Psychological Asceticism

Acknowledging our wounds draws us into God’s healing graces


YerhotWe often underestimate the experience of contemplative prayer. To be present to the Father’s love inevitably brings about a purification, which is both an intense joy and an equally intense suffering.

Few of us are emotionally prepared for such a purification. It is more than our wounded humanity can sustain if we try to go it alone and close ourselves to the grace of God. Sustained contemplative prayer is impossible without healing and grace.

God understands this. He knows our limitations. He gradually invites us into intimacy with him. Will we accept his plan for our spiritual growth, or will we have unrealistic expectations based on our own agendas and that of others?

We are not born with the ability to tolerate and regulate intense intimacy with God. This is primarily a consequence of original sin and, secondarily, of adverse life experiences. The behavioral sciences demonstrate that we must learn cognitive, emotional and physical skills to maintain intimate and sustained human relationships. The saints of the Church understood this regarding our relationship with God and his people, and for that reason they practiced healthy asceticism.

God graces us with his love and invites us into the crucible of prayer and ministry, but he will ask us to go only as deep as we are capable of, integrating his love into the totality of our lives. Slowly, God draws us close, and if we develop a healthy awareness of our limitations — of our wounds — and learn how to remain open to his grace, then that grace will take us into contemplative prayer. We will grow in spiritual depth and not fall into a cycle of avoidance and distraction, a cycle to which we all are vulnerable. Are we willing to develop this self-knowledge? Will we physically and mentally prepare ourselves to enter contemplative prayer and receptivity to grace, or will we fall into patterns of distraction, avoidance and disintegration due to our wounds?

We need to acknowledge our psychological and physical wounds, share them with a good spiritual director, and then seek spiritual and psychological healing. The saints of the Church call this process purgation, apatheia and hesychia. The behavioral sciences call it affect tolerance, regulation and self-awareness. I call it psychological asceticism, which begins, I assert, by reviewing our trauma history with a spiritual director and, if necessary, a competent therapist.

Alcoholics Anonymous requires a personal inventory in the 12 steps. St. Ignatius recommends the Daily Examen to advance in the spiritual life. Not many years ago, the Church recommended that men periodically make a general confession — that is, a sacramental review of life experiences in need of forgiveness and healing. Might it not also be necessary for the spiritual life to review the history of our personal trauma in which we acknowledge the ways we have been sinned against and harmed by others and by our culture? This is necessary, I believe, to more fully enter into contemplative prayer and ministry. Failure to do so will result in shallowness of prayer and ministry.

A trauma history is not quickly or easily accomplished. It is done under guidance. To begin, you ask God to enlighten you to know the truth of the emotional, relational, social, physical and spiritual injuries sustained in your life, thoroughly identify them in writing and then relate them to a spiritual director. It continues with a gentle but fearless reflection with your spiritual director of the ways these experiences have resulted in confusion and lack of coherence in your life. How have you made sense of these experiences in light of the context of your entire life? Are they enigmatic, disintegrated, inexplicable anomalies, sources of doubt and confusion? Avoid self-criticism. Simply acknowledge your wounds for they are the very places God’s grace will heal you and draw you more closely to himself. Your spiritual director — and therapist if necessary — can assist you to gradually learn the necessary ways of physical, psychological and spiritual healing that lead to a deeper interiority.

This requires great humility and honesty on our part, for we must discard our agendas and preconceptions. With spiritual direction, and for some of us competent therapy, we will over time heal and mature and enter more deeply into the mystery of God’s love.

DEACON ROBERT YERHOT, MSW, is the assistant director-emeritus of the diaconate for the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota. He sits on the editorial board for the Josephinum Diaconal Review and has previously published articles on diaconal spirituality.

Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe now.
Send feedback to us at