Orthodoxy Today
Asceticism And Psychology In The Modern World

Is asceticism limited to monks in an abandoned or desolate location? Are ordinary Christians different from monks? St. John Chrysostom answered these questions over a millennium ago. "For our married people have everything in common with the monks except marriage," Chrysostom taught.

A monk of Mt. Athos* illustrated the relationship between monasticism and life in the world even further. "The holy monk is the one who is with the world in his desert, and in the desert when he is in the world," he wrote. His words apply to married Christians as much as they apply to monasticism.

Christians are called to follow and serve God where He can be found. For most Christians God is found "in the world." As the Father sent the Son into the world, so too are we sent into the world.

At the same time however, we are to keep ourselves from the evil we find there. In His last discourse Jesus said: "I do not pray that thou should take them out of the world, but that thou should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth" (John 17:15-17).

These words are particularly relevant as Orthodox Christians prepare for the coming of Great Lent. During Lent the Orthodox Christian has retired to the desert in order to comprehend and experience in deeper measure the resurrected Christ. Each day however, should contain some elements of Lenten discipline that leads to the illumination that Christ offers to those who seek Him.

Pierre-Marie Delfieux in The Jerusalem Community Rule of Life (1985), tells us how the Church Fathers structured life so that John's teaching could be followed. St. Basil in his Longer Rule admonished us to be close and bound up with others while yet keeping distance and remaining solitary. St. Benedict directed his monks to focus on the needs of others while longing for God alone.

Martha, Mary, and trained intelligence

To the non-monastic Christian, Basil and Benedict's admonition can be described as living as both a Martha and a Mary. The Gospel of Luke recounts the story:

Martha received him (Jesus) into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her (Luke 10:38-42).

The path of Martha and the path of Mary both lead to God. This is one reason why both women are saints in the Church. Their roles complement each other although each is needful at different times. Christians have to combine both roles in ways that fit their personalities. For example, extrovert personalities may feel more comfortable emphasizing the Martha role. Introverts may find themselves more at ease in the role of Mary.

Integrating spirituality and personality takes intelligence, reason, and prayer. St. Paul told the Corinthians: "I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also." St. Maximus the Confessor taught that, "A pure mind sees thing correctly (and) a trained intelligence puts them in order."

A foundational building block of a trained intelligence is "openness of heart." In Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East, I. Hausherr (1990) wrote that openness of heart is not only openness of conscience but more importantly openness of thoughts. The ancient Spiritual Father would have his spiritual children reveal their actual dispositions which would be inferred from the movements of the heart. This is not unlike psychotherapy in which the patient discloses his inner feelings and thoughts to the clinician.

In discussing early ascetical psychology, Haucherr noted the "suggestion of thought which is free from blame." This is an important because it contains the insight that inner thoughts are where spiritual struggle begins. St. Mark the Ascetic in Against the Messalians wrote that "inner dialogue with the suggestion (temptation) may end in victory (or) actual sin." Inner dialogue leads to action, and repeated acts produce either freedom or passion and captivity of soul.

Cognitive psychology and ancient practices

Cognitive psychologists, using their own technical vocabulary, have demonstrated empirical evidence for such processes. The "automaticity" of irrational thoughts leading to dysfunctional emotions is well-documented (Beck, 1991). The difficulty of challenging or disputing these thoughts and thereby modifying both feelings and behavior, is delineated by modern scientific cognitive-behavior psychotherapy.

The initial step in the challenging-disputation process is pinpointing distorted cognitions (irrational thoughts). Typically, with the help of the clinician, the patient writes out a list of his or her irrational thoughts. Without this important step cognitive-behavioral change cannot take place.

In a similar manner, the Church Fathers emphasized the importance of this disclosure in a complete and systematic way. For the Spiritual Fathers this is done with vigilance (nepsis), watchfulness, and the guarding of the heart. Haucherr (1990) quotes an anonymous old man saying, "When evil thoughts harass you, do not hide them, but tell them at once to your Spiritual Father. The more one hides one's thoughts, the more they multiply and the stronger they become."

The reason for this revelation is to provide the Spiritual Father with the basis for discernment (diakrisis). The Fathers knew the importance of disclosure and extended this to actual techniques not unlike the disputation processes whose efficacy has been demonstrated by modern cognitive psychological researchers.

The spiritual writers considered that in discernment a Spiritual Father was required. The danger of illusion and exaggeration would lead to theoretical and practical errors on the part of struggling Christians, both young and old. This discernment process is so important that St. Anthony said, "There are many who broke their bodies by asceticism, but ended far from God because they lacked discernment . . . in their delusion they ignored the command that says, 'Ask your father, let him teach you'" (quoted in Haucherr, 1990, p. 158).

While there have been a proliferation of self-help books even in scientific cognitive psychotherapy (e.g. Burns, 1980; Beck, 1988; Ellis and Harper, 1961; Gottman, 1994), frequently the authors who write such guides suggest readers consult trained clinicians in dealing with their problems. Burns, for example, points out it would be "unreasonable" to expect to improve or recover after reading his book. What is needed is "the additional help of a mental health professional."

The ascetical spiritual writers from a modern psychological viewpoint seemed to have grasped the connection between thoughts, emotions and behavior. Bishop Hierotheos Vlachos (1994, p. 214) states, " It is in the intelligent part of the soul that evil thoughts operate which excite desire and attempt to capture man's nous so that sin is committed. The development of sin starts with thoughts." He goes on to further pinpoint what thoughts are by appealing to the division made by St. Maximus the Confessor.

St. Maximus distinguishes between simple and composite thoughts. Thoughts not producing passions (emotion) are simple. Composite thoughts consist of a conceptual images accompanied by passion (Philokalia 2, 1981, p. 79). A question arises: How do the church fathers teach us to deal with these "thoughts"? St. Maximus the Confessor states: "(the separation of thought and passion) can be made through spiritual love and self control" (Philokalia 2, 1981, p. 89).

In Unseen Warfare, edited by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and revised by St. Theophan the Recluse, summarizing the Church Fathers on this subject, suggest methods such as: effort of will, appealing to Our Lord Jesus Christ, and doing something opposite of the thought. Appealing to Our Lord of course is essential for any Christian, because He is the source of our life and strength and all that we do in His name is blessed.

A similar procedure called thought stopping was developed and shown to be efficacious by Cautela (1969) and Wolpe (1969). However, the plethora of other cognitive techniques used in the name of Christ, could be added to aid in the spiritual and psychological healing of the patient/prodigal. This would be in the spirit of the Spiritual Fathers as well as using psychological techniques shown by research to be efficacious.

Psychology and spiritual growth

Christians perceives themselves as created in God's image called to be like Him, created with body, mind and spirit. Based on current understanding of how the mind works, they can apply this knowledge to their psychological and spiritual growth. Knowledge of the cognitive distortions and how they apply to our own lives is among the important uses of cognitive psychology in the spirit of the Spiritual Fathers.

Research by clinical and research cognitive psychologists have found support for eight cognitive distortions (Beck, 1995):

  • Selective Abstraction, is focusing on one event while excluding others. In one of my recent cases, "Jack" an engineer, selectively focused on a reprimand he just received from his supervisor, while ignoring the praise he received the previous week from the senior project manager. This irrational perception led to his depression.
  • Arbitrary Inference is drawing a conclusion unwarranted by the facts in an ambiguous situation. The same patient mentioned above, the engineer, concluded that his next evaluation (given by his supervisor) would be unsatisfactory. This led to further depression.
  • Personalization is blaming yourself for an event you are not responsible for. Another patient "Linda" became depressed when during a business meeting (attended by her section, comprising about twenty five people), her supervisor made a statement that "some in the section are not "team players." She immediately "personalized" the statement, of course with no evidence that the boss was directing it at her.
  • Polarization is perceiving or interpreting events in-all-or nothing terms. "Cynthia," another patient of mine, became depressed after receiving a 'B' in a college course. She "polarized" events into two categories, good student/bad student. A 'B' fell into the bad-student pole. She failed to see that all events can be graded on a continuum between two poles. On such a scale' a 'B' is closer to an 'A' that to an 'F', for example.
  • Generalization is the tendency to see things in always-or-never categories. Another patient, "Mary," became depressed during marital therapy, when she irrationally concluded that her husband will "never" change and will "always" be the same. Her dysphoria led to a self-defeating pattern of behavior which further distanced her and her husband and set herself up for the very thing she did not want: a poorer marriage.
  • Demanding Expectations are beliefs that there are laws or rules that have to be obeyed. "Kim" came into treatment because she was depressed over her son's talking back to her. She irrationally believed that there is a "law in the universe" that says that children should do what mothers ask and if not she has the right to get upset. She did not see God "asks" us to obey Him. He gave us free will. Christ Himself respected the free will of the creatures he created as shown by the gentleness of His admonitions. Like Christ, parents should prefer and constructively work toward reasonable obedience from their children. A program of rewards for appropriate behavior and punishment for inappropriate behavior, administered without anger, anxiety or depression, would be constructive in bringing about good behavior instead of demanding it. Preferences would be substituted for demands.
  • Catastrophizing is the perception that something is more than 100% bad, terrible or awful. "Kim" erroneously reacts to her son's talking back as the "end of the world." With cognitive intervention she would discover that on a scale of problems she might have with her son, talking back would be evaluated as decidedly low, surely not a catastrophe.
  • Emotional Reasoning is the judgment that one's feelings are facts. Sandy has a "feeling" that her new boss does not like her. When asked how she knows this, she responds that her "feelings are always right." She fails to distinguish a feeling as real, which it is, versus a feeling proving something, which is impossible. For example, I tell patients, "No matter how strongly some people 'felt' during the time of Christopher Columbus that the world was flat, it did not make it so."

