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Finding the Fit: An Eastern Orthodox Approach to Pastoral Counseling

  • Mercer Unversity Medical School


The author presents pastoral counseling from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, which includes both science as well as noetic encounters with the uncreated energies of divine grace that evidence the presence of Christ. Pastoral counseling involves being present with and listening to others with the same ascetical sobriety, repentance, humility, and inner silence that one brings to God in prayer. The encounter is a reciprocal process affecting both counselor and client, ultimately becoming trialogical, when hearts “become flame” as on the Emmaus way. Healing and illumination by Christ, who appears in “between,” affects both client and counselor for whom therapy is part of a spiritual formation process.
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Finding the Fit: An Eastern Orthodox
Approach to Pastoral Counseling
Stephen Muse
D. A. and Elizabeth Turner Ministry Resource Center of the Pastoral Institute,
Columbus, GA
The author presents pastoral counseling from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, which includes both
science as well as noetic encounters with the uncreated energies of divine grace that evidence the
presence of Christ. Pastoral counseling involves being present with and listening to others with the
same ascetical sobriety, repentance, humility, and inner silence that one brings to God in prayer. The
encounter is a reciprocal process affecting both counselor and client, ultimately becoming trialogical,
A new commandment I give to you that you love one
another as I have loved you.
John 13:34
e most important problem for Orthodox theology
will be to reconcile the cosmic vision of the Fathers with
a vision which grows out of the results of the natural
sciences… eology today must remain open to embrace
both humanity and the cosmos.
Dumitru Staniloae (cited by Nesteruk, 2003,
p. 6)
e one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of
the ock. e gatekeeper lets him in, the sheep hear his
voice, one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them
out. When he has brought out his ock, he goes ahead of
them, and the sheep follow because they know his voice.
ey never follow a stranger but run away from him;
they do not recognize the voice of strangers.
John 10:2-5
e ancient Greek inventor Archimedes is said to
have boasted, “Give me a xed point and a lever long
enough, and I can move the world.” When considering
pastoral care and counseling from an Eastern Orthodox
perspective, I begin with St. Gregory the eologian’s
dogmatic formulation of God’s co-suering love for
humanity in Christ: “Whatever has not been assumed
cannot be healed.” is becomes our xed point. e
lever is the combined action of the uncreated divine
energies of the Holy Trinity and the created energies of
human persons working together synergistically in the
call and response of trialogue1 which not only “moves
the world.” but transforms and redeems it as well.
Humanity cannot be spiritually healed independently
of God by any form of technique or humanly-
derived science. Neither will God transform someone
magically through communion without that person’s
free assent and cooperation. Pastoral counseling is,
therefore, a trialogue of love whose transformative
power and meaning arises from Christ’s presence in
“between counselor and client, which ultimately
changes both.
Existential and moral considerations
e pastoral counseling relationship involves
psychological and existential dimensions related
to freedom of choice in specic and unique
circumstances, as well as a larger ontological dimension
stemming from the personhood and truth of God
in Christ. Together these dimensions constitute the
arena of human struggle involving the possibility of
eosis2 and Eucharistic Communion which result
from the encounter of the uncreated Triune God
and created humankind. Given the more expansive
anthropological vision Jordan (2008) has suggested
that “all psychotherapy is clinical theology,” psychology
and medicine can reasonably be viewed as branches
of applied theology and whatever methodologies are
employed should always therefore involve “testing the
spirits to see if they match the immense potential
for life that is oered humanity by Jesus Christ—lest
pastoral counseling be reduced to mere medicine and
psychotherapy which in and of themselves can at best
help physically and psychologically, but are unable to
rise above the normative ends of a fallen creation..
Browning, (1976) put forth a similar thesis when
he suggested that there is a moral context to all acts of
care. Whether in professional pastoral counseling or
ordained pastoral ministry, there remains a need for a
theological plumb line to assess their validity. “Pastoral
care and counseling must be able to show what is
‘Christianand ‘pastoral’ about what the minister—
or the pastoral specialist—does when he/she oers
services. And pastoral care must be able to show
that what it has borrowed from other disciplines will
not corrupt the essential thrust of hits own unique
perspective.” (Browning, p. 19)
e importance of this discernment was
underscored a few years later when Bellah, Sullivan,
Swidler, and Tipton (1981) observed that American
religious life had over the past half-century become
increasingly a culture of the therapeutic—
reinterpreting the meaning and value of love, marriage,
Edication: Articles
Edication: e Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology 126
family, personal growth, and commitment in highly
individualistic ways that often departed signicantly
from traditional Judeo-Christian values.
e quasi-therapeutic blandness that has
aicted much of mainline Protestant religion at
the parish level for over a century cannot eectively
withstand the competition of the more vigorous
forms of radical religious individualism, with their
claims of dramatic self-realization, or the resurgent
religious conservatism that spells out clear, if simple,
answers in an increasingly bewildering world (Bellah
et al., p.238)
In some ways, within mainline Protestant
churches, psychology has been a kind of Trojan horse
subtly changing Christianity from within,3 after
having been embraced for its obvious ability to oer
consolation and assistance to persons malnourished by
an impoverished civil religion.
A decade later, an article appeared in American
Psychologist suggesting that psychology is, in
American society, lling the void created by the
waning inuence of religion in answering questions
of ultimacy and providing moral guidance” (Jones,
1994, p. 192). is was particularly interesting in
that the author also noted that surveys consistently
revealed mental health professionals as “an atypical
subpopulation in America today, with lower
levels of religious participation and higher levels
of agnosticism, skepticism, and atheism than the
general population (p. 192). Only 24% of clinical
and counseling psychologists in another survey
reported belief in God, and only 26% stated they
valued religion as “very important,” (Pargament,
2007). is is not an altogether surprising nding
given the fact that mental health counselors in general
have received little or no training in addressing
the religious and spiritual dimensions of human
concerns. Even though evidence suggests a signicant
relationship between the religious integration of the
therapist and their capacity for clinical empathy
(Muse, Estadt, Greer & Cheston, 1992), surveys of
training directors of counseling psychology programs
in the United States reveal that less than one out of
ve programs even oered a course on religion and
spirituality. (Shulte, Skinner, & Claiborn, 2002)
So the question arises,As an Orthodox
Christian counselor, what moral universe do I serve
and how does it inuence my practice of counseling?”
How important is it to make clear with those who
seek our services as mental health practitioners, the
moral and religious universe we ultimately serve in
our life and work as a part of informed consent since
it is likely to be inuential in subtle ways?
Even with informed consent, there remains
an on-going stance toward others and the world in
Christ which has a reality far beyond the counselor’s
personal belief system and which may or may not
be explicitly part of the counseling relationship, but
will nevertheless aect it. For the Christian: there is,
in the ultimate reality of things, no non-spiritual life
that is closed o to the Holy Spirit…e world that
is called profane is in reality a profaned world and man
is responsible for that. We have expelled God from
this world: we do it every day. We chase him from
public life by a Machiavellian form of separation
between our private lives – pious and good – and the
domains of politics, commerce, science, technology,
love, culture and work, where everything is allowed.
All these domains of human work depend upon the
creative work of man, seized, modeled, and inspired
by the Spirit of God. (Bobrinskoy, 2006, p 192,
emphasis added)
e person of Christ is central to both the
counselor who functions pastorally in her/his role
of psychotherapist, as well as in the way in which
counseling and psychotherapy are conducted.
Staniloae’s challenge that I quoted above (cited by
Nesteruk, 2003), to unite the revealed patristic cosmic
vision derived from the noetic encounter with divine
grace, and the knowledge base of the human sciences
obtained by empirical study, remains a vital one. Both
Christian faith and the human sciences contribute
to what it means for counseling to be pastoral. All
would agree that counselors should be competent and
skillfully trained in all scientic methods of healing.
