Look Who’s Talking

Everyone is familiar with that “voice in the head.” By this, I mean the negative voice. It is mean, judgmental, angry, jealous, envious, salacious, just bad. Sometimes it goes quiet. Sometimes it is so overwhelming that it drowns everything else out. One simple question we can ask: “Who’s doing the talking?”

This voice is not the product of reasoning. We have not weighed, measured, compared and reached a conclusion that “he deserves to suffer and die!” (or other such terrible things). The words form in our head, often with no warning and without forethought. We may very well be embarrassed that such thoughts even occur. But the truth is you did not think such a thing. Therapists have dubbed this negative voice, “Self-talk.” And it is interesting to note this conclusion: Self-talk is not thought.1

The Tradition names this voice “logismoi,” which is something of a diminutive form of the word for thought. But it is clear that the logismoi do not rise to the level of true thought. They are not reason, nor are they the product of reason.

In some traditional treatments, it is hard to tell whether the author thinks that logismoi differ in any way from the promptings of demons. In the service of Holy Baptism, there is an obligatory exorcism (even of an infant). It does not presume that the person is possessed. Rather, it presumes that the dark voice within us has demonic allies. In the prayer, the priest names these forces:

…the spirit of deceit, the spirit of evil, the spirit of idolatry and of every covetousness; the spirit of falsehood and of every uncleanness which operates through the prompting of the devil.

These are not described as demons, but rather “the spirit of,” which “operates through the prompting of the devil.” The voice in our head, the self-talk, is not the voice of a demon. However, it has a very dark origin and is utterly contrary to our well-being. It is the voice of the deepest wound in our soul and body, with origins that are sometimes older even than our ability to speak.

In terms of psychology and neurobiology, this wound is seen as the imprint of trauma and abuse (strong in some, weak in others). At its heart, it is a wound to the self, the sense of abandonment and fearful exposure. In time, it gains its own voice. One researcher describes it as our “nemesis.”

We do not have to think about negative self-talk for it to exist—it seems to have a life of its own. The content of that life was born early in our development and experiences. The focus of this self-talk is directed specifically at and is only about one thing: the self. Its exact age is unknown. We can never remember when it began. How could we? It’s always been with us as an affective imprint, stored from the abuses and neglect experienced when we were helpless and needing protection and love. It existed before we were aware of it….. People can attempt an escape from this pattern of events [represented in the voice], but typical escape behaviors (drinking, taking drugs, and other compulsive behaviors) usually only exacerbate their sense of shame. Their inner voice simply screams its disapproval of them. When they listen closely to the self-denigrating messages, they see self-loathing, disgust, and inadequacy coupled with feelings of mortification, exposure, and helplessness. The voice that has formed within them is very young, very scared, and very vulnerable indeed. It doesn’t reason or stop to reflect; it just is.2

Over time, I have read and digested numerous books and studies on the phenomenon of shame, reflecting on my own inner life and what I hear in the lives of others. The insights are useful in and of themselves. However, when coupled with the Tradition, they are more than useful, they become pastoral tools for the treatment of the soul.

I was particularly struck when a researcher described this voice as the “nemesis.” For that is how it behaves. It is like a wounded animal within us, criticizing, judging, negative, destructive, never rejoicing. It offers no wisdom. It builds nothing up. It lives like the enemy within, truly a nemesis of the soul.

This nemesis is a wounded, scared, vulnerable child, unable to comfort itself, unable to reason. Its voice is a voice of pain, but it speaks destruction towards the self, and towards the world around.

When you reflect on the “spirits” addressed in Baptism (deceit, evil, idolatry, covetousness, falsehood, uncleanness), they are indeed expressed in just such a voice. And within the soul, this wound is the most accessible aspect to darkness, most easily manipulated and managed by the demons. It resembles them.

It is also the voice of shame. Shame seems to be the oldest place within the soul’s brokenness, the residence of darkness. Think about the story of the Fall. Eve’s eating of the fruit comes in the course of a conversation. Only, the voice is truly the voice of evil, and not a mere echo in the human psyche:

“Has God indeed said,’You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”

And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said,`You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.'”

Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:1-5)

The dark voice accuses God. Everything is colored by its resentment and mistrust. “God just doesn’t want you to be like Him.…” Imagine that statement coming from a very lonely, very hurt, very suspicious child. And, in this case, the voice is being planted and exploited by our true nemesis.

The result is our shame. We hide ourselves. And now the hiding place is a dark wound within us, one that lives like a grumble. It is the shame-filled nemesis who now whispers a narrative for our day.

This voice is stronger in some than others, depending on the depth and severity of the wound. It can also grow stronger, if it is allowed to become the dominant sound in our heads. As Christians, we resist it (sometimes). It puzzles us and shakes any confidence we might have in our own faith. “How can I think such things?” we wonder. You didn’t think them – you heard them. The words are the voice of something very old (and young) and unattended.

It is a place that, ironically, requires compassion. It is easy to identify such negative energy as an enemy, and nurture a kind of self-loathing. But self-loathing (of that sort), is easily nothing more than the sound of the voice you have come to loathe. It is a loathing that feeds on itself as a toxic rant rather than bringing about healing.

This, I believe, is among the reasons we hear such compassion for the souls in hell from many of the greatest spiritual fathers in the Church. I have become all too accustomed to hearing extreme statements of condemnation towards various persons, or classes of persons, those guilty of sins both real and imaginary. It is not just the statements themselves that sounds an alarm within me, but the nature of the energy that speaks them. It is often nothing other than the public expression of that inner voice, and, as such, speaks nothing more than the shame of the one speaking.

The well-known conversation of St. Silouan with a brother monk can be applied across the board:

I remember a conversation between [Silouan] and a certain hermit who declared with evident satisfaction,‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’

Obviously upset, [Silouan] said,‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there you looked down and saw someone burning in hell-fire – would you feel happy?’

‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit.

