With my final semester of internship drawing to a close, I am surprised at the number of times I have been able to use pastoral counseling in my internship experience. In many instances, I have had the opportunity to work with people I thought were the least likely to want to include spirituality in their therapy. I had been prepared to stick to a more psychological approach, being content to practice cognitive-behavioral therapy and work with secular clients.
It did not take long to realize that spirituality is very closely intertwined with psychology. There are some who would argue they are incompatible, but as I have learned, it is the spiritual side that orients us towards a proper view of the human person. This is the foundation from which any theoretical orientation springs forth. Understanding what it truly means to have unconditional positive regard goes beyond the typical Rogerian view of the client. Client-centered therapy becomes Christ-centered therapy; it is during the moments of vulnerability that I catch a glimpse of Christ in my clients.
Before I began my internship experience, my exposure to nursing homes and hospitals was limited and tinged with negative associations. I have seen both of my grandmothers on their death beds, and had visited other people in environments that seemed less than habitable. When we visited a nursing home as a group, my fellow interns and I could not help but notice the joy that lit up our clients faces when they realized they had visitors. They could care less about counseling, their individual service plans, or scaling their depression. It was the mere gesture of human decency – communication – that helped them step outside of their shell for a moment. Our Catholic conception of the human person is that we are all made in the image of God, and to treat each other as less than that constitutes a great disservice to our brothers and sisters.
Basic tenets of counseling – unconditional positive regard, reflecting statements, and attentive listening – were all we were equipped with when we first began our internship, or so we thought. Because we were blessed to have a Catholic upbringing, we also brought with us elements of our faith, central to pastoral counseling as a whole. What began with sitting down and talking to our clients grew to them gradually opening up to us and to each other.
One particular experience at a nursing home that stands out to me centers around a group of women who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia and similar disorders. At first, they were tentative in speaking to us when we met them, but we decided to see them consistently despite the distance we had to travel. As the weeks went by, they recognized we had a genuine interest in them as people, and we were truly there to listen to them and discuss the difficulties they were going through. We had them engage ourselves and each other in group therapy to mitigate the isolation and loneliness they felt at the home, and upon discovering that each of them had a Bible in their room, asked them if they would like to share with us their favorite verses, which they did. This led to us using scripture during our sessions to reinforce our topics of discussion, all built around building community, fostering forgiveness, and espousing self-sacrifice.
I even found myself sharing my faith with my younger clients, who are always curious about the crosses I wear and the rosary bracelet I always have on. He requested I bring him one as his reward for good behavior and I was happy to comply and explain to him what it was for. Of course, this had to be done respectfully and parental consent was given, but it was refreshing to see such curiosity about spirituality at his age.
The last experience I will share is one of the most touching things a client said to me at the end of my visit. He expressed how thankful he was I came in to visit, and with a feeble hand, clasped my shoulder, looked me in the eyes and with a shaky voice thick with emotion told me four simple words: “I appreciate your humanity”. I pondered what those words meant and reflected how unfortunate it was that as humans with such capacity for love, we often treat the elderly with less respect than they deserve. People are too often treated as means to an end, and it is so rare for some of them to experience honest and genuine interaction that upholds their dignity. This experience is something I will carry with me and use as the foundation of my therapy, whether pastoral or not, as there are many ways to bring spirituality into counseling that we often miss.
Pastoral counseling had been a part of my life since I was a child, and was integral to forming my identity and understanding of a catholic sense of community. I considered myself to have a unique upbringing; as an only child, over the years I witnessed my parents form a charismatic Filipino community called Bukas Loob Sa Diyos (Open Your Hearts to God) after having newly immigrated to Canada. We moved to North America because my father had to resign from his lucrative banking position in the Middle East due to unscrupulous practices. My understanding of my own spirituality grew from this experience – their spiritual directors supported them during this tough time and they attributed all their successes in Canada to their faith in God’s plan for them. I was taught the importance of prayer, perseverance, and patience by the example my parents set for me.