Salvation and Wellness, Holiness and Therapy

Photo by Fran McColman

Photo by Fran McColman

Last week when I wrote about the distinction between mindfulness meditation and contemplative prayer, one reader left this comment:

I would also like to hear your comments on salvation vs therapy.

I feel a bit of trepidation taking this on, for the simple reason that I am not a professional counselor, therapist, psychologist, social worker — I have none of those little sets of letters like “LPC” or “MSW” that tag along after a person’s name to indicate that he or she is qualified to therapize. So I can only offer my thoughts on this question from the viewpoint of the consumer: as someone who has been in therapy on several occasions, as well as someone who has been a practitioner-seeker of contemplative spirituality for many years now. I am trained as a spiritual director although I do not have any regular directees.

This certainly was a topic in my spiritual director training: how is spiritual direction different from therapy? I first realized that this was a matter of concern when I took classes from the Shalem Institute back in the mid-1980s and was told, among other things, that pursuing a class in Christian spiritual formation was not meant to be a substitute for either individual or group therapy. A few years later I was meeting with an Episcopal priest for spiritual direction; I went pretty deep with some anxieties I was experiencing at the time, and he bluntly told me that I needed to take those issues to a therapist (it was not long after that when I began to see my first therapist, which was a deeply rewarding experience).

As recently as eight years ago, when I interviewed for a job at the monastery guesthouse (I did not get that job, but did get a job at the monastery’s giftshop), the monk who interviewed me spoke at length about the necessity of discerning the difference between spiritual crisis and mental health issues (a difference that may be quite difficult to untangle indeed). For example, in his book Care of Mind Care of Spirit psychiatrist & spiritual director Gerald May talks about the difference between the dark night of the soul and clinical depression — a difference which may very well not be evident on the surface!

So it really is a question for careful discernment. Let me hasten to emphasize that I believe strongly in both spiritual direction and therapy, that the quest for holiness and the quest for mental health & wellness really do (or, at least, should) complement each other. This is not to say that there is no tension between the two — for example, what may be an authentic quest for holiness can, in some circumstances, look like co-dependency or even a “martyr complex” to some unsympathetic therapists. I think it’s vitally important not to reduce the spiritual quest to the quest for psychological wellness, just as it would be very important not to spiritualize away mental health concerns under a cloak of “spirituality.” Because, in fact, I suspect there are those who have real problems with co-dependency or masochistic behavior who hide behind spiritualizing language and values as a way to avoid dealing with their self-destructive behaviors. Once again, I must declare, I am not a therapist. But just based on my enrollment in the school of life, I can see where that could easily be a problem.

So, after that long-winded disclaimer, let me make just a few comments about what I see as useful distinctions between the quest for salvation/holiness, which is essentially a spiritual concern, and the quest for life-mastery or wellness, which is essentially a therapeutic concern.

  • Therapy is founded on humanistic and scientific values, whereas spiritual formation emerges from religious or mystical values. As tempting as it may be for the advocates of one set of values to dismiss or minimize the other, I think both are essential for a healthy and holy life.
  • Consequently, therapy aims at personal fulfillment, personal happiness, and personal life-mastery. Spiritual formation typically insists that personal fulfillment should be subordinated to the quest to love and serve God. Since I believe God is Love (and loving), I believe that authentic submission to the Divine Will ultimately will foster at least some sense of personal fulfillment and happiness. It’s a question of what comes first. In therapy, personal wellness comes first, while in spiritual direction, such self-fulfilment only makes sense as an outgrowth of obedience to the Divine.
  • Therapy is typically goal-oriented. “I want relief from depression.” “I need to build self-confidence.” “I need to recover from addiction.” “We need to solve the problems in our marriage/family.” It is good to identify such needs and to work on attaining such objectives. The quest for salvation or holiness works differently, in that the “goal” is simply fostering ever-deeper love and intimacy with God. Because such a “goal” is ever-unfolding and is always a process, it is never simply reached or attained the way of therapeutic goal can be achieved.
  • The methodology of the therapist and the spiritual director will look different, even if they are dealing with similar issues. Say, for example, a person presents himself to a therapist and a spiritual director with the same issue — say, a burning desire to walk away from a $90,000-a-year professional job to become a full-time advocate for the homeless — the approaches that the therapist and the spiritual director take for untangling this desire will likely be very different. This is not to say that a therapist will always try to talk the person out of it while the spiritual director will simply encourage it. Not hardly! If the therapist and the director are each worth their salt, they both know that this kind of an issue really depends on a host of issues, from family dynamics to whether the person has a messiah complex to questions of prudence and community support. But still, the therapist will probably begin with looking at the person’s psychological wellness, while the director will more likely explore his ongoing relationship with God, current prayer life, image of God, and so forth.
  • A good spiritual director knows how and when to refer clients to a therapist (and, I would hope, vice versa). The intimately explored quest for holiness will take us into some pretty scary places, where our sin, our addictions and compulsions, our self-esteem issues, and are capacity for lying (both to ourselves and to others) will be revealed. For many people, encountering their woundedness, their “shadow” (in the Jungian sense) and their capacity to harm self and others may well require a therapist to safely process. Others may be capable of responding to such dimensions of themselves with humility and basic self-esteem or self-care. It’s a spiritual director’s job to discern the difference, and to make referrals when necessary. On the other side, I would hope that therapists would be able to recognize when a person presents with basic (not necessarily perfect) mental health and wellness, but a deep hunger for God, the Divine mystery, the quest for holiness and God-centered personal transformation, that the therapist would have the common sense and humility to refer the person to a qualified spiritual director, if for no other reason than spiritual direction is almost always far less expensive than therapy.

I think this covers the main points. Books like Care of Mind, Care of Spirit or May’s other books, especially Will and Spirit or Addiction and Grace, can be helpful in sorting this issue out. While I haven’t read Integral Life Practice by Ken Wilber et al., I like how the concept of integral life practice recognizes the distinction between the quest for psychological wellness and the quest for spiritual holiness, so I imagine that book would be worth reading as well.

Salvation versus therapy in a nutshell: salvation is about fostering a relationship with God, so it is geared toward loving and obeying God. Therapy, on the other hand, is about fostering wellness and psychological health, so it geared toward care of the self. I think when each of these quests is functioning at their best and highest level, they naturally support one another. So, as the saying goes… “It’s all good.”

Disclosure: if you follow the link of a book mentioned in this post and purchase it or other products from, I receive a small commission from Amazon (at no extra cost to you). Thank you for doing so — it is the easiest way you can support this blog.

Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.