The St. Valentine of Valentine’s Day

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According to Hallmark Cards, each year on Valentine’s Day more than 163 million cards are exchanged – a quarter of all the cards that are sent in a year. How did the name of a third-century Christian martyr become linked with an annual celebration of romantic love? Let’s explore the history of Valentine’s Day…

The roots of Valentine’s Day go back to the time of the Roman Empire. In ancient Rome, February 14th was a holiday to honour the Goddess of women and marriage. The following day, February 15th, began the Feast of Lupercalia.

By the third century the golden era of Roman empire had almost come to an end. Lack of quality administrators led to frequent civil strife. Education declined, taxation increased and trade was difficult. The empire had grown too large to be shielded from external aggression and internal chaos with existing forces. More and more capable men were required to to be recruited as soldiers and officers to protect the nation from takeover. The Emperor Claudius II felt that married men were more emotionally attached to their families, and thus, would not make good soldiers. So to assure high quality soldiers he issued an edict forbidding marriage.

The ban on marriage was a great shock for the Romans. But they dared not voice their protest against the mighty emperor. The Christian bishop Saint Valentine also realized the injustice of the decree. Seeing the distriess of young couples who gave up all hopes of being united in marriage, he planned to counter the monarch’s orders in secrecy. Whenever couples thought of marrying, they went to Saint Valentine who met them afterwards in a secret place, and joined them in the sacrament of matrimony. And thus he secretly performed many marriages for young couples. But such things cannot remain hidden for long and it was only a matter of time before Claudius came to know of these secret marriages and had the saint arrested.

While awaiting his sentence in prison, the saint was approached by his jailor, Asterius. Hearing of Saint Valentine’s divinely given power of healing, Asterius requested the latter to restore the sight of his blind daughter, which he did.

When Claudius met Saint Valentine, he was said to have been impressed by the dignity and conviction of the holy bishop. However, Saint Valentine refused to agree with the emperor regarding the ban on marriage. It is also said that the emperor tried to convert Saint Valentine to the Roman gods but was unsuccessful in his efforts. The saint refused to recognize the Roman Gods and even attempted to convert the emperor to Christianity. This angered Claudius who gave the order of execution of Saint Valentine.

Meanwhile, it caused great grief to Asterius’ young daughter to hear of her miraculous benefactor’s imminent death. Legend says that just before his execution, Saint Valentine asked for a pen and paper from his jailor and signed a farewell message to the jailor’s daughter “From Your Valentine” … a phrase that lived ever after.

Orientation on the Goods of Marriage: Permanence

  Patrick J. DiVietri. Ph.D., CPC, OCDS

“Will you love and honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?”  “I will love and honor you all the days of my life.”

No matter what you do, I will remain married to you till death. I promise always to forgive you.  There is a radical difference between couples who contemplate divorce and those who do not see it as an option.  Those dedicated to preserve the marriage will recover far quicker then those whose purpose is weakened by indecisiveness of possible escape hatches. The mistaken notion that many suffer from is that “God wants me to be happy and therefore I will leave this painful situation to find happiness somewhere else.”  My professional counsel to those who say this is, “God wants you to be happy in this life and the next.  However, the suffering of this life may be part of the happiness in the next life.  We also know that suffering is a part of deepening the capacity for happiness even in this life.”  In light of Faith we may also say that “you may not be happy with this spouse but you will not find happiness with another spouse.”  The only avenue for that happiness is through the vocation to the spouse to whom you have been bound.        It is important to explain to couples the situations where pain might be intolerable and a separation may be required because of grave circumstances.   The two situations that best fit this description are:

  1. Physical abuse of spouse or children that is ongoing and not being remedied
  2. Flaunted infidelity such that the children are aware of it and will be given the message that such behavior is acceptable if separation did not take place.  The separation is for the sake of reconciliation.

Cultural Influences against permanence

There is a need to discuss the problem of the Catholic approach to divorce.  I.e. We don’t get divorces per se so when there is a crisis in the marriage we say, “There wasn’t any marriage in the first place.”  One immediately assumes that there wasn’t a valid marriage in order to justified the civil divorce.

These days, we hate the idea of pain and suffering. We don’t see it as redemptive. We don’t see any value in it. But people who know what love is understand suffering. People who love know that suffering has value. When you love someone, there isn’t anything you wouldn’t endure for that person, including the cross. In the end we know that love conquers all things, because love conquered all things when Christ conquered death on the cross.

One must also address the issue of parental divorce and the effect upon the engaged couple.  One must ascertain the circumstances of the divorce and how the engaged person/couple views the divorce.  They need to consider how they intellectually view permanence and what their experience and emotional development might be.  For example, a common dynamic is as follows:

  1. “I am against divorce.”
  2. “My parents divorced and I don’t want to do that.”
  3. “They divorced because they said it was too painful to be together any longer and that they were better off apart.”
  4. “I love both my parents and I accept their decision.  They really were hurting each other too much and it’s better.”

What’s the experiential message?  “Marriage is permanent but if the pain is too much, divorce is better.”  What will happen when things get really painful?

