Review: Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing: Teachings from the Early Christian East by Jean-Claude Larchet

A Review by Jennifer Doane Upton [This review appeared in Vol. 12, No. 1 of Sophia: A Journal of Traditional Studies] Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing presents the viewpoint on mental disorders held by the early Church Fathers, and in so doing provides a fresh “new” look at psychotherapy, as seen from the standpoint of a tradition which knows the human being as composed of body, soul and Spirit, and gives precedence to the Spirit. The author, Jean-Claude Larchet, is a practicing psychiatrist as well as an Eastern Orthodox Christian. As moderns, we commonly hold to psychological assumptions based on the ideas of Freud, Jung, behaviorism etc., or on the belief that all consciousness is derived from physical processes within the human brain. This book cuts through many of these assumptions, which treat emotion and emotional energy as if they could be dealt with without reference to morality or the basic disposition of the will, and certainly without reference to the Spirit. For instance, Larchet posits the union of soul and body, but does so in a far different manner than many modern theorists. It is fashionable nowadays to say, in opposition to Cartesian dualism, that “soul and body are one,” but many of our contemporaries who assert this do not seem to have any clear idea that the soul exists in its own right. “By affirming that a human is at once soul and body,” the author says, “they [the Fathers] opposed every form of materialism and naturalism that denied the soul or reduced it to being an epiphenomenon of the body, or something derived from and determined by the body.” According to Larchet, in the union of soul and body, the soul takes precedence over the body; it is active, the body passive. He quotes St. Makarios as saying, “The soul, which is a subtle body, has enveloped and clothed itself in the members of our visible body, which is gross in substance.” Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing maintains that mental illness is from three sources: the somatic (body), thepsychic (soul), and the spiritual. The somatic level is related to our familiar idea of that mental illness is caused by imbalances in brain chemistry and physiology, if not by actual physical trauma. On the psychic level, mental illness is caused primarily by demonic influence, though it is pointed out that demons are attracted to pre-existing psychic dispositions. Mental illness resulting from the spiritual level is based on the perversion of human free will—sin, in other words—though the author makes it clear that the misuse of free will affects the other two levels as well, albeit not in as central a manner

Symeon the New Theologian. and a major element in this difficulty is the fact that appearances by their nature tend to lead us astray.’ The author speaks of the appropriate treatment for mental illnesses of a psychic nature as the product of a collaboration between the patient and the healer(s).the Christian. This limitation of diagnostic skill to one possessing certain spiritual gifts posits an authority higher than materiality and profane human knowledge. Only those who have obtained the charism of the discerning of spirits from God are capable of exercising this spiritual discrimination. .” However. .’ and ‘the enemy cannot take any action against us unless we of our own will obey him. and hence preserves its autonomy. it is only the soul’s self-manifestation that is compromised. Baptism gives us ‘freedom no longer to be held against our will in the devil’s tyranny. . Larchet is led into a discussion the charism (sacrament) of Baptism. its essence is left intact. but skilled physicians declare that our intellect is also weakened by the membranes that underlie the sides affected by the disease. . He says: . Thus. the function of the physician is. given that they can have three distinct etiologies. Larchet points out that “In cases where an organic disorder is clear. Such an understanding escapes the eyes of the profane. it is especially difficult to determine the presence of demonic influence. .This places mental illnesses of a physical origin in a much different perspective than that adopted by modern psychology. in addition to a reorientation of the will through prayer and fasting. Larchet takes issue with our assumption that medieval monks and the early Fathers posited demonic activity only because they were ignorant of the physical causes of mental illness. He quotes Gregory of Nyssa as maintaining that “We are aware that mental aberrations do not arise from heaviness of head [drunkenness] alone. is freed from the tyranny of the enemy and always retains the power of opposing demonic activity. to define its manner of acting or to gauge its importance. when they call the disease frenzy [phrenitis]. limited to the physiological level alone. by the grace received in Baptism. [To affirm] that in such cases the soul in its very nature is not harmed. hampers the claim of a certain kind of medicine or psychiatry to take charge of the human soul through the body and dictate to it its own ideas and values. since the name given to those membranes is phrenes. Consequently. . in talking about healing from the effects of demonic activity. particularly since our materialist assumptions do not even allow for this possibility. Clearly a postmodern mindset resists accepting such authority.” The author admits that it is often difficult to discern the true origin of mental illnesses. According to St. In cases where the origin of the disease is physical. Larchet says: If ‘profane’ or ‘rational’ medicine chooses to ignore such a demonic etiology. This is certainly true when the illness is of demonic origin. it is because it accepts phenomena as the only reality that can be objectively considered. True. which .

