Ministry and Theory of Mind

Garrett talks about the Theory of Mind and how it can help us understand the spiritual journeys of ourselves and others.

One piece of advice I will never forget receiving from my Spiritual Director is this: in ministry, you must learn to speak the language of the heart. This means learning to empathize with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and identifying with their struggles and hopes. Being a more bookish and studious sort of guy, I must admit this changed the way that I approached my ministry. When before I looked to form ideas from high concepts to improve the institution or society as a whole, I started again from the ground up, having casual conversations that eventually led to a deeper sharing of lives, which in turn helped me gain a deeper understanding of the universal struggles of the human condition. I realized how crucial it was to understand the hearts of my fellow members of community, and how easy it was, as a leader, to become out of touch with the average member’s spiritual needs.
But rather than turn my back on everything that I had read, I found my established literary foundation an invaluable tool in learning the language of the heart. This intellectual formation, coupled with carefully processed intuition, helped me form and connect ideas, especially when my friends found that they lacked the words to describe their situation. Often, after I managed to draw that connection, I was met with an exclamation of ‘Whoa, you read my mind there’, or on one particularly memorable occasion, ‘STOP STARING INTO MY SOUL, GARRETT!’. I started to wonder if I had struck upon something, if I had begun to figure out the way that the head and the heart can come together in walking this faith journey with others.
Perhaps a little anecdote will serve to elaborate this idea further. Recently, I attended a panel discussion titled “The Relevance of Literature in a Time of Confusion”, organized by the Singapore Management University. At the end of the discussion when the panel was opened up to the audience, an elderly professor who was in attendance shared his own answer to the question. He gave the biblical example of John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. The professor brought up the fact that this is the only time in the whole of scripture that Jesus is recorded as writing, when he “bent over and wrote in the dust with his finger” (Jn 8:6). What did Jesus write? We may never truly know, but some believe that it was the Law of Moses, and the professor’s response seemed to place him among their number. Others, referencing the Old Testament, see a connection with this verse: “Lord, you are Israel’s hope; all who abandon you will be put to shame. They will disappear like names written in the dust, because they have abandoned you, the Lord, the spring of fresh water.” (Jeremiah 17:13) Could Jesus, then, have been writing down the names, or even the sins, of those who were accusing the woman?
Whatever the case may be, the professor put forth the idea that perhaps this is the only glimpse we have of Jesus the literary critic. He had to analyze the letter of the Law of Moses, the hearts of the accusers, the accused woman, and whatever he was writing on the ground. And from this analysis, Jesus was able to draw out from this chaotic situation an amazingly compassionate response: “Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her” (John 8:7). Perhaps, said the professor, this was the most compassionate response in all recorded writing.
I would propose that a good way to learn the language of the heart is practicing the Theory of Mind. The definition of the Theory of Mind is given below:
Theory of mind (ToM) is the ability to recognize and attribute mental states — thoughts, perceptions, desires, intentions, feelings –to oneself and to others and to understand how these mental states might affect behavior. It is also an understanding that others have beliefs, thought processes and emotions completely separate from our own.
Theory of Mind is a skill, just as much as St. Ignatius’ Discernment of Spirits is a skill. As such, it can grow better with practice, as you hone your intuition and become better at attuning to the thoughts of others. In a nutshell, this process consists of taking what a person is telling you and forming a theory about the underlying patterns that influence these thoughts and behaviors. It remains a theory as it is impossible to completely understand the mind of a fellow human being, and your conclusion may be right or wrong. The theory of mind is also similar to empathy, but the key difference is that empathy is the ability to feel what the other is feeling, while theory of mind relies on intuition and leaps of logic.
However, I would argue that this does not make the latter any less valid in the process of journeying with someone, as empathy has it’s limits. As humans, our experiences are all different, and that means we aren’t necessarily able to feel completely everything associated with someone else’s experience. This is where theory of mind helps fill in the gaps: “Oh, so-and-so probably feels X because Y.” Furthermore, theory of mind is something that everyone practices instinctively on some level. As such, it can be understood and harnessed to bring others to Christ.
In my opinion, to develop theory of mind in the context of Christian ministry, I would propose that three things are important:
  1. Firstly, prayer. As with all things in ministry, prayer is at the heart of everything. In this case, I believe that having a deep prayer life is of the utmost importance, as we are helping each other along in our Faith. Like any aspect of psychology, the theory of mind can be used to sinister or manipulative ends. Knowledge is power, and the very act of journeying together implies a mutual trust between two Christians that this knowledge will not be abused. So we must continue to pray that we will be given the grace to honor that trust, and to use it for God’s purposes, to lead others to Christ and to grow in Faith ourselves.
  2. Secondly, reading fiction. I understand that reading fiction is a luxury that few can afford, but it is nevertheless a very good way to develop the theory of mind. Stories resonate with people because the author, if competent, is able to replicate on the page experiences which resonate with the readers. Why did Harry Potter react that way? The narrative trick of ‘show, don’t tell’ forces you to think and guess at the motives of characters from the author’s description.
Another way that reading fiction helps is that stories and narratives bring people together, and which parts of a story people are drawn to can tell you quite a bit about them. I once gained an insight into someone’s particular emotional baggage and spiritual struggle by his sharing with me why the character of Darth Vader appealed to him so much.
  1. Lastly, spiritual reading. Journeying with others in a ministry or community setting necessarily operates on the assumption that humans have a spiritual dimension to them that cannot be ignored. Therefore, understanding this spiritual dimension is paramount if we want to use the theory of mind in helping others develop in their relationship with Jesus. I particularly recommend the works of Henri Nouwen, as he draws deeply from his own experiences and understanding of humanity, making his works extremely relatable. Spiritual reading helps us to uncover the common yearning that all humans, including ourselves, hold in their hearts, allowing us to help each other along in our journey.
So this has been my short and no means comprehensive introduction to a particular cognitive skill I think anyone in ministry should be aware of and aim to develop. I hope that as inadequate as it is, it will inspire readers to do their own exploring and reach their own conclusions.
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

Why Learning Complements Our Faith

Garrett muses on how the faithful should not fear learning, but learn to employ it.

“For although correct conduct may be better than knowledge, nevertheless knowledge precedes conduct.” – Charlemagne, De Litteris Colendis

This is a quote from a letter written by the Emperor Charlemagne, who ruled over much of Europe for much of the 8th century, to Baugulf of Frida, the abbot of a monastic community. A towering figure who came to the support of the popes, Charlemagne was also extremely interested in the topic of education, and in the ability of the Catholic Church at the time to educate people (keep in mind that these were hard times with low literacy rates). In this letter, the Emperor expresses his desire that churchmen should feed the minds of the people as well as their souls:

“[…] bishoprics and monasteries entrusted by the favor of Christ to our control, in addition, in the culture of letters also ought to be zealous in teaching those who by the gift of God are able to learn, according to the capacity of each individual, so that just as the observance of the rule imparts order and grace to honesty of morals, so also zeal in teaching and learning may do the same for sentences, so that those who desire to please God by living rightly should not neglect to please him also by speaking correctly.”

Reading this letter was interesting for me as I’ve always valued learning, and never really saw any disparity between knowledge and the faith. In fact, my faith was strengthened greatly by reading as a young boy the works of the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and while my understanding was somewhat limited, it drove me to learn more and more about the faith and why we should believe. And indeed, one could argue this was the way God ‘trapped’ me – even if I were to want to walk away from the faith, I think deep down inside I would know that it would be a fundamentally dishonest act.

But that said, I find that most of my friends have become somewhat wary of knowledge and learning. And while their reasoning has merit, I think there is a better way to approach the problem, and if we’re going to grow as Christians, especially in a modern city like Singapore, it is necessary to strengthen our knowledge of the faith. Thus, this article will be serve as a discussion and hopefully a proposal on ways we can use knowledge to strengthen our faith.

So what is the main problem people have with knowledge? I think it lies in the fear that being so immersed in the technical aspects of the faith detracts from one’s personal relationship with Jesus. This worry can be summed up in the maxim that some people “know a lot about God instead of knowing God”.

I won’t say that this is an unfounded fear. I think most people in Catholic communities might know someone like that. Someone extremely widely read in matters of faith and spirituality, but whose knowledge gives them a sense of superiority over others. For such people, their knowledge has become a stick to beat others with, and not surprisingly, leave people with a bad taste in their mouth.

However, despite this potential pitfall, I don’t believe that we are justified in simply tossing out learning wholesale. As with all things, there is a right and wrong way of approaching the issue. One wrong way is the one I just described, to use learning as a means to engage in theological pedantry and endless (often fruitless) wrangling.

And yet I have had moments where being theologically informed did come in useful when ministering to others. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing”. What Bishop Sheen said about the Bride of Christ is true of her Spouse as well. There are a lot of misconceptions people have about God, and many people have false conceptions of Him. Even our fellow Catholics, and even ourselves. No one can know God in His entirety, but we can know what He has revealed to us, through scripture, tradition and the teaching of the Church. In a sense, learning about God is getting to know Him better as well, and helps us to introduce Him more effectively to others.

 “An hour of study, for a modern apostle, is an hour of prayer.” – Saint Josemaria Escriva

St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, was a big believer in the value of study and learning. So much so that he dedicates an entire chapter of short sayings on the topic in his most famous work, The Way. Having reflected on his writings, I think this is born of being appreciative of the time God has allowed us to live in. Think about it. We live in a time of extremely high literacy rates. Electricity allows us the ability to continue reading and learning even at night. This is both a blessing and a curse for us urban city-dwellers. On one hand, we have so much information available to us. On the other, we are overwhelmed by the plethora of ideas and views that seem omnipresent on social media and other things we interact with on a daily basis.

Thus, I feel that it is more important than ever to embark on an adventure of learning, to truly appreciate for ourselves the beauty of the Catholic faith, and to communicate that to others as well. I hope that this article inspires you to explore the amazing breadth of our Faith and learn more. God bless!

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

Christian Castaways Part 1: Spiritual Shipwrecks

Garrett uses tales of shipwrecks as an allegory for the times where we feel spiritually distant from God.

Robinson Crusoe Wyeth 1920Robinson Crusoe, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

As an English Major, one novel that I keep having to read and re-read is Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. As a boy, I loved the abridged version of the story that I owned, one that simplified the story of this intrepid castaway for children. So it was with some horror that I discovered that the original was a slow, plodding book that seemed to drag on a lot longer than it had to. To be fair to the writer Defoe, he was writing one of the first great English novels, and the art would slowly be improved upon later. So while the novel isn’t without its faults (namely, being pretty boring), I was eventually able to look past them and get a feel of what made this story so well-loved to this day.

Continue reading “Christian Castaways Part 1: Spiritual Shipwrecks”

Spiritual Battles and Fantasy Worlds Part 2

Garrett reflects on “epic stories” and their presence in Sacred Scripture.

This article is a continuation of my previous article with the same title, where I discussed Stephen R Donaldsen’s essay, Epic Fantasy in the Modern World, and how fantasy fiction can inform our Faith. While my previous article focused on Donaldsen’s definition of ‘fantasy’, how fantasy speaks to the human heart, and how Jesus satisfies that desire as in C.S. Lewis’ words, ‘a myth that came true’. This time around, I’d like to focus on Donaldsen’s other definition – ‘epic’. As Donaldsen himself states, the term epic is much better understood than ‘fantasy’, and indeed, a deeper look at this term can tell us much about Faith and Scripture as well.

I’d like to preface this article by saying that it’s going to be even more… ‘technical’ than what I usually write. In an article like this, context is important, and a large chunk of this article is going to be me paraphrasing and quoting stuff from other sources. But that said, I still hope that this will be an informative and interesting read. So, let’s get into it!

Continue reading “Spiritual Battles and Fantasy Worlds Part 2”

Spiritual Battles and Fantasy Worlds

Garrett muses on what fantasy fiction can teach us about our faith journeys.

In 1986, a writer named Stephen R. Donaldsen published an essay called “Epic Fantasy in the Modern World”. By then a renowned fantasy author himself, Donaldsen achieved fame through his Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series, which was famous for it’s handling of moral issues. In this essay, Donaldsen elaborated on the two terms he used to define his work – ‘epic’ and ‘fantasy’. It is these two terms that I’d like to look at and evaluate, not simply because I found the essay insightful, but because I believe that the terms epic and fantasy as Donaldsen describes them find their fulfilment in Jesus (as all things eventually do).

In part 1, we’ll look at the more familiar term, fantasy. The word itself when applied to entertainment needs almost no introduction, as shown by the popularity of the Lord of the Rings series of films, and more recently, the Game of Thrones television series, which seems to owe no small part of its success to scenes of sexual violence, torture and gore. The word ‘fantasy’ conjures up images of a pseudo-medieval world where men (or women) in shining armor prance about, alongside wizards and dragons. But is there really all there is to the Fantasy genre?

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The Donkey of Palm Sunday

Garrett reflects on the figure of the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem on during Palm Sunday.

It was Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Holy Week, which signals that Lent is about to come to an end, and Eastertide is drawing near. Arriving early to Church with my family, I jostled through the crowd towards the queue that had formed along the collection point for palm branches. Picking out two sturdy branches to bring back to my family, I made haste to return back to them. Along the way, I accidentally brushed the spiky palm leaves against the arm of a prim-and-proper looking lady. As she turned around, I raised my free hand sheepishly in apology. Re-joining my family, I fell into place as the procession began. Palms held aloft, we waited for Father to begin the procession into the main church. The procession has it’s own Gospel reading too, the one where Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Ah, I thought, somewhat wistfully. It’s going to be a long Mass. Guiltily, I recalled the (paraphrased) words of St. Josemaria Escriva – “The Mass is long, you say. Because your love is short, I reply.” And indeed, I had little right to complain. The Palm Sunday service is a beautiful one. It is also the only time where the Gospel is interactive, with the congregation playing the part of the crowds of Jerusalem at Jesus’ entry into the city on a donkey, and later at His trial and Passion.

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7 Last Words — Know Not.

Garrett muses on what it means to follow God with both the head and the heart.

One of my guilty pleasures is reading the rules of various Tabletop Role-Playing Games, such as Dungeons & Dragons. Just reading the rules, since I have no one to play with (although hopefully that will change soon). For me, there’s something therapeutic about seeing a world broken down into simple rules and concepts. Yes, I know I’m a nerd. A while back during a moment of procrastination, I was browsing the Character Class section of a game called Dungeon World, when a particular line in the ‘Paladin’ class section caught my attention:

Continue reading “7 Last Words — Know Not.”