Unhealthy Images of God: When Truth becomes a toxin in the sacrament of Reconciliation

Reverend Scott P. Detisch, Ph.D.


Volume 27 Number One Spring 2006, PAGES 39-45

“Some falsehood mingles with all truth.”

— Longfellow, The Golden Legend

When dealing with people’s distorted notions of who God is and who God calls them to be, most pastoral ministers find that these distortions are based on some element of truth. Within every extreme claim about God or what God asks of us, there is some fragment of a rightful notion of God. This is nothing new; truth and distortion seem to be partnered in the broken human con­dition going all the way back to the Fall when the Tempter cleverly seduced Adam and Eve by twisting elements of truth to create entic­ing lies. For instance, it was true that if Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge their eyes would be opened and they would become like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:5). What the Tempter does not tell our primeval parents is that their choice to eat the fruit will open their eyes to alienation and shame and that their knowledge would not come in the form of serene omniscience but in the painful recognition of what their sinful choice had done.

The primal distortion of truth into falsehood has been the lega­cy of the broken human condition through the ages. Sometimes we deceive others with our distortions of truth; and sometimes we deceive or mislead ourselves. This article will show how the latter is particularly evidenced in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, especial­ly with penitents who come to the celebration with unhealthy images of God.


There is something genuinely divine and genuine­ly human in each sacramental encounter. What is divine is the total and gratuitous outpouring of all that God is for us in Christ: new life, empowerment, inti­mate presence, the capacity for servant-leadership, covenantal love, healing, and forgiveness. What is human is the readiness to receive from God the sacra­mental grace that makes our living more free and ful­filling and the world more noble. While the divine ele­ment is always complete, the human receptivity is always imperfect. Every believer is limited in his or her ability to open up to the full significance of the tremen­dous gift being received in a sacrament. There are times, however, when this human receptivity is so askew that the sacramental gift never becomes an effective experience. Such is the case with penitents who come to the Sacrament of Reconciliation with unhealthy notions of God that have become toxic.

These toxic notions can lie beneath the surface of what some confessors are trained or tempted to dismiss as simple faith or devout piety. Yet, to dismiss them this way is to fuel them and allow them to hold people’s inner spirit captive. Confessors need to begin to probe slowly and pastorally what lies within the disposition a penitent brings to the sacrament. They need to help penitents discern over time whether their manner of approaching the sacrament is truly helping to bring about what the sacrament is meant to do. It is not enough for the sacrament to help a penitent feel better or freer; the penitent must actually become more liber­ated and transformed.

In the one-to-one encounter in Rite I and Rite II of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, confessors need to listen for what is behind penitents’ patterns of expres­sion. These patterns will reveal dispositions that may harbor unhealthy and un-freeing images of God. For instance, some penitents may come to the sacrament in order to feel that they have been brought back into God’s good grace (a state of grace) and, thereby, have averted whatever punishment God may have meted out; that they have won back God’s love. Others may come to retrieve a sense of righteousness that comes from dutifully confessing their sins, receiving absolu­tion, and doing their penance. This somehow returns their inner lives to a safe feeling of homeostasis, if only for a little while. Then there are those penitents who come because they discover, as all people must, that they cannot by themselves become free of sinful or destructive habits nor the shame and guilt that accom­pany them. Unable at the time to cooperate in the deeper, interior work to get to the source of these habits, “confession” becomes the easier choice because it offers a quick fix of feeling some relief, at least until the next occasion of sin.

In all of the dispositions described above there is an operative image of God that has become unhealthy and perhaps even toxic. It is important for confessors and all pastoral ministers who deal with people’s inner lives to identify what people’s operative images of God are and what influence these images unconsciously exert on them.

Our images of God lie deeply ingrained within us. They are often learned early in life and are shaped by our most vivid experiences of family, self-definition, and religious mentoring as well as by the rituals and stories that have appealed to our religious imagination. From this cluster of influences emerges a patterned sense of who God is. This becomes a believer’s opera­tive image of God, i.e., one that often operates unexam­ined within that individual’s inner life.

This image of God is almost always linked to some truth about God that the believer was exposed to and particularly receptive to, e.g., God will judge the world in the end, God is perfect, God loves those who turn away from sin, God has a plan for us, etc. One’s opera­tive image becomes toxic when this element of truth about God becomes distorted, misapplied, or isolated from the fuller portrait of God provided by scripture, Church teaching, mature and maturing theological insight, and a healthy and balanced reflection on life experiences. When a truth about God becomes a toxic image, that image can deeply poison a person’s inner life and prevent the healing and liberation that God seeks to bring, especially through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In addition, because there is an ele­ment of truth within the image, pastoral ministers and confessors are often very reluctant to challenge it. However, the image’s toxicity increases when it goes unchallenged. Furthermore, its hold on a person’s inner life grows when it goes unnoticed and appears to be nothing more than an expression of simple faith or devout piety. Let us now examine how some operative images of God, rooted in some element of truth, become toxic obstructions to the deep grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.


It is important to note that not all penitents who exhibit rigidity or nervousness or who express help­lessness in the face of sinful elements in their lives nec­essarily operate out of a toxic image of God. These characteristics can be attributed to other factors in a person’s psyche or the circumstances in a person’s life, even healthy ones. In discerning toxic images of God, the confessor or pastoral minister is looking for a firm­ly held religious notion that is obstructing God’s recon­ciling grace from bringing joyful gratitude, a deep sense of being loved by God, openness to genuine transformation, the unfolding of that transformation, and a true sense of liberation within a person’s spirit. Several images create such an obstruction.

God Who Punishes

Scripture is filled with stories and images of God punishing wrongdoers. While most of the portrayals of a vengeful God arise out of the Old Testament, even the New Testament offers portraits of divine punish­ment. For instance, in Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking of eternal punishment for the “goats on the left” who fail to offer compassion toward the least ones (Matthew 25:41-46). In the Acts of the Apostles, Ananias and his wife Sapphira are struck dead for their deceit in withholding from the apostles a portion of the proceeds from the sale of their property (Acts 5:1-11). Thus, it would be very difficult for any religious imag­ination exposed to scripture to resist connecting God with punishment for wrongdoing.

THE TRUTH: God desires that all people choose what is good, noble, and just. This places them within the reign of God and furthers its growth on earth. To choose the opposite – to choose what is wrong, base, and unjust – is to move away from the reign of God. Since the ultimate harmony and intimacy of life are connected to God, then to make choices against what God is about moves one into experiences of disorder and alienation. These experiences may occur concrete­ly in what unfolds in a person’s life, or they may occur within a person as shame, guilt, unresolved anger, jeal­ousy, cripplingself-doubt, obtuseness, etc. These feel­ings may surface at a later time when an individual is more vulnerable to the forces of life. Hence, the truth is that there are negative consequences for our sins and they are connected to God, but God is not the adminis­trator of them. Instead, by our sinful choices we place ourselves at odds with the dynamics of the reign of God.

THE TOXIN: When the negative consequences of our sinful choices are seen as God’s vengeful response to what we have done, rather than as the natural result of our sinful responses to what God desires, then God is made into a deity whose wrath must be stilled and whose mercy must be won. God becomes the punish­ing menace who seeks out sinners to give them what they deserve for their wrongdoing. This is a very com­mon toxic image of God with which confessors and other pastoral ministers have to contend. Such an image does not admit God’s love and, therefore, does not open up to the transforming power of God’s love within a person’s spirit. The goal of “confession” for such a person is to keep a vengeful power at bay instead of to be drawn into the incredible embrace of a loving God. There is no healing that is truly transfor­mative, and there is no advance in spiritual maturity because even goodness becomes a matter of immature self-focus (“God will reward me for the good thing I have done”) and not a selfless offering to another.

Likewise, efforts at becoming a better person focus only on the surface of life (words, actions, thoughts) that would keep one in God’s good grace. Here we see a person responding out of a fear of a harsh God, which closes off the human spirit—the precise place where the true effects of the Sacrament of Reconciliation take place. It is in the depths of the human spirit that the intimate experience of God’s love can captivate indi­viduals in such a way that their hearts, minds, and wills are brought to a more self-emptying (and, therefore, a more Christian) level of motivation, insight, and desire. Only in the depths of the human spirit can love respond to Love.

God Who Expects Perfection

It is hard not to wince within ourselves when we hear Jesus say in the gospel, “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Perfection is an ever-elusive goal, an unattainable ambition. Yet all Christian believers recognize that at the core of our religious principles is a call to become better persons— to be more than who we are right now.

THE TRUTH: The message and ministry of Christ never allow us to sink into complacency about how we are living our lives. There is always some further dimension of the gospel that we need to embrace and live out. Our lives are always in the process of becom­ing more and more like Christ. This is the process of perfection as holiness. Since it is a process, perfection is never an acquired state at any point in a person’s life. Furthermore, as a process it will go through periods of growth and regress since it is dependent on our flawed human dispositions. Human beings, while saved by Christ and constantly graced by God, remain flawed until the moment of eternal union with God. Yet God continues to embrace us throughout the process; oth­erwise the process of becoming holy could never con­tinue since it is never solely the result of human effort. It is always the graced means by which God draws us into the wholeness of life in the reign of God—a life of being undivided in our devotion to God and in our commitment to God’s people. This is what Jesus intends in his command to be perfect.

THE TOXIN: When Jesus’ command of perfection is translated by Christians into an admonition to be flawless and completely sinless, then another toxic image of God is created—God the Perfectionist. In this operative religious image, God is approachable in the Sacrament of Reconciliation only by way of perfect contrition for one’s sins, a precise and complete accounting of one’s life, and a firm resolve never to sin again. Many penitents with such an operative image of God give the impression that they are going to achieve some form of religious perfection by the sheer force of their human will and determination. Since, of course, this will never happen, one result is an increased rigid­ity in how they try to live their lives until they get it right and in going to confession and doing penance, which achieve at least a momentary feeling of perfec­tion. Another result is an emotional or spiritual col­lapse because they cannot sustain the energy of a will determined to achieve perfection. Furthermore, seeing God as the Perfectionist never allows penitents to rec­ognize how loved and loveable they are to God (and others) in their imperfection. This keeps a penitent’s spirit unfree and unable to explore the underlying fac­tors of sin, since, to the penitent, examining imperfec­tion has no point. Finally, such an image can result in a spiritual ennui because penitents do not allow them­selves to experience God’s companionship in their imperfect state; for them connection with God is achieved only in the state of perfection. This makes God a deity who beckons us to something more (some­thing unattainable without God) but who is not a help along the way – a rather cruel conception of God, if you think about it.

God Who Dispenses Love

To be loved by God is a cherished dimension of religious experience. “God is love, “ St. John tells us, “and those who abide in love abide in God” (1 John 4:16). Somehow, therefore, our experience of God’s love is connected to how we love and how we choose to live our lives.

THE TRUTH: Simply put, God’s love is unearned, undeserved, and unconditional. This is the very nature of God’s grace, which is always a pure gift from the heart of God. This does not mean that we human beings, who are the recipients of this gift, can choose to live our lives any way we want simply because the gift will always be offered. A loving gift offered still needs to be well received. Our own choices for love, our own desire to do what is right and good, and our own efforts to live the message of Christ open our spirits more fully and effectively to receive the love that God always offers.

THE TOXIN: When people equate the dynamics of God’s love with how human love often operates (it is conditional and must be reciprocated in order to con­tinue), then a toxic image of God develops—God whose love must be earned and can be lost. This image can often be very subtle since it appeals to the human sense of justice (as does the toxic notion of God’s pun­ishment), in that people should get what they deserve. Therefore, persons who sin and live selfish lives are not deserving of God’s love. Penitents who operate out of this belief render the Sacrament of Reconciliation the means by which God’s love is earned again. Like the penitents who see God as punishing wrongdoers, per­sons with this operative notion of God see themselves as repeatedly moving in and out of God’s grace because they lose God’s love when they sin, only to regain it by contrition, confession, absolution, and penance. The sacrament is easily reduced to a transaction in which they pay the price for their sins, earn God’s love again, and begin to live in a state of grace for at least a little while—until their next sin. This mentality becomes increasingly toxic because it prevents penitents from asking the more difficult but healing questions about what lies behind their sinful patterns. There is little motivation for deep conversion and transformation because all that matters is regaining the state of grace they desire. These penitents do not experience them­selves as always being held in God’s love—the only true starting point for deep conversion and transformation.

God Who Controls Our Lives

As the Creator of the universe and each of our lives, God is the all-powerful One who has a providential

plan for us. The Judeo-Christian tradition has always believed that the Creator is involved in the unfolding of that plan within human history and in the personal histories of each human being.

THE TRUTH: God does have a plan for all of us; it is the desire that all of creation be drawn into the reign of God. This is why Jesus Christ was sent into the world: “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Christ is the complete and definitive moment of God engaging in human history. Yet God does not manipulate events in order to accomplish God’s plan. This would violate the very design of the One who endowed creation and human will with freedom. God, however, is not an idle spectator either. On the contrary, the Spirit of God is always present and active in creation drawing every moment of human history and every human life into redemptive contact with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Nevertheless, the efforts of the Spirit can always be resisted or rejected by free human beings.

THE TOXIN: When people interpret God’s providence and involvement in human life as controlling the

events of their personal histories, then they abdicate accountability for their own lives and make God a cunning manipulator who does things to them for their own good. Penitents with such a toxic image of God will say things like: “God must have a reason for this happening in my life;” “God must want me to feel this way for a reason;” “God must not think I am ready yet for things to change; there must be something I still have to learn.” This kind of thinking can lead to the perpetuation of abusive relationships, self-destructive patterns, depression or misery, estranged relationships, and the lack of true insight into what leads a person into painful or sinful experiences. Furthermore, it is almost always impossible to fall in love with a God who controls your life. Instead of love, what develops is an

experience of spiritual slavery in which penitents seek to be more submissive to God’s hidden plan and thereby become less responsible for their lives. The Sacrament of Reconciliation becomes the ritual

expression of this submission. It also provides penitents       with an opportunity to discover from the confessor more of what God’s plan is so that the penitents are in accord with it. But the penitents do not allow for interior reflection that could bring enlightenment about their union with Christ in the difficult and painful moments of their lives; there is no gaining of inner wisdom and strength that comes from the Spirit stirring within their life experiences; and, ultimately, there is no healing and freedom that the grace of the sacrament offers. Their lives become only a matter of changing what they are doing, feeling, or thinking in order to meet what they think God is demanding.


Although our images of God lie deeply ingrained within us, they are not beyond the reach of God’s healing grace offered in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. However, reshaping people’s images of God is not an easy or quick process. It will not happen in one sacramental encounter, one homily, a few adult education classes or faith-sharing sessions, nor one spiritual direction appointment. Slowly, over time, through all of the means just mentioned and more, people need to be coaxed into examining their concepts of God in light of the God revealed in the healing ministry of Jesus Christ, his incredible stories of forgiveness, and his outpouring of love on the cross. Reshaping a person’s image of God is not the sole responsibility of confessors. Catechists, chaplains, pastoral ministers, and spiritual directors all need to participate and contribute to it. What are some things they can do? The following are some suggestions.

1. All who pastorally minister to people need to examine their own operative notions of God and the manner in which they speak about God. They need to discern if even inadvertently they contribute to mistaken notions of God by what they preach, teach, or share from their own spiritual journey or theological convictions. Do they unintentionally reinforce any of the concepts of God mentioned above?

2. All who are in pastoral ministry need to imbue their faith communities with vivid “presentations” of God as Unconditional Love. These presentations can take many forms: the imagery used in prayers offered in liturgy and at parish meetings; spiritual reading made available to parishioners; personal testimonies of powerful experiences of God’s love, even in the midst of one’s sinfulness (this is especially important in the RCIA); frank discussions about how toxic images of God do not resonate with the God of Jesus Christ; and, finally, the promotion of genuine hospitality and authentic reconciliation within the faith community as a whole. Also, pastoral leaders need to be careful about whom they invite to offer parish missions or give parish retreats, especially when they include an evening for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Sometimes these speakers, in their zeal to draw people to the sacrament, are not careful in examining the “fallout” of their presentations, which could actually fuel the toxicity of people’s approach to the sacrament.

3. At some point, people’s toxic images need to be exposed for what they are, but in a pastorally sensitive and effective manner, usually in a series of one-to-one encounters. Keep in mind, however, that people with such images of God will not be “converted” simply by rational, theological argument. Their images come from some deeply affective dimension of the inner life for which they will need help in peeling away the layers. Therefore, a faith community needs to promote and make available different pportunities for spiritual direction, both long and short term. In addition, there should be supportive referrals to counselors and therapists when the affective dimension of people’s toxic images is particularly powerful, severe, and unyielding.

