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Spiritual Healing



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Page Contents: Introduction / Healing / The Dark Night / Spiritual Healing and True Love / Healing and Religion / Genuine Religion and False Religion / Distinguishing Psychological Depression from Spiritual Purgation / Being A Victim / Summary / Common Issues



VERYONE, regardless of heritage, education, or vocation, must come to terms with his or her own human imperfections and physical mortality.

To do this, one must bring one’s limitations into consciousness. For some persons this can be done through the scientific approach of psychology and its clinical application in psychotherapy. For other persons, this can be done through prayer and religious devotions. 

And yet many psychotherapy clients find it a great relief to be able to incorporate religious practices into their psychological treatment. In fact, one only has to read the mystical writing of Saint John of the Cross, such as the The Ascent of Mount Carmel,[1] to understand all of the spiritual and physical benefits that result from emptying oneself in devout humility before God.

Unfortunately, many psychological schools of thought are atheistic or naively misunderstand or misinterpret spiritual experiences. And many psychotherapies can become a “religion” unto themselves.


Sigmund Freud, for example, in his philosophy of psychoanalysis, tried to reduce all Sigmund Freud religious impulses to biology and sexuality. If you think that sounds strange, just walk into any American shopping mall and you will see, seductively displayed on every shelf, the results of our culture’s wholesale purchase of Freudian biological-sexual atheism. And then realize that the money we use to pay for all this seduction has “In God We Trust” written all over it. So, we might wonder, who is fooling whom?

Freud, after all, died of cancer—oral cancer (in the photo above, note his ever-present cigar)—and not just that, but he died through a suicide assisted by his physician Schur. What does this show us except the absolute spiritual emptiness of Freud’s own philosophy? And it shows precisely how a person can unconsciously “fill” the void of the empty spirit with a cancerous, consuming illness.

In contrast, back in 1219, during the Fifth Crusade, Saint Francis of Assisi crossed the battle lines at Damietta in an attempt to convert Malik al-Kamil, the Ayubid Sultan of Egypt, to Christianity. Francis hoped that the Sultan’s conversion would put an end to the fighting, but the Sultan did not convert, and the fighting did not stop. Nor, surprisingly, did the Sultan kill Francis on the spot. Instead, he was so impressed with Francis’ genuine spirituality and lack of interest in materialism that he spared his life and sent him home to preach to his own people, that he might convert them.

In the end, Francis brought about a true conversion in the hearts of only a few. After all, we might put statues of Saint Francis in our gardens, but how many of us are willing to follow his example by living chaste lives, trusting completely in God, free from argumentativeness and hostility, seeking always the good of others? Well, not many—so anger and violence remain rampant in all cultures to this day. But think about this a bit. If we truly endorsed the spiritual values that inspired individuals such as Francis of Assisi, then maybe there would be some genuine peace in this world.


Working therapeutically to provide healing for religious persons therefore requires a respect for spiritual aspirations as well as an astute psychological insight that will neither minimize psychological problems nor withdraw from them in fear.




What is healing?

Healing may refer to regaining physical health, and there are many ways to go about it, ranging from traditional Western scientific medicine to alternative herbal and holistic methods. But being physically healthy is one thing and having peace of mind is another thing entirely. I’ve seen many persons, for example, who are careful to practice meditation or yoga on a daily basis and who still have insecure lives filled with troubled, unstable relationships.

Why? Well, such persons use their healing practices as a sort of mask, to say to the world, “See? I live a spiritual life!” Yet all the while bitterness and animosity fester in their hearts.

Peace of mind—or mental health—doesn’t come from physical practices. Nor can you “buy” it. You can pay a shaman to adjust your energy fields, you can wear crystals, and you can fill your house with all the aromatherapy scents in the world, but it won’t heal you of the inner anger and loneliness that torment you. These unconscious wounds can be healed only by facing up to their origins and making peace with them.


This “making peace,” mind you, is not an easy process. It’s a painful process—so painful, in fact, that most persons will do just about anything to avoid it. And that’s why, in order to be truly healed, you have to face your inner vulnerability without hiding behind defenses such as alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, food, gambling, sex, sports, television—and on and on. . . .


This painful process, if you stick with it courageously and faithfully, leads to the form of healing you can get from psychotherapy.




All too often I have heard the “Dark Night” mistakenly described as a sort of terrifying and lonely doubt about the very existence of God. But the Dark Night really has nothing to do with doubt or despair. The concept of a Dark Night derives from a short poem written by the great mystic Saint John of the Cross, when he was confined in a tiny, dark cell in prison for about nine months. In later years, he elaborated on the meaning of his poem in his mystical treatise called the Dark Night of the Soul.

