Am I responsible for the way I am? Can one get out of depression? How does one overcome anxiety? Are their ways to overcome addiction to drugs or the internet? What can a family do for a member with mental issues? When is a doctor, a psychologist or a priest needed? Is sex an antiquated invention, a game or a taboo? These are just some of the questions that Wenceslao Vial – doctor, priest and professor of psychology and spiritual life at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome – answers in his book “Psychology and Christian life: Care of mental and spiritual health.” Fr. Vial spoke with ZENIT to enter in-depth on several aspects of his book.
ZENIT: How are health, illness and the spiritual life related?
Fr. Vial: Health and spiritual life are closely related, for the remarkable unity of human beings in their physical, mental and spiritual dimensions. Psychophysical disease affects the spiritual sphere, but not necessarily, because many people with poor health grow in their relationship with others and with God, and are full of peace.
To understand this it is useful to look at the example of Saint Thomas. He compares the spirit with a musician and the body with his instrument. The musician, the human spirit, even if not sick, may be unable to play the melody, if the instrument is out of tune or broken. So many times, however, the spirit overcomes the limitations of the instrument and plays in a splendid way. In case of serious diseases, the spirit is unable to manifest itself, as in some dementias and other conditions with significant impairment of intelligence and will. However, a spiritual life, until then rich, can continue to bear fruit, though not noticeable externally. Not only the sick person grows and comes closer to God, but also those who care for him and serve him with love.
There is also a disease of the spirit: to abandon the search for the meaning of existence or simply deny it in advance, to stop wondering why we exist in an ordered universe, to arbitrarily exclude God, and to believe in self-sufficient. These are the roots of sin, the vital incoherence that affects the overall welfare of the individual. How good is it to care for the body and soul, in order to serve God and the others longer and better.
ZENIT: To what extent are we conditioned by our character?
Fr. Vial: The character are the aspects of the way we are, acquired through education, in the family, at school, in the environment in which we live, by positive or negative events. The term comes from the incisions the Greek did in their coins. They left in them a deep, permanent impression. So is the character, but we are not a piece of inert metal.
The strength of the human spirit and influence of grace are able to modify our way of being. If not, how could the Christian resemble more and more Christ? It is a task that requires time, all the time… because the personality is formed until the end of life. To change the way of being we must take into account other factors such as inherited temperament and tendencies. But there’s no excuse: “My parents are like this” or, “these are things of my instinct”. The human being transforms instincts in tendencies – for he is aware of the purpose to which he is directed – and dominates them with intelligence and will. In the challenge to improve, we are not alone: so many people help us by their example and advice; and God works in the depths of our being, even in the unconscious, if we let Him.
Good character formation follows the saying: “If your project lasts a few months sow rice, if it lasts for years plant trees, if it lasts a lifetime form men”.
ZENIT: Depression, anxiety, stress, are important problems of today; is it possible to fight them from the spiritual life?
More than 15% of the population suffers some form of depression and up to 25% experience anxiety disorders. Stress is usually at the base of the two problems. This term, which come from the materials engineering, refers to the pressure affecting our body and fatiguing it. Even the strongest can break if the stress is maintained, as iron breaks when forced for a while.
Spiritual resources help address and prevent many psychological problems, as demonstrated by scientific studies. Healthy spirituality do away with some factors that produce anxiety and depression, without forgetting that mental illnesses have multiple causes, many of them involuntary. It is logical, because the life of relationship with God gives meaning to existence, gives stability, peace and serenity, especially when we consider ourselves in the hands of a Father who does not play randomly with the destinies of people. Among the “weapons” stand out the sacrament of confession: being forgiven, realizing that we have been forgiven and forgive has great healing properties, beyond what would be humanly understandable.
If, for any reason, a break occurs, spiritual life helps us to support and take steps to reduce as far as possible the suffering and find a meaning for it. These measures include medical consultation, in cases of depression and anxiety disorders.
ZENIT: In your book you also talks about sexual disorders, how can one face them with faith?
Fr. Vial: We need to address the human reality understanding it with reason. Faith is, therefore, not necessary to cope with issues related to sexuality. Faced with a disease or disorder, the believer will go to an experienced doctor, as anyone else with common sense would do.
However, I would like to mention two phenomena that hinder the understanding of sexuality from reason: gender ideology and the trivialization of the sexuality.
The first is illustrated by a recent event. In a museum in Vienna, a group of children from seven to nine years old, looked at the picture of the Infant Maria Teresa, painted by Velázquez. I was amused to see that the teacher offered the girls an old dress, similar to that of the princess, with a kind of metal frame on which the skirt is placed. The girls tried it on and took pictures of it with pride. At some point, it was also offered to a boy, who refused it, and the schoolmistress said: “but come on, you can be as Conchita Wurst” (transgender singer). Events like this are sometimes not jokes, but indoctrination of children who do not yet have the capacity to discern. Some people are trying to deny the differences between men and women, putting in doubt an essential identity issue. Freud himself would be amazed to see that the concept of sex is again a taboo, and it is replaced by “gender”, which more resembles the term “cloth”, which you can carry or not and change at will.
The second phenomenon, which is even older, is the trivialization of sexuality, which leads many young people not to wait for the right time to start sexual practice. Many psychologists warn about the risks of these behaviors. Rushing through these stages extinguishes not only love, but the pleasure itself, which eventually disappears. Just as an exploited land needs increasing amounts of products to be fertile again, he who abuses his body as a mere object of pleasure, becomes a slave of an unstoppable consumption of stimulants, pills, images… On this basis, problems arise or crimes such as pornography, prostitution, pedophilia: “the dance around the golden pig”, in the words of Viktor Frankl.
How does one face this situation from the perspective of faith? Striving to better understand human nature, praying for the family and one’s identity, with optimism. Faith is not essential to understand sexuality, but believing in God and the eternal destiny of man helps to respect the meaning of the body and to wait the right time to engage in sexual relation, with true love, which is in marriage.
ZENIT: Why is it important that priests, teachers, educators in the religious centers and spiritual directors are able to connect psychology with the spiritual life?
Fr. Vial: A deep knowledge of the human being involves knowing psychology, without being psychologists: it will be the science of a good father or mother. Often, who suffers pathological feelings of guilt, fall into despair or anguish, will not go first to a doctor or psychologist, but to a friend, a teacher or a priest. Hence, the importance of being prepared and of knowing how to direct the person to other kinds of assistance, if the case requires it.
Familiarity with the “instrument”, mentioned earlier, can allow helping others to play it in the right and the best way. Therefore, whoever is accompanying others on their way to human and spiritual maturity is responsible for training in the understanding of the person and morality. In this way they could give the most accurate advice and know how to discern and help the other trough the right track. The authentic self-realization is only possible when you choose and act according to the moral good.
ZENIT: How do you know if you need a medical doctor, a psychologist or a priest?
Fr. Vial: In some cases, it is simple, as when you have a stomach pain, or suffering from a delusion. In other cases it is so complex that it is not easy to answer in a few lines. Often, the three of them are useful in different cases: the doctor, to face the diseases; the psychologist to help us in discovering and overcoming conflicts, and founding potential distorted beliefs; and the priest, showing Christ as Model and being an instrument for the person to receive the grace of God. Fixed prescriptions that are always effective do not exist, because each person is unique and unrepeatable.
We can give, however, some tips. The first is to understand what is the problem and its roots that explain the symptom: in some cases is a bad idea of ourselves, or considering ourselves useless, or tormenting past events, or the inability to forgive. If identifying the causes quickly, decoding it and relieving the discomfort is not achieved, it is better to seek expert help and allow people who love us to guide us trough the dark. If symptoms, such as reluctance, apathy, excessive nervousness, extend for weeks despite following the advice of a priest or a spiritual director, it may be prudent to consult a physician or a psychologist.
ZENIT: How can one distinguish psychological problems from spiritual difficulties?
Fr. Vial: In the book, I have tried to give suggestions and practical solutions to address different situations; it is not always possible to distinguish. A psychological problem can trigger a spiritual one; and spiritual problems can foster a psychological disorder. Prayer, sincere examination of conscience, the help of a spiritual director who listens patiently, usually manage to find the underlying causes.
It is very important to assess aspects of person’s way of being, in order to determine if they are normal, if you can treat them as “normal defects”, or if there is a personality disorder that requires a specialist. If there are major difficulties in obsessive perfectionism, scruples, impulsivity, emotionality, sensitivity, jealousy, irresponsibility, substance abuse or alcohol, eccentricities, it is more likely that an expert physician or psychologist is needed. The point that divides the normal and the pathological is not so clear. You can consider a trait as abnormal when the person suffers and makes the others suffer, by his nature or consequences.
The Christian life necessarily includes psychological and spiritual concepts. It relies on personal identity, on knowing who you are, that you are limited and finite, and on the faith that we are creatures. On this reality, lies an autonomy that is not absolute, which allows you to choose the means of existence for the project of your existence, which is only possible with hope: that is, if we believe in a mission and we hope to reach the goal. At the summit of the process, we find the self-esteem and charity: only those who know and feel themselves important are able to fully develop themselves. The greatest source of self-esteem is to feel loved by God, and transformed into his children! This conviction allows one to go out of himself, love the others and understand all.