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The value of self-reproach

by Hieromonk Alexios

 Alongside recalling Divine Providence, ancient monastics also advise the faithful to use self-reproach as a basic interpretive principle in order to avoid judging others who sin as well as to prevent agitation, anger, and pride. For example, when Saint Dorotheos would notice a brother failing in some way to lead a Christian life, he would say to himself, “Woe is me, him today and surely me tomorrow.” Thus, whenever observation would bring harm rather than benefit, the saint would deftly switch from a critical observer mode to a repentant introspective frame of mind. He formulated a rather simple algorithm for interpreting life’s vicissitudes: “If something good takes place, it is by God’s providence [oikonomia]; if something bad happens, it is on account of our sins.” As in other instances in the works of Abba Dorotheos, the aim of this rubric is not to provide simplistic answers to life’s complexities, but to encourage traits of gratitude and humility at all times through what cognitive theorists would describe as a fundamental change in core beliefs or schemata about the self and the outside world. In the case of insults and perceived wrongs, Abba Isaiah would tell monks to search their conscience whenever a brother speaks unkindly to them, for somewhere in God’s eyes they have sinned.  As a rule of thumb, Elder Païsios counsels believers to always consider how much they are at fault, rather than how much their neighbor has wronged them.  Saint John Cassian suggests that the irritated ascetic remind himself how he had planned to get the better of all his bad qualities and how a gentle breeze caused by a troubling word shook his entire house of virtue. In other words, the disturbing word becomes an opportunity for humble honesty that is the foundation of genuine self-knowledge. Abba Dorotheos likewise enjoins the grieved to stop brooding over their grievances and refocus on silence, heartfelt repentance, and prayer.

Of course, it can be challenging for people to reproach themselves when a reasonable assessment of a situation clearly indicates that they are innocent. Saint Nicodemos the Hagiorite offers a number of aids for self-reproach in such instances. For example, he suggests that believers bring to mind other faults where they were clearly responsible and to view the present difficulty as a penance imposed for them. Alternatively, they can recall that tribulations form the entryway to the kingdom of heaven, that adversities line the path of Christ and his friends, and that everything that happens on life’s journey is permitted by God.  Consideration of the opposite point of view. Sometimes in lieu of self-reproach, the church fathers try to help the faithful to cultivate a Christian perspective by exhaustively examining an alternative point of view or the other side of an argument. Citing a saying attributed to Hippocrates, Saint Jerome notes, “Opposites are the remedies for opposites.”

This principle lies at the root of the patristic practice of listing a plurality of counter-arguments so that believers might be persuaded that their misguided convictions or conclusions are mistaken. For example, in the case of thoughts of despair, Saint Nicodemos the Hagiorite arms the spiritual father with the following arguments to counter despondent ruminations: (1) despair over sins ignores the existence of God and in Manichean fashion elevates vice to the rank of deity; (2) it fails to draw the conclusion that the Lord still accepts the sinner from the fact that the sinner is still alive; (3) despair is a trait of the devil, not of a struggling Christian; and (4) it is inconsistent with the witness of scripture that clearly narrates how the Lord accepted sinners of every ilk. In the case of a lack of contrition over sins, the spiritual father counsels the hard-hearted to consider their own responsibility for the loss of grace, for their exile from the blessedness of paradise, and for the decision to follow the path that leads to perdition. In the case of vain thoughts, he advises the careless to consider that one day they will give an account for every idle thought, that vain musings crowd out salvific reflections, and that pointless reverie often harbors bad thoughts in nascent form. Consideration of the perspective and plight of others. At other times, the holy fathers assist believers in acquiring a new way of interpreting painful situations by having them step back from their own problems and consider the plight of others. This basically Stoic approach naturally undercuts egocentric beliefs and tendencies. The Christian redaction of The Encheiridion provides a classic example: “If someone else’s servant breaks a cup, the answer is ready: those things happen. When you break your own cup, you should likewise respond as though someone else’s cup were broken, and then react in like manner with more important things.” Detachment and distancing from sources of distress naturally moderate emotional reactions and allow for a rational and objective  response to problems. Although the church fathers do not reject this humanistic philosophical approach, they always supplement it with faith in Divine Providence. For example, Saint Basil the Great comforted a friend whose son had died, by urging him stoically to remind himself that “life is full of similar misfortunes” and as a Christian to believe that “earth has not hidden our beloved, but heaven has received him.” Later, the saint instructed his friend’s wife to think about others who have passed through such trials victoriously, on the inevitable mortality of all human beings, and the shining example of the grieving who comfort those who mourn.

