Dear Souls and Hearts Members,
Happy Easter to you! The Lord is truly risen. I hope you can fully enter into the joy of this season. May God bless and keep you.
Two weeks ago, we began a new series of weekly reflections on human formation, beginning with the March 29 reflection titled Catholic Understandings of Human Formation. In that reflection we defined what human formation is. Last week’s reflection, Catholic Human Formation Is a Lifelong Pilgrimage focused on the when of human formation, as a lifelong process, a pilgrimage that spans one’s entire life.
This week, we’re getting into the who of human formation. Who are the major players in your human formation?
Who sculpts you?
Family members are critical in your human formation. We so often underestimate how much human formation happens by the age of 24 months – so much has been formed into a toddler by that age around trust, around safety and security, around emotions, self-worth, relationships, boundaries, initiative, autonomy, and authority.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that:
Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery – the preconditions of all true freedom…[p. 2223]
Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P., in his 2019 article on human formation refers to family as the “bedrock” of human formation. He minces no words as he outlines the challenges and roadblocks of human formation facing many families today:
The life of many families today can hardly be said to be conducive to the natural supports needed to avoid these common pitfalls to living a life of self-surrender and giving completely of oneself. Divorced and broken homes are quite common. The lack of schedule as lived in many families is quite apparent and when both parents work, the stable, emotional support of home life is often brought into question. Children are so busy doing things outside the home and the media culture is so prevalent that there is little time for the real development of the imagination or play. Children in many cases are expected to act like adults long before they have the spiritual development to live such a role.
It is difficult to overstate how influential parents are in the human formation of their children. My August 3, 2022 reflection Who’s Your Daddy? Confusion Over Our Primary Parents is central to our discussion of the impact of parents’ on human formation:
First, Catholics greatly underestimate how much impact parents have on their children. Parents have an almost indescribably powerful impact on the formation of their children, both in the natural realm and in the spiritual realm. Even with recent advances in awareness of the wide-ranging impact of early childhood experiences, we grossly underestimate how much formative power parents have. Catholics still say things like, “Well that [insert whatever negative event] happened so early in her life, that she won’t remember it.” Nonsense.
Siblings also have a major and often underestimated impact. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, and other family members usually (but not always) have a role.
Teachers, coaches, pastors, scout leaders, and others also have formative roles that are secondary in influence to the parents. Spouses also have a major impact on our human formation.
Sadly, family members and others in formative relationships sometimes play hidden and detrimental roles in our human formation or “de-formation.”
Our friends and those we choose to associate with have a subtle but important impact on us.
General Colin Powell advises: The less you associate with some people, the more your life will improve. Any time you tolerate mediocrity in others, it increases your mediocrity. An important attribute in successful people is their impatience with negative thinking and negative acting people. As you grow, your associates will change. Some of your friends will not want you to go on. They will want you to stay where they are. Friends that don’t help you climb will want you to crawl. Your friends will stretch your vision or choke your dream. Those that don’t increase you will eventually decrease you.
Seneca the Younger recommends: Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Rap artist Nas exaggerates a bit to prove the point: You are who you associate with. Look around at your five closest friends and that’s who you are. If you don’t want to be that person, you know what you gotta do.
Finally, and most importantly, God and the saints also have a direct role to play in our human formation. Not just our spiritual formation, but also our human formation. From the prophet Isaiah: And now, O Lord, thou art our father, and we are clay: and thou art our maker, and we all are the works of thy hands. [Isaiah 64:8]. And the prophet Jeremiah:
So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. Then the word of the Lord came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. [Jeremiah 18:3-6].
Remember that God our Father and Mary our Mother are our primary parents, not only in the spiritual realm, but also in the natural realm. As the little daughters and sons of God and Mary (see my reflection Who’s Your Daddy? Confusion Over Our Primary Parents) we can bring them our entire beings, all of us, all of our needs and hurts, everything, to let them form our clay in all the best ways. This is not spiritualizing or spiritual bypassing because we are not ignoring our human formation needs – just the opposite, in fact. God allows our parents to be so imperfect, for He wills to father us as only He can and to give us Mary as the perfect mother for each of us. Ultimately, we need God to sculpt us, either directly or through His providential use of people and circumstances.
