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A Spiritual/Psychotherapeutic Retreat for German Nuns and Laity

Abstract

This article describes what one therapist trained in reparenting methods did over the past few years, including a model of short-term regressive therapy developed in a series of twice a year five day workshops with German nuns conducted from 1992 through 2004. I welcome questions, comments and discussion. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Like many therapists, I have continued to search for powerful therapeutic methods, first for the healing of my own childhood wounds, and then for the healing of those who come to me. I was in training groups and therapy groups with Morris and Natalie Haimowitz for seven years, and then in reparenting training and therapy with Lucie King for three years. I spent four weeks with Bob and Mary Goulding learning their redecision therapy1. I have worked with a residential reparenting community in Birmingham, England, and have long-distance parenting contracts with some of their members. Reparenting leaves a therapist, particularly a male therapist in the United States, open to legal risks that became unacceptable to me. The residential approach of the Birmingham community is difficult enough to finance and defend from attacks in England, but close to impossible to manage in the present health care environment in the U.S. So I began to look for alternative methods for healing early childhood wounds.

I studied the self psychology of Heinz Kohut2, with the emphasis on attunement, at the Center for Religion and Psychotherapy of Chicago. I learned about the importance of the mind-body-spirit connection as the director of the Wholistic Health Center of Oak Park and of the Oak Park Biofeedback Center, and about bioenergetics from Genese Liebowitz and Alexander Lowen.3 I learned the importance of systemic thinking at the Family Institute of Chicago. I studied hypnotic methods and the use of metaphors with Earnest Rossi4 and others who had learned from Milton Erickson5. Morton Kelsey6 taught me how to interpret dreams, and his way of integrating science, theology, Jungian psychology and a personal relationship with Jesus. I learned a lot about integrating psychotherapy with spirituality from A Course in Miracles7, which was popularized by Marianne Williamson in A Return to Love8.

I began to develop an integration of spirituality and regressive psychotherapy in my practice in Chicago and in Chile, and used it in workshops in England and in Germany, as well as in conference presentations in Austria, Chile, and Hungary. To illustrate this method of integrating psychotherapy and spirituality, I will present examples of work with two Roman Catholic Sisters in Germany. Sister Helene Wecker helped me develop this method. In 1986 she attended a dreams seminar which I led in Marburg, Germany. As she continued to work with me on her dreams and her childhood issues, this method evolved. When she was appointed director of a German institute for nuns, she became responsible for a ten month training program of theological and psychological renewal for a class of thirty sisters each year. In 1991 we led our first five day retreat for graduates of the institute, and we have been leading such a retreat once or twice a year since then. We have come to call them spiritual-psychotherapeutic retreats, because they include some elements of an Ignatian retreat, along with elements of group psychotherapy.

, In these retreats, we have an hour of worship at seven each morning with dance, body movement, and guided meditation. After breakfast together we meet sitting in a circle from 9-12. After lunch is free time for prayer and meditation, journaling, a nap, or walks in the mountains. We work in a circle from 3:30-6:30, and after supper is again free time. On the first evening we do some community building and contracting to help people get to know one another and to help us all know each person's goals. Then we share dreams, working with the dream first to find out what it means to the dreamer and then what it means for the group. As the group begins to feel safe, we move more into what they have come to call deep work. The work of one person often triggers the work of another, especially as the participants feel the respect and value accorded to the person who is working, and they see that the person who works gets some important needs met.

I often begin the regressive deep work by asking the client to identify a spirit guide who has power for her. Then I ask her to clarify the presenting problem. When she shows ambivalence about making a change, I work with the ambivalence until it is resolved. Then I ask the client to identify the bodily feeling associated with this problem. I spend some time helping the person get in touch with this feeling, locating the feeling in the body, and if possible finding a metaphor, such as a knot in the stomach, a knife in the heart, etc. Next I invite the person to let that feeling be transformed from an enemy into a friend and guide, who will lead the person back to where the problem first began. This is often with eyes closed and in a state of highly focused internal attention, which could be called guided meditation or a trance state. I ask the person to describe the scene with each of the senses, thus deepening the state and concentrating the attention. Then I invite the person to relive the problematic situation, describing what she sees, hears, and feels as it occurs. When the scene ends, I ask the person what she wants. If it is something that a spirit guide can provide, I invite the person to call the spirit guide. I have had people call many different guides, a grandmother, a two year old boy, an animal, a light, even myself. In my experience, Jesus is usually wiser and more powerful than other spirit guides, but only when there is a relationship of trust with Jesus. I invite the person to call her guide and to describe the guide in detail.

