Theo-Ontology, Zizioulas & Heidegger

Theo-Ontology: Notes on the Implications of Zizioulas’ Engagement With Heidegger

Marilynn Lawrence, MA (Phil.)


In his essay, “Personhood and Being,” in Being as Communion,[1] John Zizioulas presents an important challenge to the relationship between theology and philosophy, namely, by questioning the use of Heideggerean philosophy for support of patristic theology. His discussion, and tentative conclusion that Heidegger’s philosophy cannot support Trinitarian theology, takes place in a substantial footnote. Certainly, this is not the only, or the most important challenge presented by Zizioulas in this work, but it is in many ways central to his brand of personalism, and deserves further treatment. His comments are particularly worthy of attention in the current climate of post-modern theology, which is largely ‘founded’ on Nietzsche, Heidegger, and their successors such as Jean-Luc Marion.[2] Because he relegates his comments to a footnote, it seems as though Zizioulas is not emphasizing his challenge to the relationship between Heideggerean thought and theology, but is getting it out of the way, so that his readers can dismiss any possible relationship and move on. This note is rather strangely placed given the many parallels throughout his work to Heideggerean concepts, such as the ontological relation/dependency of God and communion and that of Being on Dasein, and the historical analysis of the treatment of person as substance in Western theology.[3]

More recent discussion, such as found in Laurence Paul Hemming’s, Heidegger’s Atheism,[4] argues that certain readings of Heidegger, particularly influenced by Karl Löwith, prematurely closed the door to theological readings and uses of Heidegger’s corpus. For Zizioulas, grounding theology on philosophy is the main problem (*Therapéia Journal editor’s italics). In the climate of contemporary philosophy (largely grounded in issues that have arisen when confronting Heideggerean ideas), a reversal of theo- and onto- prefixes in the uncomfortable discussion between philosophy and theology may not be as far-fetched as previously thought.

Zizioulas’s areas of contention pertain to the concepts of ekstasis, subjectivity, time, and horizon in Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit ontology.* While outlining the series of problems presented by Zizioulas for the use of Heidegger’s program in Being and Time for theology (in Karl Barth and Christos Yannaras, for instance), it is not the scope of this paper to solve these problems or to answer his objections. It is simply my intention to bring Zizioulas’ personalism and his understanding of Trinitarian theology of Orthodoxy to the table of postmodern theo-philosophical discussions that are already largely grounded both on use of, and confrontation with, Heidegger’s philosophy. While Zizioulas’ note on Heidegger seems to take a position that shuts down discussion of the relation of existential-phenomenological ontology and Orthodox theology, it may have the reverse effect of opening up a world of thought.

Taking the position (against earlier interpreters)[5] that Being is not God for Heidegger, and that his criticisms of Christianity as a part of the metaphysical machinery in works such as Introduction to Metaphysics are toward a theology found largely in the Western development of Christian thought (culminating in Scholasticism), I can only wonder what the outcome of Heidegger’s thinking would have been had he been confronted from the outset with a more authentic reading of the Church Fathers, such as that of Zizioulas.

Ecstatic Temporality

Although not posited as central to his own criticism, Zizioulas opens his note[6] with an alignment of the concept of ekstasis in the Church Fathers[7] and in Heidegger:

The concept of ekstasis as an ontological category is found in the mystical Greek Fathers (particularly in the so-called Areopagitical writings and in Maximus the Confessor) and also totally independently in the philosophy of M. Heidegger.[8]

If we are to find any comparison between Heidegger’s Being and Time philosophy and early Christian theology, it will not be in the ekstasis or ecstases of temporality. It is safe to say that Heidegger’s ecstatic temporality is not of the same order as the ekstasis of Maximus. Lack of comparison, however, does not entail incompatibility.

To summarize Heidegger’s position on ekstasis in Division II on “Dasein and Temporality”,[9] our everyday thinking of time as a succession of a series of ‘nows’ as past-present-future, a conception that privileges the Present as a moment on an infinite continuum, is a derived and ‘inauthentic’ (meaning less than what is actually fundamental to our human existence and which makes such concepts possible). We grasp this temporality as an object in which other entities or objects of pastness, presentness, and futureness, appear. This sense of temporality is derived from a more primordial experience of time, with ecstases of temporality that are described as having “the phenomenal characteristic of the ‘coming-towards-oneself, the ‘having-been’ and the ‘letting-oneself-be-encountered-by’.[10] In a lecture series shortly following Being and Time, he refers to these moments of primordial phenomenological time as ‘expectancy’, ‘retention’ and ‘making present’.[11] ‘Expectancy’ is listed first for “[t]he primary meaning of existentiality is the future.”[12] The ekstasis of this temporality is future, since as human beings we can project our wishes, expectations, visions onto a blank screen of possibilities that we recognized as limited by our unknown span of existence in body on earth. Experience of authentic temporality (as a contemplatory vehicle for the authenticity of Dasein) is not attained like a level or step of being, but is a continual effort—choices are made, we create our personal fate in the taut pull between the forgetful automation of inauthentic living and the pull of our mortality and unfulfilled possibility and striving. This being-toward-death need not be morbidity, but can be a gift of positive anxiety and highly personal relating of our potential divine nature and the realization of it through our lives, through our sense of finite worldly time. While I momentarily attribute a value of impoverishment to the inauthentic ‘leveled’ temporality, authentic time in the Heideggerean sense not have an equal and opposite positive value. It is rather an ontological structure that grants free possibility—good or bad. That such a structure is unearthed does not answer why it is, just that the meaning of temporality is care.[13] Zizioulas rather uses theo-ontology to answer the ‘why’ question that the phenomenologist not dare—God as the source of being.

Heidegger contrasts ecstatic temporality in Being and Time with the infinite inauthentic mode of temporality.[14] In Christian theology, the finite and infinite times can be (incorrectly) interpreted as the reverse—infinite as authentic, finite as inauthentic. However, we have two types of ‘infinite’—the ecstatic time-space of the Church Fathers introduces a third temporality—the eternal and divine. Taken by itself, Heidegger’s temporality does not contradict theological temporality because the eternal is not an indifferent flatline extending into the infinite but the Son as the basis of and intrusion into history—a history bursting with kairotic moments of creation, descent, ascent, and salvation.[15] An eternal time beyond our finitude is not impossible in the Heideggerean phenomenology, but inaccessible to the philosopher, insofar as philosophy defines itself by an abysmal gulf between philosophy and faith. However, Dasein’s care as sein-zum-tode may by all rights include, even prioritize, a concern for being-beyond-death. Zizioulas claimed that only theology can treat of the authentic person, for God’s free being as a person gives us our possibility of authentic personhood (freedom).[16] From the access point of Dasein, we move from the infinite, to finite, to eternal. From the top-down theoria of theology, the eternal is ontological starting point. The human person, ontologically granted personhood by God’s being as person, in communion moves from the inauthentic oblivion to authentic participation in the eternal. Faith may emerge as a possibility of Dasein in its authentic finitude. Whether or not faith is to be shunned or set aside by the philosopher depends on her hermeneutic motivation.

While Zizioulas does not elaborate on “ekstasis as an ontological category is found in the mystical Greek Fathers,” we can glean the meaning by looking at God and temporality in the early mystical Maximus. As Hans Urs von Balthasar says of the difficult Centuries on Knowledge:

[T]he Logos appears in the world here only by way of being outside of himself, in a guise that is deceptive, but meant for the world’s instruction; he is ‘Logos in essence, flesh in external appearance.’ (2, 60). The human Christ appears hardly at all.[17]

He also states that for early Maximus:

God is simply above time and the ages, above the movement of the world, above beginning, middle, and end, and therefore God inconceivable, only to be approached through faith (I, 1-10)…[18]

Balthasar is concerned that this ontology presents God as ecstatic to world and time creates a “groundless abyss that separates the absolutely transcendent ‘essence’ of God from the world” and does not account for the Trinitarian entrance of God into time and history. Whether or not he is correct in his interpretation, this example illustrates a perennial problem in Orthodox theology as reflected in the different ontological (and existential) accounts among the church fathers and even within a single thinker such as early and later Maximus. As E. Moore has shown, how the theologian conceives of human freedom, either as “a series of fumbles and false starts” attempting to reach the external God within worldly temporality, or as the “unfolding of an indeterminate history that is the result of free acts of human souls,”[19] is the issue at the heart. The ontological must at some point reach the existential if the questions of Being are to have any meaning for us.

A meeting point may be proposed as such: For Zizioulas’ in his interpretation of the Orthodox faith, God is no Being apart from communion (the ecclesial union of beings-toward-God); for Heidegger in his existential ontology, Being is no Being apart from Dasein, which has the structure of Being-with-others. These statements are not equivalent, but complimentary. Notions that Being is equated with God for Heidegger are convincingly dispelled by Hemming,[20] and we need only quote his 1951 Zurich seminar to ward off any doubt:

Being and God are not identical, and I would never attempt to think the essence of God through being. Some of you perhaps know that I came out of theology, and that I harbor an old love for it and that I have a certain understanding of it. If I were yet to write a theology—to which I sometimes feel inclined—then the word ‘being’ would not be allowed to occur in it.[21]

Unlike the theologian, the philosopher does not have the theoretical commitment to God as the source of Being. However, the philosopher has the advantage of phenomenological access to our relation to and striving toward God through our Being.

We cannot say with any biographical certainty to what extent Heidegger’s phenomenological concepts in Being and Time are derived from his early research in theology (comparisons such as the notion of the Fallenness of Dasein with the primordial Fall of Adam and Eve are made and disputed). We can be sure that the question of God and the divine was in the background of his thought and philosophical career.[22] Regardless of his often silent struggle with theology, Zizioulas’ next statement in his footnote points to a core weakness in Heidegger’s thought in Being and Time for theology. The notion of personhood may have been prematurely shunned due to his (mis)understanding of Person as having the trapping of a static metaphysics and a Cartesian subjectivity. We, however, cannot dismiss the dynamic ontology of Personhood as found in works such as Being as Communion, and are challenged to face the difficulties personalism creates for the philosopher faced with questions about Subject and subjectivity in contemporary Continental philosophy.