Saint John spoke of the Dark Night as an experience of spiritual purgation in which all physical and psychological satisfactions are stripped away to leave the soul in the presence of nothing but the physically invisible (and therefore, to human experience, dark) and silent workings of divine grace. As unnerving as it is, it still is a profound experience of spiritual healing, not a questioning of—or loss of—faith.

Now, in so far as we may focus just on its ultimate psychological, rather than religious, effects, the Dark Night has some remarkable parallels to psychotherapy.

It often happens that persons entering into psychotherapy truly want to engage in the process of self-exploration, but they also attempt to avoid certain embarrassing aspects of their private, inner lives. They want the psychotherapist to like them, not be disgusted by the ugliness lurking in the shadows of their personalities. And, above all, they will do almost anything to hide their raw feelings of anger and betrayal resulting from past emotional wounds. “I still feel as if I am being selfish or should be ashamed for having such intense negative feelings towards people who don’t know how to love me. Doesn’t that solidify the fact that I am not worthy of true love?” they ask.

And the answer, in full irony, is that unless they recognize and verbalize those “intense negative feelings” (that is, feelings of victimization, hatred, and anger) they will never get to the place of experiencing true love.

Just as the religious experience of the Dark Night strips away all human illusion and pretension, so psychotherapy must strip away everything (especially our psychological defensiveness) that hides the deepest ugliness in our hearts. For only by recognizing the “intense negative feelings” in his or her own heart can the individual then recognize the narcissistic selfishness that stains all of humanity. And in the community of sorrowful understanding will grow the seed of compassion and true love.


Interestingly enough, this theme of descending into inner darkness has shown up in myth and art through the ages. Whether in the myths of the hero’s journey into the underworld described psychologically by Jung and his followers, or in Dante’s poetic journey through hell as the route to heaven in his Divine Comedy, or in Tolkien’s story of the journey through the mines of Moria in his Lord of the Rings, the journey begins with an obstruction too difficult to climb over, encounters the necessity to surrender control and certainty in the passage through an abhorrent darkness, and culminates in a final triumph over evil.


And so, if psychotherapy is to achieve any ultimate success, it must lead you into your own psychological “dark night.” And then, if you so will, you can pass into the real Dark Night of spiritual healing.




Thus there is a deeper level of healing, a spiritual level. In fact, this aspect of healing points directly to the fact that true spirituality must have a psychological component. Unlike pagan worship, such as that offered by the ancient Greeks and Romans merely to appease the vanity of the gods—gods who had no interest at all in the moral behavior of humanity—genuine spirituality calls a person into a deep psychological change.

This change comes from opening your heart to love.

This love, though, is not what we ordinarily think of as “love.” Love does not come from another person—it’s important to learn that right away. Love is not about romantic sentiments. Love is not about sensuality and sexual pleasure. Mystics have known that for ages. True love is a matter of seeking God more than anything else, more even than your own life.

And to live in true love means to do God’s will.

So what is God’s will? Well, there are a lot of New Age “therapists” out there who will tell you that it’s all about connecting with “divine energy” so you can accomplish anything you desire. But God’s will is a matter of love, and for ages the mystics have been telling us that loving is about giving, not getting. To do God’s will, therefore, is to give of yourself through patience, forbearance, mercy, compassion, and understanding; it is not a matter of receiving personal satisfaction from the world. In fact, true love means to continue giving even if you receive nothing but rejection and hatred in return. True love means to refuse to hate—that is, to wish harm to come upon—anyone, even those who hate you.


To do God’s will essentially means to turn completely away from sin—that is, our functional narcissism. It means to die to yourself, as Saint John of the Cross says—otherwise, you will be serving nothing but your own narcissistic desires. In psychological terms, this dying to the self necessitates several elements:


Loving God more than anything, or anyone, in this world

Treating others with mercy and forgiveness

Putting aside all aggression and competitive behavior

Renouncing your pride in order to live in spiritual humility (see below)

Conducting all of your interpersonal relationships with psychological honesty

Living in sexual purity by not making others into mere objects for your personal pleasure

If you truly seek healing, then, and if you have the courage, accept the active and passive purgation of the senses in The Dark Night [2] and turn from everything in your mind and heart that misses the point about true love.


Now, you might ask, “Can this be done without becoming a hermit? Can one continue to conduct business, or other worldly activities without these narcissistic desires?” Well, yes it can be done. In short, it means that you do everything you can to develop your talents as fully as possible, but that you put those talents to use in service to others, not for the sake of your own personal pleasure, wealth, status, honor, or prestige.