The individual has to confront this idea and think through how they will make their life different.

What would the couple do?

  1. Do you know of a married couple who gave up on their marriage because their jobs and personal interests pulled them apart?
  2. What would you be willing to do with your own spouse to make your marriage work?
  3. How could you safeguard the permanence of your marriage?

Orientation on the Goods of Marriage: Partnership

Patrick J. DiVietri Ph.D. CPC, OCDS


“The family is an intimate community of life and love, whose mission is to guard, reveal, and communicate love” (From Familiaris Consortio, #31).

“Have you come here freely . . .?”

At the time of matrimony between a man and a woman in the Catholic Church there is an opening interrogation prior to the proclamation of the vow itself.  It contains this question, “Have you come here freely to give yourselves to each other in marriage?”  This question is to clarify that there is no impediment or coercion to their entrance into forming the bond of marriage.  It is in that bond that a partnership for the whole of life takes place.  The vow will a partnership of goods that will permeate the marriage.

This partnership is revealed in how the couple carries out their life activities, decisions and responsibilities.  Any marital or family problem is a matter for the partnership.  Maintaining civility and mutual respect and cooperation is the critical practical dynamic.  When these are lost restoring them becomes the primary objective before anything else can be accomplished because they are pre-emptive to the expression of trust.  Partnership is practically expressed in paying bills, raising children, religious practice in and outside the home, family relations, decision making, handling all chores and family operations etc.

It is important for the couple to have some clear objective of what they will do if the partnership is threatened.  The disposition that is desired looks like, “I will do whatever it takes to preserve the partnership of this marriage.”  That attitude, in mutual cooperation and the grace of God will weather and overcome any obstacle when combined with perseverance.  It behooves the couples to ask the questions of themselves that will provide some focus on what they might do to preserve the marriage.

  1. Have you talked about decision making and sharing of a mutual life together?
  2. Have you ever talked about what you will do if you become unhappy in marriage?
  3. Would you be willing to seek counseling with a priest or a professional and do whatever is necessary to strengthen your partnership in the marriage?
  4. Do you know other couples who did or did not do this and how things worked out for them?

Four Phases of Listening Well


Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri Ph.D. CPC, OCDS

1)      Understand what the speaker is saying

This applies to the literal content and the personal intentions or meaning on the part of the speaker.  Listen intently to what is being said.  Taking notes will help capture the literal expressions and enable clarification of meaning.  One can then ask clarifying questions.

When as student takes notes in school they focus upon what is being said by the other person.  They are intent on understanding.  They are not concerned with giving the teacher/superior direction.  They are careful to be exact to grasp to meaning that is intended by the speaker.  They would ask questions to clarify their understanding.  They would reflect upon the implications of the information and how it relates to other things that they know.  They would study it later and draw conclusions. This is the exact same process for understanding someone who seeks counsel. 

2)      Clarify the speakers meaning

On page 157 we referred to an aspect contained in parliamentary debate, during the first cross-examination, at which time there are no rebuttal arguments presented.  Rather, one may only ask questions which help to clarify the affirmative speakers meaning.  There is often a confirmation question, which solidifies the understanding.  This is the essence of good listening skills and is at the heart of 95% of counseling interventions.  In a relationship this will greatly reduce anger because each person will feel that the other person is listening and understanding them even if they do not agree. 

The ability to express the speaker’s meaning in reasonable terms and manner fosters the feeling of being understood in the speaker.

3)      Ascertain desire of the speaker

The next critical point is to ascertain what the speaker wants before responding.  The first two phases are the most important and will have the greatest impact upon the speaker.  It will bring the majority of healing and consolation.  However, the most common practical problem lies in responses by the listener, which are inconsistent with the desires of the speaker.  People often understand what the other person is saying but fail to grasp why it is being said and what is wanted.  As a result the response causes problems and produces a sense of misunderstanding.  E.g. Husband, “I understand you.”  Wife, “If you understood what I was saying, you wouldn’t respond that way.”  There are many wonderful and loving responses that are frustrating because they are unnecessary.  Thus the point here is to ask the speaker to state what they want and why they are saying what they have said.  Until this is clear, it is usually unwise to offer a response.  

4)      Respond in conformity with the desire

Once it is understood, one may respond appropriately.  If it is not possible to respond as the speaker desires some discussion or explanation would follow.  A prudent step in this case would be to ask for some time to reflect on the matter.



Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

We fast for three reasons:

To check the desires of the flesh.

So St. Paul says in fastings, in chastity (2 Cor 6:5), meaning that fasting is a safeguard for chastity.  As St. Jerome says, “Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus would freeze,” as much as to say that lust loses its heat through sparseness of food and drink.

That the mind may more freely raise itself to contemplation of the heights. 

We read in the book of Daniel that it was after a fast of three weeks that he received the revelation from God (Dn 10:2-4).

To make satisfaction for sin.

This is the reason given by the prophet Joel, “Be converted to me with all your hear, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning (Jl 2:12).

