Odds and Ends from Athos (continued)

A Hymn to the Theotokos

Saturday Vespers Aposticha Tone 1:
Behold, the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled: Virgin, hast Thou brought forth and after, as before, hast Thou remained Virgin. For God it was Who was born, and the nature of ma was thereby restored. O Mother of God, despise not the supplications of thy servants that are offered to Thee in thy Church, but do Thou, who hast held in thine arms the compassionate Lord, be merciful towards us who serve Thee, and pray that our souls be saved. (The Octoechos, Saturday and Sunday Offices Tones 1-8, p. 3,—translation, Orthodox Monastery of the Veil of Our Lady, France)

Odds and Ends from Athos (continued)

In this continuation of conversations with various Athonite fathers I would like to touch upon the subject of the Sacrament of Confession and psychology. I believe it has probably been in the last fifty years that there has been such a growing interest in and trust in psychology, so that it has actually become blossoming field of study and a booming business. This has also had an effect upon the Church, with the result that there are many of our clergy who rely more on modern psychology than the experience of the Holy Fathers of the Church in functioning as a spiritual father. In like manner many of the laity would not even think of discussing any of their problems with a priest but run to a therapist without hesitation. This may be necessary in some cases, and the field of psychology can accomplish much good; but we need to remember what the Church has to offer us for the healing of the soul. So let us begin with some wise words from Athonite fathers.

First, a few words about Confession from a father, Geronta Macarius, who lives in a small monastic dwelling near the center of Athos. He first lived at a skete called Provata; however, he later moved with his elder, Geronda Ephraim and the rest of the brotherhood to Philotheou Monastery. He now lives with a few disciples in a kelli near Karyes which is the seat of the administrative body of the Holy Mountain. Kelli is the Athonite term used for a small monastic dwelling outside of the monasteries. It may consist of one small building with living quarters and a chapel, or it may contain several buildings with a small church. A kelli is independent in itself, whereas a skete consists of a number of such kellis grouped near each other with some interdependence. So Geronda Macarius had this to say about confession:

There is much Catholic influence in the way that this Sacrament is often performed in the Church today. Confession is not something done in order to justify one’s self before God or to satisfy the justice of God. This is legalistic and Catholic and not really Orthodox. But what does Confession mean? First of all, we must define sin. Sin in Greek is amartia; it is to miss the mark. And what is repentance? Repentance in Greek is metania. It is to change, it is to turn the mind back on the path to the mark; it is to be going straight ahead once again towards the mark. Confession is a process; it is a process of an unfolding a revelation of the inner man. In this way the spiritual father can help in the healing of a person’s soul. Through Confession we are being reconciled to the Church, we come back to the Church. We have offended the Church; we have sinned against the Body of Christ and now we are trying to reenter the Church—this is to come back into the body of Christ. So repentance is not something personal, but it is within the Church; it is with the Church and through the Church. Thus we seek to become healthy members of the Body of Christ and to have a continued growth in the likeness of God.

We often find, however, that our people are not seeking such a healing of soul and growth in life in Christ. Sometimes Confession is merely a preparation before Holy Communion, or it is limited to a clearing of the conscious without looking to what lies ahead. So then, such people are not looking for any direction from a spiritual father, and are not in the process of repentance as described above. So it is no wonder that such people do not even consider looking to the priesthood for counsel, but will run without hesitation to a therapist. So let us continue:

I posed the following question to an Athonite father who wished to remain anonymous: I have run across priests in the Orthodox Church who rely much on modern psychology in their counseling; is it possible for us to turn to psychology? The father (who had been a doctor in the world) answered:

The teachings of the Holy Fathers trace back to the fourth century but psychology only dates back to the 16th or 17th century in the non-Orthodox West. In psychology they do discover things which are useful, but our fathers knew these things for over a millennium before the advent of psychology. In the West there is an error in that it is believed that the thoughts and the mind are one. However, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church the mind and the thoughts are not one but two; and the mind must be cleansed of the wrong thoughts which pass through it.

Psychology is the product of problems that existed in Western Christianity with regard to salvation. In the Catholic Church salvation is black and white: it is the systematic observance of rules and the performance of good works in which each has their own merit towards the salvation of one’s soul. In Protestantism salvation is simply the matter of a confession of faith and then your name is written in the Book of Life. But in Orthodoxy, in order to be saved we must work to cleanse the inner man. There are three stages of growth in grace: the first is that of cleansing, the second enlightenment, and the third perfection—which is rare. We must repent and become cleansed of our wrong thoughts and sins and then the mind can become enlightened by receiving thoughts of God.
Psychology has taken root in the West because Christians in the West do not understand the need for the cleansing of the thoughts. The thoughts that go through one’s mind can drive a person crazy, and so psychology tries to keep the mind occupied with other things in order to avoid this. Therefore psychologists can keep someone from going crazy, but they cannot heal the soul. Therefore psychology is useful to us only in the case of the related medicinal field of neurology.

A Father of Gregoriou Monastery told me the following story:

I became acquainted with a man who comes to visit here and who told me that he had an experience where he felt like he was in hell. So he went to a psychiatrist who, after hearing him, put him on medication. I told him that I believed he had a call to repentance, and that he must respond to this; but he ignored me. This man continued to see the psychiatrist and was given another medication. When he returned for another visit to the monastery, I again repeated my advice, and this time he did decided to follow my suggestion. Everything is now fine with him.

A deacon, who was a student at St. Tikhon’s Seminary, once told me the following which I thought I should include:

A friend of mine back home suggested that I read a book on psychology. He told me that there were many good points in the book, and also that there were things that were undesirable. I read the book and could see that he was very perceptive in his conclusions. However, I noticed a change in his way of thinking. He became very skeptical, and through deductive reasoning sought proofs and systematic explanations for matters of faith. He sought to analyze and give rational explanations for the mysteries of faith which cannot be analyzed and explained, and as a result his simple faith was harmed.

In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that in this post my purpose is not to totally declaim the field of psychology; however I simply wish to point out matters that may be of concern to Orthodox Christians, and pray that God will give us all discernment.