Subjectivity, Person, Other

Papanikolaou is correct to identify a conscious influence of Emmanuel Levinas on Zizioulas.[23] He is also correct to point out that Zizioulas’ interpretation of the Cappadocians as developing a “relational ontology of trinitarian personhood” is not far-fetched. If existentialism and personalism for theology happens to be compatible with patristic thinking, then so it is. Therefore, I believe Zizioulas’s next critical statement in the footnote of Heidegger, borrowed directly from Levinas, is motivated by a concern for the preservation of a dynamic and existential ontology, a concern of which Being and Time ontology falls short.  Zizioulas acknowledges that:

Heidegger represents an important stage in the progress of Western thought, especially in the liberation of ontology from an absolute “ontism” and from philosophical rationalism, though not in fact from the concept of consciousness and of the subject. (See the critique of Heidegger by the important contemporary philosopher, E. Levinas, in his brilliant work, Totalité et Infini. Essai sur l’Exteriorité [1971], p. 15: “Sein und Zeit n’a peut-être soutenu qu’une seule thèse: l’être est inséparable de la compréhension de l’être [que se déroule comme temps], l’être est déjà appel à la subjectivité.”)[24]

The first statement about the inability of Being and Time to shake off the ‘subjectivity’ is not only Levinas’ critique from reading Sein und Zeit, but is a self-criticism that Heidegger himself offered; the work was in danger of unwillingly “becoming only a new strengthening of subjectivity.”[25] The goal of liberating ontology from the subjectivity meant, for Heidegger at least, to come to a language in which the mystery of Being is left open for rare glimpses, rather than to attempt to capture it as a subject grasps and dominates an object, as is the case in the calculative thinking and its resulting technologies. As he wrote, “the essential worth of man does not consist in his being the substance of beings, as the ‘Subject’ among them, so that as the tyrant of Being he may deign to release the beingness of beings into an all too loudly bruited ‘objectivity.'”[26] Levinas, Zizioulas, andHeidegger criticize the phenomenological language of ‘horizon’ for the comprehension of beings that appear on horizon appear for the sake of manipulation, consumption, and appropriation, thereby totalizing, and (I would argue in spite of all vehement claims otherwise, that this is true of Heidegger as well) subsuming Otherness. All three thinkers, however, may have different reasons for wishing to not lapse into subjectivity. For Zizioulas, subjects as merely independent individuals are not Persons capable of entering into the liturgical communion with God.[27] For Heidegger, any metaphysical discussion of the ‘essence’ of man (as body, soul, spirit or some composite), and any talk of objectivity, etc, lapses into a broader ‘subjectivism’, although it is questionable whether or not in his later works he really intended to overcome subjectivity rather than uncover its means in an essential way.[28]

Zizioulas makes another statement in his footnote that shows why Levinas’ criticisms of Heidegger’s ontology are of importance to Trinitarian theology:
With our insistence here on the thesis that God is ecstatic, that is, that He exists on account of being the Father, we deny simultaneously not only the ontological priority of the substance over the person, but also a “panoramic” ontology (the term belongs to the critique of Heidegger by E. Levinas, op. cit. p. 270 ff.; cf. p. 16 ff.), which would view the Trinity as a parallel co-existence of the three persons, a kind of multiple manifestation of the being of God.

The type of panoramic ontology that Levinas accuses Heidegger of espousing is further expressed in “Is Ontology Fundamental?,”[29] an essay in which he claims that Heidegger’s contribution of Dasein, the philosophy of existence, is ‘effaced’ by his ontology as comprehension. Levinas strongly differentiated his philosophy from that in Heidegger by placing what he called ‘metaphysics’ as prior to ontology, and by introducing an absolute Other as the source of ethical relations to others. Because Zizioulas deals with the meaning of ecclesiastical communion as a relating based on persons, it is not difficult to see the appeal in Levinasian ideas for him and the rejection of Heidegger based on Levinas’ critique.

It is true, and self-admitted, that Heidegger did not overcome subject and horizon in Being and Time, however, while he does not use the word Other in the same manner as Levinas, his preservation of the mystery of Being has the connotation of Other—never fully within our reach—always more than we can comprehend. I put forth that his struggle with question of Being was in fact a struggle with Otherness—an otherness that continues to reappear at the margin between the languages of philosophy and theology. This notion of grasping Being, subsuming the Other is one that occurs in the fundamental history of metaphysics that Heidegger intended to uncover through his works. Heidegger’s Being is ultimately incomprehensible to thinking, uncontainable by language, but not nothing. All originary concepts of Being, including Moira, Phusis, One, etc, tell a history of an inadequate ontology (the forgetting of the ‘ontological difference’ between beings and Being) that cannot encompass or fully know the mystery of the meaning of Being. Heidegger’s motivation to break free of metaphysical language, to establish a new mood and path for thinking is to break through the nihilism of metaphysics by first bringing it forth and undergoing it. His real incentive to push ontology to the limits may have been based on what he understood to be the result of metaphysical ontology—an increasingly nihilistic and meaningless way of living on earth.

The power of metaphysics that hinders a meaningful existence, for Heidegger and other ‘prophets of technological nihilism’,[30] is the same force that depersonalizes—although it is not expressed in his works in terms of person. Heidegger’s unfortunate failure to link his fundamental ontology to any theological explorations (in spite of his undying interest in theology) may be primarily due to his rejection of explorations of what a person means in Dilthey, Bergson, Husserl and Scheler.[31]He illustrates the problem with a rejection of Scheler’s definition of the person as the performer of intentional acts. He thought of his predecessor’s notions of person as “thoroughly coloured by the anthropology of Christianity and the ancient world, whose inadequate ontological foundations have been overlooked by both philosophy of life and personalism.”[32] His identifies these foundations as 1) man as a rational animal; and 2) man as the image and likeness of God. What he says of the latter is that the “Being of God gets Interpreted ontologically by means of the ancient ontology” [an interpretation as the “Being-present-at-hand of other created thing”], and the Being of the human more so. Heidegger makes a fundamental mistake in assuming that all ancient ontology is alike, betraying an ignorance of Origen, the Cappadocians, Maximus, and all thinkers that comprise the diverse history of Eastern ontology, one that may be conceived of as a tension between the existential and metaphysical. In this light, Levinas’ criticism, while crudely placing Heidegger’s efforts in light of the same comprehensive ontology that he battles, is well-considered by Zizioulas for a theology of Persons. However, it remains to be seen whether Levinasian theology of absolute Other is in fact compatible with Trinitarian theology, or whether it can only be one of God as Father alone who is called out every relation with others.

Heidegger’s major shortcoming, the same that has spawned not only criticisms but rejection of his whole philosophical work, is that ethical relations with others (in philosophy and in life) and the meaning of the person were postponed in his question of Being. The theologically-minded post-Heideggerean need not be restricted by this same deficiency, and would do well to consider the Orthodox notion of theosis,[33]for instance, to open the relating of Being to God, our being to God through Christ and Spirit.


Zizioulas’ note on the use of Heideggerean philosophy for Orthodox theology leaves more questions than answers. While I have argued that Heidegger’s concepts of ecstatic temporality is not discovered ‘totally independently’ of the eternal temporality of the Church Father, the differences between these notions of ekstasis provide an example of a phenomenological approach to our being that is not a supplement to theology, but a path out of inauthentic thinking that can meet in the middle ground of our modern and post-modern experiences and our decisions to hold and practice spiritual faith.

Zizioulas does not claim to have the all answers to the challenging questions he asks, but does appear to take the position that the ‘philosophy’ of Heidegger is incompatible with the Orthodox faith. His mistake, I believe, is in the treatment of the work of a philosopher, any philosopher, as a whole, without loose ends and without unanswered problems. Karl Jaspers had a simple but elegant definition or understanding of philosophy as a continual dynamic of questioning that he called ‘philosophizing’.[34] My reason for drawing attention to this highly-charged footnote is not to argue that Heidegger, as a philosopher, was always (or even sometimes) correct in his thinking or consistently useful for Trinitarian theology, but to 1) destabilize the notion held by some theologians that the term Being in Heidegger can be replaced with God – that the mystery of Being and of God are identical; 2) acknowledge (for the sake of contemporary Orthodox thinking) the debt to this highly influential 20th century thinker, not just for contemporary non-analytical philosophy but in the 21st century turn of philosophy toward theology. For the theologically-minded philosopher, perhaps Orthodox thinking will provide some content to the relation of the divine that emerges in the opening of Being. For both philosophizing theologians and theologizing philosophers who attempt to think upon these difficulties, I leave the following questions by Zizioulas for further thought:
(a) Is it possible to conceive of an ontology outside time in Heidegger, or of an ontology within time predicated of God in the Greek Fathers? (b) Is it possible for death to be an ontological concept in the Fathers, who regard it as the last enemy of being? (c) Is it possible to regard the concept of truth (alêtheia), in the sense of a manifestation of or outgrowth from oblivion (lêthê), as an inevitable attribute of the ontology predicated of God?[35]

[1] Zizioulas, John. Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985).

[2] See, for instance, Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being, tr. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1991).

[3] Zizioulas writes, “the truth of creation is a dependent truth, while the truth of God’s being is communion itself” and “God and the world cannot be placed side by side as self-defined entities.” (Being as Communion,p. 94). Both Heidegger and Zizioulas (in Being as Communion, see, for instance, the Western trinity as ousia [substance] rather than hypostasis [person], p. 88-89) marveled at transformations in ontological concepts in Western history, such that occur as transmogrifications of Greek ideas into the Latin language. Such transformations are central to Heidegger’s account of the history of metaphysics throughout his career. See, for instance,Introduction to Metaphysics, tr. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 59 ff.

[4] Hemming, Laurence Paul. Heidegger’s Atheism: The Refusal of a Theological Voice(Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002).

[5] See, for instance, John Macquarrie Principles of Christian Theology, Second Edition (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977) , p. 115 ff.

[6] Being as Communion, p. 44, n. 40.

[7] A succinct account of ekstasis in the Church Fathers can be found in The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology, ed. John Anthony McGluckin (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 113-114.

[8] Emphasis mine.

[9] Being and Time, tr. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 274ff; Sein und Zeit 231.

[10] Ibid., p. 372ff; Sein und Zeit 325 ff.

[11] Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, tr. Michael Heim (Indianapolis: Indian University Press, 1984), p. 203. “To repeat: expectancy, retention and making-present are not merely the way we grasp the then, the formerly, and the now. Expectancy is not a mode of being conscious of time, but in a primordial and genuine sense is time itself.”

[12] Being and Time, p. 376; Sein und Zeit, 327.

[13] Ibid., p. 370; Sein und Zeit 323.

[14] Unlike the ekstasis of Christian thought, the meaning in Heidegger is to stand outside one’s will, projections and interpretations (of time as a thing, for instance). Although not entirely incomparable to Kant’s transcendentals of time and space that make experience possible, Heidegger’s phenomenological time is partly in response to them—the existential perspective of time-space (emerging from lived-experience) the primary one.

[15] This ekstatic (and eschatic) temporality is symbolized and played out in the Divine Liturgy. See more about the ‘atemporal foundation of the liturgy’ in E. Moore, “On Time and the Calendar in Orthodox Liturgical Theology,” Theandros, Vol. 1, num. 2, Winter 2003/2004.

[16] Being as Communion, p. 44.

[17] Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, tr. Brian E. Daley, S.J, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), p. 345.

[18] Ibid., p. 346.

[19] Moore, Edward. Origen of Alexandria and Maximus the Confessor: An Analysis and Critical Evaluation of Their Eschatological Doctrines (Boca Raton, FL: Universal Publishers, 2004), p. 153.

[20] Hemming begins the introductory chapter of Heidegger’s Atheism with this claim by Löwith and how it influenced other interpreters of Heidegger.

[21] Heidegger’s answer to a question “May being and God be posited as identical?” is reprinted and translated by L. P. Hemming in Heidegger’s Atheism, p. 291-292.

[22] In addition to Hemming’s Heidegger’s Atheism, also see Otto Pöggeler Martin Heidegger’s Path of Thinking, tr. Daniel Magurshak and Sigmund Barber (New York: Humanity Books, 1991, pp. 211 ff) for the importance of the question of God and faith in Heidegger’s ontology.

[23] Papanikolaou, Aristotle. “Is John Zizioulas and Existentialist in Disguise? Response to Lucian Turcescu,” Modern Theology, Vol. 20, issue 4, p. 601-607.

[24] Being as Communion, p.45, n. 40. The passage Zizioulas quotes in the French is translated in Totality and Infinity, tr. Alphonso Lingis, (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969) as follows: “Being and Time has argued perhaps but one sole thesis: Being is inseparable from the comprehension of Being (which unfolds as time); Being is already an appeal to subjectivity.” Levinas then argues that Heidegger in his approach places existents as subordinate to Being, thereby placing freedom (not as something man possesses but something that is granted in obedience to Being) above ethics. The criticism that ‘Being is an appeal to subjectivity’ is not explained in this passage, but we can guess what Levinas means in light of his preface to Totality and Infinity, in which he says, “This book then does present itself as a defense of subjectivity, but it will apprehend the subjectivity not at the level of its purely egoist protestation against totality, nor in its anguish before death, but as founded in the idea of infinity.” (p. 26). The first definition is criticized because this subjectivity promotes freedom above the guilt in the face of the other. The second clause is a criticism of what he sees as an unaccountable individualism in authentic Dasein as being-toward-death.

[25] Translated from the Nietzsche lecture, Der Wille zur Macht als Erkekenntnis (Neske edition, p. 194ff) by Otto Pöggeler, Martin Heidegger’s Path of Thinking, p. 145.

[26] “Letter on Humanism,” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, Second Edition(San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1993), p. 234.

[27] Being as Communion, p. 105-107.

[28] See, for instance, Heidegger’s discussion of subjectivity in his Nietzsche lecture “The Will to Power as Knowledge,” tr. by David Farrell Krell in Nietzsche Vols. 3 and 4, (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) (Refer to Vol 4, p. 141ff.)

[29] In Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996), p. 1-10.

[30] These prophets are identified by Arthur Kroker (in The Will to Technological and the Culture of Nihilism, University of Toronto Press, 2004) as Heidegger, Nietzsche and Marx. I would add Ernst Jünger, Karl Jaspers, and any thinker of the early half of the 20th century that showed an existential concern for the essence and effects of technology.

[31] Being and Time, p. 72-74.

[32] Ibid., p. 74.

[33] See, for instance, Origen’s existential conception of theôsis in E. Moore, “Some Notes on Orthodox Ethics and Existential Theology,” Theandros, Vol. 1, number 3, Spring 2004,

[34] “Philosophizing, as it occurs in each historical age, involves penetration, without limit, into the unity of the revelation of Being,” from “On My Philosophy,” in Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufman (New York: Plume Books, 1988), p. 162; “[P]hilosophizing is an act which works upon the inwardness of man, but whose final meaning he cannot know,” from “Kierkegaard and Nietzsche” in Existentialism, p. 209.

[35] Being as Communion, p. 45, n. 40

Source: this article first appeared in the (now defunct) Theandros Journal of Orthodox Christian Theology & Philosophy (Volume 3, number 2, Winter 2005/2006).

AFR: Oneness in Marriage

Oneness in Marriage Conference

Oneness in Marriage Conference

January 2015

Sponsored by the Center for Family Care of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the 2015 Oneness in Marriage Conference, which was hosted by St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, California, focused on growing and protecting the blessed communion of marriage. The conference took place January 29 – 31 in Santa Ana, California, and attendees included clergy, seminarians, pastoral care workers, lay assistants, professional counselors, ministry leaders, and lay people.

Listen on Ancient Faith Radio Archives here











BOOKSHELF: Psychology in … the Church

Psychology in Service to the Church

by Rev’d. Dr. Vasileios Thermos
Published by: Sebastian Press

Man, being in the image of God and “an animal in the process of deification” (according to St. Gregory Nazianzen)—whose brain and nervous system are largely shaped by evolution, who is both restricted and boundless through his genes, sealed by his early experiences, moderated by his hormones, and under a great diversity of other influences—can display a wide range of behaviors, some of which are abnormal.

At the beginning of the third millennium, instead of advocating a “soul therapy approach,” Fr. Thermos offers an inter-disciplinary medical-theological study of such a fundamental and fascinating topic. By keeping the focus on modern ways of thinking about these ideas, Professor Thermos facilitates an exchange of views and experiences between the fields of theology, psychology and psychiatry. The ultimate purpose of this exchange is to serve mankind wishing the Church as well as in the context of the medical sciences.

Language: English
ISBN: 978-19367-733-29
Published: 2017
Number of pages: 166
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Purchase print copy from St Sebastian Press  St Sabestian press header_bg

Orthodoxy as Therapy

By Protopresbyter George Metallinos
Dean of the Athens University School of Theology


“the patristic tradition is neither a social philosophy,
nor a system of morals,
or a religious dogmatism; it is a therapeutic method…”


george-metallinosIf we wished to conventionally define Christianity, as Orthodoxy, we would say it is the experiencing of the presence of the Uncreated (=of God) throughout history, and the potential of creation (=mankind) becoming God “by Grace”.

Given the perpetual presence of God in Christ, in historical reality, Christianity offers mankind the possibility of theosis, just as Medical Science offers mankind the possibility of preserving or restoring his health through a specific therapeutic procedure and a specific way of life.

The writer is in a position to appreciate the coincidence between the medical and ecclesiastic poemantic sciences, because, as a diabetic and a Christian, he is aware that in both cases, he has to faithfully abide by the rules that have been set out, in order to attain both these two goals.

The unique and absolute goal of life in Christ is theosis, in other words, our union with God, so that man – through his participation in God’s uncreated energy – may become “by the Grace of God” that which God is by nature (=without beginning and without end). This is what “salvation” means, in Christianity. It is not the moral improvement of man, but a re-creation, a re-construction in Christ, of man and of society, through an existing and an existential relationship with Christ, Who is the incarnate manifestation of God in History. This is what the Apostle Paul’s words imply, in Corinthians II 5:17 : “If someone is in Christ, he is a new creation”. Whoever is united with Christ is a new creation.

That is why – Christianically – the incarnation of God-Logos – this redemptory “intrusion” of the Eternal and the Beyond-time God into Historical time – represents the commencement of a new world, of a (literally) “New Age”, which continues throughout the passing centuries, in the persons of authentic Christians: the Saints. The Church exists in this world, both as the “body of Christ” as well as “in Christ”, in order to offer salvation, through one’s embodiment in this regenerative procedure. This redemptory task of the Church is fulfilled by means of a specific therapeutic method, whereby throughout history, the Church essentially acts as a universal Infirmary. “Spiritual Infirmary” (spiritual hospital) is the characterization given to the Church by the blessed Chrysostom (†407).

Further along, we shall examine the answers given to the following questions:

What is the sickness that Christian Orthodoxy cures?

What is the therapeutic method it implements?

What is the identity of authentic Christianity, which radically separates it from all of its heretic deviations, and from every other form of religion?

1. The sickness of human nature is the fallen state of mankind, along with all of creation, which likewise suffers (“sighs and groans together” – Romans 8:22) together with mankind. This diagnosis applies to every single person (regardless whether they are Christian or not, or whether they believe or not), on account of the overall unity of mankind (ref. Acts 17:26). Christian Orthodoxy does not confine itself within the narrow boundaries of one religion – which cares only for its own followers – but, just like God, “wants all people to be saved and to arrive at the realization of the truth” (Timothy I, 2:4), since God is “the Saviour of all persons” (Timothy I, 4:10). Thus, the sickness that Christianity refers to pertains to all of mankind; Romans 5:12: “death has come upon all people, since all of them have sinned (=they have veered from their path towards theosis). Just as the fall (i.e. sickness) is a panhuman issue, so is salvation-therapy directly dependent on the inner functions of each person.