4. While the affective dimension of the inner life needs to be attended to, so too does the rational dimension. For this reason, faith communities need to offer quality educational opportunities on important topics that connect with people’s operative images of God. These topics could include Jesus’ teachings and parables on forgiveness, the history and theology of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the writings of spiritual mystics who wrote of deep experiences of God’s love, and the psychology of faith formation and moral development. It would be important that discussion and not merely presentation happen during these educational opportunities.

5. Any transforming process needs communal support. This is why it is important for pastoral leaders to provide opportunities for faith-sharing groups. In faith sharing, individuals are exposed to others’ images of God, which, in turn, can provide gentle but effective challenge and corrective to their own notions. However, for this to happen, the facilitators of the groups would have to have some training in group dynamics (otherwise the groups will fail) as well as in spotting toxic images of God and making referrals. Moreover, the leaders themselves ought to exhibit healthier, more theologically accurate ideas of who God is, what God calls us to, and how God can be approached in prayer and sacrament.

6. In the actual celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, confessors and homilists (for communal celebrations) must make it clear that God’s forgiveness is the starting point and not merely a result. They need to convey that God’s forgiveness, since it is pure gift, is assured and already poured out to the penitents. It is from this assurance that the healing and transformation that penitents seek can begin to unfold since, no matter what needs to be explored in their lives, it will always be done in the context of God already and always loving the penitents. This is why the goal of the sacrament is not the forgiveness of God, which has already been offered, but the healing, conversion, and reconciliation that God’s forgiveness can bring about in us.

7. We need to hold in the embrace of our prayers those who cannot experience being embraced by God’s love because of their toxic notions of God and themselves. All pastoral ministers need to recognize that their own prayer lives might be the only conduit by which God’s abundant mercy and compassion will reach those who are unable to open up effectively to such gifts in the Sacrament of Reconciliation or other

ministerial means. If we truly believe in the efficacy of prayer, then this final recommendation needs to be both the first step and the final resort in all attempts to help heal people of their toxic images of God. The inner life is a powerful arena of God’s grace, where mercy, forgiveness, and love are lavishly given. But it can also be a cauldron of resistance to what God offers, especially in those who harbor toxic images of who God is and how God acts in their lives. St. Paul admonishes the faithful “not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1). Therein lies the task of all who minister to the inner life of others, especially within and around the Sacrament of Reconciliation: to help people receive well what God offers in grace. Often this ministry needs to assist individuals in discerning whether their own operative image of God is based on a theological truth that has become a toxin. By exposing the toxin and leading believers into a more balanced experience of the truth of who God is, confessors, spiritual directors, and other pastoral ministers can do much in readying a person for the healing and transformation that the grace of Reconciliation offers.


Aschenbrenner, G. “The Inner Journey of Forgiveness,” in Human Development 10 (Fall, 1989): 15-23.

Barry, W. A. “Changing the ‘Default’ Image of God,” Human Development 26 (Spring, 2005), 28-33.

Cavanagh, M. “The Perception of God in Pastoral Counseling,” in Pastoral Psychology 41 (1992): 75-80.

Kennedy, R., ed. Reconciling Embrace: Foundations for the Future of Sacramental Reconciliation. Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1998.

Upton, J. A Time for Embracing: Reclaiming Reconciliation. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999.


Valerie Schultz


Volume 29 Number Two Summer 2008, PAGES 20-23


“I trust in the mercy of God forever”-Psalm 52:8

“I think about the guy whose life I took. Because of my action, he will never be a father. I think about his wife. Did she ever find somebody else? She was young, but still. Does she sleep alone every night? Is she scared? Does she have money problems? And I finally get what they mean when they ask me at my parole hearings if I have ‘insight’ into my crime. I have insight, you know what I mean?”- “J”, CDCR inmate

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.”-Alexander Pope

To be forgiven is a deeply-ingrained human need: in the “Our Father”, forgiveness is mentioned just after “daily bread.” Perhaps forgiveness is bread for the soul. When we pray the “Our Father,” we ask God to forgive us in exactly the same vein that we forgive others, which, for most of us, is a pretty risky thing to ask. I still haven’t quite forgiven my brother for boycotting my sister’s wedding. I haven’t forgiven the two guys who robbed my daughter at gunpoint. I have barely forgiven my husband for telling me that my new haircut looked “mature.”

I am in big trouble if God is going to forgive me my sins the way I forgive others, which is why I prefer to pray for God’s mercy and compassion. For us flawed humans, mercy and com­passion are important steps on the path to forgiveness: we must embrace the power that comes from the seem­ingly meek act of “turning the other cheek.” We need to practice letting go. A further step is to lose our fear of empathy. When we empathize, we find more forgiv­able the things we can imagine ourselves doing. We’ve all had bad days when we’ve done something foolish in traffic because we aren’t paying attention to our sur­roundings. We know what it’s like to be overburdened, overstressed, overtired, overwhelmed, and so we can summon some understanding when we see these short­comings manifested in others. But we have not all committed murder. Murderers, we agree, commit unforgivable acts: a life taken cannot be given back. We can perhaps picture ourselves in certain specific instances of life-taking: we can understand a drunk driver, whose crime arises from muddled judgment, better than a suicide bomber, whose crime arises from misguided zeal. But the murderers I know, and with whom I have become close, are the most unforgiven people I have ever met.


Not that all of the inmates who attend the Criminals and Gangmembers Anonymous (CGA) meet­ings on Level Two at the state prison where I volunteer are murderers. Some are drug dealers or embezzlers, spouse abusers or chronic thieves. To be honest, I don’t ask. As a volunteer with the Catholic chaplain, I don’t have access to their permanent records, and I don’t really want to know. I am only there as a fellow believ­er, to share the faith journey within the structure of a 12-Step program. The inmates are there, of course, as criminals and gang members who want to begin with Step One, to recognize that their lives have become unmanageable, and so there are no protestations of innocence or of having been framed. But concerning the details of their specific criminal activities, I only know what is freely offered during the meetings: crime and shame and a prevailing acceptance that what they have done cannot possibly be forgiven.

Forgiveness for their crimes, after all, is out of their hands. The people who can forgive them, their victims or the families of victims, often attend the inmates’ parole hearings to make sure that the crime is neither forgotten nor forgiven. And who can blame them? To forgive the most grievous harm of the violent death of a son or a daughter, a husband or a wife, seems impos­sibly superhuman, which is to say, divine. We humans are not capable of such forgiveness, and so we should not even be asked.

Except that’s exactly what God asks of us.

Most inmates neither expect nor even dream of being forgiven by the victims of their crimes, or by their own family members whom they have let down or hurt. To be forgiven by another is out of one’s control, and possibly pie in the sky, which is why, in our meet­ings, we focus on forgiving ourselves, and on forgiving those wrongs that have been done to us.

And Lordy, have some of these men been harmed. From inmates I have heard the most heartstopping sto­ries of bad and neglectful parenting, the most horrific tales of brutality by authorities, that I have ever imag­ined. Some of these men have been so physically, emo­tionally, spiritually, and psychologically abused that it has long been an act of bravery just to get up in the morning. These stories, oddly enough, are usually offered not as excuses for criminal behavior, but under the broad category of “Things That Suck.” An absent father, a drug-addicted mother, a fist-happy cop: they just suck, man. It is a moment of shining grace to watch a person realize that these are actually terrible injus­tices done to him that he has the power to forgive. To realize that the Things That Suck can be forgiven and must be forgiven if one is to move forward in the quest to change. And that bestowing forgiveness is liberating, invigorating, and life-altering: true grace from a stead­fast God.


Forgiving themselves is much harder.

I once heard Sister Helen Prejean speak about how we rationalize our inclination to classify inmates as less-than-human, which then makes it okay to deprive them of their human dignity. Imagine, she said, the worst thing you have ever done in your life. Call to mind the thing you did whose memory makes you the most ashamed, embarrassed, or regretful. Hold it in your mind, even though you’d rather not. Now imagine that that thing is the only definition the world accepts or understands of who you are. Nothing else about you is known or matters one bit. That, she said, is often what it is like to be a convicted criminal in our socie­ty. There are no second chances for you in people’s minds, no mitigating circumstances, no pity, and some­times no true justice. You remain unforgiven.

