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Interview: Urs Mattmann, psychotherapist

28 October 2022

‘In the widest sense, sexuality is part of our spirituality’

I work as senior psychotherapist, clinical supervisor, spiritual director, and retreat facilitator at Holy Rood House, a centre for health and pastoral care in Thirsk. I’m part of the clinical and chaplaincy teams, and people come to see me regularly from outside as well. I also have a mini private online practice.
 

I work from a transpersonal-integrative approach, with psychosynthesis at the core. I may include guided imagination exercises and visualisations in my work. “Integrative” means I integrate different trainings, like Gestalt therapy, EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing], EFT [Emotional Freedom Technique], and others.
 

I work with the lower consciousness, the shadow side, all the hurt in your life, and the present consciousness: the “I”. But also with the higher consciousness, to help the client to access the space at the depth of their being where they are whole, whatever happened in their lives. This is where they come into contact with inner peace, strength, and wisdom.
 

I see spiritual direction and psychotherapy as two different things. Of course, my therapeutic approach has a spiritual aspect, more or less explicit, depending how open the client is. If a client is a Christian, I can take this into account as a resource. Spiritual direction puts the person’s faith journey at the very centre. If a directee is in crisis, or needs to make an important life decision, I might use briefly a counselling skill or a coaching element; but that leads back to the connection to God’s presence in their being and life.
 

I started working as social worker — I’m still registered — in 1988. Switzerland has a much higher percentage of migrants than Britain. That may take many by surprise. Although there is less homelessness, we have our own drug and alcohol problems, and more vandalism. It’s a richer country, but it’s more expensive to live in.
 

I trained as a therapist from 1997 to 2002, and worked in the drug-and-alcohol sector in London. I now specialise in trauma work. A recent example would be a man who suffered worst-case violent trauma. He became very depressed and suicidal and had to be sectioned. As the local mental-health team did not offer trauma therapy, his mental-health nurse referred him to work with me. It was hard healing work, and he engaged well, gave it all, often seeing me three times a week. The change was profound: his PTSD symptoms are gone. He’s now engaging again in community and his church, and has found a new purpose in life.
 

The hardest thing about this work is having patience. Healing can take a long time. But I’m surprised happily when a positive change happens sooner than expected . . . and the way I can be a channel for healing.
 

I have supported clients accepting and integrating their sexual orientation. With others, I work on difficult sexual-compulsion problems or exploring how to deal with sexuality in celibacy, or finding a life-affirming way to express it.
 

In the widest sense, sexuality is part of our spirituality, as sexuality connects to our life force, which is part of spirituality. Beyond that, so much could be said around sexual ethics, dealing with sexual abuse, developing intimacy, relationship problems, and growth. I recently contributed a chapter in a new book, Willing to Love: Stories of the couple’s journey as a path of transformation, to be published in the US in December.
 

As a very young man, I read Frère Roger, Jürgen Moltmann, Matthew Fox, Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Harvey Cox. . . In regard of my acceptance and delight as a gay man, the Christian writings of John McNeill, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, and Chris Glaser influenced me.
 

My book Coming In: Gays and lesbians reclaiming the spiritual journey was well received when it was published in Germany in 2002, and by Wild Goose in English in 2006, and it’s still being sold. Readers seem to appreciate especially the guided meditations, prayers, and rituals I develop and end each chapter with. I drew on all the two decades of LGB work I had done through worship services, workshops, group meetings, retreats, and one-to-one contacts.
 

I grew up in a fundamentalist Evangelical working-class family in Switzerland. We belonged to a Methodist church.
 

Some people throw their first faith overboard, especially if it was fundamentalistic, but I had a good church youth group, and then, out of the blue, a life-moving spiritual experience at 18, and moved on gradually into wider and deeper theological and spiritual fields.
 

From my thirties on, contemplative theology, spirituality, and practice became important. In my meditation practice, I’m much inspired by the centring prayer tradition of Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault; and I’m a member of Zen Sangha, led by an Anglican priest; so I also opened up to learn from other religious and spiritual traditions. As St Paul said to the Thessalonians: “Test everything and hold on to what is good.” Bede Griffith, whose original ashram I visited in India in 2004, is a good example of that.
 

I lived and worked for around 20 years with my partner, Emmanuel, in a Swiss ecumenical community inspired by St Francis, Taizé, L’Arche, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. People there came from very difficult life situations, including men and women with severe mental-health illnesses.
 

What I take from Evangelical traditions is the importance of a personal spiritual practice. I also learn this now from the mystic tradition. The missionary aspect is maybe less important to me, though I’m glad when people rediscover spirituality and faith, sometimes through therapy. Also, the Evangelical tradition has pietistic roots, and some in this tradition worked for the abolition of slavery and giving women voices. That progressive strain survives to this day, and hopefully I integrated that from my childhood.
 

We lived in London for 15 years, and we were much engaged in local Anglican congregations while keeping touch with Hinde Street Methodist church, where I got my first job in the UK.
 

Now we live in a flat in North Yorkshire. It was a bit risk-taking, because I’m generally more an urban person. Emmanuel is retired and, as an ikebana teacher, he does the flowers and helps with guests at Holy Rood House.
 

What makes me angry is seeing injustice, war, and oppression in the world, the climate-change challenge and irrational thinking, and ideologies, both right- and left-wing.
 

Hopefully, this is just a challenging phase as humanity moves ultimately into a more integral consciousness. Unity in diversity — that’s what we need to survive this crisis.
 

What makes me happy is spending quality time with Emmanuel; listening to Taizé songs or the Great American Songbook; contemplative time in meditation, reading, or prayer; travelling on a train along the coast, or by tram through a fascinating city; watching a classic Broadway musical; having a fondue or raclette.
 

I have hope, because the Christian tradition believes our history is going somewhere, guided by the Holy Spirit, expressed in metaphors like “the New Jerusalem”, and Christ’s manifestation in the world. We can only guess how that evolutionary process will unfold what the scriptures call the return of Christ. Julian of Norwich wrote: “All will be well, and all things will be well,” even though she acknowledged that is often not easy to comprehend in the present time. Some of it may only make sense to us when we have crossed the boundary of our earthly life and are in the heavenly realm.
 

In prayer, I connect both with God as “Thou” outside, and as presence in the depth of my being. I also see the cosmic dimension of Christ, who was before all creation. Prayer is being in communication in those spaces of Spirit. Some is dialogue, some is being in a wordless, silent, contemplative state. Sometimes, it’s saying thank you for blessings, and intercession.
 

How do I choose someone to be locked in a church with? Say I limit myself to contemporary mystics, perhaps it would be my favourite contemporary author and teacher, Richard Rohr.

 

Dr Urs Mattman was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Coming In is published by Wild Goose Publications at £11.50 (CT Bookshop £10.35); 978-1-901557-98-5.

www.ursmattmann.com

www.holyroodhouse.org.uk

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