The Instinct of Repentance

Repentance is a difficult journey in the modern world. Our psychologized culture has lost the language and the instinct of repentance. When such language and instinct last existed is itself a significant question.

A large measure of the language of repentance is found in the word repentance itself. It is a Latin cognate (coming into English through the French). Rooted in the Latin word paenetentia, repentance has long held associations with crime and punishment. Our prisons are penitentiaries, though repentance of a true sort is rarely their result. To be given a penance also has had a sense of a punishment given for sins forgiven.

This differs greatly from the original language of the New Testament in which repentance is metanoia, a change in the mind (nous). The word nous, in Eastern Christian tradition, is often used interchangeably with the word heart. Repentance is an inner change of heart. Repentance is not concerned with clearing our legal record but with being changed – ultimately into the likeness of Christ.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me (Psalm 51:10).

The language of repentance is part of a forensic legacy within a segment of Christian history that has marked our culture. To hear Christ say in Scripture, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” is often misheard – with the forensic message embedded in our language replacing the language of the heart proclaimed by Christ. Thus the Christian who seeks to follow the gospel (in English) finds that he has to make an effort to re-translate what he hears. This deeper matter of repentance (metanoia) is heard even in the prophets of the Old Testament:

“Now, therefore,” says the Lord,“Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. So rend your heart, and not your garments;return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm (Joel 2:12-13).

The inner life of the modern world has largely been surrendered to the practice of psychology. I have no argument with psychology – its goal of mental health is important and the relief offered to many is a great mercy. But psychology has long worked with a variety of “inner roadmaps,” in which one theorist’s guess is as good as another’s. Freud’s theories of the human inner world have provided many of the words and concepts of our modern, inner-life. Ego and complex, obsession and projection, introvert and extrovert, and a host of other such words are the legacy of theorists such as Freud and Jung as well as others. Not all of their maps agree (in fact most don’t). They are imaginary accounts of how the mind works –  are drawn out of reflection on actual cases but are still the work of imagination. Other “inner” words have even stranger origins. There are words such as melancholy and unbalanced (and others) that are rooted in medieval theories of the bodily humours. These theories seem laughable to the modern mind – but their language persists.

The fathers of the Church – particularly those who strove the most deeply for repentance (found predominantly in the desert tradition of the ascetics) – borrowed the language of their own day, as well as that of Scripture. Terms from neo-Platonism were borrowed and redefined in accordance with Christian tradition. The result is the language of the canons and the patristic writings. Most of the “road map” that is attached to these words is an experiential map. It is a reflection on how the heart changes in practice that dominates the teaching of the desert fathers and the tradition that flows from their labors. Theory is not driven by a priori assumptions about the constructs of man’s inner life. Thus there is no particular account of the mechanics of the inner life, other than a description given from experience – what works.

But the coherence of this patristic language is found in its common assumption that the human heart (nous) – the core of our being – is capable of change and can indeed be conformed to the image of Christ. Thus the goal of repentance is this very metanoia – a change of heart. There is nothing within modern psychology that reflects this particular concern (although some existential theorists come close).

Modern man is not predisposed to think about a change of heart. We think of psychological wholeness or well-being, but we do not have a language of conformity to Christ. We do speak of “hardness of heart,” but we know very little about how such a heart is changed.

This creates difficulties for us. Our temptation is to translate the language of the Church into concepts with which we are more familiar. Those coming to confession often give evidence of our psychologized world. We not only confess our sins, but we often want to give a small psychological analysis of where our sins came from and a progress report on how we are doing. (I have often thought that this makes a confession sound much like a monologue from Woody Allen, the comedian).
So, how do we repent?

The Scriptures give one of the clearest examples of how we should think about repentance. The encounter of John the Baptist with the crowds who came to and heard his message of repentance contain an interesting exchange:

Then he [John the Baptist] said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?”

He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”

Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”

And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.”

Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?”

So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:7-14).

