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Review of "Encountering the Sacred in Psychotherapy"

By James L. Griffith and Melissa Elliott Griffith
Guilford Press, 2001
Review by Linda A. Rankin, Ph.D. on Feb 22nd 2002
Encountering the Sacred in Psychotherapy

Secular psychotherapy has accomplished so much for those who seek its help. Yet in this, another of their professional works, James Griffith, M.D., a psychiatrist and neurologist, and Melissa Griffith, CNS, LMFT, a psychotherapist, persuasively demonstrate how there is often a rich, powerful resource that remains untouched – the client’s spirituality and/or religious life. Since ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’ mean different things to different people, the authors offer their own working definitions. Spirituality is here understood to be “a commitment to choose, as the primary context for understanding and acting, one’s relatedness with all that is” (p.15). Spirituality is distinguished from but can tie into religion, which they say “represents a cultural codification of important spiritual metaphors, narratives, beliefs, rituals, social practices, and forms of community among a particular people that provides methods for attain spirituality, most often expressed in terms of a relationship with the God of that religion” (p. 17).

This fascinating and accessible book offers the psychotherapist practical guidance in how to tap into what is for many people an integral dimension of their lives – the spiritual and/or religious. The therapist is encouraged to tap in by exploring a client’s use of metaphor, stories, rituals, ceremonies, through exploring the client’s beliefs, as well as how s/he relates to her or his community. A great strength of this book is that the Griffiths provide detailed explorations of the therapeutic value of each of these through their extensive sharing of client-therapist interactions (with permission of the clients, confidentiality respected). This affords the reader a wonderful opportunity to be the proverbial but invited fly on the wall in order to learn many things. For example, just how might one effectively but respectfully ease open the door to the client’s spiritual/religious life? How might one gently, collaboratively explore with the client the therapeutic possibilities of the metaphors, stories, and beliefs revealed?

One question of particular relevance to the potential reader is whether this kind of exploration of a client’s spiritual and/or religious life best left to the religious profession. While sometimes this may be so, this is arguably not so in many cases, as the Griffiths explain and demonstrate. They explain that their method of interaction with a client is collaborative, meaning that they share the power within the client-therapist interaction such that each person learns from the other for the ultimate benefit of the client. As is consistent with this approach, then, the Griffiths do not attempt to encounter the sacred from the vantage point of an expert in a particular religion. Rather, they approach this avenue of exploration with a respectful openness to and curiosity about the client’s particular spiritual experience and beliefs, the client’s sense of what and how God is (not) relating to herself or himself. They describe the core of their therapy as a “practice of wonder” (p.1). Their contribution to a dialogue with a client is not to judge or correct the client’s sense of God and religious belief, but to examine with the client how these areas are working in her or his life, whether constructively or destructively. Significantly, the authors devote a full chapter to how spirituality and/or religion can be destructive in a client’s life. Of particular help in this regard is their exploration of how the therapist might encounter what appears to be destructive without trying to “correct” the client. Instead, the therapist offers to seek with the client a way for the client to find an alternative, non-destructive way to live in her or his spirituality and/or religion.

To help the reader with these many sorts of issues, the authors provide sets of questions or strategies for working with the spiritual and/or religious dimensions of the clients’ lives. Frequently before and after one or more vignettes, the Griffiths discuss what they will try or were trying to do and how it did or did not work. They tackle the difficult challenges and questions, without suggesting that the answers are yet clear. They explore and sometimes simply offer their own mistakes for wherever might be learned. They offer this work as a beginning for understanding and developing this approach to psychotherapy.

Very helpful for the reader of this well researched and referenced book is its extensive bibliography and good index. The authors also provide much background material to context what they are doing in this book. Sometimes they provide lengthy but clear material. At other times they provide just a brief passage sufficient for the needs of the book but with in-text references for further research by the interested reader. Their format is also helpful as they provide in bold print the topic of each separate section, lengthy or brief, which allows the reader to see easily the larger structure of the book as well as to return to particular passages later.

In conclusion, the form and substance of the book combine to offer the psychotherapist valuable guidance for expanding her or his therapeutic options by helping the therapist learn how to help those clients who want to explore their own spiritual and/or religious lives in the context of therapy. Finally, although I am a clinical ethicist with some chaplaincy training and not a psychotherapist, I found this book extremely enlightening, accessible, and thought provoking. My experience thus suggests that there is a wider audience for this excellent work than its most obvious audience, the psychotherapist.


© 2002 Linda A. Rankin


Linda A. Rankin, Ph.D., Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Tennessee Medical Center, Knoxville, TN, and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN.