This is by far the most thought-provoking book I have read as a spiritual director in many years. In Healing the Western Soul, Judith S. Miller, psychotherapist, spiritual guide, and a professor of developmental psychology, diagnoses what she terms “the Western spiritual angst” and proposes how persons growing up in a Judeo-Christian tradition, whether or not they presently identify themselves with that tradition, can recover meaning in life. In the process they will experience greater psychological health and spiritual fulfillment.
Miller is a transpersonal psychologist, a practitioner of a relatively young branch of the discipline which aims to create a vision of a psychologically-informed spirituality and a spiritually-based psychology. One of the strengths of this book is her extensive use of examples from her own practice to illustrate the points she makes.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part considers the healing function of the soul and describes how the Western search for meaning has lost its traditional anchors owing to disenchantment with religious institutions, the prevalence of modernist and postmodernist viewpoints which either reject or relativize spiritual concerns, and the ubiquitous “spiritual smorgasbord” of contemporary life. According to Miller, while the latter may open the participant to authentic experience, it fails to ground that experience in the mystical tradition of the West, and so deprives the seeker of an important means of psycho-spiritual development.
In the second section, the author describes why she encourages Western seekers to “come home.” “While all traditions reflect the same Source, spiritual development is about opening ourselves to our essence and our roots,” she asserts (99). Miller feels that for people of the West, these roots are entwined in the mystical traditions of Judaism and Christianity. Miller’s most important spiritual teacher is the twentieth century Christian mystic Evelyn Underhill, and in the book’s final section she outlines a process of spiritual awakening, illumination, and union that is based on Underhill’s five-stage mystical path. The author describes the characteristics of each stage as well as its challenges and discusses ways that women and men overcome these challenges.
A Jew raised in a secular household, Miller concludes her book with a plea to heal the rift between Judaism and Christianity by “revisit[ing] and renew[ing] the relationship with Jesus, the Jewish rabbi, healer, sage and mystic,” whom she believes has had an enormous impact on the Western psyche (214). Passionate yet non-dogmatic, Healing the Western Soul explores an important topic that has received scant attention in the literature of spiritual direction. It will be especially valuable for those providing spiritual companionship to persons who may call themselves as “spiritual but not religious” yet who are experiencing recurring images of the Divine, whether in dreams, meditation, or seemingly spontaneous occurrences, that arise from a Judeo-Christian context and invite the seeker to connect with the wisdom of the Western spiritual path.
Teresa Di Biase is a spiritual director, historian, librarian, and Benedictine Oblate living in Washington State, USA. She teaches spiritual practices in parish and retreat sessions and with her husband leads Celtic pilgrimages to Britain and Ireland. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org