So imagine, further, that your permanent record of the wrongs you have done to others over the years accompanies you everywhere you go: the time you cheated on a geography test in fifth grade, the time you stole a magazine because it had a picture of a hot movie star that you wanted, the time you told everyone it was Elliott who spilled the beans about who pulled the fire alarm—not you—and labeled Elliott as a snitch forever, the time you didn’t pick up the phone even though you knew it was your mother, the time you “forgot” to declare some extra income on your federal tax return; all the times you hurt feelings or broke rules or behaved badly. You know you are more than the sum of these things, that you are not the same person who did those things, that you have learned many lessons from many mistakes, but society insists on defining you by your permanent record. Even worse, the kid whose test you copied, the store owner you stole from, Elliott himself, the IRS auditor, even your own mother, show up peri­odically to testify to your badness, to make sure that people you’ve met since those times know exactly what you’ve done and also condemn you for all of it.

Talk about Things That Suck. Just the imagining leaves me breathless.

Many convicts have been conditioned to think of themselves as chronically unforgivable, by their victims, by their families, by their society. They think of being unforgiven as sort of their natural state. Some of them are convinced that the things they have done are so wrong that not even God could forgive them. The ghosts of their victims sometimes seem to be sitting next to them during our meetings, their hands folded, their breath stilled. So the men don’t really see the point of forgiving themselves. It reeks of a self-indul­gent, Oprah-like, empty ritual that has no application to them. They are bad. “Nothing good ever come of my life, you know what I’m saying?” a young man asked me recently. I knew it was a rhetorical question, since it punctuated every single one of his sentences, but I thought, “No. No, I don’t know what you’re saying, because in spite of your defeated expectations, there is ‘good come of your life.’ Despite your self-image, there is good in you.”


We cannot truly love those whom we cannot forgive, and that includes ourselves. Loving ourselves is another of those touchy-feely concepts, but if we fail to love and forgive ourselves, we fail everyone else in our lives. We have to start at home, from scratch, at rock bottom: Do I love myself? Can I love myself? Am I capable of forgiv­ing myself? Where do I begin? Am I just trippin’?

In our CGA meetings, a good place to start turned out to be the parable of the Prodigal Son. In a roomful of prodigal sons, men whose judgmental older siblings had written them off, but whose mothers often still wrote letters or came to visit, the story of the boy who squan­dered his inheritance and ended up glad to have work in a pig sty really resonated. The boy who did everything wrong, whose behavior was shameful and scandalous, was a sort of Everyman for this audience. But the boy in the story then took the unbelievable chance of opening himself up to his father’s wrath and judgment. He returned home. He figured he had little to lose. He did­n’t expect to be forgiven or welcomed back into the fam­ily; he merely requested a shot at a job. His father, of course, celebrated his return with feasting and an out­pouring of love. In his total vulnerability, the boy was able to accept the blanket of forgiveness in which his father wrapped him. He would still face the judgment of others, particularly in the eyes of his older brother, but his father forgave him without question, because his repentance was real, was from his heart. And in his repentance, he found the grace to forgive himself.

Yes. It can be done.

When we forgive ourselves for wrongs that we own, a small miracle happens. We learn how to pass on for­giveness to those who have wronged us. Because we have been there, we empathize with those who need our forgiveness. And we recognize that there is tremendous grace on both sides of the act of forgiveness. We are free to move to the next level of righting wrongs, which is restitution (and another topic for another time). As for­giveness becomes easier, it also seems as essential as breath, as water, as bread, to life. It’s just that some of us have to go to prison to learn this. To get this.


In truth, there remain mountains to climb for CGA members who are not lifers, and who will eventually be returned to their former lives. The radical changes of heart brought about in prison are not easily maintained on the outside. I thought of this recently when I was lis­tening to a reading from the book of Ezra at daily Mass.

“O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. . . . And now, our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments . . .” prayed Ezra, at the end of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews (Ezra 9:6,10). Ezra needed to say nothing after this, for the God of steadfast love had already returned the Jews to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and to begin a new life as the holy people of God. There was one small requirement of the men of Israel, however: in order to return to the roots of their faith, they needed to leave their foreign wives and their children behind. The book of Ezra ends with a long list of the names of those men who sent away their families, in obedience to a seemingly harsh God.

Many inmates can relate to this story. Often, in the quest to begin anew on the outside, they must in effect exile themselves from the world they know. The familiar neighborhoods, habits, friends, and even family mem­bers they left behind when they went to prison are sometimes major contributors to the reasons why they went to prison in the first place. The people and places they know are toxic to the new life they would like to lead. Many inmates become quite fearful as their release date approaches, because they doubt their own power to stick by the changes they have made while in prison. As miserable as life behind bars can be, its regimentation and restrictions can make the straight and narrow path seem like a cakewalk compared to the hazards, tempta­tions, and self-doubt waiting on the outside. The CGA program treats crime as an addiction. The old patterns and rationalizations need to be examined, understood, and discarded. Much like a recovering alcoholic would be smart to stay away from bars, a recovering criminal needs to break away from the lure of potential criminal acts. Which is sometimes the only environment crimi­nals have ever known, and the one in which they will be promptly deposited upon their release from prison. Much like the Israelites at the time of Ezra, the inmate endeavoring to begin anew must place his will in the hands of a loving, yet exacting God.

In order not to become a disheartening statistic of recidivism, he will also need his understanding of for­giveness not to desert him in times of stress or trouble. He will need to cling to his sense of himself as a forgiv­en person, as a beloved child of God. He will need to walk in a new direction, as well as to continue working his steps with a sponsor he trusts. He will need prayer, his own and ours, always.

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we pray, often by rote, but then we must behave in a way that makes that prayer meaning­ful. We must actually forgive those who trespass against us, and ask forgiveness of those whom we have hurt, if the “Our Father” is to make any sense at all. We must believe, deeply and passionately, in a God who for­gives. We must trust in a God who extends the possibil­ity of redemption to everyone, no matter how long his rap sheet, no matter how unforgivable his crime, no matter how unreachable his heart. To a God who is love, not one of us is unlovable.

The unconscious, the shadow: the abandoned self and the integration of the personality

In her classic work The interior castle St. Theresa of Avila images the soul as a mansion with many rooms and suggests that spiritual growth involves the ability to move freely from one room to another without inhibition. There is one room in which we should always live, the room of self-knowledge. For her self-knowledge is sine qua non of holiness because it leads to humility.

“ Self-knowledge is the traditional term for coming into consciousness of the dark side of one’s personality.” Thomas Keating .

Carl Jung who explored the depths of the psyche discovered that self-knowledge is so important to the health of the soul that it should be considered a religious undertaking. In his psychology, getting to know the shadow, “ the thing a person has no wish to be,” is a way of redeeming all the rejected and lost parts of the soul.

He also speaks of the self which is the archetype of unity of the personality: it emerges around mid-life when the negatives and contradictions of the personality are integrated into one’s life.


Jung used the term Shadow to describe the part of our personality that we repress because it conflicts with the way we wish to see ourselves. If aspects of ourselves like sexuality, anger, ambition, or creativity, do not fit our desired self-image, they will be relegated to the shadow. Shadow is the inferior sub-personality that has its own life, with goals and values that contradict those we consciously hold. Some say, “the brighter the persona, the darker the shadow”. The shadow is the dark counterpart of the persona.

The more we identify with an overly good or righteous persona, the darker will be our shadow. When there is a big gap between our “wishful” image and our true self, we will be constantly troubled by anxiety because we fear that others will see through us.

The shadow is often seen as “ bad” but need not be. Jung saw it as a treasure hidden in a field, a potential source of richness that is unavailable as long as it is buried. It is “that which we have no wish to be, because it contains that which will make us whole.”

Sometimes when the shadow manifests in us, we get surprised and ask, “ is it I?”   “How is it possible?” to confront the shadow means to take a mercilessly critical attitude towards one’s own nature. And that is why often we project our shadow or darks side upon others and blame others.

How the shadow is formed:

The poet – philosopher Robert Bly gives a personal account of how the shadow develops:

            When we were one or two years old, we had what we might visualize as a 360 – degree personality. Energy radiated out form all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche. A child running is a living globe of energy. We had a ball of energy all right; but one day when noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. They said things like, “ Can’t you be still?   Or “ It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.” Behind us we have an invisible bad and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, in order to keep our parent’s love put in the bag. By the time we go to school our bag is quite large. Then our teachers say, “ good children don’t get angry over such little things. We put anger in that bag.. By the time my brother and I were twelve we were known in our neighborhood as “the nice Bly boys” Our bags were already a mile long..

