Barlaamism, drug abuse, ecology, Elder Sophronios of Essex, Elder Sophrony of Essex, Empirical Dogmatics, Illness of the Soul According to the Orthodox Church, mental health, mental illness, Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Noetic Faculty, nous, St. Gregory Palamas, The Spiritual Perfecting of Christians
Illness of the Soul According to the Orthodox Church
Illness of the soul as defined by Orthodox theology is different from illness as defined by medical science and particularly by secular psychotherapy. To enable us to see how the Orthodox Tradition understands illness of the soul we should look at how human beings functioned before the Fall and how they function today, after the Fall.
1. The Function of the Nous – the Noetic Faculty
According to the teaching of the holy Fathers, particularly St John of Damascus, who summed up the whole patristic tradition of Orthodox doctrine, the human soul has two faculties: the rational faculty and the noetic faculty. Through the rational faculty man related to the world with his senses, and through the noetic faculty he had communion and communication with God.
Because of the Fall, however, this noetic faculty, which is also called the nous, was darkened and became entangled with the rational faculty and the passions. According to the Orthodox tradition, if someone’s noetic faculty is not functioning correctly, in the sense that it is not directed towards God, has no experience of God and is identified with the rational faculty and the passions, he is a “psychopath” in the literal meaning of the word: his soul is suffering. He may not be schizophrenic, but if his noetic faculty is not working correctly, Orthodox tradition regards him as sick in soul.
For this noetic faculty, the nous, to work well, the heart must first be purified from passions and the nous illumined. It must rid itself of its grime and darkness. The sign that someone’s nous has been illumined is that he starts to pray without ceasing, by the action of the Holy Spirit. Unless a person’s heart is purified from passions and his nous illumined, his soul is regarded as sick. He may have good and moral thoughts; he may be physically and psychologically fit; he may practise external virtues, like the Pharisee in Christ’s parable; he may be psychologically balanced; but unless he discovers and sets right this noetic faculty so that it functions correctly, as in its natural state, his soul is sick, according to Father John Romanides of blessed memory.
2. Consequences of the Dysfunction of the Nous
If this noetic faculty is not working correctly and our nous is darkened, it has many repercussions in our lives. We should look briefly at some of these consequences.
In this state man loses contact with God and forfeits his relationship with Him. Instead of being focused on God he becomes anthropocentric. His life revolves around himself. He idolises himself and worships himself.
Thus self-love develops, which the Fathers of the Church describe as unreasonable love for the body. From love of self evolve the passions of love of praise, self-indulgence and avarice. These impulses, which in their natural state should be directed towards God, are turned towards nature and other people. Man’s entire inner world falls into disorder. The fear of death emerges, and because of this fear people accumulate material possessions in order to confront death, which comes through illness and old age.
Also, when the nous is not working correctly it cannot direct either the soul or the body. In man’s natural state his soul is nourished through the nous by the uncreated grace of God, and this spiritual experience is transferred to the body, which is in good health and does not let the passions develop. Then the body in turn passes on God’s energy to irrational creation, the whole created world. When, however, the nous falls sick and is deadened, the soul, instead of being nourished by God, sucks the body dry, and the body sucks creation dry, producing the corresponding passions in soul and body but also ecological problems. The equilibrium of body and soul is completely overturned. Man’s body revolts against his soul, and he loses his spiritual freedom. We know that the nous is associated with free-will, so when the nous is blackened and darkened freedom is also distorted. Man is no longer really free, but acts according to the actions and desires of the passions.
This whole inner sickness has consequences for society too. Someone experiencing this sick and unbalanced state within himself becomes unbearable, antagonistic, individualistic and comes into conflict with others. It is impossible for him to be peaceful and sociable.
In this state, sick human beings also produce ecological problems. They do not really love nature. They cannot see the energy of God present within it or perceive the inner essences (logoi) of beings, as taught by the Fathers of the Church. Worst of all, they attempt to exploit the creation through their passions. Obviously excessive consumption creates the need for overproduction, and overproduction, achieved by hormones and various technical means, violates creation, with the result that ecological problems arise. No one can deal with ecological problems without Orthodox psychotherapy.
Thus, according to the Orthodox Tradition, illness starts with the darkening of the nous, then spreads to the soul, the body, society and the entire creation. Thus illness is not an individual event, but something personal, spiritual, social, ecological and universal. Healing cannot therefore be achieved by getting rid of individual states of guilt, but only by a complete transformation of man’s whole being.
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—Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos. The Science of Spiritual Medicine