The natural (authentic) state of a person is (patristically) defined by the functioning inside him of three mnemonic systems; two of which are familiar and monitored by medical science, while the third is something handled by poemantic therapeutics. The first system is cellular memory (DNA), which determines everything inside a human organism. The second is the cerebral cellular memory, brain function, which regulates our association with our self and our environment. Both these systems are familiar to medical science, whose work it is to maintain their harmonious operation.

The experience of the Saints is familiar with one other mnemonic system: that of the heart, or ‘noetic’ memory, which functions inside the heart. In Orthodox tradition, the heart does not only have a natural operation, as a mere pump that circulates the blood. Furthermore, according to patristic teaching, neither the brain nor the central nervous system is the center of our self-awareness; again, it is the heart, because, beyond its natural function, it also has a supernatural function. Under certain circumstances, it becomes the place of our communion with God, or, His uncreated energy. This is of course perceived through the experience of the Saints, and not through any logical function or through an intellectual theologizing.

Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (†1809), in recapitulating the overall patristic tradition in his work “Hortative Manual”, calls the heart a natural and supernatural center, but also a paranormal center, whenever its supernatural faculty becomes idle on account of the heart being dominated by passions. The heart’s supernatural faculty is the ultimate prerequisite for perfection, for man’s fulfillment, in other words, his theosis, for a complete embodiment in the communion in Christ.

In its supernatural faculty, the heart becomes the space where the mind can be activated. In the Orthodox terminology codex, the mind (ΝΟΥΣ – appearing in the New Testament as ‘the spirit of man’ and ‘the eye of the soul’) is an energy of the soul, by means of which man can know God, and can reach the state of ‘seeing’ God. We must of course clarify that ‘knowledge’ of God does not imply knowledge of His incomprehensible and inapproachable divine essence. This distinction between ‘essence’ and ‘energy’ in God is the crucial difference between Orthodoxy and all other versions of Christianity. The energy of the mind inside the heart is called the ‘noetic faculty’ of the heart. We again stress that according to Orthodoxy, the Mind (ΝΟΥΣ) and Logic (ΛΟΓΙΚΗ) are not the same thing, because logic functions within the brain, whereas the mind functions within the heart.

The noetic faculty is manifested as the “incessant prayer” (ref. Thessalonians I, 5:17) of the Holy Spirit inside the heart (ref. Galatians 4:6, Romans 8:26, Thessalonians I 5:19) and is named by our Holy Fathers as “the memory of God”. When man has in his heart the “memory of God”, in other words, when he hears in his heart “the voice” (Corinthians I 14:2, Galatians 4:6, etc.), he can sense God “dwelling” inside him (Romans 8:11). Saint Basil the Great in his 2nd epistle says that the memory of God remains incessant when it is not interrupted by mundane cares, and the mind “departs” towards God; in other words, when it is in communion with God. But this does not mean that the faithful who has been activated by this divine energy withdraws from the needs of everyday life, by remaining motionless or in some kind of ecstasy; it means that his Mind is liberated from these cares, which are items that preoccupy only his Logic. To use an example that we can relate to: A scientist, who has re-acquired his noetic faculty, will use his logic to tackle his problems, while his mind inside his heart will preserve the memory of God incessantly. The person who preserves all three mnemonic systems is the Saint. To Orthodoxy, he is a healthy (normal) person. This is why Orthodoxy’s therapy is linked to man’s course towards holiness.

The non-function or the below-par function of man’s noetic faculty is the essence of his fall. The much-debated “ancestral sin” was precisely man’s mishandling –from that very early moment of his historical presence- of the preservation of God’s memory (=his communion with God) inside his heart. This is the morbid state that all of the ancestral descendants participate in; because it was no moral or personal sin, but a sickness of man’s nature (“Our nature has become ill, of this sin”, observes Saint Cyril of Alexandria – †444), which is transmitted from person to person, exactly like the sickness that a tree transmits to all the other trees that originate from it.

The inactivating of the noetic faculty or the memory of God, and confusing it with the function of the brain (which happens to all of us), subjugates man to stress and to the environment, and to the quest for bliss through individualism and an anti-social stance. While ill because of his fallen state, man uses God and his fellow man to secure his personal security and happiness. Personal use of God is found in “religion” (=the attempt to elicit strength from the divine), which can degenerate into a self-deification of man (“I became a self-idol” says Saint Andrew of Crete, in his ‘Major Canon’). The use of fellow-man -and subsequently creation in general- is achieved by exploiting them in every possible way. This, therefore, is the sickness that man seeks to cure, by becoming fully incorporated in the “spiritual hospital” of the Church.

2. The purpose of the Church’s presence in the world –as a communion in Christ- is man’s cure; the restoration of his heart-centred communion with God; in other words, of his noetic faculty. According to the professor fr. John Romanides, “the patristic tradition is neither a social philosophy, nor a system of morals, or a religious dogmatism; it is a therapeutic method. In this context, it is very similar to Medicine and especially Psychiatry. The noetic energy of the soul that prays mentally and incessantly inside the heart is a natural ‘instrument’, which everyone possesses and is in need of therapy. Neither philosophy, nor any of the known positive or social sciences can cure this ‘instrument’. This is why the incurable cases are not even aware of this instrument’s existence.”

The need for man to be cured is a panhuman issue, related firstly to the restoration of every person to his natural state of existence, through the reactivation of the third mnemonic faculty. However, it also extends to man’s social presence. In order for man to be in communion with his fellow man as a brother, his self-interest (which in the long run acts as self-love) must be transformed into selflessness (ref. Corinthians I, 13:8) “love….does not ask for reciprocation..”). Selfless love exists: it is the love of the Triadic God (Romans 5:8, John I 4:7), which gives everything without seeking anything in exchange. That is why Christian Orthodoxy’s social ideal is not “common possessions”, but the “lack of possessions”, as a willed resignation from any sort of demand. Only then can justice be possible.

The therapeutic method that is offered by the Church is the spiritual life; the life in the Holy Spirit. Spiritual life is experienced as an exercise (Ascesis) and a participation in the Uncreated Grace, through the Sacraments. Ascesis is the violation of our self-ruled and inanimate through sin nature, which is coursing headlong into a spiritual or eternal death, i.e. the eternal separation from the Grace of God. Ascesis aspires to victory over our passions, with the intention of conquering the inner subservience to those pestiferous focal points of man and participating in Christ’s Cross and His Resurrection.

The Christian, who is practicing such restraint under the guidance of his Therapist-Spiritual Father, becomes receptive to Grace, which he receives through his participation in the sacramental life of the ecclesiastic corpus. There cannot be any un-exercising Christian, just as there cannot be a cured person who does not follow the therapeutic advice that the doctor prescribed for him.

3. The above lead us to certain constants, which verify the identity of Christian Orthodoxy:

(a) The Church –as the body of Christ- functions as a therapy Centre-hospital. Otherwise, it would not be a Church, but a “Religion”. The Clergy are initially selected by the cured, in order to function as therapists. The therapeutic function of the Church is preserved today, mostly in Monasteries which, having survived secularism, continue the Church of the Apostolic times.

(b) The scientists of ecclesiastic therapy are the already cured persons. Those who have not had the experience of therapy cannot be therapists. That is the essential difference between the poemantic therapeutic science and medical science. The scientists of ecclesiastic therapy (Fathers and Mothers) bring forth other Therapists, just as the Professors of Medicine bring forth their successors.

(c) The Church’s confining itself to a simple forgiveness of sins so that a place in paradise may be secured constitutes alienation and is tantamount to medical science forgiving the patient, so that he might be healed after death! The Church cannot send someone to Paradise or to Hell. Besides, Paradise and Hell are not places, they are ways of existence. By healing mankind, the Church prepares the person so that he might eternally look upon Christ in His uncreated light as a view of Paradise, and not as a view of Hell, or as “an all-consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). And this of course concerns every single person, because ALL people shall look eternally upon Christ, as “the Judge” of the whole world.

(d) The validity of science is verified by the achievement of its goals (i.e., in Medicine, it is the curing of the patient). It is the way that authentic scientific medicine is distinguished from charlatanry. The criterion of poemantic therapy by the Church is also the achievement of spiritual healing, by opening the way towards theosis. Therapy is not transferred to the afterlife; it takes place during man’s lifetime, here, in this world (hinc et nunc). This can be seen in the undeteriorated relics of the Saints that have overcome biological deterioration, such as the relics of the Eptanisos Saints: Spiridon, Gerasimos, Dionysios and Theodora Augusta. Undeteriorated relics are, in our tradition, the indisputable evidence of theosis, or in other words the fulfilment of the Church’s ascetic therapy.

I would like to ask the Medical scientists of our country to pay special attention to the issue of the non-deterioration of holy relics, given that they haven’t been scientifically interfered with, but, in them is manifest the energy of Divine Grace; because it has been observed that, at the moment when the cellular system should begin to disintegrate, it automatically ceases to, and instead of emanating any malodour of decay, the body emanates a distinctive fragrance. I limit this comment to the medical symptoms, and will not venture into the aspect of miraculous phenomena as evidence of theosis, because that aspect belongs to another sphere of discussion.

(e) Lastly, the divine texts of the Church (Holy Bible, Synodic and Patristic texts) do not constitute coding systems of any Christian ideology; they bear a therapeutic character and function in the same way that university dissertations function in medical science. The same applies to the liturgical texts, as for example the Benedictions. The simple reading of a Benediction (prayer), without the combined effort of the faithful in the therapeutic procedure of the Church, would be no different to the instance where a patient resorts to the doctor for his excruciating pains, and, instead of an immediate intervention by the doctor, he is limited to being placed on an operating table, and being read the chapter that pertains to his specific ailment.

This, in a nutshell, is Orthodoxy. It doesn’t matter whether one accepts it or not. However, with regard to scientists, I have tried -as a colleague in science myself- to scientifically respond to the question: “What is Orthodoxy”.

Any other version of Christianity constitutes a counterfeiting and a perversion of it, even if it aspires to presenting itself as something Orthodox.