At this point there are two possible problems: (1) Sometimes the guide will not come, usually reflecting ambivalence on the part of the client which needs to be attended to. (2) Sometimes the guide is really the client's parent masquerading as Jesus or another guide. The parent can usually be discerned through the blaming or other things that the actual parent would do. When this happens, I identify it and keep working with the client until the "real" guide appears. Then I invite a dialogue with the guide and ask the person to tell me what is said and everything that happens. Usually the guide knows just what to do to effect healing. I am often amazed at what comes out, which seems to be far beyond my own wisdom or that of the client.

I sometimes explain that since the past does not exist, what actually happened in childhood cannot affect the person today. Only memories can affect the person today, and the memories can change. The new memory of what happened in therapy can be the person's new model for life, if that is what the person wants. I use the metaphor of erasing a videotape and recording a new movie on it. When I have seen the person again, as in ongoing therapy or in the twice a year workshops I do in Germany, the person usually reports a permanent change after such deep work. There are usually other problems that surface, but the problem that was worked on is no longer a problem, because the memory has been replaced. Nevertheless, this only happens when the client is not ambivalent about wanting to change and when the client trusts the spirit guide and is confident of his/her wisdom and power. This change also needs to occur in some kind of a trance state for the change to be effective in the person's unconscious.

A Problem with Father

One Sister knew she had problems with those who were very strong and strict. She feared their criticism. She was given the task of criticizing each of the others in the circle9. This work made it clear to her that she had been projecting the heavy-handed critic in her own head, which came from her father. She recognized that she had never had a real relationship with her father, who was now quite advanced in age.

So, what do you want now?

I want to understand my tough father, and find out what I can do.

What do you want to change in yourself?

I would like to let go of my rejection of my father, and to forgive him.

Close your eyes, breathe deeply and go back slowly into your childhood, to where he first hurt you (watching carefully for bodily signs of a deep state of consciousness, and awareness of a childhood scene). Where are you? How old are you? What do you see?

I'm five. I'm in the kitchen. My father just got off work and is tired and in a bad mood. His name is Oscar. He is washing up for dinner with soap and with Birnstein, because he has been working with animals. I come and watch, speaking fearlessly. My father wants me to shut up and go away. But I just keep on talking. Just as he is about to throw me out, I say to him something I've heard people say: "You are fresh like Oscar!" My father becomes enraged. He curses loudly, dries his hands, and reaches for his belt. I know that means that if I don't get out of there in a hurry, he's going to whip me. I cut out and hide. My mother sends my brother to fetch me for dinner. I'm afraid at the dinner table. My father says nothing, is closed up. I suffer. I know no resolution for this conflict.

What do you want, or what would you like to have happen?

I want to tell my father that I'm sorry, and I want him to forgive me.

Do you want Jesus to be with you?

Yes I'm asking Jesus to come The kitchen door is opening Jesus is coming in.

Describe him. (This is primarily to lead the person into a deeper state where she is more open to receive Jesus.)

Dark blue pants, light colored shirt, blonde hair, sandals. He watches me with a friendly gaze. He beckons me to come to him. I'm jammed in at the table. I climb under the table to get to him. He takes me in his arms, strokes my head, kisses my forehead, and puts his arm around me. My father is uncertain, perplexed, reserved. Jesus turns me around, touches me on the shoulder, and nudges me toward my father. My father just stands there. I extend my hand and say, "Please forgive me. Be O.K. with me again." That took a lot to do. I would like to run away. Jesus gives me an encouraging nod.

My father looks at Jesus, then takes me in his arm and strokes my head, and says, "It's O.K." I weep. I stay with my father. Jesus withdraws and leaves.

This Sister told us later that she was very happy with the work she had done because she was planning to visit her father on the coming weekend. She was quite anxious about the meeting, feeling that her father might have been living so long, just so they could be reconciled before his death.

Can everyone see Jesus in active imagination?10 Some have difficulty seeing Jesus. This ability depends on many factors. Some see nothing in active imagination; others see with their eyes closed, but can't see Jesus. Some go deeper into this meditative state than others. Those who go deeper experience and see more. We accept each one as she is, and what Jesus does with her. However, it is occasionally necessary to discern good from evil, and to see that a Critical Parent is masquerading as Jesus.

One participant wanted to see Jesus, and waited a long time in group for him to appear, but paradoxically, it was only after she had given up wanting to see him and was thankful for what she had received without seeing him, that he showed himself, but very differently from what she had expected. Often it was the case that a participant did not see him because she was conflicted about her desire to see him. Jesus appeared only when she wanted him to come with her whole heart. We experienced how Jesus stayed with a participant for a long time through the difficult process of clarifying her ambivalence. In the cases where a participant could not see Jesus, we found other ways to work.

An Example of Sexual Abuse

One of the most difficult problems in psychotherapeutic and spiritual work is sexual abuse. At the same time, this is such a taboo that most abused children have repressed their memories of the abuse. Normally they can recover these memories only through a lengthy psychotherapeutic process. The basic problem, as I see it, is not the sexual act, but the breaking of trust, which is especially traumatic when the abuser is a close relative, and when the victim (or survivor) is not supported by anyone else in the family, as is often the case. The survivor then loses the ability to trust anyone at a deep level, and this makes the formation of an intimate relationship practically impossible. Of course, this also includes the formation of an intimate relationship with God. A closely related problem of large proportions in the USA is sexual abuse by clergy, psychotherapists, teachers, and others who are in a position of trust.

We can see the magnitude of this problem in one of our participants. She was aware of her deep rejection, even hatred, of her father. She had worked on this issue intensively for years, personally and in spiritual direction, even in psychotherapy. She had the suspicion that the root of the problem might have been sexual abuse, but was unable to remember anything specific. In the course of this retreat she was thrown directly into her core problem of trust vs. mistrust. When the group was discussing the issue of trust, she gave us an example from her life.

The next morning she reported that she felt ashamed of having revealed something from her family life. Shame, in this context, means that the parents in her head did not approve of what she had done. So the leaders took the roles of father and mother, respectively, in dialogues with her. The Sister told us that her mother, torn between her loyalty to her husband and her duty to protect her daughter, had decided in favor of loyalty to her husband, leaving her daughter to fend for herself. The co-leader took the role of a "good mother", who showed that she understood how terribly she had wounded her daughter, expressed her deep contrition, and asked for and received forgiveness. The leader took the role of the father who had had the benefit of twelve years in heaven to think things over. He listened carefully to his daughter and showed her that through his years with God he understood how deeply he had injured his daughter, and that he was deeply sorry, and wanted her forgiveness. She forgave him.

This deep, intensive work moved the other participants so strongly, that they got in touch with similar experiences of their own. They wished that their own parents could have been able to react in such a healthy manner to their abuses of their daughters.

The next morning this Sister brought in the following dream:

It's dawn. I'm climbing up a wide ladder that leads to a high seat. From this seat I see a wounded, hobbling deer, walking on three legs, doing remarkably well. I climb down. The deer comes trustfully to me, letting me bind its foot with a beautiful, snow-white bandage. Then I see a hedgehog tripping along, and I give it a dish of beautiful, snow-white milk.

What she understood from this dream was that, through yesterday's role-play she had gained an objective view, represented by the high seat. The deer is herself; though wounded, she could get along quite well. The snow-white bandage meant that a beautiful healing process had begun the day before. The hedgehog was her father, and the beautiful snow-white milk the forgiveness she had given him yesterday. The double emphasis on "beautiful snow-white" meant to her that she felt cleansed by yesterday's process, that something healing and holy had happened.

Nevertheless her trust issue remained. That same day, when we asked who wanted to work during the next two days, she declined, thinking that she could work out any remaining issues alone with Jesus. We accepted her decision. However, the next morning she gave the following report:

In quiet prayer last evening in the chapel, I was afflicted with a feeling of discontent about my "No," that it could have been a missed opportunity for healing. As I struggled with the day's scripture lesson about blind Bartimaeus, it came to me that Bartimaeus had to throw away his cloak and let himself be carried by others to Jesus, in order to be healed. That helped me come to the decision to throw away my protective cloak of shame and embarrassment, and indeed to do my deep work in the group. Last night I had the following dream:

I see a car with four doors, two small ones above and two larger below, divided like the saloon doors in Western movies. The lower two doors are stuck and can't be opened. Next I see a woman with a child, who seems to be sick or to have something wrong. I don't know what's wrong, nor do I know whether I am this child. They go to the car and try to open the doors. Finally I reach through the upper doors and grab the stuck doors from the inside and lift them off their hinges.

In the dream work she could see that the upper doors stood for her consciousness and the lower doors for her unconsciousness. The latter are stuck. The sick child who lacked something represented the sick child in herself. The difficulty in opening the lower doors stood for the difficult, if necessary, therapeutic work she was in line for. She became aware that she was suffering blockages and relationship difficulties from her suspected painful experience of sexual abuse by her father.

Do you want to work on that?

Yes.

Let yourself go back to the time when this problem first began. How old are you?

I'm four. I'm in the kitchen, sitting on Papa's lap. I'm anxious and sad. Papa is playing and laughing with me. He has his pajamas on and is unshaven. He's playing a game with me called "Hoppe, hoppe, rider," where he bounces me up and down on his lap. Now he's pulling me hard against his body. I am pushing against him with my hands and leaning back as much as I can. I don't want this. Even so, he uses his power to force me against him. It's terrible for me. Now I see Mama coming home from shopping. I'm running to her and saying, "Papa made my pants wet and changed them to clean pants." She doesn't answer me at all; she just goes into the living room to my brother and sister. I am left standing there, afraid and quite disturbed.

What are you needing now?

Someone who can protect and comfort me.

Who would you like to do that?

I want Jesus to come to me.

Can you see Jesus? Is he there?

Yes, he's standing behind me in a bright, radiant garment. He is turning me around and picking me up in his arms. He's looking at me very tenderly, and my eyes are full of tears. I lay my head on his shoulder and weep. He rocks me back and forth. When I have calmed down, he puts me on the floor. I hold his hand very tightly. I ask him if he will always stay with me. He replies that I need have no fear; he will always be with me. I feel light and warmth

Is there anything else that you want now?

I want Jesus to go with me to Mama in the living room. We are going in. Mama is bent over my brother's cradle. My sister is sitting on the floor and playing. Mama sees Jesus and me. I am going toward her, and she is picking me up in her arms. I sense that she loves me deeply, even though she hadn't said so before. Jesus beckons Mama to him and goes out. Now I'm playing with my sister. Papa wasn't there, and didn't come later, either.

It should be said that the work with the Sisters did not proceed as one sentence after another, but included many long pauses. The participants quietly and prayerfully supported the Sister who was working. The leader furthered the process through directed comments or questions, only a few of which are recorded here.

Later she added the following:

Now I know why I never talked about anything important with my mother. I spoke with my sister instead, because in this very difficult situation I didn't get a single word for an answer. I feel freer and lighter after this Jesus therapy. I am happy. This situation had always followed me, and now Jesus has gone into it with me and healed me with his love, his tenderness, and his comfort.

Considerations

Creating a supportive, protective environment for such a workshop is very important. I use elements I learned from Jack Gibb's TORI method, (Trust, Openness, Responsibility, Interdependence) and Scott Peck's Community Building Workshops.11 In an adaptation from TORI, I invite people to form pairs and share something they are uncomfortable about, as well as what led them to come to the retreat. Then I ask the pairs to form groups of four and share what is still uncomfortable, and their goal for the retreat. Then in a total group, they share what they plan to do to achieve their goal. The progression from pairs to the total group, sharing a feeling at each stage, helps the group begin to develop a feeling of trust and intimacy.

Regressive therapy with active imagination does not replace institutional reparenting such as is practiced in the reparenting community in Birmingham, England (THAT Community), for healing deeply traumatized schizophrenics. It is, however, a powerful form of regressive therapy which can be done in an outpatient setting without parenting contracts. By inviting the person to work with her own inner Child, with Jesus or another spirit guide as the healing agent, transference with the therapist is minimized.

Where people have a different understanding of the spiritual, I seek to use terms that are compatible with their experience, such as inner wisdom or guiding spirit. I seek to discover the terms that have meaning to them before I begin the work, so I can stay within their frame of reference.

Notes:

1 Goulding, M. M., & R. L. (1979). Changing lives through redecision therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

2 Kohut, H. (1971). The analysis of the self, A Systematic Approach to the psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personality disorders. New York: International Universities.

3 Lowen, A. (1990). The spirituality of the body: Bioenergetics for grace and harmony. New York: Macmillan.

4 Rossi, E. L. (1985). Dreams and the growth of personality. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

5 Erickson, M. H. (1980). The collected papers of Milton H. Erickson on hypnosis. New York: Irvington.

6 Kelsey, M. T. (1974). God, dreams, and revelation. Minneapolis: Augsburg.

7 - (1975). A course in miracles. Glen Ellen, CA: Foundation for Inner Peace.

8 Williamson, M. (1992). A return to love. New York: HarperCollins.

9 I learned this technique of having the person interact with each person in the group from the Haimowitzes.

10 Kelsey, M. T. (1972). Encounter with God (pp. 185-195). Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship.

11 Peck, M. S. (1987). The different drum: Community-making and peace. New York: Simon and Schuster.

John B. Houck, Ph.D.
5236 S. Cornell Avenue
Chicago IL 60615-4212
Cell: 773-263-8855
Fax: 773-304-1483
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http://www.therapistfinder.net/houck.html
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