But Orthodoxy goes a step further, holding that there
is in fact a “science” that pertains to and includes
the noetically-perceived world of divine Grace, and
this involves ortho (correct) praxis and doxa (glory/
worship). Not any old form of either will do.4
Person of the therapist as the source of integration
of spiritual and psychological
e unity between these two is clearly reected
in Orthodox tradition by a number of wonder-
working, illumined, God-bearing gerondas5 or elders.
eir encounters with those who seek their counsel
and come to them for confession, are marked by
clear evidence of possessing the charism of the Holy
Spirit who works synergistically through them in ways
that reveals the hidden inner thoughts of persons to
them, heals diseases, and brings people to profound
repentance on a frequent basis.6 While it is true that
the “Spirit blows where it will” and remains ever out
of control of human will, God is indeed responsive to
the prayers of those who have reached theosis, and like
Moses, St. Paul and the Apostles, speak with God and
the Holy Spirit person to person.
is is not to say that God does not act in the
lives and relationships of persons who have not yet
reached theosis. But the fact that it happens more
consistently and at far greater depth, through those
whose hearts have been deeply illumined by grace,
according to Orthodox understanding signies a
qualitative dierence between those “God-bearing
dispassionate souls and those in whose lives unhealed
passions continue to fragment the selfs motivations,
causing blindness to the spiritual eye. is suggests
at the very least, that the primary training ground
of pastoral counselors and caregivers is the religious
foundations of repentance, humility, obedience of
ascetical struggle, worship, prayer, confession, and
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love that form the person of the therapist in the image
and likeness of Christ. is formation is the heart
of an Orthodox approach to Christian life and also
the lynchpin or central hub around which all other
clinical theory and practice of science are integrated.
To borrow a modern analogy, we could say that
Orthodox Christianity has measured eectiveness
empirically, not so much through brief, time-limited,
double-blind, randomized, controlled studies, but
rather over millennia-long periods of history replete
with replicability of numerous examples, throughout
varying historical epochs, over huge cross-cultural
catchment areas involving billions of subjects. In this
way, a recognizable pattern of human development and
Christian formation is detailed throughout Church
history.7 In addition, the detailed patristic writings
of illumined persons bearing the fruits of Orthodox
spiritual life reveal quite accurate observations of the
various states of the inner world of persons entering
into life in Christ through struggle with the passions,
watchfulness, repentance, and deep interior prayer of
silence. Orthodox Christian history in this respect
constitutes a virtual two-thousand year “therapy
trial” far more rigorous and comprehensive than
the research for current evidence-based approaches
stemming from time-limited studies pharmaceutical
companies used to get new medicines on the market
that are barely better than placebos.8
Documents and writings of the Church, from
the Gospels to the ancient desert abbas (fathers)
and ammas (mothers) along with modern saints,
acquire respect as faithful guides to life in Christ in
so far as they embody the same life found in the Bible
which the Holy Spirit has conrmed through the
communal witness of the Church. ese all become
part of the on-going empirical validation or “canon
of the Church’s therapeutic process. Heresy can be
viewed as a blueprint for a form of treatment which
is incomplete and therefore likely to lead to harmful,
dierent, or no results at all.
Elder Archimandrite Sophrony (1977) identies
the traditional Orthodox Christian spiritual disciplines
that support the Holy Spirit’s work of purifying the
heart, as being integral to the formation of persons
capable of accurately diagnosing and oering care to
suering persons. After long struggle, it may become
possible according to God’s grace, that in prayer:
eventually the mind sees not the physical heart, but
that which is happening within it–the feelings that
creep in and the mental images that approach from
without….When the attention of the mind is xed
in the heart it is possible to control what happens in
the heart, and the battle against passions assumes a
rational character. e enemy is recognized and can
be driven o by the power of the Name of Christ.
With this ascetic feat the heart becomes so highly
sensitive, so discerning, that eventually when praying
for anyone the heart can tell almost at once the state
of the person prayed for. (pp 112-114)
One such illumined person of recent memory
was Elder Porphyrios, who served for many years as
chaplain of the Polyclinic Hospital in Athens. Elder
Porphyrios began his training in prayer, worship,
obedience, and asceticism as a monk on Mount
Athos. Like many wonder-working saints, he never
received a formal academic education, yet he was
consulted by physicians at the hospital and persons
from all over the world for his clairvoyance, healing
prayer, and spiritual guidance as a result of the Holy
Spirit’s illumination. A priest (Yiannitsiotis, 2001)
describes the reason for his “initial consultation” with
the Elder in Athens.
I was going through a trial that I had never
experienced before… of great length and great
intensity, which threatened to tear me apart both
physically and spiritually. I was vulnerable because
the wound came from somewhere where I had
innocently expected support or, at the very least,
understanding. I was at a complete dead end, and
I did not know what to do, because I saw a totally
unacceptable solution in all the choices open to me.
(p. 28)
ings grew worse for him, and he could
not separate the psychological elements from the
spiritual. He was prepared to suer his situation,
whatever the cost, if it was God’s will, but “if it came
from the devil, I was determined to ght it to the
end” (Yiannitsiotis, p. 28). His spiritual father, a
humble man of discernment and love. suggested to
him what must be done, but he had trouble accepting
the solution. Given the diculty of the dilemma, he
suggested, “e person capable of answering your
dicult question is Elder Porphyrios. I don’t know
what you’ll have to do, ask, phone, search, until
you nd him. He will solve the puzzle for you.
Afterwards, come back and we’ll talk about it again.
Until then I cant tell you anything on the matter”
(p. 29).
e priest was skeptical. He didn’t want his own
freedom tied down, but his spiritual father assured
him that the elder never did this to anyone. He had
some diculty nding Elder Porphyrios who had
no permanent address at the time. Weeks passed
without any success in locating him, although he had
sent word to him through several persons who knew
the elder. en one day he noticed an unusual inner
Late one afternoon, as I was walking home from
work engulfed in the sorrow that had burdened my
soul for months, I suddenly felt something unexpected
within me. e clouds of sorrow dissolved, a bright
warmth comforted me with calmness, and I felt like
I secretly made the sign of the cross over myself,
again and again and whispered full of disquiet:
“Lord have mercy!” I knew myself well enough in
such situations. ese kinds of problems needed
time for me to get over them; the sorrow always
declined gradually. Since I was at the very center of
my trial, what did this sudden and unexpected shift
from sorrow to joy mean? However, a few minutes
later, that joy vanished, and the sorrow returned.
Edication: e Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology 128
is strange happening was to repeat itself in the
days that followed. e mystery was solved when I
was informed much later that my stranger, who was
to become an exceptional friend, had contacted the
Elder and had given him my name, and it had been
placed on his prayer list (p. 30).
He nally was able to get an appointment with
the elder at the hospital some time later and describes
his initial apprehension and skepticism. “Various
emotions inundated me on the way: Hopeful
expectation, uneasiness, curiosity, reservation. What
could an elderly poorly educated monk possibly say
about my problem!” (p. 30). But this was quickly
overcome by the grace that he experienced in the
elder’s presence.
I arrived at the chapel and waited. When my
turn came, I went up to the confession room. A
small-framed little old father was waiting for me. I
was impressed as soon as he approached me. I kissed
his hand and sat opposite him. He looked at me from
behind his glasses with a couple of bright blue and
lively eyes. roughout that moment, I felt that his
gaze was piercing my soul. I felt that this person knew
me already. I noticed, at the same time, that his lips
were whispering something, and I realized that he
was praying continuously. He gave the impression
that he both was and was not present, that he was
both here and elsewhere at the same time.
He opened his mouth, and I heard his voice for
the rst time rened, calm and charming. “Well
then, what do you want to tell me?”
I remembered my spiritual father’s advice and
put my problem to him very briey, no longer than
ve minutes and then I fell quiet. e Elder listened
thoughtfully and sighed every now and then. I had
the feeling that he was suering my pain more than
I was. en I was bombarded by a host of novel
surprises. e Elder analyzed my character with great
care. He described and gave reasons for both my
faults and my merits with such accuracy that even my
own parents could not have come close to it. I saw
my own self for the very rst time, as I really am and
not as I would like to be. is self-revelation was a
moving experience for me. It gave me the impression
that I was born, or rather re-born. Afterwards the
Elder came to my problem. He shed light on it and
explained it from all points of view. Both from my
point of view and from that of the other people who
were involved. With great sympathy, he pointed the
correct and mistaken moves taken by myself and by
the others, whose characters he also described. en
he assured me that the event that led to the dead-
end dilemma was a temptation from the devil. He
advised me about the way to face it. My spiritual
father had suggested the same method.
en he caught hold of my hand and took my
pulse and pointed out my bodily sicknesses. is
diagnosis was a summary of the sicknesses discovered
by my doctor years before; it was also an explanation
for them. Finally, he blessed me by making the sign
of the cross over my head and said with much love,
“Well, get going now and we’ll talk again the next
time we meet.”