Bibliographical Notes

Fr. John S. Romanides, “Romans or neoroman Fathers of the Church”, Thessaloniki 1984.
Fr. John S. Romanides, “Religion is a neurobiological ailment, and Orthodoxy is its cure”, from the volume “Orthodoxy, Hellenism… Holy Monastery of Koutloumousion Publications, Volume B,, 1996, pages 66-67.
Fr. John S. Romanides, “Church Synods and Civilization”, from THEOLOGY, vol.63 (1992) pg.421-450 and in Greek vol.66 (1995) pg.646-680.
Fr. Hierotheos Vlachos (presently Metropolitan of Nafpaktos), “Orthodox Psychotherapy”, Edessa 1986.
Fr. Hierotheos Vlachos (presently Metropolitan of Nafpaktos), “Minor Introduction into Orthodox Spirituality”, Athens.
Fr. Hierotheos Vlachos (presently Metropolitan of Nafpaktos), “Existential Psychology and Orthodox Psychotherapy”, Levadia 1995.
Also by the author, the following studies:

Fr. G. Metallinos, “An Orthodox View of Society”, Athens 1986.
Fr. G. Metallinos, “Theological witness of ecclesiastic worship”, Athens 1996. (N. B.: In these books one can find more bibliography)

Notes – Clarifications

1. The Uncreated = Something that has not been manufactured. This applies only to the Triadic God. The Created = Creation in general, with man at its apex. God is not a “universal” power, as designated by New Age terminology (“everything is one, everyone is God!”), because, as the Creator of all, He transcends the entire universe, given that in essence He is “Something” entirely different (Das ganz Andere). There is no analogous association between the created and the Uncreated. That is why the Uncreated makes Himself know, through His self-revelation.
2. A significant Christian text of the 2nd century, “The Poemen (Shepherd) of Hermas”, says that in order for us to become members of the Body of Christ, we must be “squared” stones (=suitable for building) and not rounded ones!

3. According to fr. John Romanides, to whom we essentially owe the return to the “Philokalian” (=therapeutic-ascetic) view of our Faith, and in fact at an academic level; “Religion” implies every kind of “associating” of the uncreated and the created, as is done in idolatry. The “religious” person projects his “predudices” (=thoughts, meanings) into the divine realm, thus “manufacturing” his own God (this can also occur in the non-Patristic facet of “Orthodoxy”). The aim is “atonement”, “placation” of the “divine” and finally, the “utilizing” of God to one’s own advantage (the magic formula: do ut des). In our tradition however, our God does not need to be “placated”, because “He first loved us” (John I’ 4:19) Our God acts as “Love” (John I, 4:16) and selfless love at that. He gives us everything, and never asks for anything in return from His creations. This is why selflessness is the essence of Christian love, which goes far beyond the notion of a transaction.

4. This is expressed by the familiar and oft-repeated liturgical chant: “Ourselves and each other, and our entire life, let us appose unto Christ our Lord”.

Proper incorporation is normally found in Monasteries, wherever they function in the orthodox tradition of course. That is why Monasteries (for example those of the Holy Mountain) continue to be the model “parishes” of this “world”.

Translation by A. N.

Our Source:



Bookshelf: A Meeting of Minds

Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds

by Hieromonk Alexis (Trader) 

BookCover Beck_andTrader [. . .] Father Alexis, holds a doctoral degree in theology from the University of Thessaloniki, brings together in this book the world of psychology and the spiritual teachings of the Church fathers: enriching science, thereby, with a spiritual dimension that it can appreciate without necessarily acknowledging the foundational principles of Christianity; and, at the same time, demonstrating that Orthodox Christians—who after all used, as he notes, the principles of secular architecture and engineering to build what was for centuries the greatest monument of Christendom, the Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople—can enhance the spiritual life with a study and examination of certain psychotherapeutic principles and methods. Between science and spirituality, there can be a fecund meeting of minds.

As the title of the book indicates, Father Alexis draws his comments on spiritual anthropology and psychology from the writings of the Church Fathers (both Greek and Latin). His discussion of the world of psychology he centers on the work of Aaron Beck, popularly known as the “father” of cognitive therapy and widely acclaimed for a number of psychometric instruments for diagnosing anxiety disorders or depression (notably, the BDI, or Beck Depression Inventory). This parallel scheme —juxtaposing the principles and practices of “Patristic psychology” with a secular psychoanalytic school—reminds one of an earlier work of this kind by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Naupaktos, who in his ῾Yπαρξιακὴ Ψυχολογία καὶὈρθόδοξηΨυχοθεραπεία (Existential Psychology and Orthodox Psychotherapy) contrasts and compares Patristic methods for achieving mental wellness with the existential theories and methods of Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy.

Father Alexis’s choice of cognitive therapy as a prism through which to focus his comments on secular psychology was certainly perspicacious. Its focus, not so much on the content and specific nature of stimuli in our sensory and psychic environments as determinants of adaptive and maladaptive behaviors as on the psychic cognitions that we construct and internalize from them, is immediately reminiscent of stoicism and other classical Greek philosophies. As such, since aspects of classical philosophy adumbrated early Christian wisdom, cognitive therapy provides facile access to Patristic teachings on the treatment of psychic valetudinarianism, the cleansing of the mind, and the healing of the νοῦς. The Fathers, too, concentrate on the cognitive world; that is, they seek to control and restrict in πρᾶξις that to which we attend in everyday life, but with the goal of restoring our cognitions about, and view (θεωρία) of, the world around us to a natural state—viz., that of aligning the human will to the Divine Will, a conceptual and ontological counterpart, if you will, of moving from a maladaptive to an adaptive an salutary psychological state.

With regard to the ontological dimension of Patristic therapy, Father Alexis does not touch specifically on the notion of θέωσις and its vision of the total rehabilitation of the human state of being (salvation in union with God through Grace). Admittedly, his book is not concerned with the ontological dimensions of Orthodox psychology, but stresses the existential aspects of the curative regimen of the Fathers. Nonetheless, I would have valued—if simply for the pleasure of seeing him expand his masterful treatment of the Patristic corpus and his skillful scrutiny of cognitive therapy (rare for someone not trained as a psychologist or psychiatrist)—a discussion of Patristic psychology as it reaches beyond existence into being and beyond man into the world of the novus homo, though such an adventure may have perhaps compromised the parallels between the mind of the therapist and the spiritual, noetic sense of the spiritual father which he so beautifully establishes.

I admit that I had to read parts of this book several times, since it covers such a vast amount of material. normally, I would criticize this as a sign of the dispersion that results from an overly ambitious work. In this case, I cannot do so. First, rereading Father Alexis’s excellent prose was a delight in itself. Secondly the book does follow a careful development in four parts, and has a helpful coda that summarizes the text. A splendid, highly recommended book that is not to be missed.

Archbishop +Chrysostomos
Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies

OCIC_LogoFrom Orthodox Tradition, Volume XXVIII, Number 2 (June, 2011).

Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds is available from

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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


The Church as a Therapeutic Center: The Therapy of the Soul

By +HIEROTHEOS (Vlachos)
Metropolitan of Nafpaktos and Saint Vlassios


Metropolitan Hierotheos VlachosThe subject of the therapy of the soul is extremely important for the Orthodox Church because it expresses the essence of spiritual life. Before elaborating on this crucial topic, I would like to give some introductory explanations.

First, when discussing the therapy of the soul, we do not believe in dualism, which makes a clear distinction between soul and body, as is the case in ancient Greek philosophy or some present Eastern religions. Man has two hypostases, [1] since he consists of soul and body. The soul is not the whole man but just the soul of man; the body is not the whole man but just the body of man. The body is tightly connected to the soul and takes part in all its states. The body receives both the fall of the soul as well as its resurrection. Thus we speak about the death of the body, which is an outcome of the death of the soul, and about the deification of the body, which comes as a result of the deification of the soul. Saint Gregory Palamas teaches that the nous [2] is man’s first physical intelligent organ and also teaches that the Grace of God is ferried through the soul to the body, which is attached to the soul.

Second, the teaching that the Church is a spiritual Hospital and that true theology is related to the therapy of the soul is not an isolated part of the teaching about the Church, but rather the way and requirement for the experiencing of church life and the acquisition of the Orthodox church spirit. Of course, the basis of church life is the holy Eucharist, in which man partakes of the Body and Blood of Christ. But the entire teaching of the holy Fathers for the therapy of man is a prerequisite for the correct partaking of the holy Eucharist. It is well known that the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ is light, Kingdom of God, and Paradise for those in the proper spiritual condition for the holy Communion to act. At the same time, it is Hell and “condemnation” for all those not cleansed. The teaching of the Fathers of the Church on this point is telling indeed. Furthermore, the sacrament of Baptism is, and is called, an introductory sacrament that makes us members of the Body of Christ. But, in the ancient Church, Catechism, which aimed at man’s therapy, preceded Baptism, and asceticism followed Baptism. Christ said: “Go and teach all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to do what I have given to you” (Matt. 28:16–20).

Third, when speaking about the therapy of the soul and, more generally, the therapy of man, we mean nothing else but Orthodox hesychasm. As it is known, Orthodox hesychasm forms the basis of all Ecumenical and Local Synods, because through hesychasm we obtain the experience of Revelation through which we know that Christ is the true God, that the Holy Spirit is God, that the natures are united inseparably, unchangeably, and undividedly. For this reason, the fourteenth-century Synods that confirmed Orthodox hesychasm, in the presence of the great Church theologian and Father Saint Gregory Palamas, in reality presented the method through which man can be saved, deified, and go from the image to the likeness. Orthodox hesychasm consists of the transformation of the powers of the soul, of man’s deliverance and liberation from the evil one who rules over man with the spiritual and bodily passions, of the deification of soul and body. In fact, the fourteenth-century Synods state that if a Christian does not accept the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas and of the monks who speak about Orthodox hesychia as a method for the cleansing of the soul, he should be expelled from the Church.

The Church offers the true life; it transforms biological life, sanctifies and transforms societies. Orthodoxy, if experienced properly and functioning according to the holy Fathers, is a communion of God and man, heaven and earth, living and deceased. In this communion all problems emerging in our life are truly solved.

Other religions, particularly those originating from the East, are indeed the opiate of the people, because they transfer the problem to the transcendental world, they alienate men from society, they tear apart interpersonal relationships and destroy man. The Orthodox Church is true precisely because it heals man; it functions as a therapeutic center, an infirmary of souls, a Hospital. This is why it is very modern to be an Orthodox Christian..

