Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds

by Andrea Elizabeth

At Second Terrace I learned about a group blogging project providing excerpts from a new book that explores the relationship between “secular” behavioral-cognitive therapy and the wisdom of the Church Fathers (yay). Here’s a sample paragraph from Mystagogy, the first post of four.

With that introduction in place, I should mention that I have been an Orthodox monk for nearly twenty-five years. I lived on the Holy Mountain for a decade during which time I got to know some wonderful fathers who tasted the most sweet fruits of the prayer of the heart and intimate communion with Christ. I also encountered novices and monks discouraged by the struggle and wondering why those same fruits seemed beyond their reach. I saw acts of self-sacrifice and love that moved me deeply. I also was saddened to see others who were so obsessed with certain thoughts that they missed opportunities to serve their brethren and although they desired to act virtuously and to love sincerely, insecurities, feelings of inferiority, and suspicions compelled them to react in ways that they themselves deplored. My heart went out to those monastics. I prayed for them, but what else could I do?

– Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds, by Fr. Alexis Trader.

Please see the two posts linked above for more, links to the other posts, excerpts from Orthodox Christian Info, and a link to Amazon for the book itself.

I’ll go ahead and include another paragraph; this one from Orthodoxinfo.

At first glance, the similarities between patristic pastoral tradition and cognitive therapy are indeed striking. Byzantine epistemology with its unity between theoria and praxis has been functionally described as “rationalism and empiricism,”[18] the very terms that could be used to characterize the epistemology utilized in cognitive therapy. In fact, the church fathers, as empiricists,[19] follow the pathway that underlies cognitive research—clinical observation followed by theoretical composition,[20] or put differently, empiricism and then rational discourse.[21] Both the fathers and cognitive therapists are committed to honesty and avoiding deception.[22] Both “assume limited freedom and a partial determinism.”[23] Both are motivated by compassion for suffering people and a desire for their restoration to health.[24] Both recognize that talking can be a means for behavioral change.[25] Both affirm the centrality of the thought-life or meaning-making structures of cognition in psychological functioning.[26] Both view unhealthy thoughts about the self, the environment, and the future as a source for psychological problems.[27] Both recognize that the correction of the thoughts[28] or the purification of the thoughts is the foundational dimension of the return to health and wholeness. Both see the use of reason as instrumental in better human functioning.[29] Both assert that a human being is able to exert “personal control over thoughts and behaviors that promote change in a healthy direction.”[30]

This part in particular caught my eye, “Both recognize that talking can be a means for behavioral change.” My first reaction is that Orthodoxy, imo, teaches silence instead of encouraging people to talk. We are to silence our thoughts, rationalizations, self-justifications, and even our imagination (btw, there’s an interesting Kierkegaard quote about the imagination that I’ve been thinking may be blog-worthy). We are told what to say in prayer and in worship. Personal innovation and spontaneity is discouraged. On the other hand, we are to seek counsel, which is what this book is about, and go to confession to talk about our failings. I very much like the focus of this book in that it isn’t so much about failing God and each other (guilt, guilt, guilt), but how we fail ourselves.