And here is what St. Augustine writes on the matter, “Fasting purifies the soul.  It lifts up the mind, and it brings the body into subjection to the spirit.  It makes the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of desire, puts out the flames of lust, and enkindles the true light of chastity.”

There is a commandment laid on us to fast.  For fasting helps to destroy sin, and to raise the mind to thoughts of the spiritual world.  Each man is then bound by the natural law of the matter to fast just as much as is necessary to help him in these matters.  Which is to say that fasting in general is a matter of natural law.

Music and Morals


Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri, Ph.D., MA, CPC, OCDS

In his book, Music and Morals, Basil Cole, O.P. tracks the history of music as it relates to the moral development of the human person.  In so doing, he addresses not only the relationship of music to morals but also to other disciplines such as philosophy and psychology.  Cole’s discussion is of value for several reasons: first, it addresses the theme of union which for our purposes not only applies to the healing upon the individual soul but also a harmony within the disciplines of the humanities; second, it addresses the question of facility of expression for those things which challenge human expression such as mystical theology and contemplation;  third, it contributes to the discussion of moral development and character.  Cole argues that music may dispose one to the good through less ascetic effort on the listener’s part as one’s senses and imagination are inspired and drawn to the good and beautiful.  This contributes to my premise that music assists the layman in approaching an appreciation of the mystical experience.

The significance of Cole’s contribution is that there are very few resources of this type in regard to all the fine arts and the humanities.  This present age of specialization and independence of the disciplines offers little promise for the immediate future.  As he says, theology needs to take this art more seriously.[1]  The following is a short synopsis of Cole’s work in the areas which apply to this dissertation.

The primary thrust of Cole’s history shows that from Confucius to John Paul II, philosophers, theologians, musicians and churchmen, have acknowledged the role of music within the life of the human person.  They conclude that it shapes and forms moral character.[2]  Music expresses emotions and thoughts.[3]   This effect can be for bad as well as good ends, as reflected in the resistance at various times to musical forms and instruments and the reluctance to acknowledge the nobility of the art.  We find this exemplified in Plato’s association of the flute with various gluttonous and sensual rituals.

Because all the arts imitate the actions, passions and character of men, Aristotle spoke of music as an “imitative art”.[4]  Rhythm and melody supply imitation of anger and all qualities of character.[5]  For Aristotle, music mirrors reality.  Basil Cole comments that “Imitation as a reality, therefore, is analogical…for example feeling pain and delight at these representations of reality is close to feeling them as they are in themselves since they mirror reality itself.”[6]

[1] Cole, Basil OP. Music and Morals. (New York: Alba House, 1993,) p. 81.

[2] Aristotle, Politics, Great Books, The Works of Aristotle,  Ed. Robert Manard Hutching (Chicago: W. Benton Publishing, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), Book VIII, 1341-42, pp. 546-548.

[3] Ibid. 1340, 24-25, p. 545.

[4] Aristotle, Poetics, 1447, 28, p. 681.

[5] Aristotle, Politics, 23, p. 545.

[6] Ibid., 1340.

The Counsel Of Teresa Of Avila: Part III-Reformulation

Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri, Ph.D., MA, CPC, OCDS

Turning Into the Image

We have discussed turning away from distracting thoughts and painful images. Experience shows that if the distraction is related to personal suffering, either emotionally or physically, the difficulty of turning away from it increases proportionately. Everyone knows how hard it is to concentrate when one has a severe headache or other physical ailment or has received some very bad news.

Teresa provided a way of dealing with emotional or physical suffering. In this case, she did not necessarily turn away from the suffering but changed the image that relates to the sorrow by turning into it through the use of reason. That is, by looking at it in relationship to the suffering Christ:

“If you are suffering trials, or are sad, look upon Him or His way to the Garden. What sore distress He must have borne in His soul, to describe His own suffering as He did and to complain of it! Or look upon Him bound to the column, full of pain, His flesh all torn to pieces by His great love for you. How much He suffered, persecuted by some, spat upon by others, denied by His friends, and even deserted by them, with none to take His part, frozen with the cold and left so completely alone that you may well comfort each other! Or look upon Him bending under the weight of the cross and not even allowed to take breath: He will look upon you with His lovely and compassionate eyes, full of tears, and in comforting your grief will forget His own because you are bearing Him company in order to comfort Him and turning your head to look upon Him.”[i]

Teresa made it easier for the imagination to deal with emotional or physical pain by turning one’s focus upon the suffering of Our Lord.[ii] This identifies the suffering of the individual with that of Our Lord’s and changes the perspective on the suffering itself.[iii] The person will have little difficulty empathizing with the passion of Christ during such times. The more vehement the suffering the more sensibly aware the person is of the experience of pain and sorrow. They possess active knowledge of pain and in that knowledge they find some identification with the knowledge of Christ’s suffering and thus become aware of being united with him in pain. They can see it in some proportion to his suffering. To be clear, nothing in the sensible world can bear any proportion to God, who is spirit. Thus, the “feeling” that God is present has absolutely nothing to do with his true presence. It is the knowledge that he is omnipresent that is reliable, not our feelings. One would ignore the feelings and turn to faith in the knowledge of the truth confirmed by the Church and Scripture. This is a hard and fast principle that is the foundation for Teresian spiritualities’ prudent approach to the mystical life.

