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Dare, Hope, Pray: Dr. Robert Wicks
By John Feister
Counseling on the front lines has taught this psychologist the value of prayer.

Q U I C K S C A N

Mind Meets Spirit
Helping the Helpers
Prayerfulness
Walking the Talk

PHOTO BY BRENDAN CAVANAUGH

SOMETIMES a person's gifts flow in more than one direction. That's certainly the case with Robert Wicks, a psychologist and spiritual guide, a former Marine who now cares for relief workers, a teacher and family man, a doer and a pray-er—and a prolific author.

In a sense, he works two fields at once: He practices as a psychologist and as a mentor to medical professionals working in high-stress situations. As a spiritual guide he brings his life of prayer from his family to anyone who will listen via speaking engagements and his spirituality books. (He writes psychology books for health-care and relief professionals, too.) His day job is psychology professor at Loyola University Maryland, in Baltimore.

Talking with Dr. Wicks ("Bob is fine," he insists) in a shade-filled spot outside the convention center in Anaheim, California—where he has just completed giving a workshop for religious educators—one gets the idea that this 64-year-old high achiever is, at heart, a humble man. He credits his parents for his success.

Wicks was born in Queens, New York City ("We needed a visa to get over to Brooklyn," he quips). He has two brothers—"the three Rs—Ronald, Raymond, Robert." His father, Joseph, was a truck driver for Macy's (the route was eventually contracted to United Parcel Service, where he continued to work over 36 years). Mae, his mother, spent her time at home while the boys were growing up, then worked in a hospital pharmacy. "She started off as a secretary and wound up managing the whole place— that's my mom!" he says admiringly.

Bob was born just after World War II, in 1946. He attended public schools until midway through high school. He went on to Connecticut's Fairfield University, a Jesuit college: "The Jesuit education is what they say it is," he says, then pauses. "Well, I'm teaching at Loyola, part of the franchise." He consistently lightens the conversation with more wisecracks, delivered deadpan in a manner reminiscent of comedian Don Rickles.

Bob went to Fairfield University because he wanted to be a priest. He studied with the Glenmary Home Missioners. "When I graduated, I realized I didn't have that call to celibate priesthood," he recalls. But he did have a double major in psychology and philosophy, along with a minor in theology. Although philosophy and theology are not the most sought-after majors outside seminary, his psychology background got him a job in counseling for the New York State Narcotic Addiction Control Commission.

"Right after that I went into the Marine Corps because it was Vietnam," recalls Wicks. He spent three years in the Corps, first in communications, then as a director of treatment in a Marine Corps prison in Okinawa. He went from there to a similar stint at North Carolina's Camp LeJeune.

Here were more seeds of his later career: "It was rough stuff. Vietnam was in action so there were a lot of people suffering from PTSD [Post-traumatic Stress Disorder] who didn't even know it." He wasn't even a psychologist at the time, but he had some counseling background which was, as he recalls the Marines saying, "more background than most of the people we throw in there."

After the Marine post, he thought to himself, "What am I going to do for an encore?"

The encore unfolded into a career as a psychologist with a keen interest in spirituality. He studied in the graduate program at St. John's University in Queens while he worked as a counselor with the New York State Corrections Department. He went on to Philadelphia's Hahnemann Medical College, where he received a doctorate in psychology, then taught at nearby Bryn Mawr graduate school in social work.

Along the way he fell in love with and married Michaele, a coronary intensive-care nurse at Philadelphia's St. John's Hospital, where he was working summers as an X-ray messenger (carrying films from lab to doctor). Supported by the G.I. Bill and work, squeezed in around his schooling, Michaele and Bob began a life together in 1969.

They have one daughter, Michaele, who grew up to become a social worker herself. "She takes after her mom, because she really is a compassionate individual," he comments. The elder Michaele became a religious educator in her second career. She is semiretired now, leading occasional retreats.

Reflecting on his wife, seriously, admiringly, he says, "You know, you hope you didn't reach too high. Michaele is one of those people who calls you to be all you can be without embarrassing you—so you are what you are." Then he adds his typical aside: "So it was a good move."

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Mind Meets Spirit

Having completed his studies, Bob Wicks—now Dr. Robert Wicks—went on to teach at Philadelphia's Neumann University, founded by the Franciscan Sisters of Philadelphia. There he set his sights on founding a graduate program in pastoral counseling.

The university president, Sister Madonna Marie Cunningham, O.S.F., herself a psychologist, encouraged him, and he started a program that still is in place. He went from there to Princeton Theological Seminary, which was recruiting for those knowledgeable in both theology and spirituality. From there he visited Harvard and became friends with one of the late 20th century's leading spiritual writers, Henri Nouwen.