John’s response to the people who came was not to launch them into a world of introspection. The heart changes in the crucible of our actions. Generosity and kindness are begotten of generosity and kindness. If you have enough to share – then share.
I have always been bemused by the great lengths that modern interpreters of Scripture go when trying to account for sayings such as, “Sell what you have, give to the poor and come and follow me.” Or “How hardly shall a rich man enter the kingdom of God.” We are often told that such passages are really about how we feel about our wealth – that our wealth should not be the center of our lives. But if we have and do not share, then “feeling good” about our wealth is just delusion.

The commandments of Christ are not difficult because they are so complex or mystical – they are difficult because they are so clear and we do not want to keep them.

The disciplines traditionally practiced during the season of Great Lent, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, are given to us not in order to generate a season of introspection. They are given to us as a call to a season of action. Prayer is something we do. It is a struggle, but it is an action (Orthodox prayer is particularly marked by action – even physical action). Fasting is an action as well. In our psychologized culture, it is hard for many to understand fasting as having anything to do with repentance. But it is the experience of Scripture and generations of the Church, that the discipline of fasting (abstaining from certain foods and eating less) has a clear effect on the heart – our inner disposition – particularly when that fasting is coupled with prayer and almsgiving. Almsgiving is an action that is all too often ignored in our thoughts about repentance. Charitable giving (in our culture) is even perversely thought by some to be a way of getting more money, such that “give and it will be given unto you” is seen as a success formula. We are indeed a brood of vipers.

Giving is an action. Give money away. Give sacrificially of your time. Give mercy and kindness to others. Forgive the sins of others as if your own forgiveness depended on it (it does). If we would see our hearts change in the direction of the image of Christ – the “roadmap” is not hidden. Pray, fast, be merciful and give.

This is the instinct of repentance. With practice it becomes the habit of the heart. Kindness, practiced consistently over a period of time, by the grace of God results in our becoming kind. To be kind is to be like God (Luke 6:35). Repentance is the path to the kingdom of God. The actions of repentance (under grace) – given to us in the Tradition of the Church – are the means by which such a changed heart will be formed within us.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





45 responses to “The Instinct of Repentance”

  1. Barbara Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you so much for this posting. My heart needed to read it this morning. Thank you, also, for posting so faithfully. It is always a blessing to read your blog.

  2. Diana Avatar


  3. […] The Instinct of Repentance (This probably will form the basis for a stand alone entry here soon) […]

  4. Lewis Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    What do the old priests say about how confession has changed since psychology has become so many people’s religion?

    A partial explanation lies in “Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship” by Paul Vitz (New York University pscychology professor), a book older readers may be familiar with. We “confess” our “sins” to a “priest” who gives us “absolution”. Then the psychologist helps us to accept ourselves for who we are and change as we choose.

    Do Orthodox seminaries prepare priests to reorient their flocks for truly confessing?

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    I don’t think there are any priests around who pre-date the psychologization of our culture – though I can tell a difference (culturally) between the confessions of Americans and some from Eastern Europe and Russia, where the culture is different.

    I don’t know that there is any concerted effort within our seminaries to address these matters – but the priests whom I know – including some who teach at our seminaries – all seem to be aware of these distinctions. I have not met any who dismiss psychology – and there is a recognition that certain disorders need to be referred and treated. But I am generally aware that most have a fairly clear sense of the fathers in these matters and understand that confession and repentance are not legal matters but deeply matters of the heart.

    There are some, such as Arch. Meletios Webber, who is both a priest, and a PhD psychologist (I know a few others) who, in my experience, are perhaps even more keenly aware of these differences. Interestingly, their training has not made them less supportive of the Tradition, but more aware of the wisdom of the Tradition and the inherent weaknesses in certain elements of our modern world-view. They are very interesting resources.

    There are a number of very important “forces” within Orthodoxy that makes it critical (or at least skeptical) of many elements of modernity. There is no single voice in these things (since modernity is not a topic addressed in the Fathers). But a number of movements within Orthodoxy, some going back to the early 19th century, have created an awareness (sometimes vague, sometimes keen) that there is something about the modern project that must be engaged from the depths of the Tradition and challenged. These “movements” do this well on occasion and do this badly on others. We’re only human beings, after all.

