What do you think of
psychotherapy that is called Orthodox Psychotherapy? The desert fathers were able to achieve
spiritual heights and had no need of modern psychotherapy. They overcame obstructions to
spiritual growth with just the “psychotherapy” of prayer and penance.
psychotherapy started with its roots in the
psychoanalytic work of
Sigmund Freud in the early
1900s, and it has grown in knowledge and diversity through the years since. But through most
of Church history psychotherapy was not known as we now know it.
Thus in times past, the emotional difficulties
of life were not seen as needing any exceptional treatment. For the most part, the average
Christian plodded along in the faith anonymously and unremarkably through duty, and the
emotional difficulties of life were addressed, as necessary, by priestly guidance, personal
prayer, and devotional practices. And, being so unremarkable, the lives of the multitudes
and their emotional issues—and their struggles and failures—received no particular
The Church Fathers
The saints and the Church fathers, however,
did get attention. Through their writings we have come to learn about their spiritual
growth. In particular, we learn much about the desert fathers’ through
the collection of writings called the Philokalia. In reading these works, we
see clearly that such men grew remarkably in outward holy behaviors through the dedicated
practice of prayer and penance at a time when “psychotherapy” was unknown.
Yet here is precisely where the answer to your
Those We Read About and Those
Prayer and penance worked perfectly for those
individuals we read about. But what about those we do not read about? That is, those who
had the psychological constitution to endure the difficulties of life with only prayer and
penance left us their records of their spiritual experiences, but those who were crippled
by their emotional difficulties had no great spiritual experiences to write about. Such
persons would have considered penance to be punishment, and because
of the abuse inflicted on them in their childhoods, the would
have distrusted God and so would have been unable to experience prayer as anything more than
a laborious act of duty. Thus, they would have failed at any growth in spiritual
life. But hardly anyone wants to admit it or talk about it.
In considering these “spiritual failures” that we
don’t read about, we have to confront the truth that prayer and penance cannot lead everyone
to great spiritual heights. If prayer and penance could lead everyone to great spiritual heights,
then the desert fathers would have been the norm, not the exception. Sadly, many of those who
could not follow the harsh way of the desert fathers fell into dissent, disobedience, and
heresy—and they and their descendants have caused enormous turmoil in the Church since
The Core of the Problem
Orthodox psychotherapy tends to refer to emotions
as passions, and it considers passions to be experiences that must be controlled and
suppressed. Moreover, it considers anger to be a passion, not
an act of the will, and so it treats anger as a vexing passion that must be stifled. As a result
of suppressing anger, the deep unconscious emotional wounds
underlying all acts of anger are ignored and therefore go untreated psychotherapeutically. Thus
many individuals who exhibit the behaviors of outwardly holy lives, and who consider themselves
to be like saints, can fall into anger at the slightest provocation. Furthermore, it doesn’t
occur to such individuals to repent and confess their anger as a sinful disorder of the will;
instead, they think of anger as an annoying passion to be swept aside much as an aggravating
insect flying about one’s face.
In religious life, individuals can be
driven into an outward appearance of obedience by cold, unemotional stoicism, but under the
surface of apparent compliance there will often be found seething confusion and anger that lead
to spiritual failure.
Now, it’s true that in the military, for example,
punishment, fear, and hate can shape a person into an efficient, cold-hearted killer. But a
cold heart has no legitimate place in Christianity; the great spiritual battle against evil is
not fought with hate but with love for God.
Successful religious life today must take into
consideration that the world in which young people are currently being raised has been corrupted
both spiritually and physically. The world has been corrupted spiritually with divorce, emotional
abuse, atheism, and Satanism; it has been corrupted physically such that our food supply has been
so tainted with genetic modifications, bacteria, and viruses that food allergies and health issues
are rampant. Thus, to be successful today, religious life has to maintain a careful blend of
faithfulness to traditional values of detachment from the world
(especially in regard to entertainment and
social media) and of astute understanding of the nature of
emotional vulnerability and health issues.
Some individuals have such deep emotional wounds
from childhood that without modern Catholic psychotherapy
they cannot get past their unconscious distrust of God and, consequently, their unconscious
resistance to serving Him. Sadly, in that case, prayer and penance, without psychotherapy, have
no healing effect on them. They can be berated and humiliated by confessors and superiors, but
their response will be, “All right. So you’re going to treat me miserably? Well, I’ll show you!
I’ll take everything you can dish out and I’ll take it without a murmur. So there!” But, oh!
Just wait. Slowly the frustration builds, and then the anger and disobedience erupt!