During the summer this newspaper carried a story about non-directive counselling. There had been some criticism of the charity, Life, on the grounds that no counselling by a Catholic organisation should be non-directive, with the implication that this applied to Life perhaps more than many other organisations.
The criticism is understandable. The Church upholds a moral law which is not only informed by God’s revelation but is further understood through the application of natural law. She teaches how human beings should behave in order to flourish in the ways which its Creator intended. It would follow that any loyal Catholic organisation which counsels clients on their behaviour must, first and foremost, present this moral law.
I was once a counsellor with Marriage Care, which was then known as the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council. I cannot speak for Life, of which I am not a member, but I can look at non-directive counselling operated in terms of a marriage counsellor. We worked on the principle that people tended not to change their ways as a result of direction from outside; they were much more likely to do so as a result of discovery from inside. That is, our task was to help them free themselves from a tangle of half-digested emotions, ignorance or lack of relationship skills, giving them an opportunity to change through their own internal growth. We were midwives to their forming of their own consciences; we were not directors.
This required one central assumption: that people freed from such bonds would move in positive directions through the work of the Holy Spirit. The picture in my mind was of a cork held down by detritus in a bucket of water. As the detritus was removed so the cork floated upwards. We were no more than a facilitating framework; the energy came from the Spirit.
This may sound woolly and sentimental but it was by no means that. We followed what was known as the Skilled Helper model. This was developed by Fr Gerard Egan, a Jesuit from Loyola University Chicago. Later, I wrote a simplified account of the methodology for the use of business managers. It was translated into several European languages and seems to have been widely read and used.
The model started with the counsellor listening to the client and demonstrating, through his reflections, that he had grasped how the client experienced the issue. (Of course, the client will often be a she, and most frequently a couple that is married or living together.) He then, with tentative suggestions, helped the client to make sense of this experience. The aim was to help the client to identify the essence of the difficulties and to understand with greater clarity what factors were at work. Perhaps the counsellor would spot patterns of behaviour or inconsistencies which needed examination. Sometimes the client might be invited to change his frame of reference – to that of his partner, for instance. Gradually the complex would resolve itself into basically simple issues – and frequently one key issue.
The next stage was to help the client to set objectives for change. Once again the counsellor might use his skills to help, but the objectives were not chosen by him. This was followed by looking to resources which might be needed to achieve these objectives. These would sometimes be by way of relevant information, sometimes by way of outside agencies who could assist, and sometimes by way of training. In this last regard it was often necessary to devote several hours to training a couple how to communicate with each other, perhaps for the first time.
The next stage was to follow up progress, objective by objective. It was important to the client to have the step by step achievements acknowledged. And it was often necessary to revisit the earlier stages when difficulties arose.
As a counsellor I found this an inspiring process. I came to admire many of my clients who, despite the odds and the shaming admissions, were prepared to seek out help. I was learning virtue from them rather than them from me.
And I was left in no doubt that clients who, with some humility, were trying to find a better path, had instinctively a clear view of the moral law. The difference, perhaps, was that they had been given an opportunity to grasp it for themselves.
Naturally, I was often asked by curious Catholics about my success rate. This made me look at my own objectives. I decided that what counted as success was that the client left me with an enhanced freedom to make decisions according to a better-informed conscience. They may not have gone the whole way, but they should have gone as far as they were able at that time.
But, perhaps ironically, the client I remember best was not married at all. He had been leading a life of somewhat sordid immorality but he wanted to go to Communion at Easter. Yet he could not bring himself to confess to a priest. So he went through the whole story with me. I asked his permission to have the parish curate join us. The three of us went through the story again. The next day he went to the same priest for Confession. I do not know what he said, of course, but he received Communion that Easter Sunday. I don’t like trying to guess what the Holy Spirit may, or may not, have done but, on this occasion, I feel quite sure.
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