Orthodoxy Today
Orthodox Christian Spirituality and Cognitive Psychotherapy: An Online Course Part 1

1.0 Introduction

1.1 Historical Christian Spiritual Foundations of Counseling.

Christians trace their founding to Jesus Christ, by His sending (decent) of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost on His apostles and disciples. Following St. Paul, we know that the teachings of Jesus were understood by Christians by them being sanctified by this same Holy Spirit. St. Paul did much to spread the teachings of Jesus throughout the Roman world. To one group he wrote: “To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” [2 Thessalonians 2: 13-15] These teachings of Jesus passed in tradition to His Church: “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.” [1 Corinthians 11:2] St Paul told the Ephesians “you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone…” (2: 19, 30) St Luke told his readers: “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son. [Acts 20:28] Following St. Paul, these traditions, oral first and then written, were passed from the apostles to their successors, the bishops and priests.

Christianity is known therefore through the oral tradition and practice of the church and through the written scriptures. The written scriptures compiled by St. Athanasious [Old Testament] the Great in c. 328 A.D., and New Testament Synod of Laodicaea (381 A.D.) and both ratified by the Sixth Ecumenical Council (3rd Constantinople) in 680 A.D. by the same overseers (episkopi) whom the Holy Spirit inspired to care for the church by maintaining the “traditions.” This is important because the synergy of Christian spirituality and psychology must be both true to Christian teaching in tradition, practice and scripture and modern scientific psychology. Reference will be made to the “Church Fathers” who were not teaching anything new but merely discovering what Jesus had taught and passed on to the apostles and their successors the bishops as inspired by the Holy Spirit. McGuckin (2004) has expressed this very succinctly: “the perceived duty of those attending the councils [overseers, as in St. Luke (Acts 20:) above] was to ‘recognize’, by comparison with past precedent, the faith of the church, and having recognized it acclaim it in the spirit.” For a Christian, spiritual life is a dynamic journey in which he or she is born ill and is cleansed by baptism. After baptism, while on earth his or her life becomes a journey of continual purification and healing. Christ is the physician and psychotherapist and the Church is the hospital. The teachings of the Church Fathers, prayer, the sacraments, (Confession, the Eucharist etc.) combined with scientific psychology are the medicine.

1.2 Christianity and Psychotherapy

For the Christian, psychotherapy is one component of the healing process of healing ‘body, mind and spirit’. An early example of Christian physicians of the ‘body,’ would be the brother physicians, Sts. Cosmos and Damian. They were known as the "unmercenary physicians" and wonderworkers who took no money for their healing. They were born in Rome and grew up Christian, both showing gifts of healing and the ability to encourage others in their Christian journey. Persecuted for their faith, they were brought before the Emperor Galerius, who demanded them to deny Christ to save their lives. Instead, they preached Christianity to the Emperor urging him to turn to the Living God and the true faith. While preaching to him, they healed him of a serious illness. Emperor Galerius declared himself a Christian and released the two brothers. They lived to continue working until their fame elicited envy in another physician who had them stoned to death in 284 A.D.

The healing of ‘spirit’ may be exemplified by St. Gregory of Nyssa, who said that curing the spirit is acquired by Godliness by those who gaze upon the Cross of Jesus, as the Israelites gazed on the staff of Moses: “There is one antidote for these evil passions [spiritual illnesses] (italics mine): the purification of our souls which takes place through the mystery of godliness. The chief act of faith in the “mystery of godliness” is to look to Him who suffered the passion for us. The person who looks to the One lifted up on the wood [the Cross] rejects passion, diluting the poison with the fear of the commandment as with a medicine. The voice of the Lord teaches clearly that the serpent lifted up in the desert is a symbol of the mystery of the cross when he says: “The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert”. (St. Gregory of Nyssa in Malherbe & Ferguson, 1978). This healing takes place as mentioned above, by being fully united to the Church, in prayer and sacraments.

