Guest post by Fr Alexis Trader

The following is the fourth in a series of four guest posts from Fr. Alexis Trader, a priestmonk and spiritual father of Karakallou Monastery on the Holy Mountain, and author of In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord: An Orthodox Interpretation of the Gifts of the Spirit. Fr. Alexis has recently released a new book, Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds, and it is about his new book that he now writes. (The first, second, and third posts have been posted elsewhere, for which see below.)

Practical Value? Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds

When I select books that I am going to read, I am usually looking for more than novel discoveries and interesting facts. As a monk and as an American, I want something that works, something that I can apply to my own life, or that I can use to offer consolation for the lives of those around me. I am often searching for practical wisdom such as what you find at the end of Saint John Chrysostom’s homilies, in the correspondence of Saints Barsanuphius and John, or in talks by Elder Paisios. While the first half of Ancient Christian Wisdom deals with theory, the remainder has to do with practice. The choice is deliberate: an Orthodox approach to any issue should involve a unity of theoria and praxis. Interestingly enough, clinical handbooks on cognitive therapy deal with the subject of treatment in the same way.

So, in the last half of the book, I look first at the spiritual father and the cognitive therapist and then turn to behavioral and cognitive techniques used by therapists and the Church Fathers to bring about a positive change in a person’s psychological or spiritual state. I should add that it’s necessary to talk about the people who apply particular techniques or methods, in order to bring the discussion back down to the level of day-to-day life. So, in Chapter Six I take the reader down a rather unlikely portrait gallery containing representations of spiritual fathers and cognitive therapists. On one hand, I look at the spiritual father in his liturgical office as a priest, in his charismatic role as a prophet, and in his pastoral capacity as a person trying to help another human being. Simultaneously, I consider the cognitive therapist in the context of a therapy session as a diagnostician, consultant, and educator with certain therapeutic skills. Then to fill out the picture, I contrast the people seeking help: the sinner in need of confession and the client in need of help with psychological difficulties. The many differences and occasional similarities are important for determining when it is appropriate for a therapist or a pastor to use material from the other field and which material can be of service.

In Chapter Seven, I consider the behavioral techniques used in cognitive therapy and ascetic practice associated with the spiritual life. I first situate these issues within the general context of solving problems, setting goals, and running experiments. Although ascetic practices such as vigil and behavioral techniques such as activity monitoring do occupy quite different universes, the general context of problems, goals, and the value of experience is really framed in strikingly similar ways by Church Fathers and cognitive therapists. The interesting question is whether techniques or practices from one universe are transplantable in another. Chapter Seven grapples with that problem and offers some patristic suggestions.

In Chapter Eight, I look at the ways in which the Fathers advise the faithful to deal with thoughts that are bad and how cognitive therapists counsel their clients to cope with thoughts that are maladaptive. Again, the contexts are very different. The Fathers speak of the inter-relationship among watchfulness, praxis, and divine vision. Cognitive therapists talk about the value of charts, scales, and diagrams. Nevertheless, leaving aside the use of prayer to overcome bad thoughts, many specifics line up. That is, both Church Fathers and cognitive therapists speak about the value of exposing, rebutting, disdaining, and analyzing the thoughts. The meaning of these similar practices, however, is vastly different.

In Chapter Nine, I turn to how the Church Fathers and cognitive therapists handle those deeper tendencies and habits of the mind that so strongly influence how people react to situations and difficulties. Here, we get closer to the core of the human person. The parallels are fewer and the care required, lest damage be done, is greater. Nevertheless, there are similarities such as the reading of appropriate books (bibliotherapy), the cultivation of the right kind of thoughts, and a healthy review of one’s life (a life confession or autobiographical journaling).

Was this exploration of the Fathers and cognitive therapy useful? In the concluding chapter, I note, “While both patristic and cognitive approaches have great value in their own right and their own domain, knowledge about ‘the other side’ is always helpful, and in the case of patristic thought, salvific. In other words, knowledge of cognitive therapy can help the spiritual father communicate with those who approach human problems with the psychological mindset that is prevalent in contemporary culture. Knowledge of patristic teachings can infuse the work of the cognitive therapists with spiritual meaning, purpose, and moral direction, especially when treating Orthodox Christian patients.” It has been a worthwhile journey and I am grateful to those who have encouraged me to make it.

The book is available through Amazon.

(For those unfamiliar with academic presses that produce a limited number of monographs for university libraries, the book will unfortunately seem rather expensive. I would encourage those who wish to read the book, but find it outside their budget, to approach their local college or public library about the possibility of purchasing it. Perhaps, groups of five could purchase it as a donation for their parish library or the pastor’s library. If the hard copies sell well, a less expensive paperback may be on the way).

If you would like to read more, please read the the first three sections of this series of blog posts:
Post #1 – March 22nd: John Sanidopoulos’s Mystagogy
Post #2 – March 25th: Fr Jonathan’s Second Terrace
Post #3 – March 28th: Esteban Vázquez’s The Voice of Stefan

Two sample chapters of the book are available online:
Read the book’s Introduction here.

Read Chapter 9 here.

15 Replies to “Guest post by Fr Alexis Trader”

  1. I am interested in your work – my reading of Patristics in the context of Noetics (and Prophetics) indicates a form of Spiritual Cognition or Cognitive Pneumatology at work in and throughout Patristics, which is very different to the ‘personlistic psychology’ of Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Psychotherapy – with the possible exception of treating his work as a practical application of 2 Corinthians 10:5 ‘We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ’. I am interested that an Athonite Monk developing [in] the [Spiritual] Charism of a Spiritual Father, has pursued this line of cross-correlative research…..which will lead to [applied] Therapeutics, rather than a deeper understanding of Prophetics, which is at the Heart of all Noetic-Communicative Encounter and ALL words given and received.

  2. Yes, the Church Fathers are operating at a level that is qualitatively quite different from that of standard cognitive therapy. Yes, the prophetic encounter in the grace of the Holy Spirit can lead to a transfiguration in the believer’s life. Yes, the quality of prayer on the part of the confessor and confessant is what matters most in the mystery. So, why would I pursue this line of cross-correlative research? For the same reason that Fr. Seraphim (Rose) advised young people to read the works of Dickens: to help people reach the point where they can open their hearts to the fathers’ teachings.
    When the spiritual father has to work with a spiritual child who does not receive all the Church’s teachings with simplicity and faith, but judges everything with worldly logic and from a secular perspective, certain insights from cognitive therapy can be useful in preparing that soul for a real encounter. The first step in the spiritual life involves keeping Christ’s commandments. Some people are not very motivated to even try. They are not ready to hear or receive in a spiritual way. And yet something draws them to confession. With such souls, work needs to be done to get them to the point where they can confess, almost a pre-catechetical education. It’s in those cases, that some material from cognitive therapy can prove useful.

  3. Father Alexis

    Thank you. I really like your response – I am very interested in the “awakening of the Human Heart” in terms of ‘Noetic Receptivity’ (“hearing or receiving in a spiritual way) – let me ask you this: “If prophetic encounter in the grace of the Holy Spirit can lead to a transfiguration in the believer’s life” – are you saying that Confession is the catalyst for receiving the Church’s teachings in “simplicity and faith” – surely judging everything from [the human perspective of] worldly logic and from a secular perspective starts with using “certain insights from cognitive therapy” – I find this type of dialogue with Psychology to involve a real interrogation of the meaning of 2 Corinthians 10:4 (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) – how do you engage the carnality embedded in the “certain insights from cognitive therapy” in a transformative way?

  4. Thank you for your thoughts and comments, Mark.
    I think that if the required substances are present, confession can serve as a catalyst that reshapes perspectives on God, self, and others in the direction that reflects the encounters of simple people with Christ in the gospels. This, of course, takes place on a spiritual level, but between beings of flesh and blood with cognitions of every sort. Those cognitions and their relationship to emotional reactions have mapped out in verifiable detail by cognitive science. For instance, exaggerating an interpretation of an incident (a perceived unkind remark by someone) leads to an exaggerated response of either sadness or anger. Moderating that degree of exaggeration might get a person to the point that the Christian goal of forgiving those who hurt us becomes more feasible, so that the person will attempt to do so, relying all the while on the power of Christ.

  5. An Addendum:

    Father Alexis you said this:

    “I also encountered novices and monks discouraged by the struggle and wondering why those same fruits seemed beyond their reach. I saw acts of self-sacrifice and love that moved me deeply. I also was saddened to see others who were so obsessed with certain thoughts that they missed opportunities to serve their brethren and although they desired to act virtuously and to love sincerely, insecurities, feelings of inferiority, and suspicions compelled them to react in ways that they themselves deplored.”

    What I am suggesting is that this cannot be resolved by the use of Cognitive Therapy because in the end it is the same as saying “you are a neurotic and we will help you be a better neurotic” – most of my work deals with Pneumatological Encounter and the Healing of the Human Spirit rather than saying “if your thoughts are troubling you, think differently…”

    These men do not require a form of “pre-catechetical education” or being instructed in how to think differently BUT a direct Pneumatolocial Encounter with a Spiritual Father (Geronda) speaking directly into their spirits – I do believe the Burden you bear in this matter is the Authentic mark of a Staurophore and [simultaneously] a Pneumatophore – but I am concerned with the therapeutic approach adopted….I would suggest that rather than dealing with ‘thoughts of the Heart’ (RE: Logismoi) – we are actually dealing with ‘distress signals of the Heart’ – Wounded Hearts – and so the effective therapeutic Encounter needs to be Pneumatological rather than Psychological.

    I have to ask your forgiveness, Father – because this really troubles me – I had one case where someone had clinical depression and was introduced to ‘Cognitive Therapy’ which proved ineffective – by the time I engaged with the situation the person was both receiving the Sacraments and taking SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibiters) – [which are effectively ‘false or counterfeit sacraments’ in this context] and I began to realise that the problem lay with the properties of the [Therapeutic] Psychology being used and what was really need was a Transformative Healing Encounter at a Pneumatological level – if this were merely a question of the “control and confrontation of thoughts” – then I agree that “certain insights from cognitive therapy” could be efficacious and instrumental – but I do not think we are dealing with thoughts, rather “Heartbeats”.

  6. Thank you for your comments and the reference to the underlying situation that troubles you. I really don’t disagree with you. The men whom I referred to in the first blog did have access to a Geronta/spiritual father who speaks quite effectively to many souls having a transformational effect on their lives. For various reasons, the encounter that should be taking place was not taking place in their lives. That being said, the observance of this situation was a beginning, an investigation of cognitive therapy and patristic literature followed, the conclusion, however, was not that cognitive therapy is what those men needed or what could take care of those types of problems. In the same vein, a mixture of the Church Fathers’ wisdom and cognitive therapy is also not the answer. Nevertheless, my investigation did find other areas and situations, where some knowledge of the two approaches can be helpful. I was referring to such situations in my last comments. I don’t propose more than that. I am very aware of real dangers and I think a careful reading of my book will make it clear that I am not proposing anything sweeping or even putting psychological approaches on par with spiritual interventions. Thanks again for your own insightful thoughts.

  7. Brilliant.

    “The men whom I referred to in the first blog did have access to a Geronta/spiritual father who speaks quite effectively to many souls having a transformational effect on their lives. For various reasons, the encounter that should be taking place was not taking place in their lives.” – Father Alexis Trader

    Yes. I encountered this. I went in a different direction. I decided growing in [Deeper] ‘Discernment’ was the key from my own reading of Patristics and the Desert Fathers.

    Isaiah 50:4 The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.

    I understand the “Cognitive” but the Pneumatological is ever unfolding…..still I felt your presence, your signature, your inscape. Noesis is Empathy and Empathetic. “Spiritual Interventions”….I am going to take that comment with me.

    Thank you.

