Interview – Dominique Delforge-Struyf, Psychiatrist: “Faith is Trust, I Have Chosen Trust”
Date: July 27, 2005 , Originally published May 23, 2003
Dominique Delforge-Struyf, a child psychiatrist, discovered Medjugorje through a very personal experience, but also through her profession, which gives her the possibility to observe and to discern. She worked for 17 years in a psychiatric hospital in Belgium and was its medical director for 10 years. For four years now, she has worked as psychotherapist in private practice, and as a professor of religious psychology. In April 2003, she came again on pilgrimage to Medjugorje.
In an interview given to Lidija Paris, she spoke about how she sees Medjugorje and gave us some elements of her personal experience.
Lidija Paris: Dominique, you discovered Medjugorje through a very personal experience, but also through your profession, which gives you the possibility to observe and to discern. You look at Medjugorje as a believer and as a professional. Who are you, Dominique Delforge-Struyf?
Dominique Delforge-Struyf: I am a psychiatrist, essentially for children and for adolescents, and I have worked for 17 years in a psychiatric hospital for children and for adolescents in Belgium. I was also its medical director for 10 years. For four years now, I’ve worked mostly as a psychotherapist privately and I receive children, adolescents, also adults, couples, families… I have a formation as a psychoanalyst and a formation in family therapy.
For four years now also, I have the occasion to work as a professor of religious psychology and I am very interested in all that concerns children’s representations of God: how - linked to their anguish and their defense mechanisms - they construct themselves in their development, how – at certain moments – they can be a defense against anguish but at other moments a barrier on their path of faith and trust in people and in life. I am very much interested in seeking in psychotherapy how to open the doors and how to unknot things on a psychological level, but also on the level of the difficulties of being able to believe in life, in others and in God.
I am also married, the mother of a family. We have four children and an older adopted daughter who is already married and who already has two children.
How did you discover Medjugorje? Where does your interest come from?
D. D.-S. : It is a very, very personal story. It has nothing to do with my profession. In 1998, I spent some holydays at the North Sea with my children, I was going to have my third child soon, and I bought two magazines for reading on the seashore, while looking at my children playing. Among these magazines, there was a magazine called Marie-Claire, a quite light magazine to read in the sun, and there, I found an article about Medjugorje. I was interested in it, I read it, and I was touched and astonished, because it was evident that the journalist came to Medjugorje just out of curiosity, and that she was deeply moved, namely by her encounters with the visionaries and how they spoke about Our Lady’s words: “If you knew how much I love you, you would cry for joy.” I was interested and, when I came back to Brussels, I bought a book by Fr. Laurentin about the apparitions.
I read it. It remained in my memory, but nothing more. When I was breastfeeding my third baby, I became pregnant with the fourth, which was not programmed at all, because I had to restart to work. It was an extremely stressful period in my professional life, and very soon, I became quite seriously ill. In the seventh month of pregnancy, I passed placenta. I had extremely strong bleedings and I was terribly anguished, because I felt that I was really dying. As a doctor, I knew very well that my child was in extremely grave danger of death. My mother arrived very, very quickly. At the threshold of death, you may be an intellectual, a scientific, whatever you want, but you feel really like a little baby. I said: “Mum, is my baby alive?” She answered: “Yes, put yourself into the hands of Our Lady.”
At that moment, I experimented something that really changed my life. I felt a complete peace, sure that my child would live and that it was a little girl (what I did not know), and that there would be no problems. I felt an extraordinary joy, and it was a discovery of what prayer could be, and also a discovery of a real presence, close to me, which gave me the desire to begin to pray and to start a spiritual journey.
Later, you came to Medjugorje?
D. D.-S. : I promised that I would come one day to Medjugorje to give thanks, and I came in 1993 for the first time with this desire to give thanks, but also, naturally, with my curiosity of a psychiatrist, so that I had open ears for everything, and I wanted to see a bit what was happening here.
