March 30, 2012

Illness, Cure and the Therapist According to St. John of the Ladder

By His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos 
of Nafpaktos and St. Vlassios

Today, there is a lot of talk about the cure of man, since we have realized that, by living an individualistic way of life, separated from community and reality, obliged to live in a tradition that has lost its communal character, where there is no communion and preservation of the person, man is sick. Naturally, when we talk of illness we do not mean its neurological and psychological aspect, but we mean illness as the loss of the true meaning of life. It is an illness that is first and foremost ontological (i.e. to do with our very being).

The Orthodox Church seeks to heal the sick personality of man and indeed this is the work of Orthodox theology. In the Patristic texts we see the truth that Orthodox theology is a therapeutic science and method: on the one hand, because theologians are those who have acquired personal knowledge of God, within the context of revelation, and thus all the powers of their soul have been already cured by the Grace of God; on the other hand because these theologians, who have found the meaning of life, the true meaning of their existence, go on to help others in their journey along this way, the way of theosis.

In attempting to study human problems we come to the realization that at their very depth these problems are theological, since man was created according to the Image and Likeness of God. This means that man was created by God to have and to maintain a relationship with God, a relationship with other people, and a relationship with the whole of creation. This relationship was successful for first-formed human beings, Adam and Eve, precisely because they possessed God's Grace. When, however, man's inner world became sick, when human beings lost their orientation towards God and consequently God's Grace, then this living and life-giving relationship ceased to exist. The result of this was that all his relationships with God, with his fellow man, with creation and with his own self were upset. All his internal and external strength was disorganized. He ceased to have God as his focus, and instead he replaced him with his own self. A self, however that was cut off from those other parameters became autonomous, resulting in him becoming sick in both essence and reality. Therefore, in all that follows health is understood as a real and true relationship, and illness, as the interruption of that relationship, when man falls away from his essential dialogue with God, his fellow men and creation, and sinks into a tragic monologue.

To use an example, we (could say that before the Fall man's center was God. His soul was nourished by God's Grace and his body by his grace-filled soul. This was something that had consequences for all creation, and in this sense man was the king of all creation. However, all this balance was disturbed by sin. The soul, having ceased to be nourished by God's Grace, now sucks at the body, and thus the passions of the soul come into being (egotism, pride, hate etc.). The body, having ceased to be nourished by the soul, now sucks at mate-rial creation; hence the bodily passions (gluttony, possessiveness, desires of the flesh etc.) are created. In this situation nature both suffers and is violated, since, instead of receiving God's Grace through the pure looking-glass that is man's nous, it is exposed to violence by man, because what man wants from it is to satisfy his passions. Hence, ecological problems are created. After the Fall, a complete reversal is noted in man's relationship with God, with other people, and with creation. This is and is called an illness, a serious sickness. The cure for this, as seen within the Orthodox Tradition, is the proper reorientation of those relationships, the rebuilding of human existence in a way that man's center is God once again and that man's soul is again nourished by God. When this happens the Divine Grace is transmitted to the body and from there it is conveyed to the whole of irrational creation.

In light of this, man's problems are not simply psychological, social and ecological, but problems of relationships and universal responsibility. They are ontological problems, i.e. problems pertaining to man's being and existence. It is within this framework that we have spoken about the illness and cure of man in the Orthodox Church and about theology as therapeutic science. The Orthodox Church does not reject medical science. On the contrary she accepts and uses medicine in many instances. At the same time she looks at the ontological dimension of man's problems and tries to bring man back to his right perspective and to his original ontological orientation. Hence, we can talk of spiritual psychotherapy and of essential psychosynthesis but not of psychoanalysis. From this standpoint, even someone who is healthy from a psychiatric point of view can be sick from a theological one.

The saints of the Church also worked within this framework. Amongst them is St. John of Sinai, the author of the well-known book The Ladder, which has this title because it has to do with the ladder of man's ascent to God. This ascent is in reality a reorientation of man's true relationships with God, with his fellow man, with creation and, naturally, with his very self. All that follows must be placed within this essential framework.