Psychology VS Orthodox spirituality

Extracts from the life of St Hilarion of Optina (1805 – 1873) (1)

St. Hilarion was a skilled spiritual physician. He taught people who were suffering to go over their whole previous life from the age of seven, to recall forgotten unrepented sins, in which were often hidden the reason for a spiritual illness. If, however, the visitor for some reason was unable to recall anything, then the starets himself, by means of carefully-chosen questions, sized up the matter and drew out the unrepented sin to the person’s recollection.


The elder’s love for suffering people was boundless. Somehow a mentally ill woman came to him for confession, from whose mouth streamed vulgar, obscene abuse. Not paying any attention to it, St. Hilarion got her to come to full consciousness and repent of the sin for which she suffered so greatly. “You had better leave her alone, Batiushka, if she is like that,” remarked someone. But St. Hilarion answered, “You know, she has a soul just as you and I. The whole world is not worth one soul!”

A 40-year-old peasant woman from the Odoyevsky ouyezd related that during the course of many years she suffered severely from attacks accompanied by muscle spasms, shrieks in different voices, and abusive language. The sick woman displayed such strength that several men were not able to restrain her. In this case, as always, the elder heard the confession of all her sins—especially the unrepented ones, and lo and behold, by the grace-filled power of the Sacrament of Confession she received complete healing through the Elder.

A merchant from the Tula guberniya suffered from mental illness for more than a year: It seemed to him that everybody was making fun of him and what he did, and that some people unknown to him were following him wherever he went and wanted to kill him. These thoughts gave him no rest day or night—he had already thought of suicide several times, and his family was terrified.

The Elder conversed at length with him several times, and found that there was a sin that he had concealed at confession, doubting that it could be forgiven. The starets assured him that there was no sin that God’s love for mankind could not forgive, if one repented of it; so the merchant brought it to confession and repented of it. After he had received absolution, he was counted worthy of Communion of the Holy Mysteries. When they parted, the Elder said to him, “Well, go with God4—now they will not follow you or bind you.” And so it really happened: the merchant completely recovered from his tormenting affliction.

Another young merchant was also possessed for two years with a delusion of being followed, which drove him out of his mind. He avoided people; he wandered about with a lost look, repeating meaningless words. Elder Hilarion devoted a lot of time to him, and from questioning him he realized that the main cause of his sickness was his enmity towards his father and the insubordination to him that he hid in his heart. The elder long tried to convince him to abandon his spite and ask his father’s forgiveness, arguing that only after this could he hope for God’s help and be freed of his illness. The merchant finally agreed and repented. His soul was cleansed by repentance and was filled with peace.


Extracts from the life of St Iakovos of Evia (1920 – 1991) (2)

The faithful would bring demon-possessed people to the Monastery on a regular basis. They would also bring psychotic people who were suffering from various forms of schizophrenia. It is very difficult most of the time for someone to distinguish between schizophrenia and demon-possession. Father Iakovos had the grace to be able to discern the difference and he would say: “That person is psychotic and he should see a doctor. That other person, my child has a demon and he needs an exorcism.” Many people would observe the exorcism and would take notes of the dialogue that would take place between Father Iakovos and the demon.


Extracts from the life of Abbot Nikon (1894 – 1963) (3)

His education at the Petrograd Institute of Psycho-Neurology brought him nothing but disillusionment: “I saw that psychology studies not [the whole] man, but only his “skin” – the rate of processes, perception, memory … It was such nonsense, that it was repugnant to me.” After tortured searching, and already with a feeling of total hopelessness, the 20-year old suddenly remembered the faith of his youth and, from the depths of his being, began to call out, almost in despair, “O Lord, if You exist, show Yourself! I am not seeking You for some mercenary reason. I need [to know] but one thing: do You exist, or not?”

The Lord mysteriously showed Himself, and from that moment on, everything in Nikolai Vorobiev’s life radically changed: Years of constant spiritual struggle and true asceticism followed. Cautiously and carefully, he used the Sacred Scriptures, which had become a source of real joy and comfort for him, to guide him in his spiritual life.


St Paisios of Mt Athos (4)

A person who does not believe in God and future life exposes their immortal soul to eternal condemnation and lives without consolation in this life. Nothing can console them. They are afraid of losing their life, they suffer, go to psychiatrists who give them pills and advise them to have fun. They take pills, become stupid, and then they go back and forth to see the sights and forget the pain.


Fr Mettaous St Mary

If the science of psychology and philosophy start to permeat the monastic life, they will spoil it completely, just as a weevil does to wood and rust does to metal. Monasticism is based on simplicity, fed by faith, strengthened by hope and confirmed by love. (5)


My thoughts

I believe psychology might have some good points to it. However I believe it is dangerous  for someone to place too high value on it. For those well grounded in the foundations of Orthodox spirituality, reading about it wouldn’t be so harmful but I believe we can get all that we need from Orthodox spirituality. Great is the power of grace!

From what I understand from my own experiences and from what I’ve read, all psychological, emotional and mental problems such as depression, anxiety, loneliness, strong hate towards others, hopelessness, guilt, regret – they all stems from our sins, the evil passions in our heart, our separation from God, the corruption of our soul and our pride – our inability to not accept sufferings as helpful tools for our spiritual healing.

Humility  – the opposite of pride – calls us to accept all evil things, all sorrows and sufferings in our lives, whether caused by ourselves, others or by circumstances, as permitted by God’s special permission for our sanctification and the purification of our sins. If people accepted their sorrows/sufferings regardless of how tremendous they are by humbling themselves, then our psychological problems would dwindle. One needs to recall the faith of the innumerable early Christian martyrs, how they were happy to suffer extremely for the sake of Christ, due to their holy humility and through their spiritual eyes – seeing the tremendous spiritual profit and eternal glory their sufferings would produce.




  5. The life and sayings of Elder Mettaous [a holy coptic elder who reposed in 2008] by Fr Ignatius El Souriany, p. 156