However, it remains that the human sensible experience of suffering can find some proportion in the sufferings of Jesus Christ and his passion. Since Jesus shares our humanity, he suffered the way our humanity suffers. Though his suffering was so great, there is some proportion to it in every pain we suffer. It is precisely his sacred humanity that we can identify with and draw ourselves into the mystery of his passion.

“Take no heed of what they say to you; be deaf to all detraction; stumble and fall with your Spouse, but do not draw back from your cross or give it up. Think often of the weariness of His journey and of how much harder His trials were than those which you have to suffer. However hard you may imagine yours to be, and however much affliction they may cause you, they will be a source of comfort to you, for you will see that they are matters for scorn compared with the trials endured by the Lord.”[iv]

Teresa changes the meaning of the suffering by reforming the images related to it to include the images of Christ’s suffering. This brings consolation to the person but also empathy with Christ.

“He will look upon you with His lovely and compassionate eyes full of tears, and in comforting your grief will forget His own because you are bearing Him company in order to comfort Him and turning your head to look upon Him.”[v]

Imagine, meaningless human suffering now becomes a means of comfort to the suffering Christ.  Who, among those who love God, has not wanted to be there with him to console him in his suffering? Teresa shows that it is possible today. Compassion of friends assuages pain according to St. Thomas because one sees oneself loved by the Beloved, and the Beloved sorrows for the friend. One sees the sorrow in the face of the Beloved who loves them, and it feels as if they are sharing the burden and it becomes lighter. That is the meaning of compassion. Teresa is showing how one may be compassionate to Christ through suffering as they look to him, and he looks at them as they co-suffer with him. Now there is great meaning to this suffering. Christ gives it his identity and his meaning.


Viewed in the terms of the psychology of St. Thomas, this second way to change an image is through reformulation. Rather than turning away from an image, reformulation involves turning to the image and altering it through reason. It involves changing the image to present a particular good. Reformulation can be a healthy or unhealthy action depending upon whether the image is changed to an apparent good or a good in truth. The former is a means to every sin or mental illness, and the latter is a means to virtue and mental health.

Through her reflections upon the scenes of Christ’s suffering to aid in meditation amidst one’s own suffering, Teresa was using the images of Christ to reformulate the images of the individual’s sufferings.

“It is desire for good, for love, for the integrity and happiness of the things or persons that we love that is at the root of sorrow, as love is at the root of hate.”[vi]

Contemplation of the truth is one of the remedies for pain and sorrow.[vii] Compassion of friends is another.[viii] All pleasures also assuage pain.[ix] Teresa’s remedy was to look at a picture of Christ’s passion and contemplate the truth of it. She brings the person into a compassion for Christ and his compassion for them. Therefore the person no longer suffered alone but with Christ. Their suffering was no longer meaningless or indicative of their own evil, but it took on the meaning of Christ’s suffering through union with him in truth. That suffering is the means of salvation and grace to the world. The person now has the hope that comes from such a union. There is also a pleasure to pain that we see to be for good purpose. Even physical pain can be diminished by the thought of good that can be derived.

“We can, and often do, undergo these exterior pains joyfully, even eagerly, in the name of a higher good desired by our will-like caring for a sick baby or having gallstones removed.”[x]

Teresa brought the consideration of this higher and noble good and the vehemence of pain, not only diminished but also a consolation. Here she did not fight against the sensible experience but used the sensible experience as a means to identify with Jesus Christ and find oneself united to the actions of his sacred humanity. The presence of the physical pain is no longer a distraction from the image of God but now an aid to identify with him, console him, and hope in the good that he draws from all things.

Consider the possible effect of this within counseling.

A woman enters counseling with great sorrow and depression. In listening to her story, it is clear that she has many reasons for being in this state—many of which may be well beyond the scope of a counselor. She may have been deserted by her husband, have Lupus, cancer, or some other physical malady. She could be suffering from injuries from her family or problems with her children, rejection, lack of affirmation, or have a multitude of wounds that can happen to any human being.

The counselor tells her to consider how she is feeling and to imagine that she is united to Christ on the cross. She is told to envision Christ saying to her: “If you want, I will take away all your pain and sorrow immediately, and it will not return.” Christ continues: “However, if you choose, you may keep this suffering throughout all your life. If you do, not only will I remain with you, share all you endure, and bring grace to the world through it, I promise you that not one of your children will be lost; and they will be with me for all eternity.”

What do you think would be the response to this question? Without exception, as a response, any one would choose to remain in their suffering and would feel the same relief. We all would experience hope in the meaning and consolation of these thoughts. Are these just thoughts or are they based in fact? Teresa of Avila saw all her actions united to those of the Lord. Is it not possible, then, for all of us to be united to him in the same way?


