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
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
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
"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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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