"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Monday, August 8, 2011

Authorial Interview: Stephen Muse

Earlier I drew attention to some recent books approaching psychology from an Eastern Christian perspective. One of those was Stephen Muse, When Hearts Become Flame: An Eastern Orthodox Approach to the dia-Logos of Pastoral Counseling.
About this book, the publisher tells us:
Whatever else he or she does, the pastoral counselor, same as the priest at the Divine Altar, enters into call and response relationship invoking God's presence and seeking to be receptive to God's activity unfolding in the here and now with the intention of offering Christ to the other (and receiving Him) while serving at the altar of the human heart. When Hearts Become Flame reflects on the question, "What Makes Counseling Pastoral?" in light of the integration of all three aspects of our human nature in dialogue with others in such a way that as in Emmaus, Christ, the Logos, appears in 'between' bringing healing and transformation. It is not enough to be emotionally warm, theoretically correct and methodologically skillful. Pastoral care and counseling involve an integrated mindful presence existentially engaged in dialogue with the other with the same vulnerability and alertness that one brings to God in prayer. Inner discernment and ascetical struggle along with existential engagement with and for others in working for a just and humane world are equally important in response to God's love given for all.
I asked the author, Dr. Stephen Muse, for an interview, and here are his thoughts:

AD: Please tell us about your background:

SM: Prior to being received into the Greek Orthodox Church in 1993 where I am currently ordained as a sub-deacon and set apart for ministry as a pastoral counselor, I was solo pastor of a rural Presbyterian congregation in Pennsylvania for 11 years. That’s where I cut my pastoral teeth. A decade of contending with mental illness in the family and the death of our six-year-old daughter, along with the up close and personal forces that one discovers at work through daily life lived in a small village church family, taught me more about life than nine years of graduate training in pastoral psychology. The twins of theology and psychology were struggling in their mother’s womb, but only one could be the elder brother.

It was during this period that I completed an MA and PhD in pastoral counseling at Loyola University in Maryland and helped establish an out-patient satellite mental health clinic offering counseling services in a neighboring town. I was nourished and sustained during those years by dialogues with Orthodox priests and an Athonite elder. Grace coming through the voices of St. Silouan the Athonite, icons, silence and the Jesus prayer began to slowly leaven what I was doing, bringing the mind and body into contact which stirred the heart. Finally, weeping as I held the chalice in preparation for Communion, I realized a Copernican shift had occurred. Just as the breath had become the prayer of Jesus, the grape juice had for me become the wine of Christ’s blood and I was no longer Presbyterian, I was Orthodox, embraced by a Theocentric world where heaven and earth touched not in words alone, but in words made flesh. I had been in search of this my whole life.

My introduction to Orthodoxy had begun intellectually at Princeton Seminary in 1976 where I had the privilege of taking a class with Fr. Georges Florovsky who was teaching patristics there at the time. A small group of us seeking an experience of God more so than more words had begun experimenting with fasting and silent prayer. Awakening to the spiritual psychology of the hesychastic fathers, we prevailed on the faculty administration to let us do a course in the Writings of the Philokalia which had recently been published in English. A whole new world opened up that revealed a depth of hunger for which I had no words. That was in 1977. Fifteen years later I was now set apart as an Orthodox Christian pastoral psychotherapist engaged in calling people with Greek-, Russian- and Arabic-sounding names in order to begin an Orthodox mission church in Columbus, Georgia.

For the past twenty years we have lived in Columbus where I am co-director of the D.A and Elizabeth Turner Ministry Resource Center of the Pastoral Institute Inc., responsible for the pastoral counselor training program and clinical services for the clergy. I teach and supervise in the U.S. Army Family Life Chaplain Training program at Fort Benning and have served as PT faculty with Columbus State University graduate counseling program and as adjunct faculty with Garrett Evangelical Seminary in Illinois and presenting workshops internationally and across the U.S.

My educational background includes a bachelors in philosophy from Davidson College and post-graduate studies in marriage and family therapy from University of Georgia. I hold diplomate certification in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and in Professional Psychotherapy with the International Academy of Behavioral Medicine, Counseling and Psychotherapy, am an AAMFT-approved supervisor, board-certified expert in traumatic stress, member of the EMDR International Association and state-licensed in Georgia as both a professional counselor and marriage and family therapist.

My first book, Beside Still Waters: Restoring the Souls of Shepherds in the Market Place (2000), a survival manual for clergy, was born out of my experience in parish ministry and something that has helped me work with those burned-out and beat up clergy who have come through our week-long Clergy in Kairos program.

My next book, Raising Lazarus: Integral Healing in Orthodox Christianity (2004), is a collection on the integration of psychology, medicine and Christian faith.


AD: Tell us why you wrote When Hearts Become Flame: An Eastern Orthodox Approach to the dia-Logos of Pastoral Counseling:

In the medieval legend of Percival, it is the King’s wound that sends the knights out in search of the Holy Grail which contains the only source of life which can heal him. My father’s paranoid schizophrenia and my mother’s chronic illness were something like that for me. I used to send baseball cards to players asking for their autographs. When Maury Wills, the National League MVP who stole 104 bases for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1962, sent me a postcard in his own handwriting, “Dear Steve, I wish all of my fans thought as much of me as you do” it seemed like a whole book—a virtual avalanche of words evoking a numinous intimacy for an 8-year-old boy without a father.  I suspect neither he nor I at the time realized there was more to my fan mail than love of baseball.

Understanding the half century of my life backwards as Kierkegaard suggests, I see a longing and search for contact with the ‘other.’ I had become early on, and a still am, a sort of fisherman seeking contact with the other through whom is offered the essential nourishment which Martin Buber calls ‘confirmation’ of one’s humanity. As I suggest in When Hearts Become Flame, I see this as inviting Christ in ‘between’ us as on the Emmaus Road.

In college I began writing poetry and seeking out mentors who, I always hoped deep down, would help me find Jesus Christ. He was the Icon behind all the faces, ever since my mother taught me to pray from as young as I can remember, kneeling beside me. “Call no one your father on earth for you have one Father in heaven” made perfect sense to me. Her tangible love and confidence led me into Christ’s invisible arms and the absence of my earthly father set me in search of His presence. Ending up a pastoral counselor I suppose is a way of seeking this meeting on a daily basis. Doxa to Theo: there hasn’t be a single day in nineteen years since I have been at the Pastoral Institute that I haven’t looked forward to going to  work.

For whom was the book written—did you have a particular audience in mind?

The book grew slowly over ten or twenty years and finally I took a year to shape it into its current form. Writing it was something of a dialogue itself. My friend Fr. Thermos, a priest and psychiatrist in Greece, in a line translated from one of his poems written in Greek says, “Every word we say is a translation from an original manuscript that is lost.” Transformative spiritual life and healing in psychotherapy are all about the dia-Logos of love which gives words to the wordless meanings that rise up from a depth of heart that cannot be ‘known about’ but only encountered personally.  For this reason, the book's audience is wide – for counselors, clergy and non-professionals seeking a deeper life in Christ through authentic encounters. 

What about your own background led you to the writing of this book?

Suffering and joy, both permeated by and rooted in the longing for Christ, have given meaning to the experiences and prompted the life-giving dialogues that have been transformative for me over the years. For me these are an essential nourishment, a daily being bread seamlessly connected to the Eucharist. The philosopher Miguel de Unamuno in his book the Tragic Sense of Life says “those who believe that they believe in God, but without any passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair even in their consolation, believe only in the God-idea, not in God Himself.” Elder Ambrose of Gethsemane makes a similar and related observation when he says, “The amount of suffering that the soul can accommodate is also how much it can accommodate the grace of God.”  I think we study and write books about the things we are trying to learn. In that sense, the book a small testimony to what I have learned and how much I have yet to learn about the great challenge of learning how to truly listen to another person, and to love them.

Were there any surprises you discovered in your writing?

A friend of mine who is writer in Greece told me that William Faulkner described writing as “trying to nail down boards in a hurricane before they blow away.” I think that well describes how fleeting some inspiration is that visits in words. In the midst of the most intense writing periods, I notice how words come to me when I lie down to sleep or in turning to prayer. If I don’t write them down, they are gone. Some of this I think is because I cannot live what is revealed to me. My inner state is always changing in subtle ways.  Perhaps the greatest surprise in writing the book is that once written, once the words are nailed down, it becomes a voice of its own.  It speaks to me when I read it and most especially, when others read it and write me about it. My heart rejoices when someone shares that they have had a deeper encounter with Christ through reading the book. It has been the same with me. Words are like breath. They come through us, but do not belong to us. We get to share in the meanings they evoke, but must never think that they belong to us.      

Are there similar books out there, and if so, how is yours different? 

Books on counseling from an Eastern Orthodox perspective are few. Among these, When Hearts Become Flame has a unique style and method – combining poetry, private journal, travelogue, and textbook – as one reviewer described it. It has confessional elements and appeals to both professionals as well as spiritual seekers. My favorite response is from an Orthodox psychologist in Russia who wrote “The author’s experience and ideas make your brain think, your soul pray, your eyes cry, your ears listen to the heart and your heart love God and people.”  She hit the center of the mark for what I hope for. I think it also captures the uniqueness of the approach. The book is not meant to be an ‘object’ to be read or merely studied, but a ‘voice’ to be encountered. In this sense its method and content are congruent and this sets it apart from others in the field. I am in hopes it will gain a wide reading and influence the emerging field of Orthodox pastoral counseling to be rooted in the person of Christ.    

Sum up briefly the main themes/ideas/insights of the book
The heart of the book is that Christ is the source of healing and the ‘Way’ through which we encounter one another. I am suggesting that pastoral counselors, the same as priests at the altar, enter into a living and immediate call and response relationship with persons. The pastoral counselor invokes God's presence and seeks to be receptive to God's activity unfolding in the here and now with the intention of offering Christ to the other (and receiving Him) while serving at the altar of the human heart.

The book  approaches the question, "What Makes Counseling Pastoral?" in light of the integration of all three powers of  human nature brought to bear in dialogue with others in such a way that as along the Emmaus road, Christ, the Logos, appears in 'between' bringing healing and transformation. Transformation is ultimately trialogical. It is not enough for a counselor to be emotionally warm, theoretically correct and methodologically skillful. Pastoral care and counseling involve an integrated mindful presence existentially engaged in dialogue with the other with the same vulnerability and alertness that one brings to God in prayer. Inner discernment and ascetical struggle along with existential engagement with and for others in working for a just and humane world are equally important in response to God's love given for all.

Finally, I am hoping that the book brings to the forefront of the Orthodox world the ministry of lay pastoral counselors who serve the ends of the Church as well as the need for more opportunities for the training and formation of clergy in pastoral counseling that integrates psychological science with charismatic discernment in the service of love. There is a need for both. Training of both clergy and pastoral counselors in the art of listening has to do with learning to love and this is both the experience of continual repentance growing out of worship and the actions of “going to hell with and for the sake of the other” which is how I define the Orthodox path. Christ places Himself on the altar in order to give Himself to us and in so doing, invites us to follow Him there, giving ourselves for the life of the world.

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