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Book Review: Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds

This book, by a gifted scholar and Hieromonk at the Karakallou Monastery on Mount Athos, is a new volume in Peter Lang’s American University Studies Series. In his foreword, H.T. Englehardt remarks that Father Alexis, who holds a doctoral degree in theology from the University of Thessaloniki, brings together in this book the world of psychology and the spiritual teachings of the Church fathers: enriching science, thereby, with a spiritual dimension that it can appreciate without necessarily acknowledging the foundational principles of Christianity; and, at the same time, demonstrating that Orthodox Christians—who after all used, as he notes, the principles of secular architecture and engineering to build what was for centuries the greatest monument of Christendom, the Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople—can enhance the spiritual life with a study and examination of certain psychotherapeutic principles and methods. Between science and spirituality, there can be a fecund meeting of minds.

As the title of the book indicates, Father Alexis draws his comments on spiritual anthropology and psychology from the writings of the Church Fathers (both Greek and Latin). His discussion of the world of psychology he centers on the work of Aaron Beck, popularly known as the “father” of cognitive therapy and widely acclaimed for a number of psychometric instruments for diagnosing anxiety disorders or depression (notably, the BDI, or Beck Depression Inventory). This parallel scheme —juxtaposing the principles and practices of “Patristic psychology” with a secular psychoanalytic school—reminds one of an earlier work of this kind by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Naupaktos, who in his ῾Yπαρξιακὴ Ψυχολογία καὶὈρθόδοξηΨυχοθεραπεία (Existential Psychology and Orthodox Psychotherapy) contrasts and compares Patristic methods for achieving mental wellness with the existential theories and methods of Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy.

Father Alexis’s choice of cognitive therapy as a prism through which to focus his comments on secular psychology was certainly perspicacious. Its focus, not so much on the content and specific nature of stimuli in our sensory and psychic environments as determinants of adaptive and maladaptive behaviors as on the psychic cognitions that we construct and internalize from them, is immediately reminiscent of stoicism and other classical Greek philosophies. As such, since aspects of classical philosophy adumbrated early Christian wisdom, cognitive therapy provides facile access to Patristic teachings on the treatment of psychic valetudinarianism, the cleansing of the mind, and the healing of the νοῦς. The Fathers, too, concentrate on the cognitive world; that is, they seek to control and restrict in πρᾶξις that to which we attend in everyday life, but with the goal of restoring our cognitions about, and view (θεωρία) of, the world around us to a natural state—viz., that of aligning the human will to the Divine Will, a conceptual and ontological counterpart, if you will, of moving from a maladaptive to an adaptive an salutary psychological state.

With regard to the ontological dimension of Patristic therapy, Father Alexis does not touch specifically on the notion of θέωσις and its vision of the total rehabilitation of the human state of being (salvation in union with God through Grace). Admittedly, his book is not concerned with the ontological dimensions of Orthodox psychology, but stresses the existential aspects of the curative regimen of the Fathers. Nonetheless, I would have valued—if simply for the pleasure of seeing him expand his masterful treatment of the Patristic corpus and his skillful scrutiny of cognitive therapy (rare for someone not trained as a psychologist or psychiatrist)—a discussion of Patristic psychology as it reaches beyond existence into being and beyond man into the world of the novus homo, though such an adventure may have perhaps compromised the parallels between the mind of the therapist and the spiritual, noetic sense of the spiritual father which he so beautifully establishes.

I admit that I had to read parts of this book several times, since it covers such a vast amount of material. normally, I would criticize this as a sign of the dispersion that results from an overly ambitious work. In this case, I cannot do so. First, rereading Father Alexis’s excellent prose was a delight in itself. Secondly the book does follow a careful development in four parts, and has a helpful coda that summarizes the text. A splendid, highly recommended book that is not to be missed.

Archbishop Chrysostomos
Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies

From Orthodox Tradition, Volume XXVIII, Number 2 (June, 2011). Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds is available from Amazon.com.