Teresa of Avila has made many practical contributions to the science of psychology and understanding the operations of the human person in their struggle for health and virtue. This article has considered one very important example of these contributions. It requires a larger enterprise to begin to explore them. At this time, it is worth the reader’s effort to consider Teresa’s counsel on changing the images in the imagination by turning away from them  and how that can be facilitated through the use of a sensible aid. One should also consider how the images can be changed by reformulation through reason. That consideration will lead the reader to begin to see how commonly this counsel enters into the daily life experiences related to mental health and illness.

[i] Way of Perfection, ch. 26.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] A predominant theme for Teresa was that her human experiences were united to the experiences of Christ. Therefore, her obedience was united to his obedience on the cross and took on the purpose and meaning that Christ gave to obedience to his Father’s will; i.e., the redemption of mankind. Her actions to teach would be united to his actions as a teacher and take on his purpose. This extended to everything including pain and sorrow, daily actions, all virtues. Thus, the simple daily events of Carmelite life took on infinite proportion. The profound insight into spirituality was manifest in Thérèse, the Little Flower and her “little way.” Everything, no matter how small, is united to the actions of love of the sacred humanity of Jesus Christ and the infinite love of the Father.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Farrell, Walter, O.P., A Companion to the Summa: II: The Pursuit of Happiness, (Correspnding to the Summa Theologica IA II AE), New York: Sheed and Ward, 1959, p. 122.

[vii] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, II, a. 4.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

The Counsel Of Teresa Of Avila: Part II-Turning from the Image


Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri, Ph.D., MA, CPC, OCDS

Turn Away From One Image and to Another

Teresa found that by directly resisting the distracting thought, one keeps it in place longer. For example: “Don’t think about the red horse. Don’t think about the red horse.” So what are thinking about? – a red horse. Focusing on an image without doing anything to change it didn’t make any sense because it kept the image in mind. Teresa decided to respond indirectly, i.e. to ignore it by turning away. She treated the distraction in a manner similar to parental advice to children when dealing with teasing or obnoxious behavior on the part of another, i.e. ignore the other person because responding to them only feeds their desire to tease. Without the desired response from the victim, the teaser loses interest and dissipates their efforts. Likewise, distractions will fall away when ignored.

Trying to turn back to the mental image of Our Lord and thus away from the distractions was quite effective to some degree. The focus upon the prayerful image occupied the mind and the distractions, like the teasing child gives up and falls from view. This critical action comes into play for people in many situations of daily life and most all forms of mental illness. The most severe being schizophrenia where one “hears audio hallucinations or “voices.” The principle in counsel in this situation is: “You may have heard these ‘voices,’ but you don’t have to listen to them.” One can turn away and not pay attention to them. It is like being in an apartment and the neighbor is playing their stereo loudly that the sound is coming through the walls. The object of hearing is sound, and thus the sense of hearing is stimulated by the sound. However, one does not have to listen for the lyrics, what the guitarist is playing, how the sounds from the base, drums, and other vocalists might be contributing, etc.

One can literally “tune out” what is being said. Every parent of a teenager knows whether it is possible to tune someone out when being spoken to. We also see this in the case of the disinterested student who is preoccupied with some other thought and doesn’t pay attention to anything the teacher is saying. On the positive side, it is common to “tune out” distractions when we focus on something else. This practice is very common as we all have situations where we tune out sounds and words of others in order to concentrate on something whether it is in class, at a movie, watching TV with others talking, being in a restaurant and talking to the people at your table while the room is full of chatter. Parties, nightclubs, restaurants are among the many common public situations where this selective listening is practiced. It is a remedy used by Teresa, and it is a remedy for many things today.

Turn to a Sensible Aid

The practice of turning away from the distraction helped a great deal, but Teresa found that it remained difficult to do. Also, the distracting images stimulated various passions that created a sense of vitality, delight or pleasure, or some painful passions such as anxiety, fear, sorrow, or even anger. The sensible nature of these passions made it more difficult. The distraction always seems more interesting or more powerful than those thoughts and images related to the knowledge of the truth and God because of that sensible nature.[i]

Through experience in dealing with both the mental distractions and physical or emotional maladies as well, Teresa discovered that it was easier to form and maintain a mental image of Our Lord if there were some sensible object to aid her imagination. If she could turn to an object that could hold her attention and feed her imagination, it was easier to meditate. In her autobiography, she relates this to the wandering mind.

For it was not usual with me to suffer from aridity: this only came when I had no book, whereupon my soul would at once become disturbed and my thoughts would begin to wander. As soon as I started to read, they began to collect themselves and the book acted like bait to my soul.[ii]

In the Way of Perfection,[iii] she said:

“Those of you whose minds cannot reason for long or whose thoughts cannot dwell upon God but are constantly wandering must at all costs form this habit.”[iv]

“I myself spent over fourteen years without being able to meditate except while reading.”[v]

Since it was easier for the imagination to hold on to an image if it was aided by the senses, Teresa would not go to prayer without a book, a picture, statue, or Scripture of some sort. Rather than struggling to imagine Our Lord, she would look at a picture or statue of him. Or she would read from a book or Scripture about some scene and allow the words she was focusing upon to help her form the images in her imagination. This is the counsel she gave her daughters:

“You will find it very helpful if you can get an image or a picture of this Lord—one that you like—not to wear round your neck and never look at but to use regularly whenever you talk to him, and he will tell you what to say.”[vi]

Giving her attention to the images provided by these sensible aides facilitated and hastened the dissipation of the distractions without direct effort on her part to repel them. These physical aids to prayer assist the imagination’s retention of the sense data related to the object of the meditation.

