What the Eastern Church Does Best
In a previous article, I admitted the tension of experiencing unanswered prayers for my own chronic condition, all the while rejoicing in the fact that the Church heals souls; “…for what does it profit a man if he gains his whole life while destroying his soul?” There I made the claim that God primarily heals the outer human in order to prove that He can heal the inner human, because physical healing offers little benefit if it merely delays the body’s death. That article discussed the Church at large, while this will focus on the Eastern Church’s approach to inner healing.
My condition started over 30 years ago on a humid day in the middle of a six-lane thoroughfare. A transit bus had just dropped me off at a busy intersection in Memphis. In a moment of stupidity, I treated the stopped bus as if it represented all traffic from my left, dashing out to beat the traffic coming from my right. Not surprisingly, I only got as far as the second lane.
I should be dead, but just imagine what horror some random driver experienced that day. Cruising down the road toward a green light, he or she could not have anticipated my action. Like a movie scene designed to make the audience jump, the driver’s view was suddenly blocked by a gangly teenager—crushing into the windshield, then tumbling overhead.
Despite the typical tailgating in Memphis, no one followed closely behind the first car to finish me off, by the grace of God. I lost consciousness on the hot asphalt while the driver whose windshield I broke had to wait for an ambulance in dread, assuming that this bloodied youth would shortly die. After the paramedics peeled me off of the ground and departed, the completely innocent driver could not have known my name, much less have been able to learn that I did survive the incident after all.
Three decades have passed, yet I sometimes wonder how deeply the driver was scarred by that event and for how long. I still have scars in my skin. Does he or she still have scars in the psyche? I think if I had driven into someone like that, I would never want to drive again, having no way to know whether this would reoccur. I might be triggered to panic whenever I saw a bus stopped at a green light ahead of me.
After extensive surgery and several months of rehab, I walked (to the surprise of many) out of the hospital. Yet I expect the mind of the driver took more than three months to heal from that day. While I can’t recall the sound of the crunching windshield, the driver likely remembered it for quite a while. I don’t know what it’s like to wait in terror, hoping for the sirens, aghast at the thought that I might’ve innocently killed someone. I’ve never seen paramedics pull onto a gurney the body of someone whom I hit, with no way of learning the outcome.
NUMBING THE MIND
I went to a hospital for the body, but my victim (the driver) needed therapy too. Truth be told, we all need therapeutic releases for our minds as each of us faces a daily onslaught of headlines, memories, temptations, deadlines, cravings, discouragements, relationship troubles and so much more. In the midst of all that, we also feel tensions of faith, in unanswered prayers, in our failures to pray more, in our many guilts, and even in lingering doubts.
Our sins may be forgiven, but forgiven sins can leave us scarred, causing us to seek solace in the system of this fallen world. Often without realizing it, Christians learn from society to numb our minds via the distractions on our many devices, thereby avoiding the thoughts which would pester quieter minds.
We seek “satisfying” work to fulfill our minds with the sense of accomplishment. Yet even accomplishments can deprive us of time for relationships and focused prayer, fatiguing both the body and the brain with our toils. When our work feels satisfying, it only diverts us temporarily from true satisfaction. After decades of achievements at work, we can feel as if post-employment life has little purpose or value, as too many retirees will confirm.
We try to numb our minds from daily fears, whether of crime, or the noise of neighbors, or financial dangers, or natural disasters. Our inability to establish safety in those areas then drives us to attempt to control what few threats we can. Therefore when insults arise, we control by arguing, self-defense, or lashing out at the character of those who criticize. We try to control our relationships and manage how people view us by creating a persona of ourselves for them to embrace, instead of the deeply flawed persons which we either know we are or fail to know we are.
As Christians, we even try to control some of the pesky verses which threaten our religious contentment, starting with the first and foremost command which prompts us to the ultimate psychotherapy of constant prayer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.” At the end of the day, we indeed fail to love God from the whole self. A mind in need of healing cannot offer all of its heart, soul and strength to God in love.
It’s not enough to numb the mind, we must seek healing for it. As a longtime student of Christian history, I’ve searched for those prescriptions of faith which treat the soul and the mind with the therapy of nonstop prayer. Only ceaseless prayer can fulfill the first and greatest commandment.
“Psycho-therapy” means “soul-healing.” The Greek therapeia means “healing,” and the Greek psyche (literally “breath”) roughly translates as “soul.”
The foremost sin can only be disobedience to the foremost command, but in my experience most Christians simply ignore that command as unattainable. As the system of the world draws us away from fully loving God, its prescription for entertainment, knowledge, accomplishments, and control neither heals our minds nor helps us repent from the foremost sin. Therefore, “Whoever is a friend of the world is at enmity with God.”(Js 4.4)
Sadly, our entertainment and accomplishments also divert us from even recognizing the need to find healing for the psyche. Isaac of Nineveh, who is beloved in much of Eastern Christianity, wrote in approximately AD 600:
It is more profitable for you to attend to raising up unto the activity your cogitations concerning God the deadness of your soul due to the passions, than to resurrect the dead. Many have accomplished mighty acts… Yet after these things, these same men who quickened others, fell into vile and abominable passions and slew themselves, becoming a stumbling block for many when their acts were made manifest. For they were still sickly in soul…1
I personally have not found much therapy for the soul in two and a half decades of Protestant sermons and books. Soul-therapy in Protestantism seems to boil down to the advice that we should read the Bible more, pray more, and attend church services. Yet this three-fold prescription comes with little structure for prayer and Scripture outside of our One-Year Bibles and their daily reading plans.
By contrast, well developed soul-therapy systems abound within the only other form of Western Christianity, which is Roman Catholicism. Three of the more popular Roman systems of spirituality consist of Benedictine worship, Dominican study, and the Franciscan combination of charity and simplicity. Therapies for the soul in Roman Catholicism commendably number beyond a dozen developed systems.
HOW THE EASTERN CHURCH HEALS
Recently, I’ve come to realize the particular strength of Eastern Christianity (and Eastern Orthodoxy in particular) for healing the minds of believers. Unlike Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy offers a well developed form of soul-therapy. Unlike Roman Catholicism which developed many such systems over the centuries, the Eastern Church has presented for nearly two millennia one singular pathway toward healing the mind and soul in unceasing prayer.
In the West we lean toward feeding the intellect with edifying knowledge and encouragement. In addition to the intellect, Evangelicals increasingly direct the emotions of believers into focusing on the One who satisfies the heart, which I consider a complement, unlike those who accuse them of “emotionalism.”
Eastern Christian spirituality has many facets which do not belong exclusively to Eastern Orthodoxy. Isaac of Nineveh was a Persian Christian in the Assyrian Church of the East, yet the Eastern Orthodox frequently laud Isaac for his teachings. The history of Eastern Orthodox spirituality roughly traces itself from the New Testament writings of the Apostle John, then through John Chrysostom, becoming clearer through the Cappadocian Fathers, followed by John Climacus, later systematized by Gregory Palamas, and ultimately becoming encyclopedic in the Philokalia.
While many aspects of Eastern Orthodox spirituality have previously been discussed on Conciliar Post here and here, I offer an opening teaser, rather than a full summary of Eastern Christian spirituality. While the goals of the Eastern Church exceed psychology, their methodologies are worth considering as psycho-therapy, something which a driver in Memphis 30 years ago needed, and something which I myself need. I do not limit the following to Eastern Orthodoxy per se, and Eastern Orthodoxy does not see the following things as possible to attain without membership and integration into their liturgical rites.
Psychotherapy begins in the East with a quiet stillness of the mind, which is often termed hesychasm. In the New Testament the Greek word hesychasm appears just a handful of times. It is a compound word which literally means to “hold” one’s “seat.” In Luke 14:3 when a group stays silent before Jesus, the word for their silence is hesychasm. In Luke 23:56 when the myrrh-bearing women wait on the Sabbath to anoint the body of Jesus, the word for their waiting is hesychasm also.
In I Thessalonians 4:11, Paul encourages all to seek the practice of hesychasm without explaining what the word means, thereby giving the impression that hesychasm had become either a well-developed teaching or a word in common usage, like the quietness of Luke 14:3 and the stillness in Luke 23:56. In I Thessalonians 3:11, Paul not only encourages the practice, but states that it was “ordered” to them in combination with working with their hands, so that outsiders would be attracted to them and in order that they would not be in need.
In II Thessalonians 3:12, Paul commands “in Christ Jesus” the local busybodies, in order that “working with hesychasm they must eat their own bread.” In I Timothy 2:11-12, Paul also commands women to learn hesychasm and to practice it, rather than teaching and governing men. Healing of the mind can begin with obeying the New Testament commands to practice hesychasm.
STILL & QUIET LIVES
Only a quiet mind can heal in prayer. To wait upon Jesus and work in silence, the Eastern Church encourages the simplification of one’s life. While the world system says we should climb the ladder at work, vacation indulgently, purchase more things, consume more entertainment and retire wealthy, King Jesus assures us that our Father provides the necessities for those who seek first His dominion.
We can stop funneling our income toward luxuries, put an end to impulse buying, and choose more menial jobs which would enable us to worship more during working hours. We can pray more before and after work. We can also choose to prioritize prayer during break times at work.
Perhaps of greatest importance for hesychasm, we can turn off our screens. Most of today’s entertainment either blatantly impugns God or avoids of any mention of God, whether it be our political news, movies, television series, or games. Christians today spend countless hours of God’s time focusing on things which divert us from prayerfully loving Him with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths. With divine assistance, we can and should change those habits, choosing simpler lives which would enable prayerful healing of the mind.
ONE REPETITIVE PRAYER
Ceaseless prayer focuses the mind and enables prayer, which in circular fashion then enables ceaseless prayer. In the East they teach the short and simple “Jesus prayer” as the starting point for calming the thoughts and becoming mindful of God. Similar to blind Bartimaeus’ prayer, it can be as short as “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” or as long as “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Today’s common understanding of mercy as the opposite of wrath differs from its New Testament meaning as “rescue” from troubles or “aid” for weaknesses. The short book “The Way of a Pilgrim” epitomizes Eastern teaching on the Jesus Prayer. In it, an anonymous traveler learns to repeat the Jesus Prayer throughout the day in order to quiet his mind.
In practice, I can personally affirm that the use of that prayer helps tremendously. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” easily turns to “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us,” which aids in intercession for so many other people for whom I had wanted to pray more often. This short and repetitive prayer does not replace other prayers but prompts other prayers. Admirably, the Jesus Prayer can become almost subconscious over time. When praying it during work or even silently in the middle of conversations, I find that the Jesus Prayer does not distract from interactions. To the contrary, it actually helps me to work more diligently and to converse in a peaceful frame of mind. The Jesus Prayer has helped heal my own mind toward focusing on God. Hopefully it has also helped me become a healing presence for others.
Like the “Divine Office” of Roman Catholicism, Eastern forms of Christianity have books of written prayers for different hours of the day. For Protestants, it may seem foreign to read and pray with words which do not come from Scripture. Yet I’ve been surprised and greatly pleased at the theological depth of such prayer books, which remind the heart of God’s great deeds and His promises throughout the day.
Over the decades, I’ve gotten the impression from Protestant sermons that I should schedule 30 minutes or more each morning for prayer and Scripture, but that additional praying would solely be spontaneous. For most of Christianity, however, prayer books have proven invaluable for scheduling frequent prayer throughout the day and for prompting one’s spontaneous prayers.
The Anglican/Episcopal Church is the largest Protestant denomination with a book of hourly prayer, “The Book of Common Prayer.” The rest of us could use the book of Psalms as our launchpad for more frequent prayers. With sixteen waking hours, it would take only 3 minutes an hour to pray through the entire book of Psalms each week, an average of just 22 verses per hour. Assuming we would miss three to four hours at work before and after lunch breaks, it would take no more than 12 minutes to catch up on the verses we missed during those hours. We can learn from the Roman Church and the Eastern Churches that books of hourly prayer greatly aid one’s healing of the heart, soul, mind and strength toward fully loving God.
I can’t speak to fasting rules in Oriental Orthodoxy or the Assyrian Church of the East, but I have learned that fasting is prescribed in Eastern Orthodoxy for Wednesdays and Fridays, and for Sunday mornings before the congregational liturgy.
Despite the fact that I am not Eastern Orthodox, I do recognize the benefit of using a regularly scheduled fast as a means of training the body. Society teaches us to “listen to your body,” but my stomach often claims that eating will solve my stress and make me happy. The stomach desires to be our god (Pp 3.19), but we can instead enslave our bodies to train for the spiritual prize, as the Apostle Paul chose to do.(1Co 9.25-27)
To this effect, Isaac of Nineveh says, “It is just as shameful for lovers of the flesh and the belly to search out spiritual things as it would be for a harlot to discourse on chastity. … A fire cannot be ignited in wet wood, nor can the divine fervor be kindled in a heart that loves ease.”2 We who love the belly do not tend to fast, making it that much harder to love God from the whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. Healing in the Eastern Church includes the use of scheduled fasts to help subdue the disease of self-indulgence.
THE PRAYER CLOSET
Both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church promote icon corners where one will go to pray at home. There one can expect to find a Bible, a prayer book, a cross, candles, and Christian art. Prior to investigating Eastern Orthodoxy, I never had never heard any Christian speak of creating a place in one’s home specifically for prayer, despite the Master’s command in Matthew 6:6 to use a secluded place in the home for prayer.
As Protestants we would not likely hang Eastern Christian icons, but many of us have other Christian artworks at home. We also tend to have at least one Bible and at least one cross in the home, but these items which would aid our praying tend to be spread out across the house.
I don’t truly need a kitchen, since I could place small cooking appliances many places in the home and store dishes or silverware almost anywhere. Yet having a space devoted to cooking goes a long way toward encouraging healthy meals. We would do well to have little clinics in each of our homes for psycho-therapy, healing our minds in physical spaces designed specifically for prayer. We don’t need a prayer closet to pray, but neither do we need a kitchen to prepare meals.
In summary, I will extend Isaac’s quote above into the sentence which immediately follows it: “The harlot does not limit her affections to one man, nor does the soul that is pinioned by many concerns remain faithful to divine teachings.”3 I met someone by accident more than 30 years ago, who remains in mind because we were both traumatized by that meeting, yet I get more attention for my physical trauma than most people will ever get for traumas of the mind and heart and soul. As strongly as I applaud the Western Christianity into which I was reborn, I believe we would benefit by learning from Eastern Christianity’s methods for spiritual therapy beginning with hesychasm, simplification of life, the “Jesus Prayer,” books for hourly prayers, scheduled fasts, and physical prayer closets.
This world trains us to be buyers who live in front of flickering screens, dash from place to place, pursue numerous things and concern ourselves with innumerable world events. With a little exposure to Eastern Christian psychotherapy, we might begin to see a rhythm in Scripture of solitude, single-minded focus, and ceaseless prayer. I was not taught in my Evangelical background how to move closer to nonstop praying, nor have I been taught to understand how the system of the world trains our minds and bodies to turn our attentions away from God.
While I have not been able to do justice to the psycho-therapy (soul-healing) of the Eastern Church in this short article, I pray it will at least create some interest. The Church global is beautiful and powerful. We would do well to recognize the strengths of different expressions of this faith and to seek edification from a diversity of Christian cultures.4View Sources
- The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian” (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston MA 2020) Homily IV, pp 144-145
- ibid, page 150
- Recommended reading would include “Philokalia: The Bible of Eastern Orthodox Spirituality” by Anthony M Coniaris, and “A Manual of Theosis” by Joshua Schooping