This may sound a bit ascetic, and it is. But it is not a matter of masochism or self-punishment. And there is no room in it for hatred. Asceticism actually comes from opening your eyes to see the fraud of the world around you. Asceticism is grounded in pure love for the very truth that human vanity obscures and defiles. It simply means that you willingly surrender all your worldly defenses against your essential vulnerability in order to face that vulnerability with no protection other than true love.




We need psychological healing because we constantly encounter emotional wounds from the world around us. Children cope with these wounds by using psychological defenses. These defenses work for children, but they cause many problems in adulthood. Thus, as adults we need healing that can transcend our psychological limitations.

And here’s the problem. All of the wounds inflicted by the world derive from evil, and evil cannot be overcome with mere psychology. Evil is the hatred of God, and so only love for God can overcome evil. Without God we are helpless against evil. Religion, though, transcends spirituality because religion nurtures love for God.

Spirituality can be defined psychologically as an inner belief system that provides a person with a sense of confidence and emotional comfort that transcends the conscious “self.” Spirituality can be valuable as a first step leading us away from psychological self-centeredness. But it’s only a first step. And it’s often a misstep leading us right into its own narcissistic illusions, however esoteric they may appear, because, for many persons, spirituality does not ascend beyond illusions into religion. In contrast, religion (deriving from the Latin religare, to bind back) refers to the beliefs and practices with which we worship God who created us. Therefore, religion essentially denotes a lifestyle that draws us away from our self-centered illusions and binds us back to God in love and gratitude.

Note carefully, though, that if religion is not genuine—that is, if it is not a lifestyle that provides spiritual confidence and comfort—it will be illogical, a mere intellectual superstition, and it will be no help in our emotional healing.




Genuine religion—that is, faithful service to God through devout worship—requires setting aside the pride we take in the psychological “self,” overcoming the defenses we use to protect our pride, and surrendering to a profound absorption in divine love that calls us to treat others with kindness, patience, and forgiveness. It’s not an easy process, and it doesn’t work by magic—that is, simply by claiming to believe in something.

Unfortunately, there are many persons who don’t want to do the hard work of self-denial. So, sad to say, they take up superficial religious sentiments as an unconscious way to hide their own fears of abandonment and loneliness. Terrified of their own psychological darkness, they pervert religion into a desperate attempt to “feel good” about themselves—to validate their pride and their perversions, not to cleanse their hearts and souls of all that is unholy.

They might act like pious members of their communities, but deep inside some part of them holds a dark resentment that the world has not given them the recognition that they secretly crave. And one way or another—through disobedience, through terrorism, or through sexual scandal—their façade crumbles. They talked the talk all right, but they didn’t know the first thing about true love. In fact, they feared love all along and were blind to their own blindness.

And so they were blind to genuine religion.




All of us, in the process of growing from children to adults, require encouragement, reassurance, appreciation, and approval from others. Classic psychodynamic theory calls these things narcissistic supplies. Yet most of us, as we become adults, develop an inner sense of confidence and self-esteem which does not depend on constant external reinforcement.

There will be times, however, when it seems that these narcissistic supplies have been lost—whether through loss of love, or loss of security, or loss of self-esteem itself—and we will tend to get angry. Normally, the anger is directed toward the person responsible for the loss we feel. But it often happens that this anger also becomes turned against the self. Then that self-directed anger becomes self-blame—and guilt.

So why does anger get turned toward the self? It might happen out of a perception that you could have done something to protect yourself from being so vulnerable to loss, and, having failed to do it, you feel deserving of condemnation. It could be that someone from your past treated you like an object for his or her own pleasure and you have come to believe that you are nothing but garbage. It could be that the person responsible for the hurt in the first place was someone loved, and it might feel too psychologically risky to be angry at such a person. After all, the person might withdraw “love” in retaliation. Or it might happen that the hurt was caused by some trauma or disaster, and, though you might blame God, if you’re at all religious you will feel bad for being angry at God, and so you will blame yourself while secretly hating God.

So there you are, trapped in self-hatred, a lonely victim, stuck in “anger turned inwards,” right in the middle of depression. 

Now, as described by Saint John of the Cross, spiritual purgation can afflict souls with “abandonment, supreme poverty, dryness, cold, and sometimes heat. They find relief in nothing, nor does any thought console them. . . .” [3] Although this sounds quite a bit like depression, there is a big difference. 