[Silouan] answered him in a sorrowful countenance: ‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.’

I have encountered more than a few angry contradictions directed towards St. Silouan in this regard. “It can’t be helped…it would be their own fault…after all, they had it coming to them…”

But the darkness that lies within the wounds of our soul differs very little from the souls in hell. Indeed, we may think of those dark places as already speaking from hell. They require compassion. It is for their sake that Christ took flesh and endured death and Hades. It is in that frightful place of darkness that the light of Pascha shines most brightly. The healing of such wounds is nothing less than life from the dead.

Lazarus! Come forth!

Footnotes for this article

  1. For an excellent discussion of self-talk see Gerald Fishkin’s The Science of Shame and Its Treatment, 2016.
  2. Fiskin, The Science of Shame and Its Treatment, Kindle, 1063.

71 comments:

  1. Oh my! This is wonderful! Never thought about looking down from Heaven before. I couldn’t stand to see suffering. What a perspective!

  2. It seems that the more we deny (the existence of) the voice within, the more we judge others and do not forgive. And the more we understand our own fallen state and the arrows that assail us, the more we have compassion and understand the similar struggle in others, and thus forgive our enemies.

  3. Insightful! I love your perspective…I took a class on shame during Seminary, so I’m biased. 😀 Always a wonderful blog, Father.

  4. Thank you, Father.

    This also reminded me of a quote I keep coming back to from Jung.

    “The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life. That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ — all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself — that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness — that I myself am the enemy who must be loved — what then? As a rule, the Christian’s attitude is then reversed; there is no longer any question of love or long-suffering; we say to the brother within us “Raca,” and condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide it from the world; we refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves.”

  5. Fr. Stephen, as you described the voices, and the kind of things said by those voices, I couldn’t help but think of my wife, who struggles with a number of severe mental health issues including psychotic features such as visible and audible hallucinations — she “hears” the terrible voices rather than merely thinking them. It makes me wonder if, in the experience of the mentally ill, a wall of sorts is breached and the inner voices become “outer.”

    My wife is receiving a lot of professional care and has for years. The psychotic features are typically addressed through the application of medicine, and advice to not engage the voices. I wonder if speaking compassion during her worst bouts would help ease the symptoms or the effects. Couldn’t hurt, I suppose, unless addressing the voices in this manner gives them a greater seeming reality.

  6. I frequently always ponder over the sin of pride in the scriptures, which can become very terrifying sometimes. Such contemplation can become very personal attacks, making you feel like God creates you simply to torment you…

  7. Ok, thank you, Father! It came at the right time. I just discussed yesterday with my therapist about this bad “self-talk” which plagues my mind and confuses me. It is very painful and indeed made me to feel worthless because I believed it. And the worst part is that I regard God as unapproachable, cold and harsh just like this “thoughts”. So I have a really hard time believing Him and accepting His love for the fear of abandoning and not being good enough. Reading this article helped me put in words my inner world and brought me relief and confort. Christ brings light and healing not darkness and pain. At least I begin to differentiate the two…

  8. Thank you Father. So helpful..This voice was with me most of my life..and it lost its power only when, ( I do not know how and when), I begun to feel a little compassion for myself and accept that forgivness was a possibility and it was there for everybody, for me also.

  9. What is the photo illustration from? I don’t understand how it relates to your writing.

  10. I’m thinking…Michele….it is his ‘alter-self’ talking fear and despair … yes?
    When you click on the picture, from the list choose “search google for image”.
    This one has been labeled ‘the demon of depression’.

    Father, thank you.
    You care enough to speak about difficult subjects.
    The dark wounds of the soul are almost impossible to express, so it comes out in anger, depression, addiction. You become isolated because you do not want to be around people. And just the same, people really, after a short time, do not want to be around you. They are ‘pushed away’.
    This is a very difficult subject. Thank you for coming forward in your many articles and talking about this…bringing it ‘out of the closet’.

  11. I believe that if we fill our hearts and minds with the Word of God we will be equipped the virtues of strength and discernment (discrimination), spoken of in the Philokalia and Scriptures, as well as fortitude to withstand the wiles of the devil. If we neglect the weapons and armour of spiritual warfare, we leave ourselves exposed, for God clearly says He does never gives us more than we can bear, but with temptations makes a way that we are able to bear them (1 Cor. 10:13). Since our warfare is spiritual, not carnal, we need God’s Word/Power in order to withstand the onslaughts of the demons. I have been around a lot of mental illness in my life; it is so difficult to help people in this dreadful struggle. They often do not want deliverance and refuse help from the Word of God, even when they are Christians, the bondage is so great.
    But I recommend reading the Word of God to anyone struggling with demons, for where God’s Word is, they cannot remain for long–it burns them.
    I pray for the man who said his wife is tormented this way. My own dear brother committed suicide due to demon possession/oppression; he heard voices all the time in his head and “in his chest” he would say, but he would not listen to anyone, not even psychiatrists who said he was schizophrenic. He also had had two serious head injuries which more than likely contributed to his mental instability, as well as serious torments from those who raised him after our family was destroyed when we were children.
    I don’t believe the medical field can help these conditions; only God–He is more than sufficient–His Word, and much prayer.
    My husband did some work in a mental hospital not long ago. I was broken-hearted to hear that the only thing the patients looked forward to throughout their days is the hourly cigarette break!
    Unfortunately, it is not easy to get admission to visit inside these institutions anymore let alone share the Gospel. I regretted that I didn’t have any French Gospels of John to send with my husband to leave on the ward where he was working. We purchased some afterward in case he ever returns to work there.
    ~God be with you all.

  12. Michele,
    The picture is from the movie, Cloud Atlas. The character in the back is whispering dark things to the one in front (Tom Hanks) and serves in the movie as a sort of “dark nemesis,” as described in the article. Very interesting film.

