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Cultivating the Garden of the Heart: Patristic Counsel and Cognitive Techniques for Schema Reconstruction

Ch. 9 from Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds

Father Alexis Trader


A field of briars can be tilled into a bed of flowers, if gardeners but plan what they will plant, work the soil, and nurture their delicate seedlings. In the spiritual life, sinners can reach holiness, if they but clear the brambles of sinful thoughts by watchfulness, break up the hardened soil of sinful habits by bodily asceticism, and cultivate the fragrant blossoms of virtue through a life of repentance. In cognitive therapy, those with a psychological disorder can find some peace of mind, if they but uproot the weeds of distorted thinking with preliminary cognitive skills, reshape the landscape of self-defeating actions with behavioral techniques, and prune back their maladaptive beliefs through advanced techniques for schema change.

Cognitive therapy provides clearly defined and carefully designed cognitive techniques for identifying and restructuring deeply held maladaptive beliefs that perpetuate psychopathology. In the Orthodox Church, putting off the old man and putting on the new [1] entails a total immersion in a way of life that is guided by Sacred Scripture and Holy Tradition, nourished by the Divine Mysteries, and enlivened by the grace of God. In this context, the process of purification from the passions, illumination by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and deification in Christ also radically transfigure a person’s basic beliefs or schemata. This process is a gradual one, like unto that of a seed that falls to the earth, then sprouts and grows.[2] Although spiritual fathers may plant and water, it is always God who gives the increase.[3]

For the believer, it is as clear as the noonday sun that the ineffable mystery of salvation is too vast and too divine to be compared with a finite number of psychological techniques that can induce enduring cognitive change. Notwithstanding, patristic advice aimed at shaping the way Christians look at the world can illustrate an alternative approach and provide a sense of meaning, a hierarchy of values, and a vision of the human person that can both direct Christian therapists who apply advanced techniques for restructuring their clients’ core schemata and warn Christian patients of potential dangers in their quest for improved mental health.

In this chapter, we will consider how the garden of the human soul can be cultivated by the trusty spade of patristic counsel and the calibrated gauges of cognitive therapy. Initially, we will focus on ascetic advice to the faithful on the daily struggle for virtue, the cultivation of good thoughts, the reading of spiritual books, and new ways of looking at themselves, others, and the world. In psychological terms, implementing this advice undoubtedly shifts fundamental beliefs of the believer, but not in the highly calculated fashion of the techniques for schematic change that we shall survey at the close of this chapter. Rather, as warmth from the sun, moisture from the rains, and nutrients from the soil help a seed grow into a plant, so illumined patristic wisdom gradually and gently guides the blossoming souls of believers to turn their heads toward the Sun of Righteousness and send down their roots to the Wellspring of living water. And in the process, the believer is transformed: “first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.”[4] Thus, advice of ancient fathers will form our gardener’s standard for finally examining how the flora of the human mind is altered in cognitive therapy through the extended use of techniques for achieving schematic change such as cognitive continua, schema diaries, historical tests, and psychodrama. Of course, in examining these tools for growing the prized mental flowers of a manicured psychological garden, we will not forget the proverbial lily of the field....

Excerpt from Ch. 9 of Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds, by Fr. Alexis Trader (Peter Lang Publishing, 2011). Available from See book for endnotes.