The use of imagery in therapy is common. We can use imagination to calm ourselves down or take a mental break. A popular guided meditation goes something like, “Imagine you’re sitting on the beach, the sun on your face, hearing the ocean waves lapping, feeling the warm sand between your toes.” Most people enter into it easily and find it pleasant. Whether it’s sunning on sandy beaches, dangling one’s toes in a forest brook, or snuggling into Grandma’s down comforter, all are comforting images. But they’re not “true images”.
An anxious client can use such images to slow down racing thoughts and a pounding heart. But they know that they’re not on a sandy beach, or by a forest stream, or in Grandma’s cozy home. They’re sitting in my office – or, if practicing the imagery at home, in their living room or bedroom.
When therapy incorporates true images, it can be more than comforting. It’s powerful. Christian therapy can use the power of imagination as a tool to recognize reality, not take a break from it. True images draw from the treasury of Christian belief to make invisible realities more vividly present. Protestants, with their strong emphasis on the Word, are not as likely to use Christian imagery as Catholics do. Nevertheless, my Protestant clients have tended to be open to the use of true images. Although sometimes unfamiliar, it’s usually welcome.
True images can address a variety of issues or wounds. For example, clients with trauma issues may never feel completely safe. I can encourage them to climb into the wound in Jesus’ side and rest in his heart. They can experience total safety there. When I speak about this image, I often cite a vision of St. Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic who had a series of dramatic and consoling images of Jesus on the Cross. She was speaking with him about his suffering.
Then with a glad cheer our Lord looked unto His Side and beheld, rejoicing. With His sweet looking He led forth the understanding of His creature by the same wound into His Side within. And then he shewed a fair, delectable place, and large enough for all mankind that shall be saved to rest in peace and in love. (Showings, Chapter 24).
I have used this image myself in prayer. I imagine being inside Jesus’s heart. I picture it as a huge, warm, golden-red furnace. I rest against the glowing inner wall. I am perfectly safe. I am completely loved.
It is a true image. Believers – and in some mysterious way, all people – are in the heart of Jesus, always. His heart must differ, in reality, from our images of it. But when we imagine being in his heart, we are not creating a castle in the air. We are simply recognizing an always-present reality. We are tapping into truth.
Many clients have issues with one or both parents. They can experience immense healing by imagining sitting in God the Father’s lap, or of letting him hold them to his chest. Catholic clients who are working through father images may at first find God the Father intimidating. It is helpful – and valid – to imagine St. Joseph instead. Just as St. Joseph was the flesh-and-blood image of the Father’s love for Jesus, so he fathers all believers. Clients with cold, critical, absent or abusive mothers can climb into the arms of the Blessed Mother, or hide in her womb, or rest in her heart. As with the heart of Jesus, we truly are in God the Father’s lap. He holds us unceasingly. So does St. Joseph. So does Mary. These are true images.
True images can be useful for the therapist, not just the client. For example, a therapist friend had clients with horrendous personal and family issues. Many cut themselves to ease their emotional pain. They attempted suicide and got psychiatrically hospitalized with alarming frequency. The therapist frequently felt overwhelmed by the sheer burden of his clients’ distress.
The therapist was open to God, although not a Christian. I encouraged him to imagine God’s hand as a filter between him and his clients’ pain. God could allow the therapist to empathize with his clients’ suffering without being overwhelmed by it. The therapist used this strategy frequently from that point on.
True images are meant for all believers in all circumstances, not just for clients and therapists. Not surprisingly, true images based on Scripture have particular power. How many distressed people have found comfort in Psalm 23? A friend of mine who was barely on the threshold of Christian belief came from a severely alcoholic family background. But he found himself reciting the phrase, “The Lord is my shepherd” over and over again, after reading the comfort which that psalm had given a Civil War soldier. Like the soldier, my friend found it deeply consoling.
We know that Jesus isn’t literally a shepherd. Nevertheless, it is a true image. He truly is that close. He truly leads us. He truly calls his people by name, nourishes them, and comforts them. He leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, and we need fear no evil.
I once had to testify at a rather intimidating hearing. In my anxiety, I remembered a passage from 2 Timothy (4:16-17). St. Paul was writing about his trial before a Roman court. “At my first defense no one took my part; all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” At the hearing, I could picture Jesus standing right beside me. He was. It was a great comfort.
Some images are true on a mystical level. That is, they are beyond the power of words to express. How does one delineate how Jesus really does give the living water that satisfies all thirst? How can I describe the hunger for which he truly is the bread of life? In some sense, the Holy Spirit is wind, water, and fire. He gently speaks, like the wind. He washes and refreshes, like water. He burns in my bones and my body, my heart and my mind, like holy fire. These, too, are true images.
God heals and strengthens us through his Word. He also heals and strengthens us through true images. Jesus’s words are spirit and life (Jn 6:63). But he himself is the truest of true images – “the image of the invisible God…full of grace and truth” (Col 1:15; Jn 1:14).