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The Science of Spiritual Medicine: Orthodox Psychotherapy in Action

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Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Ierotheos






“The book “Orthodox Psychotherapy”, subtitled “The Science of the Fathers”, was published in Greek in 1986. Since then it has been reprinted nine times and translated into as many languages.

Because a great deal of discussion and interest was provoked by the book, it was followed by two further books in Greek entitled “Therapeutic Treatment” and “Discussions on Orthodox Psychotherapy”, which analyzed various themes in the first book in greater detail.

It has been considered necessary to combine “Therapeutic Treatment” and “Discussions on Orthodox Psychotherapy” (neither of which has been translated into English) into a single book called “The Science of Spiritual Medicine”. The chapters have been reorganized and I have also made various additions and modifications in order to make them more helpful for people today.

The present book is therefore a continuation of “Orthodox Psychotherapy”. Whereas “Orthodox Psychotherapy” sets out the teaching of the Fathers of the Church on the Orthodox Church as a spiritual hospital where man is healed of his spiritual sickness, “The Science of Spiritual Medicine” deals with the practical aspect. It is about Orthodox psychotherapy in action.

It should be stressed that man is healed of his spiritual illnesses within the Church, which is the Body of Christ, a community of deification and “the Gospel of the Kingdom” (cf. Matt. 4:23, 9:35, 24:14, Mark 1:14). This healing is not some sort of theoretical system, but the action of the Church. It is achieved by participation in the Sacraments and by following the Church’s ascetic and septic tradition.

The three basic Sacraments are Baptism, which is the introductory Sacrament; Christmation, through which we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit; and the Divine Eucharist, by which we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. As well as all the othe rSacraments, the whole of the Church’s life belongs in this perspective.

When we speak of the Church’s ascetic and neptic tradition we are referring to our effort to practice Christ’s commandments in our everyday life and to follow in its entirety the method analyzed by the Fathers of the Church. Through this method, by the grace of God and our own endeavor, we cleanse our nous from thoughts and fantasies, transform our passions (in other words, the powers of our soul) and acquire communion with God.

If every branch of knowledge inevitably includes both theory and practice, the same is true of our Orthodox Tradition. The present book makes the issues discussed in the first book, “Orthodox Psychotherapy”, even more practical.

I think it is necessary here to emphasize an important point that denies all my thinking and my pastoral ministry, and forms the context in which the subsequent chapters of the book ought to be read.

Man is made up of soul and body, and there is mutual interaction between them, particularly in his fallen state. The passions of the soul also act upon the body, and the bodily passions influence the soul and every aspect of human behavior. IN addition, various biochemical processes take place within the body and the brain which affect man’s psychological world.

A human being is not an autonomous entity, but a person who relates to God, other people, society and the environment. When these relationships are disturbed, this has consequences for the person on the spiritual, psychological and physical level. The devil also influences human beings in various ways and this demonic activity is resisted by means of man’s free will, which is strengthened by the grace of Christ.

Some so-called psychological problems are due to biological or neurological causes, others to spiritual causes (the loss of a person’s relationship with God), and others to demonic activity; these factors also influence one another. It is important for someone to be able to discern these causes, to see the mutual interaction between them, and to take steps to heal people. When Father Paisios encountered such cases, he would sometimes say, “What is needed is prayer and spiritual life within the Church.” At other times he would recommend, “Go to the doctor”, and sometimes he used to state categorically, “The child needs help from a saint”, in other words, he urged them to visit places where the relics of saints are kept, so that the demons would go away.

There is a scriptural basis for this distinction, as is clear from the occasions when people who were “moonstruck” were healed. Those referred to as “moonstruck” were people with epilepsy, whose illness was due to organic damage to the brain and who acted in a particular way. In those days this was regarded as due to the influence of the moon, so such people were called “moonstruck”. Sometimes those possessed by evil spirits were also referred to as “moonstruck”. According to St. John Chrystom the moon has no affect in these cases, the but devil in his wickedness creates this impress by attacking people “according to the phase of the moon”. St. Matthew the Evangelist uses the word “moonstruck” in both these senses.

In one passage, recording the healing of someone possessed by a devil, he writes, “There came to Him a certain man, kneeling down to Him, and saying, Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatic [“moonstruck”], and sore vexed.” Because Christ knew that this was the work of demons, He “Rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour” (Matt. 17:14-18). Here someone regarded as “moonstruck” was possessed b y an evil spirit.

Elsewhere the same Evangelist gives another meaning to the word “Moonstruck”. He writes, “And they brought unto Him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatic [“moonstruck”], and those that had the pals; and He healed them” (Matt. 4:24). A very clear distinction is made here between those possessed by evil spirits, the “moonstruck”, and the paralyzed, which is why the word “and” is inserted between each category of people. In this case the “moonstruck” are not possessed by demons but suffer from what we nowadays refer to as epilepsy: they are epileptics with disorder of the nervous system. Those possessed by evil spirits have been overpowered by the devil. And “those that had the palsy” are suffering from physical illnesses. The difference is very clear.

These clarifications are essential to enable us to distinguish between what is spiritual and what is physical, and to prevent us attributing to the devil something that is a physical illness, or ascribing something demonic to those who are physically sick. Thus we neither reject medical science and its work, and the biological functions of the human organism, nor do we overlook spiritual illnesses and their causes, which subsequently create physical disorders as well.

What is written in this book refers mainly to spiritual problems that concern human beings in connection with their communion with God, and not to neurotic or psychotic conditions. I pray that those who read this book may benefit from it, so that God may be glorified.”


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