by Andrea Elizabeth
Recently I was in a conversation with a group of people from Church about the role of psychological counseling in the Orthodox Church. One of the participants said that Metropolitan Jonah had some really good things to say about it in his book, Reflections on a Spiritual Journey. It seems to me that people sometimes get disappointed that they still may need outside counseling after joining the Church because of the Church’s claims, particularly before partaking of the Eucharist when we say, “for the healing of soul and body”. The Church does not claim that you will never need to go to a physical doctor, so why shouldn’t you need to go to a soul doctor?
Personally, I trust that our materially based scientific community understands the human body better than the soul and spirit. But there are some psychiatric disorders, perhaps based on physical problems, that require more profound intervention. Additionally, I believe our souls and bodies are linked. I was particular convinced of this by a patient of mine (a long time ago) who had been a police officer who while directing traffic got hit and suffered a severe head injury. His wife said he had a complete personality change when this happened. Before he was a very nice, decent, loving husband and father, and after, he became the foul mouthed abusive person he was in the hospital. That is very sad.
In cases like this and other severe states, I believe medications and other desperate measures should be implemented. I also have a theory that when a person’s brain is physically weakened by injury, which may also include emotional abuse or stress, that it gives opportunity for demonic influence to infiltrate. As an aside, in stories, victims are portrayed as helpless, passive angels. I say beware, victims are very vulnerable to a number of spiritual ailments. The most common non psychotic (loss of touch with reality, but who hasn’t?) ones seem to be resentment, self pity, and a reflex for revenge. I think their sense of how to relate to others also undergoes change. I don’t say negative, because perhaps it was unrealistic before in a romantic sense. We project onto others how we expect relationships to be, often ignoring, or not being able to see the person for who they really are, what they expect from relationship, and how both expectations are different than how the relationship is meant to be.
Back to the healing of soul and body. I believe there is too much emphasis on comfort and youthful abilities in the promotion of health. But I also don’t believe we should go around with open wounds and broken limbs either. Elder Porphyrios had very severe, poorly treated bone problems, however, and used his painful condition to focus more on prayer. The soul should have higher priority, imo. But I am a believer in and frequent (at least once a week, usually) partaker Ibuprofen for just about anything. It’s my Windex a la the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I have an aversion to consciousness altering drugs, even though I like the relaxing effect of narcotic pain killers. I can’t let myself take them just for relaxation, though. This is also the reason I resist taking muscle relaxants for my back, or anti-anxiety medications, or anti-depressants, or drinking alcohol beyond rare special occasions. I don’t think my case is bad enough for these measures, even though my family may have enjoyed me better, or maybe been less traumatized by me at times if I had. In addition to Ibuprofen, caffeine is also my close friend who hopefully helps me participate better with others. And I also have more hope and expectation for The Prayers and The Eucharist than in psychology and doctors. George pointed out that evening, though, that some Fathers understood depression and anger in a very detailed way that would outshine any modern scientific explanation. St. John Cassian’s The Conferences come to mind.
I also wonder if some people’s discouragement with the healing qualities of the Church’s services comes from impatience. Learning ascesis and the habit of prayer is very difficult and takes a very long time. Some disorders may make it too hard for a person to begin this journey however, but I would view that as a physical condition with their brain, not their mind, though it is affected, and so temporary (hopefully) measures may be needed to help them focus and be calm enough to begin. And I think the psychiatric community has some valuable insight into the human condition and how we react to things. I don’t know how much of this is taught in seminary. It should probably be emphasized more because a generic spiritual only approach may not be as comprehensive or detailed as a person needs. Nevertheless, I would still take it over the modern psychiatric only approach. You wont get completely healed there. Health is Sainthood, not some American notion of happiness, and they can’t do that for you.
As far as understanding the effects of stress on a person, which leads to all sorts of physical and mental difficulties, I think I have had too much of a self-pitying focus. A bit more stoicism instead of emotionalism is probably called for. But the emotional reactions are “natural” it seems. And they are also over emphasized and held as too important. I think they should be seen more as annoyances. Sorrow and tears over our own sins is what is prescribed. Still we can’t help going through the grieving process. It really is unavoidable and should be gone through carefully and with attention. People get stuck in certain stages and should be educated on recognizing them and learning to move on to the next one. Baby steps.