Orthodoxy Today
Understanding Orthodoxy for Mental Health Practitioners - Part 1

[This is a follow up course to Orthodox Christian Spirituality and Cognitive Psychotherapy: An Online Course, that appeared in four parts over the years 2012-2013. This second course is specifically oriented to explain Orthodoxy to mental health practitioners,and serve as a useful resource for Orthodox Clergy and laity as well. Ethically, mental health practitioners should incorporate the spiritual values of their patients in the therapeutic process. The course would serve as an introduction of the Eastern Orthodox ethos and cultural traditions to these professionals.

One of the most frequently questions I am asked as Chairman of the Chaplain and Pastoral Counseling Department of the Antiochian Archdiocese is for a referral to an Orthodox mental health practitioner. Sadly Orthodoxy is not a majority spiritual tradition in North America and Orthodox practitioners are few. So careful questioning by potential patients, family and clergy of a potential practitioner regarding the practitioner's understanding and respect for the spiritual values of their patients is very important. This course is meant to aid in this inquiry.

It also should be noted that this course is an updating and reworking of a recently published chapter: Psychotherapy with members of Eastern Orthodox Churches, (Morelli, 2014).]

Jesus saith to him: I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me. Jn 14:6

In our own day there is a widely held view that belief in religious dogma is not obligatory; even if they still have a certain historical value, they are no longer vital for Christians. Moral and social agendas have become the main preoccupation of many Christian communities, while theological issues are often neglected. This dissociation between dogma and way of life, however contradicts the very nature of the religious life, which presupposes that faith should always be confirmed by deeds, and visa versa. (Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith, 2002)

The mission of the Orthodox Christian Church, at its most basic, is to continue and make available the restorative healing of mankind, both of persons and communities, entrusted to it by Jesus Christ, true God and true man, who restored to mankind the possibility of union with God, originally lost through human pride and rebellion (sin). Loss of union with the Creator led to persistent intra- and inter-personal disharmony rather than the harmony possible through man's sharing in the Divine life of the Holy Trinity as originally intended by God when He created man in His image, called to be in His likeness. (cf. Gen 1:26) All the Church's Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), teachings, liturgies, counsels, and even its external organization, derive from and serve this healing mission.

he Orthodox Churches in North America today trace to the original Church founded by Christ in Jerusalem that, over centuries, spread geographically throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Five Patriarchates emerged, often called mother churches: Rome; Constantinople (New Rome); Alexandria; Antioch; and Jerusalem. Their ranking, based on a combination of political status (Rome and Constantinople) and religious importance (Jerusalem), was determined by the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.). After the Great Schism (1054 A.D.) and the Fourth Crusade (1204 A.D.), Rome was dropped from the Diptychs (official lists kept by each Patriarch of the other Patriarchs, living and departed, recognized as Orthodox). Eventually, other important Orthodox cities attained Patriarchal status - Moscow (1589 A.D.) because of its military and political stature, was described as the "Third Rome."

Concentration of Orthodox Faithful

Concentration of Orthodox Faithful

Due to differing immigration patterns of immigration over three centuries, Orthodox assembled in the New World according to the organizational structure and customs of their mother Churches. Thus, today's Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Antiochian (Syrian) Orthodox Churches, etc., are not considered different denominations as they agree theologically and recognize each other's Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), but are referred to as different jurisdictions of the one Orthodox Church (Krindatch, 2011).

Assembly of Orthodox Bishops

Assembly of Orthodox Bishops

However, cultural elements such as the languages of the Liturgies, the folk dances, dress, music and traditional food strongly influence the differing self-identities and practices of each, e.g., "Greek Festivals" at Greek Orthodox parishes, though some parishes are very 'American.' Psychologists need to know, and incorporate into treatment, both Orthodox spirituality and the ethnic identity of their patients.

The overlapping of jurisdictions in one geographical area is highly irregular according to Church tradition (Council of Chalcedon). To resolve this, in 2010, the bishops of the various canonical Orthodox Churches formed the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North America (Krindatch, 2011). A study based on a 2010 census of the Orthodox in North America (Krindatch, 2011) showed a little over 1 million members and 2,400 parishes.

Origins of the Eastern Orthodox Churches

The M

The Ministry of the Apostles
and Their Successors

All Christians of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, no matter how varied in externals, trace their founding to Jesus Christ, (3-6 B.C.- 27-30 A.D.), God become flesh, "of one essence with the Father before all things were made," (Council of Nicaea, 325 A.D.) who sent His Holy Spirit on His Apostles and Disciples at Pentecost, fifty days after His Resurrection. Immediately following His death and Resurrection, His twelve chosen Apostles took his message (Gospel) to the corners of the earth. Three of them, the Jews, (Sts.) Matthew, Mark and John, wrote accounts (Gospels) of His life and teachings for the early Christian communities. St. Luke (c.20-90 A.D.), a gentile convert, a physician from Antioch, wrote a Gospel, He worked with St. Paul in his missionary journeys and wrote The Acts of the Apostles about the first Christian communities.

