The Neurobiology of Sin

by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo

Outline of a Proposed Paper for the Orthodox Christian
Conference on Psychology and Psychotherapy.



“Man, with respect to his nature, is most truly said to be neither soul without body, nor…body without soul; but is composed of the union of body and soul into one form of the beautiful” (Saint Methodios of Olympus, On The Resurrection, 1:5)

The purpose of this paper is to examine the roots of what we call “sin” from aArchbishop Lazar Puhalo perspective which takes into account more fully the understanding that “sin” ultimately means the misuse of our energies.

While I realise that, at this conference, I may be preaching to the choir about the need for greater cooperation between clergy and mental health care professionals, I feel that it is necessary for a hierarch of the church to address these matters. Even in our era there are too many superstitions and mythologies surrounding mental health problems. Because of this we have seen some serious tragedies even in the past few years.

Because we use the metaphor of the Church as a spiritual hospital, we need to call upon our clergy to follow the dictum of Hippocrates of Kos who said of the medical profession, “above all do no harm.” If we consider the church to be a spiritual hospital and the priests to be spiritual healers, then surely we must also apply this dictum. A certain amount of knowledge and awareness are necessary in order accomplish this. Allow me to give some examples in which this dictum was most certainly violated as superstition and ignorance prevailed.

 (1) A man with whom I had been at seminary had developed a bi-polar condition. He was, nevertheless, ordained to the priesthood. When he was in a manic phase he caused chaos and disorder. In the depressed stage he caused less damage but did not function well. He went to a spiritual elder who forbade him to see a psychiatrist. The elder told him that psychiatrists are evil and promote Satan. Further the elder assured him that his problem consisted in demonic possession and all he could do was to keep an extreme fast and do many prostrations. This spiritual elder also told the priest’s children that they should never listen to anything their father said because he is possessed by demons. The amazing thing is that the priest has not committed suicide by now.

 (2) You will all be familiar with the event in northern Romania in which a schizophrenic woman was killed by a priest who was attempting to cast out a supposed demon. He had tied her to a cross and placed her in a very cold room. The hapless victim died of hypothermia. Fortunately, in this case the priest was arrested and prosecuted.

 (3) The third incident that I wish to use as a preface to my presentation also involved someone that I knew. He was ordained to the diaconate as was I and another friend. We were shocked to receive news that this mutual friend had attempted suicide and was in hospital. The two of us mutual acquaintances went to see him. After some time he revealed to us the reason for his attempt to take his own life. He was gay and was completely unable to have sexual relations with his wife. One of us asked him why he had got married or at least why he had not discussed the situation with the woman before he married her. He told us that he had discussed his sexuality with the bishop during confession, and the bishop told him that if he got married this would no longer be a problem for him. “Get married and I will ordain you. Don’t worry about your sexuality because it will change once you get married.”

(4) Three years ago, a Russian immigrant was brought to the monastery, in great despair. She had not been able to have Communion since she converted from Communism to Orthodox Christianity. Why? As a fifteen year old girl at a Comsomol Camp (Communist Youth Camp) she had become pregnant. The Commissar of the camp sent her to an abortion ward, telling her she would have to have an abortion. Later, when she converted, she went to confession with a young priest in Pochaev Monastery. He was outraged that she had had an abortion and told her that she must not have Communion up until the time of her death; only then could she have Communion before she died.

We read a special prayer for her so that she would feel that this epitimia had been removed, and gave her Communion on the following Sunday. The young priest was far too rigid, even fanatical, and certainly inexperienced. Had the woman made a free, simple choice on her own to have an abortion, it would have been a different matter, but even then, one must weigh every issue and each person individually according to various circumstances. This woman was being destroyed spiritually, and eventually would have simply given up altogether under the burden of an unjust and destructive guilt.

 (5) There is something else that is, perhaps, worth noting with regard the treatment of clinical depression. While prayer and Holy Communion are certainly helpful in dealing with depressions, the question arises that, in terms of a clinical depression, what physiological matters must we be concerned with. For example, if left without medical intervention, does a person with a clinical depression experience and irreversible atrophy of the hippocampi? What other physiological circumstances must be taken into account? Will prayer alone change the degree of serotonin uptake or alter the dopamine cycle?

We have seen clergy diagnose psychiatric illnesses as “demonic possession,” and prevent sufferers from seeking appropriate medical care.1

 This is because they exteriorize too much of the human condition and do not take into account the unity of soul and body, and the fact that there are often physiological aspects to the manifestations which by themselves could be classified as “sin.” All clergy should learn the boundaries of their competence and feel free to commend a person to a professional who does have competence to deal with their particular issues.

It is these circumstances, too, that I wish to examine briefly in this presentation.




“In what instance can the flesh possibly sin by itself, if it does not have the soul is preceding it and inciting it? For as in the case of a yoke of oxen, if one or the other is loosed from the yoke, neither  can plough alone; so neither can soul or body alone effect anything.” (St Justin the Philosopher, On the Resurrection, 8

            At first, the title, The Neurobiology of Sin may sound peculiar, and yet all sin has a neurobiological component simply because every emotion, passion and action that human being manifest arises from neurobiological processes, no matter by what means one is negatively tempted or altruistically motivated to the good.

            It is said that Anthony the great coined the term “psychotherapy” and the Orthodox church has used the idea of psychotherapy from the beginning. The development of the mystery of confession and repentance had the intention of being a part of the healing process, that is, the spiritual/psychological healing of the individual. This use of confession and repentance depended upon the priest who heard the confession having time to hear a complete confession and talk with the person who was confessing. It also depended on the clergy not having the idea that confession was a mystery of “penance.” Penance essentially means punishment not healing. In Greek, this Mystery was always called “Metanoia,” which means repentance, not penance. In earlier times the word “epitimia” indicated a healing medication rather than a form of self-atonement. Prostrations, for example, were understood to be a type of the death and resurrection of Christ and thus any death and resurrection of the soul, that is, I die with Christ, I rise to life, I die to sin, I rise to Christ. This epitimia is especially healing in leading one to full repentance, as it involves both the body and the soul together. Eventually, an epitome became little more than a callisthenics intended as a form of punishment or self-induced pain. It use of confession in a psychotherapeutic sense seldom ever occurs in our era. While I do not wish to in any way denigrate the psychotherapeutic value of a proper confession and true repentance, it is necessary to look at the reality of how these mysteries or “sacraments” of the church are understood and used over the last few centuries. Most priest have not been trained to try to spot possible physical or psychiatric illnesses during confession, and often inappropriately deal with manifestations that can be classed as sin, but which may arise from such illnesses that need to be recommended to a doctor.

