The God Claws – The Therapeutic Work of the Holy Spirit

In a graphic scene of redemption, CS Lewis depicts a young boy who has unfortunately been turned into a dragon. The boy (Eustace) is largely at fault in this transformation – something which brings his life to a miserable and seemingly unsolvable conclusion. He is, however, confronted by God in the figure of Aslan, the allegorical lion at the center of the Chronicles of Narnia. He is desperate to be healed – and Aslan points to a way forward. He must be washed in a particular pool of water (Lewis’ symbolism is not difficult). But, in the process, he must shed his skin. And so the shedding begins. But, layer upon layer are insufficient. At last, there is nothing for it but for the Great Lion to assist – and he does so with his claws.

Then the lion said — but I don’t know if it spoke — “You will have to let me undress you.” I was afraid of his claws, but I can tell you, I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it…. That very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.

It is a striking element to add to a story of conversion and healing – not just a Baptism – but a tearing down of a dragon-suit, a false identity that sought to imprison Eustace and swallow him whole.

I volunteered for several years in a local alcohol and drug rehab program, teaching about the spiritual life in recovery. There were many “Eustace” characters among the patients. Some were there willingly (even gladly), while others had yielded to the insistence of a judge. Various addictions (opioids were most dominant) had imprisoned them with a false reality that tended to reshape their thoughts. If you place a normal, healthy person in a prison cell, they will naturally want to get out. If, however, the prison cell has been created from within, an artifact of the brain’s addiction to a chemical poison, then you have the bizarre reality of an inmate being fearful of the prison cell’s disappearance. It is a nightmare – a person comes to love the very thing they hate even while hating the thing they love. Restoring them to sanity is a patient work, often with setbacks and failures.

Those experiences (as well as many others through the years) have served as something of a case-in-point of the strange place that sin holds in our lives. Sin is like an addiction – even when we hate it, we find ourselves returning to it again and again. No matter how many versions of the dragon skin we shed, we discover that we still have yet more to go. There is a “surgery” required that is beyond our own ability.

The culture of modernity imagines itself to be a champion of a therapeutic approach to life. “Healing” is popular in an array of forms. The Christian faith is not immune to this cultural predeliction – how could Christianity be opposed to healing? Nevertheless, much of our modern concept of therapeutics, at least on the popular level, remains shallow and devoid of truth. The culture satisfies itself with “making you feel better.” Oftentimes, wanting to “feel better” is precisely the thing that has made someone sick. In a consumer-driven world, feeling better sells. A Christian version of “feeling better” also sells – but at the expense of the gospel.

At the heart of the gospel is the proclamation of the Cross. The great healing event in the life of the Church (and of every Christian) is the Crucifixion itself. The Cross is not restricted to Christ’s death – for every Christian is baptized into His death (Rom. 6:3) We must say with St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20). In CS Lewis’ story of Eustace’s “de-dragoning,” entry into the healing water is accompanied by a “crucifixion” at the hands of Aslan. Eustace is set free by the “claws of God” and bathed in the healing waters.

Within my experience, in the many cases of the treatment of addictions, there was always a point (indeed, often many points) of crisis – a point where moving forward required pain (on many levels). Health and wholeness cannot be found in an endless pursuit of pleasure and in the avoidance of pain. Because all of this is true, great care must be taken in the therapeutic work of the Church. We do not pursue pain for the sake of pain. Kindness, gentleness, empathy – co-suffering – are all required in the fearful work of a soul’s journey through the Cross. But there remains no path to wholeness that is not a path through the Cross.

I recently read an article that contrasted modernity’s “therapeutic” model with a pursuit of the “truth.” Modernity’s therapy is often devoid of truth, being focused on the temporary and its immediate pleasure. This does not deserve the term “therapeutic.” It is malpractice. It is like the “psychic surgeons” of a few years back who pretended to plunge their hands into a patient (with lots of blood and special effects), withdrawing some pretend disease or offending chicken parts. It was attractive to many – promising healing without pain. It was a fake.

What is truly “therapeutic” cannot be divorced from the truth. Indeed, what is truly therapeutic is our reconciliation with the truth of our being. Christ does not make us to be other than who we truly are – but he reveals to us and in us the reality which we are created to be. The loss of our delusions (and all of their dragon suits) comes at the Cross and in the depths of the healing waters of the font.

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About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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29 responses to “The God Claws – The Therapeutic Work of the Holy Spirit”

  1. Sally Brower Avatar
    Sally Brower

    Adding myself back

  2. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Sally,
    Good move! My happy place is when I don’t have to think about the “inner workings” of a blog-site. I’m a blogger, not a software engineer. But this migration has forced me to learn a bit more and dig a little deeper. I think we’ll have things ironed out over the next month.

  3. Brendan Avatar
    Brendan

    Could you elaborate on the modern therapy modalities that may be more or less truthful? A lot of people need therapy, including myself… and a lot of priests, too!

  4. Matt Hobbs Avatar
    Matt Hobbs

    Thank you, Fr. As someone who is recently clean from 3 co-occurring crippling addictions, it does still help to keep checking in and making sure I’m correctly framing / understanding my path to freedom, through the church, through prayer, through the cross.

  5. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I have stuggled with mental illness of various sorts for many years now. Early on and as a Christian in very fundamentalist Protestant circles I thought I could count on Christ and the Church to heal me. I went through charismatic ministries that attempted to pull the demonic out of me. Then the non-charismatics pointed to what is called nouthetic biblical counseling … basically reading the Bible and hoping the words on the page will cure you. That didn´t work either. Then it seemed the Church was suggesting I would simply have to live with my horrible condition. Others taught it was a sin issue, but at the end of the day all I wanted was to be healed.

    I was raised in the faith in my corner of the Church to believe that secular methods for psychological healing were simply demonic. They couldn´t be trusted. They were new age. Eastern asian. Etc. Then one day a Jewish friend of mine said that maybe western medicine (which the fundamentalists do not preach against) is what is truly demonic when one considers the terrible side effects it passes on. Huh … I immediately thought … excellent point.

    Last month I was in a medical rehab program for 30 days. I received all kinds of help for my body, mind, and soul. It certainly was secular. Some of it was eastern Asian. I haven´t felt this good in years … mentally and physically. When people were emptying themselves, I was filling myself with the Lord. When fellow patients were looking only to themselves for solutions to their problems, I was looking to the Lord. All in all it was a real healing experience and it continues now that I am at home using some of the methods that I learned in the clinic.

    My healing process certainly has not been easy. It hasn´t been without pain. I have had to tarry at the cross … but healing I received nevertheless and not via the Church. The Church (in the west at least) has missed the boat on how to help its people truly find physical and psychological healing. What a pity. So many in the Church suffer from mental illness and so many are simply left out in the cold. It simply should not be that way.

  6. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Brendan,
    There are plenty of therapeutic models (including secular ones) that are of use. It should be noted that I wrote about “popular notions of therapy.” A good therapy will not avoid pain – it is necessary to healthy living. Modernity (the philosophy of sorts) often views pain as the enemy, as the thing to be avoided and as morally evil. A good therapy model will not be primarily directed towards what “feels good” but have some larger model of wholeness towards which it helps us move. Of course, the problem in many modern models is that the variety of notions of “wholeness” are problematic.

    An easy example can be found in the sexual revolution and its various notions. It is a very bankrupt notion of human sexuality, and governs many of our modern assumptions regarding some fundamental things. It is bizarre and corrupt.

    Having said that – there are plenty of versions of Christianity that offer lousy models of wholeness. Finding balance and stability is a difficult thing.

  7. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    May God continue your healing and strengthen you!

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, is not repentance (both informally and Sacramentally) qualify as claws too?

  9. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Fr. Stephen, I have had long struggles with altered states of consciousness because of prolonged exposure to traumatic events. There are times when it seems like the scales are never going to come off or that there will be nothing left of me if they do. Can peeling away the scales of the false self leave a person feeling exposed, vulnerable, and unprotected? A person might imagine that as God peels the scales scale light shines through in its place and gradually the scales are replaced little by little with the revelation of one’s true existence. Could it be that the soul may still be far from ready? In other words, putting off the scales doesn’t necessarily imply a corresponding putting on the “new person.”

  10. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael,
    Yes, indeed.

  11. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    Yes, the soul can still be far from ready. I think the “process” can be slow (and painful from time to time). This is especially true for injuries from trauma (including toxic shame). The “scab” that forms over a wound is not “normal” skin, and lacks the properties of normal skin. But it serves to protect the wound as the wound heals from “underneath” (very much from the inside out). I think that our “soul wounds” heal in the same manner. The “scab” can be torn off, but more healing remains to take place.

  12. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    How can a person understand that the sense of exposure is actually a healing and not make the mistake of seeing it as another type of wound, or another kind of unhealthy shame? Wouldn’t a person need the guidance of someone who understands what healing looks like and to act as a covering for that person until new skin grows in? I could see how a person would react and just grow back new scales. Worse yet, if a person is receiving toxic spiritual direction, maybe they just add more scales.

  13. John Cummings Avatar
    John Cummings

    Bravo. As a man in long term recovery and who has worked in addiction treatment and in jails for many years, I really appreciate your clarity on the ‘claws.’ All of us in recovery can talk about those painful moments where God tears away the sin, and with great pain. The healing and the life after are so glorious. Glory to God for all things.

  14. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    I think you’re right – that guidance is important. I’ve long been wary of guidance in that it is easy to abuse. Those who seek to use guidance in a manner that is controlling are generally mistaken about the nature of the spiritual life. The manner in which “obedience” works in a monastery is not the model for how “guidance” might work elsewhere. Anyone who is in the position of healing from various forms of trauma are in an inherently vulnerable position. That has to be respected. So, a good spiritual guide (like a priest or someone else) will be cautious, avoid the temptation to control, and certainly avoid creating yet more trauma. It’s why I use words like “gentle,” “kind,” etc.

  15. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    John,
    Having participated in any number of interventions – I have seen the “claws” up close. Generally, I’m in favor of gentleness and such – but just telling the truth can be “claws” for some people. God is good – and He never lies to us.

  16. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    It’s one thing to talk about a process like peeling away the scales, but what does that look like? I am assuming that someone would say that “It looks different for everyone” and so that “It is impossible to generalize.” But, there has to be something that is common to everyone’s experience otherwise how can we talk about it at all? Is resisting the urge to break the fast picking at the scales? What about enduring withdrawal symptoms? I do cold water plunges in the winter and this year when it was 8 degrees outside I spent 6 minutes in ice cold water? I have spent as long as 25 minutes in ice water in below freezing temperatures. Could that discipline be regarded as peeling at the scales? Another thing, I don’t see how a person can do this on their own. It would lend itself to delusional and grandiose thinking. So, how can this de-scaling occur without someone to guide you?

  17. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen. I suppose God can and does work even through secular methods. That was the case in my situation.

  18. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    I don’t think it’s “impossible to generalize” – but that’s not denying that every individual has something unique about what is going on with them. What is common? Grace is common. The movement towards the image of Christ is common. That it is a process is common.

    Ultimately, it is the healing and transformation of the heart (nous) as the core of our being. If someone were tortured and disfigured in terrible ways, their transformation would not restore lost limbs, or the power of speech (or whatever might have been lost in such an example). But the healing of the trauma/soul wounds of such a person would be ongoing. Slowly, it is love that heals the soul and restores its ability to love. Even as we struggle to bear up under the damage that trauma may inflict on us – the soul and its capacity to love continues to grow and to burn within us.

    There are examples that I often think of. Fr. Roman Braga was a Romanian priest who eventually made it to America. He was tortured, as were many others, in the Communist prison at Pitesti – with a torture regime that Solzhenitsyn described as the very worst of all in the Communist world. Fr. Roman is an example of a saint (I believe) whose transformation, despite unbelievable torture, can be seen. Here is an interview with him about the torture. You can see the beauty of his soul as he speaks.

    The “de-scaling” is greatly helped with good guidance. It can take a number of forms – whether of a priest, a healthy and wise friend, many ways. I do not want to limit how that might happen. But in all of the ways, grace is at work – healing the soul.

    https://youtu.be/RwH7TVslS_8?si=lnx8esn-ea_QD-IG

  19. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    The will of God is our salvation – always. Grace is given to us in abundance and the generosity of God will use many things to heal us and work in us for our good.

  20. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Thank you, Fr.

  21. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Why couldn’t Fr. Roman Bragas’ experience in the Gulag be an experience of God’s clawing at the scales? If the false ego and the trappings that surround it in society create a self-reinforcing system of vain attributes. I mean vain in the sense of their lack of substance. Then wouldn’t a place of like the Gulag be where the scales are peeled away much more more brutally and yet more effectively? One might reason that the system that both induces and reinforces the false self is removed and one is forced almost out of necessity to take the inward journey into God shedding scales along the way. Keep in mind that in saying this I do not mean to diminish the abject horror of the torture.

  22. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    What Fr. Braga says about finding himself in Pitesti and God being the seal of the human personality (hypostasis) is in my understanding the real heart of the matter. That is salvation. Deification as the full iconization of the human hypostasis.

  23. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    Fr Roman would very likely agree with you. We do not describe God as the “cause” of such evil as the Gulag – but it is the nature of grace that it works in spite of such evil, and even turns it for our salvation. That is the mystery seen in the story of the 3 Young Men in the fiery furnace. I have known addicts who later give thanks for their addiction – in that it allowed them to discover the life of sobriety which is now greater than their lives would have been without that experience. Eustace, in Lewis’ story, was a pretty bad egg before he became a dragon. Afterwards he was much changed. Indeed, he was already a better “person” when he was suffering as a dragon.

  24. gregory brassington Avatar
    gregory brassington

    Fr. Stephen said:
    “Sin is like an addiction – even when we hate it, we find ourselves returning to it again and again. ”
    How this echoes the ever insightful words of St.Paul in Romans 7:18-20.
    “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”

    Like Eustace/St. Paul, we find the solution to the conundrum in Aslan/Christ.

  25. James Avatar
    James

    Dear Fr Stephen,

    I remember in a previous post or comment from you, a short prayer to St Michael the archangel that a grandchild composed. I remember the line “kill it with your sword”. I remember the beautiful simplicity and child like faith in it. My wife is having a really hard time right now with self-condemnation in thoughts . We just had our first child, and amidst the beauty and joy of this blessing, there is the struggle of adjusting, and the stripping away of false identities for both of us parents. I’m hoping to share some simple prayers with my wife for when these dark thoughts assail her. I also shared this post with her. Thank you

  26. James Avatar
    James

    I meant to ask, could you share that prayer again, and any advice or reading for these times?

  27. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    James,
    The bedtime prayer was composed by my son (James) when he was 4 years old (which is now some 30-odd years ago):

    Dear St. Michael guard my room.
    Don’t let anything eat me or kill me.
    Kill it with your sword,
    Kill it with your sword,
    Amen.

    In marriage, we are given to one another for our salvation. We can say the same of our children. They are for our salvation just as we are for theirs. That’s a far cry from thinking the American Dream. Will my child be healthy, wealthy, successful, etc.? These are things our culture might encourage us to worry about – but, what matters, is their life in union with Christ.

    To a certain extent, we (most often) don’t get to see the end of that process – for our children will likely out live us. So, we raise them in hope. We raise them with prayers, with an experience of Church, and exposure to other believers. And we pray (a lot).

    I like the book, Parenting Towards the Kingdom, by Philip Mamalakis.

    It takes courage to bring children into the world – may God give you and your wife grace! May the holy angels guard and protect your child!

  28. James Avatar
    James

    Thank you Father! That helps.

    Someone just gave us that book, I’m a few chapters in. I’ve got a lot to learn. It’s also helping me think about how I relate to the adults in my life, as well as children. I’m about the same age as your son. Thank you and him for sharing this prayer.

    Is there such a thing as a children’s prayer book? With short and sweet prayers like this one?

  29. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I’ll have to ask around about children’s prayer books.

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  1. Carlos, thanks for your reply. Even if the prayers are first person singular, they are for all of us to…

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