The Meaning and Method of Healing in the Orthodox Church
The Prophets and the righteous of the old Testament, like the Apostles and saints of the New Testament, understood and confirmed by their own experience that, when someone is healed, that is to say, when he is freed from selfishness, acquires love for God and his fellow human beings, and receives the energies of God, a place is discovered in his heart in which he feels a burning sensation, a movement, a divine joy, an intense spiritual longing. They called this place “the heart” and the energy expressed within it “the noetic faculty” or “nous”, according to Father John Romanides. This discovery is a matter of living experience, not of philosophical musing or speculation. Within the heart, initially in the bodily organ and later in the deep or “spiritual” heart, the saints hear unceasing noetic prayer. There they perceive their encounter with God; there they sense radiance and illumination. This is the nous, also called the noetic faculty.
In order to attain to the revelation of this noetic faculty, through which we can pray without ceasing, our heart must first be purified of passions. We must be freed from self-love and acquire love for God and our fellow human beings.
I shall attempt to describe as simply as I can the method by which man’s healing is accomplished in the Orthodox Church. Here we should emphasise once again that Orthodox psychotherapy is not just a psychological treatment for the individual, but the regeneration of the whole person, made up of soul and body.
The Method of Healing
First of all, someone who wants to be healed must belong to, and be united with, the Church in its diverse manifestations and forms. There are various autocephalous local Churches which are united among themselves, as the Orthodox Church is indivisibly divided into different communities. Each community is not a fragment of the Church, but the whole Church in miniature. The Church community actually functions as a therapeutic community through the Sacraments and asceticism. Within it the Sacraments are celebrated and act. There is a spiritual father and spiritual brethren. A therapeutic method is practised in the Church based on the sacred dogmas and Canons. These dogmas are not mere philosophical tenets but revealed truths, which Christians ought to experience personally. This experience is gained through the Church’s particular method, as clearly expressed in its sacred Canons. Within this spiritual community human beings can be healed and restored to their original state.
To make this clearer I shall set out some essential elements that throw light on this healing process.
Firstly, the Church has the Sacraments of Baptism, Chrismation, Holy Communion and Confession.
Baptism grafts a person into the Body of Christ, so that he becomes a member of this glorious body. Before Baptism, however, comes catechism, which is not theoretical teaching about the Christian faith but the purification of the heart from passions and the elimination of all satanic energies from the heart. That is why the exorcisms are read during the period of catechism. Once a Christian has been baptised and his heart has been cleansed from passions, he receives the holy Chrism and thus becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit. His nous is discovered and prays uninterruptedly in his heart. At the same time, through the Sacrament of the Divine Eucharist the Christian partakes of the Body and Blood of Christ. In this state he may, if God so wills, attain to theoria of the uncreated Light, which is a sign that someone has been healed, because then he experiences deification.
The Sacraments must be linked with asceticism, which is our effort to do God’s will. While practising asceticism a person restricts his thoughts to his rational faculty and does not allow them to descend to the place of the heart, to the passible part of the soul (its appetitive and incensive aspects). He also tries to practise rational prayer, saying “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me.” Then there is a moment when the Holy Spirit comes, and the Holy Spirit Himself transforms rational prayer into noetic prayer of the heart.
The second point is that, although the grace of the Triune God effects this healing through the Sacraments, the experienced spiritual guide – the spiritual father and teacher – assists in this process. According to the tradition of the Church, as expressed by St Dionysios the Areopagite and subsequently taught by St Maximos the Confessor, St. Symeon the New Theologian, St Nikitas Stithatos and other later Fathers, the three fundamental Sacraments of the spiritual life (Baptism, Chrismation and Holy Communion) are linked with the three stages of the spiritual life (purification, illumination and deification), as well as with the three degrees of priesthood (Deacon, Priest and Bishop). We therefore see the following associations: Baptism – purification – Deacon; Chrismation – illumination – Priest; and Holy Communion – deification – Bishop.
In this context we can say that the Church is not a religious organisation, nor a social or ethical system, but a spiritual hospital that heals man’s spiritual illnesses. Within the Church our relationships with ourselves, God, our fellow human beings and creation are restored. This is what we mean by healing.
It should be noted that when someone is deified and acquires “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16), he can distinguish between created and uncreated energies, between thoughts inspired by God and those coming from the devil. The bearers of the Orthodox Tradition know very well when a state or an experience is the work of divine grace, when it is the work of the devil and when it is a physical illness. This distinction between created and uncreated things is a matter of Orthodox theology. An Orthodox theologian is someone who can discern spirits, “whether they are of God”, as St John the Evangelist says (1 John 4:1). Hence theologians are identified with spiritual fathers in the Orthodox Tradition.
When someone practices Orthodox hesychasm, as lived by the deified Fathers, he is purified from passions by the action of divine grace, attains to the illumination of the nous and, to differing degrees and in a variety of ways, reaches deification. Then he is set free from all the distinctions connected with man’s fallen state. He acquires true virginity, which is not a suspension of bodily energies but an experience of intense longing for God. He becomes humble and simple, because his being is not fragmented. He lives in true poverty, because he reverts to the original state of equality and common ownership that prevailed in Paradise. He rejects every human distinction based on the passions, including nationalism. He loves his country, but he transcends it, because he regards the fellowship of the saints and the life to come as his true homeland. He looks towards the city to come and is not restricted to any permanent city.
Source: Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos. “The Science of Spiritual Medicine” Orthodox Psychotherapy in Action: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2010.