Using Psychological Insight for Theological Reflection (c) John Winston Powell, MA (March 2011)

           What can one do in advising a student on how to reflect on her life in terms of what she is claiming from her time at a particular school?  The class Interface of Psychology and Spirituality has given this teacher some insights to apply to his approach in advising students as they ruminate on theological concepts/experiences they believe will continue to challenge them into the future.  Victor Frankl, Albert Ellis, Carl Jung, and Abraham Maslow give teachers ideas about how to prompt their advisees in the task of creating a meaningful senior high school theology project.   Although teachers should not use such ideas to psychoanalyze their students, they can use the particular outlines of each man’s theories as reflective devices to facilitate reflection with their project advisees.

            Villa Duchesne has developed a culminating Senior Project.  This project, now in its third year, allows the senior student a chance to reflect on what they are theologically claiming from their time at Villa.  The students are introduced to the project, invited to “dialogue” with artifacts they had created and saved from their theology classes (e.g., a paper or homily), and then start to meet with their faculty advisors in order to reflect on how they are answering the “big” question of the project:  What are you claiming from your time at Villa Duchesne?  There are guiding questions that help the students in their reflection process.  The student and advisor determine how they will “journal” on their faith growth and its intersection with their academic learning.  Students may do additional research into subjects they feel they weren’t exposed in Villa theology classes or they may claim ideas that are in conflict/tension with Catholic teaching. 

            The challenge of helping the student to reflect on what they are claiming can be daunting.  Villa Duchesne is part of the Network of Sacred Heart Schools.  The students sometimes choose the Five Goals of the Sacred Heart (faith, intellect, social awareness, community, and personal growth) to claim, as they have grown up with those goals and have been continually inundated with trying to apply them in their time at Villa.  Some students pick one aspect of theology or spirituality to focus on, e.g., their experiences of service or social action.  Other students pick insights learned in other classes and then make theological connections; an example of this would be a student who sees God in the world of physics.  The students then create physical manifestations of their reflection time and journaling.  The bulk of the project is the reflection rather than the physical product.  Thus, students are encouraged to express themselves in their own voices but told that the grades of their projects are much more dependent on reflection and dialogue with their time at Villa than the physical symbols.  The project has been a success from the perspectives of the students and theology department members.  Students who believe that the project is just another thing to complete before graduation have been appreciative of what the project has called forth from them.  The students are given a month “off” from their regular theology class in order to have the time to do serious reflection.  In three years, this has become a capstone experience for graduating seniors. 

            Victor Frankl (1905-1997), a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust, developed what he termed logotherapy. Frankl  says logos is defined as “meaning” (Man’s Search for Meaning, 98) although Christian theologians obviously know the that the word Logos refers to Christ in John’s Gospel.   Interestingly, Frankl’s vision of logotherapy is future-centered rather than introspective (98).  So although the students are asked to reflect on where they were when they created said artifacts, they are also asked to dialogue in the present with them, and are challenged to discuss what their claimed ideas might do for them in the future.  What meanings do they ascribe to what the ideas/experiences they are claiming and what might those mean as they go into the future?  Frankl’s theory is that all people have a “will to meaning” (99) and as advisors help students to figure out their answers to the big question, they have to give meaning to their experiences at Villa.  Authenticity is stressed by the teachers in developing a dialogue with the students; students sometimes say what they think the teachers want to hear about giving meaning to their experiences.  The students are also encouraged to relate their “existential frustrations” (100-101) to what they are claiming from their time at Villa.  Many of the students relate various challenges of their parents’ divorces, social alienation, and other personal problems to theological principles.    

            One of Frankl’s observations is that mental health should not be observed as one of homeostasis but that tension that comes from pursuit of a goal can give meaning (104-105).  Our discussions with students show that many of them have tensions not only in their relationships but with the Catholic teachings to which they have been exposed.  These tensions can be expressed in the Senior Project and can show a much more engaged student than those who seemingly have their theological stance figured out.  In discussing the concept of “vocation,” the call of God/Universe to do or to be something specific, the student is challenged, as Frankl would endorse, to discuss what meanings they give to the theological tensions they experience or they are claiming (109).  The advisor can also discuss with the student the three ways Frankl theorizes we find meaning:  “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone
; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering “ (111).  In fact, the theology teachers ask the students if they have received insights in the very creation of their project and to express those in their final journals.

            Albert Ellis (1913-2007) pioneered Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).  This therapy tries to show people how the inaccuracies of their thinking patterns contribute to their psychological suffering (Ellis, “REBT”).  When students talk to their advisors about how they have approached their time at Villa in terms of what their suffering means to them, remembering what Ellis says can be helpful.  People think various things about God; sometimes their viewpoints about God color their feelings about their classes, the liturgies they have participated in, service learning/social action, and retreat experiences.  In fact, what students “hear” in a class can be a gross misinterpretation based on whether they are operating out of a misguided thinking pattern.  The advisor can help the student clarify their thinking as they discuss their artifacts and the meanings they had for them in the past and in the present.  Helping the students to evaluate their interpretations is part of the advisor’s role.  The danger is for the advisor not to project his/her interpretations/thoughts about the student’s work onto the student.  The 12 irrational ideas that cause and sustain neurosis (Ellis, “REBT”) are helpful to know for the advisor; some students are operating out of these ideas when discussing their thoughts/feelings about what they are theologically claiming. 