The Main Task of the Church Is to Cure

The objective of the Church is to lead man to God, after curing him. Man’s fall fromParadise, the true communion with God, brought terrible changes to anthropology and sociology. Christ’s incarnation healed man and led him to communion with God. Therefore, the main task of the Church is to cure man.

This objective of the Church is seen in Christ’s well-known parable of the good Samaritan. According to Saint John Chrysostom’s interpretation, the man who fell into the hands of robbers is Adam and his descendants who stepped down from the heavenly polity to the polity of the devil’s deceit, which wounded them deeply. The good Samaritan is Christ, who incarnated to cure the wounded man. He gave life to the almost-dead man with wine and oil, that is, with His Blood and the Holy Spirit. Then he carried him to the inn, which is the Church, to be healed. The innkeeper is the Apostles and after them the clerics, who have the commandment to heal men wounded by the devil. Thus, in this parable it is clear that the Church is a Hospital that cures men who are sick because of sin, and the bishops-priests are therapists of the people of God.

Christ referred to His healing work elsewhere too. He said: “They that be whole need not a physician but they that are sick” (Matt. 9:12). All of His sayings referring to the acquisition of humility, the realization of sin, repentance, and so on, show that the Son and Word of God became human to defeat death, sin, and the devil, and to deify man. Hence, all His work refers to man’s cure.

In one of his sermons, Saint Gregory the Theologian presents Christ’s work as curing. His incarnation was aimed at man’s cure. Christ assumed the whole nature of man because “what is not assumed is also not healed.” Everything Christ did aimed at man’s cure. “All this was to educate us in God and to cure our illness”. This is why Christ is often called a physician, a therapist of soul and body. He is also called medicine because cure takes place by the eating and drinking of the Body and Blood of Christ.

Therefore, Christ is both healer and medicine. There are several phrases in the Liturgy describing these qualities of Christ. By the Grace of Christ, clerics throughout the centuries are also healers of the people. Saint Gregory writes: “We who preside over the others are servants and collaborators for this cure.” Every work undertaken by bishops-priests must aim at man’s salvation, at his deification. This is why it has been said characteristically that the task of the Church is to create relics. This means that when man is cured and attains deification, his body is also deified and becomes a relic, by Christ’s Grace.

Theology as a Curing Science

The fact that the Church’s main task is to cure man implies that this is also the task of theology, which is the voice of the Church. Orthodox theology is not an academic science and reflection; it is not a rational occupation the goal of which is Protestant and philological research, but mostly the science of cure. Theology is either a fruit of the cure or the road to the cure. That is, an Orthodox theologian is he who was cured and acquired personal knowledge of God and also he who heals others.

Saint Gregory the Theologian says that theologians are “those who have passed in theoria,” [3] who first cleansed soul and body or at least are in the process of cleansing. Theology is closely associated with Orthodox hesychia (stillness), that is, internal purification from images and fantasies that deceive man. These persons are able to help those with a sick soul.

Saint Johnof the Ladder links theology with perfect purity, man’s perfect cleansing: “ . . . a complete state of purity is the foundation of theology.” [4] This is the person who truly theologizes. And of course, theologizing is not related to intellectual expressions, but to the revelation of God and to the guidance of people to this knowledge.

All these Fathers show that theology is mostly a product of man’s therapy and not an intellectual science. Only the purified ones or at least those who are in the process of purification are able to be initiated to the ineffable mysteries and the great truths, to accept the Revelation and then confer it to the people. Therapy necessarily precedes theology, and then the theologian is able to cure others. This is why in the Orthodox Tradition the theologian is associated and identified with the spiritual father, and the spiritual father is the par excellence theologian, he who suffers the divine and is able to guide his spiritual children unerringly.

There is a magnificent apolytikion [5] that illustrates what Orthodox theology is and what constitutes Orthodox Tradition and apostolic succession. Many of us believe that apostolic succession is just an uninterrupted line of ordinations. We cannot reject this truth, but apostolic succession has an internal aspect too. The apolytikion says:

You partook of the ways, you succeeded in the throne of the Apostles, you were inspired by God and found praxis to attain theoria; because of this you expressed unerringly the word of truth, and you struggled till blood, Holy Martyr Anthimos intercede with Christ God to save our souls.

The Holy Martyr Anthimos, like many other saints, became a successor of the Apostles and partook of the ways of the Apostles. He not only had the ordination of the Apostles, but also their way of life. This means he attained Pentecost, the experience of the Revelation of God, deification. This is why he became “God-inspired.” To reach this state he employed a special method. He ascended to the theoria of God through praxis. We know very well that praxis is the cleansing of the heart from the passions and theoria is the vision of the uncreated Light.

As a result, Holy Martyr Anthimos expressed unerringly the word of truth and became a martyr for the glory of God. Therefore, we infer that the unerring expression of the word of truth is not a product of intellectual knowledge, but a fruit of the experience of God. Also, martyrdom is not an outcome of a strong will, but of the Grace of God, which strengthened the entire personality, so it is a product of theoria.

This apolytikion manifests, in a most vivid way, what the Orthodox Tradition is, what apostolic succession is, who an Orthodox theologian is, how one is able to become God-inspired, and who the true shepherds of the people of God should be. These theologians guide in an Orthodox way, inspired by God and unerringly guiding their spiritual children toward deification and sanctification.

Textbooks on Cure

Man’s cure is achieved by God’s energy and man’s synergy. The Grace of God is offered to man in the sacraments of the Church. In the Catechismal period man is cleansed from the passions tormenting him; with the sacrament of Baptism he becomes a member of the Body of Christ; with Chrismation he becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit; with Holy Communion he partakes of the Body and Blood of Christ. Of course, his own cooperation is required for the Grace of God to be activated.

The Church has certain textbooks on cure that demonstrate what exactly the cure is and how it is achieved. There one finds the task of the clerics. Three typical textbooks on cure are the following:

First, the Holy Scripture. Through the Old and the New Testament man learns the will of God, which he must apply in his life. According to recent research, the first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are actually catechism companions for the Church. The Catechumens were taught from these Gospels what Christian faith is and how to rid themselves of the rule of the devil. The fourth Gospel (John) is for the baptized ones, to learn the perfection of life in Christ. On the other hand, it is known that the epistles of the Apostles gave answers to topics of concern to local churches of the first period.

Therefore, Holy Scripture is a textbook on cure from which man is taught what illness and health are, how cure is achieved, and how to attain union with God. Of course, the Holy Scripture has to be interpreted from within the Orth-odox church tradition. If it is not part of the church atmosphere, it does not help man to be saved, but rather encloses him within the limits of selfishness, as we observe in the use of the Holy Scripture by various heretics in our days.

What happens with Holy Scripture is similar to what happens with medical textbooks. For someone to learn to operate on various parts of the human body, it is not sufficient to read and memorize a textbook. He must contact the author-doctor, be trained by him on this task. and himself be a surgeon. If he does not study the textbook in this context, he will soon lead people to the cemetery. The same happens with Holy Scripture. To comprehend it and use it for our therapy, we require the knowledge of God as revealed to the Prophets and the Apostles, or at least the knowledge of the Fathers who interpret the Holy Scripture according to the Church. Then we are certain that Holy Scripture cures man.

Texts of the rites constitute a second textbook on cure. The rites of the Church play an important role in the transformation of man’s personality and his rebirth. During the rites, especially the Divine Liturgy, man opens his heart to God and to the suffering of the whole world, since he prays for all kinds of people; he feels the Church as the Body of Christ and receives the Grace and blessing of God.

In the texts of the services, it is clear that the Church is a therapeutic center, Christ is our healer, and the deeper task and purpose of the Church is to heal man who is wounded by sin. In the prayers read by the priest in the Vespers it is said: “Be charitable to us, physician and therapist of our souls. Guide us to the port of your will. Illumine the eyes of our hearts to the knowledge of your truth . . .” In the Matins, while the reader reads the six Psalms, the priest reads twelve prayers. Among these, he prays as in confession: “Lord, have mercy, according to your great mercy, on us who have fallen to many and grave misdemeanors, and blot out our transgressions according to the multitude of thy tender mercies; for we have sinned to you, O Lord, you who know the unspoken and secrets of men’s hearts and have the sole power to remit sins. You, who have created in us a clean heart, and upheld us by a free spirit, and made known to us the joy of thy salvation, cast us not away from thy presence . . .” In another prayer of the Matins the priest prays: “ . . . merciful and all-powerful God. Shine in our heart the true Sun of your justice, illumine our nous and uphold all our senses, so that, as in a day, respectfully walking in the path of your commandments, we reach eternal life.”

In these prayers we see the aim of the Church, which is its deeper purpose. It is the cure of man and his guidance to the uncreated Light, to union with God. The purpose of man’s existence is deification.

All Church hymns refer to cure. They ask for God’s mercy, salvation, which is not an abstract condition and the soul’s exit from the body, but the coming of the Grace of God to the heart. Most hymns of the Church are confessional. Let me cite one of them:

My whole life sinful, my soul lustful the body full of dirt, the nous impure, the deeds all defiled, I am fully responsible for condemnation and conviction. Where shall I turn now? where shall I go if not to you? Our Lady have mercy and come to my salvation.

The third textbook on cure is the Prayer book of the Church. This is a book containing the texts and the order of the Church sacraments, as well as many other prayers used by the priest in his pastoral service. Reading the Prayer book carefully, one can see that the Grace of God takes over man from his birth to his death and is personally interested in him. There are prayers to be read right after birth, then man becomes part of the Body of the Church by Holy Baptism; if he leaves the Church, Grace brings him back by the sacrament of repentance; Grace is present in his wedding and follows him in all his activities until his sleep and beyond. In the Prayer book it is clear that the Church is personally interested in each man.

All these textbooks show that the Church is a Hospital-therapeutic center that cures man. We can see all its work in this perspective. If we have a different view of the Church, then we have in mind a secular Church that does not save man. Instead, it holds him captive to the conditions and circumstances of the fallen world.

