The subject of the therapy of the soul is extremely important for the Orthodox Church because it expresses the essence of spiritual life. Before elaborating on this crucial topic, I would like to give some introductory explanations.
First, when discussing the therapy of the soul, we do not believe in dualism, which makes a clear distinction between soul and body, as is the case in ancient Greek philosophy or some present Eastern religions. Man has two hypostases,1 since he consists of soul and body. The soul is not the whole man but just the soul of man; the body is not the whole man but just the body of man. The body is tightly connected to the soul and takes part in all its states. The body receives both the fall of the soul as well as its resurrection. Thus we speak about the death of the body, which is an outcome of the death of the soul, and about the deification of the body, which comes as a result of the deification of the soul. Saint Gregory Palamas teaches that the nous2 is man’s first physical intelligent organ and also teaches that the Grace of God is ferried through the soul to the body, which is attached to the soul.
Second, the teaching that the Church is a spiritual Hospital and that true theology is related to the therapy of the soul is not an isolated part of the teaching about the Church, but rather the way and requirement for the experiencing of church life and the acquisition of the Orthodox church spirit. Of course, the basis of church life is the holy Eucharist, in which man partakes of the Body and Blood of Christ. But the entire teaching of the holy Fathers for the therapy of man is a prerequisite for the correct partaking of the holy Eucharist. It is well known that the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ is light,KingdomofGod, andParadisefor those in the proper spiritual condition for the holy Communion to act. At the same time, it is Hell and “condemnation” for all those not cleansed. The teaching of the Fathers of the Church on this point is telling indeed. Furthermore, the sacrament of Baptism is, and is called, an introductory sacrament that makes us members of the Body of Christ. But, in the ancient Church, Catechism, which aimed at man’s therapy, preceded Baptism, and asceticism followed Baptism. Christ said: “Go and teach all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to do what I have given to you” (Matt. 28:16–20).
Third, when speaking about the therapy of the soul and, more generally, the therapy of man, we mean nothing else but Orthodox hesychasm. As it is known, Orthodox hesychasm forms the basis of all Ecumenical and Local Synods, because through hesychasm we obtain the experience of Revelation through which we know that Christ is the true God, that the Holy Spirit is God, that the natures are united inseparably, unchangeably, and undividedly. For this reason, the fourteenth-century Synods that confirmed Orthodox hesychasm, in the presence of the great Church theologian and Father Saint Gregory Palamas, in reality presented the method through which man can be saved, deified, and go from the image to the likeness. Orthodox hesychasm consists of the transformation of the powers of the soul, of man’s deliverance and liberation from the evil one who rules over man with the spiritual and bodily passions, of the deification of soul and body. In fact, the fourteenth-century Synods state that if a Christian does not accept the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas and of the monks who speak about Orthodox hesychia as a method for the cleansing of the soul, he should be expelled from the Church.
The Church offers the true life; it transforms biological life, sanctifies and transforms societies. Orthodoxy, if experienced properly and functioning according to the holy Fathers, is a communion of God and man, heaven and earth, living and deceased. In this communion all problems emerging in our life are truly solved.
Other religions, particularly those originating from the East, are indeed the opiate of the people, because they transfer the problem to the transcendental world, they alienate men from society, they tear apart interpersonal relationships and destroy man. The Orthodox Church is true precisely because it heals man; it functions as a therapeutic center, an infirmary of souls, a Hospital. This is why it is very modern to be an Orthodox Christian.
The Main Task of the Church Is to Cure
The objective of the Church is to lead man to God, after curing him. Man’s fall fromParadise, the true communion with God, brought terrible changes to anthropology and sociology. Christ’s incarnation healed man and led him to communion with God. Therefore, the main task of the Church is to cure man.
This objective of the Church is seen in Christ’s well-known parable of the good Samaritan. According to Saint John Chrysostom’s interpretation, the man who fell into the hands of robbers is Adam and his descendants who stepped down from the heavenly polity to the polity of the devil’s deceit, which wounded them deeply. The good Samaritan is Christ, who incarnated to cure the wounded man. He gave life to the almost-dead man with wine and oil, that is, with His Blood and the Holy Spirit. Then he carried him to the inn, which is the Church, to be healed. The innkeeper is the Apostles and after them the clerics, who have the commandment to heal men wounded by the devil. Thus, in this parable it is clear that the Church is a Hospital that cures men who are sick because of sin, and the bishops-priests are therapists of the people of God.