            Carl Jung (1875-1961) and his theories could help advisors with showing the students the connections between their thoughts/feelings about their time at Villa and how to express those, especially for students who use art as a medium.  Our students create mandalas in class; mandalas were important symbols for Jung since they are some of the oldest religious symbols and occur among all peoples and cultures (Jacobi 136).  The creation of mandalas allow the students to show many of the ideas/experiences they will be claiming from their time at Villa and how those elements interact with other personal characteristics or experiences outside the school.  As Jacobi states, the mandala does not express a completed “individuation” in expressing the unity of opposites (138) but can show where a student is in their spiritual journey at the moment they are drawn.   Jung was instrumental is opening up people in the West to Eastern concepts that have religious meaning.   Although he was not interested in making theological statements, Jung saw the importance of God as an archetype.  Jung described it this way: ‘…At all events the soul must contain in itself the faculty of relationship to God, i.e. a correspondence, otherwise a connection could never come about.  This correspondence is, in psychological terms, the archetype of the God-image’ (qtd. in Jacobi 147).  Helping the students to reflect on their images of God is central from the Villa Theology Department’s perspective; hence the recent decision to make the “big question” for curriculum development to be “Who is God?”  The Senior Project is an expression of the student’s image of God and its corresponding effect on her life up to this point.

            Finally, the work of Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) provides a theory of looking at the positive steps that the students have taken toward what Maslow called “self-actualization (“A Theory of Human Motivation”).   Our students, for the most part, have their basic needs met in Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs:” physiological, safety, and love/belonging needs.  As with most high school students, they may struggle with self-esteem needs (the next level in the hierarchy).  But, many of them are liberated from worrying about many basic needs and thus can work on what Maslow calls “self-actualization.”  At this level, “it refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming” (“Theory of Human Motivation”).   Sacred Heart schools, including Villa Duchesne, are committed to help every student become what s/he is capable of through a dedication to its Goals and Criteria.  The five goals encompass dimensions of self-actualization: a personal and active faith in God, a deep respect for intellectual values, a social awareness that impels to action, building the community as a Christian value, and personal growth in an atmosphere of wise freedom (“The Goals and Criteria…”).  Many students build their projects around these five goals and reflect on how they have grown in self-actualization through understanding the goals at deeper and deeper levels as they progress through elementary, middle, and high school. Coutinho points out that Maslow believed that all people have “peak moments” of self-actualization and that one does not necessarily progress through all the levels in a straight line.  These peak moments can also be seen as “self-transcendence” (Coutinho), which is a concept that theology teachers speak of in a variety of contexts with students, from the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ to the enlightenment of the Buddha.  Helping the students discuss these peak moments can help them to see how they are in the process of self-actualizing as they reflect on where they have been theologically and what they will take with them after graduation.

            Victor Frankl spoke of self-transcendence and self-actualization, saying that people find meaning not within themselves as a closed system but in the world (Man’s Search for Meaning 110).  Frankl says that only by forgetting oneself (self-transcendence) can one self-actualize (111).  Christ says the same thing in Matthew 10:39.  Many of the Villa Duchesne students show how they have had moments of self-transcendence as represent
ed in their Senior Projects.  Their advisors are apt to be able to help them realize how far they have come on the journey by using the insights of the above psychologists. 

                                                                                 Works Cited

Coutinho, SJ, Paul. Class Lecture. The Interface of Psychology and Spirituality. 


Aquinas Institute of Theology, St. Louis, MO.  22 February 2011.


Ellis, Albert.  “REBT.”  Albert Ellis Information: The Official Site of Dr. Albert Ellis. 2008. Ed.

            Mike Abrams, PhD. 7 March 2011.  

Frankl, Victor E.  Man’s Search for Meaning.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.

Jacobi, Jolande.  The Psychology of C.J. Jung.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973.

Maslow, Abraham. “A Theory of Human Motivation.”  Emotional Literacy Education. 2002. Ed.

Mark Zimmerman.7 March 2011.

 “The Goals and Criteria of Sacred Heart Schools in the United States.” 2005. Network of Sacred  

Heart Schools. 7 March 2011. goals-and-criteria






About johnpowell1020

Middle-aged theology teacher who believes in the best of life's paradoxes. Loves God, Lisa, his family, The Beatles, Wilco, great music, the Chicago Cubs, the University of Florida , Barry University, teaching, photography, the piano, documentaries, Autumn, Clover & India, peacocks, and so much more....
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