Throughout the liturgical year the Orthodox Church celebrates the Fathers of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. These bishops and theologians gathered together and were directed by the Holy Spirit to confirm and explain in greater detail the teachings that Christ had revealed during His lifetime. Each council is commemorated in individual Sunday liturgies, yet each liturgy proclaims the same gospel lesson. This is not a coincidence. Since every council builds on the teaching of earlier councils, reading the same gospel affirms that the individual conciliar decrees are united in faith and doctrine.
Further, the gospel lesson read to commemorate the Fathers of the Seven Ecumenical Councils is "The Parable of the Sower" (also called "The Parable of the Sower and the Seed") recorded in St. Luke 8:5-15. The selection of this passage is also not a coincidence. As the parable explains, "the seed is the word of God," and those who "hear the word of God" are those who prepared themselves to hear it. The Fathers, in confirming and explaining the teachings of Christ revealed that they too were those who head "the word of God" -- the Gospel, and applied it in their lives like those of "good ground." Just as they were open to the Gospel, so too must we be. We must emulate the Fathers so as the seed was planted and grew in the fertile soil of their hearts, so must it grow in ours.
Fertile ground needs to be tilled before seeds can be planted in it. One way to till the soil of our heart is to open ourselves to receive Christ's word when it is sown through preaching. George Kelly, a personality psychologist developed an interesting model that may help in understanding this process. According to Kelly (1955), individuals develop cognitive models of the world around them. Essential components of the model are called constructs. Constructs work similar to the theories that scientists develop in order to comprehend and predict the events. Like scientists, individuals observe, experiment, and eventually predict their world. When this occurs their world becomes understandable -- it makes sense.
Constructs become more stable as more experience is accumulated and lead to more correct predictions. Kelly stated in his fundamental construct postulate: "A person's processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates events." (Postulates are defined as self-evident premises or assertions that guide and give meaning to our lives; a fundamental construct postulate is a ground level postulate, premises and assertions that form the foundation of much of our thinking). Kelly listed several corollaries to his fundamental postulate including the modulation corollary that is relevant to the capability of spiritual change (having the seed of God's word grow in us). More on this below.
A Core, Fundamental Postulate for Christians
Just as Kelly has his fundamental construct postulate, so too do Christians: God is all that is Good, Beautiful, and True. In the word's of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, God is "ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible ever existing and eternally the same." This is also true of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit who as three persons form one God. God is He who has brought us from "non-existence into being" and "didst not cease to do all things until ... (He) brought us back to heaven ... "
The Seed of the Holy Spirit
The seed of the sower is the word of God. We know the evil one disguises himself in trying to plant his evil seeds in the world. Our Lord warned us: "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit (Matthew 7: 15-18). The deception of the evil one in this regard did not go unnoticed by St. Symeon the New Theologian, who said: "Others fail to recognize the devil when he transforms himself into an angel of light (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:14); and, putting their trust in him, they continue in an incorrigible state of delusion until their death..." (Philokalia IV).
Why does it work this way? St. John Chrystosom taught that evil, because it is by nature incapable of being creative (evil can only mar, disfigure, and destroy what is already created), it is necessarily imitative. First were the prophets, and only then the false prophets. Then were the apostles and only afterward the false apostles. Finally there can be no anti-Christ without there first being a Christ. These false teachers hide among the true teachers just as the tares hides among th wheat because they seek to subvert the faithful and claim the harvest for themselves.
To have the word take root within us, then, requires vigilance. Here too the Fathers are instructive. Vigilance begins by maintain a pure heart, by putting away the enticements of worldly things, by defending our selves against sensory affections and the values attached to these allurements. This is so beautifully told to us by Theoliptos, Metropolitan of Philadelphia, the teacher of St. Gregory Palamas. Theoliptos wrote: "Flight from the world is rewarded by refuge in Christ. By 'world' I mean here attachment to sensory things and to worldly proclivities. If you detach yourself from such things through knowledge of the truth you are assimilated to Christ, acquiring a love for Him that allows you to put aside all worldly matters and to purchase the precious pearl, that is to say, Christ Himself" (Philokalia IV).
Our Holy Father Theoliptos referred here to the words of Jesus recorded in St. Matthew (13: 45-46): "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it." There are many pearls we may have in our collection of the things of life. That is the problem they are of 'this world'. The only pearl of great price is the pearl that is Christ Himself."
As the world gets more high tech, its allurements get more dazzling and mesmerizing. Vivid lights, music pumped into our brains hours on end, interactive games that are so engaging they become habit forming , easily develop into psycho-spiritual addictions. They create brief highs and we seek them out more and more. As a result, experiences requiring self-discipline and concentration appear mundane and are avoided if at all possible. This is also true regarding the Church. Attending services is perceived as dull and boring if not accompanied by deep sonic body felt movement and a cacophony of sound and movement. In reality, much of the stimulation of our high tech culture are the "thorns" of the world that choke the word of God.
Our spiritual father Theoliptos called these allurements a slavery of "avidity, self-indulgence, self-glorification, self-display or sensory dissipation, distraction of mind, captivity of the intellect, the levity of successive thoughts, and every other kind of deliberate prevarication and confusion ... " The holy father taught that we can only be set free when "The intellect turns toward, God and stills all representational images of created things, it perceives in an imageless way, and through an ignorance surpassing all knowledge, it's vision is illumined by God's unapproachable glory."
