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Orthodoxy as a therapeutic method

Illness and Cure of the Soul

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

The priest, Fr.Philip, began the conversation.

—In your sermon, he said, you spoke of the three stages of spiritual life, which are purification, illumination and theosis. I think you also write about this in your book. You also said, if I am not mistaken, that through this method of Orthodox piety we are healed and thus can come to know God. This reminds me of what you write in the book “Orthodox Psychotherapy“, that Orthodoxy is a therapeutic treatment and science and only in this way should we look at it. I would like to ask you: How did you come to this conclusion? Is it a teaching of the Holy Fathers or a conclusion and thought of your own? I consider the question absolutely necessary, because we are tired of individual theological thinking. Everyone speculates on theological and spiritual issues to a degree which creates terrible confusion. How did you reach to this conclusion?

How I was led to the conclusion that Orthodoxy is a therapeutic treatment

Met. Hierotheos5—Yes, I really owe you some explanations. I must admit that I was very disappointed of the moralism which prevailed among many Christians. And when I say moralism, I do not at all mean the morality which we respect — because even the body must be sanctified and purified; — I mean the mentality that we must see all topics externally and physically. The Pharisees of the Lord’s time had moral principles and such ideas, yet they were not able to accept Christ. Also, even now I get distressed when I realise that a variety of concepts prevail in the Church. Many theologians develop a certain teaching of Christ or of the Holy Fathers and, without having personal experience, give their own analysis. Thus concepts are created, which in reality “kill” man and even life itself. I am also a man of my time and I have at times faced this situation.

However, when I was still a University student I visited Mount Athos and met sanctified people, who practised the Orthodox Tradition. I clearly saw the difference between the life according to Orthodox Tradition and the life which I had met in other religious circles. Simultaneously, with the help of my Professors at the University, I began studying patristic texts. Furthermore, certain colleaques of mine and myself dealt with the manuscripts of the Sacred Monasteries of the Holy Mountain for a long period. This combination — the study of patristic texts within the atmosphere and life of the deified Athonite Fathers- opened for me new paths of communication with the life of the Church. I began thinking differently. I was particularly aided in this by the study of St. Gregory Palamas. I believe that St. Gregory Palamas is one of those Fathers who can exert a great influence and benefit the Christians today. His theology, which is the theology of the Church, is revealing. From then on, I came to know other sanctified people on the Holy Mountain, but also outside the Holy Mountain — Athonites in their heart and life — and thus I reached the conclusion that Orthodoxy cannot be a philosophy or a barren ethicology, but it is a therapeutic method. It cures man. Orthodox Theology is associated more with Medicine than with philosophy. I shall mention the more characteristic stages of this course of mine.

I studied St. Maximos the Confessor. I was concerned with the topic of love. I wanted to ascertain precisely what true love is, since so many things are being said about it. The 400 chapters of St. Maximos the Confessor concerning love moved my curiosity. But reading the chapters of St. Maximos, I realised that they referred mostly to man’s therapy. St. Maximos the Confessor mentions what man’s nous is, how it becomes ill, how it is cured. He also speaks of the passions and how they are healed; of the movements of man’s soul, which can be according to nature, contrary to nature and above the nature. He connects love with dispassion. I also realised that love “is the offspring of dispassion”; it is the “fire of dispassion,” as St. John the Sinaite says. In order for one to reach Godly love, he must be previously cured. For, on the one hand there is love which seeks its own, that is selfishness, and on the other hand there is love which “does not seek its own” . The whole attempt of the Church is to lead man from selfish and utilitarian love to selfless love. But this presupposes man’s healing.

I was, later, engaged specifically with the Philokalia. As it is known “The Philokalia”, which is a collection of many works of the neptic Fathers, is a work of the Church compiled in its final form by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and the bishop, formerly of Corinth, Makarios Notaras. Its subtitle is: “within which by means of ethical philosophy of praxis and theoria the nous is purified, illumined and perfected”. I saw there that all the texts are therapeutic. They speak of how man’s nous becomes ill and how it is healed.

I read a lot as a student and I have continued to study St. Gregory Palamas, this great hesychast Athonite, whom Tradition has named a theologian and classified him among the four greatest theologians of the Church, along with St. John the Theologian, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. Symeon the New Theologian. In the debate which he had with Barlaam I discerned the development of the way in which we must theologize so as to be saved. He speaks of holy hesychia (stillness) and the method of hesychia. Moreover he stresses, that this is the only therapeutic method which leads to the vision of the uncreated Light, and this entails the knowledge of God and the salvation of man. His homilies, most of them given to his congregation in Thessalonica, are amazing. There he speaks of the rest (Sabbath) of God and man, about the therapy of the passions, noetic prayer, the vision of the uncreated Light, etc.

I also studied a lot St. Gregory the Theologian. His works made me realise that theologians of the Church should be called “those who have reached theoria (vision of God)”, who formerly purified their heart from passions or at least are struggling to purify them. Speaking about the Second Coming, he also writes that God Himself will be “light to the purified in mind” and even more so, “according to their purity” — this is what we call the kingdom of the heavens. And God Himself will be “darkness to those who have blinded their power of intellect; so more so according to their own blindness”. He even names this darkness alienation from God. Therefore, it became clear to me that the priest does not “issue tickets” for man to go to paradise, but cures man , so that God becomes for him light –and this is the kingdom of heavens — and not darkness, which is Hell and alienation from God.

Allow me, though, to say that I realised all these things not only by studying Patristic books. On the one hand I also met spiritual fathers filled with grace, “changed” by the grace of God, and it is through them that one can understand the patristic texts; on the other hand through my pastoral experience. As a spiritual father I see daily that alongside confession cure is also needed. Many people confess, but are not cured. A special method is necessary, so that man can be healed from his passions.

All these things and many other which I cannot mention here made me believe that we must see Orthodoxy as a therapeutic treatment and science.

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Met Hierotheos_antiqued