The Church is a Hospital
Orthodox people view the Church as a spiritual hospital, a clinic, a hospice, a therapeutic center, and a fitness center—all combined in one! The aim of the treatment is to provide spiritual cure, maintain wellness for its patients (faithful members) and lead them to eternal life!
The cure we obtain in the Church is not for the benefit of our souls alone—it does not pertain only to the future life. It includes our bodies and our life here on earth. In fact it is the most complete program, addressing all our needs—spiritual, emotional, material and intellectual.
The Church takes a broken human life and restores it in all its dimensions, renews it, transforms it, sanctifies it and enriches its interpersonal relationships, bringing the human being to a fuller communion with society and nature, and ultimately unites it with God.
The main task of the Church and her ministers (bishops, priests, elders) is to make us well (make us like Christ). Unfortunately, the great majority of the people are not even aware of this truth, and therefore are not taking advantage of the spiritual treatment provided by the Church. The result is that we do not get well and we die in our sin (cf. John 8:21-24).
Christ is the Physician
The Lord taught us this teaching in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37). Man, through the devil’s deception, made the wrong choice and fell among thieves, that is, the devil and the hostile powers, and left half dead. Christ found the human being lying down infirm, wounded by his passions and by the deceit of the devil, He picked him up, restored him with His Holy Spirit and the holy sacraments, and carried him to the inn (His holy Church), to be fully healed through the care of the innkeeper (priest) (This analysis is provided by St. John Chrysostom, P.G. 62, 755-57; cf. I. Vlahos, Orthodox Psychotherapy, 25-26).
Christ referred to Himself as a physician, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mt. 9:12)–the sick being the sinners. The Church refers to Christ as “the Physician of our souls and bodies.” And in the prayer to the Holy Trinity we say, “Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities.”
Theology is the knowledge we acquire on how to get well. We get to know what it means to be well, what are the various illnesses, how cure is achieved, what diet we are to follow, what exercises to do, etc. Obviously theology does not make us well. Putting into practice what we learn will make us well.
Basically there are two categories of Christians: “Those who are well”, and “those who are sick”. Those who are well are the saints. Among the sick there are those who are cognizant of their sickness and undergo therapy, and those who are unaware of their sickness or choose not to undergo therapy. So the Church’s work is therapeutic in nature. Christianity (i.e. the Church) should be viewed more as a medical science–closer to psychiatry–than as a religion (Fr. Ioannis Romanidis, quoted by I. Vlahos, o.c., p. 27).
As with our physical illness so it is with our spiritual illness: the first step toward wellness is to have a thorough checkup. We should educate ourselves about the various illnesses and how a cure is achieved, what diet we are to follow, what exercises to do, etc.
Before we seek cure we must know that we are sick. Sometimes a sickness is obvious, but other times it is not. That is why regular check ups are recommended in order to discover any problems early and address them with a greater chance of success. Unlike our physical health, which may be good at birth and continue to be good for many years, our spiritual life is infected at conception with the disease of our progenitors, Adam and Eve.
Patients with AEDS
We are all familiar with AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). AIDS is caused by HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). By killing or damaging cells of the body’s immune system, HIV progressively destroys the body’s ability to fight infections.
In the spiritual realm there is a similar syndrome, which we will call AEDS (Acquired Evil Disposition Syndrome), caused by a virus we will call HEV (Human Ego Virus), which like HIV is passed on in the procreation act. HEV, if not treated, attacks the soul and destroys its ability to resist evil and fight off sin.
Unlike HIV, which has infected only a (growing) segment of the population, HEV is truly a worldwide epidemic which has spread to every human soul.
Just as people diagnosed with AIDS may acquire life-threatening diseases caused by HIV, similarly people with AEDS acquire passions that threaten body and soul and everything around us, such as spiritual sins (e.g., pride, hatred, jealousy, envy, etc.), sins of the mind (e.g., evil desires, fantasizing, etc.), bodily sins (e.g., lust, gluttony, drunkenness, possessiveness, etc.), and “creation-destructive” sins (e.g., harming nature, exhausting the natural resources, abusing the ecological balance, etc.).