Christ referred to His healing work elsewhere too. He said: “They that be whole need not a physician but they that are sick” (Matt. 9:12). All of His sayings referring to the acquisition of humility, the realization of sin, repentance, and so on, show that the Son and Word of God became human to defeat death, sin, and the devil, and to deify man. Hence, all His work refers to man’s cure.
In one of his sermons, Saint Gregory the Theologian presents Christ’s work as curing. His incarnation was aimed at man’s cure. Christ assumed the whole nature of man because “what is not assumed is also not healed.” Everything Christ did aimed at man’s cure. “All this was to educate us in God and to cure our illness”. This is why Christ is often called a physician, a therapist of soul and body. He is also called medicine because cure takes place by the eating and drinking of the Body and Blood of Christ.
Therefore, Christ is both healer and medicine. There are several phrases in the Liturgy describing these qualities of Christ. By the Grace of Christ, clerics throughout the centuries are also healers of the people. Saint Gregory writes: “We who preside over the others are servants and collaborators for this cure.” Every work undertaken by bishops-priests must aim at man’s salvation, at his deification. This is why it has been said characteristically that the task of the Church is to create relics. This means that when man is cured and attains deification, his body is also deified and becomes a relic, by Christ’s Grace.
Theology as a Curing Science
The fact that the Church’s main task is to cure man implies that this is also the task of theology, which is the voice of the Church. Orthodox theology is not an academic science and reflection; it is not a rational occupation the goal of which is Protestant and philological research, but mostly the science of cure. Theology is either a fruit of the cure or the road to the cure. That is, an Orthodox theologian is he who was cured and acquired personal knowledge of God and also he who heals others.
Saint Gregory the Theologian says that theologians are “those who have passed in theoria,”3 who first cleansed soul and body or at least are in the process of cleansing. Theology is closely associated with Orthodox hesychia (stillness), that is, internal purification from images and fantasies that deceive man. These persons are able to help those with a sick soul.
Saint Johnof the Ladder links theology with perfect purity, man’s perfect cleansing: “ . . . a complete state of purity is the foundation of theology.”4 This is the person who truly theologizes. And of course, theologizing is not related to intellectual expressions, but to the revelation of God and to the guidance of people to this knowledge.
All these Fathers show that theology is mostly a product of man’s therapy and not an intellectual science. Only the purified ones or at least those who are in the process of purification are able to be initiated to the ineffable mysteries and the great truths, to accept the Revelation and then confer it to the people. Therapy necessarily precedes theology, and then the theologian is able to cure others. This is why in the Orthodox Tradition the theologian is associated and identified with the spiritual father, and the spiritual father is the par excellence theologian, he who suffers the divine and is able to guide his spiritual children unerringly.
There is a magnificent apolytikion5 that illustrates what Orthodox theology is and what constitutes Orthodox Tradition and apostolic succession. Many of us believe that apostolic succession is just an uninterrupted line of ordinations. We cannot reject this truth, but apostolic succession has an internal aspect too. The apolytikion says:
You partook of the ways, you succeeded in the throne of the Apostles, you were inspired by God and found praxis to attain theoria; because of this you expressed unerringly the word of truth, and you struggled till blood, Holy Martyr Anthimos intercede with Christ God to save our souls.
The Holy Martyr Anthimos, like many other saints, became a successor of the Apostles and partook of the ways of the Apostles. He not only had the ordination of the Apostles, but also their way of life. This means he attained Pentecost, the experience of the Revelation of God, deification. This is why he became “God-inspired.” To reach this state he employed a special method. He ascended to the theoria of God through praxis. We know very well that praxis is the cleansing of the heart from the passions and theoria is the vision of the uncreated Light.
As a result, Holy Martyr Anthimos expressed unerringly the word of truth and became a martyr for the glory of God. Therefore, we infer that the unerring expression of the word of truth is not a product of intellectual knowledge, but a fruit of the experience of God. Also, martyrdom is not an outcome of a strong will, but of the Grace of God, which strengthened the entire personality, so it is a product of theoria.