  8. Kevin — you have not posted in a long time, and yet I thought this announcement would be of interest to you, so I am putting it here:

    Although I have not seen it yet, I am cautiously optimistic about the new Norton Critical Edition of the English Bible (KJV) forthcoming later this year (ISBN 039397507X and 0393927458). Perhaps you are familiar with the Norton Critical Edition series — it is a standard series of annotated volumes used in literature classes. The editors working on these volumes are top-notch, and the blurbs are impressive at least:

    Robert Alter: “The Norton Critical Edition of The English Bible, King James Version, appearing on the four hundredth anniversary of the great translation, is a real gift to the English-reading world, making this classical version freshly accessible. The introductions to the different biblical books are apt and often illuminating; the generous annotation clarifies archaic terms, corrects translation errors, and provides insight into the texts; and the appended critical and historical materials give readers a wealth of relevant contexts for both Old and New Testament.”

    Harold Bloom: “Herbert Marks demonstrates in this work that he is now the foremost literary exegete of the King James Bible and of the Hebrew Bible that it translates.”

    If the work is up to the standard of the better volumes in the Norton Critical Edition series, I expect this will become the standard secular teaching text on the King James Bible, and because of its explanation of archaic terms and phrases, may prove useful for ordinary readers as well.

    (I should mention that additional materials and notes included in the Norton Critical Edition of the Writings of St. Paul [ISBN 0393972801] make it the best secular one-volume guide to the subject, although it uses the TNIV translation of the Epistles and Acts and Elliott’s translations [ISBN 0198261810] of the apocryphal works related to Paul.)

    1. Thank you so much, Theophrastus. I know of your esteem for the Norton Critical Edition series, and respect it! I’ll certainly be looking for a copy. I’ve been meaning to pick up the Paul volume since you praised so well in one of our too-infrequent encounters. All three volumes are now in my shopping cart!

      I’ll be back to posting in a day or two. This year’s Lent, Holy Week and Pascha were so busy for me that I had little time and less energy (intellectual and physical) to post. Being immersed in liturgies day and night for a stretch of nearly two months turned my heart away from blathering online, as well, not too surprisingly. Back to normal, I suppose….

  9. Perhaps related to the various posts on this book, it appears that the book is available only at the publisher, and the price of used copies (according to an ISBN search on bookfinder.com) is rising like the temperature of a summer day in the deep south. So, perhaps we will see a paperback edition sooner than later. One hopes.

  10. Cognitive therapy aims to make you aware of the distortions in your thinking. Once you identify those distortions, you can learn to correct them. This has proved to be one of the most successful treatments for anxiety and depression.

  11. Looking back at Father Alexis Trader and his use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) – this approach to “stabilitas” (that inner perseverance towards increasing inner stability of spirit) – still creates two two (warring) cognitive centres – Head and Heart (cf. Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos) – and it keeps coming up in his work in relation to Hermeneutics and Perception.

    Human beings are designed to be noetic-communicative in terms of pneumatological or spiritual cognition (“the Nous”) as one of the perceptual faculties of the human spirit or in terms of the Heart and “Cardiagnosis” or Heart Knowledge (which adds an affective-empathetic intuitive aspect to noetic discernment) and for the Soul (Mind/Emotions/Will) and especially – the Rational Abstract Discursive Intellect – “the Head” – to be under the governance of the human Spirit or the Heart and an emphasis on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) engenders the opposite where the Soulish life dominates the spiritual (inner) life.

    Even hermeneutical discussions around Hebriac philological (pneumatological) phenomenology i .e. Nepesh (“Living” Soul) or Leb (inner man, mind, will, heart) and Greek ideas of kardia (heart), pseuche (mind), and nous (“eyes of the heart” or spiritual intellect or Heart Gnosiology) will go nowhere until we grab hold of 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 and ask the Holy Spirit to reformat and rearrange our perceptual faculties and hermeneutical horizons and that is not achieved through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) alone.

    Take Lectio divina (“Divine Reading”) – it is only effective if we understand it is actually an act of “spiritual reading” and to do that we need the Holy Spirit to reformat, reorganise and rearrange our perceptual faculties – and it is also how to resolve the tensions between systematic and mystical theological frameworks – otherwise the problem of two warring cognitive centres kicks back in again….

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