Orthodox America

 From the Bookshelf  - The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition 

The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition by Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos; Effie Mavromichali, trans., Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, Levadia, Greece, 1993.

Some months ago, National Public Radio's talk show host Christopher Leyden interviewed an American psychologist who used Buddhist teachings and practices in treating his patients. Leyden clearly was impressed with the originality of such an application. It evidently did not occur to him to ask his guest why he had chosen the Buddhist over the Christian tradition. Perhaps it was because the West has lost the concept of Christianity as a therapeutic method, limiting the role of Christ as the "Great Physician" to the healing of bodily infirmities: giving sight to the blind; making the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak. Unfortunately, even many Orthodox Christians, while they may participate faithfully in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, have little or no understanding of Orthodoxy as "a therapeutic science and treatment." This definition constitutes, in fact, the very core of Orthodoxy, as explained by Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) in his book, The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition.

The book is the last in a series of four related volumes, and provides a summary of the preceding texts. It grew out of a number of discussions, held in the autumn of 1987, provoked by the first volume, Orthodox Psychotherapy. In the present volume, the author is prompted by the questions posed by his five conversants to make his explanations as simple and lucid as possible. The result is a text that manages to reach into the rarified atmosphere of theosis while remaining accessible to readers unfamiliar with the Orthodox hesychast-neptic tradition, particularly the teachings of Saint Gregory Palamas, in which the author bases his comments. Man became ill when the eye of his soul, what the Holy Fathers call the 'nous,' became darkened by sin; it was overcome by reason and became subject to the passions. The result was the disruption of the whole inner functioning of the soul. "Man's basic problem," writes Metropolitan Hierotheos, "is how to learn to see his internal malady, which is specifically the captivity and darkness of the nous. ... If we ignore our inner sickness, our spiritual life ends up in an empty moralism, in a superficiality," which is where we find Western theology. When we understand Orthodoxy as a therapeutic method, it becomes clear that the "Mysteries and all the ascetic tradition of the Church are meant to lead us where Adam was before the Fall, that is, to the illumination of the nous, and from there to divinization, which is man's original destination." Perhaps most helpful to the reader will be the explanations of how to become aware of one's illness - by studying Scripture and the works of the Holy Fathers of the Church, by reading the lives of saints, by the coming of God's grace, by failures in our life (worldly despair), and by the Jesus Prayer, for "prayer breaks the wall of illusions about our self and reveals all of its wretchedness." The author also discusses the importance of a "therapist," a spiritual father who, if he is himself not illumined so as "to distinguish without error the energies of the devil from the energies of God," will follow the teachings of the Fathers, who could. There are likewise instructive discussions on the subject of the passions and their transformation, on fantasy and its danger for spirtual life, on watchfulness and prayer, and on obedience to the will of God. The final factor instrumental in the cure of the nous is the right therapeutic method or ascesis. This begins with the purification of the heart through repentance and inner stillness. The second stage is illumination of the nous and the attainment of unceasing memory of God. The final stage is divinization or theosis, when a man attains ...unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13).

With its careful analysis of the soul and its afflictions, and methods of cure, this book is an excellent companion on our lenten journey. It brings into focus the purpose of our struggle, reminding us that we are called not to some pallid morality but to the illumination of our entire being, to live forever in the bright and never-ending light of resurrection. M. Mansur