Coronavirus, mental health, and the spiritual life: A priest psychologist offers tips from St. Ignatius
CNA Staff, Jul 31, 2020 / 10:00 am MT (CNA).- Since 2014, Fr. Roger Dawson has run a retreat house in the idyllic countryside of north Wales. When the U.K. went into lockdown in March, he was forced to cancel retreats. But he was determined to find a new way of offering spiritual direction.
After talking to other priests at St. Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre, he launched a telephone service for those struggling to cope with the pressures of the coronavirus crisis.
He said the service was “extremely well received,” with around 150 people taking part in one-to-one conversations with clergy.
Dawson, who served in the British Army for nine years before training as a clinical psychologist, told CNA that the phone conversations revealed common problems. He also discussed how the Catholic faith can alleviate them.
The most common experience was fear. Dawson said this was to be expected because of the deadly nature of COVID-19, which has claimed the lives of more than 46,000 people in the U.K. — the third highest recorded death toll in the world.
But he suggested that the official response to the crisis could have a long-lasting psychological impact.
“In order to get people to comply, the government frightened people. That may well have been necessary, but the difficulty is that once you frighten people, it’s really quite difficult to unfrighten them. People haven’t necessarily got all the knowledge or skills to identify what the risks are,” he said.
He recommended meditating on the Gospels as a way of combating fear, highlighting Matthew 5, in which Jesus proclaims the Beatitudes.
He also encouraged people to reflect on Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to “Be not afraid.” This didn’t mean that nothing bad would ever happen to followers of Jesus, he said, but rather that “Not even death can destroy the love of God.”
The psychology of crisis
Dawson said that one helpful way of looking at the pandemic was through “personal constructive theory,” a concept pioneered by the American psychologist George Kelly in the 1950s.
“What personal construct theory is saying is that we’re basically meaning-makers,” he said. “As a result of our experience, and what we’ve learnt and been told, we build mental maps that help us to navigate our way around the world, and to understand ourselves, our situation and other people. And wise people are people who have very sophisticated and detailed maps.”
He continued: “What happens in a crisis is that something happens, new information comes in, that simply does not fit this map, and one of the things that’s so destabilizing for people is not just the event itself, but ‘I can’t make sense of this. I thought I was safe and I’ve discovered I live in a highly dangerous world.’”
“All your expectations about what the future would hold, or how these relationships work, or how people relate to you or treat you, totally changes and it needs a different map in order for the person to navigate the experience. At the beginning of the crisis, they haven’t got a map that works for this experience.”
Dawson said this process could be seen in the biblical story of the road to Emmaus, where Jesus presents the disciples with a “new map” to understand the events in Jerusalem.
But accepting a new map required “a lot of psychological energy,” he explained, and often people experience anger or despair before they do so.
“In some ways, that’s what we’re having to do spiritually all the time,” he said. “Any Catholic who simply resolutely holds on to the map that they were given when they were catechized for their First Holy Communion isn’t going to get very far in their spiritual lives and grow and deepen in their knowledge and understanding of God, because those maps are for young children, not for adults who’ve got to cope with the world and life experience.”
“So a lot of what we’re doing at St. Beuno’s is helping people to deepen their understanding of God and be changed, and think about things differently, and live differently and live more deeply, with a better map.”
What we need to thrive
Dawson noted that another common experience during the pandemic was depression. He said that a concept known as “self-determination theory” could help to explain why.
“Self-determination theory is a theory about human flourishing and conditions needed for people to thrive,” he explained. “The theory quite simply states that we have basic psychological needs, in the same way that we have basic physical needs.”
“These are: the need for a sense of autonomy — to have some sense of control and agency in your life and environment; the need for a sense of relatedness — to be connected with people who care about us, love us and who will talk to us and show interest in us; and a need for a sense of competence — that is, to be doing the things we’re good at or, if we’re asked to do things we’re not good at, we’re getting the support and help from other people to get the scaffolding so that we can achieve.”
“If these needs are met, people thrive, reliably and predictably. The crisis has deprived people of their sense of autonomy. It’s deprived people of a lot of their relationships or, in many cases, put things under severe strain. And it’s deprived people of doing things they’re good at.”
Dawson cited a University College London study which found that both depression and anxiety levels have fallen as the lockdown has eased.