The Four Missionary Journeys of St. Paul

The Four Missionary Journeys of St. Paul

The Apostles appointed overseers ("episkopoi," bishops) to lead these communities. St Paul (c.3-6 B.C. - 66 A.D.) a Greek-Jew, former Pharisee and persecutor of Christians, after his conversion to Christianity also spread the teachings of Jesus throughout the Roman world, founded many Christian communities and wrote them letters (Epistles) of encouragement. He is considered one of the greatest Apostles.

From St. Paul's Epistles we know that Christians understood themselves to be the people of the 'New Covenant,' the continuation of the first Covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendants, the Hebrew people. He wrote: "Now the God of peace Who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the Shepherd of the sheep, the great One, in the blood of a [new] everlasting covenant." (Heb. 13:20) For Christians, the teachings of Jesus could be understood by His Church because of its sanctification by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As St. Paul explained: "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 Thess. 2: 13-15)

Christianity in the Roman Empire

esus' teachings passed by tradition, first orally, then written, from the apostles to their successors, the bishops and priests of today: St. Paul wrote, "I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you." (1Cor 11:2). And 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 wrote: "Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers,[the original name for bishops and priests in Sacred Scripture] to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son." (Acts 20:28) Christianity is first known, therefore, through the oral tradition and practice of the Church and only then through the written Scriptures. The written Old Testament Scriptures were compiled by St. Athanasius the Great, c. 328 A.D., and the New Testament by the Synod of Laodicea (381 A.D.), and both were ratified by the Sixth Ecumenical Council (3rd Constantinople) in 680 A.D. by the same overseers (episkopoi) 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 true to both Christian teaching in tradition, practice and Scripture as well as to modern scientific psychology.

It must be emphasized that, for the Orthodox, Sacred Scripture can only be understood through the Holy Spirit-inspired Church, as is explained in an outstanding book that echoes the Mind of the Church: Scripture in Tradition (Breck, 2001).


Many Orthodox prefer to call Old and New Testaments "Sacred Scripture" - meaning writings that are 'sacred' - rather than "Bible" implying a book 'authoritative in and of itself,' a Protestant notion.

The Mind of Christ is the Mind of The Orthodox Church

In addition to Scripture, Orthodox Christians also consistently refer to the "Church Fathers" who, not teaching anything new, were only discovering what Jesus had taught and passing that on to the apostles and their successors, the bishops, as inspired by the Holy Spirit. McGuckin (2004) points out that it was understood by the bishops attending the councils [overseers, as in St. Luke (Acts 20:) above] that their duty was to "discern," in terms of past precedent, the Mind of the Church, and proclaim it as an action of the Holy Spirit.

Summary of the Great Councils

Summary of the Great Councils

The various Eastern Orthodox Churches that share a unity in faith may seem very different to the non-Orthodox due to the differences in their languages and styles of worship. This is a result of the Apostles themselves adapting the basics of the faith to the various languages and cultures as they evangelized different parts of the world.

Christ's teachings have been canonized (set into the "canons," i.e., the established order of belief or conduct) by the Orthodox Church in its Seven Great, or Ecumenical, Councils. These teachings (in summary) are: Jesus Christ is Divine, the Incarnate son of God, "of one essence with the Father," having the true natures of both God and man; Mary is thus the Mother of God; the Holy Spirit, third Person of the Divine Trinity, is "the Lord and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father is worshipped and glorified." In assuming a human body, God showed that matter can be redeemed, deified and spirit-bearing, thus icons can be venerated as spirit-bearing pointers to heaven. Full Council details are in Ware (1963).

The Doctrinal Core of the Orthodox Church

The doctrinal core of the Orthodox Church is expressed in the Nicene Creed as affirmed by the Ecumenical Councils. This is recited in every Divine Liturgy of the Church as well as at Holy Baptism in which a person becomes a member of the Church - the Kingdom of God.

The Mind of the Orthodox Church

The Mind of the
Orthodox Church

The Mind of the Church, refers to the collective teaching, by those who are recognized by the Church as authentic followers of Christ and whose teaching and way of life can be trusted, of what is needed to be a true follower of Christ. These teachers stand on, and within, the Gospel of Christ given to us by the Apostles that constitutes and judges the Church even today.

Holy Tradition

The sacred aggregate of all the Church's oral tradition, written tradition (Holy Scripture), Holy Mysteries, Liturgy, prayers, teachings of the Church fathers and saints, holy Councils, icons, architecture, and music, proclaims the glory and mind of Christ. (Morelli, 2009b)

Scripture in the Divine Liturgy

Scripture in the Divine Liturgy

A good example of the synergy of what makes up Holy Tradition is the intimate connection between the written Scripture and the Divine Liturgy.

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev (2009) highlights that both liturgical tradition and the Councils of the Church are reflective of the Church as "unconditional and indisputable authority." Preeminent among those whose lives exemplify the Mind of the Church are the overseers (bishops) and the presbyters (priests-elders) in union with them appointed by the Apostles, many of whom wrote theological treatises. Many other holy men and women, both ordained and unordained, also displayed God-given gifts of healing and teaching.

The Orthodox Ethos

Orthodoxy, considered in some ways a primitive form of Christianity more rooted in its geographic origin, was thus less influenced by Western development and did not experience, for example, the development of the papacy, the Reformation or the Enlightenment. This is significant in terms of how Orthodoxy approaches both doctrine and spirituality.

The Orthodox sense of the Godhead is that no human idea or name can capture God; He is beyond description. St. John (1Jn 4:8,16) tells us: "God is love." Thus, the Orthodox approach to understanding God is to employ both cataphatic theology (affirming His attributes) and apophatic (He can only be known in terms of what He is not). For example, if we say God is "Being," He is actually "Supra-Being." If we call God, "Light," He is brighter than light; He is Supra-Light." If we say God is "merciful," He is actually "supra-merciful." Words with the prefix 'not,' (e.g., 'not-being'), 'in,' (e.g., 'incomprehensible') or 'un,' (e.g., 'unchangeable') are apophatic terms.

God is merciful

From an Orthodox theological perspective, God in actuality transcends all human vocabulary and knowledge. Affirming anything about God fails; He is more than anything humanly comprehensible. The Orthodox conclude, therefore, that God can be partially comprehended only by indicating what He is not. Two Fathers of the Eastern Church said of God that He is divine darkness. They considered this a statement of His incomprehensibility. Alfeyev (2002, p. 27) tells us: "In our understanding of God we often rely upon cataphatic notions since these are easier and more accessible to the mind. But cataphatic knowledge has its limits. The way of negation corresponds to the spiritual ascent into the Divine abyss where words fall silent, where reason fades, where all human knowledge and comprehension cease, where God is."

On the other hand, for the Orthodox, the specific words used by God in revealing himself are critical and must not be changed. Christ revealed God the Father to us as Father. St. Matthew tells us Jesus' words: "Be ye therefore praying thus: 'Our Father Who art in the heavens, hallowed be Thy name. . . .'" (Mt.6: 9). And St. John (1: 12): "But as many as received Him [Christ-Logos-the Word], He gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in His name."

True God and True Man

Jesus Christ, Son of God,
True God and True Man

Orthodox emphatically oppose modern attempts to change traditional words of Sacred Scripture by making the text 'inclusive,' (e.g., referring to God as 'mother,' mankind as 'humankind' or 'sons of God' as 'children of God'). For the Orthodox, to change words, especially the words given to us by Christ, is to change theology. This is the basis of the Latin motto: Lex orandi, lex credendi, i.e., the law of prayer is the law of belief.

Christ at the Wedding Feast at Cana

The Wedding Feast at Cana

Sex and sexuality in marriage are an important part of the ethos of Orthodoxy. Marriage for Orthodox Christians replicates the creative energy of God, where the couple, as "one flesh," unites to create new life. The "theology of sex" based on Divine Love is at the level of the highest principle, infinitely beyond empathy or any other set of ethical standards. It references the essence of God Himself. St. John tells us ". . .for love is of God. . .. God is love" (1Jn 4:7-8). This is the love we are to have for one another. Archimandrite Sophrony (1999, p. 116) reports that St. Silouan the Athonite, echoing the Church Fathers, said: "Both Christ's commandments of love towards God and love toward neighbor make up a single life."

In a blessed marriage in the Orthodox Church, the couple is ordained as the leaders of their domestic church, crowned to be the king and queen of their domicile and granted grace for the "fair education of children," as the Orthodox wedding service proclaims. In Christian marriage, authentic and true love seeks to replicate the type of self-sacrifice Christ revealed to us when He became man and dwelt among us (and which is still expressed today in Christ's faithfulness to His Church). Self-sacrificial love conforms to the Great Commandment to love our neighbor more highly than ourselves. In so doing, we also love and honor God (Mt 25:36-40, 1Jn 4:19-21).

Domestic Church

This kind of love between husband and wife, even if imperfectly practiced and not always realized, constitutes the 'Domestic Church' or the 'small church in the home' and, as such, ensures the health and stability of the family in raising children.

Openness to replicating the creative act of God by bearing children during the marriage is emphasized in Orthodoxy and is essential for it to be considered a blessed marriage. However, decisions regarding the specifics of family planning are left to the couple to decide, though some secular forms of family planning, such as abortion and the morning-after pill, are, for Orthodox Christians, clearly unacceptable.

Christ’s Second Coming

Christ’s Second Coming

Orthodox Christians understand that they must be committed to Christ and fully united to His Church and its teachings. After receiving the Eucharist at the Divine Liturgy, Orthodox sing, "We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity: for He hath saved us." The Orthodox Church of Christ has been given the totality of Divine Gifts, so the basic view is not to waste the divine gifts received at Holy Baptism and available throughout one's lifetime. but to maintain and increase them by full and deep participation in the life in the Church. In this regard, the words of Jesus are recalled: "Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required." (Lk 12:48). All await Christ's Second Coming.


(These references are for the entire course, only a portion are for Part I)

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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: June 1, 2014

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