That time, I had a rather different experience. It was August 15; I went to the Blue Cross. Ivan’s prayer group was there, and there was supposed to be an apparition at night. The crowd was immense. I came very early, I thought that I would make an experience of prayer as I had at the threshold of death, I was there with this expectation to be close with my heart to Our Lady and to God in prayer. But it happened totally differently. I was completely crushed down by the crowd, by people who were talking all the time, taking photos of the night. I was deeply sad and I wanted to leave Medjugorje saying: “What kind of cinema is this? This is not possible!” I was saying to Our Lady: “Well, this is not possible! If people who come here go through this, they surely feel completely abandoned by you; they do not have the impression to exist, this is not OK, this looking for signs, for magic!…”
I was angry and I was expressing my anger, and then, I started thinking of the Lord during his life, of the crowd that was following him, all these people who were maybe seeking just a look, who were trying to touch him, and who felt the same thing as I: this impression not to exist for him, that he is in fact very, very far from them, that he sees nothing or at least does not show at all that he has seen anything of the suffering. At this moment, I felt in my heart, with an enormous strength, these words that came to me: “But, what do you think, why have I invented the Eucharist?” This was the second strong spiritual experience in my life, and it allowed me to live Mass from this moment onwards in a totally different way, and with a joy that I have never lost since.
Which is the influence of Medjugorje on your work?
D. D.-S. : I could never be a psychotherapist as I am today without prayer. What Medjugorje brought to me – concerning my work – is the possibility to listen to people while uniting my intelligence and my heart. Prayer really makes it possible to me to create this link, and also not to allow people to eat me up, to overdo, to become ill in this work, which is wonderful, but extremely hard. When I have the occasion to come to Medjugorje, I also seek this atmosphere of prayer that allows me each time to find a new motivation to pray for my patients and to fast for them.
How do you see the visionaries and the phenomenon of the apparitions?
D. D.-S. : I rarely hear this question in Brussels, because I speak rarely about Medjugorje in my work. I have many colleagues who are not believers, but when someone asks me “Do you believe in apparitions?,” when my students speak about this, I tell them that, for me, the point is somewhere else.
Before coming to Medjugorje, I was never interested in apparitions. I never went to Lourdes, not even to Banneux. At the moment when I met Vicka, for me the question was first of all: is she mentally ill? I have not examined her, but I spent many hours listening to her, because during my first visit to Medjugorje, we stayed in her house. I saw her live, I listened and looked at her a lot, I prayed with her. At first view, it seemed to me quite evident that she was not mentally ill. This meant that the next question to ask was: Will I trust her? Will I believe that she really lives what she says? Well, then, I do not know why I would think that she was a liar – because that is the point then! No, I have chosen to trust her. I do not understand, because - at a scientific level - I cannot understand what an apparition is, but I believe that she lives what she says, and it is a pleasure for me to believe her!
Why is Medjugorje attracting so many people and why so many conversions? How to explain this in a non-religious vocabulary?
D. D.-S. : I have very few patients who spoke to me about Medjugorje. What I can say is founded on what I hear here from the pilgrims and what my children told me about their experiences. I think that there are many attracting elements.
What is very particular here, and what we do not find any more in our countries, is that there are so many young people who pray, who are not ashamed to pray. They do not hide. This wave of prayer carries you; this immense crowd that shows its faith and its joy draws you.
I am deeply touched, but also sometimes quite upset by all these people that become a bit like little children, who are not afraid to fall publicly on their knees, to go and touch the knee of Jesus, to go and leave their intentions on the top of Cross Mountain… I am extremely touched by this immense crowd that goes and leaves all its pain and misery at the foot of the cross and at the feet of Our Lady. I find it very beautiful and it touches me deeply.