After identifying these cognitive distortions, clinical research has shown they have to be disputed. This is not dissimilar to the Spiritual Fathers who said evil thoughts have to be acted on. Modern psychology gives us more tools to do this.

The Church Fathers would surely have welcomed such procedures. Quite effective in the disputation process is teaching (note the importance of a psychological/spiritual guide) the patient/prodigal the "Challenging Questions":

  1. Where is the evidence (the evidence for or against the idea or thought)?
  2. Is there any other way of looking at it (alternative explanations)?
  3. Is it as bad as it seems (what is the worst and best that could happen, could I live with it, what is the realistic outcome)?
  4. What is the effect of holding onto my distorted thoughts (what would happen if I changed my thinking)?

A practical example

A brief spiritual/psychological example of this process might be useful. An eighteen year old young woman comes to counseling (to a mental health clinician/pastoral counselor/spiritual guide) She is very despondent. Her Beck Depression Inventory is scored at 32, indicating severe depression. She is also hopeless. During the initial session it is revealed she has had a previous abortion and is currently two months pregnant by her father. She is overweight and did not immediately discover the pregnancy. Furthermore she has been sexually abused by her father since she was a young teenager. She sees herself as ugly. She blames herself for the sexual abuse. She believes she can never be forgiven. This young woman feels abandoned by Jesus and anyone decent.

Pastorally and clinically, this suffering child of God has to be able to express her thoughts and feelings and be validated in terms that these are her real thoughts and feelings. At some point, however, when trust between her and the clinicial/spiritual guide has been established, the "Challenging" can begin to take place.

The girl can be helped to identify her cognitive distortions. She is labeling and polarizing herself as "bad," she is arbitrarily inferring that she is "damned and cannot be forgiven." Combining the cognitive and spiritual approach would be integrating her faith in the "Challenging" process. The passage from the Gospel of St. John (8: 11) on the woman caught in adultery could be given to her to read and explore how it can be applied to her life. Jesus' words: "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again."

The teaching of the church on forgiveness and the sin against the Holy Spirit can be examined as it pertains to her. Each of her cognitive distortions can be examined by finding alternative explanations and their consequences. There are a host of other scriptural and pastoral teachings of Our Lord and the saints that can be used. As the "Challenging" continues, the process has to be enlivened by the love and spirit of Christ.

The world, as God's creation is something that should be loved. "God made the world and it is good" (Genesis1:10). As the psalmist states: "The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Psalm 19:1). What needs to be rejected is world that which separates us from God and our love of one another.

Our task as Christians, using the admonition of St. Paul, is to be "wise as serpents." Use our intelligence, by which we are like God, to be "watchful" and "discern" that which is good and leads us to God and one another, versus that which is evil and separates us from God and one another. Our calling as God's children demands this. This is the wisdom of the Spiritual Fathers. To put on Christ in the modern world means to continue the ascetical practices of our Spiritual Fathers by employing the scientific findings of modern psychology.


Beck, A.T.(1988). Love Is Never Enough. Harper & Rowe: New York.

Beck, A.T. (1991). Cognitive Therapy: A 30-year perspective. American Psychologist, 46, 368-365.

Beck, J.S. (1995). Cognitive Therapy: Basics and beyond. The Guilford Press: New York.

Burns, D. D. (1980). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Avon Books: New York.

Cautela, J.R. (1969). Behavior therapy and self control. In C. Franks. (Ed.) Behavior therapy: Appraisal and status. NY: McGraw Hill.

Delfieux, Pierre-Marie, (1985). The Jerusalem Community Rule of Life. Paulist Press: Mahwah, NJ.

Ellis, A. & Harper, R.A. (1961). A Guide to Rational Living. Lyle Stuart: New York.

Gottman, J. (1994). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. Simon & Schuster: New York.

Kadloubovsky, E., & Palmer, G.E.H. (trans.)(1952). Unseen Warfare. Faber & Faber: London.

Hausherr, I. (1990). Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East. Cistercian Publications, St. Joseph's Abbey: Spencer, MA.

Hopko, T. (1997). The Lenten Spring: Readings for Great Lent. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (1981). The Philokalia (V. 2). Faber & Faber: London.

Wolpe, J. (1969). The Practice of Behavior Therapy. NY: Pergamon.

Vlachos, Bishop Hierotheos, (1994). Orthodox Psychotherapy: the Science of the Fathers. Lavadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: March 6, 2006

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