This apolytikion manifests, in a most vivid way, what the Orthodox Tradition is, what apostolic succession is, who an Orthodox theologian is, how one is able to become God-inspired, and who the true shepherds of the people of God should be. These theologians guide in an Orthodox way, inspired by God and unerringly guiding their spiritual children toward deification and sanctification.
Textbooks on Cure
Man’s cure is achieved by God’s energy and man’s synergy. The Grace of God is offered to man in the sacraments of the Church. In the Catechismal period man is cleansed from the passions tormenting him; with the sacrament of Baptism he becomes a member of the Body of Christ; with Chrismation he becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit; with Holy Communion he partakes of the Body and Blood of Christ. Of course, his own cooperation is required for the Grace of God to be activated.
The Church has certain textbooks on cure that demonstrate what exactly the cure is and how it is achieved. There one finds the task of the clerics. Three typical textbooks on cure are the following:
First, the Holy Scripture. Through the Old and the New Testament man learns the will of God, which he must apply in his life. According to recent research, the first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are actually catechism companions for the Church. The Catechumens were taught from these Gospels what Christian faith is and how to rid themselves of the rule of the devil. The fourth Gospel (John) is for the baptized ones, to learn the perfection of life in Christ. On the other hand, it is known that the epistles of the Apostles gave answers to topics of concern to local churches of the first period.
Therefore, Holy Scripture is a textbook on cure from which man is taught what illness and health are, how cure is achieved, and how to attain union with God. Of course, the Holy Scripture has to be interpreted from within the Orth-odox church tradition. If it is not part of the church atmosphere, it does not help man to be saved, but rather encloses him within the limits of selfishness, as we observe in the use of the Holy Scripture by various heretics in our days.
What happens with Holy Scripture is similar to what happens with medical textbooks. For someone to learn to operate on various parts of the human body, it is not sufficient to read and memorize a textbook. He must contact the author-doctor, be trained by him on this task. and himself be a surgeon. If he does not study the textbook in this context, he will soon lead people to the cemetery. The same happens with Holy Scripture. To comprehend it and use it for our therapy, we require the knowledge of God as revealed to the Prophets and the Apostles, or at least the knowledge of the Fathers who interpret the Holy Scripture according to the Church. Then we are certain that Holy Scripture cures man.
Texts of the rites constitute a second textbook on cure. The rites of the Church play an important role in the transformation of man’s personality and his rebirth. During the rites, especially the Divine Liturgy, man opens his heart to God and to the suffering of the whole world, since he prays for all kinds of people; he feels the Church as the Body of Christ and receives the Grace and blessing of God.
In the texts of the services, it is clear that the Church is a therapeutic center, Christ is our healer, and the deeper task and purpose of the Church is to heal man who is wounded by sin. In the prayers read by the priest in the Vespers it is said: “Be charitable to us, physician and therapist of our souls. Guide us to the port of your will. Illumine the eyes of our hearts to the knowledge of your truth . . .” In the Matins, while the reader reads the six Psalms, the priest reads twelve prayers. Among these, he prays as in confession: “Lord, have mercy, according to your great mercy, on us who have fallen to many and grave misdemeanors, and blot out our transgressions according to the multitude of thy tender mercies; for we have sinned to you, O Lord, you who know the unspoken and secrets of men’s hearts and have the sole power to remit sins. You, who have created in us a clean heart, and upheld us by a free spirit, and made known to us the joy of thy salvation, cast us not away from thy presence . . .” In another prayer of the Matins the priest prays: “ . . . merciful and all-powerful God. Shine in our heart the true Sun of your justice, illumine our nous and uphold all our senses, so that, as in a day, respectfully walking in the path of your commandments, we reach eternal life.”
In these prayers we see the aim of the Church, which is its deeper purpose. It is the cure of man and his guidance to the uncreated Light, to union with God. The purpose of man’s existence is deification.
All Church hymns refer to cure. They ask for God’s mercy, salvation, which is not an abstract condition and the soul’s exit from the body, but the coming of the Grace of God to the heart. Most hymns of the Church are confessional. Let me cite one of them:
My whole life sinful, my soul lustful the body full of dirt, the nous impure, the deeds all defiled, I am fully responsible for condemnation and conviction. Where shall I turn now? where shall I go if not to you? Our Lady have mercy and come to my salvation.