In a similar vein, Saint Ambrose advised those who lament the loss of a loved one to remind themselves not only that death is common to all and often a release from the miseries of this world, but also that the grace of the Resurrection together with the assurance that nothing perishes in death, can assuage every grief and dispel every sorrow. Saint Theodore the Studite similarly counseled his banished friend Thomas to consider how all humanity is exiled from paradise into these withering lands [thanatēphoron chōrion], but, nevertheless, the believer like the psalmist dares to hope that the Lord will lead his soul out of prison to confess his name. Finally, Elder Païsios masterfully combined both Stoic distancing and Christian trust in Providence when he noted that the best medicine for our troubles is to consider the greater trials of our neighbor, so that we will thank God for sparing us and have compassion for others. Reflecting on the last judgment and eternity. Occasionally, some fathers attempt to open believers’ minds to consider the long-term future repercussions of current choices. Although we have already examined this approach in our discussion of goals, we should note its importance in the acquisition of a Christian perspective on reality that affects people’s values and hence their core beliefs about themselves and their world. Cognitive psychologists are not unaware of this fact, for even secular therapists may invoke religious beliefs about the future and the sanctity of life in order to counter suicidal ideation. Saint John Chrysostom repeatedly enjoins believers bravely to endure every trial “and soar above the attack of human ills by the hope in future blessings.” In other words, the faithful are to reframe their interpretation of their situation in eschatological terms. This interpretative framework recasts almsgiving and chastity, so that the balance is tipped away from greed and lust. In the struggle against temptations, the saint suggests that believers picture the judgment seat and repeat to themselves, “There is a resurrection, a judgment, and a scrutiny of our deeds.” This practice not only bridles sinful impulses, it also bolsters beliefs such as “I am responsible for my actions.” Other ascetics also suggest turning to God and bringing to mind the Last Judgment as a way of enfeebling bad thoughts. If the hope of eternal blessings does not provide sufficient motivation, sometimes the threat of punishment can be used to rouse the believer to contend more earnestly. At the very least, such prospects discourage the slothful from looking to death as a release from afflictions, for eternal suffering makes transitory anguish appear milder by comparison.

Considering the future as though it were already the past. At times, the church fathers would help believers to overcome troubling thoughts about the future by suggesting that they mentally project themselves to the time after the feared or desired event has already occurred. For example, Saint Maximus the Confessor approvingly quotes the Sophist Libanius’s axiom as a valuable antidote to sorrow and boredom: “If you wish to live a life without sorrow, regard those things that are going to happen as though they have already taken place.” Saint John Chrysostom makes a similar recommendation when he notes that the believer can douse the desire for glory by imagining that the envied position has already been attained, for afterward it loses its allure. In terms of schema reconstruction, this approach can help a person who defines his worth in terms of acquiring recognition (“If I become a lawyer, a doctor, or teacher, then I will be worthwhile”) to redefine value in theological terms (“All human beings are precious, because they are created in the image of God”). A variation on this approach can also be applied to encourage those in despair after a fall. In that case, however, the fallen are instructed to take courage by reflecting on how, after their restoration to health, they will one day use their experience to rescue others in danger of falling. Thus, they replace their present image of themselves as failures with an image of what they can still become by the grace of God, namely, physicians, beacons, and lamps.

Interestingly, cognitive therapists employ similar tactics to decrease the emotional distress of patients tormented by images of impending danger or failure. For example, anxiety sufferers often imagine a fiasco taking place, such as making a fool of themselves while giving a talk, and stop their fantasy at the point of embarrassment without going any further. The therapist can instruct such patients to imagine how they will feel a month or even a year after the mishap, so that they might gain enough detachment to put their fears in perspective and to see the extent to which they are exaggerating how terrible are the consequences of the worst-case scenario actually transpiring. Cognitive therapists have an arsenal of imagery techniques for dealing with their patients’ images of a feared crisis or terminal condition. In addition to techniques that involve patients jumping ahead in time and coping in their image that we also encounter in patristic texts, therapists also advise their patients to change the way an imagined scene ends, to question what they imagine as though it were an automatic thought, and to follow the imaginary chain of events to their ultimate conclusion.Protestant cognitive therapists sometimes enrich imaging techniques by having their patients imagine that the Lord Jesus is in an imagined scene. For example, people who are facing a difficult task are told to visualize themselves accomplishing the undertaking with Christ by their side. One therapist instructed a patient trying to cope with a tragedy to envision herself as a branch in reference to Christ’s words “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman…I am the vine, ye are the branches.” After this exercise, the  patient reported feeling at peace.

The use of imagery. In the Orthodox Church, the holy icons purify the spiritual vision of those who venerate them with faith and love. Quite naturally, the church fathers would also use verbal icons or metaphors in order to alter spiritually unhealthy perspectives and to foster a Christian outlook. This  practice can be traced back to Christ’s sayings and parables in which he employed metaphor and visual imagery to inspire the faithful to keep the commandments. Those who live according to the beatitudes are commended not as “good people,” but as “the salt of the earth” and “light of the world.”  Saint Theophan the Recluse recommended, “If possible, do not leave a thought naked in reasoned form as it were, but robe it in some sort of image  and then carry it into the head as a constant reminder.” This practice is consistent with the psychological finding that images can directly introduce new patterns into the network of schemata that guide a person’s responses to various situations.

The homilies and correspondence of the holy fathers abound with a forest of images that aim at altering the way believers approach various tasks and sets of circumstances. For instance, Saint John Chrysostom advised those sluggish at prayer to picture the awesome scene of the sacrifice of Abraham, complete with details like the wood, the fire, the knife, and the gates of heaven thrown open. Such images are emotionally and cognitively effective. They not only reshape the faithful’s understanding of the vital significance of prayer and their relationship to God, but also motivate them to strive to make their own prayerful supplications into a living sacrifice to the most High. This same image can also be used to rally those weary in fighting a host of temptations. For example, the saint also noted that although legions of thoughts rose up against Abraham when he was told to sacrifice his beloved son, the patriarch withstood them all and “God from heaven proclaimed him conqueror…the Olympic victor…not in this theater but in the theater of the universe, in the assembly of angels.”

Although believers’ lives may seem to be worlds away from Abraham’s sacrifice, Olympic contests, and the angelic hosts, by faith they find something equally noble in their attempt to draw nigh unto God and thus dare to imitate what their physical eyes have never seen. Images reminiscent of prophetic visions are especially apt at inspiring zeal for spiritual undertakings. For example, Saint Theodore the Studite advised those weary with fighting the thoughts to reframe their view of spiritual warfare by picturing the man of prayer as a fiery cherubim or a many-eyed seraphim who bravely wields the sword of rebuttal against every sinful provocation. Thus, by associating captivating images with spiritual activities, the ancient ascetics could enhance the believer’s convictions about the significance of those activities and thereby ignite zeal for undertaking them.

With full awareness of the leverage that anticipated reward and punishment exert on behavior, the holy fathers also used threatening and enticing images to favorably influence people’s judgment about alternative courses of action. For example, Saint Theophan the Recluse prods negligent believers to behave in a Christian fashion by having them form the threatening image of the sword of truth hanging above them and the chasm of death gaping in front of them. To stir his listeners to almsgiving, Saint John Chrysostom paints an evocative image of the splendors of an earthly ruler and then describes the awe-inspiring magnificence of the King of kings and Lord of lords, so that a desire for unfailing wealth and unfading beauty might become an incentive for virtuous behavior that enriches the soul. Often the images, which the ancient fathers would devise to portray vice, are far from flattering. Saint John Chrysostom once compared people who seek money, rather than the kingdom of heaven, to souls “exceedingly full of stupidity, no different from flies and gnats,” since in their short-sightedness they desire material lead in the presence of spiritual gold. Obviously, to avoid such characterizations, the avaricious believer must rethink basic priorities and aspirations. With similarly vivid depictions, Saint John Chrysostom tried to cultivate self-control in those prone to anger. On the one hand, he portrayed the enraged individual in repugnant terms as a “drunk with protruded eyes in the act of retching, vomiting, erupting, and covering the table with filth avoided by all.” On the other hand, he glowingly depicted the insulted person who keeps silent as a mighty warrior who slays the beast within and is proclaimed victor in the civil war for his heart.

