Therapy of Family, Community, and Church

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

Thirty years ago, Philip Rieff wrote a book entitled, The Triumph of the Therapeutic. In it, he argues that the widespread need for private therapy today exists mainly because community has broken down. In societies where there are strong communities, he contends, there is much less need for private therapy, people can more easily live with or work out their problems through and within the community.

If Rieff is right then the answer for at least some of the problems for which we seek professional therapy today is fuller participation within community life, including church life, rather than private therapy. We need, as Parker Palmer suggests, the therapy of a public life.

What is meant by this? How does community heal and strengthen us? In caption, community (life beyond our private selves and private intimacies) is therapeutic because it draws us outside of ourselves, gives us a steadying rhythm, helps us feel ordinary, and connects us with resources beyond our private helplessness.

Simply put, to participate healthily within community and family takes us beyond the pathology and fragility we so often sense within the recesses of our own souls. Community steadies us. It has a rhythm and regularity that helps calm and make ordinary the feelings of disorientation, depression, paranoia, and obsession which can wreak havoc in our private lives. Participation in community gives us clearly defined things to do, regular stopping places, and regular events to structure and steady us. This is a commodity that no therapeutic couch can provide. Beyond this, community links us to resources that can empower us beyond our own helplessness. What we dream alone, remains a dream. What we dream with others can become a reality.

This may seem abstract, so let me try to illustrate it: While doing doctoral studies in Belgium, I was privileged to be able to attend the lectures of Antoine Vergote, a renowned psychologist and doctor of the soul. I asked him one day how one should handle emotional obsessions, both within oneself and when trying to help others. His answer surprised me. He said something to this effect: "The temptation you might have, as a priest and a believer, is to simplistically follow the religious edict: `Take your troubles to the chapel! Pray it all through. God will help you.' It's not that this is wrong. God and prayer can help. But obsessional problems are mainly problems of over-concentration - and over- concentration is broken mainly by getting outside of yourself, outside your obsession. So, to break an obsession, get involved in public things - from entertainment, to politics, to work. Get outside of your closed world. Enter more into public life!"

He went on, of course, to distinguish this from the simplistic temptation to simply bury oneself in distractions and work. His advice here is not that one should run away from painful inner issues, but that solving one's inner private problems is also, and sometimes massively, dependent upon outside relationships, both of intimacy and of a more public nature.

Thus, for example: For 16 years I taught at a theological college. Many is the emotionally unstable student, fraught with every kind of inner pain and unsteadiness, who would show up at that college and slowly get emotionally steadier and stronger during his or her time there. That new strength and steadiness came not so much from the theology courses themselves, but from the rhythm and health of the community life within the college. These students got well not so much from what they learned in the classrooms but by participating in the overall life of the college itself. The therapy of community life helped heal them. How?

The rhythm of community, it constant interaction, its regularity, its demands, it common prayer, its common meals, its social interaction, all of these conspire to help steady the unsteady, order the chaotic, firm up the fragile, and give those who feel abnormal a sense of being ordinary. There is a healing and wholeness that can only come from participation in community life. To feel ordinary, it helps to be immersed in the ordinary.

More specifically for us as Christians: The therapy of community life also means the therapy of an ecclesial life, church life. We become emotionally well, steadier, less obsessed, less a slave of our own restlessness, and more able to become who and what we want to be by participating within the life of the church. Monks, with their monastic rhythm, have long understood this, namely, that program, rhythm, public participation, the demand to show up, and the discipline of the community bell have kept many a man and woman sane, not to mention relatively happy.

Regular Eucharist, regular prayer with others, regular church meetings, and regular duties and responsibilities within a community or family not only nurture the soul, they keep us sane and steady. Private therapy can sometimes be helpful in supplementing this, but church life, with its regular rhythms and demands, can help provide a steadiness that's not available on a therapist's couch.