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Dr. Bruce Foltz, Professor of Philosophy, Eckerd College

June 11, 2012

This remarkable volume – which has been characterized as a ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ of the human soul, a twenty-first century successor to William James’ ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’ and his ‘Principles of Psychology’, and a bilingual dictionary translating between psychology and spirituality, – will not only appeal to a wide range of audiences, but each one will surely find a wealth of ideas and insights far exceeding what could have been expected. Therapists will find the most impressive retrieval of the spiritual depth beneath their science since the work of Carl Jung. Pastoral counselors will discover the truth of what they have long espoused – that scientific and spiritual knowledge cannot really conflict in a world created by a single deity-along with practical guidance that will set a new standard in their field. Students of human nature will find a stunning juxtaposition of ancient wisdom and the findings of modern research. Intellectual historians will discover here an author equally at home in the world of ancient spiritual wisdom and modern science, who is at the same time able to make brilliant connections between these cultural domains. And individuals seeking wisdom about what Plato called that greatest question of how one is to live will find insights and challenges that have the potential to be life-transforming.

With Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds, Fr. Alexios Trader has offered us a rich and even lavish feast of ideas and spiritual counsel in a very modest package, just as one might expect for an Athonite monk whose practice of humility over many years has become embedded in his writing style.  Ostensibly, this is an admirably thorough exposition of cognitive therapy—which many readers will be delighted to find has largely replaced the far more reductionistic practice of behavioral therapy as the can-do, default approach to counseling and therapy—together with a point-by-point comparison of this very modern approach to mental healing with the highly developed ascetic theology of the Ancient Fathers. Although it is rock-solid academically, Ancient Christian Wisdom is much more than a scholarly treatise. The first two chapters feature a brilliant reflection on how traditional Christian thought can deal with the fruits of modern culture, without compromising itself or the contemporary ideas with which it engages—a stimulating and inspiring reflection that should be read both by the suspicious and agonistic Tertullians of our age (who wish to barricade themselves against modernity) as well as by our own, motley varieties of Gnostics (who like Valentius in the second century, think that Christianity is most palatable in a soluble form, i.e. when it is fully dissolved into the inviting libations of the present age).  Similar praise is due for its extended discussions of childhood development and education. And since Fr. Alexios quotes the Fathers directly from the Greek and Latin, there is a great deal of patristic material presented that has never before been translated into English—itself reason enough for owning the book!

Above all, this is a remarkable exploration of spiritual and psychological health, brimming with practical insights and useful techniques. In fact, it may be one of the most solid and useful “self-help” books of our time, because it draws discerningly upon both the proven methods of cognitive therapy (which follows from the ancient Stoic insight that it is not events that make us happy or unhappy, but our interpretations of them) as well as upon the ancient wisdom of two thousand years of spiritual practice, enriched and refined not in the research library or classroom, but in the monastic cell, the true laboratory of the human soul. Moreover, Fr. Alexios has not only intellectually mastered the psychological and spiritual material, he has fully lived it, both as a monk for many years on Mt. Athos and more recently as one of the most highly sought-after confessors and spiritual fathers in Northern Greece. He writes from the rare position of knowing not just the ways in which modern therapeutic techniques may or may not be compatible with the Christian life, but of being able to skillfully place them into the context of the great task of theosis (union with God), that for traditional Christians represents the eternal path of salvation itself—a knowledge he has gained from his careful reading of the ascetic Fathers, from his own spiritual practice, and from helping others as a spiritual father. Of course, the notion that the tradition of ancient Christian asceticism, and Orthodox spirituality in particular, can be comprehended as a kind of psychotherapy is not by itself completely new: it was argued generally by Fr. John Romanides, who saw the Church as a “spiritual hospital”; worked out in theory by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos in his classic, Orthodox Psychotherapy; and explicated in tantalizing tidbits by Archbishop Athanasios of Limassol (Fr. Maximos) in Kyriakos Markides’ very popular Mountain of Silence. The latter comes closest to articulating these practices and insights in a way that contemporary, non-monastic readers can appropriate them, though Markides’ presentation is not particularly systematic or comprehensive.  Fr. Alexios’s book, in contrast, offers all the wealth of detail for which many readers of the latter two books have long been waiting, along with much more that will certainly exceed their expectations.

For the spiritual seeker, then, this book has the potential to serve as the vessel for a great voyage of spiritual discovery. Since it appeals to a therapeutic approach that deals largely with watchfulness (nepsis) over the current of thoughts (logismoi) in which we are immersed much of the time, its insights are relatively safe to be practiced on ones own, although the guidance of a competent spiritual guide would no doubt enhance spiritual growth.  In truth, Ancient Christian Wisdom has the potential to become something of an underground classic, appropriated by individual readers who have little or no interest in the practices for which it was overtly intended: pastoral counseling, the growing practice of Christian counseling, and the use of secular therapists respectful of their Christian patients’ spiritual integrity.  For these audiences, the book will serve as a masterful handbook of spiritual and psychological counsel. Happily, it is beautifully and solidly bound, well-built to last many years of regular use. Over the course of many years, this reviewer has become acquainted with hundreds of books on psychological and spiritual counsel and has found Fr. Alexios’ manual to be the best and most useful by far. Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy has the power to transform lives, and deserves to become a classic of spiritual reading.

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