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Therapy of the soul

From: Orthodox Psychotherapy

The whole tradition of the Orthodox Church consists in healing and bringing to life the soul which is dead from sin. All the sacraments and the whole ascetic life of the Church contribute to this healing. Anyone who is not aware of this fact is unable to sense the atmosphere of the Orthodox Tradition. We shall see in what follows what this health and vitalising of the soul is, and several ways of attaining it, and how a healthy and living soul functions.

Health of the soul consists in dispassion and spiritual knowledge (58). "The soul is perfect when permeated by the virtues" (59). A soul is perfect "if its passible aspect is totally oriented towards God" (60). A pure soul is "one that loves God" (61). A pure soul is "one freed from passions and constantly delighted by divine love" (62).

The holy Fathers also describe several ways in which the soul is revived, vitalised and healed. Godly sorrow, or repentance, puts an end to sensual pleasure, but "the destruction of sensual pleasure is the soul's resurrection" (63). Anthony, the great servant of God, said that we must purify our minds. "For I believe that when the mind is completely pure and is in its natural state, it gains penetrating insight, and it sees more clearly and further than the demons, since the Lord reveals things to it" (64). That is to say, this holy servant of the soul enjoins us to purify our minds. It has been observed that if anyone keeps his nous pure from evil thoughts and various images, then he can keep his soul pure.

Theoleptos, Metropolitan of Philadelphia, teaches: "When, having put an end to external distractions, you also master inner thoughts, then your nous is stirred to spiritual acts and words." The effort to keep one's mind pure and to free oneself from the many distractions results in the appearance within us of the nous, which had been dead and unseen. Therefore again Theoleptos advises: "Put an end to mixing with the outer world and fight with the inner thoughts until you find the place of pure prayer and the home where Christ dwells" (65). The heart, as we shall point out in another place, is the home where God dwells. We shall discover it only when we strive to live quietly and when we struggle against the thoughts which hold sway in us. Purity of the nous is very important. This method is simple but comprehensive and brings great benefit to man's soul, since it makes it a temple of the Holy Spirit.

The soul is healed when it rejects relations with inferior things and cleaves in love to one who is superior (66).

St. Gregory Palamas, interpreting the whole tradition of the Orthodox Church, says that through transgression and sin we lost the likeness of God, but "we did not lose the image". Precisely because we did not lose the image we can restore the soul. The soul, freed from relations with inferior things and cleaving in love to one who is superior and submitting to him through the works and ways of virtue, "receives from him illumination, adornment and betterment and it obeys his counsels and exhortations, from which it receives true and eternal life" (67). When the soul obeys God's law, it gradually becomes healthy, is illuminated and receives eternal life.

Beside the practical method for healing the soul, Nicetas Stethatos also offers another method, through theoria. Where there is love for God, an active nous, and participation in the unapproachable light, "there is also peace in the powers of the soul, purification of the nous and indwelling of the Holy Trinity" (68). Therefore, beside the effort to keep our nous pure, it is necessary to accustom the nous to inner action and inner prayer, to acquire charity and love for God - because where this love dwells, peace comes to the powers of the soul - and purity of the nous.

In another section of this book we speak more analytically about how the soul is healed when it moves according to nature, and there we describe the natural movement of each part of the soul. Here, since we are speaking of the healing of the soul we shall just briefly emphasise a few facts.

St. Gregory Palamas writes that we struggle to drive the law of sin out of our body and to install in its place the oversight of the nous, in this way establishing a law appropriate for each power of the soul and for every member of the body. For the senses we ordain self-control. For the passible part of the soul, love. We improve the intelligence by rejecting everything which impedes the mind's ascent towards God, and this we call nepsis. If a person has purified his body through self-control, has made his emotions and desires an occasion of virtue, and presented to God a mind purified by prayer, then he "acquires and sees in himself the grace promised to those whose hearts have been purified" (69).

St. Maximus, in the Orthodox tradition, exhorts: "Bridle your soul's incensive power with love, quench its desire with self-control, give wings to its intelligence with prayer, and the light of your nous will never be darkened" (70).

It is not advice or medicines that heal the sick soul, that give life to the dead nous, that purify the impure heart, but the ascetic method of the Church, self-control, love, prayer and guarding of the nous from Satan's provocations through evil thoughts. Therefore we believe that the Orthodox tradition is very important for our time, for it is the only thing that can free a man and heal him from the anxiety and insecurity brought on by the death of his soul.