedom from the fear of being abandoned, abused and wounded again. Where else to find that than in the heart of Jesus?

Human relationships alone offer no guarantee that this solace and security can be counted on. Faith, to be clear, does not exempt one from the journey, the process of thought, reflection, analysis and conversion. It takes time and patience to embark on a path not always smoothly paved or without clear road signs. Like the two people on the road to Emmaus, we can accompany one another, in accord with our particular skills, talents and experiences, but it is the Lord who shows up to break bread with us and open up the word of life every day. He is our daily bread.

“I feel, therefore I am” seems to be the current standard of what makes life real. It also informs some therapy models and expectations. This is a logical step forward from the Cartesian “cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) foundation of much of modern philosophy. There is plenty of “ego” in each premise, but the focus on feelings alone rather than thinking does not, in the end, leave room for much discretion, choice or, for that matter, change.

René Descartes, who coined the Latin expression (originally in French, “je pense, donc je suis”), acknowledged that one doubts, that is, asks questions about what one can be certain. The very act of doubting, or questioning, signals that there is thinking and that I have a stake in that process which, if I think rationally, will help me arrive at some certainty. Descartes may not have himself been certain that a truth outside himself could be found, but he recognized that, whatever truth was, he was not there yet. No one starts in full possession of it. It is always a goal and not a matter of personal control.

If what I feel, on the other hand, is the true measure of what I am, the process of getting to reality is to turn inward. The more I can explore and identify my feelings, the better I will know my true self. For from this perspective, all truth is my truth. I am the one who determines what truth is. All the counselor does is help me to dig in and discover it. Sort of a shoveling companion. Without the waters of spiritual life, however, all that you may uncover is sand.

Experience shows that it is wise to be in touch with one’s feelings, to pay close attention to our emotional reactions and to understand what it is that triggers and shapes them. If we only follow what we feel, however, without discipline or the application of moral and prudential judgment, we may find ourselves in painful situations and, ultimately, confinement under the civil law or through social isolation. People who do only what they want rarely get what they want.

Owning our own feelings, understanding the events and patterns that have influenced them — genetic, biological, social and environmental — may all contribute to our total health and well-being. A hunger yawns, however, at the core of every human being, a longing in the heart that yearns to be satisfied by something outside the self, that cannot be found in oneself, no matter how hard or deep one digs. Whether that something — that someone — meets us in the depths or the heights, in the space within or the space beyond the bounds of the self, it is always another, the Other, who is the source and summit of that desire.

This Other is whom Christians called Lord, to whom searching, doubting Thomas, probing the holes in his body, bowed and addressed as “my Lord and my God.” If we descend into the vast hole in our hearts where there is nothing but ache, emptiness and darkness hoping to find the missing part, the lost cork to plug up the gaping wound, we will not find it in ourselves, no matter how much we analyze, reset or rehash. Our story without his story becomes stale and monotone. If we call HIM by name — “Lord Jesus, I trust in you!” — he will come to us and meet us in the breech, whether that is on the counselor’s proverbial couch, the bench in a quiet chapel, or the silence of our still space in a quiet corner of our home.

It is the Lord! The same Lord who met the woman at the well, inviting her to plunge deeply into the waters he longed to drink from, not just to quench the thirst that parched his throat at noon, but to fill his divine heart with the love in her heart that he long for. Five times she had squandered it, becoming misdirected, disoriented, twisted and tangled in the embrace of another faithless, faceless body without a true heart. In the heart of Jesus, she would no longer thirst, freed from digging that pit where she had only found sand.

In the turmoil and uncertainty that surrounds us in this winter, where every encounter seems to bear the risk of a viral contagion and no one is sure who is telling us the truth or what its price might be, the temptation to withdraw, to check in for a fix at an inviting speakeasy or some virtual watering hole in cyberspace — or just to check out — there is a sanctuary of calm and security. It is in the heart of Jesus.

Some readers may be aware that since last January I have suffered from the onset of a neuropathy which soon disabled my left hand. Showing no hoped-for improvement and as the window for medical intervention narrowed, surgery had been scheduled for Dec. 10. Days before it, however, I became aware of a slight improvement which since then, however slowly at first, seems to be picking up. For the first time in months, I am using all fingers of my left hand to type. Who knows? Maybe I will be able to play the piano again?

A friend pointed out to me that the timespan of my disability coincided with the year in Buffalo where I have been sharing time with the Diocese of Albany, which is drawing to a close as the new bishop is installed on Jan. 15, almost to the day the neuropathy started. Or, as the text read, “I had an image of you managing to pastor two NYS dioceses with ‘one hand behind your back’ because you were letting God handle the battles.”  I could not disagree. Any strength or asset or usefulness that I may have is not mine or mine to keep. I can only lay claim to my sins. The rest is God. I share this neither out of pride or humility, only the conviction that the Lord truly fills us with his grace, especially when we feel most empty, uncertain and in need of his light. I am so grateful. Join me in turning to him and trusting that he knows what he is doing and where he is leading us as his beloved Church — and with the confidence that he has chosen us to bear that light patiently and with compassion for all we encounter on this spiritual journey of ours together with him.

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