The Orthodox Therapist

Venerable Acacius of Sinai, who was mentioned in the Ladder

Venerable Acacius of Sinai, who was mentioned in the Ladder

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


[Source: "Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers," by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos]

So far, I hope we have established the truth that Christianity is mainly a therapeutic science. It is seeking the spiritual healing of man. Yet the right practice of medicine requires a good physician, a professional physician, and this applies to spiritual healing as well. There has to be a good doctor. He is the bishop and the priest.

As we have noted before, people today feel that the priest's function is to enable them to take part in the holy Mysteries (Sacraments). They feel that he has been commanded by God, as His servant and deacon, so that they may confess their sins and have spiritual relief. They feel him to be the deacon of God, called to pray to Him that their labors may be blessed, and so forth. Certainly no one can deny that the priest will do such works as well. However, people usually seem to regard the priest rather as a magician (if I may be forgiven for using this expression). For when we look at the life of worship apart from curing, then it does rather appear as magic-like!

We repeat, however, in order to make it clean, that the priest is properly a spiritual physician who cures people's sicknesses. Worship and Mysteries (Sacraments) must be placed within the therapeutic method and treatment.

Even as confessor the priest is mainly a therapist. The Mystery (Sacrament) of Repentance/Confession is not simply a formal absolution, especially of the Western (Latin) type, as if God were angry and demanded expiation. It is something more. It is a part of the therapeutic treatment. There are numerous Christians who make Confession over a period of many years but are not healed of their spiritual ills. Ignorance on the part of both the people and the pastors contributes to this.

The task of the bishop, priest or confessor is to lead the people out of Egypt into the Promised Land, like another Moses. This guidance requires toil and labor, privation and anguish. It is mainly therapeutic supervision. The Fathers are very insistent upon this truth. Let us take Saint John of the Ladder (Climacus) as an example. He advises that "those of us who wish to get away from Egypt and the Pharaoh need an intermediary with God, to stand between praxis and theoria and stretch out his arms to God, that those led by him may cross the sea of sin and put flight the Amelek of the passions." The Saint goes on to say that "those who rely on their own powers and claim to have no need of a guide are deceiving themselves" (Ladder, Step 1). From the Old Testament story we know what Moses endured and how he guided that stiff-necked people.

This spiritual Moses is a physician. Furthermore, all of us are sick and have need of therapy and the physician.

Saint Symeon the New Theologian, speaking to monks, makes this truth clear. As we know from the Orthodox Tradition, the monasteries are properly hospitals. It would be better to claim that they are medical schools. As sick people we are cured and after that we learn how to cure. That is why the early Church took priests from the monasteries, which are medical schools, to place them at the observation post of bishop.

Therefore, in speaking to monks, Saint Symeon does not hesitate to say that we are all poor and needy. He then tells how all of us who are in the cells are injured and affected by different illnesses; therefore we can do nothing but cry out day and night for the Doctor of our souls and bodies to heal our wounded hearts and give us spiritual health. The Saint writes: "And that is not all: (apart from being poor and naked) we lie pitifully wounded, affected with various illnesses, or more with difficulty in our cells or monasteries as if in so many hospitals and homes for the aged. We cry out and groan and weep and call upon Him Who is the Physician of souls and bodies--as least in so far as we are aware of the pain of our wounds and ailments, for there are those who do not even know that they have a disease or an ailment--that He should come and cure our wounded hearts and give health to our souls that lie in the bed of sin and death. For all of us have sinned, as the Holy Apostle said, and we have need of His mercy and grace."

We have quoted this whole text because the mission of Monasticism and the Church, as well as the work of the pastors, is shown clearly. It is chiefly a therapeutic task. We are sick in the bed of sin and death. Any who do not sense this truth are "mad." Therefore, the Christians, who do not remain in the Church in order to be healed or who feel that they are well, are mad.

Accordingly to Saint Symeon the New Theologian the priest is a physician: a person comes to the "spiritual doctor ravaged with passion, his mind all distraught..." The "expert doctor, "who is human and compassionate, understands his brother's weakness, the inflammation caused by the ailment, the tumor; he see the sick person wholly in the power of death." Then the Saint describes the way in which the spiritual and expert physician approaches the sickness, and how it is to be cured.

We have previously mentioned two basic images which characterize the pastor's work: that he is a Moses who leads his spiritual children, and he is a the same time both a scientist and a sympathetic physician. Both these qualities are contained in one of Saint Symeon's poems describing his own healing by his spiritual father, his "personal" Moses. He applies to his life the journey of the Israelite people and the guidance by Moses. He writes:

"He came down and found me to be a slave and a stranger, and he said: Come, my child, I will take you towards God!" He asked his Moses for "assurances" that he would do such a thing.
"He brought me close, he clasped me tight and again he kissed me with a holy kiss; and there was a scent of immortality all about him. I believed, I loved to go with him and I longed to serve him alone...He took me by the hand and walked before me and in this way we began to travel the road."

And after a long journey in which, through the intervention of his spiritual father, he has succeeded in confronting the passions and being freed from slavery to them, Saint Symeon begs his spiritual father:

"Come, I said, my lord, I will not part from you I will not disobey your commands but will keep them all."

Saint Silouan the Athonite writes:

"The Holy Spirit acts mystically through the spiritual father, and then when you go out from your spiritual father, the soul feels her renewal. But if you leave your spiritual father in a state of confusion, this means that you did not confess purely and did not forgive your brother all of his sins from your heart."

[Source: Orthodox Heritage]


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George