    But we stand at least on the cusp of a very delicate and dangerous period (I think) in the history of humanity. There is much that goes unchallenged, and there are many challenges that do not rise about the level of polemic. Globalization is more than an economic force – it is a cultural tsunami that threatens almost every tradition, including the roots and treasure of our own world (East and West). We do well to be aware, alert and ready to speak with wisdom – though also aware that there is a very mixed bag of criticism out there – much of which is useless – and some of which is as dangerous (if not moreso) than what it criticizes.

    I think and pray about this a lot.

  6. Lewis Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for the assurance that Orthodox priests know what who and what they are dealing with in modernity. As my Protestant brother (who knows little about Orthodoxy) says, the Liturgy itself probably keeps people from straying into various heresies.

    I agree that we face dangers and expect signficant challenges in this decade. I feel an urgency to do what little I can to prepare my younger family members and others. What better defense — and offense — than to steep Christians in the truth?!

  7. Maria Avatar

    Dear father Stephen,
    I cannot begin to thank you for your writings. The blessings I have received are inmense. God bless you.

    Whenever I encounter the subject of repentance, it come to my mind the following words. I would really need my mother tongue to express the pain this brought to me.

    LUKE 12:10, “And everyone that says a word against the Son of Man, that will be forgiven; But he that blasphemes against The Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.

    MARK 3:29, “Whoever blasphemes against The Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness, but is guilty of everlasting sin”

    MATTHEW 12: 31-32 “Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come”.

    Any opinion of yours will be very helpful.
    With much gratitude
    María (Spain)

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    This sin is generally understood as being not a single action, a single act of blasphemy, but the life-long hardness of heart and resisting the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. I’ve often heard it said that if you are concerned about the sin, then you are not guilty of it.

    It is a difficult verse in Scripture – and one which the demons have used to torture the tender conscience of many believers through the centuries. But the torture that it causes your soul should be seen as just that – torture from the evil one.

    Rather, we should think on such verses as these:

    Matt. 10: 27-28 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.

    2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

    Such verses remind us that God is a good God who seeks our good and works everything for our salvation. He has not established “traps” for us to fall in such that we make a mistake and lose our salvation. A good God would do no such thing. But the evil one is a liar and tortures us with his lies, using even the Scriptures against us. When these thoughts come, repeat one of these Scriptures I have quoted, cross yourself and encourage your heart to trust in the goodness of God. God will never disappoint those who trust in His goodness.

    My God keep you and protect you!

  9. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    Father, forgive me, a sinner.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    God forgives us all. May you have a good and productive Lent. Remember me in your prayers as I do you. Glory to God!

  11. Valentina Lootens Avatar
    Valentina Lootens

    Father bless!

    Thank you for the article. There is much wisdom about repentance that we all have to learn. If only we could truly have a change of heart, Christ would come and illumine us with His blessed Light forever.

    I have just one comment about the article. When you talk about psychology in many places in your article (such as in: “But psychology has long worked with a variety of “inner roadmaps,” in which one theorist’s guess is as good as another’s”), it would be more proper and accurate to say psychotherapy. The two do not equate by any means. Psychotherapy is just a very small extension of psychology. Unfortunately, this is all that most people know about the science. There is a lot more involved than a guess work, but not in the realm of psychotherapy.

    I just got a very interesting book: “Orthodoxy and Psychology” by Archbishop Chrysostomos. It seems very promising and addresses a lot of burning questions on Tradition versus modern understanding of dealing with personal issues. Thought I would share.

    In Christ,

  12. Micah Avatar

    Thank you for this comment Fr. Stephen.

    Orthodoxy confesses her Saints to be God bearing meaning that they bring in train, the eternal Kingdom, King and all.

    This is considered an oddity in modernity, which tends to take one aspect of what it considers the kingdom, and treats that as if it were the whole.

    Ultimately what one ends up with is a shadow kingdom, and a king that dwells in shadows, which is no kingdom at all.

    Christ is in our midst!

  13. Patricia Burton Avatar
    Patricia Burton

    For some time I have had a great desire to go to confession frequently as I believe it is humbling and is a grace filled encounter, but I have this problem as to what to say ,I know I am a sinner but when I get there I stumble for what to say , can you give me any suggestions ?