I would answer that in the case of possession. However. though their effects nonetheless appear on the level of the psyche per se: Mental illnesses of spiritual origin should not be confused with the spiritual illnesses themselves. the door to the demonic may have been opened by a misuse of the will.And yet it is possible for such individuals to be delivered and healed thanks to the faith and the prayers of those around them or accompanying them. Spiritual illness has precisely to do with a perversion of the individual’s relationship to God.Those who are disturbed in a significant way cannot even ask for their own healing or give evidence of their faith. Spiritual illnesses are formed by a disorder or perversion of nature (more precisely of nature’s mode of existence) in the personal relationship of the individual to God. This would seem to deny any legitimate role to “outside” spiritual intervention. with a dysfunction of the psyche’s nature considered within its natural order. such a distinction can only have a relative value. it is up to the patient to reorient his will to the Spirit and thus to heal himself. mental illness has to do with difficulties in the psyche considered in itself. some (but not all) mental illnesses actually derive from the spiritual level. According to the early Fathers. Larchet speaks of the spiritual intervention of the saints as a powerful form of treatment. such as the prayer of a saint or of the patient’s friends and family. . . and given that the will is free and that noone can will for another. consequently some spiritual illnesses (acedia in particular. the will of the individual is not always fully at his disposal.From the point of view of Patristic anthropology. But the power of the saint’s intercession is so much stronger when the faith of those asking for the deliverance of the possessed is more ardent and their prayers more fervent. but by the time the possession has really taken hold. it is because the individual must. and this can only be accomplished by theurgic means. It might be objected that. such as exorcism: If the Fathers tried to have the possessed/insane participate as much as possible in their own deliverance. . . the Fall affected both the Intellect and the will. According to Eastern Orthodox tradition. if psychic illnesses are partly based on the misuse of the will. turn his will from himself and orient it toward God. On the psychic plane. the illness is beyond the control of the will. God.the Fathers recommend. . for he has granted man free will and in all the cases respects his will and will not act against it. as well as to those of the saint to whom they are entrusted. see below) repeat and accentuate the darkening of the mind resulting from the Fall. . if he is to be delivered from demonic influence. in effect. does not grant healing unless it is asked of him. for nature can never be considered in isolation and is fundamentally defined by its relationship to God. mental illnesses correspond to somatic disorders on the plane of the body. . It is now the will of the demon that must be subdued.

This is clearly not how we view mental illness in today’s world. Larchet deals at some length with the more negative passions of acedia and sadness. Pure act is to center in God —who. according to Aquinas. this could certainly be classed as a form of acedia. the passions take control of our will and force us to passively act according to their agendas instead of being true to ourselves. and even more so by a deadness of the feelings. it is in the very nature of acedia that its victim should be relatively unconscious of it.) Acedia is characterized by a deadness of the senses. according to Larchet. acedia is a particularly modern malaise. and equally foreign to the postmodern mindset is the idea expressed by the author that such things as fear and sadness are actually passions. Not every passion gives even the appearance of an excess of vitality. It pervades every aspect of life.” The essence of pure action is prayer. is Himself “Pure Act. We can easily understand anger and lust as passions. Jungian psychologist Marion Woodman. In a recent article entiled “A Requiem for Friendship” [Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. September. not really its cause. The great temptation when confronting acedia is to distract oneself by seeking novelty.” (Since the author points out that some of the Fathers do not distinguish between acedia and sadness. in a lecture given in the early 80’s.” whereas we like to think of them as vital and dynamic. According to Larchet. Thus the cure for them is action in its truest sense. Spiritual struggle. as I believe. It lowers spiritual expectations and thus draws people into an acceptance of hopeless materialism. since it always produces a decrease in awareness. and as such its origin is difficult to isolate. Restlessnessis a major symptom of it—and who could be more restless than modern man? A special case of this restlessness is dissatisfaction with the place where one lives. commented on the tendency among many of her clients to spend their spare time in restaurants. such as anger or lust seem to do. Acedia is a passion that pervades the modern world. is the key to the healing of this condition. I will use the term acedia alone from here on. it may because we moderns are emotionally isolated by our conditions. one has “lost the taste for life. Sadness is a direct and conscious feeling of loss. which of course makes it difficult to establish domestic roots and thereby overcome social isolation. A person afflicted by acedia has great difficulty in finding any meaning in life. 2005) Anthony Esolen complains that the youth of today are no longer as alive and “youthful” as young people once were. and even on occasion a physical sleepiness. but it is harder for us to see fear and sadness as such. . Larchet maintains that acedia especially attacks hermits—those attempting to do spiritual struggle in solitude—though he makes clear that those living the active life are not exempt from it. According to the Fathers. It is clear that the term acedia covers much of what we would define today as depression. because they show the passions to be essentially “passive. If. whether or not we are spiritually struggling in a conscious way. while acedia is more like a general deadening of all life.

This phenomenon seems to have largely disappeared from the Christian tradition in our time. the simple and the innocent—none of whom Larchet considers as Fools for Christ in the precise sense of this term. while the . maintains that this condition can only be healed through solitary struggle. just as he does whenever he is alone. is consciously simulated: He pretends to be a fool. He controls every act and word. has chosen to appear the fool. we would be far less tempted to turn our houses into mere economic commodities. so that he is really believed to be a fool. If we could live content within our homes. lack of awareness and loss of energy. not adopted. precisely calculating their effect. given the otherworldliness of Christ Himself. on the other hand. but it was of great importance in the early church. Eve. not simply run from it.” Many of our contemporaries who groom themselves impeccably for the workplace allow their places of residence to fall into disarray and even squalor. in Russia. and this includes the illiterate. and this importance certainly continued.” this is a way of indicating that the fallen world in which we live is not entirely what it seems—or at least what it seems to us in our fallen condition.bars. coffee shops—anywhere but at home. Another result of acedia is our inability to value our homes. whose “kingdom is not of this world”? When Satan.” is called “the father of lies. however. The folly of the true Fool for Christ. the author does not consider Dostoevsky’s character Prince Myshkin from The Idiot as a true Fool for Christ. For example.” The Fool for Christ is one who consciously takes folly upon himself for spiritual purposes. The Fool for Christ deals with the realm of appearance as precisely that: appearance. Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing concludes with a chapter on simulated mental illness: the tradition of the “Fool for Christ. brought about a darkening of the human intellect. One must directly resist the tendency to sleepiness. Larchet. “the Prince of This World. since Myshkin’s innocence is congenital. and does everything he can to seem to be so in the eyes of others. he lays aside this mask of foolishness. But the Fool for Christ acts within the world as if it were in fact an illusion—and how can any Christian claim to believe that this world is real in the same sense that God is real. The simplicity of such people is related to a poverty of experience imposed by conditions. our habit of considering them merely as places to “crash. Anyone can be a saint. Part of the reason for this behavior is that such people are trying to heal their acedia through contact with others. Christians often squirm at what they consider to be the “Eastern idea” that this world is in some respects illusory. who precipitated the fall of Mankind. For certain individuals who have discovered his secret or he himself has chosen. at least up to the time of the revolution (if not later). and reveals himself to be perfectly sound of mind.

Its unique insights will be of benefit to anyone sincerely seeking a greater selfknowledge—the sort of knowledge that is based on the true. After all.” we might say that the Fool for Christ becomes an illusion so that those in a state of illusion might come to Reality. according to the Patristic dictum. If. we must confront the illusions that dominate us. “God became man that man might become God. and one that should not be attempted without great spiritual maturity. laymen as well as professionals. But if our minds are to be renewed. Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing clearly reveals dimensions of patristic psychology that are not what most of us would have expected. not run from them. stature of humanity.Theotokos. who in so doing have lost their grip on reality. It is a book that should be of interest to people in many fields. either consciously or unconsciously. Clearly this is a vocation that one must be called to. but now largely forgotten. and to enter into this world is necessarily to take on some of this quality of trickery. There have been those who have attempted to mimic insanity. arenewing of the mind. through her receptivity to the Holy Spirit. and slipped into insanity itself. Larchet recounts an instance of spiritually advanced monk who was considering taking on the responsibilities of a Fool for Christ. . the world of illusion is by its very nature tricky and deceitful. brought salvation to mankind in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ —and this salvation entails a metanoia. but was cautioned against this by his spiritual director.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful