The first time I saw and heard Dr. Matthew Fox I admired his courage first and foremost. He was on a book tour about The Pope’s War, speaking to a small crowd in a local bookstore in Asheville, NC. I was only vaguely familiar with his writings then but immediately felt the powerful presence of a learned, outspoken yet approachable iconoclast. I worried that his life may be in danger for speaking out against the Vatican and the then Pope, former Cardinal Ratzinger. Having read his new autobiography, Confessions, I am again struck not only by his immense courage but also his willingness to be vulnerable. Yes, that too takes courage, great courage.
After that first encounter, my husband and I made the effort to attend several of his lectures and workshops from Baton Rouge to Cleveland. Dr. Fox is a supremely intellectual, erudite scholar and public speaker, which makes it ever more amazing that his newest book, an extensive autobiography, reads in part like a novel, and one not easily put down. It is a rich, variegated tapestry of scenes of his life that include glimpses of childhood with a traditional Catholic father and a liberal mother, the impact of his contracting polio, his early days as a seminarian and priest, his training in Paris, his experiences of travels to many countries, and acknowledgement of the philosophical writings of historical figures and numerous personal mentors. With palpable authenticity Fox describes personal misgivings and doubts, his relationship with nature and his beloved dog, Tristan, unusual mystical experiences, the loneliness and pain from betrayal of once trusted friends and his clashes with the Vatican authorities.
At its core the book provides insights into both his logic and his emotions that led to combining spirituality with science and the arts. Confessions reveals multiple facets of his personality, including the poet, the preacher, the mystic, the spiritual warrior, the social change agent, the tireless worker, the environmentalist, and above all, the compassionate man of the people, lacking in the typical narcissism of many visionary leaders.
Of what benefit is reading an autobiography if not to become inspired or develop new insights? Confessions achieved that for me. His dissertation about Time magazine spurred thoughts about the role of the media on faith and politics and the jingoism in American life, especially in light of current American Presidential politics.
Fox’s criticism of main line Western religion’s removal of mysticism from religious practice prompted me to compare it to Western main line psychological practice and its discouraging of spirituality, at least in my experience over the last 30+ years. Two of my former mentors forbade me to even bring up spirituality when discussing cases. The dogma of academia espouses that phenomena such as near death experiences or after death communication are no more than hallucinations, illusions, or fantasy. In working with older adults who are grieving and dealing with end of life issues, cognitive-behavioral psychological interventions, the underpinnings of mainline psychotherapy, can be arid, superficial, not compelling or comforting, similar to how Fox describes many traditional religious services.
I see a parallel with the hierarchy of the Western Psychology establishment of many clinical psychology training programs rooted in the Skinnerian tradition or cognitive psychology that appear to be out of sync with peoples’ emotional needs. The concept of Creation Spirituality is largely an unknown in main line psychology circles.
When describing his introduction to holistic, integrative health care methods for his own orthopedic problems, Fox said, “I was deeply affected by this evidence of alternative ways to heal, and it occurred to me that the hierarchy of the medical establishment may be as out of sync with our bodily needs as the ecclesial hierarchy gives evidence of being with our spiritual needs.” Mental health care in the U.S. with its pushing of psychotropic medications as the first line of treatment deserves the same criticism.
In Confessions Dr. Fox’s humility, candor, heart and mind draw the reader to him. His life story, with no hint of arrogance or embellishment, inspires me to be courageous to include spirituality in my work in the area of mental health and aging.
Paula E. Hartman-Stein, Ph.D.
December 12, 2015