I got up, kissed his hand. Overcome with
emotions of wonder, peace and joy, I went towards
the door. ere, I turned right around and stood still,
looking at him as though thunderstruck and trying to
comprehend all the unbelievable things that had just
happened to me – things that challenged my innate
disbelief and rationalism. e Elder looked at me,
smiled and said, “Why did you stop? Just do what
I told you.” I replied, “Elder, I didn’t stop because I
felt it was dicult to do what you told me, but rather
to express my surprise. What you have told me to do
is exactly what my spiritual father advised me to do.
But, while I had some inner diculty with him, with
you, the way you explain the problems, I have no
diculty at all with continuing, not in thought, not
in my heart, not in will. On the contrary, I feel that
I would have rejected all other solutions other than
the one you gave. It ts me perfectly, like a glove. I
shall carry it out with pleasure.” A broad grin lit up
the Elder’s face, which shined with joy, and added:
“Go, go on now.”
I bowed to him and left. As I went on my
way, spiritually enchanted by the discovery of a real
staretz,9 I realized the most wonderful thing of all
the things that he had surprisingly revealed to me.
With unrivalled pastoral skill, the Elder was able to
calm my troubled soul, in a brief amount of time,
and to make me joyfully desire what I had rejected
just a short while before: God’s will regarding my
complicated problem. (p. 30)
A human heart not illumined by Grace cannot
“see” or listen to the heart of a suering person in
the same way as one who having experienced theosis,
is consistently humbled, contrite, and lled by the
presence of Christ. Human science unaided by Grace,
no matter how advanced it is, cannot come as exact
to nding the precise t that is needed for a person,
as can the Holy Spirit. is is not a justication
or excuse, as some use it, to refuse psychotherapy
and human help unless it comes from a presumed
clairvoyant elder. ere are many pathologies inherent
to such prideful seeking of perfection before being
willing to risk vulnerability with another. By the same
token, this does not excuse an Orthodox priest or lay
counselor, who is not gifted with illumination, from
getting appropriate training and supervision in human
sciences, proper supervision and psychotherapeutic
investigation of one’s own issues, to be able to oer
all that one can to suering persons by way of up-
to-date scientic understanding, as well as humble
compassionate regard and trust in God as the healer.
Good psychotherapy is helpful to repentance.
e “science” of spiritual formation
In light of repeated experiences of clairvoyance
and miraculous interventions that occur throughout
Orthodox history up to the present day as in this
example, it is reasonable to ask if there is anything about
how counseling and psychotherapy are conducted,
Edication: e Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology 129
that lends itself to being corrected or improved by
being informed by Orthodox Christian perspectives
and being oered by Orthodox counselors formed
in Christ through its ethos of worship, prayer,
and ascetical self-restraint? Are outcomes better
for persons who engage in Orthodox-informed
therapeutic practices as compared with those who do
not (Vujisic, 2011)? Can it be conrmed that there
are signicant dierences in outcomes among those
seeking healing from God through persons who are
being themselves healed and illumined in Christ?
If the answer to these questions is that it makes no
dierence whether one is Orthodox or not, illumined
or not, whether one worships and prays or not, etc.
then it becomes dicult to argue that Orthodoxy (or
any other Christian theological perspective) has any
relevant meaning.
e test of truth, as for medicine and all science,
is ultimately a practical one. Does it work? is is
the question that is vital to be asked in terms of
Christianity itself, “for if the dead are not raised, not
even Christ has been raised and our faith is futile” (I
Cor 15:17). And if those who are in Christ are not
illumined, then our worship and prayer are useless. If
illumination and theosis are nothing more than mere
assent to various historical facts and philosophical
presuppositions, and do not arise from an encounter
with the uncreated God, then they have no power to
transform and could reasonably be viewed as artifacts
of a pre-scientic era we would do well to be free of
Dogmatic considerations
e Eastern Orthodox Church views sin
primarily as a combination of spiritual and mental
illness along with what could be termed a spiritual
developmental immaturity which needs life-long
treatment. Christianity is above all a love relationship
that becomes a path or “way of healing and
transformation through personal encounter which
cannot be reduced to legalistic formulations and
‘justications’ by logical propositions to which one
intellectually or emotionally assents, as has become
common in the West. Neither can it be reduced to
psychological development alone, but requires an
encounter with God that goes beyond psychology as
in the example above.
God is not viewed as a righteous judge who must
be appeased for human sin so much as a Lover who
oers His own life as an invitation for humanity to
do the same in return, thereby coming to be person
as God is Person, and to love as God loves. is is
the process of sanctication known in Orthodoxy as
deication by grace or theosis.
Practically speaking, Romanides (2008),
reecting on the teaching of the Church Fathers,
suggests that being mentally and spiritually ill “means
your nous10 is full of thoughts….Anyone whose soul
has not been puried from the passions11 and who
has not reached the state of illumination through
the grace of the Holy Spirit is mentally ill(pp. 23-
24), though not necessarily in a psychiatric sense
according to the DSM-IV. St. Basil, in the fourth
century, considered the church a hospital and the
priests to be therapists of the soul. He created the
rst modern hospital complete with quality control, a
geriatric wing, social services, and sanitation, uniting
spiritual care and the best science of the day in the
service and care of persons (Miller, 1985). From its
beginnings, the church has cooperated with science
in a harmonious way that was responsive to both the
spiritual and psychological dimensions of human
suering (Larchet, 2002, 2012).
For this reason, in many ways, salvation (theosis)
is best conveyed in the modern context as being both
a medical treatment and a developmental process
that unfolds through trialogue of personal encounter
between other persons and God. However, this
metaphor must not be understood reductionistically
as conating spiritual and psychological realities,
which is an epistemological error, but rather as
expanding the anthropological view of humankind
beyond medicine and psychology, which deal solely
with created realities, to include the developmental
potentials of salvation that are available only through
encounter with the uncreated energies of the divine
Persons of the Holy Trinity..
e Holy Trinity’s uncreated essence is beyond
human psychology, beyond all created analogies, and
cannot become the object of rational thought. We
know the invisible God through faith and obedience
to Christ by the witness of the Holy Spirit. ese are
personal noetic encounters with the uncreated divine
energies who are one essence with God the Father,12
which in turn are expressed existentially through
our bodies and feelings in relationship with others
and which constitutes our psychological selves. e
disciplesencounter with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, on
the Mount of Transguration is an example of this (Lk
9:27-36), as is that between Motovilov, St. Seraphim
of Sarov, and the Holy Spirit in the forest of Siberia
(Zander, 1975, p. 89). Motovilov, who had wanted
to be “certain that I am in the Spirit of God” suddenly
found himself unable to look at Fr. Seraphim,
“because your eyes are ashing like lightning. Your
face has become brighter than the sun” (Zander, p.
90). Each of these examples is considered by Eastern
Orthodoxy to be experiences of the uncreated light
of the Divine presence which is not possible apart
from the assistance of the Holy Spirit.
It is ultimately Christs own presence in
our lives who “treats” and completes our human
condition. Knowing about or “believing things
about Jesus’ historical life, while our actual existential
engagements on earth remain unaltered, unexamined
(lacking continuous on-going repentance) and with
the same anthropocentric goals and objectives as
before, does not move us beyond self-centered aims
within the created world. Additionally, when we refuse
to truly encounter any other person, we refuse Christ
and our own healing, and full human development
is diminished as well. Both are essential, “for the one
Edication: e Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology 130
who does not love his brother whom he has seen,
cannot love God whom he has not seen” (I Jn 4:20).
e primary core dogmas which are foundational
to an Orthodox approach to pastoral counseling are
the Holy Trinity and the seamless unity of divine and
human natures in Christ. Together, these provide
a context and dogmatic plumb line for existential
engagement that makes possible the struggle to live
the truth of the faith in and through relationship with
both the created and uncreated worlds. Intellectual
apprehension and consent to verbal formulations of
doctrines does not constitute faith. It has been said
that the Nicene Creed does not belong to you until
you live it. Faith is expressed existentially in love
through the call and response of relationship. Truth is a
relationship with Christ that must be lived in order to
be understood, something that emerges from personal
encounter from a depth of heart that is evidenced
by “sighs too deep for words” before it ever becomes
formulated into concepts. Experience is always I-It; a
subject-object representation of what is already past.
Or as Soren Kirkegaard observed somewhere, “We live
forward but we understand backwards.”
Epistemological considerations
e divine and human natures of Christ
seamlessly united in his Person “without division
or separation, without confusion or admixture”13
provide the bridge for two distinct realms of knowing
that are part of pastoral care and counseling. One
dimension involves direct noetic perception by means
of encounter with the uncreated energies of God. is
is the result of the action of the Holy Spirit working
in the heart through faith, which is outside of human
control, but, as in any love relationship, responsive to
human intention and assent.14 e other has to do with
integrating the psychological processes of the created
world, such as intuitional, sensual, and irrational ways
of knowing, along with the scientist-practitioner’s
rational empiricism and clinical theory in the service
of attending to the other with vulnerability, humility,
and dispassionate love. One is aware of being in the
presence of God and guided by Holy Scripture and
Patristic witness as one seeks to listen, discern, and
respond in love.
e foundation for oering pastoral care and
counseling rests with the counselor’s continuous
repentance,15 the necessity for on-going examination
of the proverbial “log in ones eye” from the standpoint
not merely of the counselor’s counter-transference, but
one’s entire psycho-somatic functioning in relation to
God. Ideally speaking, the pastoral counselor seeks to
approach each person as it were, “through Christ” with
recognition that every personal experience and every
theoretical model including the entire experience of
the counselor, inevitably distorts and objecties the
other, totalizing and/or deconstructing the other from
the uniquely real and particular being he or she is in
specic concrete situations, into a kind of abstraction.
is is what philosopher Martin Buber calls the
relationship of I-It (Buber, 1970), which is inevitably
monological. is recognition of the impossibility of
fully knowing or encountering the “other” apart from
Christ through subjective experience alone, which
is inevitably I-It, is consonant with the Orthodox
perspective which regards each person as an icon of
the Lord so that “as you have done unto the least of
these you have done unto me” (Mt 25:40). Just as is
the case with God, there is an apophatic dimension
to each person whose essential life remains “hid with
Christ in God” (Co. 3:3) and ultimately beyond
the experience of the counselor. is is a humbling
reminder for the necessity of approaching the client
prayerfully, with on-going examination of the “log
in the therapist’s own eye” as well as an important
reminder not to lose people behind diagnostic labels
and psychological theories, however useful they may
be for organizing data and securing payments from
third party insurers.
e plumb line for the pastoral counseling
relationship, as interpreted by Holy Scripture, the
witness of the Church and Tradition, is Jesus Christ
who promises to be present “wherever two or more
are gathered in my name.”(Mt. 18:20) in “between”
counselor and client.16 is is the dimension of
Buber’s (1970) I-ou relationship which is the larger
relational context in which intersubjective dialogue
becomes the trialogue of įȚĮȁȠȖȠı (Muse, 2011,
2013)—an encounter of created persons with each
other through Christ. In encountering one another,
both client and counselor stand before Christ, whose
image each one invisibly bears. It is a reminder that
ontologically, the counselor is never above” the
other as “judge” but always co-pilgrim in a reciprocal
relationship with him or her. As a servant of Christ,
the counselor imitates John the Baptist who must
“decrease” in order that the recognition of the client
being in Christ may “increase.” is is a Copernican
revolution in terms of challenging the usual power
dierential of the “doctor-patient” relationship, just as
it is for God in Christ to become human and a servant
of all. It is the kenosis, or self-emptying of Christ, that
makes room for the other to appear. e humility,
stillness, and inner silence of the therapist are what
make room for the client. Compassion, born of the
presence of Christ, is what comprehends a person’s
uniqueness. If the client is not for me one to whom
I say ou, as through Christ in between us, then I
am not yet in right relationship with myself, with the
client or with God.
Sola Scriptura and the Person of Christ
While for the Orthodox Church, Holy Scripture
is the inspired canonical standard from which
Tradition does not depart17 and provides the basis for
most of its worship life, the Church’s understanding
of Scripture is situated within a robust epistemological
and existential context. e text of the Scripture does
not stand alone apart from the experience of personal
encounter with Christ and the Church. Scripture does
not interpret itself apart from the conrmation of the
Holy Spirit alive in the Church through its worship,
Edication: e Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology 131
mysteries (sacraments), and the witness of those
God-illumined persons throughout the centuries that
comprise the “theologians18 of Orthodox tradition
who have experienced glorication (purication,
illumination, and theosis).
Romanides (2008) emphasizes the Orthodox
approach to Holy Scripture which is careful not to
confuse intellectual apprehension of the words of
Scripture with the reality of the infusion of divine
life to which the words point:
Is there a single Church Father who identied
the Holy Scripture with the experience of eosis
itself? No, there is not one, because God’s revelation
to mankind is the experience of eosis. In fact, since
revelation is the experience of eosis, an experience
that transcends all expressions and concepts, the
identication of Holy Scripture with revelation is, in
terms of dogmatic theology, pure heresy (p.109).
Scripture was written by persons who had
experienced theosis; those who by the power of the
Holy Spirit had witnessed the gloried Christ. In the
same way, its interpretation must be from those who
have encountered Christ. In this sense, the authority
of Scripture is charismatically rooted (understood
as illumination by Grace within the Body of the
Church) rather than based solely and primarily on
the text of Scripture. e illumined community of
the Church exists prior to Scripture whose authority
and canonicity is conrmed by the Holy Spirit whom
Jesus sent to guide the Church from generation to
generation until the end of time (Jn 14:16). Apart
from this on-going charismatic life of the Church,
Florovsky (1987) points out how:
if we declare Scripture to be self-sucient, we
only expose it to subjective, arbitrary interpretation,
thus cutting it away from its sacred source. Scripture
is given to us in tradition. It is the vital, crystallizing
centre. e Church, as the Body of Christ, stands
mystically rst and is fuller than Scripture (p. 48).
At the same time, the Church itself, if it were
to rely on using human reason alone, apart from the
noetically illumined theologians within it, can also
fail to interpret Scripture correctly as the historical
divisions and excommunication of persons later
recognized to be correct attests. erefore, it is
important to apply the same understanding to the
theologians of the Church as Romanides (2008) does
to Scripture when he writes:
You cannot hope to theologize correctly simply
because you have read the Bible and base your theology
on the Bible….Holy Scripture can be correctly
interpreted only when the experience of illumination
of theosis accompanies the study or reading of the
Bible. Without illumination or theosis, Holy Scripture
cannot be interpreted correctly (p. 129).
Why is this distinction important for pastoral
counseling? Because the same is true for the
hermeneutical relationship between the pastoral
counselor and the client, who as a “living human
document (Gherkin, 1984), and ultimately
requires the same kind of illumined “interpretation.
Otherwise, we constantly risk normalizing persons and
reforming theology according to implicit cultural and
psychological norms rather than those of the Christian
faith for whom Jesus Christ is the developmental
azimuth and “the same yesterday, today and forever”
(Heb. 13:8).
Only a relationship of love in Christ preserves
both the freedom of the individual person as well as
the freedom of the Church as personal, rather than
being crushed and constrained under the weight of
human centered, ideological appropriations of Christ.
Where humble personal encounter and repentance
leading to illumination are set aside in favor of
self-centered human reason, Scripture, Church,
doctrine, and ascetical life are all in danger of being
ideologically appropriated and absolutized, eectively
holding the person of Christ captive to an idolatry
that serves untransformed human purposes. is
inevitably results in a parallel process of diminishment
of personhood for both counselor and client. e
Russian theologian Nicholas Berdyaev elaborates on
the necessary order:
Everything is decided in the life of the spirit,
in the spiritual experience. e Holy Spirit does
not act like the forces of nature or the social forces.
e hierarchical organization of the Church, which
is historically unavoidable, the constitution of
the canons, are secondary phenomena, and not
paramount. e only paramount phenomenon is the
spiritual life and what is discovered in it. It is the
spiritual life that keeps the Church sanctied (cited
by Struve, 2007).
e importance of this distinction can be seen
for example, in the Gospel account where a conict
arose between Jewish scholars who objected to Jesus
healing a paralytic on the Sabbath and for calling
God his Father, “making himself equal with God
(Jn 5:18). Jesus’ response is quite clear regarding the
error of placing Scripture and ideology over persons
and failing the test of love lived out in relationship in
e testimony which I have is greater than that
of John; for the works which the Father has granted
me to accomplish, these very works which I am
doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent me.
His voice you have never heard, his form you have
never seen; and you do not have his word abiding in
you, for you do not believe him who he has sent. You
search the scriptures, because you think that in them you
have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me;
and yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life
(Jn 5:36-39).
Where freedom is constrained by ideology or by
failure to existentially encounter the other, love is not
possible. Where love is not lived, truth is absent. If
God is not Person, belonging to what Zizioulas (2007)
calls a “communion of otherness” that exists between
the members of the Holy Trinity, showing forth the
distinctive uniqueness and unity of each person in
Edication: e Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology 132
love, then neither can we be. An Orthodox approach
to pastoral counseling is possible only by protecting
both love and freedom, looking to Christ as the author
and nisher of our faith in the context of existential
engagement, the personal character of which alone
conrms the living presence of the Trinitarian God.