             Since we are discussing the neurobiology of sin, allow me to present the basic definition of sin that I am employing, as well as a brief reflection on an understanding to sin that can be quite destructive. I also wish to clarify the way in which I am using the term neurobiology and how I am proposing to tie it together with an understanding of sin and healing.



 It’s elementary, my dear Watson, “Behaviourism” is obsolete.

       We said earlier that he purpose of this paper is to examine the roots of what we call “sin” from a perspective which takes into account more fully the understanding that “sin” ultimately means the misuse of our energies. Far too often in the teaching of both Orthodox theology and pastoral care, we neglect the foundational concept of the uncreated energy of God and the creative energy of mankind. And yet sin is really the misuse of our energy, and “vice” is the habitual misuse of our energies. It is my contention that priests who hear confession, and Orthodox Christian psychotherapists should give far more attention to this fundamental reality of our theology.

       Too often “sin” is thought of in an abstract manner, as something that comes to us externally, or as a character defect which can be corrected by an act of will or by a repertoire of spiritual exercises. There is no doubt that temptations can come to us from “outside” and that spiritual disciplines are of prime importance in dealing with the misuse of our energies which constitutes “sin.” It can, however, be destructive if we create categorical boundaries in dealing with this spiritual condition of any person. The word “passion” means “suffering”, it does not mean “sin.” This is of great importance because when we are dealing with the category of sin, we are also dealing with inner human suffering. Suffering is something which needs to be healed, not punished. Consistently attaching guilt to human suffering can be extraordinarily destructive.

       “Sin” as it became understood in the post-patristic West,2 is a poor translation of the Greek concept it is supposed to represent. Consequently, it expresses inadequately the Scriptural idea it is used to render. This is no fault of the English language, which is suffi­cient for any theological concept; rather it is a reflection of the theological and, perhaps, linguistic inadequacies of the Scholastic era in the Latin world, from which the concepts were derived.

       The term in Greek means “to fall short of the goal, miss the mark, fall short of one’s destiny.” This term is rendered in Latin as “sons,” “sontis,” which means “guilt; guilty,” and has a forensic significance. It is expressed in English as “sin.” We can see already that there is an important difference here. The terms used in Holy Scripture (‘amartia, etc.) refer to something far greater than the Latin term used to translate it. The Latin term (and the understanding usually given to the word in English) is legalistic and juridical, and understood in a forensic sense.3 Perhaps, also, the absence of an awareness of the meaning of the concept of “energies,” both as Paul uses the word, and as the holy fathers have explicated it, is responsible for the misunderstandings. Sin is the habitual misuse of our energies, and the re-orientation of the soul toward God through Jesus Christ has to do with the struggle to discover and use our energies in a proper manner. In both Orthodox theology and physics, “energy” is about relationship. We know God through His uncreated energy, which we call grace. Our relationships with other human beings involves the proper use of our created energies. Perhaps this is the underlying meaning of Christ’s two great commandments which, He said, are the foundation of all the law and the prophets, “love the Lord your God with your whole being, and your neighbour as yourself.” This can be accomplished only through the proper use of our energies. We can love our neighbour “as ourselves” only if we have empathy for his suffering and sorrow as well as his joy. Legal, juridical guilt is not the issue. It is the sense of alienation from God, from others and even from ourselves that causes the sense of guilt.

     Ironically, the juridical concept of sin also lowers and degrades the concept of morality. If sin is only a violation of the law, then morality consists only in obeying the law. Such morality could not contribute to one’s salvation, but could only render one as hypocritical as the Pharisees and as alienated from Christ as was the rich young ruler (Mt.16:19-12).

     This is not to suggest  that there is no guilt in sin, and we will discuss this later. The essence of sin should also not be understood as a contravention of God’s will in a legalistic sense, nor to fall below a given norm of behaviour. To sin means to violate God’s will in this sense, that “God wills all men to be saved.” ( )  Since the “goal,” “destiny” and “mark” for which man was created is full communion with God, to partake of the Divine Nature (theosis) (2Pet.1:4), sharing in His glory and immortality, then “sin” (as a noun) means to fall short of the destiny of theosis (participation in God). Death, then, may be called “the sin of the world,” since death is both cause and result of missing the goal of the immortality which results from union with God. The Apostle expresses this concept of sin when he says that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rm. 3:23) (that is, “everyone has missed the mark and fallen short of the goal of man’s destiny, which is to participate in the glory of God” — theosis). All mankind, therefore, is “sinful” and each one is a “sinner” because in the life of all and each, they fall short of the destiny for which they were created. “Sins” are those things we do which openly manifest and reinforce our separation from God, or “falling short.”  All sin is “mortal” sin, because all sin separates us from the source of immortality — God. Indeed, even our virtues can be sin if they somehow separate us from God, for instance, through pride taken in our virtues. True faith, then, is an unconditional orientation of the whole person toward the will of God.

    God does not punish man for his sins and sinfulness in this life, or even in the life to come. We forge our own destiny. That which we call “hell” is our own creation. We may experience it already in this life and, by our own choices, experience the fulness of it in the age to come.4 God has set as the destiny of all people; immortality, participation in the glory of the Godhead, the joy of the all-embracing Divine Love. God has set this as our destiny and not only taught us how to attain to it, but in Christ has made it clearly possible for us to arrive at it. Because of his sins, man always falls short of this destiny, but because of Christ Who, as true human, arrived at this destiny and attained to it for all mankind, (Rm.5:12) we can inherit it anyway by choosing to strive for a life in Christ (Rm. 3:24-30).5

     Setting categorical boundaries with regard to behaviour can create many problems. If we adopted such a simplistic notion it would be, in the first place, not an Orthodox concept. In the second place “sin” understood in this way would not be healed but rather corrected by mere punishment and an act of will with no place for grace and the power of repentance as a radical turning around of our perspective and life. We would end up with mere behavioural correction or a “rectification of one’s ideology.” Since, however, sin consists primarily in alienation and the missing of the mark or goal of  “the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” (Phil.3:14) by means of the habitual misuse of our energies, something greater and more organic is involved. “Missing the mark” is not a sufficient definition because it is not the dynamic but a result of something. The dynamic is the misuse of our energies. This involves the whole psychophysical person. We have to look to something more deep, more all encompassing and profound than simply “breaking a law.” Until Allow me to present the concept of sin from which I am drawing my perspective. I will preface this by saying that behaviour that we class as sin can arise from or in conjunction with physiological and psychiatric conditions that cannot be treated by repentance, epitimias or prayer alone. Indeed, in some circumstances, a person cannot even be held “guilty” for such sins. We must also be aware that this habitual misuse of our energies can form psychological, even psychiatric conditions.

