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On holy ground

On holy groundPaul Andrews reflects on what it means to him to be both priest and therapist. Both roles entail bringing people to good health, he says, and overall he is there to help people expand the ‘holy ground’ within their own hearts.


Priest. Psychotherapist. Each of them demands a long and challenging training. What does it mean when you’re hyphenated, a priest-therapist?

After leaving a Benedictine boarding school, I felt strongly that stability, that precious feature of monastic life, was not for me. God is not in one place (I am always uneasy when people refer to us as Roman Catholics), though there are holy places. You remember Seymour’s remark in one of J.D.Salinger’s stories: All we do our whole lives long is go from one little piece of holy ground to the next. My faith, like Abraham’s and my mother’s (she was in her 32nd home when she died), is a sense of God’s providential and personal care as we move through strange places to a city founded, designed and built by God. In fact I bridle at St Paul’s word city. I’d like to think of heaven as country, with mountains, rivers and lakes, and free from crowds and traffic (reminds me of the South Island!)

The holy ground grows from inside us. My job as a priest-therapist is to help people to grow it. I have to be a methodological atheist: I don’t take it for granted that anyone believes in God. But he gave us all a heart. If you can get back to the healthy centre of it, you can trust it.

I’m reproved by upright Catholics if I write something which does not stress the ‘God factor’. I trust the ‘God factor’ if I can help people to their inner health and freedom. Freud was once asked to define mental health. Off the cuff he answered: to be able to work and to love. That is a beautiful definition. If you can help people to love again, or if you can help the love to flow again in a family, the Lord is there. You do not need to put up a label, or a picture of the Sacred Heart.

One of the scriptural phrases that stays with me is that the love of God is poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who is given to us. I see that in a tangible way when I encounter people who have serious problems, people who are weeping and live in enormous emotional tension, yet under their distress are still driven by love. What did St John of the Cross say, from his dark prison cell? Love is the fruit of faith, that is of darkness.

The ground does not need to be floodlit to be holy.