Remembering the Virginia Tech Shooting

The small town of Blacksburg in Southern Virginia was, at one point, only that: a small town, nestled along the New River Valley. The trip from the cities of the north will lead you witnessing the significant change of scenery as you cruise down I-81, from cityscapes to treelines, from city streets to nature trails, from Smithsonian Museums to the Blue Ridge Mountains, from the boisterous white noise of a congested population to the melodies of the rural countryside. And, of course, it will lead you to the spirited Hokie Nation. But this little Virginia gem was not brought under the eyes of the new millennium by its quaint charm. It wasn’t Blacksburg’s or Virginia Tech’s spirited community or the university’s technological innovations or successes in science and agriculture, nor was it Beamer Ball that brought it under the spotlight of the world. It was a 23-year-old English major from northern Virginia, and the 32 people he murdered on campus that brought the spotlight to Virginia Tech and an issue that continues to be debated to this day. The beautiful campus and its community was eternally scarred by the violence of that April day of darkness fourteen years ago. Today, there is still a certain, strange air carried on the winds throughout campus that leaves one keeping an eye open and scanning their surroundings, and there’s rarely a day where students do not pass or visit the memorial at the top of the drillfield in front of Burruss Hall: 32 stones for the 32 taken from us too soon. April 16th always brings back the pictures of that tragic day: students evacuated from campus, huddled together in a circle at a local church; sheriff officers carrying survivors from the scene by their arms and legs; tearful mothers holding tight the child who just left their nest for the first time; other mothers searching frantically among the large crowds of bloodied faces for their children, praying that they are not one of the many carried away in body bags; President Bush, a father himself, addressing the university, seeking to comfort a confused, sorrowful student body of 25,000; Resident Poet Nikki Giovanni absorbing all that sorrow into her pen and converting it into prose of flourishing inspiration as she cries out, “We Are Virginia Tech!” The date also brings back to remember the student and shooter Seung Hui Cho, who was described as an isolated individual preferring to be by himself. He hardly spoke in class and, when he was called to do so, he spoke barely above a whisper. The content of his written assignments and projects at Virginia Tech caught the concerning attention of his professors, and the videos and manifesto he sent to NBC left people anxiously asking questions about his mental stability. What could have led him to commit such a seemingly random act of carnage? What could have been done to stop it? School shootings have been well covered and documented over the last several years. As a result, studies have shown that there are a number of common risk factors that can indicate if someone is at risk of harming themselves and/or others. Risk factors commonly associated with school shooters include creating or engaging in content--writings, drawings, etc.--depicting violence or violent fantasies, difficulty controlling anger, suicidal and homicidal ideations, social isolation and social deficits, victim/martyr self-concept, paranoia and interest in other shooting situations. “I think those are very good starting points,” said Dr. Suzanne Hollman, Academic Dean and Director of Divine Mercy University’s Psy.D. Program, in an interview on EWTN after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. “The research right now is all over the place. But what we do know is that all of these things are risk factors. All of these things can predispose someone to making a decision or planning something that dramatic. A lot of it stems from social isolation--not being seen in the world--and then trying to find these mechanisms to ensure that they are noticed.” After the attack, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine assigned an independent panel to review the events leading up to the tragedy and how they were handled. The panel was also charged with developing a profile and investigating the life of Cho leading up to April 16th, including his mental health records, which showed that Cho displayed all these red flags during his last two years at the university. But the panel didn’t just shed light on the indicators that developed during his final two years. The panel discovered other details in Cho’s life that could also have been contributing factors.    According to their review, Cho was a shy boy who rarely spoke and, when he moved with his family from South Korea to the United States, he became more withdrawn. He allegedly resented the pressure of speaking in public, and would avoid speaking both at home and at school. When called to speak--particularly if his family had a visitor--Cho would freeze on the spot and grow incredibly anxious. He would become pale, develop sweaty palms, and in some cases, begin to cry and resort to nodding yes or shaking his head no.     