Loneliness and Monasticism: Incompatible Concepts

Monks, as the name suggests, are solitary sorts who enjoy keeping to themselves. And yet, I think it is safe to say that monks do not suffer extensively from loneliness.  Still, it is not unusual for monks, especially hermits, to be asked if they are lonely. It would appear to be a perfectly natural question from outside of monasticism, but within the cloister walls it sounds strange indeed. When Saint Herman of Alaska was asked if he felt lonely on Spruce Island, he replied, “No, I am not alone there. God is there, as God is everywhere.” His answer suggests not only a qualitative difference … [Read more...]

Monasticism and Mental Health

Orthodox monasticism is an exceptional way of life that requires exceptional resources of the mind and spirit. Saint Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea and revealer of heavenly mysteries, set forth teachings on Orthodox monasticism that have defined it to this day. In his Discourse on Renunciation, he relates "Many come to the virtuous life [meaning monasticism], but few are able to take on that yoke. The Gospel declares, 'The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.' It calls those disciples of Christ to voluntarily endure corporal weariness by the denial … [Read more...]

Healing and Well-being in the Fathers and Contemporary Psychological Research

Therapy and psychological counseling have been concerned for years with pathology-oriented models, essentially borrowed from medicine. Today, however, there is a turning towards Seligman's  "positive psychology" movement and an examining of notions of well-being in order to promote positive psychological functioning with resiliency to stressors. In trying to understand well-being, psychologists define well-being either hedonistically in terms of pleasure or happiness or eudaimonically in terms of self-actualization, meaning, and purpose. These are good attempts, but they fail to offer a … [Read more...]

More “Where Thoughts Lead Us”

There's been quite a bit of discussion concerning the last blog post "Where Thoughts Lead Us" so I thought I'd add a few thoughts to what I'd said in the last post: Yes, the woman could have been calmly assertive in a non-threatening way and checked out  her interpretations with her colleagues and that may have resulted in some minor shifts in the group dynamic towards egalitarian behavior. Fine. But that's not the path that leads to holiness, which is the only path worth walking upon. I repeatedly tell my spiritual children that evil can never be destroyed with evil, but only with goodness. … [Read more...]

Where Thoughts Lead Us

I’ll begin this blog post with a story related to me by an acquaintance.  It involves a work situation and how one’s thoughts can lead to destructive and bad behavior.  It’s a story about a successful female executive who is a junior partner in a firm.  While she has attained success, status in the firm, and is widely regarded as a bright, articulate lawyer, she harbors deep-seated resentment for what she perceives as “slights” from her male partners.  As she continued to harbor these feelings, nurturing them in her imagination, she was unable to interact with her partners without seeking out … [Read more...]

Counsel for Daily Training in the Virtues at Home

As teachers of the Christian faith and way of life, the fathers were well aware of basic pedagogical principles such as the necessity to practice learned material consistently in order to apply it in real-life situations.  Christian virtue, like every other art, requires daily practice and the support of others. The faithful are encouraged to study throughout the day whatever they gather from the texts of the liturgical services, from sermons given by priests, or from the advice of spiritual fathers in confession. According to Saint John Chrysostom, it is fitting for the faithful to form study … [Read more...]

Thoughts-What Neuroscience and the Church Fathers Have to Say

To some, Saint Peter of Damascus's list of virtues may not be their first choice in spiritual reading, but it's value extends beyond an attempt at thoroughness or an exercise in categorization. Given the associative nature of memory and the way one idea/thought/image primes neural circuits for a series of related thoughts that in turn have a significant influence on how one engages with the world, reading regularly about the virtues may be one of the best ways to ingrain virtuous behavior. In fact, one doesn't even need an elaborate commentary. Simply mentioning a word -- such as forgiveness, … [Read more...]

SPIRITUAL LIFE AND COGNITIVE THERAPY: TWO PLANES, TWO APPROACHES, AND WHERE THE TWAIN DO MEET

Yes, the Church Fathers are operating at a level that is qualitatively quite different from that of standard cognitive therapy. Yes, the prophetic encounter in the grace of the Holy Spirit can lead to a transfiguration in the believer’s life. Yes, the quality of prayer on the part of the confessor and confessant is what matters most in the mystery. So, why would I pursue this line of cross-correlative research? For the same reason that Fr. Seraphim (Rose) advised young people to read the works of Dickens: to help people reach the point where they can open their hearts to the fathers’ … [Read more...]

Learning How to Read for the Health of the Mind and the Health of the Soul

The intersection of modern bibliotherapy and the ancient rumination on the Law, the Psalter, and the Gospels is found most sharply in one of the main purposes behind both approaches, namely increasing awareness to principles that can be used to navigate one’s way through the many difficulties we encounter in life and that hinder us in our attempt to reach important goals, be they normal functioning in one’s environment (psychology) or union with God (in Holy Orthodoxy). Of course, sacred books can act as conveyors of grace that affect the soul at a qualitatively different level than clinical … [Read more...]

Reason and Speech: Timeless Truth and Secular Echoes

Introduction to Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds Could an ancient mystical path of inner transformation, most rigorously pursued and explored by monks and hermits, possibly bear much resemblance to what now seems to be establishing itself as the standard psychotherapeutic approach to living an effective and rational life? Would they not of necessity lie worlds apart, reflecting two different mindsets, one pre-modern and the other modern and indeed post-modern—one rational and secular, and the other mystical and sacred? As the first century … [Read more...]