“You probably would expect people’s reaction to fear to settle down. Part of it’s biologically driven because the adrenaline and cortisol which fires up the system just calms down after a while. So you would expect people to get used to the anxiety and for it to settle. But the absence of depression and the absence of anxiety doesn’t equal flourishing,” he said.
Dawson described his own experience during the crisis as one of “attrition.” He compared it to a four-and-a-half month tour of duty he undertook in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and a five-month stint in the Falkland Islands shortly after the war between Argentina and the U.K. in 1982.
Since he arrived at St. Beuno’s (pronounced “St. Bye-no’s”), he has regularly climbed Snowdonia, the highest mountain in England and Wales.
He said: “For the months of April and May, which were beautiful here, I’ve been able to see those mountains but not go there. So there’s that sense of attrition, of being cut off from things that refill the tanks.”
Missing the sacraments
Dawson said that Catholics faced a specific challenge during the lockdown: the absence of the sacraments. He suggested that for many people this was a “traumatic” experience.
“The thing that I think is so powerful about our sacramental system is that it makes our faith physical and flesh and blood,” he said.
“All of our sacraments are to do with flesh and blood, not just in terms of the Eucharist. It’s another flesh-and-blood person who anoints you. It’s a flesh-and-blood person who speaks the words of absolution. This is the way that our faith is made incarnate. For the faith to be made disincarnate like that I think for many will have been traumatic.”
Yet, he said, this period of deprivation could be an opportunity for spiritual growth.
“The thing about a crisis is that it forces us to rethink things. Any crisis has the potential to reveal deeper truths — I mean that both spiritually and psychologically. So the challenge is to trust that God is in this with us and to hold on until whatever the graces are that God is going bring out of this are revealed. It’s a long Good Friday and Holy Saturday, though,” he explained.
The impact on children
Dawson said that the lockdown could have an especially detrimental impact on children. A report from the Childhood Trust last month concluded that the pandemic put children at risk of developing serious mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress, with acute challenges for those living in poverty.
“Most of a child’s world is taken up with school and family — that’s usually 80-90% of most children’s world,” Dawson said.
“Now, when school is taken out of the equation and when you lose access to all of your friends, that’s extraordinarily difficult. I think we can expect this to have both emotional impact and cognitive impact. By that I mean an impact on both cognitive development and in terms of education, and social and emotional consequences. Six months is a long time for a child.”
He said that the crisis had exposed the chasm between the “comfortable” and the “uncomfortable,” and that Catholics should be inspired by Catholic social teaching to challenge the status quo.
Dawson suggested that the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola could also shed light on what people have experienced during the coronavirus crisis. In particular, he highlighted the saint’s teaching about “consolation” and “desolation.”
He said: “Consolation is, classically, marked by increases in faith, hope and love. Typically, there’s energy and joy and life that go with that. Desolation is the reverse: heart-sinking despair, closing in on ourselves, often focusing on ourselves, and decreases of faith, hope and love, feeling less trusting and confident.”
“Now, the thing about consolation is that it normally sounds like a nice feeling, and it often is. But it isn’t always. There’s what Ignatius calls ‘hard consolation,’ which is the consolation of being in the right place at the right time doing the right thing even though it might be really, really tough.”
“So someone could be at the bedside of a friend who’s dying painfully of cancer, but they’re aware that God’s with them, and they’re aware that they’re in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.”
He gave the example of Mary standing at the foot of the cross.
“She didn’t know what the future was, didn’t know what God was up to, but she was with her Son, with God, trusting, faithful, and waiting for the future to reveal itself. Because as Christians we believe that that future will be good and hopeful. That’s the ground for our hope,” he said.
For those who had mainly experienced desolation during the crisis, he said it was important not to blame oneself for it, but rather to learn from it.
“The temptation in desolation is to give up all the other things, so to stop praying, stop your normal religious practices. But you keep faithful to those, trusting that it will pass.”
He also recommended returning to previous sources of consolation, such as friends, family, and nature.
He said he had found consolation in the nature surrounding St. Beuno’s, where the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins lived and studied in 1874-7.
“I’m in an incredibly beautiful environment here at St. Beuno’s, and just simply going out and looking closely at some of the plants in the gardens: it grounds me. These are small instances of consolation which might not radically change my psychological or spiritual state, but it does remind me of the beauty and wonder of creation,” he said.