So, what is pastoral counseling exactly? Is it counseling with a priest/pastor? Am I just going to be talking about my faith life? Or do I talk about my personal problems and struggles with someone who prays a lot? These were some of the questions I had in regards to what pastoral counseling is before I started taking the class.
Basically pastoral counseling is a counseling relationship that enables individuals to share about their problems and struggles while at the same time incorporating spirituality into the discussion. This is different from “regular” counseling in that the opportunity to discuss what God is doing in your every day life is more available in pastoral counseling. It’s also different from Spiritual Direction in that a pastoral counselor has the ability to work with mental disorders and isn’t solely focused on how much you pray or how you’re going about it. Pastoral counselors listen to what’s going on in your life and are able to help you develop the tools and strategies to work thru obstacles, while at the same time incorporating a faith aspect and bringing God into the mix. Also, you don’t have to meet with just a priest/pastor for pastoral counseling, but anyone who is trained in this line of work such as a layperson (like me!) or religious sister. And hopefully, this person still prays a lot! Make sense?
Personally, I like to think of pastoral counseling in this way, and I’ve illustrated it for you with 2 images:
Life is hard. Period. There are many times when we feel beaten down and stuck in the trenches. Or our hearts feel trapped and bound by the different twists and turns life throws at us, like the image symbolizes with the vines wrapped tight all around it. Jesus tells us how hard life can be in John’s Gospel when he talks about the “thief” coming to destroy the goodness in our life. Attempting to destroy the goodness that you and I each have in our lives.
One of my favorite quotes is depicted in the next image:
Think about what that means for a second. Can you even imagine what your life would be like if you were fully alive? Maybe you can. And maybe you can’t. If you aren’t able to wrap your mind around what the heck St. Irenaeus means with the whole “fully alive” business, this, my friend, is what pastoral counseling is all about. Like we’ve established… life is hard! Death, destruction, war, abuse, abandonment, bitterness, unforgiveness, betrayal… the list of words that describe the Struggle could go on for quite some time! BUT! There’s hope! Pastoral counseling is a place where we can re-establish what it means to be fully alive! It’s a place where you can talk about how real the Struggle is, and hopefully regain some life back into your heart! Pastoral counseling is an opportunity to take a machete to those stupid vines holding you back. And it’s a place where God is. Don’t get me wrong, God is everywhere. But within this specific counseling relationship, He is able to be present and together with your counselor, you can begin to overcome the challenges in front of you with Him.
I leave you with this quote from one of my favorite books, Waking the Dead – The Glory of a Heart Fully Alive by John Eldredge, which kind of captures what I’ve been saying about pastoral counseling:
“We are in the process of being unveiled. We were created to reflect God’s glory, born to bear His Image, and He ransomed us to reflect that glory again. Every heart was given a mythic glory… Remember the mission of Christ: ‘I have come to give you back your heart and set you free.’ For as St. Irenaeus said, ‘The glory of God is man fully alive.’ Certainly you don’t think the opposite is true. How do we bring God glory when we are sulking around in the cellar, weighed down by shame and guilt, hiding our light under a bushel? Our destiny is to become fully alive. To live with an ever-increasing glory.” (page 75)
Oh and PS – Jesus finishes out His sentence on the thief coming to steal and destroy with, “I came so they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) Holla! Don’t be afraid and take hope!
I’ve always thought that hope was a dangerous thing to have and to believe in. I felt as though whenever I “hoped” something would turn out a certain way, I was often disappointed and let down. But I was operating out of an incorrect mindset of what hope was. A wise and dear mentor once told me “Hope isn’t dangerous – expectations are. We can always hope because hope does not disappoint.” The more I am able to change my expectations and perceptions of my circumstances…and the more I am able to bring areas of darkness into the light…the more hope is able to build and grow in my heart. It is in believing that hope will not disappoint and light will prevail over darkness, that true freedom and peace can come.