The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings (Ps 144: 17)
Even a casual reader of the articles I write cannot help but notice the spiritual emphasis, based on the example of Christ Himself, that I place on kindliness, forgiveness and Godliness. (Morelli, 2006b, 2007a, 2007b) Therefore, it should come as no surprise how spiritually upsetting a recent opinion piece by a Russian journalist which was forwarded to me:
One value that the . . . Orthodox Church does not have enough of is kindness and compassion. The upholding of ritual and rules often supplants genuine feeling and compassion. Among Orthodox priests there are many who would sternly tell a woman, “cover your head” in church, oblivious to the fact that the woman is trying to calm down her crying child and has no time to find or readjust her headscarf. A sad young woman who comes to a church to seek solace may hear: “You can’t wear trousers here.” I have witnessed such scenes myself and I can imagine how many souls have been turned away by such uncharitable severity. As long as the . . . Orthodox priest does not become a shepherd first and an administrator second, the faith of many . . . will remain a dream and not a source of spiritual fortitude.i
What a sad account about some who are supposed to pastor the people of God! Now I would like to dismiss such stories as isolated incidents or mere accidents. Unfortunately, I myself have been subjected to similar treatment by hierarchs and priests, and I have witnessed laity being similarly treated. Regrettably, I have also heard numerous complaints from pious individuals visiting parishes and monasteries describing very similar situations.
Psychological consequences of anger and harshness
I have written (Morelli, 2006a) about the deleterious effects of anger in family settings. However, such consequences are applicable to persons of all ages and situations as well. Harshness and lack of emotional control incite untoward consequences in others. Observing authority figures displaying aggressive words and deeds promotes learning and performing of similar inappropriate behavior under the incentive of suitable conditions. (Bandura, 1986, Morelli, 2009). Abrasive correction may also lead individuals to focus on the harshness of the individual doing the correcting rather than their own behavior, thus cutting off the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
Two spiritual outcomes of severity:
Certainly we can apply two of the Beatitudes to being treated harshly by others:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. (Mt 5: 10-11)
However vilifying someone to encourage spiritual growth is very problematical. It may produce spiritual fruit or spiritual disaster. In this regard, Hausherr (1990) cites the apophthegm of a certain monk, Isaiah: "Nothing is as useful to a beginner as an insult. The beginner who bears insults is like a tree which is watered every day." But this favorable consequence is not always the outcome. Hausherr goes on to describe a spiritually horrific consequence that could result from "systematic coldness." He describes the action of ailing Abba Ammonas who was taken care of by Young John the Theban for twelve years, but the Abba "never said a kind or gentle word to him." Hausherr relates further that in the Lives of the Saints examples of intentional severity abound.
However, such harshness should not be considered the norm for the treatment of others, especially by those who are the arch-pastors and pastors of the people of God, the royal priesthood of the baptized who make up our local Churches. First, consider that such harsh treatment, as described by Hausherr above, was reserved for those who already had left the world, lived in a monastic setting and voluntarily put themselves under the direction of a spiritual father. Even then, such treatment was not meant for all monastics. Furthermore, such harshness could only be done with great spiritual discernment and discretion. Consider Hausherr's understanding:
In order for such treatment to be possible without committing a breach of discretion, it was necessary for several persons to be present: a master who wanted nothing but his disciple's spiritual good, and a disciple who had perfect faith in his spiritual father, which presupposed an uncommon strength of soul [emphasis mine] in the one and the other. The great art consisted above all in judging the trials against everyone's endurance; the great charity, in using every means gradually to develop such endurance.
I have not observed any harsh treatment dispensed by the bishops and priests of the Church on those around them that meets this very strong condition and requirement. The perspicacious Fr. Irénée Hausherr sums up the norm for spiritual direction this way:
The doctrine of the eastern ascetics on this obedience is characterized by absolutism - which does not mean despotism, although in certain cases this deviation must have occurred. The distance between tyrannical authoritarianism and unconditional obedience is great. The latter must come entirely through the disciple. . . .
The "uncharitable severity" referenced in the news report cited at the beginning of this essay is certainly within the bounds of "tyrannical authoritarianism."