As Saint John of the Cross points out, the oppressive afflictions experienced in purgation are caused by the very flame of God which imparts His love. Purgation is, therefore, an act of God’s love, and even though our narcissistic supplies may be stripped from us as a spiritual process, the purpose of it all is to bring the soul’s infirmities to light: “they are set before its eyes to be felt and healed.” [4]

In depression there is nothing but darkness, yet it is not seen as darkness or recognized as darkness. Blind to divine reality, this darkness seems to be the only reality. “For it is impossible to perceive one’s darknesses without the divine light focusing on them.” [5]

In contrast to depression, in our willingly accepting our spiritual purgation and confronting our own darknesses—however oppressing the process may feel—we experience love, not anger. Nor does spiritual purgation cause us to feel self-hatred, because the sorrow we feel for our sins and inadequacies has nothing to do with blame and, rather than being an obstacle to our progress, is the first step on the path to divine love.

And it is also a step to real prayer and a step away from common, popular “prayer” which in effect says to God, “I didn’t study for this test, so please help me pass it anyway.” Real prayer depends on your being able to recognize the depths of your own helplessness and vulnerability and to embrace divine grace honestly and openly through a life of humble obedience and genuine forgiveness.

In the end, it’s the only path away from being a “victim.”




Whenever we are hurt, for whatever reason, some part of us—usually a child-like part—cries out, “Stop, or I’ll die!” Then, through the tears, a desire for some form of recognition and compensation takes shape. A piece of food, a piece of candy, a piece of money—whatever it might be—brings the teary, blurred world back into focus. Death fades away and life resumes.

That’s the way it works for children.

But that piece of something does not heal the threat of death and disintegration. It only hides it.

In fact, all the “pieces of the world” that we use as identifications to construct our own identities are, in the end, nothing but illusions. That’s why PTSD is nothing but the shocking and painful awareness of what we already know but prefer to hide. The trauma that has brought us just inches from death shows us with shocking clarity that all our defenses against death are just empty illusions. 

Therefore, even as adults, there will always be a child-like part of us who seeks some recognition of our pain and some compensation—some piece of the world, or, in Shakespeare’s terms, a pound of flesh [6]—for any hurt we suffer.

If we get caught in feelings of victimization, then, we will always be trying to tell others what to do. This can happen openly through argumentativeness, protest, or aggression, and it can happen in subtle, unconscious ways, such as sarcasm, cynicism, and passive aggressiveness. And when others don’t do what we want them to do, then we feel even more victimized. It all becomes a vicious circle.

So, as long as we desire any piece of the world—whether it be money, “love,” prestige or anything else—in exchange for our hurt, we will remain hurt and angry victims.

Unfortunately, some souls are so caught in feelings of victimization that they will send themselves right to hell in a futile attempt to “show” the world how mean and unfairly—so they believe—they have been treated. In psychological language, this is called masochism.


Truly, the concept of masochism is not a pleasant issue to examine. For the most part, it’s hidden in cultural shadow, though in the darkest parts of our culture it’s glorified as a defiant lifestyle. Only in psychotherapy that is not stifled by political correctness is it ever dealt with in a spiritually honest and open manner.

Questions and Answers:
More about psychotherapy and masochistic fantasies

If you look back on your life honestly, you will likely see how often you have gotten involved with bad situations. This doesn’t mean that you want to be mistreated; it just indicates that people most often choose what is known over what is unknown. If you have grown up knowing abuse and humiliation, even though abuse and humiliation are not pleasant they are known and predictable, and in that sense they’re comfortable. And that’s masochism in a nutshell: preferring (desiring) humiliation unconsciously because it’s more “comfortable” than facing the unknown with true personal responsibility.

This brings us to the technical psychological distinction between desire (unconscious) and want (conscious). As odd as it sounds, you can very well desire something you don’t even want. And the fact is that unless you resolve this aspect of your unconscious, you will continue to do unpleasant things. The unconscious urge for self-punishment and humiliation will continue to lead you into bad situations, even if consciously you don’t want them at all.

And what is the deepest motivation for all this unconsciously self-inflicted pain? It’s the veiled hope that you can make yourself feel loved. That’s right—it’s the hope that others, in seeing how much you are willing to suffer abuse, will somehow be made to acknowledge you. Then, in seeing yourself reflected in their loving appreciation, you will have the satisfaction of feeling loved. At least, that’s the hope. But it rarely happens that way. The more you try to make yourself loved, the more others despise you.  


This hope of feeling loved reveals the difference between humility and masochism. To live in humility is to live always in total confidence of God’s love, protection, and guidance and therefore to have no concern for yourself when others insult you—or praise you. Secure in God’s love, you don’t have to base your identity on whether or not others acknowledge you. In masochism, on the other hand, you invite others to insult you because, as a psychological defense against the pain of deep emotional wounds, you take unconscious pleasure in being demeaned in the secret hope that you will somehow, someday, earn someone’s admiration for your willingness to endure painful abuse. 


So as long as you continue to say, “Stop, or I’ll die!” you will remain trapped in victimization. So long as you continue to hoard pieces of the world as a way to protect yourself from the fear of your own brokenness, you will remain broken and victimized. Only by accepting the spiritual and psychological death of your worldly identity can you step outside the victim role. Only when you stop desiring to get anything from the world, and only when you start giving [7] to the world what you don’t really “have”—pure, divine love—will you stop feeling victimized. Only by breaking bread and giving it away can you multiply it. 


“Whether a soul is wounded by other wounds of miseries and sins or whether it is healthy, this cautery of love immediately effects a wound of love in the one it touches, and those wounds deriving from other causes become wounds of love.” [8] [emphasis added]


In other words, when the flame of divine love touches us, its purgation is a sort of wounding that purifies everything in the soul—and even old wounds of victimization, along with their desire for revenge and compensation, are transformed into the “wound” of pure love itself. Such is the mystical peace of healing through love. And that, in the end, is God’s will.




So you begin the process of spiritual healing by listening to your unconscious. Examine your dreams. Explore your pain and anger. Face up to the terror of your inner loneliness. Find strength in your weakness. Overcome your fear of losing your identity by giving it up willingly. With devotion and discipline, you will discover the ability to give up your pride, forgive those who have hurt you, and give of yourself in pure love. And then you will be on the path of life and healing.

If, then, I am no longer
seen or found on the common,
you will say that I am lost;
that, stricken by love,
I lost myself, and was found.

—Saint John of the Cross,
The Spiritual Canticle,
The Poem, Stanzas 28-29




Psychology from the Heart
The Spiritual Depth of Clinical Psychology

A collection of texts from the writings of
Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.

More information



Common Issues


Overstretching one’s material resources can result in a loss of faith or an uncertainty about one’s spiritual commitment or direction.

Health Issues

Psychological assistance may be needed with smoking cessation, pain management, and other health problems.

Interpersonal Conflicts

Unresolved family-of-origin difficulties can disrupt personal relationships and generate conflict within communities.

Mental Health

Prayer may have to be supplemented with psychological intervention in order to resolve mental health problems such as mood disorders and anxiety disorders.

Religious Values

It may be helpful to examine one’s sexual desires and needs for “love” in the context of making a commitment to religious values. Furthermore, the failure to understand true love can lead to sexual scandal or pedophilia (child sexual abuse).


A feeling of confusion and a resistance to losing a life-long identity can occur because of a forced retirement from full time work.


Well, I mean psychological “terrorism”. That is, many individuals may vocally advocate radical changes in morality and law—all in an unconscious attempt to heal their own unresolved psychological wounds.


Vulnerability and bitterness resulting from abuse by trusted others may feel like a betrayal by God. Multiple traumas through repetition may lead to victim anger, self-hatred, depression, and a secret anger at God.

Work Stress

Administrative responsibilities can become overwhelming, and, if chronic, can result in Burnout. But “stress” is nothing more than the effect of clinging to a personal identity, not living in true humility, and failing to trust completely in God.




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1. St. John of the Cross, “The Ascent of Mount Carmel.” In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991).
2. St. John of the Cross, “The Dark Night.” In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991).
3. St. John of the Cross, “The Living Flame of Love.” In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991). See 1. 20 (pp. 648–649).
4. St. John of the Cross, “The Living Flame of Love.” In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991). See 1. 21 (p. 649).
5. St. John of the Cross, “The Living Flame of Love.” In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991). See 1. 22 (p. 650).
6. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene III.
7. Note carefully, though, that giving does not refer to the mere sharing of material objects or wealth; it refers to the expression of profound emotional qualities such as patience, forbearance, compassion, mercy, and understanding, which are themselves an expression of divine love.
8. St. John of the Cross, “The Living Flame of Love.” In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991). See 2. 7 (p. 660).

Additional Resources
Pastoral Counseling / Spiritual Direction:
Chastity – In San Francisco?
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology and its Practice:
Anger: Insult, Revenge, and Forgiveness
Death—and the Seduction of Despair
Depression and Suicide
Catholic Links
Dream Interpretation
Identity and Loneliness
The Psychology of Terrorism
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Sexuality and Love
Spirituality and Psychology
Trauma and PTSD
The Unconscious
INDEX of all subjects on this website
SEARCH this website


A Guide to Psychology and its Practice



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