"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
C. S. Lewis

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Mental Illness and the Fathers

Who is Mentally Ill According to the Church Fathers
by Protopresbyter John S. Romanides

veryone is mentally ill according to the Patristic meaning of mental illness. You do not have to be schizophrenic in order to be mentally ill. The definition of mental illness from a Patristic perspective is that people are mentally ill when the noetic energy they have inside them is not functioning properly. In other words, being mentally ill means your nous (nouv) is full of thoughts1not only bad thoughts, but good thoughts as well.2

Anyone who has thoughts in his heart, whether they are good thoughts or bad, is mentally ill from the patristic perspective. It makes no difference whether these thoughts are moral, extremely moral, immoral, or anything else. In other words, according to the Church Fathers, anyone whose soul has not been purified from the passions and who has not reached the state of illumination through the grace of the Holy Spirit is mentally ill, but nor in the psychiatric sense. For a psychiatrist, being mentally ill is something else. It means suffering from psychosis or being schizophrenic. For Orthodoxy, however, if you have not been purified of the passions and have not reached a state of illumination, are you normal or abnormal? That is the question.

Who is considered a normal Orthodox Christian in the Patristic tradition? If you want to see this clearly, read the service of Holy Baptism, read the service of Holy Chrism that is held at the Patriarchate of Constantinople on Holy Thursday, read the service for the consecration of Church sanctuaries. There you will see what it means to be a temple of the Holy Spirit. There you will see who is illumined.

In all of the Church services as well as the ascetic tradition of the Church, mainly three spiritual states are mentioned: the state in which the soul and body have been purified from the passions, the state in which the human nous has been illumined by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the state in which the human soul and body experience theosis.3 For the most part, however, they speak about purification and illumination, since the Church services are expressions of reasonable worship.4 So, who is the normal Orthodox Christian? Can someone who has been baptized but not purified be considered normal? What about someone who has not yet been illumined? Or is it someone who has been purified and illumined? Naturally, someone in the last category is a normal Orthodox Christian.

So, what makes normal Orthodox Christians different from the rest of the Orthodox? Is it dogma? Of course not. Take the Orthodox in general. They all share the same dogma, the same tradition, and the same common worship. A church sanctuary, for example, might hold three hundred Orthodox Christians. Of that number, however, only five are in a state of illumination, while the rest of them are not. The rest of them have not even the slightest idea what purification is. So this raises the question: How many among them are normal Orthodox Christians? Unfortunately, out of three hundred only live are.

All the same, purification and illumination are specific conditions of healing that experienced and illumined spiritual fathers can recognize. So we have here clearly medical criteria. Or maybe you are not convinced that these criteria are strictly medical? Consider the fact that the nous is a physiological human organ that everyone has. It is not only Greeks and Orthodox that have a nous. So do Muslims, Buddhists, and everyone else. So all human beings have the same need for purification and illumination. And there is only one therapeutic treatment. Or do you think there are many therapeutic treatments for this illness? And is it really an illness or not?


1—The term used is logismos (λογισμός; plural logismoi- λο

γισμόι), which is the technical term in ascetic literature for a thought combined with an image. According to St. Maximus, a logismos can be simple (dispassionate) or composite (passion-charged: e.g. a memory combined with a passion). (Bishop Hierotheos Vlachos, Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers, trans. Esther Williams [Levadia: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994], pp. 215-216). According to St. Isaac the Syrian, four causes generate logismoi: "Firstly, from the natural will of the flesh; secondly, from imagination of sensory objects in the world which a person hears and sees; thirdly, from mental predispositions and aberrations of the soul; and fourthly, from the assaults of demons who wage war with us in all the passions..." (ibid., p. 218). Although logismoi first appear on the horizon of the mind, they are immediately transmitted to the heart, so that we feel as though they arise from the heart (ibid., p. 221). The Lord Himself referred to this saying, "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies" (Matthew 15: 19). – TRANS.

2— "In its physiological prayerful state, noetic energy moves cyclically like an axle turning within the heart. In its ailing state, noetic energy does not turn like an axle cyclically, but while being rooted in the heart, it unfolds and cleaves to the brain and creates a short circuit between the brain and the heart. So, the sufferer becomes a slave to his environment.... The undefeatable weapon against the devil is the healing of this short circuit between the heart’s noetic energy and the brain’s reason. The healing consists of the limitation of all concepts in the brain, whether they be good or bad, which is achieved only when the noetic energy of the heart returns to its physiological cyclical movement by means of unceasing noetic prayer. Those who maintain that it is possible to cast out bad concepts and keep only good ones in the brain are naïve. One must know the concepts of the devil with precision to defeat him. This is achieved by means of the cyclical movement of prayer in the heart....” Father John Romanides, “Religion is a Neurobiological Illness, Orthodoxy its Healing,” Orthodox Hellenism: Way in the third Millennium (Agion Oros: I. M. Koutloumousiou, 1995), vol. 2, pp. 67-76 (in Greek).

3—Although many Orthodox theologians who write in English translate the Patristic term theosis as deification, that translation is problematic, because the wider public associates deification with the imperial cult of Rome. Toward the end of the republic, the Senate would formally deify certain emperors. Although this practice began in Rome with the deification of Romulus as the god Quirinus, it was common to ancient and oriental monarchies as a form of ancestor worship, reverence, or even flattery. The Classical Greek term for this kind of deification was apotheosis (the term theosis was seldom used prior to the Patristic period). It implies polytheism and the notion that some individuals can cross the line separating the created and the uncreated. This deification was condemned and mocked by early Christian apologists such as St. Justin Martyr and Tertullian.

In his English writings, Fr. John consistently avoids the term ‘deification,’ sparingly using the term theosis as it is (although he uses it frequently in Greek), and prefers the term ‘glorification.’ The value of a term such as glorification is that it reflects both the Biblical continuity and the nature of the experience. According to the will of God, the prophets could see God’s glory, the Apostles could see Christ’s glory at the Transfiguration and the saints still can see the glory of the Resurrected and Ascended Lord.

To avoid the pagan notions associated with the term ‘deification,’ and in keeping with Fr. John’s own practice, we will leave the term theosis untranslated. For verbal and adjective forms, we will use the words ‘to glorify’ and ‘glorifying’ where possible. – TRANS.

4—Worship associated with texts formulated by the reason that is illuminated by the Holy Spirit. – TRANS.


Protopresbyter John S. Romanides,  Patristic Theology: The University Lectures of Fr. John Romanides, Hieromonk Alexios (Trader), trans. (Thessaloniki: Uncut Mountain Press, 2008) pp. 23-27.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I'd agree with the definition of mental illness by the Fathers, certainly, but today is is far more complex that that, isn't it? By the way, psychiatry (and psychology) does not define mental illness only as being psychotic or schizophrenic. There are many different categories of mental illness besides those with psychotic symptoms. There is, however, the abiding notion that mental illness is defined as behaviors that are not socially acceptable. That knocks out Christ, and most of the saints, not to mention our beloved fools for Christ! That also would include you and me, I suspect...certainly me, because I actually talk to God all the time and He answers me! It's hard to be "out of the closet" as an Orthodox Christian in the field of psychology, and quite honestly, in any social setting. That's why it makes me happier and is simpler to just look at our illnesses (mental or otherwise) as those deviations that keep us from the love of God.