Frequent reflection on such images may serve as deterrents to anger by altering the faithful’s assessment of the impression their anger makes on others and the personal significance of their controlling it. In other words, these images tend to reverse false beliefs about the strength and superiority that angry people dream they possess. If believers can accustom themselves to bring those images to mind at the time of irritation, they can shift their focus and strive to be on guard like sailors who save their ship from sinking by lowering the sails when they feel the winds blustering against their faces or like housekeepers who use fire for cooking and lighting the lamps, but never for setting their homes ablaze. This variety of images gradually restructures believers’ understanding about the use of anger as a response to thwarted desires, unforeseen difficulties, and perceived disparagement by making virtue’s victory over anger their primary desire, objective, and source of self-esteem. The application of biblical parallels to personal experience. One final characteristic method that the fathers so effectively use to reshape an individual’s perspective on his situation is to locate a parallel to his experience in Holy Scripture and consider how the biblical figure responded. For example, the fathers remind the infirm of the much suffering apostles, the sorely tried righteous, and the blessed Timothy who had sickness as a constant companion. As the sick person already resembles the saints in affliction, he needs but their courage and patience in order to resemble them in their virtuous response to suffering as well. Elder Païsios likewise recommended that those going through a trial recall the tribulations of the righteous and how we have made greater mistakes than they did, but suffer far less.  Saint John Chrysostom explicitly refers to the therapeutic value of drawing biblical associations when he comments,  “Remember your Master, and by the remembrance, you have immediately applied the remedy. Remember Paul, reflect that you who are beaten has conquered and the beater is defeated, and in so doing you have completed the cure.”

This cure is a new perspective on a familiar situation or in cognitive terms, the modification of schema about the self and the world. This scriptural approach is especially well suited to encourage those sensitive souls in despair over their sins. For example, Amma Syncletica would remind her nuns that Rahab the prostitute was saved by faith, that Paul the persecutor became an elect vessel, that Matthew the tax collector became an evangelist, and that the murderous thief was the first to open the gates of paradise. Since someone in despair can easily identify with the failures of others, such examples mesh perfectly with his despondent state, and yet they introduce to that state the miracle of repentance and the presence of God that break it wide open by directly modifying core beliefs about the meaning of a person’s view of the past and resolve for the future in terms of his relationship to his Creator and Redeemer. In The Spiritual Meadow, John Moschus relates the account of a monk who was distressed by his struggle with the thoughts and came to the conclusion that he had made a mistake in renouncing the world and that he would not find salvation. He came to an elder who did not directly dispute his thoughts, but had him look back to the time of the exodus and told him, “Know, my brother, that even if we cannot enter the promised land, it is better to let our carcasses fall in the desert, rather than to return to Egypt.”

Finding meaning for his experience in the example from scripture, the brother acquired a new perspective and a more comprehensive schema for understanding his situation, so that he was able to accept his weaknesses, to set more humble goals, and to return to his own struggle with calm determination. In the case of despondency over sins, believers not only have wrong beliefs about the irreversibility of their lapses, but also about God’s disposition toward them. For this reason, Saint John Climacus reminds the repentant that the Lord gave Peter the command to forgive a person who sins seventy times seven, and adds, “He who gave this command to another will himself do far more.”  This assurance in turn counters disbelief in God’s forgiveness. Saint Theodore the Studite likewise suggests that the distraught recall that the Lord loves every human soul and always stretches out his hand toward those who repent.  Saint Symeon the New Theologian advises the downcast to remember that they are not saved by their own accomplishments, but by the grace of God.

Thus, with the assurance of God’s love, with faith in divine forgiveness, and the hope of true repentance, the despondent can acquire the courage to emerge from their slough of despond. In summary, within the believers’ rich and variegated life of ascetic struggle and participation in the Holy Mysteries, they are initiated into teachings and practices that can transfigure their basic perspective vis-à-vis themselves, others, and their world. In particular, the daily struggle for virtue, the practice of cutting off the will, and the prior rehearsal of virtuous responses behaviorally reshape their values and their views about significant details of their lives.  The cultivation of good thoughts concerning the beauties of virtue, the truths of revelation, and the inevitabilities of death and change together with spiritual reading cognitively instill both powerful categories of thought for appraising their situation and inspiring models for imitation. Finally, salvific words from the pulpit (ambon) or the confessional on God’s love and providence, the value of self-reproach, the plight of others, and the Last Judgment as well as the use of imagery and parallels from scripture can provide an epiphany that enables believers to see and interpret their lives in the clear light of Christ. Thus, the faithful who struggle to follow Christ entrust themselves to the Church’s care, and collaborates with the Husbandman of their souls to transform the wilderness of their hearts into gardens where virtue ever blooms.  Beholding the change wrought in their souls, they exclaim with the psalmist’s voice, “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”