  13. PS: I just want to quote 1 Cor. 10:13 and James 4:6,7,8.
    13 There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way of escape, that ye may be able to bear it. Verse 14 St Paul continues: Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry.
    (1 Cor. 10:13,14)
    St James writes: . . .God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God, Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.

    Departure from God brings on the devil, and it is could be worse for Christians who are careless, and let their thoughts run amuck and fill their hearts with other thing rather than earnestly seeking God’s help in His Word or from those trying to help them. Then they become enslaved to their own thoughts, become rather stubborn, and the devil has a heyday with them.
    Hope I don’t sound too extreme, but I have fought serious mental/spiritual battles myself. Sometimes it takes week before deliverance and peace is restored, but we must not give up hope wait on the Lord until he sends it. For if we hope for that [which] we see not; then do we with patience wait for it (Rom. 8:24,25). If we wait on Him, He will deliver us (Isa. 40:28-31!). If we deny Him, he says He will deny us.
    This is how I win severe battles: with God’s Word, prayer, keeping busy with meaningful work, helping where opportunities are given, never missing church, and waiting on the Lord. ~Grace be to all.

  14. “They often do not want deliverance and refuse help from the Word of God, even when they are Christians, the bondage is so great.”
    There is no way that people who are afflicted with this illness do not want to be well! No way, Rhonda. As for refusing help from the Word of God, how can you know what is going on in their soul? You do not know. How can someone with such deep wounds just stop and listen to the depth of the Word….or sit and listen to what you think certain verses are saying *for them*! This would be like having a deep physical wound and thinking “oh, only if I pray and believe hard enough, this wound will heal”. It don’t work that way, Rhonda.
    The demons, as Father brings out, are ‘allies’ to this self deprecatory talk. You give the demons too much credit, I think. That they have been conquered by Christ goes without saying. But obviously we are still at war.
    Christ sits with “those people” in the institutions…as well as the addicts….as well as with myself. I am no different.
    It is not as simple as saying, the demons rage against you and all you have to do is read the Word of God.
    Christ Jesus knows what those people who you say don’t want help are struggling with. He knows exactly. He does not forget them. We are to mimic Him. Imitate Him. Listen, with compassion. Offer consolation.
    Sometimes the smoking of a cigarette helps, Rhonda…

    Btw, I have worked in a Psych hospital. I am a retired nurse. And also have a degree in Psychology. But all that means nothing, not a thing, without a non-judgmental, compassionate approach to people. And also Rhonda…I have suffered with these mental issues. And I love God. In my broken, and being healed soul, I love Him. I have read, and still read, Scripture as if I am eating it. But it is no a magic pill. God don’t work that way. It is well enough to know that He loves me…and in the hope of reflecting that love outwards…that He love all of us. That is what “those people” need to know…..

  15. Three remedies in my life:
    Praying the Jesus Prayer,
    Repentance,
    Working to practice stillness.

    Laughter helps too. Christopher Fry wrote in his play The Lady’s Not For Burning:

    Shall we laugh? Shall we laugh for the sake of laughter?
    I mean would you have thought of it?
    If you had been making man,
    Stuffing him full of such hopping greeds and passions,
    That he has to blow himself to pieces as
    Often as he can conveniently manage it,
    Would you have thought of it?
    The phenomenon of cachinnation is an irrelevancy
    That almost amounts to a revelation

    Real demons hate laughter and so do their shadows. Real humor, not the sardonic laughter of sarcasm, brings pain out of the darkness where it festers, turns the pain in all manner of ways to expose it to the light and then let’s it vanish in an explosion of recognition and relief. It exposes the essential absurdity of sin. That is why the role of jester is an crucial and important one in many traditional cultures.

    Real laughter is rarely achieved alone BTW. It usually takes two or more. Hmmmmm? I have long noticed that one of the most frequent occurrences at the meals of mercy after someone’s funeral or other such family gathering after burying a loved one is laughter.

    I am a sinner, for sure, but one of my great sins is taking myself too seriously. Our Lord commands us not to be dour or downcast during this time of repentance and fasting. Remember after laughter comes rejoicing.

    The Angel cried to the Lady full of grace: Rejoice,
    O Pure Virgin. Again I say: Rejoice. Your Son is
    Risen from His three days in the tomb.
    Shine, shine, O New Jerusalem, for the glory of the
    Lord has shone on you. Exult now and be glad, O
    Zion, and you, O Pure Theotokos, be radiant in the
    Resurrection of your Son.

    Christ is Risen!

  16. Rhoda,
    I would not suggest to those suffering from various mental afflictions that the medical field cannot help. This is contrary to Scripture. But you have to read all of Scriptures in the Orthodox Bible. For example:

    From Chapter 38 of Sirach:

    Give doctors the honor they deserve, for the Lord gave them their work to do.[a] 2 Their skill came from the Most High, and kings reward them for it. 3 Their knowledge gives them a position of importance, and powerful people hold them in high regard.

    4 The Lord created medicines from the earth, and a sensible person will not hesitate to use them. 5 Didn’t a tree once make bitter water fit to drink, so that the Lord’s power[b] might be known? 6 He gave medical knowledge to human beings, so that we would praise him for the miracles he performs. 7-8 The druggist mixes these medicines, and the doctor will use them to cure diseases and ease pain. There is no end to the activities of the Lord, who gives health to the people of the world.

    9 My child, when you get sick, don’t ignore it. Pray to the Lord, and he will make you well. 10 Confess all your sins and determine that in the future you will live a righteous life. 11 Offer incense and a grain offering, as fine as you can afford.[c] 12 Then call the doctor—for the Lord created him—and keep him at your side; you need him. 13 There are times when you have to depend on his skill. 14 The doctor’s prayer is that the Lord will make him able to ease his patients’ pain and make them well again.

  17. Paula, unfortunately, the nature of some pain is so deeply imbedded with one’s identity that the process of becoming well seems like a deep violation. Some are unable to move from the fractured, broken identity to one of wholeness and do not really want to because they perceive the pain involved in change as too great for a mere promise of “better”. Better what, when the life they see around them is also deeply fractured and patently absurd too. Where is the hope? After all the shadows seek to suck all hope from us.

    For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
    Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
    The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
    The insolence of office, and the spurns
    That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
    When he himself might his quietus make
    With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
    To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
    But that the dread of something after death,
    The undiscovered country from whose bourn
    No traveler returns, puzzles the will
    And makes us rather bear those ills we have
    Than fly to others that we know not of?
    Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
    85And thus the native hue of resolution
    Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
    And enterprises of great pith and moment
    With this regard their currents turn awry,
    And lose the name of action.—

    So Ronda is spot on here I think because Holy Scripture constantly reminds us of the joy and peace of that “undiscovered country” and shows us a way there and back again constantly reminding us to “Fear not” Shakespeare and Hamlet notwithstanding.

  18. Father/Ronda, as with all reality is it not a question of both/and rather than either/or? The fact is that modern docs offer only modern solutions. While these should not be excluded out of hand, there is a deeper and more healing path.

  19. Michael…I don’t buy it.
    “Some are unable to move from the fractured, broken identity to one of wholeness and do not really want to because they perceive the pain involved in change as too great for a mere promise of “better”.
    This does not mean that they do not want to get better. It does not mean that. How do you know what is going on in another’s soul?
    There is no way, as we are created by God, that we do not want to be whole. That is what it means by being in His image.
    It is dangerous to look upon a person and come to the conclusion that they do not want to get better. Confused, yes. They are confused. Broken. Disassembled. Not thinking straight. But that is not who they are. There is a wholeness that all of us are imperceptibly moving toward.

  20. Paula,
    I agree – it is not simple, nor straightforward. We cannot know what wounds are within another. And when the wounds fall under the religious abuse realm, it is even more complex to accept the “love of God”. Many things are presented as “love” when they are not in highly dysfunctional environments. And our understanding of God can be so warped…
    I just recently read in the book Living the Faith by Stanley Harakas a section about Orthodox Fundamentalism. It personally resonated and healed so much for me and helped me to understand my resistance.

  21. Michael,
    I think the passage from Sirach is quite balanced – and is a both/and.

    Helen, well said. I know of a case (Orthodox) where a simple anxiety/panic disorder was ignorantly treated with an exorcism – with no effect other than to create confusion and a darkening of a soul. Ignorance, even when it’s pious, is still ignorance and can do great damage. Bad medical practice can do damage as well. A difficulty in our highly democratized world is that everybody seems to be an expert on everything.

    When it comes to the treatment of another soul – we should proceed with caution – be a bit slow on advice – and be compassionate above all.

    Someone noted on social media that their friends who were constitutional scholars just a few weeks ago have all become experts in mircrobiology this week.

    The truth is – we are all pretty ignorant – including about spiritual things. We live in a falsely therapeutic culture in which we’re all convinced that we should be cured and never suffer, consequently, we don’t suffer very well. If the doctors don’t work, we complain. If our spiritual nostrums fail, we complain. In point of fact, a certain measure of suffering is the default setting for human existence – and the Scriptures are pretty clear about this.

    The faith, rightly live, should nurture and help souls bear the burden of this life’s suffering and teach us how to help others as well. When someone finds a measure of relief, either by God’s sovereign action, the sacraments of the Church, or a doctor, etc. we should rejoice in the blessing.

    Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Beyond that, we should resist the temptation to manage the world. It’s not working.

  22. Bless you, Father, for this article. It is very helpful.
    My only (minor) issues with it are these. I’m not sure this assertion is reality: “The voice in our head, the self-talk, is not the voice of a demon.” And secondly, not all ‘self-talks’ or ‘nemeses’ have their origin in abuse or childhood. People who had perfectly protected and loving childhoods can still (even usually) be afflicted by this phenomenon. Perhaps is all comes down from our First Parents, (not always our last parents).
    But i have three queries for you, please.
    1) There has always been some debate in Protestant circles about whether demons are able to ‘know our thoughts’. Some say yes, some say no. But since our temptations so often correlate with what we have recently been thinking, i side with the yes crowd. Also, if demons can insert thoughts /temptations INTO our heads, why could they not also know what is there already? What sayeth Tradition to this question?
    2) Some people also struggle with intrusive blasphemous thoughts, which seem to come out of nowhere, with a “whoosh”, as one psychologist author wrote. These ‘thoughts’ instantly cause great distress and shame. Psychology would group these under OCD illness or symptoms, sometimes labeled ‘scrupulosity’. Priests might not even be aware of them in their flock; those afflicted might be too utterly ashamed to ever mention them. At least until they are suffering horribly and out of options/at their wits end. Father, would you include these under the above ‘self-talk’? Have you confronted such cases in your ministry? If so, what have you offered them?
    3) I have been enlightened thru Orthodoxy about an important distinction. It is this: that the brain is just a processor of our senses, that thoughts are often ‘barking dogs’ worthy only of being ignored, and that our minds are not equivalent at all with our souls or will. Our moral self resides in our heart, our soul, our spirit, not our consciousness, mind, or brain. That our minds and bodies can be possessed by demons, but our hearts are off limits (unless perhaps we consciously and repeatedly open it to them – some genocidal dictators come to mind). If they had access to our hearts, our personhood would be dissolved or destroyed. But we see even the Gerasene demoniac still intact (in personality, will, and humanness) once delivered of possession. His heart had just been imprisoned inside a possessed mind and body. An all-merciful God has ordained it to be so – our protected hearts. And this dichotomy can help us understand how a heart (faithful to God and hopeful in Him) can suffer involuntarily under uninvited thoughts by a wayward mind-brain. Do you, Father, have any disagreement or additions to this point 3?

    “Set me free from my prison, so that I may praise thy name.” Ps 142:7
    Lord have mercy.

  23. Vermiculus,
    I find most of the popular discussion regarding thoughts versus demons to be pointless for the greater part. I have seen far more damage done by people thinking that self-talk is demonic in nature. My article suggests that it is an aspect of our body/brain that is exploited by the demonic – but is generally correctly described as “not the voice of demons.”

    Yes, I have seen many cases of OCD within parish life over the years – with varying levels of severity. Generally, they have been helped by a combination of everything – medication in some cases, good therapy in others (with a variety of techniques), confession, anointing – everything. And a boat load of support and compassion as they weather the storm. Most cases that I’ve seen have found a measure of relief – enough to move forward with their lives without being crushed.

    I would generally agree with the third point. There is far more than I have time to say about this – but, in general, I agree. For one, who/what we are is far deeper and more of a mystery than we often know. We “endure” our bodies/brains etc. to a certain extent, even while the truth of our existence transcends them. On really bad days (I have them myself), it does us good to know that who/what we are is not identical with what imprisons us. Some days, we pray, “O God, help me!” and that’s about as far as we get. Other days, we seem entirely free. For myself, I working at taking God seriously, and myself, not so much so. And, above all, to give thanks in all things.

  24. Father, when “the voice” turns to intimations of self-annihilation is that not truly demonic? My own experience of that voice suggests to me that it is.

  25. Michael,
    It certainly takes on tones that would “rhyme” with the demonic. But, again, I think it can be less than helpful to make a categorical statement such as that. First, I think it oversimplifies things. Second, it might very well obfuscate what’s really going on if that’s not the case.

    It’s why I take a very generalized approach to such things – using every “mode” of healing that is available. Short of actual possession – which is quite rare – when we speak of the demonic, we are, pretty much only saying that things that already have a basis within us, without reference to the demonic, are being exploited and “enhanced” by demonic forces. In such cases – the person still needs healing. A simple exorcism would be ineffective.

    Frankly, there is a form of “pious” talk that uses “demonic” very loosely, mostly with no more meaning than a description of the quality of something. When such pious talk becomes confused with actual ontological origins of things – it’s really unhelpful.

    I’ve seen true pyschotic personalities come close to going over the edge by thinking that what is happening is demonic in origin. Others try “spiritual” cures without result and despise medical treatment as somehow being less than “spiritual.”

    Add to that, the fact that everybody and his brother and sister has rather settled opinions about such things and we end up with the kind of confusion that seems to surround such conversations.

    We read books with saints lives and stories of the holy elders – they are filled with stories of healing and deliverance. We form opinions based on such things and try to apply that to our lives. Most often, our souls are in the care of humble parish priests. They are not miracle workers or holy elders. We judge their efforts too easily. In general, they do best to treat such matters in a general way and make no pretense to knowing what they don’t know. As I noted earlier, our modern culture wants everything to be fixed and cannot seem to bear suffering very well.

    In truth, we’re going to suffer some. I suspect God allows us to suffer for good purpose many times, though it’s a medicine we do not want to swallow. But, we need to be able to say, “I don’t know” when we don’t know and then do all that we can to help and comfort the one who suffers. Lots of compassion.

  26. My name is Rhoda, not Rhonda. –Rhoda means Rose. I am a bruised rose–my last name means “blue.” It’s perfect.

    I’m not asking anyone to agree with me. I definitely don’t want to appear argumentative or “wiser” than anyone. I hoped to give hope.
    The familiar story comes to mind of people coming to us for help, but we are so busy waiting to see Jesus, we ignore them! –I hope you follow my tho’t.– Jesus offers plenty of help all the time, ever day of our lives! His compassions fail not, they are new every morning!!!
    What did Job say when he lost more than any of us ever have? “It is the Lord, let Him do what seemeth Him good. Shall we receive good at the LORD’s hand and not evil?” Job didn’t fall into mental illness tho’ he greatly the loss of everything, and then severe physical suffering, and the lack of compassion of his friends? No. He had to struggle with all of it, and then his pride (from what I’ve understood so far)! How humbling!
    How about dear Joseph sold into slavery as a young man by his own brothers? Did he fall pray to demons and mental problems? No. He remain faithful, endured great hardships until the Lord delivered Him.
    These, and many examples of suffering, patience, and affliction of the people of God in Scriptures have been my anchor and strength in the severest fiery trials. What about our Lord’s suffering that was more than we could ever imagine! Doesn’t that offer any consolation?
    Should I have succumbed to demons and let them have the mastery I would have harmed many around me and disgraced myself! I had to endure the agony, and wait, rather than harm others by trying to escape what was going on and causing so much pain, or wanting it to cease. Worst of all, I would have denied our dear Lord by not clinging to Him in faith. ~Blessed is the man that trusteth in the LORD, whose hope the Lord is!
    Life won’t be perfect here. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivereth him out of them ALL. I believe this with all my heart, even if it sounds “too simple” –it’s been anything but easy for me. But God’s Word has been sufficient: for my strength is made perfect in weakness; I have learned in whatsoever state I am therewith to be content. ~Amen. –won’t labour further thoughts.

  27. Rhoda, forgive me. I typed without checking.

    In the Orthodox Church no approach to anything is by one avenue only. Thus even when one’s experience is that Scripture or Liturgy or Confession or any other spiritual practice lead to healing by itself, that is rarely the case because each is interrelated to the other and we are all connected to one another through Jesus Christ.

    A story from the life of Saint Luke, Bishop of Simferopol and Crimea, the Blessed Surgeon reposed 1961. He was a renowned medical doctor and healer (using both medical science and the grace of God) as well as a confessor of the faith. There was a test that he said was used in the Russian Orthodox Church when people with mental difficulties came for healing. They would put several small glasses of water on a table (one filled with Holy Water) and ask the person to drink them all. If the person was able to drink all of the glasses, then they were referred to a psychologist, If they would not drink the glass with the Holy Water, they were referred to a priest for exorcism and spiritual counseling.

    Love God, practice the disciplines of the Church as well as able seek help as needed and, as Father Stephen says, resist the temptation to “fix” things. Ah, now that is hard.

  28. Last week’s RCL readings included the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the temptation of Jesus by the devil after his baptism. I was shocked by how many commentaries on these passages went to great lengths to deny that the serpent and the devil were the embodiment/personification or in any way representative of evil. Thank you for your article. If you have a favorite reference on the subject of evil, please share it.

  29. Rhoda, Job didn’t keep his chin up, he gave up.

    “Why did I not die from the womb, from the belly come out, breathe my last? Why did knees welcome me, and why breasts, that I should suck? For now I would lie and be still, would sleep and know repose with kings and the councilors of earth, who build ruins for themselves, or with princes, possessors of gold, who fill their houses with silver. Or like a buried stillborn I’d be, like babes who never saw light.”

    The end of the story is curious in that God doesn’t comfort Job in a fatherly way. He basically tells Job, “You don’t know diddly squat.”

  30. Boyd,
    You must be reading modern, historical-critical commentaries. The Tradition has always read these things in a manner that interprets them as the devil. Many modern commentaries wander far in a land that is waste.

  31. Scott, certainly Job was despairing, but he did not ever give totally into despair. He did not, as one of his “friends” recommended: Curse God and die.

    God was quite blunt with him for sure but that bluntness is, in its own way, comforting–at least for me. I think it is also a Book that men and women tend to read quite differently. At least my wife and I do. She tends to look at it as the results of a macho bet between to guys and everybody else paid the consequences. Me, I have always taken it as illustrating a thoroughly un-modern approach to our interrelationship with God. It shows the importance of running the race to the end, no matter what. Job does do that, if only barely. The is a film record of a man running in a competitive marathon event many years ago that was shown quite often when I was young some 60+ years ago. The man shown is approaching the end of the race but is struggling to finish, his body flailing in an uncoordinated way practically falling down with each tortured step, careening all over the track side to side in obvious pain and certainly disoriented. But he kept the finish line in sight and fell, stumbling over it, but he finished.

    When I read Job, I am reminded of that runner. I am also reminded of the Nobel prize acceptance speech given by William Faulkner in which he praised the ability to endure as the ultimate human quality.

  32. Job gave in totally to despair. That is a plain reading of chapters 3 and 6. “Annul the day that I was born.”

    6:8-9
    “If only my wish were fulfilled, and my hope God might grant. If God would deign to crush me, loose His hand and tear me apart.”

    Job wished God would kill him. It’s part of the story whether we like it or not.

  33. Michael, It was Job’s wife that said, “Curse God and die.”
    It’s nice that Job’s despair was noticed. That was his self pity and grief at the trial (as we often do in our own), which is perfectly understandable, as well as he didn’t know what God was doing or why. Isn’t that often our case, and why we fall into despair, and think those dark thoughts of fear, doubt, and unbelief? It is to remind us that we are creatures, isn’t it, in need of a great God, as well as dust and ashes. We are dependent upon Him, aren’t we? Am I wrong about that?
    If you read the first 7 verses in the final chapter of Job (I read the KJV so the words may differ a bit), here is what it says, if you don’t mind:
    1 Then Job answered the LORD, and said,
    2 I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withheld from thee.
    3 Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered [things] that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.
    4 Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me.
    5 I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.
    6 Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.
    7 And it was so, that after the LORD had spoken these words unto Job [in the previous chapters], the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.

    Job was brought to see and acknowledge the Lord’s greatness & glory as he had not seen before, and he repented for his faint-heartedness & words, and his friends (counselors) were reproved.
    Who can understand the works of the Lord, or His marvelous acts?

    I wonder how modern despair differs from any other kind, since over all it is the devil’s main work to destroy everyone he can; there is nothing new under the sun; that what happens to one happens to all in one way or another, but is according as God plans for our good, and especially that God knows every possible detail about it and more, for the very hairs of our head are all numbered. I don’t understand what is unsound about my understanding of things.
    I don’t mean to grieve anyone, or to be completely dimwitted here as some have expressed.
    Forgive me if I am “out to lunch!” :O)
    God be with you in all your struggles & aid to others in theirs. Farewell.

  34. Rhona,
    My comment about modern despair (it differing from Job’s) is that modern despair tends to despair of God’s existence and the meaning of anything at all. It is a frightful thing – darker than most anything.

  35. Elder Aimilianos, without specifically talking about Job, but certainly interpreting what the Church’s paraenesis regarding desperate sufferings, and how it is that the sufferings’ right ‘acceptance’ [and not some power to eliminate them] is the thing that ultimately creates the Christian fearlessness (a quality universally admired and regarded in awe) , has this to say:

    only if you manage to overcome the sufferings, in the sense of not regarding the sufferings as a bad thing, but only as ‘a good’: if every deprivation and pain is viewed by you as a visitation of God, then, and only then do you finally become “un-tempt-able”. The very second you will want to overcome the sufferings, the pain, or to regain the bodily things you’ve lost, that very second you stop having the same rapport with God, your relationship is disturbed. For instance: you don’t have anything to eat, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content”, speaks the apostle. I have food? I’ll eat. I don’t? I won’t eat. I have my health, my well-being? I’ll say ‘Glory be to God!” I don’t? I’ll again say “Glory be to God!” The moment I will start desiring the elimination of my suffering, my illness, my pain, when I start running to this doctor and that, seeking this medicine in Russia and that in America, I have lost.

    Of course the Elder himself suffered for almost three decades, bed-ridden and fed through tubes for more than half-of that time, but while thus becoming a second Job, his stance vociferously proclaimed that same fearlessness, joy and peace he had spoken of while he was still able to speak: that this view of God, as ultimately ‘knowing very well what He is doing in our sufferings’, (no matter how short-sitedly some voice-in-the-head tries to discredit this assurance), is retainable.

  36. A pertinent quote my church gave me:
    “It is impossible to stop our mind, which is ever-moving, from having thoughts, although it is within our power to feed it either with spiritual meditation or with worldly concerns. “
    — St. Moses the Ethiopian

  37. We once had an occasional visitor to our church whose twin brother would roll him in a wheelchair for Sunday worship. He was spastic and would writhe in the chair into which he was strapped and sometime blurt out loud noises. I tried to imagine what kind of internal struggles he might be dealing with. Even though his twin was a good friend in the Sunday School I was teaching, I was not courageous and kind enough to even try to communicate with this very physically handicapped brother.

    Our compassionate pastor did! In an appropriate context, our pastor once quoted Job 13:15: “Though He slay me, I will trust Him.” This gentleman struggled and stammered but finally replied, “Though he slay me not.” In one exasperated moment, this bound brother taught me a lifelong lesson.

    I think everyone must have internal issues that rumble through their innermost being from which they want freedom even if they cannot articulate it. I am thankful for those who seek to know and to help — Father Stephen’s blog and replies as well as all the other comments

  38. Lewis,
    Our modern world with its technological prowess and managerial philosophy deeply nurtures our sense of the solvability of all problems. It is, of course, a blatant lie. It rewards those who have few problems and gently assures them that they must be particularly competent. It punishes those with recurrent or intractable problems with the nagging doubt that it’s their own fault. And, of course, many religious teachers have re-inforced these lies with false teachings. Sadly, the prosperity gospel is spreading across the world as the waves of American culture wash up on the shores of the growing global economy. The prosperity gospel is nothing more than Americanism disguised as Christianity. It is heresy of the worst sort and a betrayal of the gospel.

    There was a study done by a couple of sociologists a couple of years ago that found that the Orthodox, across the world, were the most “unhappy” of all religious groups (Protestants, Catholics, other religions). Actually, I thought the underlying reason is the fact that, thus far, the prosperity gospel has failed to make much headway among us. The survey questions were an unconscious exercise in testing for modernity’s presence.

  39. vermiculus,
    “You can’t help it if a bird flies over your head. But you can stop it from making a nest in your hair.”
    – (not sure where I heard this, but I like it.)

  40. Dino – are you saying here that when sick you should not be seeking healing? That somehow that’s losing a spiritual battle?
    Fr Stephen – this was very interesting stuff, I certainly suffer from the dark voice (I’m an alcoholic’s daughter) & am very aware how this has been added to with thoughts about Calvinism, God not loving everyone & so on. I’m very very tired of this.

  41. Whether seeking or not seeking healing, we try as much as each can to have God’s will more -and our own less- as the thing directing our lives. Everyone (and every time, and every occurence of our lives ) has a different level of trusting ability in doing this. The thing needed is trust in His providence in the face of those things that shake this trust’s foundation.
    The Elder speaks of the levels of perfection of course. The elder often frames these levels as ‘a matter of decisiveness’, to show that what seems impossible is actually more accessible than we think, once we decide to take the first step ‘on the waters’ and He invariably catches as soon as we falter.
    We tend to, I think, have some of our greater stumblings on this “good foolishness of trust” (and many reasons to justify our lack of it once we side with distrust of God’s providence) than on our sins.
    And this separates us from our Hope and Lord in a more ‘secure’ way than even sin.

  42. This blog entry came at an hour of need for me as it relates to my own experience of that dark voice. As I get older I catch the dark voice speaking out loud through me at times. Anyway, it is helpful to know that there is a common experience of this and that I’m not entirely crazy! And that there is the orthodox church to help me heal. Glory to God!

  43. Beakerj,
    Under most normal circumstances – seeking health and healing is a God-given drive. Christ did not rebuke those who came to Him seeking healing. The Scriptures from Sirach also clearly indicate the useful and appropriateness of seeking medical help. I take Elder Aemilianos’ words as a counsel for dealing with protracted suffering for which little relief can be found. But also, even as we suffer and endure medical procedures, etc., to put our trust in God that His providence is at work even in such difficulties.

    Avoiding medical treatment as a form of spiritual discipline, I think, would be delusion. I do not understand the elder’s words in such a sense.

  44. Fr Stephen the guidelines of GOARCH and OCA are similar to general government guidelines. Given the uniqueness of the Orthodox Church to provide the Holy Communion to all participants from a single chalice and spoon, it would be good to have the Church refer to this more explicitly. Similarly for the kissing of icons. .

  45. Nikolaos,
    Generally, there will be no interruption of communion. Years and years of various studies regarding things like the Common Cup in the West, or Communion on a spoon, as in the East, have consistently shown that these ard not vectors of infection. It is handshakes and sneezes that spread germs. We have a cultural issue that creates medical superstitions about the mouth (kissing, etc.). But it is the eyes and nose (rubbed by the hands, etc.) that are the real infectious culprits.

    I’ve seen some discussion within the OCA in various parishes, perhaps altering how the Zapifka would be distributed (that’s the unconsecrated wine drunk from a small cup after communion). That is not a practice among the Greeks. I’m not sure what our priest will decide to do (if anything in particular). The Covid19 virus is really no different than the common cold when it comes to how its caught and how its spread.

    So – wash hands, don’t touch your face. Maybe not shake hands. But, I have no fear of the Cup or the Spoon. As a priest – you also consume everything after everyone else. I’ve never worried about colds, flu, etc., during the whole of my 40 years of ministry. I think things will be fine.

  46. It’s a bit ironic. As we’ve been talking about medical help…last night at about 7 I started have some abdominal discomfort that became quite intense through the night…finally requiring a trip to the ER. CT Scan showed acute diverticulitis (first time I’ve had such a thing). So, I’m now back home with 2 strong antibiotics and a small amount of pain medication and recommendations for diet changes. I had no idea that such a thing could become that painful. Grateful for my local hospital (about half a mile away).

  47. Father Stephen,

    I’ve had diverticulitis out breaks for many years, but not any for at least the last 10 years. My doctor told me to get on a really good probiotic. I’ve use Probiotic 10, sold at Costco, for a very long time now and it done the trick for me. 2 caps a day. 1 in the morning and 1 in the evening.

  48. Sorry to hear about your ER visit, Father. Diverticulitis can be quite painful.
    It is very much a blessing to have the medical people nearby, ready to help. I am glad they found the problem right away. And I pray you get to feeling better.

  49. This article resonated with me. Dying to self takes on many forms and a healing of emotions, imagination and thought is part of the purgation process for anyone who wishes to advance on the spiritual journey. Delusion is at the core of many anxiety issues. When you pray to su rrender everything to God the journey isn’t pretty but absolutely necessary to beacome whole. Thank you, Father, for writing this.

  50. Fr. Stephen, thank you for such an introspection piece that warrants the reader to stand before an ever clean mirror. Take care of yourself, hoping and praying for a complete and total recovery; we need you on that wall.

  51. Job 13:15: “Though He slay me, I will trust Him.” This gentleman struggled and stammered but finally replied, “Though he slay me not.”

    Quite a lesson, Lewis. Thanks for sharing.

  52. Fr. Stephen,
    I’m glad you sought help promptly.
    Wishing you the speediest of recoveries.

    Sgage:
    thank you for the word-picture and encouragement. Another way of picturing unwelcome thoughts!
    However, I am sure some folk with OCD might think that the birds DO roost in their hair, and that their hands are tied from shooing them off. That the birds may even seem at liberty to pass droppings on them, much like Radagast the brown wizard from LOTR is depicted.
    Nevertheless, may they find thanksgiving for God’s protection of their hearts and souls, and greater faith. May they look forward to a ‘heavenly tonsure’, where the mess is finally cleaned up, and all things set right.
    Lord have mercy.

  53. Father,
    Very timely article and I wept while reading it as it resonated with the wounded, abused child within me. I am left now, weeping and not sure where to go from here with regards to giving compassion to myself, receiving healing and moving onward?

    Thank-you for your kind words. Lord have mercy.

  54. My favourite quote from George Macdonald “Afterwards I learned, that the best way to manage some kinds of pain fill thoughts, is to dare them to do their worst; to let them lie and gnaw at your heart till they are tired; and you find you still have a residue of life they cannot kill. So, better and worse, I went on, till I came to a little clearing in the forest.” —Phantastes

  55. Cognitive behavior therapy addresses this self talk, and I use these skills frequently. The negative self talk is a lie, not true, from the devil. I try to stop these and replace the negative self talk with the truth of Gods love, that He finds me worthy, that He created me. This has made a tremendous difference in.my life.

  56. This is R- h- o- d- a . :O)
    Since the discussions on this blog post I have, as usual, been reading, as I’ve done for over 40 years now, and ran across something that seems worthwhile concerning this topic from Thoughts for Each Day of the Year: According to the Daily Church Readings From the Word of God, by St Theophan the Recluse.
    When I first mentioned the importance of reading the Word of God, I didn’t mean that a light reading of it “will do the trick,” and “poof, all will be well.” Far from it. The Christian life is much more than that: it is the agonizing struggle of a life of endurance.
    For those who have a copy of St Theophan’s book, on p. 74 to the top of p. 76, he clearly addresses the consequences of careless neglect for many concerning their inner thought-life, the turmoil that ensues as a result of this negligence, including being taken captive by evil, drawn into evil, and even overthrown because they do not enter into the necessary struggle against evil thoughts, and most are led to evil as if bound. –That’s what he says.

    It is strange that in an age of abundance when people lack nothing and many have more than heart could wish, their thoughts are tormented with evil. Seems fairly obvious they are entertaining and yielding to evil ideas and suggestions–they are not resisting them.
    If they don’t admit it, the Lord will not help them until they repent. This is clear in the Psalms as well, for those who reject the counsel of God.

    Psychology and doctors look for that “little something that went wrong somewhere,” but that is not the remedy. We will give an account of ourselves, not what someone did to us. I mentioned this topic to my own son, and he said the young people he has met with “mental illness” their whole identity revolves around their “mental illness.” They are absorbed with it; that’s often all they talk about.
    Surely this says something about the consequences of our thoughts when they are on wrong things, in addition to “modern thought” being the cause that many accept these miserable conditions “mental illness” rather than a departure from God and the result of yielding to the devil and all his insinuations. What else could it be?

    Many things in our day contribute to these problems: not only the denial of God, but the destruction of marriage & family institutions, women’s lib (the prime one), the neglect of children by their parents (being raised in daycare & public schools), self-centered lifestyles, glamour and fashions, abundance of idleness, filling one’s mind with amusements, excessive talking and running around, not to mention the mindset today of calling good evil and evil good. It is civilization that is killing us and causing many to “go mad,” as St Paisios of Mt. Athos wrote in his book. He also writes about how impatient people are. If we are impatient about our food, imagine how impatient we become when we are wanting to escape the trials of life? etc.

    With genuine respect for Fr Stephen, and all who have shared here.

  57. Father, one quick thought. I have been reading about infancy and maternal attachment type (the four kinds)

    Perhaps the fight or flight response as infants, since we can’t fight or take flight, can be expressed as ‘finiteness fright’

    and when not tended to, persists

  58. When I was a high school teacher I saw some agony in some of the students. I know of one boy in the school who smashed his head against the door of the principal’s office and I think he struggled very intensely with anger and his thoughts. And it is likely he had good reason for his anger.

    The sound of static we hear in car radios is somehow the sound of the big bang, I have heard. I think we hear somehow echos of terror from generations before within ourselves

    I think people can go into a terror spiral and I think de-escalating that is key. I loved when someone once said to me ‘it happens to everyone.’ I heard that same person say that same message to someone else who made the same mistake a few weeks later.

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