I decided to start reading Orthodox Psychotherapy by Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos for Lent. I don’t know how much blogging I will do on this, but I am going to try. I had thought of reading this book quite a while ago but had been a bit put off for two reason – partly the negative reaction of someone else, whose judgements I have since learnt to take with a certain caution, and partly because I had assumed from the title that it is a book about Orthodoxy and psychology. I have nothing against such books but, not having much background in psychology, it is a genre that I have not yet got into.
However, on closer perusal it became clear that the title is misleading – it does not refer to the modern practice of psychotherapy, but rather to its literal meaning, namely the cure of the soul, or the healing of the person. Essential this is a book about the Orthodox understanding of spiritual life.
In his opening chapter Metropolitan Hierotheos outlines that Christianity, and especially the Orthodox understanding of it, is a therapeutic science. He begins by asking what Christianity is and argues that it is not a philosophy or a religion in the sense that these are normally understood today. It is not a abstract speculation, nor is it a way to placate God or ensure a place in the afterlife. Rather it is the revelation of God and the vision of the uncreated Light which enables us to participate in the Kingdom of God here and now.
It offers life, transforms biological life, sanctifies and transforms societies. Where Orthodoxy is lived in the right way and in the Holy Spirit, it is a communion of God and men, of heavenly and earthly, of the living and the dead. In this communion all the problems which present themselves in our life are truly resolved. (25)
However, the Church is made up of sick people and of people who are at various stages on their spiritual journey, and for some of them Christianity may indeed function as a religion. However, we should make certain points clear. Firstly, the New Testament teaches that Christianity is mainly a Church, the Body of Christ.
This means that Christ does not simply dwell in heaven and direct history and the lies of men from there, but He is united with us. He assumed human nature and deified it; thus in Christ deified human nature is at the right hand of the Father. So Christ is our life and we are ‘members of Christ’. (26)
Secondly, the aim of Christian life is to attain the state of deification. Deification is simply attaining the likeness of God, becoming like God. However, in order for this to happen, and for the vision of God to be a life-giving light and not a consuming fire, purification needs to have taken place, for “Christianity without purification is utopia.” (26) This purification involves the healings of our passions so that we can attain communion and union with God.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan we see how Christ reaches out to those who have been wounded by sin and brings them into the inn, “to the Hospital which is the Church. Here Christ is presented as a physician who heals man’s illnesses, and the Church as a Hospital.” (27)
The work of the Church is basically therapeutic. “It seeks to heal men’s sicknesses, mainly those of the soul, which torment them. This is the basic teaching of the new Testament and of the Fathers of the Church.” (28-29) Metropolitan Hierotheos quotes Father John Romanides who writes:
Having faith in Christ without undergoing healing in Christ is not faith at all. Here is the same contradiction that we find when a sick person who has great confidence in his doctor never carries out the treatment which he recommends. If Judaism and its successor, Christianity, had appeared in the twentieth century for the first time, they would most likely have been characterized not as religions but as medical sciences related to psychiatry. They would have a wide influence on society owing to their considerable successes in healing the ills of the partially functioning personality. In no way can prophetic Judaism and Christianity be construed as religions that use various magical methods and beliefs to promise escape from a supposed world of matter and evil or hypocrisy into a supposed spiritual world of security and success.” (29)
I’m not unaware that both Father Romanides and Metropolitan Hierotheos are writing from a particular perspective that tends to perhaps overplay the differences between East and West and I suspect that I may come back to that later in the book. I also tend to wonder whether the understanding of Christianity as healing can be over-emphasized to the detriment of other understandings. Nevertheless, I believe that the message that this book brings is one that seriously needs to be heard and which I need to appreciate more. So we shall see how the reading progresses…