Sigmund Freud, considered a “founding father of modern psychology” posited the idea of “psychic determinism” in recognizing the impact of parents on their children.
Psychic determinism theorizes that all mental processes have conscious or unconscious causes, and no human behavior occurs by chance or by accident. A hard psychic determinism position claims that all your human formation was outside of your control, motivated by your innate drives, your inner conflicts, and your early experiences. In this model, you are passive, lifeless clay in the hands of other agents, unable to lead and guide yourself.
Critics point out that psychic determinism, taken to its logical conclusions, undermines free will. Debates have been ongoing within psychology for decades about free will vs. determinism (see here and here for summaries).
Some experts contend that much of one’s “personality” is set by age 6 or so, before the age of reason. Researcher Christopher Nave in a recent article stated that “We remain recognizably the same person [as we were in the first grade]… This speaks to the importance of understanding personality because it does follow us wherever we go across time and contexts.”
I’ve explained Why I Reject the Concept of “Personality”, however I recognize that what is formed into a young one often endures for life, because he or she does not make active efforts to change and be changed but rather remains in a state of lifeless clay.
Autonomous, self-shaping clay
Radical self-determinism is the extreme position on the other side of the coin. The “self-made man” or “self-made woman” pulls himself/herself up by the bootstraps. Family, background, attachment bonds from childhood and relational history are not considered relevant in human formation.
You captain your own ship and set your own course by the power of your intellect and your will. See the self-made man below, chiseling himself out of his raw human material.
In this position, you are both the clay and essentially the sole sculptor of yourself. This position is becoming less popular now in the western world as our cultural norms move away from idealizing “rugged individualism” and now emphasize thinking more in terms of relationships and systems.
I think of each well-formed, integrated Catholic person as “living clay.” Not clay that is passive and helpless as in hard psychic determinism, and not all-powerful clay that sculpts itself, as in the radical self-determinism. Not the waterless, dead clay that is hardened into a self-protective mass, shut down and shut off from love and relationships, clay that is unwilling to change or be changed. And not soupy clay that lacks integrity and resilience, clay that won’t hold a form on its own and gets sloshed around by outside forces.
Our goal is to become living clay.
Living clay voluntarily places itself into the formative hands of responsible others. Living clay is receptive to being shaped and formed by other loving hands, even when the forming and re-shaping causes suffering.
Living clay demonstrates what Dietrich von Hildebrand described as the “unlimited readiness to change” in his book Transformation in Christ: “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).
From a human formation standpoint, living clay is not just an unlimited readiness to be the active agent of change that is necessary; it is also an unlimited readiness to be changed by others. To be both an active potter and receptive in the hands of a master sculptor is the life of living clay.
I detailed many of the obstacles to becoming “living clay” in my October 26, 2022 reflection titled Why We Resist Change – And Especially Radical Transformation.
Responsibility for human formation?
Who is primarily responsible for your human formation?
The answer is you, you as the living clay. You are primarily responsible for your own human formation. The U.S. Catholic bishops make this clear in the Program of Priestly Formation, 6th edition (PPF6) where they write that “Seminarians bear the primary responsibility for their human formation. The role of the seminaries is to assist them in achieving the integral human maturity.” [p. 206]. This is not just true of seminarians, but for all Catholics of sound mind.
When a Catholic reaches the age of reason, that Catholic takes on responsibility for his or her life. As that Catholic becomes more mature, reaching adulthood in the eyes of the Church at Confirmation, that responsibility increases. Cameron Thompson in his Handbook of Human Formation: A Resource for the Cultivation of Character described the importance of personal responsibility for one’s own human formation: “Any program of Human Formation will be ineffective unless the individual personally interiorizes the formation.” [p.32].
Sadly, many confirmed Catholics consider themselves as ‘graduates’ of formation, when quite the opposite is true. Imbued with the fullness of sacramental gifts, infused with the fruits and graces of the Holy Spirit we are meant to be a source of grace for the world. Confirmation should be a catalyst for a Catholic to grow, become, and influence, to ‘own’ his faith and continue to seek and discover ways of deeper formation for a lifetime. To remain moldable and able to be resilient in the storms, challenges and uncertainties of life is our goal.
