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Monasticism and Mental Health

June 24, 2012

Orthodox monasticism is an exceptional way of life that requires exceptional resources of the mind and spirit. Saint Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea and revealer of heavenly mysteries, set forth teachings on Orthodox monasticism that have defined it to this day. In his Discourse on Renunciation, he relates “Many come to the virtuous life [meaning monasticism], but few are able to take on that yoke. The Gospel declares, ‘The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.’ It calls those disciples of Christ to voluntarily endure corporal weariness by the denial of their own will and repose for the body by keeping all the commandments of Christ. Whoever then wills to seize the kingdom of God needs to become violent and place upon his neck the yoke of servitude to God”  (PG 41.141cd, [translation mine]). In order to become peaceful soldiers of Christ, those who come to monasticism need to have steadiness in terms of thinking, feeling, and acting, to endure and flourish under the stress of spiritual violence that our Lord mentioned. In modern terms, they need to be resilient individuals with good mental health.

The latest definition for a mental disorder, as proposed by the American Psychiatric Association is “a health condition characterized by significant dysfunction in an individual’s cognitions, emotions, or behaviors that reflects a disturbance in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Some disorders may not be diagnosable until they have caused clinically significant distress or impairment of performance. 

Monasticism is not meant for those whose thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are disordered for whatever reason. In fact, someone mentally ill entering a monastery is like someone with a disabling physical condition entering the most grueling of marathons. The results can be tragic. Unfortunately, everyone doesn’t wear their distress or impairment on their sleeves. And to further complicate matters, the distinction between the mentally healthy struggling with their passions and the mentally-ill struggling with their past is not always initially clear to the layman. Popular understandings of monasteries as spiritual hospitals can also muddy the waters. While this is a true statement, one must not forget that a spiritual hospital is not a clinic for psychiatric disorders. A knowledge of the fathers and a knowledge of psychology is greatly needed in our troubled times.

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