Discernment of level of spiritual development
Even the Spiritual Fathers of the Church know great care must be taken to discern the level of the spiritual development of their novices in applying correction. Failure to take into account the level of spiritual development of a disciple (parishioner) can have dire consequences. Consider this account given to us by St. John Cassian:
. . . a brother greatly troubled . . .went to a certain father and confessed . . .but being inexperienced [the father] became angry when he heard [the confession] and told the brother that he was contemptible and unworthy of the monastic life . . . When the brother heard this, he lost heart, left his cell and set off back to the world. (Philokalia I p. 105)
St. John continues describing the event, which did have a Godly outcome. An experienced elder, Abba Apollos, came to "comfort and encourage" the brother. As a result, he returned to his monastic cell. Later, wise and Godly Abba Apollos told the uncompassionate elder who had given such a harsh correction to the younger brother:
. . . .when you received a younger brother who was being attacked by our common enemy, you drove him to despair instead of preparing him for battle. You did not recall the wise precept: 'Deliver them that are being led away to death; and redeem them that are appointed to be slain' (Pv 24 :11 LXX). You did not even remember the parable of our Savior which teaches us not to break a bruised reed or quench smoking flax (cf. Mt. 12: 20). (p. 106)
How correction should be made
Fr. Irénée Hausherr (1990) sees St. Antony the Great as the penultimate model of true Christ-like spiritual fatherhood. He cites from the life of St. Antony:
And it was as if a physician had been given by God to Egypt. For who in grief met Antony and did not return rejoicing? Who came mourning for his dead and did not forthwith put off his sorrow? Who came in anger and was not converted to friendship? What poor and low-spirited man met him who, hearing him and looking upon him, did not despise wealth and console himself in his poverty? What monk, having being neglectful, came to him and became not all the stronger? What young man having come to the mountain and seen Antony, did not forthwith deny himself pleasure and love temperance? Who when tempted by a demon, came to him and did not find rest? And who came troubled with doubts and did not get quietness of mind?
Another example, of a remarkable insight into how spiritual correction should be given to others if from the writings of St. John the Elder, one of the two old men of Gaza. His spiritual direction, along with that of another elder, Barsanuphius, "shared the same way of life and supported one another's ministry," was accomplished as letters written to those who asked them questions. In the letter below, St. John calls for giving correction "with compassion," even the tone of his response cries out for giving correction with Godly kindness. In fact, Chryssavgis (2003) entitles this question "Discipline with compassion."
Question: When my servant makes a mistake and I want to discipline him, with what purpose should I to this?
Response by John: With the purpose of love, that is according to God, so that by being corrected through your discipline, he may cease to sin and so that this may occur for the salvation of his soul. Yet, you should not do this with anger [emphasis mine]; for, nothing good comes out of evil. Therefore, if your thought is troubled, wait until it calms down. And, in this way, you will discipline him with compassion [emphasis mine, surely implying kindness] in Godly fear.
In another letter, St. John enumerates what the spiritual father should do when the correction is not heeded:
. . . seeing that the brother was not taking to correction, he left the matter to the judgment of God saying 'God knows what is beneficial; for my brother is much better than I.' This is what the perfect used to do; for they did not dare to judge anyone, putting to shame those who are nothing and yet still judge everyone.
Hausherr summarizes succinctly the ethos of correction. He states: "Charity and discernment are pre-eminent qualities of a spiritual father."
He who pursues righteousness and kindness will find life and honor. (Pv 21:21)
He who has ears to hear, let him hear."(Lk 8:)
Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Chryssavgis, J. (2003). (trans.). Letters from the Desert: Barsanuphius and John: A selection of questions and responses. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
Hausherr, I. (1990). Spiritual Direction in The Early Christian East. Spencer, MA: Cistercian Publications, St. Joseph's Abbey.
Morelli, G. (2006, February 04). Smart Parenting Part II. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting2.php.
Morelli, G. (2006b, March 10). Sinners in the Hands of an Angry or Gentle God? http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliHumility.php.
Morelli, G. (2007a, April 03). The Psycho-Spirituality of Forgiving People and Nations. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliForgiveness.php.
Morelli, G. (2007b, December 02). Forgiveness is Healing. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliForgiveness2.php.
Morelli, G. (2009, October 24). Overcoming Anxiety: Christ, The Church Fathers and Cognitive Scientific Psychology. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-overcoming-anxiety-christ-the-church-fathers-and-cognitive-scientif.
Morelli, G. (2011, March 01). Out of the Fountain that is Christ: Free Will, Tolerance and Forgiveness. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/out-of-the-fountain-that-is-christ-free-will-tolerance-and-forgiveness
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds). (1979). The Philokalia, The Complete Text; compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth (Vol 1). London: Faber and Faber.
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V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.
Fr. Morelli is the Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and Religion Coordinator (and Antiochian Archdiocesan Liaison) of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion.
Fr. Morelli is a Senior Fellow at the Sophia Institute, an independent Orthodox Advanced Research Association and Philanthropic Foundation housed at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York City that serves as a gathering force for contemporary Orthodox scholars, theologians, spiritual teachers, and ethicists.
Fr. Morelli serves on the Executive Board of the San Diego Cognitive Behavior Therapy Consortium (SDCBTC)
Fr. Morelli serves as Assistant Pastor of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California.
Fr. Morelli is the author of: