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SPIRITUAL LIFE AND COGNITIVE THERAPY: TWO PLANES, TWO APPROACHES, AND WHERE THE TWAIN DO MEET

June 13, 2012

Yes, the Church Fathers are operating at a level that is qualitatively quite different from that of standard cognitive therapy. Yes, the prophetic encounter in the grace of the Holy Spirit can lead to a transfiguration in the believer’s life. Yes, the quality of prayer on the part of the confessor and confessant is what matters most in the mystery. So, why would I pursue this line of cross-correlative research? For the same reason that Fr. Seraphim (Rose) advised young people to read the works of Dickens: to help people reach the point where they can open their hearts to the fathers’ teachings.

When the spiritual father has to work with a spiritual child who does not receive all the Church’s teachings with simplicity and faith, but judges everything with worldly logic and from a secular perspective, certain insights from cognitive therapy can be useful in preparing that soul for a real encounter. The first step in the spiritual life involves keeping Christ’s commandments. Some people are not very motivated to even try. They are not ready to hear or receive in a spiritual way. And yet something draws them to confession. With such souls, work needs to be done to get them to the point where they can confess, almost a pre-catechetical education. It’s in those cases, that some material from cognitive therapy can prove useful.”

I think that if the required substances are present, confession can serve as a catalyst that reshapes perspectives on God, self, and others in the direction that reflects the encounters of simple people with Christ in the gospels. This, of course, takes place on a spiritual level, but between beings of flesh and blood with cognitions of every sort. Those cognitions and their relationship to emotional reactions have mapped out in verifiable detail by cognitive science. For instance, exaggerating an interpretation of an incident (a perceived unkind remark by someone) leads to an exaggerated response of either sadness or anger. Moderating that degree of exaggeration might get a person to the point that the Christian goal of forgiving those who hurt us becomes more feasible, so that the person will attempt to do so, relying all the while on the power of Christ.

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