The third textbook on cure is the Prayer book of the Church. This is a book containing the texts and the order of the Church sacraments, as well as many other prayers used by the priest in his pastoral service. Reading the Prayer book carefully, one can see that the Grace of God takes over man from his birth to his death and is personally interested in him. There are prayers to be read right after birth, then man becomes part of the Body of the Church by Holy Baptism; if he leaves the Church, Grace brings him back by the sacrament of repentance; Grace is present in his wedding and follows him in all his activities until his sleep and beyond. In the Prayer book it is clear that the Church is personally interested in each man.
All these textbooks show that the Church is a Hospital-therapeutic center that cures man. We can see all its work in this perspective. If we have a different view of the Church, then we have in mind a secular Church that does not save man. Instead, it holds him captive to the conditions and circumstances of the fallen world.
Illness of the Soul
Let me first clarify that in discussing the illness of the soul we do not mean psychological imbalances, as understood by humanistic psychotherapy, or
illnesses originating from disturbances of the nerves and, in general, physical causes. Humanistic psychology talks about the soul outside the Orthodox perspective. So it is necessary to discuss what exactly man’s soul is and what its illness consists of.
Soul and Body
Man is a psychosomatic being, that is, he consists of soul and body. The soul is not the whole man but just the soul of man; the body is not the whole man but just the body of man. Therefore, man is both, consisting of soul and body.
The spiritual illness of the soul has repercussions to the body, as we can see in the case of Adam’s sin. Corruption and mortality were consequences of man’s sin and of the loss of the Grace of God. Vice versa, the coming of the Grace of God to man’s heart transforms the body, too. We see this in Christ’s Transfiguration, when his face shone like the sun. We see it in Moses whose face was shining, as well as in Archdeacon Stephen, whose face looked like an angel’s face.
Orthodox life aims at the deification of the entire man, soul and body. For this reason, hesychasm, neptic6 theology aims at the simultaneous progression of soul and body to deification. Noetic prayer7 and ascetic work cannot be interpreted in an Orthodox way, if not viewed through the deification of the human body.
According to the Holy Fathers, man is formed in the image of God. This means that he does not orient his life to himself, but to God. The Word of God is the image of the Father, and man is the image of the Word. Thus, man is an image-being, an image of an image.
Just as God is Triune, man’s soul is triune, that is, it has nous, intelligence, and spirit. The nous is the nucleus of man’s existence, intelligence expresses and formulates the experiences of the nous, and the spirit is man’s noetic love; with the Spirit’s power and energy man is driven toward God.
The soul is single and has many faculties and energies. The Fathers, besides the tripartite division of the soul we mentioned, also accepted a division established by the philosophers: that is, of intelligent, appetitive, and incensive. The first division refers to the ontology of the soul and its pictorial representation, the second one to the passions. Some passions are tied to the intelligent part (pride, atheism, heresy), others to the appetitive part (self-indulgence, avarice) and others to the incensive (wrath, anger, rancor, and so on). Saint Gregory Palamas teaches that ambition is an offspring of the intelligent part of the soul, love of possessions and avarice an offspring of the appetitive part, and gluttony an offspring of the incensive part. The incensive and the appetitive compose the so-called passible part of the soul.
Illness of the Soul
When speaking about the illness of the soul, we primarily mean the loss of Divine Grace, which has repercussions to the body also, and then the whole person is sick. There might be an absence of bodily illness, but without the Grace of God there is no health.
To best comprehend the Fall of man, it is necessary to start with what the Holy Fathers say, that the soul is noetic and intelligent, that is, the soul contains both nous and reason and these move in parallel. The nous is distinguished from reason in that the nous is the eye of the soul, the focus of attention, while reason is verbal and articulate and formulates thoughts through the brain. Thus, if the nous moves according to nature, which means it is healthy, reason is also healthy and the spirit, that is love, is healthy too. If the nous is not healthy, man is ill both in his reason and in his love. The malfunctioning of these two powers, nous and reason, causes illness.
Before the Fall, Adam lived in a natural condition. His nous was directed to God and received Grace from Him, while reason was subordinated to the graceful nous and, therefore, functioned normally.
The Fall, which constitutes the true illness, is in reality the darkening of the nous. The nous was darkened, lost the Grace of God, and spread darkness to the entire man. By the Fall of man we mean three things in the Orthodox Tradition: First, the nous was darkened and stopped functioning normally. Second, the nous was identified with reason and reason became the center of man. Third, the nous was enslaved to passions and to outside conditions. This was man’s spiritual death. And, as is the case when man’s eye is hurt and the entire body becomes dark, when the eye of the soul, the nous, is blinded, the entire spiritual organism is sick. It falls in deep darkness. Christ said: “If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness?” (Matt. 6:23).