Faith and Moralism:

 Moral outrage is often a form of confession because we hate most in others what we fear most in ourselves.

Faith does not consist in coming into an accord with a collection of facts or doctrines; faith is an orientation of the soul toward the will of God. With this concept in mind, we should be alerted that a moralistic ideology about sin is not only inappropriate but even completely negative.

If sin ultimately means alienation from God through the misuse of our eneregies, then its cure, true repentance, must consist in a radical re-orientation of one’s mind, soul and life toward Jesus Christ and His great moral imperatives. However, we are speaking about true morality and not moralism or a moralistic ideology which prevents us from examining psychiatric and physiological causes for behaviour that might be classed as sin. Moralism can be quite destructive. It can act like a narrowing of the intellectual arteries and be manifested in cruel and harmful ways.

Understanding sin as a misuse of our energy makes it clear that we must look for psychological and psychiatric contributions to such behaviour. We cannot always conceive such concepts as “sin” and “sinfulness” in abstract, metaphysical terms. We must be willing to look at neurobiological constructs in making assessments regarding serious matters and those actions and patterns of behaviour which are not successfully dealt with through normal confession and spiritual disciplines. This should in no way be seen as undermining the effectiveness of spiritual disciplines and of proper confession itself. Confession and ordinary counselling can satisfactorily help to resolve most of the issues that confront people on a daily basis. Some temptations, such as marital problems, etc. require more time, but they can often be resolved in dialogue with a wise and experienced priest.



“And this is the course and ground of justice, that since the ac­tions of body and soul are common to both (for what the soul has conceived, the body has carried out), each should come into judgment… for it would seem almost inconsistent that…the mind guilty of a fault shared by another should be subjected to penalty, and the flesh, the author of the evil, should enjoy rest: and that that alone should suffer which had not sinned alone, or should attain to glory not having fought alone, with the help of grace.” (St. Ambrose of Milan)6

             When we suggest that there are neurobiological circumstances underlying inner human suffering, actions and behaviour that we refer to as sin, and psychiatric conditions, we can expect to be criticised by some, even  brutally. Nevertheless we must have the courage to openly discuss such matters. We must think outside of categorical boundaries, not only in the sense of neurobiology but also in the whole scope of human behaviour. In pursuing this we will not find ourselves in discord with the holy fathers.

            We have now developed a knowledge of the operations of the brain and the mind which should preclude the resort of superstitions and mythologies in dealing with the human condition. In my view, it would be patently immoral for us to continue to do so. We are aware that multiple personality disorder does not constitute possession by a legion of demons, but rather can arise from severe childhood abuse. We know that such trauma can actually create alterations in a persons DNA. Exorcisms will not cure this condition. We have discovered that a tumour in the brain can create paedophilia, as in the case reported on 29 July 2003. A normal, respected school teacher suddenly began to have sexual impulses toward young girls and younger women. He spoke about committing rape and had made advances toward his young stepdaughter. Because of severe headaches which occurred while he was in jail awaiting trial, doctors discovered a sizeable tumour pressing on the right frontal lobe. When the tumour was removed, the paedophilia disappeared. There have been other cases, and this indicates that such physiological conditions can affect moral behaviour and judgment. In 2005, a similar case was reported, and this time it was a woman who became compulsively driven toward teenage boys. Similarly, cerebro-spinal lesions, brain tumours or cysts have been found to be responsible for nymphomania in women, and the male equivalent in men. Of course, this is not always the case, but such physiological possibilities should always be kept in mind, and appearances of such problems should be referred to a medical doctor in addition to the prayers and spiritual disciplines applied. Even in ordinary “sins,” one should think of the psychological possibilities. I one had a Greek priest remark sorrowfully that he had a very pious altar boy who had been unable to receive Communion for three whole years because he could not get through an entire year without masturbating at least once (the boy had just turned 16). Aside from being a bit shocked at the naivety of the priest, I asked, “But did you ever ask him the important question about masturbation?” “There is no question. It is a horrible, dirty sin!” He replied. “No, no, there is a very important question. You must always ask if the young person is having violent fantasies while masturbating. Violent fantasies, or fantasies of degradation. In fact, I think these are the only questions. If a young person has violent sexual fantasies while masturbating, you should implore them to discuss this with their doctor. You might, in this way, catch a serious psychiatric issue in its formative stages rather than waiting until he plays out such fantasies later.” The Greek priest could not even understand what I was suggesting.

Passions as inner human suffering

          The word “passion” means suffering, it does not mean “sin.” Suffering is something that needs to be healed or at least alleviated, not punished. The human passions are forms of emotional and psychological suffering that can often be experienced even as physical pain or discomfort. A passion is generally a normal emotion which has become so powerful within one that it begins to cause real suffering. Fulfilling such a passion can become an addiction not so much because it elicits responses from the reward mechanisms in the brain as from the fact that it eases or alleviates the suffering. Sometimes the sinful action resulting from a passion is committed not so much out of desire as from bitterness.

            From a spiritual perspective the most potent method for dealing with a given passion is the use of the “Jesus prayer,” used together with the prayer rope. However, there is a clear biological basis to these passions and some of them require a medical or psychological intervention as well as that which is provided by prayer and other forms of spiritual struggle. There is a danger in the idea that the passions and other human conditions which are deemed “sinful” are simply matters of will or demonic influences. I would like to point out the relationship between the way the Desert Fathers understood the guarding of the mind and the actual physiological process of a stimulus that enters the brain. I think that this is important because orthodoxy does not accept an anthropological dualism between soul and body. Moreover, when we become aware of this relationship we are better prepared to encourage a cooperation between the priests and mental health care providers. We are also better prepared, as priests, to guide the people in their struggles.

            Briefly, the Desert Fathers taught us that when a temptation enters the mind it is nothing, it is not a sin and is not yet even a thought. However, this temptation then passes through a series of stases in which we first begin to become cognisant of it and then become aware, interpret, come to an understanding of it, and then either accept or reject this thought. If we accept a temptation then it becomes a mental sin. We will begin to take pleasure in this thought; it is now fully manifested as a sinful action even if we do not fulfil the temptation physically (Mt.5:28). The next step is putting this in context and setting it in memory. We need to fully bring our conscience into play in this step. If we commit this thought or temptation to our memory as something pleasant and to be repeated, we can build it up in strength so that it becomes an addiction. It can also then become a compulsion and manifest itself in very destructive ways. We might see some of the most terrible manifestations of this principle among what the police refer to as “progressive skinners,” a behavioural evolution among paedophiles in which they progress from child pornography to active abuse to killing, sometimes dismembering their victims.

            Now let us compare these schemata with what actually does take place. Briefly, when a stimulus enters the brain goes to the hypothalamus. From there the signal goes to the amygdala region. This occurs without any thought and the reason for this is that an instant reaction may be necessary without any time for reasoning. This is what the holy Fathers meant when they said that this initial signal was not sin, really nothing. Next the stimulus proceeds through the regions of the neo-cortex, and we find the order to be fairly close to what the Desert Fathers understood. While we will assert that the conscience must be brought into play in this process, we will not define the conscience at this time. At the end of this process, when the stimulus is being prepared for long-term memory potentiation in the hippocampi, we should work to train ourselves to have reference to our conscience during this process also.

            We can see that there is a clear neurobiological element in what we call temptation and in how we decide to respond to this temptation. This will be true of everything that we refer to as “sin.” Let us look briefly at some other common threads in this. The end of the system of development for a temptation, as expressed by the Desert Fathers is the frontal lobe. This is the area of the brain that gives us control, regulating our behaviour and making it possible for us to postpone gratification. In using the prayer for the “guarding of the mind,” we are striving to give this rational area of the brain dominance over the emotional brain. Since we humans have a “bidirectional neural system,” we are capable of doing this. In ordinary neurobiology we will recognise this same feature with regard to the frontal lobe. I would like to suggest that the early fathers had some vague notion about what we call “neuroplasticity,” and had an idea the focussed use of the Jesus Prayer actually helped to retrain elements of the mind. They would not have held any such concepts in these terms, but there was some understanding that changes in the “mind” could be made. It seems that this was forgotten by many in later times, and counting the knots on the rope became more important than what had been called by the early fathers “mental work.”  While it may not be necessary for the average believer to understand this, it is helpful to know what we are trying to accomplish in a physiological sense. Some clergy and faithful are concerned that when something involves ordinary physical processes in the body this makes them unspiritual. Many people wish to divorce the spiritual from the physical, but this is Gnosticism and not Christianity. The soul and the body always work together. One reason that many teenagers lose control in regulating their behaviour and in modulating gratification is that the mylenisation in the frontal lobe is not complete until the mid-20s. Consequently, the full function of this regulatory area of the brain does not fully functioning. The prayer of the “guarding of the mind” is designed to help us strengthen this area of the brain. Of course there are many other aspects to the guarding of the mind but this one is quite significant. In this regard, it is helpful if a spiritual father takes this into account in giving an epitimia in confession.

            Many times compulsive “sins” need psychological and/or psychiatric intervention in resolving problems which are neurobiological. About 12 years ago a lengthy research project was conducted at the University of British Colombia into the problem of kleptomania – not the kind practised by governments but the kind that form an obsessive-compulsive disorder. fMRI scans used in this research demonstrated an area of the brain which, in those who suffer from kleptomania, was over-firing and receiving extra glucose. At the end of a successful therapy, this area of the brain was no longer overdosing in glucose and over-firing. In this case it is doubtful that spiritual exercises alone could have helped much in defeating this “sin.”


            Sexuality and sexual orientations are another set of issues which need to be examined carefully. This is also an area that is heavily clouded by fear, ideology and sometimes real anger. These emotions often prevent sincere, scientific and productive discussions about the matter.

            The recent incident with Olympic athlete Caster Semenya brings this to the forefront in a dramatic way. The arguments about whether sexual orientation is genetic or “chosen” can hardly be tenable in such a case. Ms Semenya is quite simply both male and female. She has both ovaries and male testicles, although both are concealed inside her body. We must also come to grips with the reality of transgendered people because this situation is a valid clinical condition. The question and a answers cannot be dealt with on the basis of erroneous “Behaviourism” or knowledge that we did not have when opinions were formed about it. We are now aware that phtalates and other pseudo-estrogens feminise male foetuses while still in the womb. It is generally forgotten, when speaking of environmental effects, that the womb is an environment. We must take the womb into account when we are speaking about environmental effects and stimuli. Since we know that about 30,000 babies are born each year with an indefinite gender, and since, at least in Canada, transgender is understood as a true clinical condition (gender harmonisation surgery is covered by the Health Care system), we need to take these matter seriously rather than risking driving someone to suicide. This reality is exacerbated by various pollutants such as pseudo-estrogens. I have seen this suicide outcome a few times. Theologically, there are two clear-cut and definite genders. In reality and in medicine, this is not the case. While many religious people are deeply disturbed by the fact that “female” is the default gender and the default brain wiring, it is nonetheless the case. Things can go quite amiss in an XY chromosome foetus as the Wolffian Duct begins to express itself. Sever androgen insensitivity syndrome (and CAIS) is a major one, and we do not even know all the consequences of simple and moderate CAIS. There are simply too many unanswered questions about such things as premature stop codons7 and frameshift mutations relating the Wolffian Duct to allow us to fall into ideological or dogmatic pronouncements about gender variations. It may be that looking for same-sex orientations in brain structures should begin in the Wolffian Duct rather than only in the brain. The very possibility that there is a neurobiological factor in sexual orientation should alert us that we need to be extremely careful in how we approach the subject, and that ideologies simply will not do.