            This bag continues to be stuffed as we accommodate to different environments….. College, office, religious life…The result is that by the time one reaches midlife one ends up with only a slice of the 360 – degree personality that we began with. And then we spend the rest of our lives

reclaiming what is in the bag.

            Carl Rogers speaks of receiving conditional positive regard which leads to accumulating “conditions of worth.”

Freud and the Unconscious:

Though Jung speaks of the Shadow, he builds on Freud who showed us the importance of the Unconscious. Freud said that what we are conscious of in our personality is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of our personality is unconscious, not known to us but affects our conscious life all the time.

That is why we don’t understand why we react the way we do at times.

Examples of unexplainable behavior:

We have sympathies which we cannot explain. We have special attractions to some people which we cannot account for.

            We have antipathies which we cannot explain either. E.g. transferences…

            We notice exaggerated reactions which cannot be explained or understood in terms of the stimulus at hand. Reactions in chapters and in discussions which are out of all proportion to the issue at hand….

In other words, there are layers of our personality or psyche which we are not aware of and yet they influence our behavior.

Freud divided the mind into three or basically three layers.

1. The conscious mind: is what we are aware of immediately, just now. For example our present thoughts, feelings, perceptions.

            e.g. I am driving a car and I know I am in a car, on the road and driving and not dreaming.

            I am listening to music and I am aware of the sound, and of my act of listening. There can be levels of awareness, however.

2. The Preconscious:

            a. Where recent past has been stored

            b. Memories which can be recalled to awareness by voluntary effort of the mind

                        such as reflection, meditation, introspection, examination of conscience

            c. Dates of anniversaries, birthdays, multiplication tables.

3. The Unconscious: those contents of the mind which we are not aware of, cannot become aware of unless through special help .

            This is the BASEMENT of the mind.

According to Assagoli there are two parts in the unconscious:

            1. The higher unconscious: refers to the untapped potential buried here, not utilized potentialities, and psychic energies, because the person is not convinced one has them, or is afraid of using or are not mature enough to become conscious.

            2. The lower unconscious contains:

a) Our drives and urges, jealousies and unacceptable impulses, passions which are buried;   tensions not yet released trying to get relief.

b) Repressed memories, especially of childhood. Repressed because not acceptable.

      • traumas of childhood, sexual traumas
      • early training experiences
      • unfinished business of childhood.

                        c) Conflictual material …. Not acceptable to self.

      • sexual, aggressive impulses
      • inferiority feelings
      • jealousies

The unconscious is not known directly.

It is known indirectly, through its effects:

Symptomatic acts such as slip of the tongue, bungled actions; Hypnosis; Multiple personality; Subliminal perception; Dreams

Freud says:

Conscious is only a fraction of the mind, tip of the ice-berg. 90% of our mind is unconscious. Think of the time we sleep, the time in childhood, time when we are really aware of what we do is limited.

Note: the unconscious is very active. It is not static. It is dynamic. It influences our present thoughts and feelings and actions without we being aware of it.

What is stored is BURIED ALIVE.

The unconscious influences us without we being aware of it.

Laws of the unconscious:


1. The unconscious is exempt from contradiction.

            Contradictory elements co-exist without discord in the unconscious because they are independent, though they create conflict in the conscious areas.

            Same thing can be black and white!!

e.g. Love and hate, pardon and revenge, inferiority and superiority, humility and exhibitionism can co-exist in the same person in the unconscious without nullifying each other.


a. The objective meaning of an action need not correspond to the subjective  meaning to the person on an unconscious level.

E.g.,the sexual act can be an act of self-giving on the conscious level but aggression on the unconscious level; service can be a need to be loved and a need for domination.

b. Behavior can express simultaneously opposite and contradictory tendencies.

e.g choose religious life to serve God and to come up in life or study;

            mixed motivations are very common.

c. Behavior that is mature in itself can have immature meanings too.

   Thus prayer can also be a means to defend against guilt.

2. The unconscious is timeless

the unconscious elements are neither arranged in time nor are altered in the course of time.

    • They exist independently of external reality.
    • Life-long experiences may not affect childhood feelings
    • Even though one has a PhD or is 70 years old, early experiences still determine one’s responses without any influence of age or learning.

3.The unconscious does not take into account reality but influences reality.

          The unconscious affects reality and not vice versa.

4. The unconscious has a dynamic force which preserves itself.

It resists self-examination.

E.g. Resistance in therapy :comes to be healed but resists change.

Freud also adds other laws: not fully accepted by others.

1. The unconscious is guided by the pleasure principle : immediate gratification.

2. In the unconscious there is no negation, doubt or uncertainty

3. Energy of the unconscious idea rotates freely and can associate by chance with other unconscious ideas: displacement, condensation in dreams.

For an integrated spirituality it is important to become aware of our hidden motives or mixed motives for our actions.

What looks like charity may actually be self-seeking, or love hiding hatred.

Wilkie Au says: “ the journey toward wholeness necessitates getting to know our shadow and confronting our unknown motivations and attitudes. Because this requires going deeper into ourselves, images of descent rather than ascent seem more descriptive of this aspect of the spiritual journey. Thus terms such as “ going deeper,” “ soul-searching” and “uncovering” more closely capture what the spiritual journey involves.

In his ongoing polemic against the traditions of the Pharisees, Jesus consistently insists on the need to go beyond mere reliance on externals and superficial observations of the Law. In order to grow spiritually we must go below the surface of neat appearance and proper behavior and examine our hearts, “ for it is from within, from the heart, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride folly. All these things come from within and make a person unclean.

( Mk 7:21-22).

Recognizing the importance of self-knowledge and inner work for spiritual growth, Cistercian abbot Thomas Keating reaffirms the wisdom of depth psychology: “ The heart of Christian ascesis is the struggle with our unconscious motivations. If we do not recognize and confront the hidden influences of the emotional programs for happiness, the false self will adjust to any new situation in a short time and nothing is really changed.” ( Wilkie Au).This means that if we are serious about growing spiritually, we will have to deal with our shadow, something we initially resist because it goes against the grain.

How can be become more aware of the unconscious? It is not easy.

Some suggested methods:

1. Keeping a journal – a record of our thoughts and reflections on events : one may see a thread.

2. Guided affective imagery, guided day dreams

3. Meditation regularly

4. Psychotherapy,

5. Spiritual direction.

6. Dream interpretation

7. Insight into the workings of defense mechanisms.

The Fifty – Year Drought

James Torrens, S.J.


Volume 28 Number Four Winter 2007, PAGES 30-32

The letters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta to her spiritual directors, recently published, dis­close, to the world’s astonishment, her long­time sense of abandonment by God. Though her directors were my fellow Jesuits, I am halfway per­suaded that, for ethical reasons, they should have respected her request to destroy them. What the doc­uments do, now that we have them, is to lead us deeper into that potent phrase we hear at Mass right after the consecration, “The mystery of faith.” In this fourth dimension of our existence, faith, what unimagined highs and lows, adventures, surprises and ordeals, light and obscurity!

In his book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk of the Missionaries of Charity Fathers, the postulator of her cause for can­onization, does an admirable job of presenting these private messages, and is helpful in interpreting them. Above all he shows the remarkable consistency of this very single-minded religious, a missionary nun of the old school. Her devotion to Jesus centered on the Sacred Heart, as revealed in his passion and contin­ued in the mystical body. Also she talked to her sis­ters with great familiarity about “Mother,” her child­like way of alluding to the Virgin Mary.


Mother Teresa kept insisting that the true reason for existence of the Missionary Sisters was to satiate the thirst of Jesus—his “I thirst” on the cross—for love and for souls. She found herself moved by “one desire, to love God as he has never been loved,” fool­ish though she felt in saying so. Early on she made a private vow not to refuse anything to God, which she understood to mean to act right away when asked. She was drawn to the “dark holes” of the poor, their hovels without light, and she accepted her own dark hole in identification with them. These themes are constants in Come Be My Light, and in her life.

The constant refrain, when Mother Teresa was baring her soul, was her trial of darkness, the sense of rejection by God. God, who had consoled her so pal­pably while she was a Sister of Loreto; Jesus whose voice urged her, during her train ride to Darjeeling (September 10, 1946), toward the poorest of the poor; this spouse of her soul left her entirely on her own as soon as Archbishop Périer of Calcutta approved her to start the foundation. God just slammed the door, it seemed. “There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long and long for God—and then it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there” (to Father Joseph Neuner, circa 1961).