God is a community of Persons who know and are
known through love
e ontological heart of the Eastern Church is
the personhood of the Triune God and a distinction
between the energies and personal essence of God in
contrast to the Western Church’s increasing reliance,
after the Enlightenment, on a scholastic approach
following omas Aquinas, which conates19 these,
beginning with substance and then reasoning by
analogy about the nature and existence of God as an
object or force through logical categories.
Eastern Orthodoxy’s noetic epistemology of
personal encounter with God leading to theosis resists
change based on psychological and social forces, while
the West’s increasing reliance on a scientic approach
delimited by reason, utilizing discursive thought and
logical categories to know about God as revealed in
Scripture, has led to a variety of theological changes.
ese dierences have resulted in distinctly dierent
approaches to pastoral care and counseling which
are evident among the dierent emphases of various
professional organizations for pastoral counselors.
For example, in the American context, the
American Association of Pastoral Counselors
(AAPC), which had its beginnings in the early
1960’s, began with ordained clergy getting clinical
training drawing from humanistic, psychoanalytic,
and later transpersonal psychological theories to
enhance pastoral care and counseling. Beginning as a
professional group for specialized ministry within the
church, AAPC has since moved to embrace a variety
of religious faiths, gradually redening “pastoral” care
and counseling within a pluralistic and inter-religious
context, which at times is arguably far removed from
its Christian origins, as for example in the case of a
Protestant clergyman who presented for therapy with
depression and loss of vocational satisfaction.
In listening to his story, it became clear to me
that he had been teaching and preaching Jungian
psychology in his parish for some time in the guise of
Christian faith. Individuation had taken precedence
over formation within the communion of Christ.
Like Rudolf Bultmann (e.g., 1984), he rejected
the literal resurrection of Christ because it was not
scientically tenable. Gradually the people had begun
to reject him, and he was depressed. I suggested to
him that he had departed from traditional Christian
faith and was in eect teaching a dierent “gospel”
without being upfront about it. Like Jung himself, he
had lost condence in the Christianity of history and
was seeking to refashion it along psychological lines
delimited by logic, as other modern theologians and
denominations are doing in a variety of ways. Borg.
(2003), for example, argues for a non-traditional
Christian theology because the traditional orthodox
understanding is no longer acceptable to modern
e image of the Christian life that goes with
this image of Jesus emphasizes believing all of this
to be true: that Jesus is the only Son of God, born
of a virgin; that he died for our sins; that he rose
physically from the dead; that he will come again;
and so forth. is image of Jesus no longer works
for millions of people, both within and outside
the church. For these millions, it’s literalism and
exclusivity are not only unpersuasive, but a barrier to
nding Christ (p 82).
I submit that because of a failure to be clear
regarding the distinction between the created energies
of psychology and the uncreated spiritual energies
of God that are seamlessly united in the person of
Christ, while remaining distinct, the eld of pastoral
counseling has been unable to avoid gradual trending
in this same anthropocentric direction. us, there
have arisen all manner of psycho-spiritual amalgams
of Christianity, syncretistic “Esperanto faiths
representing psychological manifestations, rather than
directives of the Holy Spirit. In this sense they are
modern forms of ancient heresies for whom Timothy’s
warning seems justied, that these have “the form
of religion but are lacking its power(II Tim 3:5) to
Repentance, humility and love are the crux of
integration between theology and science
Fr. Georges Florovsky (1987) observes, “No one
prots by the Gospels unless he be rst in love with
Christ. For Christ is not a text but a living Person,
and he abides in his Body, the Church” (p.14) and
“an unbeliever has no access to the message, simply
because he does not ‘receive’ it (p. 14). For him,
there is no “message” in the Bible (p.19) in the same
way that there is no message” in everyday life apart
from faith.
From the perspective of an Orthodox priest
or counselor working with an Orthodox Christian,
counseling (and confession) are pastoral to the extent
that they further the ends of the Church in forming
persons in Christian life and helping nurture the
love for Christ that has been awakened in them by
the Holy Spirit. Often times, pastoral care is about
deepening a person’s capacity to bear suering in faith
more so than stimulating freedom of feeling and self-
expression as understood in the American context
that prizes individualism and self-love over obedience
to Christ and loving service to the community. At
other times, pastoral counseling involves addressing
forms of characterological disorder and the sequellae
of metabolic disturbances, and trauma which can
become a means through which spiritual deception
occurs, impeding formation in Christ. Both spiritual
discernment and psychological science have their
proper places according to the need of the client and
the gifts of the therapist.
Nevertheless, just as God “causes his sun to
Edication: e Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology 133
rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the
righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45), Christ
came for all people, and an Orthodox approach to
pastoral counseling serves those who confess Christ
as well as those who do not,20 albeit in dierent
ways. is occurs in secular, interdenominational,
and interfaith contexts in which counselors who are
Orthodox work with clients who are not. Excluding
ideological appropriations of Orthodoxy which
are a betrayal of Christ, we can ask the question,
“What makes counseling pastoral in such settings,
when it occurs with persons who do not confess
love for Christ and who are not within the Church
sacramentally, or with those who proclaim atheism
or confess other faiths?” Likewise, what about those
who profess to be Christian, but who existentially
appear to be closed o from Christ in their hearts;
their religion serving only their egos? An elder21
from Mt Athos observes how it is the illumination
and transformation of the heart that is the true sign
of Christ’s presence, not the outer form. From this
vantage point, he denes the true atheist as “a person
who has no real relationships with the Spirit of God.
e Holy Spirit is not active in his or her heart. Such
a person may appear externally as deeply pious, going
to church every Sunday, doing all the things that one
is expected to do as a Christian, but his or her heart
is completely shut o from the energies of the Holy
Spirit” (Markides, 2012, p. 95).
Many of the more obvious contextual variables
of empathy and use of appropriate evidence-based
theories and methods will be quite similar among
practitioners. Where the dierence might be seen
has to do with the formation of the therapist.
Ideally, pastoral counseling becomes an oering of
the prayerful presence of one’s own collected three-
dimensional being to dialogue with the other in the
presence of God, whether acknowledged overtly or
not. is requires the counselor’s ongoing ascetical
struggle for humility, repentance, obedience, and
love through continuous prayer, regular confession,
spiritual direction, and worship. Whatever else she or
he does, the Orthodox Christian pastoral counselor,
the same as the priest at the Divine Altar, enters
into call and response relationship invoking God’s
presence and seeking to be receptive to God’s activity
unfolding in the here and now with the intention of
recognizing Christ in the other, and oering Christ
to the other while serving at the altar of the human
Whether or not the client is Christian, the pastoral
counselor who is, will operate within a Christian
worldview, formed and informed by Christian faith
and life, though not in an ideological sense. In a now
famous debate with Werner Heisenberg, who was
insisting that only empirical data should be included
in a theory, Einstein responded, “It is quite wrong
to try founding a theory on observable magnitudes
alone. In reality the very opposite happens. It is
theory which decides what we can observe” (quoted
in Watzlawick, 1977 p. 58.). In this case, the “deep
things of the Spiritare the basis of Orthodox faith
and life and are what gradually transforms a person.
ese aect what we can “see” even more so than do
the gender, family of origin, culture, and worldviews of
the times we live in. Illumination by the Holy Spirit is
more cross-culturally relevant than the various clinical
theories and the normative presumptions inherent to
the diagnostic criteria of the DSM-IV. ere is a shared
life and human essence, made in the Image of God,
with the potential for being in God’s likeness. is
is common to all on the earth, regardless of all these
variables, just as each of these dimensions contribute
to rendering each one utterly unique in Christ Who
fullls and safeguards this uniqueness , as Zizioulas
(2007) has pointed out, while being in communion
among all just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one
and yet each unique persons. Like sunlight which
shines on all, Orthodoxy is a science of spiritual reality
available to all, not an ideology emotionally grasped
from an anthropocentric foundation that renders it
simply one form of religion among many.
All data-gathering and diagnosis involve subtle
distortions and an objectication of persons. Only
the relationship of love, which involves communion
beyond time and space and beyond the will and
desire and the possibility of an individual person to
create, stands in relation to the other in such a way
that Christ is sacramentally present between the two
in the mystery of meeting. is means that healing
in its fullest dimension is not and can never be
merely technical. Nor can Christian-based pastoral
counseling, while indeed evidence-based, be correctly
viewed as an ideology, a methodology, or reduced to a
worldly “psychotherapy” that can be delivered from a
workbook as a standardized method.
is means that the counselor, as far as possible,
approaches each person as British psychoanalyst
Wilfred Bion has suggested, with “a state of mind
so that at every session he feels he has not seen the
patient before. If he feels he has, he is treating the
wrong patient”(as cited by Wallin, 2007, p. 329) is
unknowing, when rooted in love and dispassion with
faith in Christ as the primary therapist, has the utmost
implications for the practice, calling, and training of
pastoral counselors, as well as for those in ordained
pastoral ministry. is unknowing is founded upon
the deeper unknowing that is inherent to the noetic
meeting of the created person with the uncreated God.
Love is authentic only where Christ is present
Without a humble attitude and presence that
includes loving sensitivity and respect for the other’s
uniqueness, along with vulnerability and ascetical
delity to the Holy Spirit, any one of us, whether
armed with the latest science or even genuine spiritual
experience, is capable of missing the mark and so
failing to respond to the hidden depth and uniqueness
of a person. is can be the result either by lack of
real meeting with them, losing major aspects of the
person by tting them into the Procrustean bed of
our theories and unexamined privilege,22 egocentricity
Edication: e Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology 134
and ethnocentricity,23 or by settling for too imprecise
a t resulting from the counselor’s own untransformed
passions and unconscious countertransference
impeding understanding. Sincerity of intention and
scientic precision, in and of themselves, do not
guarantee discerning the exact “t” for a person and
a given situation. is is the work of the Holy Spirit
working in conjunction with the person’s freedom.
ere is a reciprocity to a clinical encounter in
which the counselor is also aected. Aboriginal elder
Lila Watson captures this with the caveat, “If you have
come to help us, don’t bother, but if you have come
recognizing that your liberation is bound up with
ours, then let us work together.”24
I believe this expresses also the relationship
within the Christian community and the world—
one not of any sort of triumphalism, whether overt
or more subtle, but rather a clear recognition of
the oneness and diversity of humanity who share a
common Creator and a common mutually responsible
life, yet approached in as many unique ways as there
are people. I tell my students, “If you havent been
changed by your relationship with your clients, then
you haven’t met them yet.”
is is because real “meeting” is never imperialistic
in which I who am or have or know do unto you who
are not or have not or know not. Rather, it is always
co-pilgrimage in which both are changed by the
encounter with the Lord who appears in our midst,
whether recognized or not. We enter into love for one
another that is authentic only where Christ is present.
As an Orthodox Christian, I believe that it is Christ
alone who makes such meeting possible, whether
recognized or not – a reality rendered dogmatically by
the doctrine of the perichoresis25 of the Holy Trinity,
which may be considered prototypical for marriage,
friendship in community, as well as the healing
Summary: So what makes counseling pastoral?
In practice, pastoral counseling as an Orthodox
Christian involves the diculty of balancing rational
science with receptivity to Holy Spirit-illumined
noetic perception as a kind of mid-wife who seeks
to discover the exact “t” for a particular person in a
given situation, which the Holy Spirit is bringing to
birth. is entails the diculty of meeting a person
dialogically along what Martin Buber (1970) referred
to as the “narrow ridge” between the a priori surety
of mathematical models and the inviolable freedom
and uniqueness of persons in the created world. In
the nal analysis, counseling is pastoral to the degree
that it serves the truth of Christ, which respects the
complexity and uniqueness of each person in the
sight of God, for whom every hair is numbered and
every sparrow that falls from the tree is noticed. e
I-ou relationship is what reinvigorates and changes
us through the miracle of “meeting.” Because Christ
is in the midst of this įȚĮȁȠȖȠı (dia-Logos), as in
Emmaus, it is always potentially salvic in contrast
with merely ‘improving’ or relieving psychological or
physical symptoms.
Without such dialogue in which I and You are
linked between by uncreated love – the Eternal ou
of Christ who is forever in our midst wherever such
dialogue occurs whatever our theoretical orientation
and motivation – we can be sure we are approaching
the counseling relationship merely technically,
without an authentic reaching out to the other in
love which is the essence of dialogue. e encounter
remains monological, I-It, which Buber (1993, p. 24)
warns “is Lucifer.” It is only through įȚĮȁȠȖȠı that
love is truly present, and we become human beings.
For as Jesus pointed out to his disciples, “Wherever
two or more are gathered in my name, there I AM.
By reducing persons to t a model, however
scientically accurate or dogmatically correct, the
value of the human person is sacriced on the
operating table of theory and ideology, rather than the
counselor standing before the altar of the heart and
opening in mercy to a reciprocal personal encounter
which invites growth and transformation because
Christ is present in the midst. It is precisely the self-
sacrice and loving service of the counselor in dialogue
with the other which are necessary until that “t” is
discovered, which is “Truth and Life” for the person
with his or her particular nature and circumstances.
Using power and control over the other that is not
necessary or appropriate to protect the freedom of the
person and the boundaries of counseling, is abuse,
whether in religious or scientic form. However
dogmatically correct or scripturally consistent one
seeks to be privately, the necessity for not knowing”
– the sacrice of certainty – remains on the part of the
caregiver, so that the greater life of soul in the other is
preserved against the unconscious aggressions of the
smaller life of the ego seeking its own self-preservation.
Eric Fromm (1989), in his lovely book e Art
of Loving, captures the paradox of this tension with
his arresting image of the scientist (or book-learned
theologian) who can name and categorize every aspect
of the buttery pinned to the page, except for its life,
which can only be known through love while it is
alive, itting from one ower to the next. For me, the
answer to the question of “What makes counseling
pastoral? is simply the “t” that connects one with
Christ and all others without betraying anyone’s
freedom. is is because the sheep will only obey the
shepherd’s voice. e right approach is the only one
that actually works. e yoke that is “easy” and the
“burden that is light” is the one that ts EXACTLY –
the one made ONLY for you or for me; the one that
allows us to “hit the mark” for which God intends us
in a given situation and over a lifetime.
If not for the imagery of sheep and shepherd that
permeate Christian history, the English word “pastor”
would not be so rich with evocations of spiritual
care and comfort. e heart of what I am saying is
rooted in what this imagery is meant to convey about
our relationship to the Good Physician of our souls
and bodies and about the process of salvation that
results from it. What makes counseling pastoral is
Edication: e Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology 135
that it is ultimately focused on what is redemptive.
By addressing a disorder specied in the DSM-IV
within the larger developmental context of potential
life in Christ, a way is opened to theosis. Apart from
this there can be no truly pastoral counseling, except
to the extent of course, that all healing and relief of
unnecessary suering is in and of itself, good.
e eectiveness of counseling from an
Orthodox Christian perspective is the degree to
which it contributes to and facilitates the formation
of a person in Christ by clearing away obstacles to the
fullness of life in the Church and the indwelling of
the Holy Spirit. In this sense, the Orthodox Christian
psychotherapist is midwife to the greater healing
and developmental processes of God at work in the
Church and in the world to bring redemptive life
to those whom God has created and loved at great
price to Himself, as we see in the cross and passion
of Christ depicted in the Gospels. When this occurs
with non-Christians and the name of Christ is not
even mentioned, it will still be informed by the loving
presence of the pastoral counselor and to this extent
will be an aspect of pastoral counseling.
So there remains a paradox here. When we
Orthodox Christians sing in the Liturgy, “We have
found the true faith,” it is not a license to confuse
the Living Christ with a static institutional form
or ideological model that obviates the uniqueness
or freedom of other persons to nd Christ in their
situations, knowingly or unknowingly, for we
acknowledge that through the Holy Spirit Christ is
“in all places and lls all things.” He is larger than
the institutional structure of the Church, as he is
larger than the Temple and the orthodoxy of the Law
“made by human hands” in the Israel of his day. us
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s (1997) perspicacious
remark, “We know where the Church is, but we
do not know where it isn’t” (p.308), remains a
corrective to pride and authoritarian fundamentalism
masquerading as faith. e dierence between co-
opting faith and the Church to serve the ego and
sacricing the ego in faith to serve the Church is
as night and day. We are ever pilgrims and sinners
who can be condent and hopeful in the love of God
while at the same time mindful that it is “not I but
Christ who lives in me who acts “between us to
heal and redeem us. We are never in control of the
process. It is ever a gift.
A working denition of pastoral counseling
Counseling is pastoral to the degree that it
emerges out of an existential stance that accords
inviolable freedom to the person to choose her/his
own way while
bringing to bear science, humble faith in God as
healer and respect for the mystery of the person whose
self (life) is forever beyond any diagnosis “hid with
Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) and which
evidences a love that endures all that is part of
an eternally open-ended trialogical relationship with
the other rooted not primarily in what I the counselor
do, but in God who loves each of us as set forth in the
Holy Scriptures and revealed through the Holy Spirit
at work among the cloud of witnesses who make up
the Church universal.
To the extent that the counselor is on the path of
purication, illumination. and theosis as understood
by the Orthodox Church, he or she is more likely
to fulll these conditions. is is not in any way to
be understood as placing limits on the Holy Spirit’s
activity among persons beyond our understanding
and regardless of the theoretical model we are working
within. Rather, it locates the essence of pastoral care and
counseling in the person—of God and of the therapist
and of the client— instead of in any methodology,
ideology, worldview, or technical precision of science.
While all these have their place and value, the words
of the Apostle Paul from I Corinthians 13 remain
most relevant. It is love that “believes all, hopes all
and endures all” (I Cor 13), and love is not a human
virtue or power, but a function of the abiding presence
of Christ drawing life into the dust of us and uniting
us in meeting with the living God through Himself.
“Cut o from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
From an Orthodox understanding, Jesus Christ is and
shall remain the source of all spiritual growth and
psychological healing.
In Greek the word ȜİȚIJȠȣȡȖȚĮ, (leiturgia), from
which the Divine Liturgy takes its name, means
“work of the people.is “work” refers to the
call and response intended between priest, the
people, and God. e entire worship is chanted.
Sadly, in many churches, this has fallen to priest
and Psalti (cantor). Ideally, each person should
be responding with full prayerful collected
attention of body, mind, and heart, throughout
the service, as an invocation to God and the
Holy Spirit through Christ “who is ever in our
midst” or “between us.
eosis (not to be confused with the LDS
teaching regarding deication or what they call
“exaltation”) is the salvation that is the end result
of sanctication resulting from the encounter
with the uncreated divine energies of God that
purify and illumine the heart, bringing a person
into union with the Holy Trinity through
indwelling in Christ. As St. Athanasius pointed
out, humanity remains by essence human, but
by grace, God, just as iron remains metal by
essence, but becomes re by the indwelling of
is is not the fault of psychology per se, but
the result of a confused epistemology and
ecclesiology that does not distinguish the
created and uncreated worlds. When psychic
and spiritual realities are conated, there is
theological perspective from which to critique
psychology other than reason, which in our
fallen state, is corrupted.
is is not to say that God does not work in and
Edication: e Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology 136
through incorrect doctrinal understanding, but
rather that this fact does not thereby legitimate
such misunderstandings as being equally
“correct. For a summary of the dogmatic
foundations of an Orthodox ascetical approach to
spiritual illness, see Larchet, J. (2012). erapy of
Spiritual Illnesses. Vols. I-III Montreal: Alexander
Press, and Chrysostomos, A. (2006). A Guide
to Orthodox Psychotherapy: e Science, eology,
and Spiritual Practice Behind It and Its Clinical
Application. Lanham, MD: University Press of
Greek, literally meaning “old man” (the
Russian word is staretz) is both an aectionate
and honoric title given to those persons who
are regarded as god-bearing, illumined persons
gifted with clairvoyance and other gifts of the
Spirit evidenced in people’s lives.
For a fuller account of some 20th century
miracle-working, illumined elders see Joseph
of Vatopaidi, (1999). Elder Joseph the Hesychast:
Struggles, experiences, teachings (1898-1959).
Vatopaidi Monastery: Greece: Vatopaidi
Monastery; Yiannitsiotis, C. (2001). With Elder
Porphyrios: A spiritual child remembers. (Marina
Robb, Trans.). Athens: Holy Convent of the
Transguration of the Savior; Sophrony, A.
(1991). St. Silouan the Athonite. Essex, England:
Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist;
Markides, K. (2001). e Mountain of silence:
A Search for Orthodox spirituality. New York:
Cf C. Cook. e Philokalia and the Inner Life
(Cambridge, UK: Clarke & Co., 2011). A
physician examines the writings of the fathers of
the Philokalia from the perspective of modern
Cf. Begley, S. “Studies suggest that the popular
drugs are no more eective than a placebo. In
fact, they may be worse.” Feb.8,
2010, pp. 35-41.
Russian name for a Holy Spirit-illumined elder.
Nous (nous) refers to the noetic faculty of
intelligence or “eye of the heart” as distinct from
the įȚĮȞȠȚĮ (dianoia) or the logical, discursive
reasoning faculty. Orthodox anthropology holds
that in the fall, instead of dwelling in the stillness
of the heart attentive to God where it belongs,
the nous left the heart and became identied with
the content of thoughts and with reason, leaving
humankind subject to all manner of spiritual
delusions, anxieties, and passions associated
with the suering of self-centeredness and
death. An Orthodox approach involves restoring
the nous to its proper place. Cf Bradshaw, D.
“On drawing the mind into the heart: Psychic
wholeness in the Greek Patristic Tradition,”
accessed July 2012,
In Orthodox usage, passions are aictive,
unredeemed psychological states and emotions
that eectively darken the heart, creating
strongholds of sinful proclivities. When puried
and illumined of these, the heart sees and reects
God as in “Blessed are the pure in heart for they
shall see God.”
e essence-energies distinction is was claried
by St. Gregory Palamas in the 14th century, in
a famous debate with Barlaam, the Calabriate,
who put forth the Western church’s viewpoint
that God could not be experienced, as the
Eastern Christians claimed, but only known
about discursively. is subsequently led to
a signicant spiritual divide in Western and
Eastern Christian approaches to prayer, worship,
and formation.
From the Chalcedonian formula clarifying
the single person and two natures of Christ
seamlessly and unconfusedly united.
In Orthodoxy, experience has conrmed for
two-thousand years that the activity of the Holy
Spirit works to make our hearts humble and
to cleanse us of passions, gradually illumining
us over time by the divine uncreated energies
of God received through the nous, so that it
becomes true as St. Paul observes, “it is no
longer I but Christ who lives in me.”
e Greek word translated as repentance,
ȝİIJĮȞȠȚĮ (metanoia), refers to the process that
reverses the fall, in which the nous re-enters the
heart and remains there still, free of passions
and identication with thoughts, and so able to
receive and metabolize the energies of grace.
Dietrich Bonhoeer (1954) captures the
existential implications of this well. “Because
Christ stands between me and others… I must
release the other person from every attempt of
mine to regulate, coerce and dominate him with
my love. e other person needs to retain (her)
independence of me; to be loved from what
(s)he is, as one for whom Christ became man,
died, and rose again, for whom Christ brought
forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Because
Christ has long since acted decisively for my
(neighbor), before I could begin to act, I must
leave him freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet her
only as the person that she already is in Christ’s
eyes. is is the meaning of the proposition that
we can meet others only through the mediation
of Christ. Human love constructs its own image
of the other person, of what (s)he is and what
(s)he should become. It takes the life of the
other person into its own hands. Spiritual love
recognizes the true image of the other person
which he has received from Jesus Christ; the
image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and
would stamp upon all (persons).” (pp. 22-23)
St Gregory the eologian’s 4th century AD view
of Scripture is characteristic of the Orthodox
approach to Holy Scripture to the point of “the
accuracy of the Spirit to every letter and serif (of
the Scripture),C. Browne & J. Swallow (Trans.).
Edication: e Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology 137
Orations of Gregory Nazianzus: In Defense of
his Flight to Pontus. From the Nicene and Post
Nicene Fathers Series, section. 105. Posted at
A theologian in the Orthodox sense is not one
who studies with the mind, but one whose heart
has been puried and enlightened by the divine
energies of grace through prayer and obedience
so that what the Scriptures testify to in words is
understood through experience.
Aquinas argues in Summa eologica, (1.11.4),
“God is considered to be pure energy or ‘pure act’
in that His divine energies are the same as His
essence” (Dounetas, 2009, p. 31). If this were
true, humanity would not be able to encounter
God personally, but only contemplate Him
rationally as object. eosis would be impossible,
because no creature can commune with “pure
act” who is not “person.” For implications of
how a Scholastic understanding of the Holy
Trinity is associated with cultural trends which
give rise to human being as dened by needs of
nature (ousia) ousia and possessions (perousia)
perousia or “what one accumulates” instead of
“who one is, cf. Dounetas (2009).
It is necessary to distinguish between those
who confess Christ with the lips, but may not
with their lives, while others may refuse assent
to certain intellectual propositions regarding
Christ, but may actually be confessing Christ as
evidenced by the Spirit at work in their hearts
and lives without their understanding it. So
the Orthodox pastoral counselor is de facto an
evangelist by virtue of being a psychotherapist
in the sense of the Catholic theologian Karl
Rahner (as cited by Kaiser, 1981), who suggests
the problem of theology is not how to get
religion into people, but how to draw it out. e
loving act of listening and conrming another
human being’s reality is deeply evangelical at the
process level, even if at the content level, Christ
is never mentioned. Why is this? Because “God
is love” and love is not possible unless Christ is
An ‘elder’ or ‘staretz’ (Russian), signies one
who, usually after long struggle and obedience,
has gained maturity and some degree of
illumination in the faith, giving rise to the ability
to discern spirits and guide others in their prayer
life and journey in Christ.
Cf. Lewis Z. Schlosser. (2003). “Christian
privilege: Breaking a sacred taboo,” Journal
of Multicultural Counseling and Development,
31, 48-49; Peggy McIntosh. (1988). “White
privilege and male privilege: A personal account
of coming to see correspondences through work
in Women’s Studies,” 70-81, In M. L. Andersen
& P. H. Collins (Eds.), Race, Class, and Gender:
An Anthology (pp. 70-81). Belmont, CA:
Hinkle, J. & Hinkle, G. (1992). Surrendering
the self: Pastoral counseling at the limits of
culture and psychotherapy. Journal of Pastoral
Care, 64, 103-116.
is quote is often attributed to Lila Watson,
an aboriginal elder and activist. Watson has
suggested that she is not comfortable being
credited with something that belongs from to
the collective process of the Aboriginal elders
than to herself. Cf.
wiki/Lilla_Watson (retrieved December 31,
Perichoresis is constructed from the Greek words
ʌİȡȓ ,(peri) for “around” and ȤZȡİĮ (chorea)
for “space” used by St. Gregory of Nazianzus
and others, to signify the mutual indwelling of
the persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
As this is explained by Jesus to the disciples in
John 14-17, once the Holy Spirit is given to
them, they will dwell in Him as He dwells in the
Father and all will be perfectly one. Perichoresis
refers to the mystery of the unity of the three
distinct persons of the Trinity who reciprocally
contain one another through the co-inherence
of their self-emptying love. “One permanently
envelopes and is permanently enveloped by, the
other whom he yet envelopes”(Hilary of Poitier
as cited in Elowsky, 2007, p. 131).
Stephen Muse, PhD, LPC, LMFT, BCETS, is
Director of the Pastoral Counselor Training program
and Clinical Services for the D. A. & Elizabeth
Turner Ministry Resource Center of the Pastoral
Institute, Inc. in Columbus, Georgia. He teaches and
supervises in the U.S. Army Family Life Chaplain
Training program at Fort Benning, and has been
PT adjunct D.Min. faculty with Garrett Evangelical
Seminary in Illinois; Union Graduate Institute in
Ohio, and PT instructor for the graduate counseling
program at Columbus State University,
Dr. Muse has taught and published
internationally (translated into Russian, Greek,
Swedish, and Serbian) and is author of chapters in
eight books and more than 30 articles for professional
journals and trade magazines, including national
award-winning research in the area of religious
integration and clinical empathy. He was managing
editor of e Pastoral Forum, for ten years. His books
include Beside Still Waters: Resources for Shepherds in
the Market Place. (Smyth & Helwys, 2000); Raising
Lazarus: Integral healing in Orthodox Christianity.
(Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2004); When Hearts
Become Flame: An Eastern Orthodox Approach to
Pastoral Counseling (Orthodox Research Institute,
2011) and Being Bread, (Orthodox Research
Institute, 2013)
Prior to his reception into the Greek Orthodox
Church, where he is ordained as a sub-deacon and set
apart for ministry as a pastoral counselor, Dr. Muse
Edication: e Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology 138
pastured a Presbyterian congregation for 11 years and
helped begin a satellite out-patient psychotherapy
clinic in Delta, PA. He is past president of the
Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine,
Psychology, and Religion and currently serves on the
advisory boards for OCAMPR and for the Assembly
of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North & South
America Pastoral Praxis committee. He is a founder
and rst President of Holy Transguration Greek
Orthodox Church in Columbus, GA. He and his
wife Claudia have four children: a daughter killed in
1982, a daughter 34, a son 30, a daughter 29, a 5
year old granddaughter and another on the way. A
video interview with the author on Columbus State
University television can be found at http://vimeo.
com/38325238. He can be contacted at smuse@
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... Exploratory and empirical research on Christianity and psychotherapy continue to grow, including studies that focus on Orthodox Christianity and the therapeutic practices (Chrysostomos 2006;Muse et al. 1994;Muse 2012;A. Vujisic 2011). ...
Full-text available
The author reports on exploratory research involving an exercise in bringing together two practices, one spiritual and one therapeutic: Eastern Christian spirituality and cognitive-behavioral therapy. The theoretical view of illness and health in Eastern Christian spirituality is discussed in the framework of a clinical perspective. Applying the general clinical perspective of cognitive-behavioral therapy to Eastern Christian spirituality yields its implicit clinical view of spiritual illnesses, which are also called “passions.” The author discusses some implications of the psychospiritual approach, beginning with a comparison between the two practices and a discussion of the difficulties of such an interdisciplinary approach. In the second part of the study, dedicated to Evagrius Pontus’s approach and the ABCDE model of emotional disturbance, the author argues that both practices are interested in the person’s “well-being,” be it psychological or spiritual, and elaborates on techniques and methods to recover mental and spiritual “health.”
Full-text available
Reports on research designed to answer the following questions: “Is religious integration of therapists positively related to their capacity for empathy?” and “Does pastoral counseling training facilitate greater increases in religious integration and/or capacity for empathy of its students than those in counseling and clinical psychology programs?” Concludes, after analyzing the data secured from students (N = 167) from several programs, that religious integration of therapists is an important contributing factor to their capacity for empathy but raises questions about whether training is effective in increasing such integration.
Updated version of her famous essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."
Explicates the meaning and movement of egocentrism, ethnocentrism, multiculturalism, and metaculturalism and the implications for pastoral counseling. Claims that pastoral counseling should try to achieve awareness of the ways in which self and culture bind while faith releases. Opines that pastoral counseling ought to embrace a multicultural perspective, be viewed as an example of interpathic presence, and have as its goal not the integration of the client's self and his or her culture but rather a surrender and encounter with the Lord.
The author discusses the concept of privilege in terms of the benefits enjoyed by Whites and men (P. McIntosh, 1998). This article presents a new theoretical perspective focusing on religious privilege and includes a list of privileges that are enjoyed by members of the dominant religious group (i.e., Christians) in the United States. El autor discute el concepto del privilegio en cuanto a los beneficios que disfrutan los Blancos y los hombres (P. McIntosh, 1998). Este artículo presenta una nueva perspectiva teorética que enfoca al privilegio religioso e incluye una lista de privilegios que disfrutan miembros del grupo religioso dominante de los Estados Unidos, los cristianos.
To explore the kind of training counseling psychology programs provide with respect to religious and spiritual issues, surveys were distributed to training directors or designated representatives of 69 counseling psychology programs in the United States. Responses were received from 40, or 58%, of the programs. Results indicated that programs offered relatively little in the way of formal course work in religious or spiritual issues. In addition, participants indicated that in their programs (a) religion and spirituality were often but not always considered a diversity issue; (b) knowledge about religious and spiritual traditions was not generally seen as important to the expertise of faculty members, practicum supervisors, and therapists; (c) religious and spiritual issues received variable attention in didactic and practicum training; and (d) there was considerable openness to research on religious and spiritual topics. Results are discussed in terms of their relevance to counseling psychology practice, research, and professional identity.
This article goes beyond W. O'Donohue's (l989) "(even) bolder model" of the psychologist as metaphysician–scientist–practitioner to call for an explicit and constructive relationship between psychology and religion. Psychology's previously noninteractive stance toward religion was premised on an outmoded understanding of science and an overly narrow professionalism. Contemporary philosophy of science breaks down the radical demarcation between science and other forms of human knowing and action, including religion. Science and religion are different, but they cannot be categorically separated or viewed as mutually exclusive. A proposal is developed for how religion could participate as an active partner with psychology as a science and as an applied professional discipline. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)