What seems beautiful and dangerous on a psychological level is the fact that in Medjugorje one can meet a series of witnesses, among them the visionaries, but also people who had strong experiences, and these witnesses may touch our heart and give us the desire to deepen in our seeking for God, but they also can, sometimes and out of purely psychological reasons, be a barrier on our spiritual path. I met people who were very upset by some witnesses, because of their personal history. We can see then some doors being closed or people going home saying: “I do not believe all these signs, this is artificial.” One can also experiment both things at the same time. What is very rich here, I think, are the differences between the witnesses, and there is a good chance to meet someone who can play this role of bridge, who can open a door so that we may go further on spiritual path and work on our representations of God and of faith.
Finally; through the experience that I had, you can feel that a path of faith is a path where we have to abandon ourselves all the time and transform our ideas about God, about Our Lady, and the images to which we are attached, because they may be useful at one moment, but we have to leave them behind in order to live something new. I think that this opening of the doors enables us to always find again a living relationship with God. A living relationship is a relationship in which our representations are permanently transformed. When our representation of someone becomes stiff, when we say: “This person is like this or like that”, the relationship becomes poor. But a living relationship is a relationship in which our images about others are permanently renewed, we are permanently astonished, we permanently discover something new. I think that Medjugorje is maybe precisely the occasion to have a fall and to transform our stiffened images.
Are there any “traps”?
D. D.-S. : I think that a trap may be a quest of a magic God, of magic signs, of the spectacular, a desire to see apparitions, to see something extraordinary. This is the trap: it is a God of a little child who believes in fairies and witches. At the same time, there is something very touching in it, because some persons receive signs – and I had myself very strong signs, but they are not magic but interior. There is a danger for those who seek such things and do not receive them, and leave disappointed, because they have seen nothing. If we are attached to this image of God who gives magic signs, we lose faith if we do not receive them.
Did you know Fr. Slavko?
D. D.-S. : He did not know me personally, but I had the occasion to listen to him several times and to ask him questions. He taught me much about fasting.
Is there anything to say about the role of faith in your work as a psychotherapist?
D. D.-S. : As a psychotherapist, I never speak about spiritual matters, about God. People talk to me about it. I am not a spiritual guide; I remain strictly within the limits of my profession. I have noticed, nevertheless, that - since I walk on a spiritual path – people speak to me more easily about what they live at spiritual level.
As a psychotherapist, we only can help people in matters and problems that we have worked for ourselves. It is a part of the training of a psychotherapist to work on himself. The path that I have done – including with my spiritual father – has helped me a lot as a psychotherapist. I am more able to listen to people when they speak about their difficulties linked to their representations of God, linked to prayer, linked to the faith that they have lost. Very many people have lost faith, in spite of their Christian education. I do not try to convert them, but – thanks to my spiritual experience – I am able to help them to walk, to unknot things, to comprehend that their religious convictions are tightly linked to what they live on a psychological level and finally – if they are appeased and reconciled with themselves – something will be transformed also on spiritual level. I am a witness of beautiful things and transformations in this matter.
Some people do not find God, but they regain faith in life, they find strong relationships with other people, and I think that this also means a presence of God in their lives, even if they never recognize Him.
Does it mean that faith is an element of healing?
D. D.-S. : My faith is an element that allows me to listen to people, to children, to adolescents, to families in difficulties, concerning their faith or absence of faith. Faith means trust: trust in God, trust in people, trust in oneself. We cannot have positive relations with others if we do not believe in them.
How do you see the work of the Franciscans here?
D. D.-S. : In Medjugorje – and this is extraordinary – one is never bored in prayer. This is very difficult in Brussels. Here, we can pray for hours, we have never enough, this swaying, this peace, this presence take us, it is beautiful. It is surely also linked to those who lead celebrations and who invite us to prayer. It helps us to descend more and more deeply in our hearts and to find this peace, this serenity, this joy. I found something similar in Taizé. An appeasement. We are carried by others and invited to let go our reasoning, and to descend in the depths of ourselves.
A word of conclusion?
D. D.-S. : Thanks! Thanks to all those who do this work in Medjugorje, who receive pilgrims, this is surely a very demanding work, but also beautiful. There is still so much to do, especially to unite the psychological and the spiritual part of us. I feel however that this is favorable ground to help people to walk forward.