Orthodox Psychotherapy in Relation to Modern Western Psychology

Antiochian Archdiocese 2016 Clergy Symposium - Theology, Pastoral Care, and Psychology

Held at Antiochian Village in Ligonier, PA, Metropolitan Joseph invited as his speaker His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos and Agios Vlasios (also Ierotheos). He serves the Metropolis of Nafpaktos and Agios Vlasios in the Church of Greece. The theme of his three lectures was Theology, Pastoral Care, and Psychology. The interpreter is Anastasios Filippides, Economist (B.A. Yale University, M.A. Georgetown University). Secondary interpreter is Dr. Christopher Veniamin – Professor of Patristics St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, PA, also Founder and President of Mount Thabor Publishing.

July 2016

Orthodox Psychotherapy in Relation to Modern Western Psychology

Metropolitan Hierotheos

July 20, 2016 Length: 1:00:27





His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agios Vlasios, interpreted by Mr. Anastasios Filippides: Your Eminence and dear brothers in Christ, good morning. I would like to apologize again. You are going to bear with me today. The scheduled title of my lecture is “Orthodox Psychotherapy in Relation to Modern Western Psychology.” It is a basic teaching of the Church that the Church is a hospital, a therapeutic center. We see this in many passages in the holy Scripture. Let me just remind you of the parable of the good Samaritan. You know it very well; I don’t need to elaborate on this.

Human beings have very many wounds, and the good Samaritan, Christ, is the one who takes them to the hospital, to the Church. To see what the basic task of the Church is, it is important to see the beginning and the last things about mankind. St. John of Damascus says that when man was created by God, he was in continuous communion with God. His nous was bright, open, illumined, and he could see the glory of the Holy Trinity and the angels. That is, he was in a state of illumination of the nous and the vision of God, but he needed to develop further and stabilize in this state.

In patristic tradition, there are two interpretations about the state of Adam and Eve before the Fall. The first is that man was in a state of illumination and continuous prayer, and the second is that he had a vision of God. In St. John of Damascus’s book, An Exact Exposition of Orthodox Faith, we see both traditions. What is important is that Adam and Eve lived in a very blessed state in paradise. After they committed sin, they lost the illumination of the nous, and the nous was darkened. It became blind and could not see the light of God, the glory of God. So passions dominated inside his soul and his body.

This is what the ancestral sin is, that man lost contact with the light of God. We see this in a passage by St. Paul, who says, “All have sinned, and all are deprived of the glory of God.” The glory of God is God’s light. So they reached a point where they could not see the light of God, so many Fathers refer to it as the darkening of the nous, as the blackening of God’s image inside man. This is why the cleansing of the heart is needed so as to progress to illumination of the nous and to deification. Fr. John Romanides realized this very well, and this is why his first major study was on the ancestral sin. The ancestral sin was not simply disobedience to God’s commandment, nor simply guilt which entered man’s life. What it is is that man lost communion with the light of God. So the Church’s goal is to take him from the fallen state and cleanse his heart, so he reaches a pre-fallen state of the illumination of the nous, and then lead him to the vision of God.

We can see this from the last days of man. 21 years ago, around this time, I was in Vancouver and Seattle. I was still an archimandrite at that time, and was together with Fr. John Romanides for a conference. I was informed, I got a call from Athens that I should return back because I’m about to be elected a bishop. There is a photograph of me speaking with Fr. John Romanides. I told him, “Fr. John, I must leave for Greece, because in a few days I’m going to be elected as a metropolitan.” He expressed neither joy nor congratulations.

He told me, “You should know one thing: what the Church’s goal is, why you will become a bishop. You should know that all people will appear in front of Christ during the second coming. The righteous ones will see him as light, and the sinners as fire. From God’s throne there flows both the light that illuminates the just ones and the fire that burns the sinners. God will love all people, and he will send his grace to all people, both righteous and unrighteous. But people depending on their own state, on whether they are cured or not, will see God as light or as fire.” This is something that all Fathers say—St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory [the Theologian], St. Gregory Palamas. It was not a Fr. John Romanides theory. “You should understand and tell other bishops that the Church is a hospital. The Church is not a travel office, printing tickets for a nice journey, not printing tickets for people to go to paradise. The Church cures people so that when they see God they see him as light and not as fire.”

Light has two characteristics: one is illuminating; the other is burning. We must sense God as light and not as fire. In order to see him as light, we have to acquire a spiritual eye. If one doesn’t have spiritual eyes, he will see it as a fire and not as a light. St. Nicholas Cabasilas says this very clearly in his first homily on The Life in Christ. It says that at that point God will come as light, but he will be seen only by those who have spiritual eyes. Cabasilas says that the Church is the laboratory which will help us acquire spiritual eyes.

So the state of Adam before the Fall and the state of the last things show what the purpose of the Church is. Of course, the Church has other tasks, too. It deals with the human body, it deals with social work, but its main purpose is man’s therapy. 30 years ago, I wrote this book, Orthodox Psychotherapy, and I gave it this meaning, this interpretation: that the Church cures the entire man, not only the soul, but by extension the body, too. Church is a laboratory of sainthood, and as Fr. John Romanides would say, the Church is a laboratory to produce relics. That is a grace of God through the soul. It is transferred to the body, too. So we have the body sanctified, and we have the relics.

It was remarkable that the American Psychological Association issued a manual on psychotherapy and religious diversity, which presented the therapeutic material existing in all religions and denominations so that it could recommend to psychologists in America to make use of the therapeutic material in each religion, and the chapter for therapy for Orthodox Christians accepts this term, “psychotherapy,” and uses this term, “Orthodox psychotherapy.” It has a very important, I think, very brief summary of my book. It says that the Orthodox Church cures the soul of man and cures the passions of man. It presents my name, too, saying that I’m an Orthodox psychotherapist who offers this material to all people, and it states that the Jesus Prayer has the same results with some medicines that people take, calming medicine. This means that a lot of people see the neptic tradition of the Church nowadays, and of course the neptic tradition is closely connected with the entire life of the Church and the holy sacraments. There must be a connection between the sacraments and the ascetic Orthodox tradition.

In what follows I will present you ten basic principles of this Orthodox psychotherapy. The first principle is that illness is an unnatural movement of the soul’s faculties. Sin should not be viewed in legalistic or moralistic terms, but in medical terms. When God created man, he put all the faculties of the soul and the body so that they are oriented toward God. St. Nicholas Cabasilas said that we have received reason in order to think of God, and desire in order to desire God, and we have received anger so that we are powerful in turning toward God who is our loved one. It’s like making a rocket which goes and is lost, and goes in the atmosphere and then starts revolving around earth. A rocket is not made to just wander around in the streets; it is made to go farther, high up, and to overcome gravity. This is an example to show how man was created by God.

After sin was committed, all three faculties of the soul—the rational, the desiring, and the incensive—became sick. Before the commitment of sin, there was a movement in a natural, a supernatural way, but now it has become unnatural. Instead of being oriented towards God, the faculties of the soul are now turned against God and turned to nature and make an idol of nature. Christ is the new and last Adam, who came in to correct the mistake of the first Adam. So in Christ these faculties of the soul are cured and are now turned towards God again. It’s what Christ said: You shall love your neighbor like yourself. In Christ, man is turned from an unnatural way of behaving to the natural and to the supernatural.

Second therapeutic principle: Within the Church and with all the means that the Church has as its disposal, self-love is cured and becomes love for God and love for fellow human beings. In referring to self-love, St. Maximus the Confessor calls it the irrational love of the body. When we love our body excessively, then all the powers of the soul are oriented toward our body, so someone who loves himself cannot love God and fellow human beings.

St. Paul, in his hymn to love, says that love does not know her own, but of the other person’s. There are two types of love: one is selfish, and the other is unselfish. If we examine ourselves carefully, we will find out that we love ourselves more than the others, and when we love others, it’s because we love ourselves. Many people would say, “I love you,” but in reality they mean: “I love you—give me,” instead of saying, “I love you; I give to you.” This is what Christ said on the cross. He said, “I am crucified and I love you.” Mothers would often ask their children, “Do you love me?” and children reply, “Yes, I do,” and Mother replies, “How much do you love me?” and children open their arms and say, “So much!” So when we ask Christ, “How much do you love me?” he opened his arms on the cross, and he said, “That much, I love you.”

So a basic principle of therapy is how to transform a selfish love to an unselfish love. I love God because I love him, not because I wait to receive something from him. Similarly, I love all others because I consider them as God’s gifts to me, so I receive all creation as God’s gifts to me, and I offer myself as a gift back. We can see this within the family. A husband should view his wife as God’s gift to him, and the wife should view her husband as God’s gift to her. So their love is a mutual exchange of gifts, and there must be unselfishness in this love.

The third basic principle is the healing of the rational, desiring, and incensive parts of the soul. We know that this division of the soul in three parts—rational, desiring, and incensive—was made first by Plato. The Fathers accepted this partition of the soul. When one commits sin, in reality, all three powers of the soul get sick, so therapy is needed. The rational part gets sick with many bad thoughts. Sin starts with the rational part: thoughts enter on committing sin. Then the desiring part gets sick when one desires to commit sin. Then he commits sin with the incensive part, so all three parts have been sick.

The cure is to get rid of bad thoughts, to transform, to convert bad thoughts into good thoughts. This was one of the most fundamental teachings of St. Paisios of the Holy Mountain. He used to say that we should become a factory of good thoughts, that is, to transform bad thoughts into good thoughts. He himself, St. Paisios, had this great charisma. We would go to see him, and each one of his had his own thoughts, and immediately he would say something and cure him. He was not a priest, he was not a confessor, but he had learned how to change these bad thoughts into good thoughts and to get rid of the bad thoughts.

There are many nice examples of his life. One such incident I was telling His Grace when we were coming here from New York. Someone went to talk to him, and Fr. Paisios gave him a loukoumi, Turkish delight. Then a bee appeared and started flying over the loukoumi. The visitor was scared and was trying to throw her away, and Fr. Paisios told him, “Why do you kick her away? Do you know her?” [Laughter] He was shocked, and Fr. Paisios told him, “Do you want me to introduce you to her?” [Laughter]

“She’s a small insect and she lives a very few years, but she does a great job. She loves people very much. She produces honey so that people eat it and are sweetened. Then she makes the honeycomb out of which we make candles, and we glorify God with them. So she loves God and man very much.” The visitor replied, “I am afraid she might sting me.” So Fr. Paisios stood up, and he brought some sugar in his hand. The bee went there and sat on the sugar, and he got up and very carefully, so as not to bother her, and threw the sugar out, so the bee went out with the sugar, in a very good and very kind way, towards an insect that offers us a very kind service. In this way, he transformed the way of thinking of his visitor.

A basic principle of psychotherapy is a curing of the rational and desiring and incensive parts of the soul. A fourth basic principle of psychotherapy is the interconnection between pleasure and pain. According to the teaching of the Fathers, when man was created by God, he did not have pleasure and pain in his body. He only had pleasure in the soul so that he would be oriented towards God. This pleasure was directed to God, but man directed it toward the created things. So pleasure from the nous, mind, went to the body, and that’s why God introduced suffering, pain, in order to cure pleasure. St. Maximus the Confessor expands this teaching very well. Pain and suffering follow bodily pleasure. For example, one eats more than necessary, and then stomach pain starts, so that he learns to eat less.

St. Maximus the Confessor says pleasure was voluntary: man of his own will turned towards pleasure, so God allows involuntary pain in order to heal pleasure. In general, people have a very bad relationship between pleasure and pain. For example, a young man likes to experience his pleasure in taking drugs. After the influence of drugs is over, this will bring pain, so then he would like to have a double-dose of the same drug. A double-dose of the drug will bring a double-dose of the pain. Then he will get into a triple-dose of drug, and a vicious cycle is created. Therapy consists of reducing pleasure with self-restraint, and taking up voluntarily the pain of asceticism in order to cure voluntary pleasure.

A fifth basic principle: The nous, in relation to blameworthy and blameless passions. The nous is the finest attention; it is something different from reason. For example, one may be driving a car, and his reason on how to drive correctly, but his nous, his inner attention, is on some beloved person. This is the difference between reason and nous. Blameless passions are the passions without sin: hunger, thirst, sleep. They are called blameless and natural passions. These natural passions may be converted to blameworthy passions. For example, hunger is a natural passion; when one eats too much, this becomes indulgence in food. Thirst is a natural passion, but when one drinks too much then it becomes a blameworthy passion.