Illness of the Soul

Let me first clarify that in discussing the illness of the soul we do not mean psychological imbalances, as understood by humanistic psychotherapy, or

illnesses originating from disturbances of the nerves and, in general, physical causes. Humanistic psychology talks about the soul outside the Orthodox perspective. So it is necessary to discuss what exactly man’s soul is and what its illness consists of.

Soul and Body

Man is a psychosomatic being, that is, he consists of soul and body. The soul is not the whole man but just the soul of man; the body is not the whole man but just the body of man. Therefore, man is both, consisting of soul and body.

The spiritual illness of the soul has repercussions to the body, as we can see in the case of Adam’s sin. Corruption and mortality were consequences of man’s sin and of the loss of the Grace of God. Vice versa, the coming of the Grace of God to man’s heart transforms the body, too. We see this in Christ’s Transfiguration, when his face shone like the sun. We see it in Moses whose face was shining, as well as in Archdeacon Stephen, whose face looked like an angel’s face.

Orthodox life aims at the deification of the entire man, soul and body. For this reason, hesychasm, neptic [6] theology aims at the simultaneous progression of soul and body to deification. Noetic prayer [7 ] and ascetic work cannot be interpreted in an Orthodox way, if not viewed through the deification of the human body.

According to the Holy Fathers, man is formed in the image of God. This means that he does not orient his life to himself, but to God. The Word of God is the image of the Father, and man is the image of the Word. Thus, man is an image-being, an image of an image.

Just as God is Triune, man’s soul is triune, that is, it has nous, intelligence, and spirit. The nous is the nucleus of man’s existence, intelligence expresses and formulates the experiences of the nous, and the spirit is man’s noetic love; with the Spirit’s power and energy man is driven toward God.

The soul is single and has many faculties and energies. The Fathers, besides the tripartite division of the soul we mentioned, also accepted a division established by the philosophers: that is, of intelligent, appetitive, and incensive. The first division refers to the ontology of the soul and its pictorial representation, the second one to the passions. Some passions are tied to the intelligent part (pride, atheism, heresy), others to the appetitive part (self-indulgence, avarice) and others to the incensive (wrath, anger, rancor, and so on). Saint Gregory Palamas teaches that ambition is an offspring of the intelligent part of the soul, love of possessions and avarice an offspring of the appetitive part, and gluttony an offspring of the incensive part. The incensive and the appetitive compose the so-called passible part of the soul.

Illness of the Soul

When speaking about the illness of the soul, we primarily mean the loss of Divine Grace, which has repercussions to the body also, and then the whole person is sick. There might be an absence of bodily illness, but without the Grace of God there is no health.

To best comprehend the Fall of man, it is necessary to start with what the Holy Fathers say, that the soul is noetic and intelligent, that is, the soul contains both nous and reason and these move in parallel. The nous is distinguished from reason in that the nous is the eye of the soul, the focus of attention, while reason is verbal and articulate and formulates thoughts through the brain. Thus, if the nous moves according to nature, which means it is healthy, reason is also healthy and the spirit, that is love, is healthy too. If the nous is not healthy, man is ill both in his reason and in his love. The malfunctioning of these two powers, nous and reason, causes illness.

Before the Fall, Adam lived in a natural condition. His nous was directed to God and received Grace from Him, while reason was subordinated to the graceful nous and, therefore, functioned normally.

The Fall, which constitutes the true illness, is in reality the darkening of the nous. The nous was darkened, lost the Grace of God, and spread darkness to the entire man. By the Fall of man we mean three things in the Orthodox Tradition: First, the nous was darkened and stopped functioning normally. Second, the nous was identified with reason and reason became the center of man. Third, the nous was enslaved to passions and to outside conditions. This was man’s spiritual death. And, as is the case when man’s eye is hurt and the entire body becomes dark, when the eye of the soul, the nous, is blinded, the entire spiritual organism is sick. It falls in deep darkness. Christ said: “If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness?” (Matt. 6:23).

The darkening of the nous creates terrible abnormalities in man’s life. It brings about a devastating breakdown of his entire spiritual composition. Among other things, man makes an idol out of God, for God becomes a creature of logic; man exploits his fellow beings for pleasure, ambition, and avarice and views the world as a quarry that has to be subjugated to his own individual needs.

Thus, we realize that all problems, social and interpersonal alike, are inner; they refer to the illness of the soul, the loss of divine Grace. When man’s noetic energy is not functioning well, we observe many anomalies. All passions revolt, and man uses both God and his fellow man to consolidate his own individual security and happiness. He is then continuously under stress, thinking he is in a prison.

Consequences of Man’s Fall

The neptic teaching of the Church that refers to the inner world is strongly related to the social teaching. It might be supposed that the ascetic life of the Church has no contact with reality. In fact, the opposite is true. Only by making this analysis of the Fall are we able to solve the problems emerging in our life. We saw some of the consequences before. Now we will turn to the dramatic consequences of man’s departure from God that show that Orthodox theology is a most radical and modern action.

The loss of the divine Grace, which constitutes the true illness of man, brought about both spiritual and bodily death. Spiritual death is man’s departure from God, and bodily death is the soul’s separation from the body. God did not create man to die, but bodily death came as a result of the Fall.

The first consequence of the fall was the darkening of the nous. Saint Gregory Palamas says: “If the nous departs from God, it becomes either bestial or demonic.” When man’s nous leaves God and is darkened, it is inevitable that all inner energies of the soul and the body are distorted. After the nous loses his movement according to nature, which is movement toward God, he desires alien things and his greed cannot be satiated. He indulges in carnal pleasures and knows no limit to these pleasures. While he dishonors himself with his acts, he insists on being honored by everyone. He wants everyone to flatter him, to agree with him, to cooperate with him, and when this is not offered, he is filled with wrath. His anger and his wrath against his fellow men is like a serpent. Then man, who was created in the image and the likeness of God, turns into a killer and becomes the likeness of the man-killing devil. The nous’ departure from God makes man bestial or demonic; he becomes a beast or a demon. Therefore, with the darkening of the nous, the passions go rampant.

A second consequence of the Fall is that the soul and the entire man move contrary to nature. The Holy Fathers teach that there are three movements of the nous: according to nature, above nature, and contrary to nature. The nous’ movement contrary to nature takes place when man does not see God’s Providence and His justice in what happens in his life, but rather believes that the others are unfair to him and he revolts against them. The nous’ movement according to nature is seen when man considers himself and evil thoughts as responsible for all his hardships. And the movement of the powers of the soul above nature occurs when the nous moves toward God, finds the fruits of the All-Holy Spirit, and sees the glory of God. In this stage, the nous becomes amorphous and shapeless; that is, it is freed from images, fantasies, and demonic thoughts. In the illness of the nous, we can find all the horrible distorting results of function and movement contrary to nature.

A third consequence of the Fall was the excitement of imagination. According to the teaching of the Holy Fathers, imagination, that is, images and representations, is an outcome of the Fall. God and the angels do not have imagination. The demons and fallen men have a sick imagination. The Fathers say that imagination is the scales of the nous that cover the noetic part of the nous; they are the bridge between man and the demons. A healthy man has imagination but not fantasies. To use an example, we can say that for a deified person imagination is like a TV set turned off. The equipment is there, but the images are not. In this sense, we say that saints do not have imagination.

This is a very important point, because so long as man is ill he is possessed by many images produced by the imaginative part of the soul. So-called “psychological problems” are, almost all of them, results of suspicion, of logical thoughts, all cultivated in the favorable climate of imagination. Today it is an observed fact that the more one is psychologically sick, the more his imagination is excited.

A fourth consequence of the Fall of man is that his emotional world gets sick. A spiritually healthy person is balanced in all his activities; he is not simply moved psychologically and emotionally by the various events of his life, but has true communion with God. Therefore, he is not moved emotionally by nature and its beauty, but rather sees it spiritually, because he sees God’s energy in it. The psychological joy of the inexperienced, which is not untouched by imagination, is different from spiritual joy, which is a product of the All-Holy Spirit. In a sick man, emotion is mixed with the passions of self-indulgence.

In Church, through our struggle and above all by receiving the Grace of God, we transform all emotions and all sick situations. This is achieved by repentance. Then all psychological events become spiritual states. Manifestations of a psychologically sick person are not observed in a repenting man.

Therefore, the illness of the soul, which manifests itself primarily in man’s nous, has tremendous consequences for the entire organism. A sick man becomes impassioned, self-loving, and self-indulgent, and this has repercussions for the whole society. In the Orthodox Church we say that it is possible for someone to be physically healthy and psychologically balanced because of his intelligence and his strong reason and not need a psychiatrist, and yet, still be ill if he does not have the Grace of God. The darkening of the nous is the greatest illness of man.

The Curing of the Soul

In the previous section, we said that the Church is a Hospital, a healing center. It heals man’s sick personality. If the darkening of the nous is the real illness, then cure consists of the illumination and livening of the nous. The subject of Orthodox psychotherapy should be viewed in this perspective. It is not concerned with psychological balance, but rather with the illumination of the nous and man’s union with God.

There is a very telling Church hymn in which we ask God to resurrect the mortified nous as He resurrected Lazarus. We chant:

Let us, O faithful, imitate Martha and Mary and send to Lord godly acts as ambassadors so that He comes to raise our nous, now lying dead in the tomb, insensitive to negligence, not feeling fear of the Divine, not having the energy of life, let us cry “see O Lord, and as you resurrected from horrible captivity your friend Lazarus once, Merciful One, the same way give life to all, offering your great mercy.

The Three Types of Christians

The image of a healing center, a Hospital, helps us see the task of the clerics, which is medical, and the whole life and objective of the Church.

There are three types of men in the Church. The first includes the psychologically unhealed, namely, those who are baptized, who are potentially members of the Church, but do not activate the gift of Baptism. Indeed, Baptism is not sufficient; observing Christ’s commandments is also required. The second category includes those in the process of cure, the Christians who struggle to be healed. They see the passions in themselves; they realize the darkening of the nous and make an effort to be cured with the means offered by the Orthodox Church. The third category includes the cured ones. Here belong the saints, who received the Grace of the Holy Spirit, cleansed their hearts from the passions, reached the illumination of the nous and the vision of God. The saints are called deified because they partake of deification. The fact that they have been cured does not mean that they make no mistakes whatsoever on a human level, but they have a correct orientation; they know what the Grace of God is, and they know how to repent. Their nous is rightly directed to God, they have good self-knowledge, they are aware of the dogmas, and in general they know exactly the purpose of their existence.