This method of turning to aids to prayer and away from distraction is common knowledge to all those in the Carmelite community. I first encountered Teresa’s method when it was the subject of a presentation made by Father Anthony Morello, OCD, more than twenty-five years ago at a Carmelite conference in San Jose, California.[vii] The perspective gained through study of the philosophic psychology of Thomas Aquinas helps understand the impact of Teresa’s insight.

In the Thomistic view, Teresa used the physical aid to allow her imagination to find sensible data to focus on. Reading or looking at the picture or statue allows images based upon that sensible information to form in the imagination. The sensible data that came from the reading, the pictures or the statues that were all descriptive and visual, by their very nature, made it easier for the imagination to form a conceptualization and to hold or maintain it. Ask yourself: “Is it easier to close your eyes and imagine something that is not present or to look at a picture of that thing and focus upon it?” It is much easier to imagine what Uncle Joe looks like if you are looking at his picture. In this light, Teresa instructs the sisters: “It is also a great help to have a good book, written in the vernacular, simply as an aid to recollection. With this aid, you will learn to say your vocal prayers well.”[viii]

The act of the imagination is to hold the sense impression made on the external senses long after stimulation has ceased.[ix] So Teresa would focus upon the external aid until a strong impression formed in her imagination. She would then close her eyes and imagine as much as she could about the people, the scene, the sounds, colors, and sensible information. She would think about where everyone was positioned including self, what was being said, and think of what she would say to Christ. When her mind would wander, she would simply open her eyes and return to gaze upon the physical object or continue reading.[x] In this way, she made it easier for the imagination to retain the impression and conceptualizations from the senses. This focus left no room for the distracting thoughts, and they simply diminished and fell away. The reason is that the soul can only have one intention. Thus, while the focus was upon the sensibly aided images, the distracting thoughts were left on the outside and slipped away. For St. Thomas, this represents “regal control” of the passions in that we can deny them the image of their object in the imagination by replacing it with a different image that does not contain the object that stimulates the passion.[xi]

This comprised the first way of changing an image in that one simply gets rid of it and in Teresa’s method a sensible aid is used to replace it. This practice applies to the majority of cognitive behavioral experience[xii] that enters counseling. It also applies to all distractions to one’s focus and mental discipline from cases of attention deficit to the discipline of maintaining focus during a lecture or discussion within an academic educational setting.

Training the cognitive faculties can be facilitated by the use of sensible aids. In the case of AD/HD, the child’s focus can be increased by emphasizing a sensible object. Consider how a piano lesson involves sheet music for the eyes to focus on, keys for the hands to feel, manipulate and hold in place. And of course, sound that the ears will eventually hear as “melody.”  Even dangling feet and body posture may spontaneously come into play. The teacher says: “Keep your eyes on the paper, look at each note without looking at your hands.” “Keep your hands in place with the fingers on the proper keys by feeling the key.” “Keep your feet still.” This will be repeated many times, and the parents will be encouraged to watch for these things at home and repeat the same commands. On day one, a six-year-old boy may not make it through a single measure without moving hands, feet, and eyes. However, within six weeks, all these might be still for the entire eight measures of the little piece of music that he is learning.

Another example would be the common technique of a teacher calling a student’s attention to something she has written on the board. Then, when she notices the student’s attention start to drift, she reemphasizes what is on the board by point to it, tapping it, or drawing a circle or arrow or by asking him what she has written. Each time this is repeated, the focus is reestablished. Another common technique is for the teacher to move her hands with gestures related to the topic or move by walking around the room or into the rows to make it easier for the student to keep eye contact on her and to listen to what she is saying. Also, in the class, the student can be aided by simply taking notes and thinking of questions to ask or by writing down what is most important and essential. Thus the student is training himself to focus on the words that are being stated by writing them down and thinking about their meaning.

All impure thoughts come into the area of need to change the image to diminish their emotional potential. Due to the vehemence of the pleasure related to such images, the sensible aid of something totally different is of great benefit. Impulsive thoughts and behaviors lose their vitality when one turns from them and focuses upon something else. This is the basis for the long history of giving holy cards to children or telling them about short ejaculations (brief phrases, such as “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me,” the name of “Jesus,” or turning to a crucifix). So when resisting impurity, as well as any temptation, one can turn to a crucifix and by reflecting upon it allow the temptation to dissipate.