The nous is the one that controls the passions so that they remain blameless and do not turn blameworthy. A nous which is purified, illumined, and in prayer knows how to control how much to eat and how much of all these other things, and how to balance these things, to measure them. When the nous is impure, then even the natural passions become blameworthy passions, so we need the therapy of the nous, which is achieved with pure thought and prayer. When one prays continuously, he receives grace from God and he controls the whole body. It’s like a horse rider in a coach who directs both the horse and the chariot.

A sixth basic principle of psychotherapy is that Christ is the spiritual Doctor of mankind. He is the second Adam, who healed the sin of the first Adam. He assumed the whole human nature in order to cure it. St. Gregory the Theologian says that if Christ had not assumed some part of human nature, then that part would have remained uncured. Apollinaris used to say that Christ assumed human nature but without human nous, and St. Gregory the Theologian replied that this is wrong, because if he had not assumed man’s nous, then the nous would not be cured. “What is not assumed is not curable.”

The seventh principle is that Christ cures people with sacraments and asceticism. Christ said to his disciples, “Go to the whole world, and baptize them all in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all things I have commanded you.” So it is two things: they make disciples, first by baptizing and then by teaching. So this is the sacraments and the ascetic life, as an effort to keep Christ’s commandment.

The eighth principle of psychotherapy is that the Church is a place for therapy. The Church is the risen, resurrected body of Christ. Christ exercises his therapeutic work in this body. As in a hospital, there is a general director of the hospital; in the Church, the director is the bishop. In a hospital there are doctors who work therapeutically, and in the Church these are the priests. There’s also the nursing staff, which in the Church is all the administrative staff, etc., who help us in assisting our ministry. I have heard your metropolitan these days saying that the Church is above nations, above languages, the same as a hospital does not accept only Americans: it accepts Greeks, everyone. [Laughter] It accepts terrorists, thieves. If a terrorist has been injured by a bomb, the hospital cannot say, “We do not accept him”; they will accept him. It is very important that in the same bed in a hospital there might be any kind of people, from the president of the United States to a poor person, the same bed and by the same doctors. This is what Christ’s Church does: it cures every man.

The ninth principle of Orthodox psychotherapy is that the saints are those who have been cured and those who are being cured. The saints are not simply good people; they are those who share in the mystery of the cross and the resurrection of Christ. They receive the cleansing and illuminating and deifying energy of God. A saint is someone who begins the purification process. He is called deified; he is in the process of being cured. All the members of the Church are those who are being cured. At the same time, the doctors are those who cure and who are being cured themselves. No one is perfect, but we are all oriented toward perfection.

The last basic principle is that, as I said in the beginning, eternal life is related to therapy. We remain in the Church so that we are cured, so that our powers of the soul are transfigured, so we can see God as light.

Unfortunately, I will not proceed to the second part; we don’t have time because of the translation. I had prepared some things to tell you about Western psychology; you know them. Just a few words, and perhaps we can elaborate in the discussion. Scholastic theology was based on man’s reason. Protestants emphasize the external and emotional part of man. They both omitted a place which is in the heart. They don’t deal with heart, either of them, while the Orthodox tradition has this neptic tradition, which deals with man’s heart and his passions. So there was a vacuum there, and secular man tried to cover it with psychology and existentialism. Before the 20th century, psychology was associated with philosophy; from the 20th century on, it was dissociated. And there are various trends in psychology: behaviorism; cognitive psychology, which deals only with thoughts and emotions.

And now we witness a revolution in psychology, because cognitive psychology is associated with neuroscience. They try to investigate exactly what happens in the brain and how this affects the psychological world, and that’s why an existentialist psychology and philosophy developed, which deals with questions like: What is life? What is death? Why do I exist? What lies beyond death? It is important to say that we are not against any effort to help people and cure people. When man lives in such an anxiety, he must find help somewhere, so both psychology and the neuroscience help people to reach a certain balance, both psychologically and socially speaking, but we know very well that this cannot exhaust a whole human being, because man cannot be satisfied by this.

Orthodox theology offers humankind something more than this. It doesn’t help them only to be balanced, but also to reach their natural life and to progress towards supernatural life and meet God. So this would be a cooperation between the clergy and the psychotherapists in order to help man as much as possible.

I had a lot of things to tell you, but will end here because I realize it’s like having two lectures, one in Greek and one in English. [Laughter] This requires double time. [Laughter] I’ll finish here. I don’t know if we have time for questions. If not, we can do it at some other point in time, or even tomorrow. [Applause]

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