Mother Teresa’s story brings home some verities to us. The first is that God, in the exercise of providence, treats each person specially and individually. Mother Teresa was indeed going to love God as no one else had, since there was no other her! Jean-Pierre de Caussade, in Abandonment to Divine Providence, put it this way: “God knows nothing of set rules; he grants grace as pleases him, and to whom he deems fit to accord it.” There cannot be a set pattern, but there is a tremendous logic, which one day gets illuminated. Here in Mother Teresa we find a strong and even com­manding personality (like Mother Cabrini, like Ignatius Loyola) on whom the world would heap adulation. She would profit from the strong reminder that it is all God’s work, and God wants her aware of her own inte­rior poverty. In recent history, we have seen all too many charismatic figures become full of themselves and take a heavy fall.

The second verity is that God listens to and takes seriously our personal offerings. Mother Teresa offered herself to share in Our Lord’s passion, and continually urged her sisters to do so, saying, “Love until it hurts.” That was the emphasis of her Christology. Jesus took her at her word. Contemporary spirituality veers away from this focus. Does it do so faint-heartedly?

The third verity is this. The great loneliness felt by Mother Teresa and her spiritual numbness (“Within me everything is icy cold,” 1955), amidst the expansion of her order and her availability to the world, bear out what Scott Peck insisted on in The Road Less Traveled. Infatuation, strong feeling is not where you find love. Love shows itself not in feelings but in the will. “Love is not effortless. Love is an act of will, it is both an intention and an action.” Mother Teresa, “torn between the feeling of having lost God and the unquenchable desire to reach Him” (Kolodiejchuk, p. 180), kept her commitment to the sick, the old and the dying. We may call it love in the dark hole.

What are we to make, personally, of Mother Teresa’s half-century without consolation? It may seem truly a singular phenomenon, but it is not. Any of us who read and pray the psalms recognize her cry of the heart. “Like a parched land my soul thirsts for you” (Ps. 143). Normally the psalms resolve their anguish in an expression of trust, but not always. Psalm 88, which the breviary entitles “Prayer of a person who is gravely ill,” harps on the following theme, “Your anger weighs down upon me:/ I am drowned beneath your waves.” And it concludes, “My one companion is darkness.” Psalm 88 is a song of bitterness. Whoever composed it? Psalm 44 is the voice of a whole people bemoaning to God their helpless disgrace before enemies. We have stayed faithful, they exclaim to the Holy One, “yet you have crushed us in a place of sorrows.” It is a Holocaust psalm, ending up in a desperate call: “Stand up and come to our help!” For how many people around the world today do these psalms speak!


The topic, then, in Mother Teresa’s letters is absence of consolation. How, more exactly, are we to take this term “consolation?” For working definition, we have none better than that of Ignatius Loyola in his “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, Week One,” of the Spiritual Exercises. “By consolation I mean that which occurs when some interior motion is caused within the soul through which it comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord.” He further expli­cates: “I include every increase in hope, faith and char­ity, and every interior joy.” He was very clear always that consolation is gift, pure and simple.

In what we may call his novitiate at Manresa, Ignatius had to endure an alternation of spirits, includ­ing the polar opposite of consolation, desolation, times when he found no relish or savor in prayer, in the Mass or even in life itself. His anguishing scruples even tempted him to suicide. But God’s guidance steered him out of this crisis, and his life thereafter was filled with divine favor, so that he could say of himself many years later that consolation prevailed in his life. “It seemed to him that he could not live unless he felt in his soul something that was not his own nor could come from man but only God” (Selectae Sancti Ignatii Sententiae, collected by Pedro Ribadeneira, S.J., in Fontes Narrativi, Vol. 3, p. 635). Thus for Ignatius con­solation was as essential as breathing.

How differently God treats those whom he loves, that is to say, everyone. It is quite legitimate and even essential for each of us to pray continually for the action of the Holy Spirit within us. In the words of Psalm 27, for instance, we can say, “Your face, O Lord, do I seek.” We can well pray along with Saint Thomas More: “Take from me, good Lord, this lukewarm fash­ion, or rather cold manner of meditation and this dull­ness in praying to you. And give me warmth, delight and life in thinking about you.” How better to sum up the last fifty years of Mother Teresa’s life than with the opening words of Psalm 42, where faith is so palpable: “As the deer longs for streams of water,/ so my soul longs for you, O God.”


Jean-Pierre de Caussade rephrases the teaching of Ignatius in his Rules: “In the states of dryness, darkness, insensibility and interior forlornness, all that we can do is to preserve in the highest part of the soul a sincereand steadfast determination to belong wholly to God.” The picture of Mother Teresa that emerges from Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light is of her doing exactly that.

Karl Rahner as theologian and as pastor of souls was deeply conscious of the wintry state of so many minds and hearts in our times. His two essays, “The Experience of Grace” and “The Experience of God,” probe the dynamic force working within us and drawing to itself even those not very conscious of it. He points out that the surest experience of grace is a kind of dogged faithfulness to our Christian commitment amidst discouraging results, a hostile environment, lack of encouragement, our own uncertainties. He would agree with the drift of the fine Time magazine essay, September 3, 2007, which awakened the wide interest in Mother Teresa’s letters. If she is up at 4:30 every morning for Jesus, if she goes to Mass eagerly a second time on days when the occasion offers, if she truly hurts from missing God, what else is that but deep faith?

Father James Torrens, S.J., is associate director at the Cardinal Manning House of Prayer for Priests, a place of retreats

and spiritual direc­tion, in Los Angeles, California.

Passage From Shame to Grace



Volume 28 Number Two Summer 2007, pages 10-12


Christmas morning is a time of light and life, but I awoke this Christmas to the blinding images of a threat to mine, revealed just over a year ago. I had vivid recall of the doctor’s tone of voice and exact words. “We have a problem. It’s cancer.” The siege is over now, and I dare say that I have emerged much stronger than before in all respects. Why, then, was I reliving the trauma of a dreaded diagnosis in the midst of the beauty of Christmas morn­ing? Ah, yes. Light has a way of illuminating anything that is unlike itself. Enveloped in the Messiah’s light, I was facing darkness.



I had always thought that cancer must be the worst thing that could happen to a person. I knew there were people who had gone on to live long and happy lives after even the most dire prognoses, but my immediate association with the disease was death. I thought I was dying. Stumbling from the doctor’s office to the parking lot, it occurred to me that relief comes with death. I had long been har­boring deep and abiding shame, handed down through generations. The thought of being released from such a painful burden was momentarily consoling. By the time I reached my car, my intentionwas clear. Though shame was decidedly worse than cancer, I wasn’t done yet. I also realized that I was not going to survive. Rather, I was going to live. Thus began my deliverance from shame to grace.

When the slightest bad thing happens, I tend to blame God. It is a bad habit, I know, and certainly not wise. This time, however, the stabbing shock of the diagnosis paralyzed my usual knee-jerk reaction and opened me to abundant blessings. I knew, too, that I was a member of a privileged class because I had excellent health insurance, allowing me to be selective about my care. Disease became an occasion for grace.

Still, I began treatment with trepidation on the heels of a tsunami in Southeast Asia and my brother­in-law’s fatal car accident. I wondered at those appar­ent signs of desolation in a world that I have always loved as I entered into a decidedly harsh—even vio­lent—course of action. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy, though the best treatments that conventional wisdom has to offer, are foreign to my way of working and not in keeping with how I try to live.

As a teacher of reading and language arts with pre­cious young hearts and minds entrusted to my care, I capitalize upon my students’ strengths to fill their needs. I had also spent a year of Saturdays volunteer­ing for my local Catholic Worker community, which deepened my interest in nonviolence. Clearly, the med­icine I was receiving would not harness the strength of my immune system and could compromise my natural defenses. I was not enthusiastic about hosting a war, knowing there is always collateral damage from violent battle. I am deeply grateful for access to outstanding medical care, and the cause was certainly just. But war is hardly a mindset for healing.


To my complete surprise, grace stood boldly in the gaps among blood cells and beside fear as I healed in a soothing cradle of prayer, nourished by great kindness and persistent love. The physicians and nurses who cared for me as well as friends who were present can attest to the fact that I was not a graceful patient. I trem­bled uncontrollably just stepping over the thresholds of doctors’ offices and even minor medical procedures were horrifying to me. But grace was at work nonethe­less. Often, I thought of Moses whose arms were held up by Aaron and Hur when they grew too tired for his own strength to bear. “Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel had prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed” (Exodus 17:11). I am grateful for all who held me with my arms extended and palms raised so that I had the advantage of receiving and being amazed by boundless grace. The healing ran deep—well beyond the cellular level, to my very soul.

Friends treated me with more care and tenderness than I had ever known. They stocked my freezer with nutritious food, took me out to dinner, accompanied me on a long series of terrifying and lengthy medical appointments, listened calmly to my fears, and infused me with their own confidence in my ability to heal and to grow through adversity. Countless people carried me in their hearts and in their prayers. Those especially gifted with love also held me in their arms. It was as if I had returned to the womb and my surrogate parents were fanatical about my sustenance during every sec­ond of the pregnancy. I had long operated with the belief that I wasn’t good enough and had been living and working as if to apologize for being alive—all the while hoping that God wouldn’t notice that I was tread­ing upon the earth. As I was born anew, among my clos­est circle of friends and confidants, it was deeply heal­ing to learn they thought my bald head was beautifully shaped and touched it as lovingly as a mother caresses a newborn child. I was welcome in the world after all!


As a little girl I wanted to grow up to become a priest. I celebrated Mass in our living room using my mother’s fancy red candy dish as the chalice and Necco Wafers as the host. I am not a fan of suffering, though, and the truth is that I always found the cross offensive. The traditionally prominent display of the crucifix has even made it hard for me to be Catholic. I wanted God to be God. That is, I wanted God to be mighty. I want­ed God to be one who rescues. I wanted no part of suf­fering, and I had startling reservations about a God who wouldn’t even rescue himself from the cross. Secretly, I harbored gnawing doubts about the wisdom of one who permits suffering and wondered if such a god might even be false. Yet, it is this very same God of free will who allowed so many kind and generous human beings to surround me and fill me with love. The fact that they chose to do so transformed me.

I used to view weakness as an ugly matter. During my conveyance from shame to grace, however, I caught a glimpse of what Paul meant in 2 Corinthians, con­cerning his own struggle with affliction.

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me (12:8-9).

In Why Do We Suffer? A Scriptural Approach to the Human Condition Daniel Harrington, S.J., points out that this “powerful expression of Christian freedom explains why Paul could be so fearless in the midst of all his sufferings undertaken for the spread of the gospel.” Unlike Paul, I was hardly fearless. The fact is that I was supremely frightened, but I gained freedom in the face of my own terror, anyway.

I used to think that giftedness was all about supe­rior intellect or extraordinary talent. Now however I know that to be gifted is to be blessed, and I am. Though it is still very new to my consciousness, I findsuch blessedness a bit unsettling and quite exhilarating at the same time. In A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles Maryanne Williamson expressed the feeling eloquently. “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.” So I’ve gone on to live boldly and gratefully in a long conversation and a dance with grace.

Love is powerful medicine, and its liberating side effects are for all time. Suffering, of course, is weighty, too. Yet, as Harrington also notes, Paul’s “shocking assertion of Hebrews” is that “the work of salvation took place in the midst of and because of Jesus’ suffer­ings.” Because the mystery of the cross “has turned everything upside down,” the seemingly negative ener­gy of suffering can be tapped and used for great pur­pose. “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). So it was in facing darkness that I came to see the Messiah’s face.


Harrington, D. Why Do We Suffer? A Scriptural Approach to the Human Condition. Franklin, Wisconsin: Sheed & Ward, 2000.

Williamson, M. A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992.

“I’m Bored!” What Does This Mean Today?

Suzanne Mayer, I.H.M., Ph.D.


Volume 28 Number Two Summer 2007, PAGES 44-48


When my sisters and I were little, the days of play lengthened and the time seemed to hang heavy on us as the month of August moved its slow way through the summer. Typically, we would then go to our mother and complain that we were “bored!” She had her own customary response to that. “Don’t tell me you’re bored,” she would war n. “Find something to do with your time, or I will find something to fill it.” We knew what she meant. With a large family she always had some household chores that needed doing: closets cleaned, flowerbeds weeded, floors scrubbed. That was not what we had in mind. She never told us what we should “find” to counter the boredom; that was up to us to devise. So, each month of August we would discover “new” adventures to enter into, from building a lemonade stand on the corner, to volun­teering at the local S P CA, to joining the library reading club. As long as it was creative, my mother gave her tacit per mission to escape the routines of the house.


Recently, in working with a number of women religious, espe­cially younger ones, on retreat, in conferences, and as a pastoral counselor, I have heard the same complaint: “I am bored.” When I have probed into the meaning of this term, I have understood a definition different from that of the dull drag of the end of summer vacation. The being bored of which these women speak is char­acterized more by a lack of meaning in what they do than in too much free time to fill. They speak of being busy, constantly busy, but of finding no sense of pur­pose in the many occupations, jobs, responsibilities that fill their day.

One young religious, reflecting on her sense of “boredom,” stated, “I dread saying this in my commu­nity, local or large, because I know that the answer will b e to find more thing s for me to do. I am not looking for more work; I am looking for more life.” And yet as I sat with this 30-year old woman and others like her, I realized that, while their mantra is “I am bored,” they are anything but boring. The individuals who share this confession of ennui seem to me most vital, inter­esting and creative, and this difference between them and their complaint is significant.


The Princeton professor and pastoral theologian Robert Dykstra relates a now well-known and excep­tionally insightful incident that occurred with the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott shortly before his death. While giving a conference to a group of Anglican clergy Winnicott was asked how a minister might know if a troubled parishioner who comes to him needs the pastoral support that he as clergy is able to give or should be referred for professional help. Winnicott stated that he was “taken aback by the awe­some simplicity” of the question and in response offered a guideline that pointed to the unconscious redirection of the feelings of the parishioner to the pas­tor: “If a person comes and talks to you, and listening to him, you feel he is boring you, then he is sick and needs psychiatric treatment. But if he sustains your interest, no matter how grave his distress or conflict, then you can help him alright.” Being boring signified for Winnicott emotional distress severe enough to war­rant serious mental health intervention.

An earlier psychological pioneer, Melanie Klein, explains that finding someone boring communicates the collapse of internal space so necessary for human relationship. When an individual, through trauma, emotional or physical abandonment, early chaos or other significant deprivation, experiences a lack of formative inter-human reflection and mirroring, he or she comes to have little or no ability to form the inte­rior reflective space necessary for the differentiation of self from the world. All that is other merges with self, allowing no capacity for the other to enter. Such per­sons operate in a paradox of nonproductive psychic space. Filled with a type of dead sterility, their psyche forms a sort of trapped vacuum—nothing but chaos within with no room for admittance of any revitalizing element. With no capacity for contemplative space, such persons are experienced by another, especially an intuitive other, as sterile, lifeless, “boring.”

The young women I encounter do not seem dull, tedious or wearisome; so this paradox of full but empty would indicate that they are not developmentally dulled. A different explanation seems to lie in their cry of “I’m bored!” A look at the phenomenon of boredom through both psychosocial and spiritual lenses may suggest both cause and relief.


One type of boredom common across most age groups and American sub-cultures does seem to be a spreading plague, more real than avian flu, more per­vasive than pollutants in the water. Donald McCullough, in a comprehensive article on the phe­nomenon, suggests that there are two forms of bore­dom, with the first more of a personal choice. He states that this form “results from turning our backs on what life has to offer” and connects it to the capital sin of acedia, “a choice for death, a willing separation from the joys of life” (p. 31). While there is some truth in the heightened awareness and seemingly insidious nature of boredom in post-modern culture of which he speaks, my sense of the cry of the women I have mentioned is that their option is not to “slumber through life without really waking up,” but of an inundation, socially, professionally, even ministerially.

This leads to McCullough’s second kind of bore­dom. A product of the too much, too soon, too fast environment, boredom results from the metronome of contemporary life b eating a rhythm in the brain of the post-modern person. This pulse, coming since before birth and throughout life, is absorbed from the milieu like a virus. Few even realize how much their internal and external worlds are set to the b eat of an endless, erratic drummer. As the drumb eat drones, interior reality fills with noise, like the static background of a radio out of range.


The German philosopher and anthropologist Max Picard describes “the situation with people today” as exactly opposite from the world of “the old Masters.” Writing in the World War II and post-war era, he has been celebrated as a forerunner of modern existential philosophers. He notes: “The primary factor is move­ment for its own sake, movement that hits a definite target only by accident, movement that happens before it has been decided why it is happening, movement that is always ahead of man himself” (p. 63). In his powerful, reflective work Picard sees the human dilem­ma as one in which, because of the loss of silence and the disappearance of contemplative space, the whole of human economy—words, meaning, relationships—has all collapsed into an “alternative of obstinacy and despair” in which language itself acquires a hardness, “as though it were making a great effort to remain alive in spite of the emptiness” (p. 41).

This state of emptiness, a result of a kind of existen­tial overactivity, creates, even for the most highly func­tioning of modern individuals, a cacophony of chaos and a sort of constant soul-claustrophobia. Without and within is the booming, buzzing bombardment that Picard describes. An intriguing report of such chaos and concomitant ennui came from a dream and its analysis offered by a religious woman I met on retreat.


She came after a day of feeling what she described as a kind of “spiritual malaise” and a night of restless­ness leaving her very fatigued. “I guess I finally got to sleep around 3:00 a.m. or so, and sometime after had a strange dream.” She found herself, in the dream as was true in her real life, being assigned to move a large school into a much smaller one and feeling over­whelmed with the task. “Everywhere I looked were huge boxes and containers, piles of books and tumbled furniture. Then all of a sudden I came into this one room, I think perhaps my office. Like all the others, everything was pushed together into this too-small space leaving no space to breathe much less move.” Then she saw herself approached by another religious woman who seemed to be assisting with the move. “I recognized her,” she said, “as a colleague from a for­mer assignment. A gentle and calm soul, she moved into the room with me, and, as we stepped past the piles, together we noticed a section blocked off by a tumble of chairs and desks. I wanted to push the fur­niture aside, in fact, to overturn the entire pile, but she just reassured me that we would be fine making our way around it.” Then the retreatant moved to the other side of the wall where she found a large space, dark and still crowded with heavy furniture, “kind of a man’s den with bookcases filled to overflowing and towering to the ceiling.” Taking several other steps, she noticed a large arched doorway to the side, with “love­ly cantilevered windows, partly open with soft sunlight beaming through them.” Turning to point this out to her companion, she found, to her surprise, that the whole area had opened up to twice its size.

When I asked her the meaning of her dream, she related it to the highly stressful task of moving the schools. “There is too much for me to do, and all I seem to get is frustrated with each unfinished day. I am constantly impatient, but at the same time almost lethargic. While I am known to be a worker, an organ­izer and very responsible in whatever is asked of me, I just feel myself plodding along in all this, dragging b ehind me an ever heavier load.”

I observed to her that many dream interpreters suggest that the presence of a building of any kind in a dream represents the self, and that if the dream event occurs inside the structure, it represents the uncon­scious. “Suppose,” I suggested, “the building into which you are moving doesn’t represent your current assignment, but your psyche, your inner self.” She took off with the connection. “Then,” she said, “the blocked-off space I discovered is the more that rests inside of me, that part of me that seeks time and space for reflection.” She observed that per iods of such in­depth quiet had b ecome few lately. “Didn’t I hear as well that all persons in a dream represent part of your­self?” she said and then continued, “If so, then the other sister is that part of me that can b e observing, meditative and centered. The protagonist in me wants to push ahead, to do more, to shove thing s around, but that other part, perhaps more intuitive, understands that what I need is to allow openness. As that happens I will discover more freedom in myself and in my life.”


As fascinating as the dream and analysis proved, the next part of our time together was even more pow­erful and suggested another aspect to consider in response to “I’m bored.” From the image of the widen­ing out of the “man’s den,” the retreatant and I moved into a place of the Spirit. She confessed a sense of neg­lect of spirit, her own and God’s, as the tasks of her assignment multiplied. She had noticed that, even when she carved out some time to be quiet, the crazi­ness inside her head and heart kept moving like “a ger­bil on one of those exercise wheels inside the cage.” What she longed for was the breath of the Spirit, mov­ing in and through the chaos.

That image changed into a meditation on the cre­ation passages in the book of Genesis (chapters 1 and 2) that we had shared prayerfully on a retreat several years before. She had loved them and called them to mind often, the poetic lines capturing the movement of Ruah, God’s creative spirit, across the face of the void, bring­ing the primordial elements into a harmonious order, allowing the breath that is life to separate dark from light, sky from earth, sea from ground (Genesis 1:2).

One resolution to boredom is the movement to the realization that we are not empty, but too full, and of all the wrong things. Like the original ooze of Genesis, we have all the ingredients of fullness of life, but instead of it “springing up inside as a life-giving water” (John 4:14), it is roiled and boiled into the meaningless nothing that is a void. It waits for space to redeem it.

Child analyst, Adam Phillips, touches on that pos­itive side in describing the boredom he sees forming in his young clients, as “a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated . . . In the muffled, sometimes irritable con­fusion of boredom the child is reaching a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize.” The rush to rescue the child from the bore­dom dooms him/her to a life that “must be seen to be endlessly interesting” (quoted in Dykstra). So, the rou­tine of constant afternoons in which toddlers are fer­ried from t-ball, to music lessons, to charm school, to French lessons begins and the possibility for a contem­plative holding within disappears.

The response to boredom, then, seems to lie not in terminating its experience with more activity, but in opening up what Winnicott called the “transitional space,” the play area in which mind and spirit can engage imaginatively with a freedom that defies limits. In words that almost ring as poetry Ann Ulanov describes the transitional space in spiritual terms:

“This transitional space is our first opening up to and moving into the experiences of being and becoming, our first opportunity to experi­ence the evolving power of living full out, with all our heart and mind and strength. . . Our transition is to something somewhere, a move­ment toward the ultimate, to something that endures” (p. 6).

As I reflected on the opening up of space, a small postcard picture that sits on my desk caught my eye. It depicts a modern sculpture that stands in the Church of Sts. Joseph and Medardus in Cologne, Germany. The few words on the back in English, German and Spanish pray: “We live in the heart of God. May the holy triune God live in our hearts and the hearts of all people.” The image on the front is of a silhouette in stone; two large and very abstract figures face each other with heads bent together and hands clasped. The b ending and clasping figures for m a circle of open space within the stone in which a golden globe of the world is cra­dled. Around the circumference of this hollow a white glow sharply outlines the space. When I first received the card, I studied the image for a while, read the words and then asked the friend who had given it to me how these two figures could represent the “triune God.” She answered that she, too, had at first wondered at that, but musing on it brought this insight: “Of course, the two embracing figures represent the creat­ing Father and saving Son, but the space and the light that surround the glob e is the Holy Spirit.”

How right! How poetic! How theologically true! The Spirit of life is the invisible presence of God made visible in creation and in the person of Jesus. In these post-Pentecost days, the Spirit remains the breath of God, the warmth of God, the presence of God, not just supporting the world and its creatures but enfolding us.


This image of God wrapped around the world touches into another form of boredom of which McCullough writes, one “inherent to life itself . . . that comes from being made for something more than we now experience . . . this second type can never find ful­fillment within worldly limitations” (p. 32). This speaks, of course, of the yearning of the Augustinian confession: “My heart thirsts for you, O Lord, and is ever restless until it rests in you.” While words such as search, yearn, thirst and restless might sound more symptomatic of anxiety than boredom, the lived expe­rience is that in this life the dissatisfaction of never reaching that goal can lead to a certain ennui. McCullough parallels this existential ennui to the dis­satisfaction, even apathy of the sated child who stilllooks for more. The relief from this boredom is again not escape but embrace. Once again, as Picard notes, this embrace wraps itself around contemplative silence. Without the silence, the object of the search fades and the yearning finds its immediate relief in the here and now. To hold the awe and allow the yearning to become a creative tension inside, a sort of spiritual hunger, silence is necessary. Picard writes:

It is a sign of the love of God that a mystery is always separated from man by a layer of silence. And that is a reminder that man should also keep a silence in which to approach the mys­tery. Today, when there is only noise in and around man, it is difficult to approach the mys­tery. When the layer of silence is missing, the extraordinary easily becomes connected with the ordinary, with the routine flow of things, and man reduces the extraordinary to a mere part of the ordinary, a mere part of the mechan­ical routine (pp. 227-228)