Cho’s parents tried to urge him to become more involved in different activities and local sports because they worried he was becoming more isolated and lonely. On the other hand, transportation to any event in general was a challenge in itself, as Cho’s parents worked long hours during the week and were not able to take him or his sister to any extracurricular activities. His father was stern on matters of respect, which is something the two would argue about. According to one of the records reviewed by the independent panel, Cho’s father would not praise his son, and one of his writings later included a father-son relationship where the father was always negative. Eventually, Cho’s parents decided to “let him be the way he is” and not force him to interact and talk with others. Doing so may not have been in their son’s best interest. Extreme social deficits is not just a key indicator of a serious mental health issue. According to 2018 Divine Mercy University Psy.D. graduate Amanda Aulbaugh Faria’s dissertation entitled “Mass School Shooters: Psychosocial Characteristics in the Lives of the Perpetrators,” it’s also a common characteristic among school shooters. Nine out of the nineteen school shooters that Faria studied had significant social deficits. One shooter was quiet, was disliked by her peers, walked around by herself and did not participate in class at school. Another shooter suffered significant social anxiety and was seen as “odd, goofy or weird.” Twelve of the nineteen studied also displayed antisocial characteristics. “The negatives have already been identified,” said Dr. Paul Vitz, Divine Mercy University Senior Scholar and Professor, who has recently begun researching school shootings and their perpetrators, from elementary school to high school. “They were depressed, or they came from dysfunctional families, or they were all obsessed with violence. They had a variety of negative characteristics.” In his own research of school shooters, Dr. Vitz found that one thing common among the shooters is not merely a variety of negative risk factors, but also a lack of positive things in their lives. “None of them seemed to have a goal in life,” he said. “None of them wanted to be a star musician, no one wanted to be an athlete, none of them talked about being businessmen or have success at college. Second, none were involved in any pro-social organizations. None were in scouts or 4-H. None were in a civic society or were helping the poor, none were involved with any of the virtues or active in any faith.” In Faria’s study, many of the shooters were involved with different activities as younger children, but as they grew older into middle school and high school, they began to withdraw from social activities. Others, including Sandy Hook shooter Bill Lanza, had no social interests or did not engage in any social activities from the beginning. “It isn’t just the overwhelming presence of many negatives,” continued Vitz. “It’s the absence of the positives too.” A second factor discovered was that Cho, who had been receiving psychiatric treatment prior to attending Virginia Tech, stopped his treatment before moving to Blacksburg, and the university had no knowledge of his mental health history. According to the panel report, Cho’s middle school teachers noticed suicidal and homicidal ideations in his writings after the 1999 Columbine shootings. On their recommendation, Cho received psychiatric counseling and medication for a short time, and special accommodations were made to help Cho achieve top scores and honors in his coursework all through high school. “Cho exhibited signs of mental health problems during his childhood,” the report reads. “His middle and high schools responded well to these signs and, with his parents' involvement, provided services to address his issues. He also received private psychiatric treatment and counseling for selective mutism and depression.” By the time Cho was preparing to leave home for college for the first time--entering as a business major before making the switch to English--neither he nor his high school revealed that he had been receiving special education services as an emotionally disabled student. As a result, no one at Virginia Tech ever became aware of his pre-existing conditions until it was too late, leaving him to carry on without the critical helped that assisted him to cope and flourish. Since that tragic day in 2007, colleges and universities across the country have taken steps to both help those individuals with anxiety and mental issues. Many have added mental health professionals and university police officers to their campuses; faculty and staff members are being trained on how to spot worrisome behavior and reach out to those students in a preventative manner. Virginia Tech even became the first campus in the nation to be certified by an independent non-profit organization that established rigorous national standards for emergency planning.   A question still lingers: is it enough? That question may never have an answer. But it’s the reverberation of gunshots that still faintly linger in the winds of Blacksburg, and in the tears that stain the 32 stones in front of Burruss Hall that pushes us to keep trying and keep innovating ways to help our mentally ill and, in doing so, trying our hardest to prevent another April 16th. If you’re passionate about helping those who have witnessed or suffered serious trauma, or if you want to help those with serious mental illness, consider the M.S. in Psychology, M.S. in Counseling or Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology at Divine Mercy University.   Work Cited: “Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech, April 16, 2007, Report of the Review Panel”. Presented to Governor Tim Kaine, Commonwealth of Virginia, August 2007. https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/prevail/docs/VTReviewPanelReport.pdf Faria, A. A. Mass school shootings: Psychosocial characteristics in the lives of perpetrators (Doctoral Dissertation). Divine Mercy University, 2018. Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2100701144). Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/2100701144?accountid=27532 Friedman, Emily.  “Va. Tech Shooter Seung-Hui Cho's Mental Health Records Released.” ABC News, 19 Aug. 2009, https://abcnews.go.com/US/seung-hui-chos-mental-health-records-released/story?id=8278195 Hausman, Sandy.  “Lessons Learned at Virginia Tech: What Went Wrong?.” WVTF, 13 Apr. 2015, https://www.wvtf.org/post/lessons-learned-virginia-tech-what-went-wrong#stream/0 Langman, Peter. School Shooters: Understanding High School, College and Adult Perpetrators. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2015. O'Meara, Eamon. “Virginia Tech shooting may have changed how mental health was treated.” ABC WDBJ7, 14 Apr. 2017, https://www.wdbj7.com/content/news/Virginia-Tech-shooting-may-have-changed-how-mental-health-was-treated-419513643.html Potter, Ned and David Schoetz, Richard Esposito, Pierre Thomas. “Killer's Note: 'You Caused Me to Do This'.” ABC News, 7 Apr. 2007, https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=3048108&page=1

Big Future for Catholic-Christian Psychology

Could you imagine the world without Christian psychology or counseling? A world where a secular approach to mental health would ignore the spiritual importance of their clients? Or a world that would be uncomfortable about the mere presence of a crucifix hanging on a counselor’s wall? Before the integration of faith and psychology was largely favored by social scientists in the 1960s and ‘70s, Dr. Paul C. Vitz, a then-atheist, was working as a cognitive/experimental psychologist at New York University. It wouldn’t be until after reading literature by two British writers/lay theologians that he would explore the validity of fusing Christian principles with psychology. [caption id="attachment_661" align="alignleft" width="159"] Dr. Vitz during his early years in the field.[/caption] Nearly 45 years later, Dr. Vitz serves as a senior scholar for the Institute for the Psychological Sciences at Divine Mercy University, where his teachings and research focus on the integration of Christian theology and Catholic anthropology with psychology. His conversion to Catholicism in 1979 changed the trajectory of his career -- consisting of seven book publications, a shared stage with the late psychologist Albert Ellis and innumerable lectures filled with hearty laughter, unforgettable charm and the ability to recall historic psychology-related events at the drop of a dime. In an attempt to document his more recent ventures, he was interviewed in the comfort of his office at Divine Mercy University, located in northern Virginia. Here’s what he had to say: [caption id="attachment_662" align="alignright" width="298"] Dr. Paul Vitz, Sr. Mary Patrice Ahearn, R.S.M., M.S., and Dr. Gladys Sweeney celebrate Sr.'s successful defense of her dissertation "To Attach or Detach."[/caption] Q: How long have you been a faculty member at Divine Mercy University and how did you get involved? Dr. Vitz: “I’ve been here since the very beginning in 1999. I met Gladys Sweeney [former dean] and Bill Nordling [former dean and current professor] during a visit to Washington, D.C., to teach psychology at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, located on the Catholic University of America campus. We all wanted to give continuing education (CE) seminars to provide a Catholic-Christian perspective on psychology. This led us to establishing the Catholic Institute for the Psychological Sciences (CIPS) program*, which consisted of seminars and lectures that provided CE credit.” *CIPS is now known as Institute for the Psychological Sciences (IPS) at Divine Mercy University, which offers two accredited graduate degree programs: a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology and an Master’s in Psychology (online). Q: What has been your most impactful contributions to the field of psychology? Dr. Vitz: “I’ve written a number of books that have had some impact on the field. The first one I wrote was “Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship,” published by Eerdmans in 1977. That was the first kind of Christian critique of humanistic psychology. It made the most impact because, immediately, people outside of New York University (NYU) knew about my work. So all of a sudden, I ran into a lot of Christian intellectuals and academics (mostly Evangelicals and a few Catholic priests) who got in touch with me. The priests understood what I was doing, but they were more focused on theology and spirituality than psychology. [caption id="attachment_663" align="alignnone" width="961"] Book covers of Dr. Vitz’s three three most impactful books on psychology.