Christotherapy: Implications for a Pagan Counseling System


Yes… you read that right…

I recently came across a description of the Christotherapy system developed by Bernard Tyrrell which seeks to integrate psychotherapy with spiritual direction in an (obviously) Christian way. I don’t know enough about it yet — I have used copies of his books on the way in the mail — but I find the description of the system very interesting both in terms of how it could work for Pagan clients (in a modified form) and in the clear ways its values system sometimes conflicts badly with Pagan values.

I’m thinking brainstorming on the Christotherapy counseling system as to how it does and does not fit Pagan clients could open up a path for the development of a Pagan pastoral counseling system (at least one such). Doubtless we’d need some original thinking of our own and would need to pull from other writers too, but I think there are some advantages to using Christian counseling systems as a launching-off point of discussions in the development of our own counseling models.

An excellent synopsis of the Christotherapy system is posted in the discussion forum of the website


Here are my initial thoughts on the Christotherapy model. I’m going to do it in the form of reacting to quotes from the article linked above:


“Why should we accept the current distinction between spiritual guidance and psychotherapy?”


I’m generally of the opinion that a Pagan pastoral counseling (or Pagan spiritual guidance?) technique could and should merge psychotherapy and spiritual guidance.

This is going to get tricky if the spiritual guidance portion ends up including things like divination, exorcism/spirit releasement, and soul retrieval — topics I don’t think licensed professional therapists want to touch. I suspect we’ll end up with a version practiced by licensed professionals and another version practiced by clergy.


“At the center of this approach is Tyrrell’s assertion that Christ is directly and intrinsically related to the healing not only of sin, but also of psychopathology. Tyrrell argues that Christ, not any therapist, is the healer, and his healing is intended for the whole person.”

“Whether or not he recognizes Christ’s presence, Christ is in fact present in all healing and growth.”


I find it interesting when to “let go and let God(s)” versus when to push for personal power and responsibility. Clearly there’s value in both approaches.

I suppose one Pagan method along these lines would be to assert that we are all connected into one universal nonpersonal spiritual power and that taking the personal responsibility to align yourself with it brings you back into harmony with it and is intrinsically healing. This approach allows for the idea in Christotherapy that there’s a universal healing power (they call it Christ) whether or not the client understands or names it – yet this Pagan method mostly gets rid of the implication of Christianity being the only True Way.

There could be all sorts of methods of aligning one’s self with said Power.

One could then ask for direct intervention by various healing deities on top of that. (I tend towards hard polytheism with an acknowledgment of a universal oneness or connection of some sort beyond the individual gods that is more remote and impersonal than the gods.)


“Tyrrell… [identifies] the four basic functions of christotherapy as reforming, conforming, confirming, and transforming.”

“First week: to reform the deformed”

“This is an unmasking of personal deformation (sin), and an awareness of the need for the redemptive grace of Christ. In christotherapy reformation is this same process of repentance for sin. An awareness of who we are before God and the awful reality of our rebellion against him is the beginning point of all true psychospiritual growth.”


Last Fall I went to an AAPC regional pastoral counseling conference on the topic of sin and forgiveness. I thought it would be awful, but actually I got a lot out of it – made me think through rather than just react against this topic. Paganism generally views the idea of mankind as inherently sinful very negatively, instead preferring doctrines like inherent divinity — that we are all fundamentally perfect and Divine and just need to take responsibility and mature into our abilities.

I think a Pagan pastoral counseling system could replace the ideas of sin and divine forgiveness with the ideas of harmony, grace, and connection. That is, clients get sick and/or off their true path when they are out of contact with the Divine, and when they are out of balance/harmony with nature. We don’t look at “sin” and evil so much as whether or not the client’s actions are helpful to the health of the client and perhaps to the greater community. In so doing we can trash the Christian idea of inherent sinfulness and “rebellion against God” and replace it with an ideology of inherent divinity and perfection and a personal responsibility to bring one’s self back into connection and balance. Some Pagan therapists may see a need for a karmic backlash for past actions, but it’s no longer God’s personal punishment for being naughty children – it’s a rebalancing and growth tool.

I don’t think I wish to imply that to be sick is always to be out of balance and/or to be at fault for falling in personal responsibility. Other factors may also enter the picture.

While my Pagan worldview rebels at the idea of needing divine forgiveness, the power of personal forgiveness between individual humans remains a power healing tool.


“Second week: to conform the reformed”

“Conforming is the active turning toward Christ, which must follow turning away from sin. Here the goal is conforming the self to the mind of Christ (Rom.8:29), bringing about a new disposition of heart and mind that will allow a person to grow and deepen in love of God.”


Well, I definitely don’t agree that humanity’s proper path is total submission to the will of one god. Yet the idea I espoused above of coming into harmony with nature or better communication with the Divine (whatever Divine that may be) sounds quite a bit like what Christotherapy is saying here.

Certainly, in my opinion, there is some sort of synching-up and alignment with the greater Powers of the Divine and nature that is called for as a condition of mental and spiritual health.

The difficulty I’m having is what conformity/connection/harmony rules need be imposed.

At the moment I’m more of a mind to do some existential counseling along the lines of finding meaning in life and that which brings joy, then to turn to spiritual techniques and Gods and Goddesses to see how the individual client needs to custom tailor a connection to the Divine and nature that allows for the full expression of their personal joy and life meaning.

I’m also more of a mind to let the client find their own Divine relationships that feel right and help them on their own paths rather than imposing rules on them.


“Third week: to confirm the conformed”

“Confirmation is the affirmation of our death to sin and our lives as new creations in Christ. We confirm our initial turning from sin through the sure knowledge that we are baptized in Christ’s death and thereby raised to life in him (Rom.6:3-4).”


I agree with helping clients strengthen themselves in a new way of living and being that is healthy for them. In Paganism we often use rituals and initiations as means of affirming and strengthening and even changing people so they move into a new phase of life – a “rebirth” if you will.

So a Pagan pastoral counseling system may need to utilize some initiation or ritual techniques for “rebirth” into the new healed self at various times in treatment. Perhaps initiation into the service of gods/goddesses that help the client uphold their mission and meaning in life.

A really good question is how much of this a licensed therapist does versus how much of this is turned over to clergy?


“Fourth week: to transform the confirmed”

“Transformation is the movement from identification with Christ in his death to contemplation of him in his glorification. Rejoicing with and for Christ because he is now in glory, we are freshly empowered by the Holy Spirit to turn more fully toward Christ and thereby be transformed into his image (2 Cor.3:18).”


I think they are saying that the client, having completed being molded into the proper image of a right and functioning person, can now start living in health and vigor and spirituality. However, they would seem to have only one right model – Christ.

If Pagan counseling chooses to follow this model of molding people into proper forms of thought and behavior, what the heck will our models be? Should we be molding people in predetermined ways at all?

Certainly though, whether or not we admit it, we carry preconceived ideas of what is healthy behavior as therapists.

One model I’ve seen used in Paganism is the archetypes. Examining what archetypes are within a person and having them grow more fully into the expression of the archetypes that match them best. Another way of doing this is to balance archetypes, studying each in turn, and then having the individual take personal responsibility for how to balance these many archetypal models within the self so as to create a healthy and unique person.

In a similar vein, many of our training schools seek to balance the 4 elements, and their associated correspondences, within the person.

African Diaspora religions seek to seat the proper orishas in the heads of initiates so as to balance them.

So it would seem that Paganism has many “Christs” to choose from, and it’s a complex mix of personal individual responsibility and clerical/therapeutic guidance in determining what the proper mix is for each person’s life.


Further attention needs to be paid to the rest of the topics in the essay on Christotherapy including existential loving, existential diagnosis, existential appreciation, existential clarification, mind-fasting and spirit-feasting.

I’m also very curious what Pagan counseling techniques could arise out of the study of a book I recently got entitled “Jesus & Personality Theory: Exploring the Five-Factor Model”.

1 Comment »

  1. Erynn said,

    January 11, 2008 @ 8:45 pm

    My feeling is that, at least for those who believe in external deities and spirits, it can be helpful to learn to listen to the ones with positive messages and model behavior after them, and to use those with more or less negative messages and behavior as examples of things to avoid or modeling a redirection from negative patterns to more positive ones.

    Being someone who doesn’t work in a four-elements model, I’ve had to work around in other ways. Filidecht postulates three internal cauldrons, for instance, that process spiritual or physical energies to help with gaining health and inspiration in both a physical and spiritual way, so I work within that model.

    I don’t think that we’re inherently sinful, but I do believe that we can fall into error. I follow a virtue-based code of ethics, urging positive performance rather than negative restrictions on behavior, which is another difference from the Christian model.

    Animal spirits and their lessons can be just as important — or even more so for folks with a more animist bent — than anthropomorphic deity. They can teach some very important lessons on a wide variety of topics, from patience to flexibility to how to cope if you’re much “smaller” than the rest of the world.

    Mystery initiations are also a part of what I think of as potential Pagan psychotherapy, giving a connection to something beyond the mortal realm and an understanding of survival beyond physical pain and death. Simple symbols can become sacred reminders of connectedness; an ear of barley, a candle burning on the altar, water flowing in a stream. My opinion is that physical work of some kind needs to go with the theorizing and the talk part of counseling, whether spiritual or psychological. Getting out into the woods, walking, building an altar, actually going through a ritual rather than reading about it. It gives concrete form to the meaning implied.

    Alchemy offers models as well, whether lab-based or spiritual. That transformation eventually is meant to lead to an identification with the nous through/as Hermes Trismegistus. Astrology and Tarot or other divinatory methods can be used to help people move through the different phases in a symbolic manner, regardless of the deities they worship or their belief system, working to achieve that balance you mention.

    Filidecht demands embracing difficult emotions because the internal cauldrons are “turned by joy and sorrow.” Distancing and burying the emotions isn’t a part of the path, transformation and integration is the goal as the poet searches for mystic vision and the fire of poetry and expression in ecstatic work.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment