March 8, 2013

The Foundations of Orthodox Psychotherapy

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

I have examined the subject of Orthodox Psychotherapy early in my life and published at least six books, which have been translated to other languages, and I have also examined it in other books of mine. In today’s presentation I will focus on some points of relevance to the present Conference.


The term I used in my first book, published in 1986, caused considerable reactions – positive and negative – and thus I have had to explain it on various occasions. I will present some of these explanations here.

First, the term “psychotherapy” was coined in the West by various psychological, psychoanalytical and psychotherapeutic schools of thought which did not comprehend the soul (“psyche” in Greek) in the same way the Orthodox Tradition does. By “psyche”, modern psychology denotes the set of conscious and unconscious manifestations of experiences and behaviors. In the Orthodox Tradition, however, the term “psyche” denotes the spiritual element of man’s existence, which is in unity with the body and constitutes a hypostasis. I used the term psychotherapy adding the word Orthodox, and as I have explained many times Orthodox psychotherapy has a different anthropology than the anthropology of western psychotherapy.

Second, I associate closely the term “psychotherapy” with the neptic-hesychastic tradition. This is a life described in the works of the Holy Fathers regarding man’s inner life, in watchfulness (“nepsis”) and prayer. Of course, this neptic-hesychastic tradition can also be found in the books of the Old and the New Testament. Thus, the term “Orthodox psychotherapy” is to be understood not as a psychological, emotional and intellectual balance, but as the way for man to know God. In essence, it is the cleansing of the image of God that was darkened due to the original sin, it is the activation of the path to the likeness of God, which constitutes man’s communion with God, namely deification, theosis.

Third, although the discussion is about Orthodox psychotherapy and this refers to the term “psyche”, it is actually used for the cure of the entire person, both body and soul, without, of course, ignoring the medical science. In fact, as we see in the patristic tradition, the soul is closely linked with the body and there are interactions between these two elements of human existence. Therefore, inner peace is related to both the soul and the body. It is important to note that the hesychast movement that occurred in the 14th century, as expressed in the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, and in the texts of the Councils between 1341-1368, some of which are read on the Sunday of Orthodoxy in the Synodikon, refers not only to the soul but also to the body. Barlaam, the philosopher who expressed western scholasticism, devalued the human body. On the contrary, St. Gregory Palamas demonstrated the great significance of the human body, due among else to the incarnation of the Son and Word of God, and developed theologically the teaching of the Church regarding the deification of the whole person, soul and body.

The entire work of the Church deals with the cure of soul and body. Through the Sacraments, that is, Baptism, Chrismation, Holy Communion, Ordination, Marriage, Unction, Confession, the whole person is blessed, consisting of soul and body.

Fourth, Orthodox psychotherapy does not overlook medical methods for therapy, even modern psychology, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Orthodox psychotherapy aims at man’s deification, while humanistic psychotherapy is interested in man’s psychosomatic balance and his socialization either within the family or within the society. In fact there has to be a cooperation between the Spiritual Father who employs Orthodox psychotherapy and the psychiatrist who is interested in curing illnesses related with the neurological system and psychological imbalances.

I believe that to a great degree the term “Orthodox psychotherapy” refers to psychology, psychotherapy, and neurology. We know that in the past there had been a great divergence between psychotherapy and neurology. Recently, however, it has been realized that these two disciplines have to cooperate, because illnesses of the neurological system affect man’s psychological aspect, and likewise psychological illnesses affect the neurocells, the genes, etc., namely the body itself. Thus, Orthodox psychotherapy relates psychology to neurology, but goes beyond them because, as will be explained later on, Orthodox psychotherapy functions beyond the limits of science, without ignoring it. At the same time it helps both the psychosomatic composition and the socialization of a person.

Compared to the several schools of psychotherapy in the western world, “Orthodox psychotherapy” has more similarities with existential psychology-psychotherapy, as articulated by Viktor Frankl, without being identical to it.

It is in this context that I have employed the term “Orthodox psychotherapy”, and it has been comprehended as such by those who study things in a serious and responsible manner, not irresponsibly. To be fair, I have to mention that in my analysis I was influenced by Fr. John Romanides who taught that Orthodox theology is a therapeutic science and that if Christianity had first appeared in the 20th century it would have been received as a therapeutic science, and in its methodology it would appear to be psychotherapy or neurology. The title of one of his articles is indeed telling: Religion is a Neurobiological Illness and Orthodoxy is Its Cure.

In any case, the term “Orthodox psychotherapy” was accepted by scholars, as demonstrated in the voluminous book titled Manual of Psychotherapy and Religious Diversity, published by the American Psychological Society. The book describes therapies offered by religions. In a chapter titled “Psychotherapy With Eastern Orthodox Christians”, written by Tony Young, there is extensive reference to the psychotherapy offered by the Orthodox Church and the calming effects deriving from Confession and the Jesus Prayer recited in the heart.

Another important article has been written by Paul Kymissis titled From Neurobiology to the Uncreated Light, which discusses the great significance of the Orthodox Tradition for man’s spiritual health.


When I wrote about an “Orthodox psychotherapy” I did not establish a new system. I simply summarized the teaching of the Fathers of the Church on man’s therapy. In what follows I will mention some basic principles found in patristic theology regarding man’s therapy.

a) Nous and word

According to the teachings of St. Maximus the Confessor, St. John Damascene and other Fathers of the Church, the human soul possesses rational and noetic energy, namely, reason and nous. These are two different energies which are not identical and have a different mission. Noetic energy (nous) is the organ through which man communicates with God, and rational energy (reason) has knowledge and communicates with created things.

In the Forefathers before the Fall, the nous acted according to nature, it received the Grace of God, which is transmitted through the nous to the body and the non-rational creation. This way man’s intellect had correct concepts, because it accepted the illumination of Grace from the nous. St. Maximus the Confessor says that the nous views things, especially God, correctly, while an educated intellect articulates the experiences obtained by the nous.

After the sin of the Forefathers, the nous was darkened and was identified with the intellect, the passions, and the environment, as Fr. John Romanides used to say. Therefore, the nous is no longer able to get in communion with God and acquire the knowledge of God, and this is how religions and rationalism, where the ratio is the center, are created.

Therefore, Orthodox psychotherapy is primarily concerned with the darkened nous and tries to return the nous to a state according to nature and lead it to a state transcending nature, so that it has knowledge of God. This way the whole man is sanctified. That is, Orthodox psychotherapy’s priority is neither the neurological system, nor simply emotions. It rather aims at the good functioning of the noetic energy (nous) of the soul. Through this perspective, there are changes happening in human existence. Modern psychology and psychotherapy differs from “Orthodox psychotherapy” because they do not know the function of the nous which is contrary to nature or according to nature or transcending nature; in fact, they do not even know what the nous is.

b) The intelligent and passible parts of the soul

Plato, the philosopher, referring to the soul distinguishes two parts, the rational and the passible part. The rational one is concerned with thinking, judgment, and handling of various issues, related to philosophy, scientific knowledge, and to associating with the world around us. In the passible part of the soul there operate the passions, physical and mental. And he claims that the rational part is the noblest element of man’s existence. Because the soul is by nature immortal and pre-existed in the world of ideas of God, the rational part, being the most important energy of the soul, belonged to the unborn world of ideas. On the contrary, according to Plato, the passible part of the soul is connected to the body. Therefore, in order for the soul to enter into communion with God, its passible part has to be mortified.

The Fathers of the Church accepted the division of the soul into the rational and the passible part, without accepting Plato’s theory on the distinction between a naturally immortal soul and a naturally mortal body. They also rejected the suggestion for the mortification of the passible part of the soul. Instead, they argue for the transformation of the passible part of the soul. In the therapy proposed by the Fathers it is clear that the intellect is associated with the passions of pride, unbelief, etc., and the passible part of the soul, which is divided into the appetitive and the incensive parts, is associated with the passions of avarice, pleasure-seeking, anger, etc.

c) Noetic energy in relation to blameful and blameless passions

In the terminology of the Fathers, the nous is also called noetic energy and plays a great role in human life. St. Maximus the Confessor says that a nous distanced from God becomes either subject to the demons through pride or bestial through the passions associated with the passible part of the soul. The nous is what establishes a balance in all the energies of soul and body.

Fr. John Romanides writes:

In its natural state, the noetic energy regulates the passions, namely, hunger, thirst, sleep, the instinct of self-preservation (that is, of the fear of death) so that they become blameless. In a sick state the passions become blameful. In combination with an uncontrolled imagination, they create magical religions to restrain natural forces or to bring the soul in a state of happiness (“eudemonia”) or even to bring happiness to body and soul.

Analyzing this important observation, we may refer to the teaching of St. John Damascene on the distinction between blameless and blameful passions. Blameless passions, also called natural, are the ones related to hunger, thirst, fatigue, etc., while blameful passions are the ones that are evidence of man’s spiritual sickness. Both blameless and blameful passions refer to body and soul, because the soul expresses itself through the body.

What is important is that blameless passions may easily turn into blameful, that is, hunger may turn to gluttony, thirst may turn to love of drinking, fatigue may turn to listlessness (acedia) etc. Similarly, blameful passions may be transformed into blameless ones; that is, gluttony may be cured so that man eats to simply preserve the body; love of drinking may reject the impassioned element so as to only satisfy the need of thirst; acedia may be turned into vigor and fatigue so as to demonstrate love for God and for man, etc.

This work is done by the noetic energy, when it functions properly and is strengthened by the Grace of God. That is, the noetic energy prevents blameless passions from turning into blameful ones, and also cures blameful passions turning them into blameless ones. When we refer to the noetic energy illumined by the Grace of God we actually mean the noetic prayer of the heart.

This shows the great importance and value of Orthodox psychotherapy, namely, the teaching and practice of the Church for the cure of man, so that he behaves correctly towards God and fellow humans. This shows the significance of Orthodox psychotherapy which is concerned with the body too, not only with the soul. Actually, we know from medical science that any excesses by the soul or the body have repercussions on the neurological and physical state of the person. Thus, when the nous is healthy, that is when the noetic energy functions according to nature and transcending nature, several bodily diseases are avoided and some bodily diseases are even cured. This excludes hereditary diseases, of course, but when a person has a healthy nous he is able to transcend the consequences of these diseases, with patience, endurance, faith in God and prayer, as well as the entire sacramental life of the Church.

d) Religion and the Church

Several religion scholars discuss polytheistic and monotheistic religions and include Christianity among the monotheistic ones. This is done in order to present the common and the distinguishing elements among religions. However, according to the Orthodox Tradition, Christianity is not a simple religion. It is rather a Church, the Body of Christ. There is wide difference between religion and the Church.

Usually, a religion identifies the uncreated element with the created one, thus attributing to God what is actually created and finite. This is how various kinds of religions have been established, associated with sorcery, superstition and mysticism. Christianity, however, functions as a Church, namely, a specific community which is the Body of Christ and Christ is its head. The three characteristics, sorcery, superstition and mysticism, are not characteristics of the Church.

In the last two centuries there has been a lot of criticism against religion from a philosophical, social and psychological perspective. There are various schools of thought accusing religions of the way they function and the way they express themselves.

The philosopher August Comte portrays religion as “spiritual alienation”. The term “alienation” implies that certain important characteristics of religion are lost and it is transformed into something else. According to his view, mankind evolved progressively from the theological state to the metaphysical-philosophical state and then to the scientific and positivist state. The scientific method of observation and experiment constitutes the fulfillment of man. The science of sociology includes all other sciences. He attaches religious characteristics to sociology. Thus positivism acquires a mystical form and actually becomes a true religion with its worship, its representatives and all other religious elements. This shows that religion, as understood by the general public, in its magical and superstitious form, is a “spiritual alienation”.

Feuerbach portrays religion as an “anthropological alienation”, meaning that religion projects man’s essence to God. He writes: “Religion is the official revelation of man’s hidden treasures, the confession of his most intimate thoughts, the public confession of his love secrets”. The projection of all these anthropological elements to God constitutes an anthropological alienation. Man renounces his own characteristics in order to attribute them to God. So, divine characteristics are actually human characteristics. Therefore, man should rediscover his own characteristics, cease projecting them to God, view them as his own and develop them. Consequently, according to Feuerbach, “religion is the essence of mankind’s childhood”. Man has to proceed to a philosophical maturity and regain his consciousness, not continue projecting it subconsciously to that imaginary being called God.

Karl Marx portrays religions as “economic alienation”. Following Feuerbach’s analysis, he created his own theory on religion, according to which the economic factor enters the scene and man is alienated by religion and therefore he must be liberated from it. Marx’ basic theory is that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature”, and this is why it is “the opium of the people” who are suffering under harsh economic conditions. So, mankind should reject these delusions about its condition. Actually, Marx believes that an unjust society produces misery, and this is why it produces religion. This implies that one should struggle to transform society, and this is done through the revolution of the proletariat. When social classes are abolished, then religion will disappear.

Freud portrays religion as a “psychological alienation”. Following the analyses of the writers mentioned above, and especially Feuerbach’s theory, he views religion as a projection of human psyche to superior forces. So, he interprets religion through conflicts in the human psyche, not through social conflicts. Mankind has a need to create a belief in supernatural forces protecting it in order to avoid the dangers threatening it. It follows that religion is an escape from reality, a rejection of real pain, an inability to transcend the fear of death and uncertainty. It is actually an illusion.

Indeed such manifestations, as described by the four thinkers mentioned here, can be observed in religion. This is the reason that I consider the Church not to be a religion. The Church rather functions as a psychotherapy, liberating man from all beliefs, myths, superstitions, and mysticisms. God is a person who communes with man in the Church, and then man, cured from the slavery to the senses and to observable things, loves God and his fellow humans sincerely, he acquires the love of God and the love of men.

Of course, it is well known that many Christians, including some Orthodox, feel that the Church is a religion, and they behave in the way we described previously. However, this does not mean that the role and the purpose of the Church are altered. The role and the purpose of the Church are against religion, since the Church actually rids man from the disease of religion. This is what the Prophets, the Apostles, the Fathers, and primarily Christ did. They struggled to liberate mankind from religion and idolatry.

In what I briefly presented previously, the basis and the foundations of “Orthodox psychotherapy” are defined. This is a psychotherapy which has no similarities to any western or eastern type of psychotherapy; it has its own different character, a specific distinct anthropology. We find this in Holy Scripture and in the patristic texts, especially in the so-called neptic-hesychastic Philokalia ones. Thus, “Orthodox psychotherapy” as theology and practice may be interpreted through the neptic and hesychastic tradition of the Orthodox Church. The West rejected this tradition or forgot it, and was based on rationalism, moralism, and human autonomy. As a result, it discovered humanistic psychology and psychotherapy in order to solve man’s existential problems that deal with concerns beyond reason and morality.