The darkening of the nous creates terrible abnormalities in man’s life. It brings about a devastating breakdown of his entire spiritual composition. Among other things, man makes an idol out of God, for God becomes a creature of logic; man exploits his fellow beings for pleasure, ambition, and avarice and views the world as a quarry that has to be subjugated to his own individual needs.
Thus, we realize that all problems, social and interpersonal alike, are inner; they refer to the illness of the soul, the loss of divine Grace. When man’s noetic energy is not functioning well, we observe many anomalies. All passions revolt, and man uses both God and his fellow man to consolidate his own individual security and happiness. He is then continuously under stress, thinking he is in a prison.
Consequences of Man’s Fall
The neptic teaching of the Church that refers to the inner world is strongly related to the social teaching. It might be supposed that the ascetic life of the Church has no contact with reality. In fact, the opposite is true. Only by making this analysis of the Fall are we able to solve the problems emerging in our life. We saw some of the consequences before. Now we will turn to the dramatic consequences of man’s departure from God that show that Orthodox theology is a most radical and modern action.
The loss of the divine Grace, which constitutes the true illness of man, brought about both spiritual and bodily death. Spiritual death is man’s departure from God, and bodily death is the soul’s separation from the body. God did not create man to die, but bodily death came as a result of the Fall.
The first consequence of the fall was the darkening of the nous. Saint Gregory Palamas says: “If the nous departs from God, it becomes either bestial or demonic.” When man’s nous leaves God and is darkened, it is inevitable that all inner energies of the soul and the body are distorted. After the nous loses his movement according to nature, which is movement toward God, he desires alien things and his greed cannot be satiated. He indulges in carnal pleasures and knows no limit to these pleasures. While he dishonors himself with his acts, he insists on being honored by everyone. He wants everyone to flatter him, to agree with him, to cooperate with him, and when this is not offered, he is filled with wrath. His anger and his wrath against his fellow men is like a serpent. Then man, who was created in the image and the likeness of God, turns into a killer and becomes the likeness of the man-killing devil. The nous’ departure from God makes man bestial or demonic; he becomes a beast or a demon. Therefore, with the darkening of the nous, the passions go rampant.
A second consequence of the Fall is that the soul and the entire man move contrary to nature. The Holy Fathers teach that there are three movements of the nous: according to nature, above nature, and contrary to nature. The nous’ movement contrary to nature takes place when man does not see God’s Providence and His justice in what happens in his life, but rather believes that the others are unfair to him and he revolts against them. The nous’ movement according to nature is seen when man considers himself and evil thoughts as responsible for all his hardships. And the movement of the powers of the soul above nature occurs when the nous moves toward God, finds the fruits of the All-Holy Spirit, and sees the glory of God. In this stage, the nous becomes amorphous and shapeless; that is, it is freed from images, fantasies, and demonic thoughts. In the illness of the nous, we can find all the horrible distorting results of function and movement contrary to nature.
A third consequence of the Fall was the excitement of imagination. According to the teaching of the Holy Fathers, imagination, that is, images and representations, is an outcome of the Fall. God and the angels do not have imagination. The demons and fallen men have a sick imagination. The Fathers say that imagination is the scales of the nous that cover the noetic part of the nous; they are the bridge between man and the demons. A healthy man has imagination but not fantasies. To use an example, we can say that for a deified person imagination is like a TV set turned off. The equipment is there, but the images are not. In this sense, we say that saints do not have imagination.
This is a very important point, because so long as man is ill he is possessed by many images produced by the imaginative part of the soul. So-called “psychological problems” are, almost all of them, results of suspicion, of logical thoughts, all cultivated in the favorable climate of imagination. Today it is an observed fact that the more one is psychologically sick, the more his imagination is excited.
A fourth consequence of the Fall of man is that his emotional world gets sick. A spiritually healthy person is balanced in all his activities; he is not simply moved psychologically and emotionally by the various events of his life, but has true communion with God. Therefore, he is not moved emotionally by nature and its beauty, but rather sees it spiritually, because he sees God’s energy in it. The psychological joy of the inexperienced, which is not untouched by imagination, is different from spiritual joy, which is a product of the All-Holy Spirit. In a sick man, emotion is mixed with the passions of self-indulgence.
In Church, through our struggle and above all by receiving the Grace of God, we transform all emotions and all sick situations. This is achieved by repentance. Then all psychological events become spiritual states. Manifestations of a psychologically sick person are not observed in a repenting man.
Therefore, the illness of the soul, which manifests itself primarily in man’s nous, has tremendous consequences for the entire organism. A sick man becomes impassioned, self-loving, and self-indulgent, and this has repercussions for the whole society. In the Orthodox Church we say that it is possible for someone to be physically healthy and psychologically balanced because of his intelligence and his strong reason and not need a psychiatrist, and yet, still be ill if he does not have the Grace of God. The darkening of the nous is the greatest illness of man.
The Curing of the Soul
In the previous section, we said that the Church is a Hospital, a healing center. It heals man’s sick personality. If the darkening of the nous is the real illness, then cure consists of the illumination and livening of the nous. The subject of Orthodox psychotherapy should be viewed in this perspective. It is not concerned with psychological balance, but rather with the illumination of the nous and man’s union with God.
There is a very telling Church hymn in which we ask God to resurrect the mortified nous as He resurrected Lazarus. We chant:
Let us, O faithful, imitate Martha and Mary and send to Lord godly acts as ambassadors so that He comes to raise our nous, now lying dead in the tomb, insensitive to negligence, not feeling fear of the Divine, not having the energy of life, let us cry “see O Lord, and as you resurrected from horrible captivity your friend Lazarus once, Merciful One, the same way give life to all, offering your great mercy.
The Three Types of Christians
The image of a healing center, a Hospital, helps us see the task of the clerics, which is medical, and the whole life and objective of the Church.
There are three types of men in the Church. The first includes the psychologically unhealed, namely, those who are baptized, who are potentially members of the Church, but do not activate the gift of Baptism. Indeed, Baptism is not sufficient; observing Christ’s commandments is also required. The second category includes those in the process of cure, the Christians who struggle to be healed. They see the passions in themselves; they realize the darkening of the nous and make an effort to be cured with the means offered by the Orthodox Church. The third category includes the cured ones. Here belong the saints, who received the Grace of the Holy Spirit, cleansed their hearts from the passions, reached the illumination of the nous and the vision of God. The saints are called deified because they partake of deification. The fact that they have been cured does not mean that they make no mistakes whatsoever on a human level, but they have a correct orientation; they know what the Grace of God is, and they know how to repent. Their nous is rightly directed to God, they have good self-knowledge, they are aware of the dogmas, and in general they know exactly the purpose of their existence.
Ways to Cure the Soul
It is now necessary to examine the ways by which the personality of man is cured. Among other things, this demonstrates the character and the content of Orthodox asceticism.
The first requirement is correct faith. By faith, we mean the revealed truth. God revealed Himself to the Prophets, the Apostles, and the saints. This truth is authentic because it is by Revelation.
Correct faith shows what God is, what man is, what the purpose of man is, and how he can achieve communion with God. When faith is adulterated, life is instantly adulterated; man loses his orientation and is unable to reach his target. What happens is similar to medical science, the curative treatment of a hospital. If the underlying theory about a disease is wrong, the cure is also wrong, implying that such a disease is not cured in this particular hospital. This is why we Orthodox insist on safeguarding Revelation. If it is altered, then our salvation is uncertain.
We should view the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils in this perspective. The teaching that Christ is God is associated with salvation, since only God can save man. If Christ does not have two perfect natures, a divine nature and a human nature, our salvation is impossible. It is the same if God does not have a divine will and a human will. Therefore, our staying within dogmatic precision is a prerequisite of cure, of salvation and sanctification.
The second requirement for the therapy of the soul is awareness of the illness. This is necessary, because once we know we are ill we seek a doctor and a cure. Otherwise, we remain in ignorance and illness.
The same holds true of bodily diseases. Ignorance of the disease leads to death. Knowledge of the disease, deriving from pain, prompts us to take all necessary measures to obtain a cure. It is a terrible thing not to know our bodily disease.
One of the greatest sins of our times is self-love and self-sufficiency. We are contained in ourselves, having the illusion that we are well, that we need no doctor. The illusion of health is the worst hypocrisy.Saint Johnthe Evangelist said: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
Obviously, realizing our horrible condition is not easy. Carnal man cannot know his passions. In fact, he thinks that life contrary to nature, as experienced after the Fall, is natural. This is indeed tragic. However, there are certain ways by which man can come to know himself. Let me report some of them.
One may know his condition through the energy of holy Grace. What happens with spiritual diseases is identical to how bodily diseases are detected, by undergoing appropriate examinations, using X-rays and a tomography. The uncreated Grace of God enters our soul, and then we see our horrible distorted state and mess. In the beginning of spiritual life, the vision of the uncreated Light is experienced negatively, that is, as a fire burning the passions.
Another way of self-knowledge is the study of Holy Scripture, of patristic works, of the lives of the saints. By reading these writings, we realize God’s love and philanthropy and how far man is able to go by the Grace of God and his own personal struggle. We might also realize our deficiencies and weaknesses.
In this case, study functions as a spiritual mirror. The asceticism of the saints bothers our conscience, it throws our inaction away, it invalidates all excuses and leads us to the observance of Christ’s commandments.
We may say that in realizing our illness we are helped by our failures in life. When some of our supports are lifted, when we reach a point of saying, like the Disciples on the road to Emmaus, “But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemedIsrael” (Luke 24:21), then we are able to really see Christ and seek the new life He gives to the world. Personal, family, and social failures bring us to an impasse. At that point, if we have an inner disposition, a spiritual inspiration, associated with hope in God, this may lead us to a realization of our spiritual condition.
Another fine method of comprehending the illnesses of the soul is by exercising logical prayer. When we repeat with our lips and our mind the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” the Grace of God will break the outside wall of illusory good self and reveal our wretchedness.
Because God loves us and is interested in our salvation, He keeps sending us invitations so that we do not lose our purpose and destination. He calls one person through Godly despair, someone else by the illumination of the holy Light, a third one through study, a fourth one through his encounter with a holy person who has had the experience of the other life existing in the Church, and through various other means.
The third requirement for our cure is to find a therapist. We search for the proper physician for our bodily diseases, and we should do the same for spiritual diseases. For the former we first visit the provincial doctor, then we go to large specialized hospitals, then we consult advanced specialists, and finally, we visit medical school professors and doctors abroad. We should exhibit the same, if not more, fervor for the spiritual diseases tormenting us.
The holy Fathers state in their works that clerics of all degrees are called healers. In many of his sermons, Saint Gregory the Theologian refers to this point and calls the clerics healers because they heal the psychological diseases of the people. He himself asserts that he refused to shepherd the people and, instead, left for the desert after his ordination as a presbyter, because he felt he was unworthy of healing the illnesses of others, not having cured himself yet. It is significant that Saint Gregory calls the work of Christ’s divine providence therapeutic work and Christ a therapist of men. He calls the priesthood a therapeutic science and a therapeutic service. He says characteristically: “We are servants and collaborators for this therapy.”
The priests’ fundamental task is not selling tickets to Paradise, but healing, so that when man sees God He becomes Paradiseand not Hell for man. If we examine all the sacraments and sacramental rites available to the priest from Baptism to Holy Communion, and from repentance to the funeral service, we will find out that they all presuppose and aim at man’s therapy. The sacraments are not social events and rituals; the church rites do not aim at psychological justification and the cultivation of religious feelings, but at man’s therapy. By viewing the sacraments outside the therapy of man’s personality, by participating in them without the cleansing of the heart and the illumination of the nous, we ignore the deeper purpose of church life.
It is common to hear the excuse that a proper spiritual father for therapy has not been found. My reply is that most of us actually need a nurse and a provincial physician, not refined surgery. We have to begin with the spiritual father close to us, in our parish, in our town. What is indispensable is to open our heart to God, to freely expose our wounds and request His Grace. If God sees that we need a better and “more scientific” physician, he will reveal him to us. Also, if our spiritual father realizes that we need help from a more experienced spiritual father, because we have advanced in spiritual life and have more subtle spiritual needs, then he will recommend the way. By all means, it is basic to start confessing to someone. We should not waste precious time in searching for an experienced spiritual father. If needed, he will show up in due time.