The experience of depression can be assuaged by turning from the image that is causing the sorrow and thinking of another image that brings hope. Depression is an effect of pain where the will has little or no hope to end it. This is why hope will assuage the pain and diminish the depression. This is also one of the reasons the counsel of a priest assuages those in sorrow or depression when he provides them with some hope of the future good and the present consolation of faith. The priest counselor or even friend can also help the person to see things differently. This leads us to a second way to change an image and Teresa discovered that one as well. It proved to be even more profound than her first discovery.

[i]  Moral habits will obviously affect this dynamic.

[ii]  Autobiography, ch. 4.

[iii]  This is the book that Teresa wrote in response to her daughters’ requests.

[iv]  Way of Perfection, K. Kavanaugh, ch. 26.

[v]  Ibid, ch. 16.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] It was this conference for Secular Order Carmelites with the various presentations on Teresa of Avila that moved and inspired this author to compose the Partita Teresiana, solo for the classical guitar that was performed and recorded for the centenary of St. Teresa in 1982. It is the subsequent work that followed that conference that has lead to the educational formation throughout these past thirty years.

[viii] Way, Ch. 26.

[ix] Fr. Chad Ripperger, FSSP, Introduction to the Science of Mental Health, Vol. 1, ch. 3, p. 32 (Denton NE: Sensus  Traditionis Press, 2007).

[x] The physical imagery has a great deal to do with passions that follow the images. In the negative fashion, we see how most young men who struggle with impurity begin with impure pictures. Thus, Teresa’s approach offers the remedy for such things and a means of strengthening the imagination and will.

[xi] Summa Theologica, I. q.81 a.3, ad 2; ST 1-11, q. 9, a. 2, ad 3.

[xii] Cognitive therapy teaches you how certain thinking patterns are causing your symptoms. Behavior therapy helps you weaken the connections between troublesome situations and your habitual reactions to them.

The Counsel Of Teresa Of Avila: Part I-Distractions and the Wandering Mind

The Counsel Of Teresa Of Avila: Part I

Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri, Ph.D., MA, CPC, OCDS

Teresa of Avila was the first woman to be declared Doctor of the Church.[1] For nearly thirty years, her works and those of St. Thomas Aquinas have had the greatest influence upon my life, education, and enterprises as an author, educator, and counselor. The richness of their works is inexhaustible. Yet, Teresa of Avila’s counsel concerning distractions to prayer has been of particular significant professional and practical value. It is simple and yet so profound that, in my opinion, its benefit to psychological well-being is beyond any insight from the entire field of modern psychology. Everyone can benefit from this counsel, especially those dealing with mental health and pastoral counseling.

Without the advantage of a formal education, Teresa had to grapple with the abstract complexities of her own psychology as she struggled to understand and explain the profound actions of the mystical life upon her soul and its faculties as well as the difficulties of living virtuously within the religious experience of Carmel. She created a language of similes and metaphors using hundreds of analogies in order to explain what she meant. Her grappling has produced wisdom and understanding of the human person that includes insight and practical application for personal health and well-being in a language that can be understood. It is not that the listener’s understanding was complete but that something could be grasped in some practical way so as to begin to understand something transcendent. It is similar to the experience of the parables. Our Lord told stories of everyday life that could be understood even though the depth of what he was saying went beyond our capacity. Teresa’s analogies serve a similar purpose.

A Book on Prayer

Teresa of Avila was asked by her daughters in Carmel to write a book that would instruct them in prayer. In her response, she discussed aspects of vocal prayer, mental prayer, and recollection.[2] Earlier in her life, Teresa had considered the question: “What does one do with the mind while reciting vocal prayers?” In her common-sense manner, Teresa concluded that while words are being spoken to God, one would turn their mind to focus upon him and what was being said. It seemed absurd to her that one would not think of the person to whom one was speaking and what was being said during the vocal prayer. It is foolish to pray words to God while the mind wanders to other things.

Teresa used the vocal prayer of the Our Father as she advised her daughters to imagine Our Lord as they prepare themselves for prayer.

As you know, the first things must be examination of conscience, confession of sin, and the signing of yourself with the cross. Then, daughter, as you are along, you must look for a companion – and who could be a better companion than the very Master who taught you the prayer that you are about to say? Imagine that this Lord himself is at our side and see how lovingly and how humbly he is teaching you.[3]

In her method, one begins by withdrawing to a place of solitude within oneself and the meditation follows as the imagination forms some conceptualization of the material or words. The intellect works to construct detail and imagery leading to discursive prayer.[4]

Distractions and the Wandering Imagination

Keeping this focus proved to be a great difficulty since the mind can be so easily distracted. These difficulties with mental prayer, forming and maintaining images as the problem of distractions and the wandering mind, were a part of Teresa’s own struggle. Teresa found that when she went to prayer, the imagination would run wild. It seemed to her that everything would rush to her mind when she sat to pray. These distractions could be spiritual, physical, emotional, or mental; and they would displace the images of Our Lord that she struggled to maintain. The distracting thoughts were so vivid and vehement that she could not push them back out of her mind. The stronger the vehemence, the more quickly the image of Our Lord that she had been trying to hold would diminish. By nature, all images fade; but the distractions exacerbated the problem of concentration to a point of futility.