Ways to Cure the Soul

It is now necessary to examine the ways by which the personality of man is cured. Among other things, this demonstrates the character and the content of Orthodox asceticism.

The first requirement is correct faith. By faith, we mean the revealed truth. God revealed Himself to the Prophets, the Apostles, and the saints. This truth is authentic because it is by Revelation.

Correct faith shows what God is, what man is, what the purpose of man is, and how he can achieve communion with God. When faith is adulterated, life is instantly adulterated; man loses his orientation and is unable to reach his target. What happens is similar to medical science, the curative treatment of a hospital. If the underlying theory about a disease is wrong, the cure is also wrong, implying that such a disease is not cured in this particular hospital. This is why we Orthodox insist on safeguarding Revelation. If it is altered, then our salvation is uncertain.

We should view the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils in this perspective. The teaching that Christ is God is associated with salvation, since only God can save man. If Christ does not have two perfect natures, a divine nature and a human nature, our salvation is impossible. It is the same if God does not have a divine will and a human will. Therefore, our staying within dogmatic precision is a prerequisite of cure, of salvation and sanctification.

The second requirement for the therapy of the soul is awareness of the illness. This is necessary, because once we know we are ill we seek a doctor and a cure. Otherwise, we remain in ignorance and illness.

The same holds true of bodily diseases. Ignorance of the disease leads to death. Knowledge of the disease, deriving from pain, prompts us to take all necessary measures to obtain a cure. It is a terrible thing not to know our bodily disease.

One of the greatest sins of our times is self-love and self-sufficiency. We are contained in ourselves, having the illusion that we are well, that we need no doctor. The illusion of health is the worst hypocrisy.Saint Johnthe Evangelist said: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Obviously, realizing our horrible condition is not easy. Carnal man cannot know his passions. In fact, he thinks that life contrary to nature, as experienced after the Fall, is natural. This is indeed tragic. However, there are certain ways by which man can come to know himself. Let me report some of them.

One may know his condition through the energy of holy Grace. What happens with spiritual diseases is identical to how bodily diseases are detected, by undergoing appropriate examinations, using X-rays and a tomography. The uncreated Grace of God enters our soul, and then we see our horrible distorted state and mess. In the beginning of spiritual life, the vision of the uncreated Light is experienced negatively, that is, as a fire burning the passions.

Another way of self-knowledge is the study of Holy Scripture, of patristic works, of the lives of the saints. By reading these writings, we realize God’s love and philanthropy and how far man is able to go by the Grace of God and his own personal struggle. We might also realize our deficiencies and weaknesses.

In this case, study functions as a spiritual mirror. The asceticism of the saints bothers our conscience, it throws our inaction away, it invalidates all excuses and leads us to the observance of Christ’s commandments.

We may say that in realizing our illness we are helped by our failures in life. When some of our supports are lifted, when we reach a point of saying, like the Disciples on the road to Emmaus, “But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemedIsrael” (Luke 24:21), then we are able to really see Christ and seek the new life He gives to the world. Personal, family, and social failures bring us to an impasse. At that point, if we have an inner disposition, a spiritual inspiration, associated with hope in God, this may lead us to a realization of our spiritual condition.

Another fine method of comprehending the illnesses of the soul is by exercising logical prayer. When we repeat with our lips and our mind the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” the Grace of God will break the outside wall of illusory good self and reveal our wretchedness.

Because God loves us and is interested in our salvation, He keeps sending us invitations so that we do not lose our purpose and destination. He calls one person through Godly despair, someone else by the illumination of the holy Light, a third one through study, a fourth one through his encounter with a holy person who has had the experience of the other life existing in the Church, and through various other means.

The third requirement for our cure is to find a therapist. We search for the proper physician for our bodily diseases, and we should do the same for spiritual diseases. For the former we first visit the provincial doctor, then we go to large specialized hospitals, then we consult advanced specialists, and finally, we visit medical school professors and doctors abroad. We should exhibit the same, if not more, fervor for the spiritual diseases tormenting us.

The holy Fathers state in their works that clerics of all degrees are called healers. In many of his sermons, Saint Gregory the Theologian refers to this point and calls the clerics healers because they heal the psychological diseases of the people. He himself asserts that he refused to shepherd the people and, instead, left for the desert after his ordination as a presbyter, because he felt he was unworthy of healing the illnesses of others, not having cured himself yet. It is significant that Saint Gregory calls the work of Christ’s divine providence therapeutic work and Christ a therapist of men. He calls the priesthood a therapeutic science and a therapeutic service. He says characteristically: “We are servants and collaborators for this therapy.”

The priests’ fundamental task is not selling tickets to Paradise, but healing, so that when man sees God He becomes Paradiseand not Hell for man. If we examine all the sacraments and sacramental rites available to the priest from Baptism to Holy Communion, and from repentance to the funeral service, we will find out that they all presuppose and aim at man’s therapy. The sacraments are not social events and rituals; the church rites do not aim at psychological justification and the cultivation of religious feelings, but at man’s therapy. By viewing the sacraments outside the therapy of man’s personality, by participating in them without the cleansing of the heart and the illumination of the nous, we ignore the deeper purpose of church life.

It is common to hear the excuse that a proper spiritual father for therapy has not been found. My reply is that most of us actually need a nurse and a provincial physician, not refined surgery. We have to begin with the spiritual father close to us, in our parish, in our town. What is indispensable is to open our heart to God, to freely expose our wounds and request His Grace. If God sees that we need a better and “more scientific” physician, he will reveal him to us. Also, if our spiritual father realizes that we need help from a more experienced spiritual father, because we have advanced in spiritual life and have more subtle spiritual needs, then he will recommend the way. By all means, it is basic to start confessing to someone. We should not waste precious time in searching for an experienced spiritual father. If needed, he will show up in due time.

What we have said is still not sufficient. We also need a fourth way for our inner cure, and this is the finding and implementation of the proper therapeutic treatment. In bodily diseases, if one becomes aware of his illness and finds the best doctor, but does not follow the recommended treatment, he fails to be cured, he does not get well. The same is true of spiritual illnesses. Correct faith, awareness of the illness, and a proper therapist are all prerequisites, but if we do not follow the right therapeutic way, if we do not take proper medicine, we cannot be cured.

There are several such ways. Let me point to what is suggested in many hymns of the Church: namely, fasting, vigils, and prayer. I point out this method because in the effort to apply these commandments many things emerge, and we are helped in our spiritual life. By doing these things, we develop mourning, repentance, love for God and our brothers, purity of the heart, and so on. This is why they are very important means for our spiritual therapy.

Fasting aims at the exercise of both soul and body so that they move together in the course to deification. There is both a bodily fast and a spiritual fast. Bodily fast refers to the quality and quantity of food, as determined by the Church. It is scientifically proven that some meals are heavier and others are lighter for the organism. Sometimes it is essential to fast very strictly because in this way man’s nous is detached from material goods and turns to God. Furthermore, obedience to fasts determined by the Church helps man to submerge his will to the universal will and experience of the Church. Combined with spiritual fasting, bodily fasting introduces man to the atmosphere of cleansing, that is, the struggle to cleanse the heart from the passions of self-indulgence, avarice, boastfulness, and selfishness.

Vigils are an effort to subordinate the body to the soul, in the sense that it does not exceed its functions and its mission. The Church does not share the dualistic view of Hellenistic philosophy, according to which there exist two separate entities, a soul and a body. Vigils, along with all other physical exercises, aim precisely at the unity of soul and body. In any case, a lot of people stay awake for various reasons today. So it is worthy doing this vigil for God, to stay awake for the glory of God. Of course, in the world, vigil is not the all-night prayer of the monks in the Monasteries, but an exercise against excessive sleep and excessive physical comfort that breed countless evils to man’s organism. Vigil is also closely related to the balance of the psychosomatic organism of man and to watchfulness, which is essential in spiritual life.

Prayer is tied to fasting and vigils. Fasting and vigils without prayer are useless. Indeed, if the Holy Spirit does not come, all physical exercises are futile. Prayer is either worshiping, with the entire community, or intelligent, made by man’s reason, or noetic-of-the-heart, when the nous, in the Holy Spirit, enters man’s heart. Then the nous and the heart unite in the power and energy of the Holy Spirit, and this is called illumination of the nous.

In Church hymns, fasting, vigils, and prayer are called celestial gifts. They assist man in his journey to deification and sanctification. They lead the psychosomatic organism to balance. In Adam there was such a balance before the Fall. The nous was inspired by the Grace of God; it nurtured the body and then radiated the Grace to all creation. After the Fall, however, the nous was darkened. The body is fed from the creation rather than from the nous, and bodily passions show up. The soul is fed from the body, and this creates psychological passions. With fasting, vigils, and prayer these contrary-to-nature functions are corrected. This is why cleansing, illumination, and deification are expressed through these gifts.

We need therapy. It is not sufficient to be potential members of the Church, we must become actively so. The Orthodox Church possesses a perfect therapeutic system, an excellent therapeutic treatment, so long as we desire to become persons-hypostases.



[1]. Hypostases are persons, or essential natures.

[2]. Nous: The word has various uses in Patristic teaching. It indicates either the soul or the heart or even the energy of the soul. Yet, the nous is mainly the eye of the soul, the purest part of the soul, the highest attention. It is also called noetic energy, and it is not identified with reason.

[3]. Saint Gregory the Theologian. Or. 27, 3. NPNFns, vol. 7, p. 285.

[4]. Saint John Climacus. The Ladder. Step 30. CWS p. 288.

[5]. An apolytikion is a dismissal hymn, otherwise known as a troparion.

[6]. Nepsis is the rejection of everything that impedes the mind’s ascent toward God.

[7]. Noetic prayer is prayer to illumine the nous.


This article was originally published in the journal “The Divine Ascent”.