We can form ourselves, but not in the direct way of the self-made man’s radical self-determination. Rather, we form ourselves indirectly, by deliberately choosing the personal relationships and the environments that will best form us; by putting ourselves in the hands of the holy ones that will best mold our living clay. By being living clay that cooperates and collaborates with the healthy and holy sculptors in our lives.
Our best examples
The Blessed Virgin Mary gives us a perfect example of how to be living clay with her “fiat,” her “be it done” at the moment of the Annunciation. In Hebrews 5:8 we see the living clay in Jesus’ humanity being molded: Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. Cameron Thompson in his Handbook of Human Formation writes that, We see the full perfection of Christ shine through His humanity. Christ spent 30 years consisting simply of family life during which he did little to reveal His Divinity; He lived a very ordinary, but perfect, human life. Before any pastoral work, or spiritual teaching, before miracles, He spent 30 years of intensive living-out of humanity. His life consisted of labor, family life, obedience to (even fallible) human authority [p. 5].
Recognize hidden sculptors
Many Catholics underestimate the impact of their environments and stimuli on their human formation. No Catholic will achieve the interior integration, the inner unity in their human formation necessary to enter loving unions with God and neighbor while digesting a steady intake of unwholesome movies and TV shows, phone scrolling, excessive watching of sports, trivial and unhealthy social media, violent video games, unsound novels, sensational click-bait news (even “Catholic news”), and hours of idly surfing the internet for bright shiny tidbits or items to buy. Excessive use of alcohol, drug abuse, misuse of food, oversleeping, overdoing betting and gambling are harmful. And of course, pornography. The toxins you ingest can poison your human formation, but not irrevocably.
Consider what is influencing your human formation now. There is no neutrality in this area.
Where are the hard lumps in your clay, the disordered attachments, the big or little things that you cling to as “my precious”?
How many minutes, hours, days of your life are being sculpted by YouTube, Netflix, ESPN, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, etc.?
Are you being deliberate in your choices as to who and what will form you?
Are you allowing yourself to be formed by the best of hands, hands in the service of our Lord?
What might need to change in the formative influences in your life?
One likely sign of lumpy, resistant clay is when you find yourself justifying some attachment as “not that bad” for your human formation or “morally permissible” rather than looking at what would be best for your human formation.
The Interior Integration for Catholics Podcast
A big thank you to all of you who listened to and shared the podcast episodes from Holy Week, number 109, Jesus’ Psychological Agony in the Garden and number 110, Being with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane – you brought our podcast downloads to record highs. Much appreciated. Episode 111 was an experiential exercise on anger that we recorded on April 10 – we had a very large audience for that one. Episode 112 will be our final formal episode all about understanding our anger from a parts perspective, informed by Internal Family Systems and grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person. Episode 113 will round out our series on anger and be 75 minutes of RCC Lead Navigator Marion Moreland and me answering any questions from a live audience.
Requests for therapy or counseling
Every week, I receive one or two dozen requests if I can provide therapy or counseling to those who have read these reflections or listened to the podcast. I have parts that wish I could multi-locate and take on so many new and interesting clients, but I just can’t. I am limited in so many ways. I am only licensed in Indiana, so I take clients only in Indiana, and I have very few openings each year.
My limitations in providing therapy are part of the reason I started the Resilient Catholics Community, so that I could bring the best of non-therapy resources in community to you and connect more closely with so many more of you – we have 150 on our pilgrimage to better human formation right now. The RCC does not provide any therapy or counseling, so if you are looking for a therapist, consider checking out our free online video course titled “A Catholic’s Guide to Choosing a Therapist.”
Be With the Word
This Sunday is Divine Mercy Sunday. Join Dr. Gerry and me for our Be With the Word episode titled Forgiveness and Divine Mercy. In this episode, we discuss different types of forgiveness (e.g. “decisional” vs. emotional) and the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Learn how forgiving is good for the one who forgives. And hear the story of Dr. Gerry’s journey of forgiveness for his father – and the impact his forgiveness had on his own human formation. The Divine Mercy Sunday Mass readings are proclaimed here.
Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,
P.S. Don’t forget to check out our resource page with so many of our Souls and Hearts offerings categorized and alphabetized by topic.