As with people infected with HIV, people infected with HEV are not easily detectable. Severe symptoms of HEV may not appear externally. It requires a thorough examination by a specialist to detect HEV. However certain symptoms are discernable, such as anger, irritability, depression, talkativeness, violence, etc. Whether any symptoms are present or not, consult with your spiritual therapist for a thorough check up, especially during Lent. You’ll be glad you did!
Seeking the Cure
The decision to get well is entirely ours. If we feel we are healthy and refuse to see a physician or therapist of the soul (priest), we are in grave danger. Our immune system is attacked by HEV, which infests the mind with information that there is nothing wrong with us. We are particularly vulnerable, because HEV blocks all attempts to make us see our illness. It is imperative to see a therapist (priest) at once and accept the therapy he prescribes for us without objection.
Choosing a Doctor/Therapist
Choose a healthcare provider or doctor (priest) who is experienced with the treatment of HEV and can prescribe the correct medications and therapeutic treatment (prayer rule, sacramental and ascetical life). Usually this will be our parish priest, but if the case requires the attention of a specialist (elder) he will recommend one to us.
If the parishes are the hospitals and clinics of the soul, the monasteries are the “intensive care units” of Orthodoxy! If the priests are the doctors, the monks are the specialists! In order, however, to see another therapist we should first obtain our personal therapist’s referral.
We should approach our therapist with full confidence and develop a close, trusting relationship with him. He has been certified by the highest medical authority (Christ) to practice everywhere (Church).
- Make an appointment to see our spiritual therapist (priest).
- Decide when to start therapy.
- Determine what overall treatment strategy we will pursue.
- Request all the information we need. It is provided free-of-charge.
- Learn everything about the sickness and its treatment.
- Develop a good relationship with therapist (priest).
- Keep a diary of all the symptoms (sins) of our sickness. We should discuss them with our therapist at the next visit (confession/spiritual direction).
- Monitor whether or not the therapy is working.
- Watch for side effects of therapy.
- Be ready to switch therapy and sequence the available therapies.
- Study the case history of others who had the same sickness as we have and who became well (Read the lives of saints and try to imitate them).
- Work hard for the cure of the illness.
- Consult frequently (go to confession) on a regular basis (about four times annually) with our therapist (priest).
The Physician and the Medications
Any physician (priest) is equipped to provide basic treatment: the holy mysteries (sacraments), particularly holy Confession, holy Communion and holy Unction; the various services of the Church, Supplication Canon, prayer and anointing, spiritual direction, etc.
Under the therapist’s direction other remedies may be prescribed: reading the lives of Saints and their writings, reading prayerfully the holy scripture, studying theology (which is a therapeutic science), getting involved in works of charity, outreach, etc.
The Holy Eucharist: The Medicine par Excellence
The main medication the Church provides for our cure will always remain holy Communion. The holy Eucharist is the par excellence medication, the “medicine of immortality.” But like any medication it carries its own warning labels:
- It can be administered only by an authorized physician (canonical bishop/priest).
- We must first be admitted (baptism) to the hospital (Church).
- We must have forgiveness towards everyone, especially towards those who have offended us.
- We must approach with fear of God, faith and love.
- Just like certain other medications, we must take it on an empty stomach.
- If we live in sin there are extremely adverse reactions, and we should never take this medicine without a thorough confession.
- We must have a strong desire to change (repentance).
- We must have cleansed our heart from evil desires, through prayer, fasting, charity, ascetical life and the practicing of virtues.
(For more information contact the nearest Orthodox Christian church or monastery.)
Conditions for Wellness
For the therapy to become effective the following four elements are needed:
- Correct faith:Theology is the medical science of the soul.
- Awareness and recognition of our sickness:If we are not aware that we are sick, all the medicines of the world (holy sacraments, prayer) cannot cure us. We must also humble ourselves before another human being (our physician/priest).
- The Doctor:Christ, and by His will, the priest, the spiritual father who stands in Christ’s place (See John 20:22-23). St. John Climakos says, “without a physician the cured are rare.”
- Therapeutic method/exercises: Orthodox piety.
There are three powers or energies of the soul, known as reason (mind), desire (emotions) and will (willpower). They are used either for good or for evil. When they are used for good they are called virtues; when they are used for evil they are called passions. Passions are perversions or distortions of the soul. The main sickness of our mind is ignorance; the main sickness of our emotions is self-love; the main sickness of our will is the pursuit of evil.