Wicks knew that being in touch with one's psychological life was a key to a healthy spiritual life. "Otherwise you do ‘bumper-sticker' work," he says, referring to the spiritual dimension. "You say little holy words and it doesn't work." He quotes the Gospel of John, citing his memory of verses to support his point: "John 10:10, ‘I've come to bring you fullness,' or John 14:18, ‘I'm not going to leave you orphans; I'll come back to you,' or John 15:14, ‘You are my friends.'

"When I work with clients, I recognize what we're called to be and to experience." It's that blend of spiritual insight with professional psychology that defines pastoral counseling.

The late Henri Nouwen was famous for striking that blend, and wrote enormously popular books aimed at religious readers. At one point Wicks went to Nouwen for advice (as well as giving Nouwen advice himself, not one to be shy). They exchanged letters in the coming years, and met again once when their paths crossed in Toronto, Ontario.

During their first meeting Wicks had asked Nouwen, "What do I do to keep myself centered? I'm concerned about evil." Nouwen steered him in a different direction: "‘Forget about evil,'" he recalls Nouwen telling him. "‘It's too big a topic.' I gave him a look like, ‘You asked Mother Teresa this when you visited her, and I'm not leaving!'" He was referring to when Nouwen famously asked Mother Teresa the same question and was advised to spend an hour each day in eucharistic adoration.

Father Nouwen advised Dr. Wicks to take 20 minutes each day to read the day's Scripture readings for Mass and then pray in solitude. Wicks took that advice to heart. Along the way, that devotion to prayer became the font of his future career, one combining psychology with spirituality.

The heart, after all, is a key to a healthy mind. As Dr. Wicks ensconced in his teaching career, his Marine experiences shaped his research. "I was into what they call ‘chronic secondary stress.' I lectured on it; I wrote on it." In fact, he worked so hard on researching and talking about burnout, as we call it, that he himself experienced it. "You ride the waves, you're going to get spilled," he says with a sigh. That was before he put it all together with a healthy spirituality.

He moved from researching burnout to an area of study intimately connected to his wartime work: acute secondary stress. In short, this is the extreme stress that relief workers and others, such as health-care professionals, suffer when they are called on to work with people who have just come out of a traumatic experience—say, a war situation or a natural disaster. "When you work with people who have post-traumatic stress, you not only catch their flus and colds, you run a risk of also catching their sense of despair."

He began, from time to time, working with relief workers, physicians and nurses. During the past 20 years he has gone on assignment to Cambodia and has done psychological debriefing of relief workers who came out of the horrific slaughter of Rwanda's civil war. Recently, he served at Walter Reed Medical Center, the well-known military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, helping prepare doctors and nurses for working with traumatized patients.

His books in the medical field have made him well-known as a burnout specialist: Overcoming Secondary Stress in Medical and Nursing Practice and The Resilient Clinician (Oxford Press) are two examples. His latest book, Bounce: Living the Resilient Life (Oxford), is targeted at a lay audience.

In situations of acute stress, the psychologist provides a complicated regimen of aid. "You listen to people's stories. You allow them to ventilate and get it off their chest," says Wicks. Essentially, though, "You then allow them space to say aloud what happened. ‘How do I feel about what I did?'" he explains.

The psychologist helps the traumatized to name and understand things that they probably had no time to process in the midst of crisis. How did being present to horrific situations affect one's outlook on the world? might be one question. Wicks says, "You help them realize that they are experiencing posttraumatic stress, and tell them they're not crazy. It's taking their experience from the horrible and placing it into the normal. Listening and normalization—giving them a chance for reappraisal—is what it's all about."

The second stage, putting the present back into perspective, is perhaps more important. "You give them information on post-traumatic stress so that they can recognize that they're not crazy," he explains. "Post-traumatic stress is a normal response to a horrifying situation." Helping them to regain perspective is the goal.

"But it's never going to be regained in the same way," he adds. "It's like taking an egg and breaking it on a hot pan"—the clear part turns white and stays white. "No matter what you do, you're never going to get it back to the clear. So it's a chance for them to go deeper, to become more sensitive, but they're not going back to what they were."

Learning to accept and to stand with pain is what changes them, says Wicks, then adds poignantly, "This happens to all of us in different degrees." Hopefully, the pain changes us for the better, he says, though it can work in a few ways: "You can be jaded, or you can become destroyed—or it can soften your soul."

That turns our conversation into one about prayer, where Dr. Wicks takes his psychology to its deepest point. He attends to his prayer life, he says, "not because it's a nice thing to do or Jesus needs me, but more, I need to realize how fragile life is."

He gives an example once learned from a spiritual adviser: holding a glass he was drinking from before a group of psychiatrists: "‘You see this glass'? he asks. ‘I love this glass. Look at how it holds water. Isn't it wonderful? And it pings, it makes nice noises. Let me ping it for you.' And he hits it and it pings. And he says, ‘Look at it; I hold it up to the light. Isn't it gorgeous? And then I put it down and the wind blows in and knocks it over and breaks it. Of course, everything is impermanent; everything is fragile. And because of that, I love it even more.'"

It's that impermanence, that fragility, that Robert Wicks writes about and tries to stay in touch with. Living through painful experience with that attitude, says Wicks, "You love people more. You lower your expectations and have higher hopes that something wonderful will happen—even though you can't see it!"

Why don't we see that more easily? Wicks blames it on a "tyranny" of success. "We demand that people are going to do what we want them to do in ways that we want them to do them—our children, those that come to us for help, our parents, our friends, our spouse—and it's just not the way the world operates," observes Wicks, having eased into teaching mode. If you have hope that God is working in the situation, it all takes on a different light: "Faithfulness is important; success isn't."

The interviewer recognizes Blessed Mother Teresa's dictum about faithfulness. "She was echoing Teresa of Avila," he corrects me, recalling St. Teresa's question: "How much love do you put into what you do?"

In his books, he tries to get that message to readers in language they can understand. In Bounce, he deals with stress, explaining that denying stress is dangerous. Ignored, stress only gets worse. The ex-Marine and health-care mentor lays out what he calls a "selfcare protocol" to take care of oneself, to find time for silence and solitude, for mindfulness. Key to that is taking time each day "to debrief yourself." In the Catholic tradition we might compare that to an examination of conscience.

He recommends what might seem obvious to many, but which stressedout people perhaps have forgotten: taking walks, reading books, making time for entertainment, nurturing life-giving friendships and so on, all aimed at helping the individual to live a balanced life. For a broader, probably less Catholic reading audience, he avoids religious language for the most part, perhaps in the manner of the missioner he once trained to become, speaking the language of the people he serves.

Religious language, though, is his native tongue. In Prayerfulness: Awakening to the Fullness of Life (Sorin Books), he spells things out in Christian, Catholic terms. He gets them not only from study, but also from a life informed by prayer. Recall Henri Nouwen advising Wicks to read the day's readings and pray for 20 minutes each day.

A morning person, he arises very early, about 5 a.m. ("Each night at 9 p.m.," he quips, "I think, Why would you want to stay up?") He then makes coffee, returns to his bed, props up his pillows (his wife must be a saint!) and, for about an hour, enjoys drinking it, "just quietly meditating, being with God." He calls it his "morning coffee with God," then he jokes, "I can hear God saying, ‘Oh, please, get a life!' Then Michaele arises, he gets her coffee and the two of them spend another half hour or so chatting, before his busy day begins ("Once I get going, I'm a maniac!" he admits).

"Then she goes across the hall and does her morning reading and meditation," and he does his own, now in a more formal way. Then he exercises and heads to work. Work or not, the couple prays together like this every day. "It's helped the marriage," he observes. "I mean, when you're married over 40 years, you know tough times and good times. But the ritual itself allows you to move through those times—and learn from them."

That font of prayer, that time taken to breathe in the life of God, gives them the resilience, in psychological language, to keep going. "I do pretty delicate work," he says, and Michaele, a cancer survivor, has been a nurse. They both know the toll that stress can take and the liberating power that prayer bestows. They've been praying like this for 30 years.

From his gracious, easygoing style, coupled with his sharp sense of humor, you might never know, to meet him on the street, that Wicks drinks from such deep waters, from a "circle of grace," as he calls it. You might pass right by him—he blends in well.

And that's the way it's supposed to be, he says. In the end, we become our fullest selves perhaps in the quietest of ways. When the time is right, he explains, God is calling you to be that transformed person. "Nobody's going to notice around you, by the way, and maybe that's a sign that it's a real call." Preaching won't be necessary, "but people will sense it. They'll walk away from you and they'll say, ‘Something happened there. There's something there.'"

Walking away from Bob Wicks, I see what he means. 


John Feister is general editor of periodicals at St. Anthony Messenger Press. He holds master of arts degrees in humanities and theology from Xavier University, Cincinnati.


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