[/caption] “For psychology, my next impact was a book ‘Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious.’ It put Freud in a very different perspective than that described by his secular biographers. It just got translated into Italian and published. My most recent impact is from ‘Faith of the Fatherless: The psychology of Atheism,’ revised edition published in 2013. There have been a string of articles also, on various other psychological topics.” Q: Who were the most influential “thinkers” of your life and why? [caption id="attachment_668" align="alignright" width="300"] Dr. Paul Vitz speaking with Archbishop William E. Lori (of Baltimore).[/caption] Dr. Vitz: “The most influential persons in my life were those who affected by conversion from atheism to Christianity -- C.S. Lewis (Protestant) and G.K. Chesterton (Catholic). They were both very intelligent and knowledgeable and very able writers, but particularly C.S. Lewis made it clear to me that being intelligent, educated and Christian were completely compatible. In fact I saw that Christianity was far more meaningful and powerful than any political philosophy I had ever come across.” Q: Have you faced any obstacles in your career or research? How did you overcome them? Dr. Vitz: “I had just become a tenured psychology professor at NYU and was working as a cognitive experimental psychologist. And then I became a Christian psychologist, which resulted in me stopping cognitive experiments and research for 45 years, until recently. [At this point in the interview, Dr. Vitz gently tossed a document on the desk. The title on the cover reads “A hierarchical model of binary pattern learning,” published in the Journal of Learning and Motivation (February 2019)]  “This [cognitive psychology] was the sort of research I was doing 45 years ago.” “I had obstacles at NYU. I had no colleagues in my department or in the university because there were no other supportive Christian professors. So it was a lonely, isolating environment, which was difficult. But that’s why contact from Evangelicals at other universities was so important to me. Of course the department didn’t like what I was doing so my raises dropped off. But I was hired as a cognitive/experimental psychologist and so I no longer met the Psychology Department needs, except for what I could contribute with teaching and administration. Anyway, God provided outside financial help which made up for low raises.” Q: Are you a member of any associations or organizations that help enrich your knowledge? Dr. Vitz: I’m a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. [caption id="attachment_666" align="alignright" width="300"] Dr. Paul Vitz talking with a student while seated with his wife Evelyn (right) at the opening ceremony for Divine Mercy University.[/caption] Q: What has been the most rewarding part of teaching for you? Dr. Vitz: The most rewarding part is to teach intelligent, young Christians and Catholics the way in which psychology, and all of its scientific validity, can, in fact, be combined with the faith; and to see them understand it and then to develop it in new ways. It has also been exciting to be in contact with Christian psychologists, now, all over the world. Q: What do you predict will change in the field of psychology? Dr. Vitz: “A couple of things: 1) The hostility between most psychology and religion will decrease. 2) Religious integration with psychology will increase because there will be more evidence that religion can be a major help to people struggling with mental health problems. 3) And I believe this will lead to the development of more professional organizations with a pro-religious commitment, and these new organizations are likely to gain appropriate social and political influence. “Overall, I think there’s a big future for Christian psychologists and psychotherapists because the Catholic population has been the most neglected. In the United States, there are some disciplines that have too many professionals, in relation to the demand, but there are not too many Christian or Catholic psychologists.” Watch Dr. Vitz’s video presentation “Uniting Faith & Psychology” to learn the significance of the approach on psychology by the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. You can read Dr. Vitz’s full biography on Wikipedia or our university’s website. Sign up to learn more about the psychology programs offered at Divine Mercy University.

Staggering Suicide Statistics

Suicide is not a topic we all like to talk about. But recent incidents have brought more attention to this unfortunate event that's often linked to severe depression. At Divine Mercy University, we strive to educate our students and the general public of ways to prevent suicide and provide adequate mental health services. Recently, we hosted an on-campus lecture entitled "How to Understand Suicide and its Aftermath: From a Scientific & Faith Perspective," presented by Melinda Moore, Ph.D., a Licensed Psychologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Eastern Kentucky University. Her interest in Posttraumatic Growth emerged from her own experience with suicide and the changes that experience created within her allowing for her current career path and personal interests and relationships. Watch the recording of the suicide lecture to learn how a faith-based approach to mental disorders can help save lives. We also wanted to share suicide prevention resources with you, in the case that you or someone you know may need help:
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
In our psychology and counseling programs, we teach students how to act effectively in situations where de-escalation, negotiation, and crisis intervention are needed, such as suicide attempts. The courses also train students on the best ways to diagnose and treat common psychological problems to prevent severe disorders from developing. Sign up to learn more.

Honoring St. Patrick With Moderation

When we look at the calendar and see that St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, many of us may salivate knowing that our local pubs and bars will be decorated and playing Celtic music, with Guiness and green beer flowing endlessly like the great falls of some romantic Irish waterfall, and when the day comes, we celebrate even more the week before and the week after the holiday. And then the following morning you find yourself staying in bed sick. Most of the adrenaline in your body has vacated the premises, leaving only a small amount to get you to roll around under the covers in desperate search of a position that will calm the heavy throbbing in your head, or to get up and rush to the bathroom or the nearest trash can to vomit. It’s highly doubtful that St. Patrick--one of the most popular and highly recognized Catholic saints in the world--would’ve expected that kind of celebration of his feast day. Born in Roman England, he first entered Ireland as a captive of pirates as a fourteen-year-old, and wasn’t able to escape and return to England until he was twenty. [caption id="attachment_645" align="alignleft" width="240"] St. Patrick often used a clover when teaching about the Holy Trinity.[/caption] In his memoir, The Confession of St. Patrick, he describes experiencing a vision that prompted him to study for the priesthood. He was eventually ordained a bishop and, in the year 433, was sent to preach the Gospel in Ireland. Throughout his 40-year stay in Ireland, he converted thousands of people, built churches throughout the country, and performed many miracles up to his death on March 17th, 461. Approximately 33 million people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day each year, and with his feast day falling within the season of Lent, Catholics and Christians are able to set aside their Lenten restrictions and are able to indulge in whatever they gave up, e.g. if they gave up snacks and stout. The day also became a celebration of not only the holy man, but also Irish heritage, culture, history and traditions around the world. According to Wallethub, over 55% of Americans plan to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and are expected to spend a collective estimate of $5.6 billion. “For some, any reason to drink more is a good enough reason,” said Divine Mercy University Associate Professor Dr. Stephen Sharp, a specialized instructor for the Addictions Counseling course (COUN 650). “But for others, it may simply be part of the ‘spirit’ of the holiday, in this case St. Patrick's Day. It could as well be Christmas, New Year (even Chinese New Year), or the 4th of July.” Today, St. Patrick’s Day is ranked the third most popular drinking day of the year. According to WalletHub, 152.5% more beer is sold and 13 million pints of Guinness consumed (an 819% increase from the rest of the year), and 32% of men admit to binge drinking on St. Patrick’s Day.    “I'm not sure we can say that binge drinkers ‘go out of their way’ to drink more when there is a social opportunity to do so,” Dr. Sharp said. “They may just simply take advantage of the socialized opportunity to celebrate using alcohol. In ways, a culture of drinking on holidays has contributed to problems created by over-imbibing.” But with greater consumption comes a greater need for greater responsibility. Seventy-five percent of fatal car crashes over St. Patrick’s Day involved a drunk driver, and 59 people were killed in St. Patrick’s Day drunk driving crashes in 2017. Between 2013-2017, 44% of people killed in drunk driving crashes during the St. Patrick’s Day holiday were between 21 and 34 years old.   “Law enforcement recognizes the patterns,“ Dr. Sharp continued, “and often has a bigger presence, and has also helped to sponsor the idea of ‘designated drinkers’ and the use of services for transportation to keep drinkers from behind the wheel of an automobile. With or without the cultural influences of alcohol consumption, those choosing to use alcohol have the ultimate challenge of drinking responsibility on these celebrated occasions.” Unfortunately, it seems to be a difficult challenge for many. Alcohol abuse is currently one of the largest public health crises in the United States, and it kills more people each year than overdoses. According to the Center for Disease Control, six people die from alcohol poisoning every day, and further research shows that alcohol consumption will only grow in 2019, even as population growth is expected to slow.     “Too much of almost anything can be harmful,” said Sharp. “Extended over-use is probably the most hazardous to your health. Our bodies are remarkably able to recover from the occasional over-drinking simply by remaining abstinent from it for a period of time.” When we don’t allow our bodies the chance to recover, our drinking may contribute to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other organ damage, especially the liver, which is the organ charged with keeping our bodily system clean by removing toxins. When we regularly overload our liver, we may pay the price over time. But as mentioned before, our body is a remarkable system capable of near miraculous recovery, but only when given the opportunity to do so. But the risks are not just bodily. Poor drinking habits can be destructive enough to damage our relationships that often do not recover, including those within our family. “Behavior problems resulting from alcohol use and abuse can stretch the limits of those who love us, and that we love,” said Dr. Sharp. “Moments and phases of intoxication may result in engaging in other risky and damaging behaviors and in having a lifelong impact on the quality of our life and those precious relationships. This also often takes a toll on children of alcoholic parents as binge drinking may be part of a bigger cycle, and is often an unpleasant experience for the child.”    According to Dr. Sharp, it is also widely observed that concurrent mental disorders will accompany a substance use disorder. It is not uncommon to see depression, anxiety and substance use co-occurring in an individual. “Did the anxiety appear before the depression,” he said, “and were they present prior to the onset of substance use? Or, did the substance use begin and the other mental disorders begin subsequently? The answer is that this is highly individualized in differences, distinctions, and similarities to others. It depends on the person, their history, and the narrative of their life story. “A short and simple answer is often right beneath the nose, though,” he continued, “and that is if using alcohol is creating problems in your life at any level such as work, relationships or legally, then you may have a drinking problem and should seek the help of a professional.” As we celebrate the life of St. Patrick and everything Irish in communion with each other--whether it be in person or in spirit--let us do so in safe, moderate and healthy fashion for ourselves and each other.    

Lent: The Season for Habit Formation

There are two things that many of us seem to get wrong: the days leading up to Christmas, and the days leading up to Easter. In the days leading up to Christmas--which can begin as early as May--we find ourselves in a consistent rush: fixing budgets, planning trips, scheduling reunions, flying to pageants and concerts, collecting items for feasts and bakefests, and purchasing lots and lots and lots of presents. We leave very little time and room for reflection, charity, prayer, and preparation for Christ’s arrival. With Christmas now past and the liturgical season of ordinary time coming to a close, our attention turns toward Easter, and the season of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, where we follow Jesus on his adult journey of teaching, ministry, prayer, healing and suffering right up to his crucifixion and death on Good Friday. Tradition held by Catholics and Christians around the world maintains the element of sacrifice, of “giving up” something for the whole 40-day season of Lent. So how do we get the original meaning of Lent wrong? We engage in the tradition for all the wrong reasons. Like Christmas, we take Christ out of Lent. We may not do so consciously, but we often find ourselves using Lent to achieve internal or worldly goals. We give up junk food or monitor what we eat when starting a new diet, or abstain from beer to lower the cholesterol and clear the mind. We give up some TV so we can manage time better or focus on other interests. “We all have these interior movements,” said Divine Mercy University Adjunct Professor Dr. Ian Murphy during last month’s webinar titled The Power of Habit: Therapeutic Techniques From St. Thomas Aquinas. “What St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us is that these interior movements--these appetites, these passions, these emotions--are not the bad guy, but we can’t do whatever they say. If we do whatever they tell us to do, then we’re not truly free