    Thanks, God Bless

  14. Wilfred Avatar

    Praise the Lord!
    Dear fr.Stephen,

    Pray that I may sanctify my soul to do the will of God,as I am a sinner,it is for my sin he is nailed to the Cross.


  15. Theo1973 Avatar

    big hug and a big kiss to you father

  16. Social comments and analytics for this post…

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  17. Yannis Avatar

    I agree with many of your direct hits against psychology and also the innability of psychological explanations to encompass the whole of a man and so effectuate change as religion can, F. Stephen.

    But there are a few of your indirect hits that i disagree with.

    One, is your comment about introspection. The heart that is already able to perform actions of repentance is a heart already changed to some crucial extent – intention matters as much if not more as action. So how does one get there unless he becomes aware of the inner state and starts effectuating inner watchfulness? How does one realise that his actions do matter no matter how small unless he can clearly see that no-one and nothing is independent of others and other things as the ego would have us believe? The short answer is: by introspection. By “turning the light inwards” as Buddhists say and observe the centre of one’s existence that sheds its light into all things and turn that very light towards itself. What am i? Why am i? Who am i?

    These questions need answering first to some degree, because otherwise metanoia seems completely impractical and perhaps even farsical to a person that slavishly follows the ego. If you dont believe me just look at the smearing ironies of the modern world towards metanoia.

    Prayer is one of the best forms of introspection among other things; one steps willingly besides himself, and many things that are not clear otherwise become apparent from such a position. In the Prayer of the Heart one willingly becomes an observer of his own heart, in order to identify the thiefs that come to knock his door, and learn to tackle them and eventually send them their way.

    Second, is that how we think about our wealth does very much matter and the eastern tradition emphasises that very much. In the West, money is given out as charity with the scope and the aim clearly on him or those who will benefit. If the giver benefits too, its from knowing that he has benefited others. However Christ’s admonition focuses on the giver and not on his actions or their consequences – letting go of our wealth releases one from the ego need to posess first and foremost.

    You are of course right that unless one has actually make up his mind to actually go ahead along this way for some length, he cannot walk with Christ. But then again how many of us really can go all the way from where we stand? Its good to take matters one at a time and walk with small and steady steps lest we become unbalanced and fall.

    If Orthodox Christianity aims to make all people full blown ascetics, hermits and Saints, then i really have misunderstood it; i thought that it aimed to provide all people the means of salvation and these means cannot be appliead but individually to each person and his life. There is infact a huge difference between how people think of the wealth they were blessed with, because it affects how they use it and how they can live themselves with it. That wealth itself will be concentrated somewhere there is no escape of – all human societies work better through organisation that makes the concentration of wealth and power at the hands of few, one way or the other, unavoidable.

    In the gospels sinners are repeatedly praised for their honesty and consciousness in regards to their sins, even if their repentance cannot take them away from sin, like the praying Publican of the parable.

    And yet, if one is willing to believe Christ’s words, there is a chance of salvation for such people, and not only for “the chosen ones that dwell in the desert eating grasshopers” of the Grand Inquisotor of Ivan Karamazof.



    PS There are other minor points i disagree with you too, like say that Jung was convinced that religions hold major clues regarding the human psyche, while Froyd was almost maniacally opposed to the idea. In light of this it is really no surprise that their theories do not match.

  18. Alexander Avatar

    Father, I thought you and other might find this short interview… valuable:

    Blessed Lent to you!

  19. […] instinct and language of […]

  20. Mule Chewing Briars Avatar

    “The commandments of Christ are not difficult because they are so complex or mystical – they are difficult because they are so clear and we do not want to keep them.”

    Alas, nothing could be closer to the truth than this tragic statement.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    Obviously life carries a certain amount of introspection no argument there. The Orthodox Christian faith certainly intends a certain amount of asceticism on the part of all (though not as hermits, monks, etc.). And nothing less than sainthood should be the goal of every Christian life. “The measure of the fullness of the stature of Christ” is the Biblical standard from Ephesians 4.

    Of course Jung and Freud disagree, as do all the other theorists for all kinds of reasons. I think it was my point. But none of them have anything other than theory to base their theory on. It may be therapeutically useful, but is not the same thing as an accurate roadmap of the inner life.

    Societies will do what they will with their money. No argument. But these facts are not a counter to the demands of the gospel. I have no blanket prescription, nor does the Tradition say that a Christian cannot be wealthy. But if you have and you do not give, it will not be well with your soul.

    Repentance is obviously one step at a time.

  22. Maria Avatar

    Thank you very much, father. I will try to folow your advice.

  23. Micah Avatar

    The tendency of fallen man is to imagine that somehow he has earned the right to salvation and celestial providence. This is vanity.

    Archimandrite Zacharias speaks of the tribulations of vainglory that often accompanies those entrusted with spiritual treasures.

    This is a kind of “self correcting” measure (as it appears to man). The hand of God is fully there, but remains hidden so that in the parable of Christ, the seed of truth (being self contained) can die to itself — but when born again in the tree, becomes properly reliant on the gardener.

    (Emergent psychoanalytical theoretical frameworks acknowledge the existence of an unconscious but which by definition remains knowable only as it manifests itself in the subconscious).

    To those with eyes to see, the the uncreated light has already demolished the barriers between all levels of consciousness (or more properly “being”) . Thus the supernatural life available to all on the first floor, is made available to all on the lower floors.

    Christ is in our midst! is a declaration of war on evil.

  24. Yannis Avatar

    By the way, there is a nice documentary about Mount Athos in 5 episodes in youtube.

    Met. Kallistos of Diocleia and the late Met. Anthony of Surozh appear in it.

    Judging from the cinematography and the Metropolitans’ age, i’d say it must have been shot sometime in the 80’s, as a Greek/British co-production and addressed to the British public.

    Here are the relevant links:



  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    Many thanks. I look forward to watching. Someday I hope to make pilgrimage there.

  26. MannyL Avatar

    This was exceptionally well said Father:
    “The inner life of the modern world has largely been surrendered to the practice of psychology. I have no argument with psychology – its goal of mental health is important and the relief offered to many is a great mercy. But psychology has long worked with a variety of “inner roadmaps,” in which one theorist’s guess is as good as another’s. Freud’s theories of the human inner world have provided many of the words and concepts of our modern, inner-life. Ego and complex, obsession and projection, introvert and extrovert, and a host of other such words are the legacy of theorists such as Freud and Jung as well as others. Not all of their maps agree (in fact most don’t). They are imaginary accounts of how the mind works –”

    You may not a problem but I have a problem with this kind of psychology. It’s a crock and most psychologists today do not take Freud and Jung seriously. Mental health is a biological issue, a medical problem. It has nothing to do with with childhood repressions. Today psychiatrists provide medications to solve mental health problems, they don’t put them on a couch and play word association games.

    I really liked what Alice said above. Father, forgive me, I too am a sinner.

  27. fatherstephen Avatar


    “Talk therapy” as it’s often referred to today, is not without benefits. Most studies show that the use of medication is enhanced by talk therapy. I read an article recently (in the NY Times) about Psychology and culture, with particular attention to the influence American ideas seem to be having in changing even the “mental diseases” in some foreign cultures. The brain is a wonderful mystery, probably never reducible to the pure mechanics of biology. In some ways, it will always be greater than the sum of its parts. I also think about it as an “event” on the one hand, to which we then add interpretation. Some things that are seen as mental disease may not be quite as problematic as their interpretation makes them and vice versa. The “interpretive” element of our mental life will always require some kind of human interaction and input (medication alone will never be enough, I think). But I think that time has come to “relativize” the interpretations. Thus, the decreasing use of Freud and Jung. Though their theories have certainly helped shaped part of our cultural landscape and have thus become sort of “self-fulfilling prophecies.”

    I believe the accounts of human life given in the Tradition are trustworthy and for our salvation. The weakness is that we actually have a very mixed bag – with some amount of Tradition, mixed with some amount of modern theories, and a goodly amount of culture. This may not be wrong, but it is hard to get just the right formula. It is probably quite difficult to have “pure Tradition” in the context of a culture that is totally foreign. Thus the Church has always taken up elements of culture and transformed them – often appropriating words and interpreting in a manner that conforms to the content of the Tradition. I think this process has begun in the modern context, but has a long way to go. Sometimes our lives (as Orthodox) are too “schizophrenic” – with one foot thoroughly in the modern context, and another in the Tradition. This is particular true with modernity’s tendency towards a “two-storey universe” (as I have described it). It’s always a bit interesting to be in Church, singing a 7th century hymn, and have a cell phone go off (a minor example).

  28. coffeezombie Avatar

    Forgive me for following the rabbit trail of psychology here, but I think you’re wrong.

    I seem to recall reading, in a few places (forgive me, I don’t remember where) about studies that had shown that we can basically rewire our physical brains though the practice of repetition. This is how we form habits, for example; we repeat the same action or sequence of events consciously until the brain creates a new “path” that hard-codes that action or sequence. This is, I’ve been told, part of what makes quitting smoking so difficult; not only do you have the physical addiction to the nicotine (itself a physical rewiring of the brain), but you also have the habits you’ve formed of, for example, the path your hand takes when bringing the cig to your lips, or the habit of taking smoke breaks (I, myself, have never smoke tobacco, so this is based more on what I hear from ex-smokers, and based on my own experiences with other addictions).

    It’s the same thing with training for any physical action (driving, shooting, baseball); you train yourself to move or react in a certain way consciously, so that when you are faced with the event in real life you don’t have to think, you can just react.

    Other mental issues may have similar causes; for example, someone who was abused by their parents may likely have, due to the repetition of the abuses and the feelings and so on, developed habits of certain actions, feelings, etc. The answer there is not to just put the guy on some drugs to make him “feel better.” That’s like taking a pill to comfort the symptoms of a deadly cancer while doing nothing to attack the cancer itself. The answer may involve drugs to help him cope, but the long-term response should be to help him “rewire” his brain.

    I think, in a way, this does have some connections to the spiritual life. For example, I heard once an interesting illustration of resentment. The speaker said, imagine you were walking down a certain street, and, when you got under a certain window, someone dumped a bucket of refuse on your head. Now, imagine that your response to that was to, every day, walk under that same window so he could dump the bucket of refuse on your head again and again. That, the speaker said, is what resentment is like; when we continually remember, re-live in our minds, the wrong someone did to us, it is like walking under that window again.

    Forgiveness, it seems, may at least in part consist of the decision to stop walking under the window, and, in psychological terms, that may translate somewhat to the idea of breaking that habit of resentment (this is, at least, my best attempt at saying what forgiveness is…that’s still a concept I’m trying to understand).

    I say this, of course, with the disclaimer that I’m no psychologist, and neither am I very knowledgeable about the spiritual life, so I could be totally off-base here.

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    This would fit in with some of my observations about “talk therapy.” Even the physical characteristic of the brain is exceedingly complex, and obviously not disconnected with thought and conversation. Thus, it’s not either/or but both (and probably a lot more).

  30. coffeezombie Avatar

    Thank you, Father, that’s mainly what I was trying to get at: that the physical brain and thought/conversation are somehow interrelated.

    I could be totally wrong with what I’ve read about “physically rewiring the brain,” but the idea seems quite plausible, at the least, to my limited experience, and certainly consistent with the idea that we are not merely “moist robots” (to borrow a phrase from Scott Adams, author of the Dilbert comics), which is what some forms of psychology seem consider us.

  31. natasha bailey Avatar
    natasha bailey

    have not had time to read entire posting as i’m at the library (limited computer time). since my re-verting to the true faith 2 yrs ago (away 43 years), i have tried 2 ttell others about reconciliation, but people r so frightened. i was terror-stricken, but the priest (blessed sacrament order) was so kind, & led me thru the commandments — i go to confession frequently now. it keeps me on the narrow road.
    thank u for the great article.

  32. MannyL Avatar

    Father and Coffeezombie (nice name for this discussion…LOL)

    Thanks for you replies. I am certainly no expert on this, but if you read up on neurotransmitters and their role in brain function ( you will see that so many of the things we see as repression, depression, obsessions have biochemical roots, not experiential roots as Freud implies. Mental illness I believe is usually linked to some sort of diffenciency of a neurotransmitter or anomaly in hormones. My mother has suffered from mild depression, anxiety, and mild audio hullucinations for over twenty years, and it’s in control with a drug, Celexa. The drug makes her completely normal. What the psychiatrist has told me is that she suffers from serotonin in balance.

    I am extremely skeptical of old school psychology cures. The brain can adjust by itself over time, but that doesn’t prove that whatever psycho counceling that took place had any value. The brain could have adjusted on its own in parallel. As to cigarette smoking, that’s a chemical addiction, which again demonstrates it’s a bio-chemical issue, not a repression or experiential issue.

    My two cents. God bless.

  33. fatherstephen Avatar

    I agree that there is obviously a huge, even majority role for chemistry, but obviously things within our lives besides chemicals also effect us (thus “talk therapy” is shown not to be worthless just as talking to a good friend about something can “make you feel better). Chemistry is at work even in such situations, but it doesn’t mean that it’s only chemistry or that only medication can effect the chemistry – probably everything effects the chemistry. I cannot go into my whole history with this question – but pastoring for 30+ years has given me a lot of time to observe.

  34. MannyL Avatar

    I yield to your experience Father. Thank you for your time and wisdom. Golry to God. 🙂

  35. Yannis Avatar

    F. Stephen wrote:
    “Someday I hope to make pilgrimage there.”

    If and when you do, you will probably also have the chance to venerate the relics of St. Gregory Palamas, housed in the Metropolis of Thessalonika that bears his name: (

    In all probability you will land in Thessalonica, and stay overnight, before making your way to Ouranoupolis for the ferry to the Holy Mountain.

    Thessalonika itself has (many) other points of interest for the pilgrim as the quite ancient, renouned and world heritage site Church of St. Demetrius (, that dates from the earliest Byzantine times.

    Also, before i forget on my way out, this is a short series by Professor of Iconography in Athens (Greece) University, George Kordis, in which we showcases to a class how to draw the face of a Saint:

    while in this one you can see his work at the dome of an actual chapel, in Greece:

    Professor George was schooled to the traditional agiographic techniques of the byzantines and studied their methods of making the paints. He has however a creative relationship with the material instead of simply making copies of the originals.

    Here is some of his work from an exhibition:

    I am certain that a man that thinks salvation encompasses the veneration of icons will appreciate. Enjoy.



  36. Karen Avatar

    MannyL, I was a Psychology major at a Christian college. I have family members with mental illness and have experienced both kinds of therapy myself (drug and counseling). My own experience and reflection after all these years is that there is an interplay in our being where our bodily predispositions to certain weaknesses and dysfunctions (like seratonin imbalance) affect our social, emotional, and spiritual life and vice versa. It’s not a case of either/or, but both/and. I do agree that in the Freud/Jung era way too much was psychologized! Indeed, there is a religious version of this in some circles where things get attributed in a superstitious way to demonic activity and/or a person’s sin. I think there is a right way to discern such things, but I am referring to delusional overspiritualizations based on distorted and superficial understandings of what spiritual warfare really looks like and how it is engaged. Such oversimplified spiritualization of human problems only exacerbates the suffering of the afflicted rather than relieves it. We also still have a long way to go toward correcting false impressions that if only the parents would have done thus and so, this child or person would have been fine. I am tremendously thankful for the insights I received from counseling and for medications that improve my mental and physical function, but what I am most grateful for is the revelation of Christ in His Church without which I could never be completely whole. I don’t think any therapy, psychological or medical, can be complete without spiritual healing–working out our salvation in repentance through communion with Christ in His Church, which involves ascetic struggle.

  37. Manny L. Avatar
    Manny L.

    Thank you Karen for taking the time to respond. First, I would like to say that in no way did i mean to imply that life does not have a spiritual dimension, if that’s what you think I meant. I do not reduce life to pure chemistry and mechanics. No way. But to me the Freudian kind of psychology attempted to do just that, and it wasn’t even very scientific in its approach. Freud comes up with these sweeping statements and conclusions based on one or two case studies, hardly statistically significant, and there is even evidence that he may have tainted his data. As a scientist, Freud is a farce, if not even a fraud. That said, it does appear that some benefits are reached by some people through counciling. The brain mechanics of that is either unknown, or I don’t know it. I am not a psychologist; I am a mechanical engineer.

    What the relationship between spirituality and brain function, I can’t even begin to fathom. I love my spirtual side. I don’t know where it comes from (other than God) and how i feel it. If I were mentally ill I would think I would still have a soul just the same, but perhaps there would be some obstacle to touching my spirit and coming to it fully. I just don’t know. I am happy for your spiritual healing, and may God continue to bless you.

  38. easton Avatar

    karen, good post. one little defect on a chromosome and you have a real difference. it’s all so complicated because it can be chemical, organic, genetic, and some times a combination of several things at play. genes are the new frontier! they are finding that many of the disorders are really genetic defects. ignorance blames the parents!

  39. Karen Avatar

    MannyL, thanks. My thoughts were really just building upon the truth of what you had said (no argument with me about Freud, etc.). All human scientific systems (social/psychological and biological/physical science) tend to be reductionist and can’t really address the whole problem, but there still can be some insight there for us if we look through the eyes of faith asking God for discernment. For example, what was perhaps valuable in the work of Freud and Jung was that they pointed to the reality of the depths of the human heart and its motivations that are inaccessible to our unaided human conscious mind and known fully only to God. At a Christian college I was encouraged to integrate what I learned into Christian and biblical teaching by looking for the elements of truth there might be in such systems and also to use the revelation of Christ to attempt to discern what was false about them.

    Easton, for a while genetic science was becoming very deterministic and it was thought that we had very little control over genetic expression, if any. In a way, we went from blaming parents to blaming genes in an overly simplistic and deterministic way. That was mostly a boon for parents (although I know parents can even feel guilty for passing on their “bad” genes!), but I feel still was too deterministic, downplaying the power and role of our God-given freedom and responsibility, and putting us at the (sometimes quite dubious) mercy of the medical and pharmaceutical industry “experts.” More recent science, which I find very interesting, has shown there are environmental factors that can turn gene expression on and off, so there is a real interplay between environment (some of which is affected by our choices and the choices of those around us) and the biological cards we are dealt at birth. To me this rings more true as a picture of reality and fits with the Orthodox understanding of spiritual reality that a synergy of the human and the Divine wills is required for man’s healing (though it is God alone Who heals us, and this process is also shrouded in a mystery that cautions us to approach attempts at discernment with the utmost humility and dependence on God). Our fuller understanding of the biological basis of many “mental” and “emotional” illnesses has indeed been a blessing and relief to many (including in my own family). On the other hand, it also has the potential to rob us of our hope when pharmaceutical therapies bring limited or no relief, and when they come with serious side effects, which is not infrequently the case.

  40. Manny L. Avatar
    Manny L.

    Thank you for your response Karen. God keep you. 🙂

  41. mary Avatar

    Long have I waited for your coming…
    To John the Baptist’s replies/instructions…I ‘hear’ the 10 Commandments.

    Fr. thank you very much. I have so waited for this site and the readings; I appreciate, too the comments (some more than others).

    Fasting, almsgiving, and weeping/repentance will lead me to having a mindfulness and a being with the Commandments, the Word of God, Jesus the Christ…and to a path/road of holiness and to wholeness of heart.
    God is the only Truth-and I seek to walk in Kingdom everyday. My heart longs for when the thorn bushes will be there no more and I walk upright and free…with the Holy Spirit. Amen

    I cannot but think of one of my favorite hymns: Hosea…”Come back to me with all your heart…Long have I waited for your coming home to me and living deeply our new life..”

    Father Stephen, if you judge to keep out my comments, I do accept and I say thank you.
    Forgive me for wanting to say something; I want not to add but to share my understanding and how personal Our Almighty Is.

  42. […] making this mistake?” Because, Father, I can’t help myself. Turning our hearts around, the real meaning of repentance, is a big big job. Every year, the Church gives us a whole 46-day period from Ash Wednesday to […]

  43. Karma Dla Psa…

    […]The Instinct of Repentance « Glory to God for All Things[…]…

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