The scientific method was not a field of study until almost 1500 years after Christ and the early church could know nothing of its methods. However, two factors tie Christianity with psychology as we know today. One is the tradition of spiritual direction and the other is the view that being made in God’s image. Christians are to use their intelligence and free will in their interacting with the world. The tradition of spiritual direction and spiritual fatherhood is laid out by St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers, For I became your father in Christ through the Gospel.” (4:15). As Bishop Kallistos Ware tells us: “[A spiritual father, such as St. Clement] …was also a spiritual guide to his pupils, a living model and exemplar, providing them not only with information but with an all embracing personal relationship.” (p. ix) Bishop Kallistos went on to say that in the early church, the spiritual father was seen in five ways: doctor, counselor, intercessor, mediator and sponsor. In his counselor role, the spiritual father heals by ‘words, advice and council.’ Confession, used by the spiritual fathers and priests is viewed as going to a ‘hospital’ rather than a court of law. Penance imposed after confession of sins is viewed as a tonic to assist in recovery, not as a punishment. The second factor making Christianity open to modern psychotherapy is that mankind is made in God’s image. The ‘image’ of God in man has been mainly viewed by the Church Fathers as follows: our intelligence and free will, which can be used to become more “like” Him [God]. The use of modern scientific psychotherapy, which is the result of the use of our intelligence, becomes therefore a necessity for the serious Christian in his or her purification and healing and in his/her journey to be “like God.”

1.3 Important Figures in Christian Spirituality

  • Jesus Christ 3-6 BC to 27-30 AD (God becoming flesh “of one essence with the Father before all things were made” Council of Nicea, 325)
  • St. Clement of Alexandria (160-215). Bishop and father of speculative theology.
  • Ss. Cosmos and Damian (c.230- 287. Born in Rome, they were unmercenary physicians, preachers of the Gospel and martyrs for Christ.
  • St. Anthony the Great (c.250-355). From Middle Egypt, he is the Father of Christian monasticism)
  • St. Athanasius (296–393). Patriarch of Alexandria, a great teacher and biographer of St. Anthony.
  • St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-394), from Cappadocia, a great teacher, writer and mystical theologian.
  • Abba Evagrius the Monk (c.350–399), monk and ascetical writer.
  • St. John Cassian (360-435) monk, who summarized the traditions of the Desert Fathers for the Western Church.
  • St. Cyril of Alexandria (375-344), Patriarch of Alexandria, who defended the truth that Christ possessed both the Nature of God and the Nature of Man.
  • St. Neilos the Acetic (c.390-450), abbot of a Monastery in Turkey, wrote especially on the relationship between the spiritual father and his disciples.
  • St. Hesychios the Priest (c.400–450), monk and spiritual writer.
  • St. Dorotheus of Gaza (c.525–575), monk and spiritual writer, who wrote, especially, that real knowledge is inseparable from love of God.
  • St. John of the Ladder (c.525-606). monk, ascetic wrote classic spiritual treatise, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, on steps to raise oneself to God through the acquisition of various virtues.
  • St. Maximos the Confessor (580–662), monk, ascetic, who wrote especially on love and virtue.
  • St. Isaac of Syria (c. 613-700), bishop, monk, ascetic who wrote especially on God's mercy.
  • St. John of Karpathos (c.625–675), monk, who wrote on the senses, thoughts and virtue.
  • St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), Bishop, mystic, theologian, who wrote extensively on prayer and union with God.
  • St. Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), monk, mystic, who taught that the main aim of the Christian life is to acquire for oneself the Spirit of God.
  • Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (1934- ), Professor at Oxford University, recognized scholar of the Church Fathers and theology.
  • Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev (1966-), noted contemporary theologian, classical music composer.

1.4 The Development of Christian Churches

This image shows the development of Christian churches since Christianity began.1

Christian Churches

To be continued. . .

1 An alternative timeline graphic:

Christian Churches

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: December 2, 2012

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