[1]  Certain ecclesiastical writers have received this title on account of the great advantage the whole church has derived from their doctrine. With St. John of the Cross, she represents the first authorities on the doctrine of spiritual and mystical theology. In reforming the Carmelite Order, she became a leader of the Counter Reformation.

[2]  At the time Teresa was writing her first book, which was her autobiography, there was a conflict over the nature of mental prayer and vocal prayer. The predominant prayer form for centuries had been vocal prayer, but mental prayer was gaining more attention, some of which was unsettling. There was a great deal of distrust for mental prayer because of a moment of Quietism that was being promoted at the time by various sects. It does not add to the point of this article to expand on the difficulties for the important thing is that it was Teresa who resolved the conflict. Teresa resolved the difficulty by presenting one should be thinking about who is being addressed and what is being said in the vocal prayer. It was absurd that the mind would not be thinking of who was being spoken to and what was being said during the prayer. To pray words to God while the mind wanders to other things is totally foolish. Thus in Teresa’s opinion, mental and vocal prayer were inseparable. “… mental prayer has nothing to do with keeping the lips closed. If while I am speaking with God, I have a clear realization and full consciousness that I am doing so, and if this is more real to me than the words I am uttering, then I am combining mental and vocal prayer. When people tell you that you are speaking with God by reciting the Pater Noster and thinking of worldly things – well, words fail me” (ch. 22).

[3]  Way of Perfection, ch. 26.

[4]  Discursive prayer is the form of prayer in which the reflections of the mind are more active than the affections of the will. It is called discursive because discursion is the act of the mind that proceeds from one truth to the knowledge of another truth, either about the same object or about something else. Discursive meditation today is common among not only Carmelites but also most religious and lay communities. Since it was utilized by the Jesuits and Dominicans as well, I would imagine it is taught by most spiritual directors in some form or another.

When have you felt like this before?

  Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri Ph.D. CPC, OCDS

People have defenses, which protect them from bad memories.  It is not a good idea to barge into a person’s psyche and dispel their defenses and leave them vulnerable if a better means of coping is not in place.[1]  One must proceed in a respective manner consistent with the way the Holy Spirit operates.  That is, to respect the disposition of the individual.  The reminiscence must take place in a natural way.  Otherwise harm can come to the individual.  This is one of the problems with the approach of psycho analysis and other practices which bypass natural reminiscence.

A simple method of doing this is to ask the question, “When have you felt like this before? Or “What does this remind you of?”  This allows the person to consider the present feeling and allow the memory to come into view.

The memory which causes the feeling is already in the imagination.  However, it is not in that part of the imagination which appears “visual” to us.  The imagination may be likened to a computer screen where the file has only so much data that is visible and the rest needs to be “scrolled” down in order to see.  However, the appetites can read the abstract form of the data that is in the imagination and if it contains the object of the appetite, the passions moves.

It is common for people to recognize the associations between the present and the past.  How many times has a marital squabble included a, “you remind me of my mother?”  So the simple questions about memory, “What does this remind you of?  When have you felt like this before?” allow someone to “scroll” down in there imagination.

For example, Mary and John have arguments because Mary feels that John criticizes her and thinks that she is an idiot.  John states that he has no such feelings or thoughts about Mary but rather has the highest respect for her education and intelligence.  When Mary was asked, “When have you ever felt like this before?” she answered that her family was very well educated and considered her to be the weak link.  Despite her high intelligence scores and academic prowess she was made to feel that her opinions were of little value because her family would always contradict her and dismiss her ideas.  Thus when John pointed out disagreements with anything that Mary would say, it played upon that previous disposition.  The counsel was:

  1. Mary and John needed to recognize that the emotion was related to the old wound.  It helped for Mary to stop and consider what her feelings reminded her of.
  2. Mary could then talk to John about how these memories affected her.
  3. John would naturally change somewhat when he began to understand how these hurtful memories magnified or even distorted the present experiences.
  4. His compassion for Mary came to the fore.
  5. Mary was to forgive the family
  6. Mary needed to try to understand that John’s intentions and actions were different than her families.
  7. John was to be understanding, loving and patient
  8. John was to be sensitive when discussing issues with Mary so that he expressed himself with the awareness that she could feel the effects of the old memories.  This was very important for Mary’s sake.
  9. Healing immediately began because Mary was able to separate the past experience from the present.  She could see that she was freed from the past.
  10. She could also see the kind understanding and patience of her husband and this created to new memory.
  11. The psychological wound of the memory which contained the injustice was altered by the forgiveness.
  12. Repetitions would be required for the memories to dissipate into insignificance.  Something that happens repeatedly over time as to cause psychological wounds does not easily change in the moment of insight.  Time, patience and love are called for.

[1] An example of this disregard took place in relation to an operation in California during the 70’s.  During the weekend encounter the individuals were confronted in such a way as to break down many of their defenses.  They felt the euphoria of the psychological purging and outpouring gave credibility to the experience.  However, a high rate of mental breakdowns took place in subsequent months for those who attended the weekend.