As we commit sins, our thinking becomes blurred and disoriented, our emotions become confused, and our willpower is left weak and infirm. Our willingness to resist temptations decreases as well as does our capacity to choose correctly the way of purity. They all act against nature. Our struggle is, with God’s grace, to turn them around and orient them toward God.
We need to make a conscious decision once, and then continuously throughout our life, to either turn to God or to isolate ourselves from God; to either act in a spirit of repentance and humility or in an act/attitude of ego, pride and self-love. The choice is ours.
The Therapeutic Method
Cleansing and purification of body and spirit:The Fathers teach us that this is the stage of purification. We must fight against our triple enemy:
- sin and our passions
- evil in the world, and
- the devil himself
We must fight especially against our internal enemies by turning or reorienting:
- our mind from ignorance of God and His creation, to the true knowledge of Him and His creation;
- our heart from self-love and from a selfish attachment to the world, to the love of God and the unselfish love of His creation; and
- our will from wanting and pursuing what is evil to wanting and pursuing what is God-pleasing.
Perfecting holiness, that is practicing the virtues and keeping the commandments. We must practice especially the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, and in general all the other virtues that derive from or are connected to these virtues. Above all, we must put into practice the highest virtue of them all, love-love for God and love for our fellow human being.
- Purification of the heart
- Illumination of the mind (nous) (divine revelation), and
- Perfection or theosis (communion and union with God).
We would like to say a few words about the first stage: purification of the heart.
How to Achieve Purification of the Heart
Purification of the heart is accomplished with:
- The ascetical life of the Church
- Orthodox pathology: overcoming, subduing, controlling and re-directing our passions (cf. lists of passions in Rom. 1:29-31, Col. 3:5-10, Eph. 5:3-5, etc.)
- Prayer, vigil, study, continence, fasting, quietude, etc.
- Practicing the virtues, particularly sobriety, humility, obedience, purity of heart, contrition, etc.
- Obeying the commandments, especially the Beatitudes
- Keeping the unceasing prayer (Jesus or “noetic” prayer)
- The sacramental life of the Church
- Celebration of the divine Liturgy and other services of the Church
- Sacraments of the Church, especially repentance and confession (to God, before our spiritual father)
- The divine energy of the Holy Spirit
- This is always present, acting in the sacraments and prompting all our efforts, leading us to divine illumination and union with God.
The Church is the Portico, where the Pool of Healing is offered to all who come with desire. The Church is the House of Mercy (that’s what Bethesda means), where all find cure.
Let us keep in mind that even if we think we are healthy spiritually (and some are), we still have to follow a healthy lifestyle, do a periodic “checkup”, follow some special “diet”, do “exercises”, etc. to keep in shape.
May we all attain spiritual wellness, through the intercessions of the most holy Mother of God, the holy angels and all the saints. Amen.
- The divine Liturgy and the other services of the Church
- The holy Scripture
- The lives of Saints and their writings
- Books on Spiritual Life
- St. Theophan the Recluse
- The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It (320 pp.) Invaluable counsels, in a form of correspondence, on the principles of spiritual life, and how to fine-tune the heart to God’s will.
- Archimandrite (now Metropolitan) Ierotheos Vlahos
- Orthodox Psychotherapy (336 pp.) Explains in detail the therapeutic character of Christianity and what does Orthodox psychotherapy consists of.
- The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition (186 pp.) A sequel to Orthodox Psychotherapy, this small book presents in a dialogical form the Orthodox therapeutic treatment of the soul.
- St. Tikhon of Zadonsk
- Journey to Heaven, Counsels on the Particular Duties of Every Christian (280 pp.) A collection of short, easily readable essays, of two-three pages each. A book of incomparable spirituality.
- Georgios I. Mantzarides
- The Deification of Man (136 pp.) Professor Mantzarides explores and presents artfully the Orthodox doctrine of deification as expounded by St. Gregory Palamas.
- Orthodox Spiritual Life (166 pp.) A superb and masterful introduction to Orthodox Spirituality based on the scripture and the holy Fathers, written by an outstanding Orthodox theologian.
- St. Theophan the Recluse
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis