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Spiritual Pathology

Spiritual pathology describes how we can distort and undermine our spiritual path and its practices, because of our own deep unresolved inner emotional wounds and issues.

I have written in 'Spiritual Life and the Shadow' how part of our unconscious self - the Shadow - can influence us in often unrecognised ways. We can take this a step further to understand how it can also influence the way we view and distort our chosen spiritual path and its practice; the delusions we can create around our spiritual beliefs and practices to collude with our own, often unacknowledged, inner issues. Too often, then, our spirituality becomes simply another expression of our personal pathology.

In today's world, we are sadly only too aware of what we might term 'Religious Pathology' - how the doctrines and teachings of religion can be distorted to fit our own personal or collective agendas; the familiar litany of horrifying behaviours justified in the name of a particular religion. In the Christian faith (the only one I'm qualified to speak about) this ranges from the brutal massacres of the medieval Crusades where Crusaders (led to believe their actions would offer them and their families a quick route to heaven), were instructed to cry out the words 'God wills it' as they thrust their swords into the bodies of their enemies; through the torture and murder of so called 'heretics' on both sides in the16th century Reformation; on to the Westernisation of so called primitive native societies in the name of the Christian God, to the suppression of women in Christian society. All examples of religiously disguised and justified forms of individual and societal anger, hatred and intolerance.

But while we now widely recognise this dark side of religion, we are less aware of how spirituality, often viewed in a more positive light in our current world, can also have a dark side to it.

Dr David Benner, an American Psychologist and Christian spiritual writer, sadly but truthfully recognises how spirituality does not always add value to life in terms of making people more human and whole:

'' Honesty forces me to conclude that the spiritual path can lead to an escape from a robust commitment to reality, the repression or dissociation of sexuality, disconnection from the emotions, alienation from the body, and increasing distance from one's unconscious depths. Too easily, spiritual practices lead to an increasing identification with those of one's own religious tribe and an ever-weakening sense of solidarity with all human kind. Too easily, spirituality involves a narcissistic me-and-God relationship that insulates us from, rather than sensitizes us to, the problems of our world. Too easily, it is associated with a focus on beliefs rather than being. Too easily, it directs us away from life rather than towards genuinely deeper, fuller and more vital life. ''

There is so much to ponder in these words when reflecting on our own spiritual path, starting with the need for a deep commitment to reality. Too often, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenged, we can treat this world as a 'penultimate' place of less importance. And we can avoid facing reality as it is in ourselves or for others, escaping into what we choose to imagine or like it to be, based on our own pathology. As a meditation teacher in India once said to me, 'You have to start where you're at,' rather than where we'd like to be in ourselves, rather than the illusions through which we may choose to see the world or ourselves - for good or for ill. We need to face that reality not insulate ourselves from it.

It takes discernment on our path to be able to tell the difference between pathological spirituality, chosen and driven by our own issues, and authentic spirituality; between spiritual practices and beliefs that foster the healthy development of a person and those that can cause harm at some level. It's not always easy. The example I gave in my article on Spiritual Bypassing (a form of spiritual pathology), of the person so often praised as a shining example in our spiritual communities, who runs around continuously seeking to serve the needs of others, often to great physical and personal detriment to themselves, looks from the outside like a truly compassionate Christ-like individual. It's only knowledge of the inside that reveals the true pathological nature of that service and the psychological harm of putting a spiritual veneer over the inner unresolved wound. In the Christian tradition we understand that God desires 'truth in our inner most parts' (Psalm 51). We are to give ourselves to be truly transformed, not to use spiritual practices to try and push away, or cover up, our issues to feel good (or bad) about ourselves.

I sadly meet many people in our Christian communities who deep down (often hidden under a bright exterior) suffer from a chronic lack of self-esteem combined with a sense of worthlessness that has, sometimes, been infused into the person's psyche by a pathological religious upbringing or context. A distorted notion of the Christian understanding of being a 'sinner,' combined with a sense that the Christian value of 'humility' is about self-depreciation, rather than acknowledged dependence on God, can leave a terrible wound in the human psyche. Coupling this with a distorted image of God as a kindly but vengeful tyrant, can leave people fearful of their own humanity and the world.

So often the illusions that underlie our pathology are rooted in distorted images of Jesus and God we have been given in our formative years, or choose to adopt later because they agree with our own pathology. For example, if we carry a deep sense of worthlessness we may choose to join religious communities that emphasise our 'fallenness' above all else, drawn to collective circumstances that unconsciously collude with our personal pathology. We see one side of the paradox and tension of the Christian understanding of God and not the other - here the God of anger and judgment dominates over the God of mercy and love. Another example is to see Jesus as nonconfrontational, meek and mild, and that, therefore, gives reassuring permission to avoid any uncomfortable conflict in life, rather than to also see Jesus' assertive anger and the radical challenge He offered. We resolve the paradox to make truth simple, and do so based on our own issues, rather than try and live with the paradox as a way of growing and maturing our faith and life (see Living with Paradox).

Healing our distorted images of God can be a fundamental step in healing our own personal issues, an opening up of our blinded eyes. One helpful book on this (particularly for those who struggle with an image of God as a friendly but vengeful tyrant) is 'Good Goats: Healing our Image of God' by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn & Matthew Linn. And I will write more at some stage on working with our images of God in the spiritual life.

Sometimes, having someone independent, skilled and understanding to talk to about our spiritual journey can be a helpful sounding board. Professor David Tacey* reflects on how the role of the spiritual director has often provided this:

'Today, with so much ignorance and sentimentality attached to the spiritual domain, it is relatively easy to pass off pathology as spirituality. This is one reason why in previous times, religious traditions insisted that every spiritual journey should be monitored by a spiritual director, who might be able to save us from the possibility of delusion or regression.'

Spiritual direction is not about being told what to do or believe, but it is a safe and contemplative space for you to explore and reflect on your journey, to grow in holiness (wholeness) and, in an atmosphere of non-judgmental compassion, gently face the truth of your own reality, discerning God's presence and work in your life.

*Professor David Tacey 'Gods and Diseases: Making Sense of our Physical and Mental Wellbeing.'

Photo: Cragside House Staircase Wall. Image & © David Whitton Photography

Photo: Celle (Four Windows). Image & © David Whitton Photography

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