Review of Courage to Thrive: Finding Joy and Hope in the Midst of Mental Health Struggles
By Robert D. Flanagan. Foreword by Christine Moutier and Doreen Marshall. Redemption Press, 2020. ix-xi + 165 pages.
Robert Flanagan, a priest in the Diocese of New York, spiritual director, and seminary professor, has produced a splendid spiritual journal drawn from his own courageous journey through the dark night of mental health struggles. Dr. Flanagan emphasizes—as his title suggests—that the goal of the journey he describes is nothing less than to thrive. “When I imagined living without anxiety, depression, panic attacks, or suicidal thoughts, I became hopeful and drawn to a positive, light-filled future” (16). He offers much more than coping strategies. Indeed, this is precisely where the book’s integration of spirituality and psychology is so successful.
While highly sophisticated about psychotherapy and its value, the emphasis here is on the thriving that is possible when effective psychotherapy meets, and is transformed by, spiritual practice and experience. Remarkably, in this concise volume, the possibility of this transformation is well-illustrated, and can be fruitfully engaged.
With a rare lucidity and vulnerability, Dr. Flanagan invites the reader on a 40-day journey through the many dimensions of encountering and overcoming mental and emotional pain, using the resources both of psychology and spirituality. In entries such as “Acceptance” (19), “Panic Attack” (31), “Personal Boundaries” (68), “Angels” (118), and “Letting Go” (132), readers who have experienced mental health struggles will find t4hemselves and will delight in the help and hope found in these pages. Each reflection is concise, substantive, and highly focused, and contains illuminating, highly relatable personal sharing. The prayers at the end of each entry are gems, and generous space is provided for the personal journaling of readers. This is a book to be engaged deeply and savored slowly; approached in this way, it provides an opportunity for a sustained devotional exercise in mental and emotional healing.
The book is suitable for a wider audience, too, beyond its great value as a devotional guide. It is not unusual in the practice of pastoral ministry to be asked to supplement the work of a congregant or parishioner who is on a psychotherapeutic journey with pastoral counseling sessions focused on the spiritual questions the therapy is raising. This book is a marvelous resource for situations like these, for the pastor and the counselee alike. Mental health professionals seeking a deeper sense of the power of spiritual practice for their clients would do well to be familiar with it, as well. Lastly, the growing numbers of those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” will find here an accessible and attractive Christian spirituality that may open a door to religious language not previously considered relevant.
Dr. Flanagan integrates a wide range of sources in his entries: Church Mothers and Fathers, poetry, contemporary spiritual and psychotherapeutic favorites, and more. Each entry begins with a well-chosen biblical text, and the gentle scriptural underpinning of the book is a great part of its unique appeal. In the end, though, the most important source here is the author’s own story, shared with grace, through the lens of faith, to the benefit of those privileged to encounter it.