of them. We become slaves to them. But we can’t ignore them either. They’re an integral part of us, and they were originally created to support our happiness.” We may see the season of Lent as a second chance with the New Year’s resolution we missed, except with a partially structured strategy and timeline. Even in the Church, many of us confuse worldly growth or preparation with spiritual growth or preparation. But in doing so, we might become more worried about staying on track with a certain practice, instead of considering if that particular practice is helping to actually convert our hearts, allow us to analyze the depth of Christ’s sacrifice and teachings on earth, and bring us closer to God in the first place, because Lent is about re-centering our will to His and living that out in the world. “We can think of Lent as a time to eradicate evil or cultivate virtue,” said Blessed Fr. Fulton Sheen, “a time to pull up weeds or to plant good seeds. Which is better is clear, for the Christian ideal is always positive rather than negative. A person is great not by the ferocity of his hatred of evil, but by the intensity of his love for God. Asceticism and mortification are not the ends of a Christian life; they are only the means. The end is charity. Penance merely makes an opening in our ego in which the Light of God can pour. As we deflate ourselves, God fills us. And it is God’s arrival that is the important event.” A good Lenten practice would actually be for us to take spiritual inventory of our lives and determine where we need growth. One means of doing this, especially during the season of Lent, is what’s called Virtuous Habit Formation. St. Thomas Aquinas defines virtue as an operative disposition toward the good. In other words, virtues are repeated performative actions that internalize into perfective habits that form our character according to our ultimate purpose.   “We don’t do whatever our feelings, passions, and appetites tell us to do,” said Dr. Murphy. “In other words, we don’t do whatever our ‘inner selves’ say. But we don’t ignore our feelings either. Rather, we appreciate our emotions as an integral part of us. We consult our emotions for illumination as we discern; and with a conscious receptivity to the Holy Spirit, we allow prudence to order our emotions. And we also allow emotion to wake up the powers of the soul whenever rationality and will grow cold and lose sight of their higher calling.” Those interior movements mentioned earlier can become disordered within us, and in their disorder, they can wreak havoc. Consider that person who does offer that up moderate drinking upon returning home. After a hard day’s work or a day full of stress and anxiety, that person may be looking forward to that nearly instant gratification of relaxation and stress reduction. Despite any health or anxiety benefits, the frequent repetition of this practice wires the mind to expect; that person becomes disposed to pursuing those glasses of wine or pints of lager after each hard day, and may begin to see it as a regular remedy to a lingering stress.    “All this is the key to our therapeutic technique: repeat actions,” said Dr. Murphy. “If the acts be multiplied--if you keep doing things over and over again, even a small thing, an allegedly tiny baby step--if you repeat it, a switch is thrown inside of you, and the synaptic pathways in our brains are rewired. We become inclined to behave that way. We become disposed to behave that way.”   Our “giving something up” for Lent is not merely an offering in the Lenten tradition of sacrifice, or an offering in reverence to Christ’s sacrifice, or just us utilizing the season as an annual detox, fat burner or dietary starting point. When we remove the worldly value of the things we offer up--when we apply virtue to our commitment to change our habits--we understand that we’re not just giving something up. We’re giving something over, and the less we take, the more we open ourselves to the richnesses of God’s love, filling the voids left by our bottles of our worldly desires.    “This is the key to our wellbeing,” said Dr. Murphy, “to our flourishing, to our happiness. We are created, we are fallen, and we’re also redeemed. In our fallenness, things that were created for good get disordered. But in our redemption, they can be re-ordered again.” Lent is not our mulligan when we miss our New Year’s resolution. It is not our self-improvement project, our annual detox or our new diet plan. Lent is a renewal of our promise to walk with Jesus into the desert, into the city streets, even to the foot of the cross, with our hands in His the whole way. Lent is about our relationship with God and with Christ; and that relationship, like any other, has trials, distress and joy. Sign up to learn more about Divine Mercy University's graduate programs in counseling and/or psychology.
About DMU
Divine Mercy University (DMU) is a Catholic graduate university of psychology and counseling programs. It was founded in 1999 as the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. The university offers a Master of Science (M.S.) in Psychology, Master of Science (M.S.) in Counseling, Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology, and Certificate Programs.