Orthodoxy Today
My Experience as a Priest and Psychologist at an Orthodox Maternity Home

My introduction to Martha and Mary Home occured at our Antiochian Parish Life Conference three years ago, I saw a booth with pictures and brochures describing the work of the Home. Much to my surprise, the Home was located just a few miles from my residence. Was the Holy Spirit telling me something?

What would be the role of a priest-psychologist at a Maternity Home? There is no job description. This is uncharted water. After meeting with the House Mother, Sarah Elisabet Oftedal several times the needs emerged. As a priest I would offer prayer, services, catechetics and spiritual counseling -- the work of a Chaplain. But the daughters (the term given to the women living in the home) have adjustment, behavioral and emotional problems. They need to clarifying their values, decide on life goals and parenting options including marriage, fatherless single parenting or adoption. It looked like I would also be a counselor.

The House Mother belongs to the local Orthodox Church in America (OCA) parish St. John of Damascus, in Poway, California. This is also the parish to which she invites the daughters to attend. Martha and Mary Home is an official ministry of the Western Diocese of the OCA and operates as a religious, non-profit corporation under the obedience of the OCA Western Diocese Bishop. Prayer, services, catechetics, and even the regular presence of an Orthodox priest would be a way of making Christ present in a strong way.

I visit once a week and we start with Sixth Hour Prayer [Horologian] which includes the Epistle and Gospel of the Day and a short sermon. This is followed by any number of undertakings. One might be the religious instruction for any of the daughters in religious study. Another would be personal counseling dealing with values clarification, problems of adjustment, life goals, social skills or emotional issues. A major aspect of my work is consultation with the House Mother. She has intimate knowledge of many of the feelings and conflicts the daughters are experiencing. She presents them to me in a case study format. We discuss possible strategies and solutions in problem resolution.

One common psychological factor I have observed among the daughters is "oppositional orientation."(*See below) Basically, it involves validating the daughters initial choices by sincerely listening to everything they have to say.

This at times is quite difficult. Some of the choices the daughters say they want to make are totally unrealistic. This is the time however, to allow the daughters full expression of their ideas. Patience on the part of the clinician and the House Mother is essential. Once they feel safe and and are assured we listen and understand them, the daughters are ready to consider alternatives and their consequences.

The two responses I have found most helpful are: 1) "It is your decision, not mine;" and 2) "I know you love your unborn baby and want the best for him ... I know you would want to make your decision on what is best for the baby." All aspects have to be discussed such as reasons for having and keeping the baby etc. Whenever an afterbirth plan is brought up, the specifics of how it can be accomplished is discussed. We ask, "What would a good mother do? and "What do you want to do?" and discuss the answers. We pray that the daughters be granted the "wisdom of Solomom"; that she makes the decision that in all cases benefits the child.

For most of the daughters who come to Martha and Mary Home the best answer is adoption into a good Orthodox-Christian home that provides for the spiritual, psychological and physical needs of the child. Once the daughter comes to see this for herself, it is affirmed that this is the most loving and caring decision she can make for your child. This decision is most effective when the daughter discovers this for herself, by going over the principles listed above.

One criticism of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches that are "pro-life" is we preach life and then abandon the pregnant girls and woman to fend for themselves. We say how sinful abortion is and then do nothing. This is wrong. As Christians, we have the obligation to care for our brothers and sisters from conception to death. Consider Our Lord's words:

Then the King will say to those at his right hand, "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me." Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?" And the King will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" Matthew 25:34-40).

If we think abortion is not a problem in our parishes then we are mistaken. If we think that we can preach that abortion is wrong but not care for those who are pregnant, we are wrong And if we want to value the life these girls and women have inside them -- truly, these little ones are made in God's image and are the fruit of His creation -- and not care for them we are truly wrong. No wonder, so many in the world, call us hypocrites. This ministry is needed in every community in the world. It is by Divine Command. Glory to God in all things.


* As a caveat, this (oppositional orientation) is an hypothesis. I cannot make scientific conclusions based on a small biased sample. I am also not using the diagnostic category "oppositional disorder" here. However my approach to the problem has been similar to the treatment of oppositional disorder, and I believe House Mother Sarah would be in agreement.

Further Reading

Loving and Serving God in our Neighbor: The Genesis of An Orthodox Christian Maternity Home by Sarah Elisabet Oftedal.

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: August 6, 2006

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