Nurturing/ Teaching Courses
Spiritual Formation Institute
Kathleen Fischer, Working with the Emotions in
Spiritual Direction: Seven Guiding Principles, Presence: An International
Journal of Spiritual Direction. Vol.12. No.13. September 2006
Review by Dr Alex Tang
Fisher, obviously a very experienced psychotherapist has given us seven guiding
principles for working with emotions in spiritual direction.
1. Emotions belong at the center of spirituality, not at its edges.
It has taken us a long time but finally we have come to the realization that a
holistic spirituality has emotions at the center of spirituality. I agree fully
with Fisher in this. In many traditions, especially the Evangelical tradition,
we value the intellectual, treating the emotions as unreliable guides. It has
become a major stop for us to acknowledge that we are emotional beings. Donald
Coggan, the 101st Archbishop of Canterbury once said that the longest journey in
our spiritual life is from the head to the heart.
2. Emotions are not opposed to reason, in fact, they are a mode of
“The heart has its reasons that reasons does not know”. I agree with Fisher here
that emotion is a way of knowing. If we learn to acknowledge and name our
emotions and trace it back to the cause, it often gives us new insights into a
lot of issues. That is because of the mechanism of denial that blocks our
reasoning sequence. Fisher also formed a few questions to help us in our prayer
· What is the feeling in me like and how do I picture it?
· Does my anger issue in a sense of resolve and creative direction, or is it
eating away at body and spirit, alienating me from others and interfering from
· Am I choosing to hold tight to feelings of hurt and sorrow in spite of the
grace that keeps me from fully using my gifts in the ministry, or should I risk
moving past it?
· Do feelings of guilt undermine my trust in God and myself, or can I make peace
with my finitude and the limits of life?
· Can I celebrate the joy and peace I experience this day as God’s gift? (p.29)
3. Naming emotions accurately and exploring their relationship to the
Spirit requires patient, attentive listening.
Fischer notes that emotions often come as “interwoven clusters”. Thus it is the
role of a spiritual director to carefully untangle the whole clusters. Often
anger may come together with the fear of death, shame or dearth.
4. Bringing hidden and unacknowledged emotions to awareness frequently
leads to breakthroughs on the spiritual journey.
It has been noted that sometimes we have feelings about our feelings. “We are
ashamed of our sexual desire, guilty about our jealousy, afraid of our anger-and
sometimes the feeling about the feeling is worst than the initial feeling
itself.” (Italics author’s). This is where careful listening and providing a
safe space comes in. A safe space is where a directee can feel secure to explore
his or her own emotions without the feeling or being judged by the director.
5. Tracing emotional memory, the history of how we came to feel the way
we do, often liberates a person spiritually.
We have emotional memories. The smell of cherry blossoms may bring back memories
of a holiday in Japan. Emotional memories offers the director many opportunities
to strengthen or weaken the hold the past. I strongly support Fischer’s
statement that we allow the memories to surface rather than to probe for them.
When a memory, especially a negative memory surface by itself, the directee may
be ready to deal with it. Prematurely bringing out negative memories may be
harmful to the directee.
6. Praying with the imagination and incorporating the arts into
spirituality leads to insight and conversion.
The arts have always had a highway into our heart. Hence the spiritual director
must be familiar with ways of using the arts; creative paintings, music, icons,
mandala to help their directees identify and deal with their emotions.
Imaginative praying especially using bible stories is a powerful tool.
7. Spiritual directors need to pay prayerful attention to their own
emotional experience, inside and outside the time of direction.
Spiritual directors must always be doing their own emotional work so that they
will know where they stand with themselves. Aside from that, they must be
listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. Sometimes, issues
may be hidden from the director by the skilful psychological defenses of the
directee. In such cases, the Holy Spirit will uncover the deception and go to
the heart of the matter.
This is an informative article contain the distilled wisdom from Kathleen
Fischer who has been a psychotherapist and spiritual director for more than
|posted 16 October 2006|