Spiritual Practices and Mental Health: A Matched Pair

Spiritual Practices and Mental Health: A Matched Pair October 2, 2023

Spiritual Practices and Mental Health: A Matched Pair

Therapist & Client


There appears to be a “great gulf fixed” between spiritual practices and mental health. I attempt to merge spiritual practices with mental health.

Spiritual practice helped me overcome fear of death. As a 25-year-old pastor I officiated at 58 funerals in one year. Death haunted me day and night. I struggled with inordinate fear of dying. I dreamed of being in the funeral procession headed to a country, cedar-lined cemetery and I would see myself in the 3rd car – the funeral hearse instead of the second car – the pastor’s car. Two practices helped me lose much of my fear: prayer and therapy.

Sending a new graduate of the seminary into the local church armed only with a Bible and two courses in pastoral counseling would be like sending astronauts into space in a pair of shorts and a pair of Nike Air Max shoes.

A man stopped by the office to talk to me. He said he was hearing voices, violent voices. He said the voices were telling him to kill me. As a twenty-five-year-old pastor, a recovering fundamentalist, I assumed that this man was possessed with demons.

I decided to “cast out the demon” from this tormented person. At the climactic moment in this sordid affair, poised to place my hands on his head and command Jesus to cast the demons into the pits of hell, a thunderstorm erupted outside. The lights went out and the door to my office slammed violently shut. Preacher and demon-possessed made a mad dash to the door. Someone screamed, “O shit.” This ended my career as an exorcist.

As I read the Skylight study, “Does Spiritual Practice Support Mental Wellness?” the opening words gripped my attention: “Body, mind, soul: the interconnectedness of these three have been a hot topic for …. thousands of years.” “Body, mind, and soul” are not separate entities, but the human is one whole person.

Here are a pair of metaphors – catachresis and catharsis – offering new meanings to how certain Christians words have been used in “spiritual” ways that deprive gospel words of wholeness.


Graphic courtesy of Skylight.org

Central to the relationship between spiritual practice and mental health is catachresis. Like a hip replacement, catachresis is a word replacement for a worn-out word. It is a necessary misuse of language – a variation from the usual literalism afflicting Christians – that names and evokes a new reality.

Christian words become words related to mental health through catachresis: repentance, forgiveness, confession, and salvation. For instance, repentance means “changing the mind;” confession means “cleansing the spirit.” “Forgiveness” becomes “wholeness.”


Catharsis is the process of releasing strong or pent-up emotions through art or psychoanalysisIt comes from the Greek word for cleansing or purging.

Aristotle uses the term to refer to menstrual discharge, seminal discharge, micturition, and discharge at birth. Catharsis suggests the drawing out of blood or emotions by a foreign substance like drugs or words.

Kenneth Burke equates catharsis with “cleansing.” Given the excess attention to the “clean” and the “unclean” in Jewish law, in particular Leviticus, and the battles in the Gospels over what is “unclean” between Jesus and the Pharisees, there is a major connection between the act of catharsis and mental health.

The archetypal encounter of Jesus with the Gadarene demoniac is the best metaphor I have found to demonstrate the possibilities when a man suffering from severe psychological trauma encounters Jesus. What better outcome for a spiritual experience than the mental healthiness of “sitting, clothed, and in his right mind.”

Spiritual practices and mental health – a matched pair.


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