            There are many debates about what kind of human conditions and behaviour are genetic. This debate includes various forms of mental illness and physical disabilities. At one time, almost any mental illness would be thought of as a demonic possession and Down’s syndrome children were often killed because they were considered to be either a bad omen or a demonic replacement. In ancient Rome, a child born with either indefinite gender or dual gender was considered to be a bad omen and was drowned. Many of the debates about what is and is not genetic display an ignorance about the way genes work. Let’s take the case of cystic fibrosis, for example. This is clearly a genetic condition, and yet there is no gene that exists for the purpose of producing cystic fibrosis. This does not even mean that one of the parents had this illness dormant within them. In fact there is a gene which is supposed to produce a protein specific for an intercellular pump, regulating the salinity within cells. If that gene is either malfunctioning or has not been activated by an epigenetic switch then the body will begin to produce and build up mucus deposits which will eventually suffocate the victim. The gene does not create cystic fibrosis, it simply does not produce a protein which it is supposed to produce. The absence of that protein creates a situation in which cystic fibrosis develops. Consequently, arguments about what is and is not genetic, unless they are carried out among highly qualified professionals are useless and often shaped by ideologies.


            The reward centres in the brain not only give pleasure when we receive a special gift or engage in some normally gratifying act. The reward centre can also produce this sensation when we get revenge or see someone we dislike fail or suffer; we can receive pleasure from this same brain area if we have spread malicious gossip or slander and it has been effective. It is this area of the brain which leads us into addictions. The “prayer of the guarding of the mind” has taken this into account although it does not define long-term memory potentiation (some the early monastics would have had no way of identifying). This is why the “Jesus prayer” with the prayer rope can be so effective in struggling with addictions when it is used in conjunction with theraphy. I have found it to be most helpful in cases where married men have become addicted to Internet pornography. But, of course, I advise them to also install “NetNanny” on their computers and get rid of their usernames and passwords. Talk theraphy is still a necessity in all these matters.

 Hyperreligiosity, extreme spirituality
and Spiritual Delusion (plani; prelest):

             Those of us who have dealt with sufferers from schizophrenia are well aware that, in a florid state, these people can be hyperspritual, and sometimes can be quite convincing and even sound wise and patristic. Indeed, I have seen some evidence that those who go to Mount Athos and other monastic enclaves return with their spiritual agendas having be set by a florid schizophrenic who appeared to be an Elder. Hyperreligiosity and extreme spirituality can often arise from an overactive temporal lobe or angular gyrus. This is almost certainly the source of the spiritual delusion that we call plani or prelest. The are all situations that require interventions and therapy of one form or another. Hyperreligiosity can often pose not only a mental, but a physical danger to others, as we have seen so often in the past. Jonestown is but one example, but we have seen incidents of a parent killing their entire family in the belief that they were saving them from Antichrist or from spiritual disaster. These conditions cannot be divorced from  neurobiological circumstances and require psychiatric intervention as well as prayer and counselling within the Church.


     I do not intend to discuss the DMN beyond saying that it is a significant and largely unexplored aspect of neuro-activity which may hold the answer to many behavioural issues, and we need to take it into account and follow developments in research about this construct.


     Finally, I want to invite attention to something that you are all aware of. The profound psychological damage that misplaced and chronic guilt can cause. We do have to be careful not to be extreme in dealing with the confessions of the faithful. What are often referred to as “guilt complexes” can be the result of patent spiritual abuse by Elders, spiritual fathers and confessors. Realising that one is guilty of something is one thing, having this turned into a neurosis is quite another. Our role is existential. We should try to help a person take responsibility for those things which they can actually be responsible for, not crush their personhood with fears and complexes that make them psychologically ill. We know of many cases in ascetic literature where an unhealthy, neurotic striving for self-atonement tears a persons mind. The idea that one has committed a sin which God cannot forgive unless we inflict either physical or emotional suffering on ourselves is in itself an illness that needs to be healed, although we do have Elders who encourage the illness. We have, even in our own era, learned that some spiritual fathers are recommending a form of self flagellation as a mode of spiritual struggle. However, self-flagellation is ultimately just another form of masturbation and, if habitually practised, can lead to it becoming a form of sexual addiction. Spiritual abuse is a form of malpractice and should be treated as such. This is most evident in the occasions when a Gnostic view of marriage is taught and imposed on a couple by means of spiritual authority, leading to divorces, anger, adultery and deformed marriages.


  1. Another situation that priest should be carefully aware of is the manipulative skills on many persons with a mental illness. It is very difficult even for a trained person to avoid being manipulated in this way. In illnesses such as borderline personality disorder for example, the priest can really do nothing to help effect a change or cure for the person. The best we can do is to be supportive on the person’s primary care giver, and encourage the very few and arduous forms of psychotherapy that are available such as dialectic therapy. In fact, we seem to be encountering an increasing number of such cases.


  1. The ancient Church fathers in the West had the same understanding of these matters as did the holy fathers in the East. It was only with the acceptance of Augustinian neo-Platonism and Aristotelian rationalism (coupled with certain Gnostic influences) that heretical concepts of these matters began to shape the Latin and later Protestant understandings. See, for example, Michael Azkoul, Ye Are Gods, Synaxis Press (2004).


  1. The secondary meanings of the words occurring in the Masoaritic text of the Hebrew Scripture (O.T.) notwithstanding, there is no forensic concept in the ideas of sin expressed in Scripture.


  1. See St. Mark of Ephesus, Ten Refutations, (see SBO, pp – ); Romanides, John, Dogmatiki kai Symboliki Theologia tis Orthodoxon Katholikis Ekklesias (pp.13-14); Kalomiros, Alexandre The River of Fire (St. Nectarios Press). On the actual nature of hell and punishment, see The Nature of Heaven and Hell According to the Holy Fathers (Synaxis Press).


  1. KJV, etc., translates incorrectly. The following is a correct rendering of the text: “All have sinned, falling short of the glory of God, but are made righteous freely by His Grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. God presented Him as a sacrifice to make us one (with Himself) through faith in His Blood. He did this to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His Divine forbearance, He overlooked all the sins which had previously occurred. This He did to demonstrate at the present time that He is righteous and the One Who bestows righteousness upon the one who has faith in Jesus. What then becomes of our prideful boasting? It is ruled out. On what principle? Good works? No, but on the principle of faith. For we maintain that a man is righteous by faith apart from works of the law.” (Rm. 3:23-28).


  1. On Belief in The Resurrection, para.88.


  1. Stop codons are nucleotides within messenger RNA that signal terminations of transcriptions. Misfiring stop codons can deprive DNA sequences of essential proteins because segments of the amino acid chain are not being created.



SOURCEClarion Journal Online March 17,  2010



With One Mind, One Heart, One Life in Christ Jesus,
We pray, weep, and repent for all!

Thus is the motto of Romualdian Hermits by which we –at the Novi Kloštar Pustinja are living, and moving and having our being-in-Christ— seek to adhere to. This motto, which aims to represent in words the essence of our monastic life is grounded in an ontological existence in-Christ, the Divine Logos of the Triune God of the Church of authentic Orthodox Christians. From this groundedness in-Christ our particular lives take on the frame of Divine Love as the central figure for us can only be, and indeed is, Christ Himself through Whom we see, though as through glass darkly, every single person among all humanity. If we are true in our relationship with the God-Man, our Divine Saviour, Ha’adam of all adams, our natural response is to pray for all with whom we share our human nature, to weep for the Fallenness of all-Creation that has been placed in such a state of corruption by our earthly patriarch and First-Created Adam, to repent of our own personal falls mindful of our unity in Christ with every other person, creature and created things so that our prayers, our tears and our repentance  are the very fruits of our loving relationship with God that our intercession may be deemed a benefit, not only for ourselves, but for the salvation of all mankind to be granted the grace to see a new Heaven and a new Earth on that Great Day.

What are we doing when we pray for others, when in our prayers we weep repent for others? This act of Christ-like Love is intercession. We have all heard this word, intercession, used by fellow Christians. Maybe we ourselves have used it. But do we really understand what we are committing ourselves to by its use? Do we truly understand what we are promising when we say, “I will pray for you”?

In this article Metropolitan Anthony make clear to us the Truth in what we are promising when we say we shall go before God through prayer and intercede on behalf of someone in need or someone bearing a burden.

Our Intercession Must Become Real and Concrete

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

For eighteen years of my life I have worked in hospital; first as a student, then as a surgeon in the War and in the French resistance movement and then afterwards as a physician. This will explain why, in the course of my address I shall at times use ‘we’ instead of ‘you’. I do not wish you to take it as an offence that I appropriate to myself your virtues and your toils.

I wish to say a few words about a subject which exercises my mind, which is essential to belief in the life of all creatures and particularly to those who are engaged in doing something about the lives of others. I mean ‘Intercession’. In the life of man intercession is something much more essential and much more all-embracing than we normally think and sometimes much more dangerous and risky than we usually imagine. All too often it seems to us that to intercede simply means to make an act of good will or of sincere human concern; to remind God of the needs that he already knows so well, and to prompt him to do that which he is certainly prepared to do without our prompting. So often when we make intercessions we turn to God to tell him what he would tell us, if we had ears to hear and if we had attention and good will. Every word of intercession means that there is a need.

‘Whom shall I send?’ More often than not, when we have mentioned the need and the Lord has answered with this question—there is a silence within us. This is not to say that we are unwilling, but that we are unaware that our intercession must ‘take flesh’ and that it must become real and concrete in an act of self-offering and that our intercession does not end when we have told God of the given need.

I have already said that intercession is dangerous, but I do not mean this in any superstitious sense. The verb ‘to intercede’ comes from the Latin and it means ‘to take a step in order to stand between two conflicting parties’. We all know what it means to take a stand between conflicting parties when to intercede means a rebellion against God. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers: they shall be called the sons of God.’ I am using this translation—which is not usual for you—because this is exactly what the Greek text says—relating the peacemaking not to a general kinship with our Heavenly Father, but to the fact that we are, in Christ, his sons in the fullest and, shall I say again, in the most dangerous sense of the word. When the salvation of the world was at stake, the Son was sent by the Father to suffer and to die.

At the close of the ninth chapter of the Book of Job, in his despair, Job cries out

‘Where is he that will put his hand on my shoulder and on my judge’s shoulder? Who will take this step and stand between us, ready to pay the price of an act of intercession in order to unite us for ever?’

As far as the history of man is concerned, the Son of God—the Word-made-Flesh—paid the price of this act of love. But also in his flesh, in his real and true and perfect humanity, he forgave the enmity that existed, and brought man and God together. When the conflict is not between God and man-the-offender, but between man and the consequences of his godlessness—being severed from oneness with God—then we must be aware that God may also reply ‘Whom shall I send ?’ If we have interceded with sincerity and with truth in our hearts we must be prepared to respond ‘Here am I; send me’. And we must be prepared to go all the way. One of the most shocking things a person can do regarding someone who is in need is to be prepared to go part of the way and then to say ‘I am tired now’, and when I say ‘I am tired’ it always means ‘I am tired of you’. Either it means that the one who needs your help is taking too long to be cured or to be consoled (‘I thought it would be a short illness; an easy experience for me’)—or it means that ‘It is too long for my patience and for my short-lived charity’.

I remember the case of a girl who has an incurable illness for whom we have been praying in our Church for the last 16 years. One of my parishioners once said ‘Could we drop this name which comes back at every service?’ I said ‘You are tired of it; you are tired of hearing this name once a week! Do you not think that the girl may be tired of going downhill 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout these 16 years?’ My parishioner was no worse than any of us. We do this same sort of thing at every moment. Someone comes to us who is in need and we step in, making an explicit act of intercession and then, after a while, this person disappears from our surroundings because we have walked out of his life and yet we continue with our intercessions for him—which is worst of all, because we witness to God that we are aware of the need, we witness that the need is still there and we witness to the fact that we have betrayed a need. We must always remember that an act of intercession may require not only that we should walk the mile that the person begs us to walk with him—but the two miles—the infinity of miles—miles that may lead from this earth to the grave—and beyond. This applies particularly to those who are suffering and ill with incurable diseases and who are gradually moving towards death.

One of the reasons why we so constantly fail when we are confronted with death is that we are usually afraid of saying that death is near. If we are attentive to what is going on in our own hearts, in warning this lonely person of the loneliness of dying, we shall find, if we probe deeply enough, that what we are frightened of is of helping him all the way, from this day forward to the day of the actual death. We are not prepared to die, hour after hour, with this person. Look at the Cross: the Mother of God stood there—she stood there, the Gospels tell us, without a word. An inaction which expresses the same word as she gave when the archangel promised her the birth of a Saviour: ‘Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord’—she stands there offering the last offering which is both him and herself. She lives and dies in him—and with him. This is an act of intercession and which in itself is a purpose for intercession.

But intercession is not only stepping into a situation in order to bear together with God and with the sufferer or with the sinner. God stands at the door and knocks and, because there is no one to open this door, very often things do not happen in the lives of people. You will recall the verse from the Book of Revelation. How can one open the door to God in the problems of life and anguish and death of a man? In the Gospel according to Saint John there is the story of the marriage feast at Cana. There is a strange, a very strange conversation which goes on between Jesus and his mother; a conversation which we usually accept, in spite of its strangeness, because it is part of Holy Scripture. But either it has a meaning or we must recognize its absurdity. ‘They have no wine’ says his mother. ‘What have we got in common, woman; my hour is not yet come.’ The mother turned to the servants ‘Whatsoever he shall tell you, do.’

What does this conversation imply? Without giving you my full reasoning, I should like to tell you how I work it out and interpret it.

They have no wine.’ What she expects is a miracle: that is, an act of divine power, a divine act, that is possible only within the Kingdom of God— and not possible outside this Kingdom. For a miracle is not an act of overpowering by God—that would be absurd—but a miracle is the restoration of the harmony of the Kingdom in a world that surrenders, that becomes supple, obedient and loving. The son asks ‘Why are you asking me? Is it because, in the flesh, you are my mother? If this is the case, the Kingdom is as far from us as ever.’ Motherhood, even if it is a miracle, does not make the Kingdom present all the time and everywhere. ‘My hour is not yet come if you turn to me because you gave birth to me.’ And the mother answers and answers by giving evidence that the Son is within his own Kingdom and answers with the absolute, unlimited, unconditional faith which she showed on the day of the Annunciation. She makes an act of intercession which in itself is an act of faith. Turning to the servants she says ‘Whatsoever he commands you, do it’. When the Son heard this reply, when faith, sustained throughout a life, has established the Kingdom, then the miracle occurs. That which had been said a moment previously ‘My hour has not yet come’ has been blotted out by these words of the mother which shows that the hour of the Kingdom has come.

Such an act of intercession is something each one of us can make for every person in need, whether the person is in search of faith, or whether there is nothing but anguish or untold fear. We can make such an intercession in the Underground and in our homes; among friends and among foes; in the ward and in the operating theatre. We can always say ‘Lord, I believe. Come and stand here and I will stand in worship; I will stand in love; I will stand in obedience—ready to do whatever you tell me.’ That is an act of intercession far beyond the words of intercession which open to a man a gate or a door through which he can enter into any human situation. Such an act of intercession establishes the Kingdom upon earth and makes all miracles possible: but at a cost—the cost of our readiness not to seclude ourselves and not to limit prayer to words—but to make of all our lives an act of worship, and to be ready to pay the cost. We express the divine charity when we turn to God and say ‘Lord, look, there is need’ and the Lord says ‘Go: meet this need with all the love of your heart.’

I would like to finish by saying,

‘Remember, child, all the love of your heart will hardly be sufficient for people to forgive you for the good you are going to do. An act of charity can be cruel and hurtful if not done with a loving and a whole heart and with a whole commitment to God.’

Pastoral Care of the Sick and the Dying.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourosh
August 1974

When I speak of the pastoral care of the sick and dying, I will do so on the basis of various kinds of human experience which I had in my own life: on the one hand, I have been a physician for 15 years; on the other hand, I have been ill for about 25 years, and I have been a priest for an equal number of years. So when I speak of illness or death, I will do so probably at the same time from several angles.

I should like to mention first an old monastic saying that has gone very wrong: The ascetics of the ancient Church used to say: “Remember death!” The saying has remained but the attitude of Christians has changed in a very sad way. There was a time when death was perceived by Christians as the birth into eternal life. There are more than one passages in St. Paul to bring that out. “For me life is Christ and death is a gain”; “I do not want to be divested of temporal life but clothed with eternity”, which is not the attitude of the ordinary Christian of our day. Death is expected with fear, and not only for the right reasons: not because Christians see that beyond death is the final judgement, but because neither the individual Christian nor the Christian community is capable of saying with the Holy Spirit of God: Come, Lord Jesus, and come soon! And yet the thought of death was not meant to be a scare. As I hope to be able to point out, the thought of death is the only way of living up to life with all the greatness of man. As long as a person is not great enough for death, he is too small for life. Let this be a general introduction to what I want to say.

When a person falls ill, several things happen to him. First of all, the person discovers that the body is him or her. Usually, people live as though they were spiritual beings using a body which is of little importance. An illness compels us to recognize that our body is as much ourselves as our souls. The second thing we discover in being ill is that we are completely helpless and depend on the mercy of God and the compassion of other people. The third thing always coming to mind of a sick person is that death may be the final result of the illness. I am, of course, not speaking of trivial illnesses like an ordinary cold. But whenever an illness is severe, or whenever it is not clear what the nature of the illness is, the thought of death comes and it is not always recognized or allowed to come. At this point, what is our pastoral situation?

First of all, our relationship with our people must be such that our coming into a house should be considered as normal and as a joy. There are still too many homes in which the coming of a priest to a sick person is almost like a warning that death may be at the gate. That means that the pastoral care for the sick begins in good health, by establishing a relationship of friendship and simplicity. That includes that we must be able to put into words what the person is afraid of expressing — not in a frightening way, but in a matter that will allow the person to face up to all his problems. I remember a hospital chaplain, during the war, who used the illness of people to frighten them into a return to religion. This is not to be done. But we must have the courage and the tact to enable a sick person to speak of his fears, because one of the greatest difficulties for him lies in the isolation which the fear of speech creates. There are many persons thinking that they are afflicted with a mortal illness who dare not ask the question because they are afraid of the answer. A first visit to a sick person could be a beginning of truth. First of all, the person to whom you have come needs to be recognized with interest and concern. There is nothing so destructive for the spiritual condition of a person as the visit of a priest who comes, sits down and looks at his watch. You may be in a hurry, you may be going to another place, but the person with whom you are must feel that all the time you are with him or her, you think of no one and nothing else. The very thing you must learn is to look at the person and to listen to the person. During the whole conversation be aware not only of the words spoken but of the expression of the eyes, of the face and of the voice. You may well hear very courageous words spoken in a very frightened tone of voice, and we must be able to answer the fear or the question behind the words, and not only the words spoken. According to the kind of relationship we have with this person, we can act in different ways: If we know the person well enough, we may say: “No, be truthful, do not play the comedy with me. Let us speak simply: you are afraid — what is the matter?” If we know the person less or if the relationship is not deep enough, we must find a way of conveying our understanding without hurting the person.

I remember having visited a very frightened person who resisted every attempt at simplicity or directness. Then I used a strategy: I said to this person that it was wonderful that there was no danger of death or severe illness in her case. And then in the course of the conversation, I told her of my mother’ s death. The person in my presence was ill with cancer as my mother had been. We spoke a long time about everything that had been my experience with my mother. And in the end this person said to me: “Do you think I could face death the way your mother did?” And then we could speak of her and not of my mother.

There are people who are aware that their illness is severe and may lead to death: they have got problems of life, are afraid for their families and are concerned for their work. They always fight to get out of hospital or out of bed as soon as possible. And one of the things we should do is to convince them to be still and quiet. I remember a man who was in this condition and said to me: “I must get well, I have so much to do in life!” I remarked to him that in the course of the last ten years he had been telling me all the time how much he wished he had a few weeks to do nothing except to be. “You never did anything yourself to obtain these weeks; God has given them to you, take them!” “But how shall I use them?”, he said. “Just be still, be calm, be peaceful.” And then we began to speak of the contents of these weeks. This man was to die within a few months. He did not know that yet, but I knew. I pointed out to him that health or life or death depend very much on moral and psychological factors — that there are not only psycho-somatic illnesses, but that we have within ourselves mental situations that are killing: for instance hatred, bitterness, guilt; and I suggested to him that if he wanted to live and to be whole, he should resolve all these problems and give his body to the doctors who would do all the necessary for him. So for weeks on end we went into all his present and his past. He discovered that he had a bad relationship with his sister, that he had a bitter feeling about years past, that he had a sense of guilt about things done. Gradually we worked together to resolve each of these problems of the present and the past. He made his peace with God, he made his peace with all the people who were accessible to him; and then he made his peace with all his past, with people he could no longer attain. And one could see that step by step his soul that had been heavy and repressed began to come to life like grass when rain is pouring on it. Yet in the meantime his body was dying out. He had become terribly thin and weak, and at the moment when he could no longer get out of his bed, he said to me: “It is extraordinary, my body is dying and yet I have never felt so intensely alive’. He had become aware of the fact that the life that was within him did not depend on the condition of his body. And when at that point we began to speak of death, he smiled and said: “But when my body dies, life cannot be taken away from me. The life I feel in me is not rooted in my body.”

From this I would like to draw one or two conclusions: Preparing someone for death is always a mistake. One must prepare people for life. It is only when someone has been brought to understand the abundance of life — the fact that life is rooted in God, and not in one’s body — that he can face death. And this preparation for death in terms of life must begin soon. We must realise that we are all afflicted with a mortal illness which is called mortality. And the sooner we realise that we are dying people, and yet that death has no power over us, the better. Now, there is a reason why one should prepare for death early in life: There is a moment in life which depends either on age or health, when we begin to feel that our body is decaying, that our physical strength is going, that our mind is no longer as al… (?) as it was, that our feelings may not be as live as they were in our youth. At that moment, there is a danger of confusing death with decay; to imagine that death is the ultimate result of a gradual decay and that death is really final destruction. If we think of death when we are a great deal younger, when death is not yet at work in our bodies, we can face it as a challenge of life. I remember my father telling me: “Whether you are alive or dead, does not matter; what matters is whether you are prepared to live for and to die for.” It is not life or death: it is the content of life and the challenge of death that matter. There is another saying my father’s: “Wait for your death as a young man waits for his fiancée!” That is the preparation that means facing life with ultimate daring and courage. It is an attitude which means that there are values so great that death is nothing compared them. In terms of a believer, it would mean love — the love of God, the love of neighbour. In secular terms it may be an ideal. Anything which we are prepared to serve and not to use can give us enough greatness to face death.

I think these are the main principles of our approach to a pastoral meeting the sick and dying. Of course, there is a great deal more to be said about various situations, but here are the basic principles. It is by teaching people to live in the full measure of God’s life and the whole scale of the greatness of man, we can help a person to face death after he has faced life. People who are afraid or incapable of facing life creatively and daringly, cannot be expected to face death creatively and victoriously. But at the same time, it is only facing death the way we face it — that can give us the certainty to be able to face life up the last measure of risk, and this is what we are called to do: to have such possession of life and death that we can say with St. Paul: “To live for me is Christ and to die is a gain.”

Answer to questions in the discussion, following the lecture:

The SACRAMENT OF UNCTION is not specifically a sacrament for the healing of body alone. If you look at the presuppositions, you see that a person should make a full confession of all his life. And a confession of life does not mean simply to give you a list of everything happened in the course of the last 60 years. It means going through a whole process of clearing away all the wrong there is. The prayers of the Service of Unction make it clear that we expect the healing of the soul that will overflow, if God wills, into the healing of the body. I think that the use of the Sacrament of Anointing for nothing else but a possible healing of the body is a mistake: it is not a form of clerical medicine. It is a real act of pastoral care. We may discover in the process of preparing the person helping him to reach again wholeness and integrity of soul and spirit, that he or she may say: “I feel so transformed that it does not matter to me any more whether I live or die, whether I am healed physically or not.”


Pastoral Counselling of the Sick

by Alexandru Mălureanu


In this article with the title: “Pastoral Counselling of the sick” (The author) will present the meaning of Pastoral counselling, a unique form of
counselling which uses spiritual and psychological resources for healing the persons who are in existential crisis. Pastoral counselling is necessary for finding possible solutions in order to acquire the balance of life, in relation with God, with other people and with the social environment.

(The author’s) interest was to find out what the Romanian Orthodox Church could learn from the other Churches in Lausanne (Switzerland), who have already worked out a detailed Pastoral counselling program for the sick in order to offer religious assistance to the people. Therefore he analysed the services of the Ecumenical Chaplaincy of CHUV for the spiritual care of the patients and compared this with the services of the chaplains for the Pastoral counselling of the sick in the Religious Assistance Service of the hospitals in the Romanian Orthodox Church.

The main conclusion is that also in the Romanian Orthodox Church it might be important to develop ecumenical cooperation between confessions recognized by the Romanian Government. This could provide some unique opportunities for sharing and exchanging experiences and for mutual learning in the Pastoral counselling of the sick.

Access this article here