Families can be joyous, but they can also be messy—figuratively and literally. Part of this comes down to parents needing to learn on the go, and part of it is because we are not always the people we wish we could be. Each of us is incomplete, so marriage involves two incomplete people walking the hard road of discipleship together through their marriage. We are like great big chunks of stone, awkward and not easy to deal with, waiting for a master sculptor to chisel away everything unnecessary so that only the ‘masterpiece’ is left.

This is the conviction of Matt MacDonald, counsellor and psychotherapist, whose practice and approach to people are formed by this idea. When visiting Florence, he went to see Michelangelo’s David, but to his surprise, it was not the David that struck him most but the unfinished sculptures he saw on the way towards it.

‘Michelangelo talked about looking at the marble, and he could see in the raw stone what he wanted to create, and all he had to do was remove the excess,’ Matt says. ‘And you could see it in those unfinished stones. The figures looked as though they were breaking out of the stone. It was magnificent.’

This left a deep impression on him, reinforcing the idea that each person is an unfinished work. He explains:

Our life is a co-creation between us and God. We’re the two artists working on ourselves. The decisions we make, and the impact other people have on us, they’re all chisel movements in the creation of something.

From a young age, Matt was always fascinated by the idea of the infinite, and the idea that there is something more to us than what meets the eye, something spiritual. He was drawn back to practising his faith by St Teresa of Avila, a saint he describes as being very ‘psychologically perceptive’, and in whose writings he sees clear parallels with modern psychotherapists such as Carl Jung and Viktor Frankl.

Indeed, Matt believes there is much about modern psychotherapy that resonates with Catholicism’s approach to the human person, especially as articulated by Pope John Paul II. ‘It all locks in so beautifully,’ he says, which is helpful because having a grasp of the theology of marriage, family and sexuality isn't always enough; it doesn’t always translate into practical strategies for navigating the messiness of everyday life, especially the tensions that can arise as two incomplete people try to live out their marriage together.

Sometimes we need the practical approach of counselling and psychotherapy. Sometimes we need help pointing ourselves in the right direction.

Matt MacDonald Photo supplied.

Turning inward and outward

The first clear parallel between modern psychotherapists and the Church’s mystical tradition concerns the idea of going on an ‘inner journey’. Pope John Paul II spoke often about our ‘interior world’, observing how a person's inner life distinguishes them in clear ways from other animals. St Teresa of Avila, writing in the 16th century, spoke about the ‘interior castle’.

‘Understanding oneself is so important,’ Matt says, ‘and that’s an interior journey. That’s also what any good psychotherapist does: guide people to exploring the interior, especially the bits they’re avoiding.’

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and survivor of Auschwitz whose ideas about psychotherapy have become very influential. He is most famous for his book Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of both his time in the concentration camp and his theory that what drives people in a most basic sense is the need for meaning and hope.

As Matt explains, though, Frankl goes even deeper than this, arguing that we shouldn’t treat the human person two-dimensionally.

If we treat the human being as just psychological and material, we haven’t understood a thing because we’re spiritual. We have an infinite dimension to us. And you can never ever heal a person entirely unless you look at all three dimensions.

But modern psychotherapists also recognise the way our relationships form us. We cannot understand ourselves in isolation but only in relationship to those around us.

Our families are the most immediate environment in which we are formed, and as Matt observes, ‘every single parent will necessarily fail because of our weakness,’ and wherever there is an absence of love, there is going to be a hurt.

‘There are ways that we will be hurt that are no fault of ours whatsoever,’ he says. ‘I will have an inclination to do things badly because of some area of my life that had an absence of love. And that’s not sin, but it’s an area of my life that needs addressing. It can lead me to sin, but it’s not sin.’

This is the space in which Matt works, and the space in which psychotherapists work generally.

Human imperfection involves areas of 'incompleteness', sometimes deeply buried, and working out where those rough edges are is vital for our own health and the health of our families. If we can work some of those problems out before we get married, Matt says, that’s even better. That way, it’s only painful for one person instead of more.

St John Paul II Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew OP

The ongoing relevance of Pope John Paul II

The thought of Pope John Paul II was firmly rooted in these ways of understanding the human person, Matt says, firstly because he wanted to awaken us who we are and how we are made.

Too often we reduce the human person to just one or two dimensions, as Frankl said, and one of the Pope John Paul II's firm convictions was that many of our current challenges arise from misunderstanding our own nature. ‘Misunderstanding sexuality almost invariably leads to us treating one another as things rather than people,’ Matt explains. ‘You just can’t treat another person as an “it”. You have to treat them as a “thou”.’

Likewise, central to John Paul’s reflections on the ‘theology of the body’ was his understanding of human experiences prior to the Fall. One of these experiences was ‘original solitude’, through which the first man realised he needed someone else, a woman. In these reflections, John Paul draws out beautifully the necessary and harmonious relationship between women and men and the way they fulfil one another:

My body as a man only makes sense with the body of a woman. I can only move from being male to being a father in a relationship to a woman. She draws out the fullness of who I am.

That original solitude was an absence, a feeling that something was missing. This idea has ongoing psychological relevance because we all have something missing, gaping areas of our lives that we try to fill with other things.

One of the questions Matt likes to ask is, ‘So, what’s the hole in your life that you’re trying to fill?’

Often, if we’re not oriented in the right way, we can fill those holes with all the wrong things, and this can affect our families. To move forward, we need to start thinking about what it is in life we value, and ‘values automatically touch on the transcendent,’ he says. ‘If our values are primarily pleasure or power, then we burn ourselves out and destroy ourselves and those around us.’

What we need, at the end of the day, is a transcendent purpose, a transcendent meaning and a transcendent hope to truly make sense of our own incompleteness.

The making of a masterpiece

While God has a design for each of us, our freedom and assent are required if we are to become what we’re truly called to be. In that sense, God invites us to participate in our own creation.

Throughout his many years of working alongside married couples and families, Matt has always found it invigorating to work in the space where theology meets lived experience—between our ideas and ideals and where we are right now. Modern psychotherapy has much to offer both individuals and families, he thinks, especially when integrated fruitfully with a Catholic framework.

Using the example of a stained-glass window, which appears dark from the outside but vibrant and colourful from the inside, he says:

I want to help people with that combination of getting the light in there, but also working out what is distinctive about people that, when lit with Christ, becomes a magnificent piece of art.

The memorial of St John Paul II is celebrated by the Catholic Church on 22 October.