The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition – Peter Brooke

Substance of a talk given in Brecon, June 2015.

What do Christians mean when they say that Christ “overcame death”?

The first words of my title – The Illness and Cure of the Soul – immediately pose three questions:

1) What is meant by ‘soul’? Does the word mean anything?

2) In what way is it ill? Is it ill?

3) Assuming there is such a thing and that it is ill, what would the cure consist of? What constitutes a state of health?

My full title – The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition – is the title of a book by a Greek Bishop, Hierotheos Vlachos, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos (1), and it follows on from a book he wrote which created a stir in Greece in the 1980s, Orthodox Psychotherapy. Since the Greek word usually translated as ‘soul’ is psyche and therapeia is of course the Greek word for the process of cure, ‘Psychotherapy’ could indeed be understood as ‘cure of the soul’.

Nonetheless what Metropolitan Hierotheos has in mind is radically different from what we usually mean by psychotherapy. It is different in all three of the points I have raised:

1) a different idea of what the soul or psyche is

2) a different idea of what its illness might be

3) a different idea of what the cure might be.

Psychotherapy is principally concerned with disturbances in our immediate consciousness and it aims to restore us to a state in which we can, more or less calmly, go about our daily business. Of course I’m aware that that is a huge simplification but I hope you will make allowances for what can be said in the course of a fairly short talk. The main point is an assumption – by no means shared by all psychotherapists – that, whatever about the subconscious, the psyche in question is our immediate self awareness and that the immediate self awareness of most people is, broadly speaking OK. It can be described as a state of health.


The Orthodox idea is somewhat different. But before discussing it I’d like to say something about the word ‘Orthodoxy’.

It has two meanings, owing to the peculiarity of the Greek word doxa which can mean either ‘opinion’, which might be right or wrong, or ‘glorification’, ‘praise’. Orthos of course, as in orthopaedic or orthodontic means ‘correct’ or ‘right’. So ‘orthodoxy’ means either ‘correct opinion’ or ‘correct glorification’. In a way it is a rather invidious term as the title of our Church because of course everyone would like to think of themselves as being ‘orthodox’ in the sense of having correct opinions – even those who like to think of themselves as ‘heretics’ because they think of the word ‘orthodoxy’ as meaning just the ‘conventional wisdom’.

In relation to the great East/West divide among Christian denominations obviously Catholics think of themselves as orthodox while the Orthodox think of themselves as catholic. I might prefer for the purposes of this talk to simply use the term ‘Christian’ since as far as I am concerned this is basic Christianity. And there may be Christians here, not members of the Orthodox Church, who will find that much of what I’m saying coincides with their own views. And of course I may be expressing myself very badly and there may be members of the Orthodox Church who disagree with me. Caveat Emptor! Unlike Metropolitan Hierotheos, I am not a voice of authority within the Church. Nonetheless what I’m trying to share with you has been learned within the framework of the Orthodox Church. The extent to which it exists or doesn’t exist outside that framework isn’t the concern – or at least isn’t a major concern – of the present talk.


There is one part of the broad field of ‘psychotherapy’ with which Orthodoxy – at least as represented by Metropolitan Hierotheos (and his own teacher, Fr John Romanides) feels a certain sympathy, and that is ‘psychiatry’ in its close relationship with ‘neurology’, the branch of psychotherapy that lays stress on the interaction between body and soul – you might say the most ‘materialist’ branch. The Orthodox Church sees the body as part of the wholeness of human being. If we separate the ideas of ‘body’ and ‘soul’ conceptually we recognise that they are in fact inseparable parts of a single whole which is why the Apostles’ Creed – used as it happens much more by the Anglican Church than by the Orthodox Church – declares belief in ‘the resurrection of the body’.

I hesitate to refer to pre-Christian Greek philosophy, especially since Hierotheos tells me I shouldn’t do it and insists that the terms used by the Greek philosophers are changed utterly when used in the Christian context. I would agree with that but we should nonetheless not forget that it was Constantinople that preserved most of what we now have of the original Greek texts of the philosophers and classical culture was the basis of its education system. So I permit myself to point out that Aristotle defined the ‘psyche’ (the word we remember normally translated as ‘soul’) as the entelechy of the body.

Entelechy is a Greek word that has still, so far as I know, not found an English equivalent, but it incorporate the meaning of movement towards an end (the ‘tel’ is related to ‘telos’). The soul is both the movement of the body, determining what the body does, and the end of that movement, one might say the form that is created through the sum total of all our actions. In English translations Aristotle’s ‘entelechy of the body’ is sometimes rendered as the ‘form of the body’. In the Christian understanding the end is Eternal Life. We are talking about the form (body and soul, or, perhaps more accurately as we shall see, body, soul and spirit) with which we enter Eternity.


Which obliges me to say something about what Eternity is. Or at least what it isn’t. It isn’t endless time. Here I’d like to quote from a talk given by the late Metropolitan Anthony (Antony Bloom), preacher of the Moscow patriarchate cathedral in London:

‘together with the first event that starts a train of events, of change, of becoming – time appears. And time is one of the essential categories of history and of human life. Time and createdness are correlative; time and becoming are correlative, and time must be saved and redeemed. It is a precious category: it is not simply a road on which we walk, which has no meaning. It has meaning, because time and becoming are inseparably one. Yet we are called into something that outgrows time and supersedes time. That is eternity. But we must be aware that eternity is not an endless line of time; it is not time that will have no end; it is not time that will have expanded to a measure which is not our measure. It is something profoundly different.’(2)

I will pass on to you shortly what that ‘something’ is but for the moment I want to retain the idea that time is not just an endless succession of events, it is a becoming, a becoming something, something that is other than time. I’m not here talking about what is called ‘eschatology’, that is the whole of time in the cosmos and what that might be becoming. I’m talking about our own individual lives. We are, all of us, becoming something, something that will continue to exist under conditions that are very different from the duality of time and space to which we are accustomed. We are, all of us, destined or, we might think, doomed to live in Eternity.

Before continuing what Metropolitan Anthony has to say on the subject of Eternity I’d like to quote briefly two other accounts.

The first is from the glossary to the English translation of The Philokalia. The Philokalia is one of the most precious resources of Orthodoxy, a collection of writings, almost all of them by people whom the church recognises as Saints, all specialists in the ascetic life. We think of asceticism as a matter of self denial, self punishment, repudiation of the body. But the Greek word askesis means ‘exercise’ or ‘training’. These are people engaged in a process of conscious training for eternal life. They are not, like me, engaging in a discussion of abstract ideas. They write from direct personal experience of the realities they are writing about.

The passage I want to quote comes from an account of the Greek word aion, usually translated as ‘age’:

‘Frequently a distinction is made between the ‘present age’ and the ‘age to come’ or the ‘new age’. The first corresponds to our present sense of time, the second to time as it exists in God, that is, to eternity understood, not as endless time but as the simultaneous presence of all time. Our present sense of time, according to which we experience time as sundered from God, is the consequence of the loss of vision and spiritual perception occasioned by the fall and is on this account more or less illusory. In reality time is not and never can be sundered from God, the ‘present age’ from ‘the age to come’. Because of this, the ‘age to come’ and its realities must be thought of, not as non-existent or as coming into existence in the future, but as actualities that by grace we can experience here and now.’ (3)

‘The simultaneous presence of all time’ – a very incomplete definition but nonetheless something that is worth retaining, keeping in mind that in relation to our own souls, living in Eternity, this means the simultaneous presence of our whole experience, the whole process of becoming what we re. Which leads me to my second quote, from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, not a member of the Orthodox Church but someone whom many Orthodox Christians appreciate deeply:

‘Eternal life, according to the [Greek conception] began when we drank of Lethe in order to forget the past …’

This is a reference to the Platonic idea that after death the soul is separated from the body. It flits from body to body forgetting its previous lives. This is not the Christian idea. Kierkegaard continues:

‘according to the [Christian view], however, eternal life is accompanied by a consciousness of every hasty word uttered, a consciousness piercing even to the dividing asunder of the joints and marrow.’ (4)

The last image is taken from St Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, 4:12.

In other words, Eternal Life is not necessarily a pleasant prospect.

Which brings us back to the theme of illness. We have suggested that life in time and space is a process by which, through the interaction of what we shall, oversimplifying for the moment, call body and soul, a form is brought into existence which is capable of entering into Eternity. That is the normal process, the state of health. And now I will give you Metropolitan Anthony’s definition of Eternity, which is also an account of the state of health:

‘eternity is not something – it is some One. We are called to a depth of communion with God which is eternal life. Christ says this – that eternal life is to know God. It is not a category of being, a new form of way, a new dimension in time. It is God Himself and the divine reality shared and lived in. In a certain sense one may say that time, as we think of it, as something that develops and within which things change and move, is not destroyed by eternity, but becomes profoundly different. If we imagine that eternal life is an increasing going into the depth of God, an increasing unfolding of the mystery of God before us, an increasing sharing in this mystery, objectively speaking, time as movement continues. But time as a sense of a lapsing moment disappears in a communion which is an eternal ‘now’. In the same way in which one can be in motion and yet in complete stillness, time may have disappeared in one way, while it continues in the other.’

That is how things ought to be. But the passages I have quoted from The Philokalia and from Kierkegaard remind us that the form in which we enter Eternity, into union with God, is the sum total, or at least the ‘end’ of our whole experience on Earth. And that in God, in Eternity, that whole experience, in all its details, continues to exist. And that is where the problem of the ‘illness of the soul’ is posed, obviously, if one accepts that this is an accurate account of the reality of things, at a level that is much more profound than any matter of psychological disturbance. What is in question here is what we usually think of as being the ‘normal’ state. What is usually regarded as a psychological disturbance is a disturbance of something that is already disturbed.


Now, in the passages I quoted I breezed over two concepts that are very important in this respect. The passage from Metropolitan Anthony used the words ‘creature’ and ‘createdness’; while the Philokaliaquotation referred to ‘the loss of vision and spiritual perception occasioned by the Fall.’

To begin with the matter of createdness. We can very crudely point to two great schools of religious thought in the world. In the one camp is Judaism, Christianity, Islam; while in the other is Hinduism, Buddhism and we might add, in the West, various derivatives of Platonism never quite forming a great religion but nonetheless hugely influential.

The distinction I am pointing to is between religions that see the world and everything in it, ourselves included, as created by God; and religions that see the world and everything in it, ourselves included, as emanating from an original Unity that might or might not appropriately be called ‘God’. In the emanationist religions there is a continuity of being between the original unity and the plurality and consequently one can talk about divinity as in some sense, no matter how deeply it may be buried or deformed, a natural property of human being. In the creationist religions, however, Christianity included, there is a gulf fixed between God and His creation, a radical difference in nature between the Uncreated and the created. Even if we like to quote the Bible saying that we are in the ‘image’ of God, an image is by definition radically different from the thing it is an image of. A stone statue of the Emperor is not the Emperor. It is still a lump of stone even if, and this is or can be its dignity, it evokes the idea of the Emperor.


Nonetheless we have seen from Metropolitan Anthony that the end of human life is union with God, which is to say, union with a substance that is radically different from our own. It is that difference in substance that allows of the possibility of illness. The story of our illness is told in the Book of Genesis in the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Paradise. Paradise, we might say, is the state of health in which the human being in time and space is being prepared for the life in communion with God in Eternity. That is symbolised by the Tree of Life. The illness is occasioned by ‘the knowledge of good and evil’.

I want to stress the word ‘illness’ because I think this marks an important distinction between the Eastern and Western Christian traditions. It isn’t an absolute distinction. The idea I’m attributing to the East certainly exists in the West, while the idea I’m attributing to the East exists in the West. Nonetheless there is a difference in what we might call the mainstream emphasis. The West has tended to emphasise the judicial aspect. By eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge when God had warned them not to, Adam and Eve offended God. God is just and cannot be other wise. He therefore had to punish them. But since God is an infinite being the offence was infinite and the punishment had to be infinite – the condemnation of the whole of humanity to eternal suffering. But God is also merciful and cannot be otherwise. Hence a struggle between infinite justice and infinite mercy. The solution was to place the whole burden of the punishment on a single man but since that man had himself to be infinite … well, frankly, I can’t bear to continue. It is the alternative view that concerns us here.

This is that what the story describes is the process by which the normal state of health which is Eternal Life which is Union with God becomes impossible. What does this mean in practise?


To answer that I want to go back to what is meant by the soul, or psyche. For convenience, while stressing that body and soul are equally necessary to the integrity – the eternal nature – of the human being I nonetheless spoke of human nature as a simple body/soul duality. The picture is more complicated than that. It’s actually much more complicated than that but for the moment I just want to point to what might be called a duality in the soul, pointing to the existence, in addition to the psyche as we think we know it, of what the Greeks call the nous.

The word is well established in pre-Christian Greek philosophy and many words have been used to translate it – mind, reason, intellect, intelligence. None of these however capture the resonance of the word in Orthodoxy. Metropolitan Hierotheos leaves it untranslated. I myself would rather talk of ‘the noetic faculty’. Once again I think it is useful to refer to the glossary of the English translation of The Philokalia, explaining the word they used which is ‘intellect’:

‘the highest faculty in man, through which – provided it is purified – he knows God or the inner essences or principles of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. Unlike the dianoia or reason, from which it must be carefully distinguished, the intellect [the nous, or ‘noetic faculty’] does not function by formulating abstract concepts and then arguing on this basis to a conclusion reached through deductive reasoning but it understands divine truth by means of immediate experience, intuition or ‘simple cognition’ (the term used by St Isaac the Syrian). The intellect dwells in the ‘depths of the soul’; it constitutes the innermost aspect of the heart (St Diadochos). The intellect is the organ of contemplation, the ‘eye of the heart’ (St Makarios).’

The emphasis here on ‘the heart’ is important and I would stress further that we are referring to the real, physical heart, the one that pumps blood through the body. That is where, not in the head, nor somewhere in the ether, we experience the encounter with God. The nineteenth century Russian saint, Theophan the Recluse talks of ‘a kind of soreness in your heart’. (5) He says:

‘When you establish yourself in the inner man by the remembrance of God, then Christ the Lord will enter and dwell within you. The two things go together. And here is a sign for you, by which you can be certain that this glorious work has begun within you: you will experience a certain feeling of warmth towards the Lord. If you fulfil everything prescribed then this feeling will soon begin to appear more and more often, and in time it will become continuous. This feeling is sweet and beatific, and from its first appearance it stimulates us to desire and seek it, lest it leave the heart: for it is Paradise.’ (6)

Probably everyone with a prayer life has had some experience of this. The aim is, though, that it should become a permanent acquisition and this is difficult because the union with God in the heart is overshadowed by ‘the knowledge of good and evil’.

We need to understand this great, crucial phrase.

There comes a moment in the lives of most adolescents who read the Bible when they realise, with accrued interest, that the word ‘know’ can refer to sexual intercourse. It does not just refer to abstract knowledge of certain facts acquired in the classroom. It can mean an intimate, passionate communion with the thing that is known. ‘Good and evil’ – the dualities of pleasure and pain, happiness and unhappiness, possession and deprivation of the good things of the world, the need to use evil means to obtain things that are deemed to be good – all this is inscribed in our hearts and in those circumstances the process by which, on earth, here and now, in the duality of space and time, we can enter into union with God in preparation for Eternal Life is rendered impossible.


The subtitle of my talk is ‘What do Christians mean when they say that Christ “overcame death”?’ Throughout the whole period between Easter and the Ascension, the forty days when Christ walked the earth after the Resurrection, Orthodox Christians sing: ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and to those in the tombs he has given life.’

To a very limited extent I hope I have given you an idea of what is meant by ‘death’ – it is the darkening of the noetic faculty by which we know God and the consequent impossibility of entering into Eternal Life which is union with God. But I should add a note of clarification. It is the impossibility of experiencing union with God as light and joy. the darkened, diseased soul, entering into union with God will experience it as fire. And that is what is meant by Hell. Hell is not a place specially created by God to punish sinners. Hell is union with God as experienced by a soul still possessed by the passions – sloth, avarice , lust, gluttony, pride, envy, anger – the famous ‘seven deadly sins’ of the Western tradition, a virtual map of the psychology of mankind after the Fall. And we believe that ultimately we will all enter into union with God, that, in the words of St Paul (1 Cor 15.28), God will be ‘all in all’.

And this is why, returning to the story of Adam and Eve in Eden, cutting humankind off from the Tree of Life, from Eternal Life, can be understood as an act of kindness on the part of God. It doesn’t mean that people ceased to have any kind of existence after their corporeal death. Humankind has always had difficulty believing in death as a real finality. It is of course impossible to imagine, to picture in one’s mind, one’s own non-existence. But without attempting in the time I have left to me an ambitious survey of all pre-Christian notions of the afterlife, I think I can say that as a general rule, they tend to be gloomy, at best this-worldly orientated and only rarely – and usually reserved to a small elite – envisaging anything that resembles an eternal union with God. The two cultures most immediately affected by Christianity – the Greek and Jewish cultures – had the rather similar notions of ‘Hades’ and ‘Sheol’. These were not places of eternal torment but nonetheless they were dark places where the dead lived out the shadowy half lives of souls separated from their bodies. ‘Nay, for the dead wilt Thou work wonders? Or shall physicians raise them up that they may give thanks to Thee? Nay, shall any in the grave tell of Thy mercy, and of Thy truth in that destruction? Nay, shall Thy wonders be known in that darkness, and Thy righteousness in that land that is forgotten?’ (Psalm 87/8). How did the coming of Christ make a difference?

In the Orthodox Easter services there is an emphasis on what in the Western tradition is known as the ‘Harrowing of Hell’, a notion that once again can be found in the Apostles’ Creed so often recited in the Anglican tradition: ‘He descended into Hell’ (the Biblical source is 1 Peter 3.19). ‘Hell’ here corresponds to the Greek Hades and the Jewish Sheol, the gloomy abode of the dead. The Orthodox icon of the Resurrection shows Christ pulling Adam and Eve up out of a pit. With them are the saints of the Old Testament, David, Solomon, and the most recent of the sanctified dead, John the Baptist. In Ethiopian portrayals of the Transfiguration, when Christ was seen transfigured accompanied by Elijah and Moses, Elijah, who ascended to the heavens in a fiery chariot, is brought down from Heaven by an angel, but Moses, who died normally, is brought up out of the Earth. The descent into Hell to release the souls of the saints who died before the coming of Christ is regarded as absolutely intrinsic to the story of His death and resurrection. On Holy Saturday we sing:

‘Today hell groan and cries aloud: “My power has been destroyed. I accepted a mortal man as one of the dead; yet I cannot keep Him prisoner, and with Him I lose all those over whom I ruled. I held in my power the dead from all the ages; but see, He is raising them all” …

‘Today hell groans and cries aloud: “My dominion has been swallowed up; the Shepherd has been crucified and He has raised Adam. I am deprived of those whom once I ruled; in my strength I devoured them, but now I have cast them forth. He who was crucified has emptied the tombs; the power of death has no more strength.”‘ (7)

Nietzsche famously proclaimed ‘the death of God’. This is what we believe happened when God died.


The illness of the soul is death which is the impossibility of Eternal Life in union with God. But Christ IS, according to the Christian teaching, the union of man and God, fully man and fully God, and the Church IS, according to Christian teaching, the ‘body of Christ’, enabling us also, through the sacrament of Communion to incorporate Christ’s Body into our own bodies. So it enables the passage from our participation in Adam, who lost the ability to enter into union with God, to a participation in Christ, who is that union. But this is not an automatic process, not just a matter of believing it, giving it our intellectual assent, attending church, participating in the sacraments. It is accompanied by a process of struggle, of ‘spiritual warfare’ against the forces unleashed in us through ‘the knowledge of good and evil’. It is the struggle to cleanse the noetic faculty, the faculty that enables us to perceive spiritual realities, to establish its sovereignty within us and so, eventually, to be able to rejoice in our hearts in the presence of God.

This is the therapy that metropolitan Hierotheos describes. It is an enormous theme and I haven’t done it justice. It is a huge adventure and like all adventures it has its ups and downs, also its pitfalls and dangers. But I would like to finish with a hymn we sing to the Mother of God, through whom this adventure became possible, since she held God first in her womb, then in her arms, and the flesh that God assumed was her flesh:

‘Most blessed art thou, O Mother of God. We praise thee because through the cross of thy Son Hades was overthrown and death was slain. We who had been given over to death were raised and judged worthy of life. Once again we received the ancient joy of Paradise …

The Church is a return to Paradise, the place in which the union with God and therefore the fulness of our human nature within the duality of space and time is possible. The two disciples who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus said: ‘did not our hearts burn within us while He talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’ (Luke 24.32). That burning of the heart is the beginning of the process of the restoration and enlightening of the noetic faculty. And that is the cure of the illness of the soul.


(1) English translation by Effie Mavromichali: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, Livadia, Greece, first published1993

(2) An Address given at a conference of the Society of SS Alban and Sergius, 1963. SOBORNOST, Series 4, №10, Winter-Spring 1964, pp.551-7. Available online at

(3) An English translation of 4 of the 5 volumes of The Philokalia (by G.E.H.Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware) has been published by Faber and Faber.

(4) Søren Kierkegaard: The Concept of Irony (with constant reference to Socrates) trans Lee M.Capel. Indiana University Press, 1965, footnote on p.48. Although Paul’s authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews has been questioned from the earliest days of Church history it is accepted in the tradition of the Orthodox Church.

(5) Igumen Chariton of Valamo (ed): The Art of Prayer – An Orthodox Anthology, trans E.Kadloubovsky and E.M.Palmer, Faber and Faber, paperback edition 1997, p.127.

(6) Ibid, p.119

(7) The Lenten Triodion translated from the original Greek by Mother Mary and Archimandrite (now Metropolitan) Kallistos Ware, Faber and Faber, 1984 ed. pp 655-6 (from the Vespers on Holy Saturday).