At the end of the Great Entrance, when the priest places the Holy Gifts on the altar, there are several verses which he repeats quietly. They are all deeply meaningful to me, but one has been on my heart much of late: “Bearing life and more fruitful than paradise, brighter than any royal chamber: Thy tomb, O Christ, is the fountain of our resurrection.” For me, these words point to the true and proper source of our healing and the definition of what it means for a human being to be whole.
That may sound almost obvious – but in our culture, the terms and teachings of the Orthodox faith must be carefully defined. We are part of a culture that has made “wholeness” into something of a cult – offering self-help books and related pop-psychology books as though they were just so many Romance Novels. Self-improvement has been a mantra of American culture since nearly its beginning (if not before). Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, that collection of homey sayings (“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”) is only an early example of this cultural fascination.
With the advent of modern psychology our fascination has left off its interests in quaint advice and moved on to self-diagnosis (and the diagnosis of others) in terms and understandings borrowed from various branches of psychology. Thus, words such as “extrovert” and “introvert,” drawn from the work of Carl Jung, have simply become part of our general vocabulary, even if their popular meanings are somewhat removed from the theory which spawned them.
I have a sign beside the door of my church office. It is a quote from the first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo:
Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.
In theological terms we would say that everyone you meet is a sinner like yourself. In our modern culture we might very well analyze everyone we meet and try to figure out precisely which battle it is in which they are fighting. Neurotics (of every stripe), Co-dependents, Bi-polars, Attention Deficit Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder – and the list goes on. Of course a century or more ago our ancestors were grouping people as “choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, and sanguine” – based on medical theories that have long since disappeared.
But what we mean by wholeness also has tremendous bearing on what we mean by “sick.” The teaching of the Church maintains that wholeness of the human being is defined by the resurrection and nothing less. We are not complete without the resurrection – it is the fullness of what it means to be in the image of Christ.
Nevertheless, there is a confusion in our culture with “spirituality” and “psychological wholeness” or with any number of other images.
One way around this confusion is to make our wholeness something completely “other” than ourselves. Thus, if salvation is understood as an extrinsic gift, and external reward bestowed on us by Christ, then there is only a good effort here and no particular expectation of more. The spiritual life consists in waiting for the second coming. This approach works well with a secular culture. So long as a relgious minimum is met (various groups have various minimums) all is well. We mark time in a secular world with a secular life. It is the Second Coming that will take care of the world in which we live.
This same external approach can have other versions – some more responsible than others – but all leaving the battle outside ourselves. Of course these approaches leave wholeness as a cultural norm – something we work on because we’d like to be a “better person” or simply through some sort of inner, moral imperative.
Of course, the Scripture offers something more:
But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18).
The transformation which is promised us in Christ is not a transformation that is necessarily delayed to the “afterlife” but is simply the work of God in us at all times to save. The resurrection is what salvation looks like. Thus we draw ever closer to that which is the fountain of our resurrection.
Met. Hierotheos Vlachos, in a series of books, writes about the spirtual life as “Orthodox Psychotherapy.” What he teaches is simply the traditional three-fold life of purification, illumination and deification. The Elder Sophrony and his disciples (cf. Archimandrite Zacharias) write of a movement from a “psychological” to a “hypostatic” understanding. In this use of theological terms they are referring to a movement away from experience and problems as commonly understood and an extension, through grace, of ourselves into a fuller life of true personhood. I have found the Elder Sophrony’s writings to be of greater help to me personally – but that is nothing that I would ever generalize.
Our commitment to Christ is not necessarily a call to psychological well-being – as understood by the world. Such a healing may or may not be our lot. I have never been hesitant to recommend that someone see a doctor if it seemed clear that they suffered problems that needed medical help. There are certainly many mental conditions that are helped by medication. But medication is not resurrection. It is a band-aid. If you are bleeding that is a useful thing to have.
The greater realization is that we all share the same call in Christ – a call to go from “glory to glory.” The vision of beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord” is not unique to any one Christian. As St. Paul says, “But we all…” However the Christian beside you, beholding the same glory, may very well do so in the woundedness of his neurosis (or whatever terms we come to use). Our task is not to find ways to “fix” one another – but to love one another. Such love will make room for whatever woundedness it finds in others – perhaps even coming to behold the glory of God in the face of someone they would otherwise be tempted to fix.