Spiritual Art Therapy: An Alternative Path

Evolution Of A Spiritual Approach To Counseling

“The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”
-Victor E. Frankl

In the beginning, I experienced an extraordinary surge of energy associated with the purpose behind this book. Yet, often I felt unworthy of the task as well as inept in my pursuit. In fact, several times before I began this book, I played with ideas of coauthoring it with another – an associate, a psychologist, a priest, anyone who would have more knowledge than I have about spirituality, mental health and / or God. I suppose I was so overwhelmed by this task, that I felt sharing it with someone would protect me from my projected criticism. I felt not only inferior for such a formidable task, but also (quite honestly) unprepared in the Judeo-Christian sense to tackle such work. After all, I was hardly cut from the teachings of divinity school. But having been raised Jewish only to convert to Catholicism in my later years certainly gave me an edge on guilt and the original sin. After all, I had enough guilt for both worlds. Yet, somehow, in my heart, I knew I had to tackle this alone and couldn’t rest on others’ coattails.

It is a difficult subject. Just the mere mention of God and psychotherapy is often enough to alienate one from several camps. But after all these years, I have decided that there really is only one camp from whose helm I derive comfort.

Still, allowing God’s work to infiltrate my existence as a therapist and clinician was simply uncharted territory, and, I might add a continuous struggle. This was due not only to my conflicts with associates but more alarmingly to my own resistance. In the words of Father Paul, an Indian priest, whom I tested: “The distinguishing of humanity that doesn’t permit the mingling of God …my own self interests… my own motives…those are times I keep God away…The closer you are to God, the more you’ll be tested, the more that humanity comes to your mind and that is quite testing. So the struggle is always there. That struggle is possible to keep God away from you. You can’t really sustain that struggle and realize that God is in there waiting.” And, how true that is. To continue the battle is exhausting and akin to anxiety, which exerts an inordinate amount of counterproductive, negative energy. Yet surrendering one’s existence and succumbing to such ministry is enormously difficult in the face of the challenging opposition.

Early Stages

Formerly, I intended the Belief Art Therapy Assessment (described in Chapter 3) to be a phenomenological investigation of people’s belief (or disbelief) in God and how that theosophy impacted them as they functioned both within their families and society. Nevertheless, it became clear that there were numerous factors that also needed to be configured. Yet, the ability to test subjects was not as clear cut as one might think. Because of the religiosity, it was not possible to gather information and test subjects in the usual manner.

For example, requests to administer this test were naturally rejected by the public school sector. So as a result, acquiring the information from a small batch of subjects from varied religious backgrounds was my only recourse. My hope was that the test be “ecumenical, eclectic, and empirical” as described by Bergin (1991). He proposed the following inclusion of spiritual orientations in the strategies for assessment and eventual treatment: 1) a conceptualization of the spiritual within the human experience, 2) a moral frame of reference, concluding that therapy is not value-free, suggesting universal limitations for human behavior, and 3) the use of spiritual techniques to improve the practice of psychotherapy.

In an attempt to incorporate these elements, I developed an interview format (which will be presented in Chapter 3) that preceded the actual BATA. Conducting these questions enabled me to ascertain background information, which not only summarized a subject’s spirituality and religiosity but also gauged nodal events that may have contributed to the person’s belief system and / or change in belief system. Yet it became crystal clear that a subject’s responses to these questions could be both saccharine and /or superficial. So, it became necessary to conduct the BATA only when the patient questioned his belief system and after other diagnostic tests had been administered. The reason was twofold: a) this is predicated on the patient’s lead and b) the previous tests offer the administrant enough sense of a patient’s operational functioning to rule out false or misleading responses to the interview component of the BATA.

Not only age, sex, population, religion, et cetera was considered but more specifically, common icons that seemed to be appearing in the responses of the subjects. Some of the symbols were of no surprise both from an historical and psychological perspective. Yet what was truly amazing was how these symbols seemed to cut across the different strata of the populations surveyed. And so in addition to the literature review, there was the overwhelming task of collating the symbols and attempting to decipher their meaning, even if that meant “imagicide” (Moon, 1990). But it became all too clear that analyzing this data, while possibly quite relevant information, took a back seat to interviewing people and gathering information that could impact the inclusion of the person’s spiritual component in treatment. It seemed that talking to people about God’s impact in their lives was more relative to the quest then collating the symbols and analyzing the results. The data merely punctuated the study. But the discussions generated spirit. The essence of the art was to transliterate this language.
Initial Impressions

The first person that I tested was four years old; his name was John, and his religion was Roman Catholic. When I asked him to draw, paint, or sculpt what it was that God meant to him, he began to draw a symbol that had three distinctly closed elevations. It was colored in a bright yellow that seemed to exude light. When he finished, I politely asked him to explain his drawing. He stated quite matter-of-factly (and as if I should know) that it was a “crown.” And I went on to ask him “how a crown meant God to (him)?” And just as certainly as he drew it, he replied, “A crown is a treasure and God is a treasure to me.”

The simplicity and eloquence that he imparted through his meaning astounded me. I knew right then and there that this journey was going to be like no other. It was also abundantly clear that the spiritual dimension was linked to an ethical basis of human existence. Because of that truism, pursuing the spiritual dimension always needs to be tempered within the ethical confines of one’s belief system.

The conversations with subjects of this study have left me abashed, amazed, and inspired. It has also confirmed my suspicions that when a patient has no one to turn to either through adversity or choice, often times the last stopping ground is God. I have witnessed this not only in my patient’s lives, but also more importantly, in my own.

I remember all too painfully the accidental death of my father and surrounding aftermath. Because of extenuating circumstances, there was little to no time to truly mourn my losses, except when I went to temple. As I went to the minyan service for my father (a daily ritual which mourns the dead until the first anniversary of the death), I always weakened. I’m not sure if I could attribute this to being in the house of God, the Hebrew rituals, or just taking part in the kaddish (daily prayer for the dead), but something allowed me to breakdown, cry, and air my losses. Not even my therapist’s office offered me such solace. To this day, whenever I enter church or temple, I am reduced to my senses.

Yet this is really not an anomaly – others, too, have experienced solace when in the house of God. But for some, the communion with God be it in a church or temple, has caused enormous duress. In my private practice, this often bridled recovery.

Almost all of my patients were Catholic, all of them were struggling with mourning and loss (although the etiologies were quite varied) and all were grappling with their relationship or non-relationship with God. Naturally, these similarities made me quite curious. My first step was to ask the priest of my parish what he thought about the preponderance of Catholics seeking my counsel as well as the primacy of their unrest regarding their relationship with God. His response, “We’re all screwed up!” while stated in jest, was not far off the mark.

I pondered this for sometime (about six years) and while I continued to chip away at my practice and my patients’ issues, I realized there had to be more to this than mere coincidence. This brought me back to a time of unrest within my own therapy and simultaneous controversy with God. I remembered sitting in my therapist’s office and discussing my anger with God. My therapist questioned my debate over whether or not to seek counsel from my priest or from him. Naturally, she chalked up a portion of my battle to the age-old theory of patient / therapist resistance (a.k.a. – negative transference). But, it was more than that. The aversion to my therapist and simultaneous disfavor for my priest was not just therapeutic resistance and discomfort with confession but more significantly, it was an reaction to God and spiritual development. Unfortunately, either my therapist never figured this out or chose not to interpret this directly to me. But, I finally stumbled upon this truism years later when I encountered similar combat through my patients’ warring with God and spirituality. In writing about spirituality, Jaoudi (1993) stated many truisms that hit home.

Specifically, she stated:

“Psychology is the detergent, which will eventually lead us into the real developing a solid spirituality. Psychology opens and cleanses us; spirituality leads us into freedom; … The de-conditioning path, the path of letting go of everything, is the path to receiving that which is so much greater than the unreal possessions of the conditioned ego … The primary work is to come closer to God, and to share that love with humanity and all of creation. Secondary characteristics will indeed appear, but one is to either hide them, or only use them to further the work of mercy.” (p. 23-25)

Hence, I realized that if I had been privy to my patients’ clashes with God and /or spiritual struggle from the inception of treatment, perhaps I would have handled their treatment differently. It became apparent that a tool should be developed that could assess one’s belief system, gauge one’s spirituality, and offer an avenue for treating the whole person – mind, body and spirit. So, out of necessity, I developed the Belief Art Therapy Assessment. If it opens the door for even one person, then the work is not in vain. While the data could certainly be analyzed to ascertain commonality of symbols amongst certain populations, that was not the intent behind this work. Instead, the investigation was to provide an avenue for inquiry into one’s belief and faith systems. The premise was to be inclusive of community since culture weaves a biologic thread that wefts our existence and indeed guides our actions. And so for the doubting Thomases, I offer spiritual art therapy not as a panacea but as a route for exploration, ministry, and perhaps health.

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