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The Baylor Report and the Fathers: How Are We to Live and What Are We to Believe

April 25, 2013

Christ_Icon_Sinai_6th_centuryHow are we to live and what are we to believe are basic questions that all of us answer in this life. Some answers are obviously better than others; some replies offer meaning and hope; other responses leave us with a sense of absurdity and despair. But regardless, without some sort of answer, we can hardly find our bearings and move forward. We must have an answer. Some souls can accept the religious teachings of their upbringing as the answer and walk happily on their way. Others have difficulty accepting anything without seeing with their eyes and hearing with their ears. And in this modern society of ours, we are almost programmed to want the facts and to hope that the facts speak for themselves. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Whereas the ancients looked to the stars in the heavens to align before making decisions of great import, we look to a mass of data for a regression line to form in order to decide what is probably the best or what is probably the worst. While making such emerging factors the criteria for the truth is a dangerous statistical game and sometimes less objective than it might at first glance appear, still as Blessed Augustine once commented, “the science of number [ratio numeri]…is quite valuable for the careful interpreter.”

The Baylor University study, to which I referred in my last post, uses the modern science of number to provide us with some valuable emerging factors that make sense of how data lines up concerning mental health, the nature of one’s relationship with God, and the frequency of church service attendance.  The study found that “When it comes to mental health, the aspect of religion that matters the most is the nature of one’s relationship with God. We find that:

• Respondents who strongly believe that they have a warm relationship with God report 31%   fewer mental issues, on average.

• Respondents who strongly believe that God knows when they need support report 19% fewer mental health issues, on average.

• Those who strongly believe that God is responsive to them report 19% fewer mental health issues.

• Respondents who strongly believe that God’s love never fails report 17% fewer mental health issues, on average.

One’s relationship with God is not one dimensional. In addition to God’s love and support, those who strongly believe that God is impersonal, inconsistent, and at times unresponsive, report more mental health issues. Those respondents who believe that they have a strong, loving relationship with God report fewer mental health issues, while those respondents who report more ambiguity in their relationship with God report more mental health issues.” How are we to live and what are we to believe? According to the Baylor Report, if we agree that mental health is a good thing, it makes more sense statistically to believe that we can have a warm, personal relationship with God Who supports us, responds to us, and loves us forever and presumably live accordingly than to embrace the opposite belief and lifestyle. But how are we to reach such belief? In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I noted that the fathers taught that having “faith in Providence endows the believer with the strength to act “as if” he already had the mindset of the saints.” We need to accept the invitation to “come and see” and engage in that patristic experiment of studying the mindset of the faith and acting as if that mindset were our own.

The Baylor study also concluded that while on the one hand those who attend religious services infrequently or once a week reported the same frequency of mental health issues as those who rarely or never attend services, those who attend religious services more than once a week on the other hand reported the fewest number of mental health issues. Christianity lite for Sundays only may not be enough to hit the core of how one lives and believes. The heart needs more frequent nourishment and training for our entire orientation to the world and life to shift in a positive direction.

These conclusions are consistent with the ancient wisdom found in the church fathers who used human empirical faculties to mark out the path that leads to the transfiguring experience of beholding Christ in glory, a path involving corporate prayer and prayer in private, a path involving divine mysteries and Christian asceticism, a path involving selfless love and divine virtue. And through walking upon this path, they came to know empirically that God is Love, that God is their sure hope, that God is their Rock, and that He hearkens to them even before they hearkened to Him. And so, as I note in Ancient Christian Wisdom,  “the saints experienced their senses being refined, their thoughts being made luminous, and they believed that they came to know the truth about humanity and the rest of creation.  This knowledge attained through theosis, glorification or deification in Christ, together with the knowledge gained through their earlier experiences of purification (katharsis) from the passions and illumination (photismo) by the Holy Spirit form the empirical foundation for the saints’ counsels about the healing of the human person and the cleansing of the divine image within.”  In short, they came to know what to believe and how to live with no additional statistics needed.

It is important to recognize that such an experience can best be cultivated through frequent attendance at the Divine services of the Church. If the Church is a spiritual hospital, then the divine services are also akin to therapeutic procedures through which spiritual regeneration and transformation occur.  Elder Sophrony confirms this when he writes, “We Orthodox live Christ in the Divine Liturgy, or better yet, Christ lives within us in through the duration of the Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy is a work of God. We say: “It is the time for the Lord to act” (Psalm 119:126). Among other things, this means that now is the time for God to work. Christ liturgizes, we live together with Christ.

The Divine Liturgy is the way that we come to know God, and the way that God comes to know us. Christ accomplished the Divine Liturgy once, and this has passed unto eternity. He overcame corrupted human nature in the Divine Liturgy. We come to know Christ specifically in the Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy that we celebrate is the same Divine Liturgy which Christ worked on Holy Thursday at the Mystical Supper.

And so, meeting our abundantly loving God in the Divine Liturgy, coming to know Him and being known by Him, the truth of God’s responsive love, unfailing support, and care for each and every one of us is formed firmly in our soul. It becomes far more than a belief that statistically leaves us less susceptible to mental illness. It becomes a conviction that even in the midst of despair, there is still hope, that even in the midst of absurdity, there is still meaning, that even in the shadow of death, there is still life, abundant life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

  1. I would like to invest in your book but is it written specifically for counselors, therapists and spiritual directors? I suffer from both anxiety (isomnia) and depression and was wondering if this would be a good resource from myself. I also added your website to my *Depression Resources* page on my blog:

    Many blessings…I am reading your blog from beginning to end and it has been a great grace. Thank you.

  2. Theresa,

    I am glad you found your way to my blog, I am thankful for your kind words here and on an earlier post, and I sincerely pray that like a wise bee that goes from blossom to blossom, you continue to find nourishment for your soul and for the souls of those dear to you.

    My book was written specifically in order to help me to find ways to help myself and those under my charge with the issue of the thoughts. The book is a bit denser and much more methodical than the posts, but I don’t think it is necessary to be a counselor, therapist, or spiritual director to find useful material, for much of the material from the fathers and from cognitive therapeutic sources are useful in their own right. I address the issues of depression and anxiety throughout the book, although the purpose is to illustrate points of theory and practice from both a spiritual and psychological perspective. I think the blog and the book complement each other.

    Again, thank you for your encouragement and for adding me to your website. Acts of kindness have great power and nudge us ever closer to Christ and to one another, to that place where there is less and less room for depression and anxiety and more and more room for His joy and peace.

    Warmly in Christ,

    Fr. Alexis

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