We are the Priests of secular culture. Mister Rogers and me and my clinical colleagues.
Acceptance, unconditional positive regard, warmth, empathy, compassion. We are Church for both the unchurched and many Churched-folk who find sanctuary and solace within the space and time of the clinical hour.
Let’s face it. The Church has not been doing its job for some time. It’s nothing new. People flock to psychologists and therapists of various ilks to cure their ills. We all know it. Masters Degree programs in psychology and counseling know it and they are proliferating while church attendance is dropping precipitously.
We are the new houses of prayer. We are the new confessionals where people come to pour out their souls, where people seek absolution from their failures and neuroses (sins, in Church-parlance). The clinical setting is the new sacred space and therapists are the new priests.
Our partners in crime in this takeover of the sacred are the multitude of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and other 12-step groups throughout the land where men and women who have gone sober relinquish the demands of their selfish egos to a Higher Power. Church is alive and well — it’s just forwarded its new address to a different set of locations. There are no rolls or stewardship campaigns, no mission committees or Boards of Trustees. But attendance Monday through Saturday is incredible.
Insurance companies don’t like to think about such things. They are leery of anything that smacks of religion — what Freud referred to as “the opium of the masses.” But the word religion comes from the Latin root word which means “to connect” — to reconnect to what is essential in being human and alive. Which, by the way, is what therapy is about: reconnecting with ones soul, reconnecting with one’s significant other, reconnecting with the wellsprings of life and of justice.
What is missing from the new Church of therapy is a moral compass in many cases. We still need a moral compass, a system of values to guide us in an age of postmodernism where absolutes supposedly don’t exist. But some therapists get it.
The morality of compassion is universal, for example. Carl Rogers, one of the founders of modern psychotherapy modeled this. More recently, as depicted in the movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Tom Hanks does a splendid job of portraying a Christ-likeness that is more symbolic than literal — and yet, every bit as powerful as the Gospel character from Galilee. Mister Rogers embodies compassion. Feelings matter, and he’s not afraid to “go there” with children or adults: anger, sadness, pain, divorce, death. The existential moments of human life are all on the table in the sacred neighborhood of Rogers-land. Take your shoes off with him — you’re instantly on Holy Ground.
On one occasion, Mister Rogers is talking with a little boy whose story is one of unspeakable pain and suffering. The journalist interviewing Mister Rogers for an article in the magazine Esquire notices that Mr. Rogers whispers something in the little boy’s ear. Mister Rogers shares that he asked the little boy to pray for him — Mister Rogers! The journalist comments that it makes sense that Mister Rogers wanted to help the little boy feel that he mattered. But Mister Rogers quickly responded. He asked the boy to pray for him, not because the boy needed to feel special; but because Mister Rogers himself needed the boy’s prayers. Anyone who had suffered as much as this boy had suffered must be very close to God!
We therapists are close to God everyday because we are close to the suffering of individuals, couples, and families who are hurting. They have come to us because they believe we will listen without judging, honor their pain without giving cheap advice, and steer them towards hope without the kind of preaching that is often frightening and judgmental. We are humans together and we are doing sacred work. We get to see grace-in-action every day.
In this sacred clinical space, we pray for each other, indeed. Church.