What we have said is still not sufficient. We also need a fourth way for our inner cure, and this is the finding and implementation of the proper therapeutic treatment. In bodily diseases, if one becomes aware of his illness and finds the best doctor, but does not follow the recommended treatment, he fails to be cured, he does not get well. The same is true of spiritual illnesses. Correct faith, awareness of the illness, and a proper therapist are all prerequisites, but if we do not follow the right therapeutic way, if we do not take proper medicine, we cannot be cured.
There are several such ways. Let me point to what is suggested in many hymns of the Church: namely, fasting, vigils, and prayer. I point out this method because in the effort to apply these commandments many things emerge, and we are helped in our spiritual life. By doing these things, we develop mourning, repentance, love for God and our brothers, purity of the heart, and so on. This is why they are very important means for our spiritual therapy.
Fasting aims at the exercise of both soul and body so that they move together in the course to deification. There is both a bodily fast and a spiritual fast. Bodily fast refers to the quality and quantity of food, as determined by the Church. It is scientifically proven that some meals are heavier and others are lighter for the organism. Sometimes it is essential to fast very strictly because in this way man’s nous is detached from material goods and turns to God. Furthermore, obedience to fasts determined by the Church helps man to submerge his will to the universal will and experience of the Church. Combined with spiritual fasting, bodily fasting introduces man to the atmosphere of cleansing, that is, the struggle to cleanse the heart from the passions of self-indulgence, avarice, boastfulness, and selfishness.
Vigils are an effort to subordinate the body to the soul, in the sense that it does not exceed its functions and its mission. The Church does not share the dualistic view of Hellenistic philosophy, according to which there exist two separate entities, a soul and a body. Vigils, along with all other physical exercises, aim precisely at the unity of soul and body. In any case, a lot of people stay awake for various reasons today. So it is worthy doing this vigil for God, to stay awake for the glory of God. Of course, in the world, vigil is not the all-night prayer of the monks in the Monasteries, but an exercise against excessive sleep and excessive physical comfort that breed countless evils to man’s organism. Vigil is also closely related to the balance of the psychosomatic organism of man and to watchfulness, which is essential in spiritual life.
Prayer is tied to fasting and vigils. Fasting and vigils without prayer are useless. Indeed, if the Holy Spirit does not come, all physical exercises are futile. Prayer is either worshiping, with the entire community, or intelligent, made by man’s reason, or noetic-of-the-heart, when the nous, in the Holy Spirit, enters man’s heart. Then the nous and the heart unite in the power and energy of the Holy Spirit, and this is called illumination of the nous.
In Church hymns, fasting, vigils, and prayer are called celestial gifts. They assist man in his journey to deification and sanctification. They lead the psychosomatic organism to balance. In Adam there was such a balance before the Fall. The nous was inspired by the Grace of God; it nurtured the body and then radiated the Grace to all creation. After the Fall, however, the nous was darkened. The body is fed from the creation rather than from the nous, and bodily passions show up. The soul is fed from the body, and this creates psychological passions. With fasting, vigils, and prayer these contrary-to-nature functions are corrected. This is why cleansing, illumination, and deification are expressed through these gifts.
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We need therapy. It is not sufficient to be potential members of the Church, we must become actively so. The Orthodox Church possesses a perfect therapeutic system, an excellent therapeutic treatment, so long as we desire to become persons-hypostases.
1. Hypostases are persons, or essential natures.
2. Nous: The word has various uses in Patristic teaching. It indicates either the soul or the heart or even the energy of the soul. Yet, the nous is mainly the eye of the soul, the purest part of the soul, the highest attention. It is also called noetic energy, and it is not identified with reason.
3. Saint Gregory the Theologian. Or. 27, 3. NPNFns, vol. 7, p. 285.
4. Saint John Climacus. The Ladder. Step 30. CWS p. 288.
5. An apolytikion is a dismissal hymn, otherwise known as a troparion.
6. Nepsis is the rejection of everything that impedes the mind’s ascent toward God.
7. Noetic prayer is prayer to illumine the nous.
By Metropolitan HIEROTHEOS (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos and Saint Vlassios
This article was originally published by the Monastery of St. John, www.monasteryofstjohn.org, in The Divine Ascent Vol. 3/4. This and other publications can be found on their bookstore website, www.stjohnsbookstore.com. This article was posted here with permission.