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What’s the Practical Value?

June 11, 2012

When I select books that I am going to read, I am usually looking for more than novel discoveries and interesting facts. As a monk and as an American, I want something that works, something that I can apply to my own life, or that I can use to offer consolation for the lives of those around me. I am often searching for practical wisdom such as what you find at the end of Saint John Chrysostom’s homilies, in the correspondence of Saints Barsanuphius and John, or in talks by Elder Paisios. While the first half of Ancient Christian Wisdom deals with theory, the remainder has to do with practice. The choice is deliberate: an Orthodox approach to any issue should involve a unity of theoria and praxis. Interestingly enough, clinical handbooks on cognitive therapy deal with the subject of treatment in the same way.

So, in the last half of the book, I look first at the spiritual father and the cognitive therapist and then turn to behavioral and cognitive techniques used by therapists and the Church Fathers to bring about a positive change in a person’s psychological or spiritual state. I should add that it’s necessary to talk about the people who apply particular techniques or methods, in order to bring the discussion back down to the level of day-to-day life. So, in Chapter Six I take the reader down a rather unlikely portrait gallery containing representations of spiritual fathers and cognitive therapists. On one hand, I look at the spiritual father in his liturgical office as a priest, in his charismatic role as a prophet, and in his pastoral capacity as a person trying to help another human being. Simultaneously, I consider the cognitive therapist in the context of a therapy session as a diagnostician, consultant, and educator with certain therapeutic skills. Then to fill out the picture, I contrast the people seeking help: the sinner in need of confession and the client in need of help with psychological difficulties. The many differences and occasional similarities are important for determining when it is appropriate for a therapist or a pastor to use material from the other field and which material can be of service.

In Chapter Seven, I consider the behavioral techniques used in cognitive therapy and ascetic practice associated with the spiritual life. I first situate these issues within the general context of solving problems, setting goals, and running experiments. Although ascetic practices such as vigil and behavioral techniques such as activity monitoring do occupy quite different universes, the general context of problems, goals, and the value of experience is really framed in strikingly similar ways by Church Fathers and cognitive therapists. The interesting question is whether techniques or practices from one universe are transplantable in another. Chapter Seven grapples with that problem and offers some patristic suggestions.

In Chapter Eight, I look at the ways in which the Fathers advise the faithful to deal with thoughts that are bad and how cognitive therapists counsel their clients to cope with thoughts that are maladaptive. Again, the contexts are very different. The Fathers speak of the inter-relationship among watchfulness, praxis, and divine vision. Cognitive therapists talk about the value of charts, scales, and diagrams. Nevertheless, leaving aside the use of prayer to overcome bad thoughts, many specifics line up. That is, both Church Fathers and cognitive therapists speak about the value of exposing, rebutting, disdaining, and analyzing the thoughts. The meaning of these similar practices, however, is vastly different.

In Chapter Nine, I turn to how the Church Fathers and cognitive therapists handle those deeper tendencies and habits of the mind that so strongly influence how people react to situations and difficulties. Here, we get closer to the core of the human person. The parallels are fewer and the care required, lest damage be done, is greater. Nevertheless, there are similarities such as the reading of appropriate books (bibliotherapy), the cultivation of the right kind of thoughts, and a healthy review of one’s life (a life confession or autobiographical journaling).

Was this exploration of the Fathers and cognitive therapy useful? In the concluding chapter, I note, “While both patristic and cognitive approaches have great value in their own right and their own domain, knowledge about ‘the other side’ is always helpful, and in the case of patristic thought, salvific. In other words, knowledge of cognitive therapy can help the spiritual father communicate with those who approach human problems with the psychological mindset that is prevalent in contemporary culture. Knowledge of patristic teachings can infuse the work of the cognitive therapists with spiritual meaning, purpose, and moral direction, especially when treating Orthodox Christian patients.” It has been a worthwhile journey and I am grateful to those who have encouraged me to make it.

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