Our greatest defense is to have a vision of Christ as our shield and buckler (Psalm 91:34) Then Christ becomes our protector. "Because (we) have made the Lord (our) refuge, the Most High (our) habitation, no evil shall befall (us), no scourge come near (our) tent. (Ps 91: 9-10)
Recently I head about a practice that helps determine if a thought, word, or deed comes from the word of God or is a tare planted by the evil one. When thinking, speaking, or doing something make the sign of the Cross while prayerfully saying "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." If you sense a contradiction between the thought, word, or deed and the sign of the cross and the words accompanying it, chances are they are not in conformance to the will of God. If no contradiction exists (and it is assumed here no willful self-deception exists either), then we can be reasonably assured that we are not violating God's will.
Despair is a Tenacious Weed
Despair chokes the seed of the word of God. St. Peter of Damaskos, wrote: "it is now (that) the devil, having failed in all his other schemes, tempts us with thoughts of despair: he tries to persuade us that in the past things were different and that the men through whom God performed wonders for the strengthening of the faith were not like us. He also tell us that there is now no need for exertion..." (Philokalia III).
St. John of the Ladder taught: "There is despair that results from the great number of one's sins. It comes from a burdened conscience and intolerable grief, when the soul, engulfed by the mass and the burden of its wounds, slips into the deep water of hopelessness." St. John tells us to use "...the temptations that occur to us, to fight or make us do something improper (despair)", as a weapon to fight the evil one. When we overcome temptation and do not despair, we, through the grace of God, triumph over him. The evil one hates failure.
The Modulation Corollary: The Psychological Weed Killer
Spiritually, not despairing is a corollary of the Christian's fundamental postulate: since God is all that is Good, Beautiful, and True, then one always has hope in His mercy. Likewise, there are certain corollaries or resultant propositions of Kelly's basic postulate. The one most relevant corollary is the modulation corollary: "Some construct ranges can be 'modulated' to accommodate new ideas (e.g. 'big'). Other constructs are 'impermeable'."
Another way of putting it is "you have a construct that your constructs can change". It means we can change any spiritual and mental constructs we have to being open to the teachings of the Holy Spirit and thereby kill the thorns the evil one plants to kill God's word. Applying this corollary to the parable of the Sower means one has a "construct' that the seed of the word of God can be planted in us by the Holy Spirit and grow. If we construe non-change (that no seed can take root), then the ground will be unfertile, which effectively cuts off growth of God's word.
Psychologically we have to construe that change can take place. The word of God can penetrate (permeate) a person's current view of the world and be implanted and grow. This can be aided by focusing on the spiritual success one has made and realizing that even with sin, God by His grace, can allow us to turn any evil into 'Love'.
The spiritual weed killer
Once again we turn to St. Peter of Damaskos: "Even if you are not what you should be, you should not despair. It is bad enough that you have sinned; why in addition do you wrong God by regarding him in your ignorance as powerless. Is He, for your sake created the great universe [as well as His incarnation] that you behold, incapable of saving your soul? ..only makes your condemnation worse, then repent; and He will receive your repentance, as He accepted that of the prodigal son (Luke 15:20) and the prostitute (Luke 7:37-50). But if repentance is too much for you, and you sin out of habit, even when you do not want to, show humility like the publican (Luke18:2-13): this is enough to ensure your salvation" (emphasis mine).
St. Peter pointed out that if one sins without repenting, but also without despair and see themselves as the lowliest of all creatures, not judging others, can have hope by relying on God's compassion. Hope is relying and trusting on God's compassion. St. Peter's greatest council of hope are his words: "Even if he is subject to the devil in that he sins, yet from fear of God he disobeys the enemy when the latter tries to make him despair (emphasis mine). Because of this he has his portion with God; for he is grateful, gives thanks, is patient, fears God, does not judge so he may not be judged. The kingdom of heaven, if able by God' mercy "is by virtue of God's compassion."
Fertile ground for the seed of God's word
It is the duty of all Christians to be fertile ground for the planting and growth of God's word. Construing we can change, despite previous hardness of heart, mind and sin, is one way to make "rich soil." A beautiful psalm to pray is: "My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast! I will sing and make melody! Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! I will give thanks to thee, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to thee among the nations. For thy steadfast love is great to the heavens, thy faithfulness to the clouds. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let thy glory be over all the earth!" (Ps 57: 7-11).
A steadfast heart is fertile ground for the seed of God's Word of Love and Life. We must meditate on the Fundamental Postulate for Christians: "God is all that is Good, Beautiful, and True" . What nourishes this ground? Prayer, reading the scriptures, reading the Church Fathers, participation in the Holy Mysteries: Holy Confession, Unction, and more. The spiritual 'fertilizer' is to be an active member of Christ's Body: His Church. "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever" (Psalm 73:26).
Kelly, G.A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Vol. 1: A Theory of Personality. Vol. 2: Clinical Diagnosis and Psychotherapy. NY: Norton.
Morelli, G. (2006, Oct 05) Overcoming Depression: Cognitive Scientific Psychology and the Church Fathers. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliDepression.php
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1986). The Philokalia, Volume 3: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1995). The Philokalia, Volume 4: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.
St. John of the Ladder. (1982), John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent. NY: Paulist Press.
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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.
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