Why We Resist Change – And Especially Radical Transformation

Oct 26, 2022

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

So how do we love ourselves better, in a more ordered way? I ended our last weekly reflection titled Examples of Bad Self-Love and the Consequences with this question.

In the next several weeks, we will be exploring ordered love, with practical recommendations to increase our ability to love properly.

Readiness to change is essential

Catholic philosopher and phenomenologist Dietrich von Hildebrand, in his book Transformation in Christ, writes the following: “On the measure of a readiness to change depends the measure of our transformation in Christ.” (p. 28) and That unlimited readiness to change is not only necessary for the transformation in Christ: even as such, it represents the basic and relevant response to God.” (p. 9).

I remember reading those words in 1999, and they hit me so hard. The first chapter of von Hildebrand’s book is titled “Readiness to Change” and it frames the arguments in the rest of his volume. For von Hildebrand, your readiness to change, your readiness to be transformed by Christ and in Christ will determine your spiritual life. It’s that important.

All true Christian life, therefore, must begin with a deep yearning to become a new man in Christ, and then in a readiness to quote put off the old man” – a readiness to become something fundamentally different. (p. 3).

Unlimited readiness to change. Radical transformation in Christ. Von Hildebrand pulls no punches about how totally different we will be once we are completely remade in Christ.

And very, very few Catholics are ready for that. Very few Catholics are open to that.

Von Hildebrand writes:

Now this radical readiness to change, the necessary condition for transformation in Christ, is not actually possessed by all Catholic believers. It is, rather, a distinctive trait of those who have grasped the full import of the call and without reserve have decided upon an imitation of Christ. (p. 7).

Do you have the distinctive trait of “grasping the full import of the call?” Have you, without reserve, decided to imitate Christ? How many people do you know personally who have?

Why? Why are there so few?

Reasons why we are not ready to change

Von Hildebrand writes:

There are many religious Catholics whose readiness to change is merely a conditional one. They exert themselves to keep the commandments and get rid of such qualities as they recognize to be sinful. But they lack the will and the readiness to become new men all in all, to break with all purely natural standards, to view all things in the supernatural light. They prefer to evade the act of metanoia: a true conversion of the heart. Hence, with undisturbed consciences they cling to all that appears to them legitimate by natural standards. (p. 7).

My read of Hildebrand indicates for major reasons why we are not ready to change:

  1. Our lack of imagination — not considering the radicality of the transformation we are called to in Christ.
  2. An unhealthy satisfaction in far more limited spiritual goals and a willing to settle for those limited goals
  3. Concern about the loss of our unique individuality in such a transformation
  4. Fear that stems from a lack of confidence in God

According to von Hildebrand, the vision of most Catholics is way too narrow – our sights are set way too low. We are satisfied with too little in the spiritual life – we are like chickens pecking at the ground when we are called to soar as eagles. We may be content with merely avoiding sin, overcoming vices and developing virtues. Some of us may pursue the spiritual life as a self-improvement project, satisfied with incremental gains. That covers his points 1 and 2.

Points 3 and 4 are more interesting and important. Those two points address our self-images and our God-images. Who we feel God to be and who we feel ourselves to be in our bones. This is not our rational concept of God and ourselves, who we profess God and our selves to be – those are our God-concepts and our self-concepts, respectively. Let’s explore those in more depth.

Chapter 8 of von Hildebrand’s book is titled “Confidence in God.” In that chapter, he notes that:

The chief reason [we distrust God and succumb to fear] lies in our habit of submitting to the sovereignty of a self-evident purpose like that of avoiding an obvious evil, which causes us to omit confronting that evil, taken in its actual context, with God. We no longer consider the question as to what, after all, it would mean to us if we had to endure that calamity, but formally erect its avoidance into an unequivocal and autonomous aim, to the pursuit of which we then completely subordinate ourselves. (p. 208).

What does this mean? We are overconfident in the accuracy of how we evaluate the evils we face. We don’t question our motives in attempting to avoid obvious evils. And we don’t bring God into the consideration of what to do next. We don’t pause and briefly tolerate the evil, bringing the evil we are facing to God. In our frantic attempts to avoid the evil, we also avoid God. As we run from the evil, we leave everything else behind, including God.

A more basic reason why we act this way – we lack a secure attachment to God. We forget, or we don’t know, or we are not in touch with the reality that we are beloved sons and daughters of God in a felt, experiential way. And we lack the faith to compensate for the consolations we are no longer feeling in our bones in the moment.

In summary, we are dominated by distorted God-images and their corresponding self-images. In my reflection from September 14, 2022 titled Are You a Heretic? Distorted God Images Catholics Hold, I discuss the power of these negative God-images.

Von Hildebrand’s program for overcoming the fear that results from a lack of confidence in God is to bring whatever we fear, whatever evils we encounter, to God in prayer. We confront the evils in our lives, with God. As we do this, as we in humility and openness and vulnerability bring our troubles and trials and tribulations to God, as little children, we will grow in holiness. Von Hildebrand writes that “Complete, unreserved, victorious confidence in God is a fruit of Faith, Hope and Charity.” (p. 211).

We need to increase our courage. We need to pray for faith, hope, and charity. We need to trust that God loves us and is available to us even when we are in inner darkness. Von Hildebrand writes, “Our confidence in God must be independent of whether we experience His nearness, whether we sense the enlivening touch of grace, whether we feel ourselves being born on the wings of His love.” (p 210). And that is good basic spiritual counsel.

Natural causes lead to spiritual problems

But what about the natural level? What about human formation? So much of the approach to von Hildebrand and other spiritual writers seems to be “Just do it. Just have more faith. Just have more trust. Pray more. Sacrifice more. Do more.” And so much of that kind of a program depends on having a relatively intact psyche, which not all Catholics have.

Could what we know about human formation add anything to von Hildebrand’s call to action? Could we benefit from other approaches as well, other approaches grounded in a Catholic anthropology? To quote Bob the Builder, “Yes we can.”

Let me give one example. Our problematic God images are formed in the crucible of lived experience in relationship with others – and how we construe God to be by generalizing from those experiences. If there are attachment injuries or relational wounds with father or mother figures (and there always are), the attachment problems in those relationships will frequently be generalized to God. We make our God images in the image and likeness of what we’ve experienced from powerful, formative others. And most distorted God-images fall into the problems in the five primary conditions of secure attachment that Brown and Elliott found in their review of the attachment literature:

  1. Feeling safe, protected
  2. Feeling seen, heard, known, understood
  3. Feeling calmed, reassured, soothed
  4. Feeling cherished, treasured delighted in
  5. Having a sense of my highest good being sought for me

Before we confront our evils with God, we need to have that confidence in Him or enough faith to approach Him in the first place – or we won’t approach him at all. I don’t see confidence in God as solely the “fruit of Faith, Hope and Charity” as von Hildebrand maintained, but more as flowing from the corrective lived experience of who God really is. We have confidence in God because we’ve come to know him as He is – in his goodness, mercy, generosity and Providence – rather than as we have (unconsciously) made Him out to be in our God-images.

In addition to the spiritual impediments to trusting in God that von Hildebrand describes, I think there are a whole other set of natural-level impediments that you bring to our relationship with God. Anything that keeps you from relating well in the natural realm with other people you will also bring into your relationships with God (and Mary, too).

Examples of how natural causes lead to spiritual problems: Internal fragmentation and spiritual abuse

One example is our interior integration – if we are not integrated, we will not be able to join in union with anyone, including God. I discussed this at length in my reflection from October 12, 2022, titled Why Is Interior Integration Crucial for Union with God?. In that reflection, I quoted Catholic philosopher Eleonore Stump who wrote, “To the extent to which the human person is not integrated in the good, then to that extent even God cannot be present to him in significant personal presence or be close to him with the closeness ingredient in union.” (Wandering in Darkness, p. 128).

If we are fragmented inside due to unresolved trauma, due to shame (especially secondary to poor self-images), then our capacity to connect with anyone is compromised to the degree of the internal fracturing. We need to recover from that trauma. That may mean therapy or counseling. It may mean confronting the unresolved evils that we experienced. And we may need to have an intermediate step before just bringing them to God as von Hildebrand recommends. An example of spiritual abuse may make this clearer.

Let’s say that a woman was emotionally enmeshed in a relationship with her spiritual director and there has been no sexual intercourse, but physical boundaries are now being crossed. The director started by offering to hold the directee so that she can feel “the love of God” through him, and then physical contact progressed. He distorted examples from the spiritual friendship of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal to justify their trysts. He described how special she was to him, how she inspired him and was a channel of graces for his ministry. The spiritual director is using the directee for his own emotional and intimacy needs, and framing it as the “will of God.”

The woman knows at some level that the relationship with her director is disordered (she is married – how could she be kissing him?), but parts of her want to feel a relational connection with him. Parts of her yearn to be held. Parts of her are starving for attention, and for the sense of being cherished and valued and important.

Moreover, the power differential and of the emotional enmeshment are subtle – hard for her to perceive. In addition, the dysfunction in the relationship developed slowly over time, gradually, almost imperceptibly. When she tried to challenge him, he gaslighted her, causing confusion and leading her to doubt her own observations, undermining her critical thinking.

Such abusive situations are even worse when the spiritual director is a priest, whom the woman sees as an alter Christus, ipse Christus – another Christ, Christ Himself. More and more of her is drawn into the relationship – there is secrecy about what they are doing in private (“Others wouldn’t understand how special what we have is – and they may be jealous,” he tells her). The director reassures her that their physical contact is not sinful, but rather is a gift from God. But her prayer life is dropping off, and she is beginning to neglect her duties of state as he draws her more and more under his influence.

Even when the relationship ends and some clarity is restored, she may have parts that could be very angry at God for allowing what happened to happen. She may have parts that associate Jesus with the priest, who are not differentiating between them well. Moreover, she may hate herself, wonder if she seduced him, and suffer from terrible self-image issues. In such situations, it’s not so easy just to “confront the evil with God” as von Hildebrand recommends. There is so much confusion, so much emotion, so much shame, and so much fear.

Resolving natural sequelae of the spiritual abuse trauma through therapy may shore up her natural foundation and improve her negative God-images through reducing transferences to authority figures – the fear that all powerful figures (including God) want to exploit her also resolves as a function of the resolution of the trauma. Sorting through how the spiritual director systematically used psychological techniques of coercive persuasion may also help her – all of that occurs in the natural realm (no demons required).

Practical elements of an action plan

So you might say, “Dr. Peter, fine. I get it. If I have trauma, I would benefit from therapy. What else do you have? You must have more recommendations for me.”

Yes I do. Here they are.

  1. Check out our Catholic’s Guide to Self Help, a free online course at Souls and Hearts. Lots of recommendations are embedded in that course.
  2. Get out your pencils, pens, and paper. Consider your God images. Can you see how they might reflect a lack of confidence in God? Which of the conditions for secure attachment below are missing in your God images? Write them down.
    1. Feeling safe, protected
    2. Feeling seen, heard, known, understood
    3. Feeling calmed, reassured, soothed
    4. Feeling cherished, treasured delighted in
    5. Having a sense of my highest good being sought for me
  3. Then consider your history of attachment relationships – which negative relationship dynamics might you be transferring or projecting onto God?
  4. Take this all to prayer. Be specific, open, honest, and direct with God about what you are experiencing and realizing and be vulnerable enough to let Him show you who He really is.
  5. Talk about your struggles with another person. If you don’t have a therapist or a spiritual director, talk with someone else you trust. Do not just keep everything in isolation within yourself. Let God work through some other person.

We work on human formation in a deliberate, systematic, and focused way in the Resilient Catholics Community. We bring the best of human formation resources, grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person together, to help people overcome their natural-level impediments to the kind of radical transformation in Christ that von Hildebrand advocates so well.

The RCC is all about equipping those who desire to become saints with the natural means they need to do so. If you that approach makes sense to you, if you find these weekly reflections hit the mark for you, if you resonate with the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, sign up for the RCC. Go to our landing page, scroll down and learn more. We don’t provide therapy or counseling, but there are so many ways to foster much better human formation that don’t require those clinical services. Journey with me. It would be great to be with you on the RCC pilgrimage toward better human formation. We never turn away anyone because of financial need, so money is never a limiting factor.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. You can read Transformation in Christ online for free in text form or in a flip book.

P.P.S. Remember you can reach out to me via email at crisis@soulsandhearts.com or call me on my cell (317.567.9594) any Tuesday or Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM to discuss the themes from these reflections or from the IIC podcast.

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P.P.P.P.S And most importantly, please keep me and all those involved with Souls and Hearts in your prayers. This whole enterprise is fueled by prayer. I am praying as well. Thank you.

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