Recommended Readings

Spiritual Counsels


Questions and Answers

Subject Index

Contact Me

Related Links

Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Questions and Answers

What do you think of psychotherapy that is called Orthodox Psychotherapy? The desert fathers were able to achieve spiritual heights and had no need of modern psychotherapy. They overcame obstructions to spiritual growth with just the “psychotherapy” of prayer and penance.

Outline of the Answer
• Modern Psychotherapy
• The Church Fathers
• Those We Read About and Those We Don’t
• The Core of the Problem
• Religious Life
• Summary

Modern psychotherapy started with its roots in the psychoanalytic work of Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s, and it has grown in knowledge and diversity through the years since. But through most of Church history psychotherapy was not known as we now know it.

Thus in times past, the emotional difficulties of life were not seen as needing any exceptional treatment. For the most part, the average Christian plodded along in the faith anonymously and unremarkably through duty, and the emotional difficulties of life were addressed, as necessary, by priestly guidance, personal prayer, and devotional practices. And, being so unremarkable, the lives of the multitudes and their emotional issues—and their struggles and failures—received no particular attention.

The Church Fathers

The saints and the Church fathers, however, did get attention. Through their writings we have come to learn about their spiritual growth. In particular, we learn much about the desert fathers through the collection of writings called the Philokalia. In reading these works, we see clearly that such men grew remarkably in outward holy behaviors through the dedicated practice of prayer and penance at a time when “psychotherapy” was unknown.

Yet here is precisely where the answer to your question emerges.

Those We Read About and Those We Don’t

Prayer and penance worked like psychotherapy for those individuals we read about. But what about those we do not read about? That is, those who had the psychological constitution to endure the difficulties of life with only prayer and penance left us their records of their spiritual experiences, but those who were crippled by their emotional difficulties had no great spiritual experiences to write about. Such persons would have considered penance to be punishment, and because of the abuse inflicted on them in their childhoods, the would have distrusted God and so would have been unable to experience prayer as anything more than a laborious act of duty. Thus, they would have failed at any growth in spiritual life. But hardly anyone wants to admit it or talk about it, and so we don’t read about it.

In considering these “spiritual failures” that we don’t read about, we have to confront the truth that prayer and penance cannot lead everyone to great spiritual heights. If prayer and penance could lead everyone to great spiritual heights, then the desert fathers would have been the norm, not the exception. Sadly, many of those who could not follow the harsh way of the desert fathers fell into dissent, disobedience, and heresy—and they and their descendants have caused enormous turmoil in the Church since then.

The Core of the Problem

Today, some persons claim that psychological healing is simply a matter of imitating the austere spiritual practices of the desert fathers. This “Orthodox psychotherapy” tends to refer to emotions as passions, and it considers passions to be experiences that must be controlled and suppressed. Moreover, it considers anger to be a passion, not an act of the will, and so it treats anger as a vexing passion that must be stifled. As a result of suppressing anger, the deep unconscious emotional wounds underlying all acts of anger are ignored and therefore go untreated psychotherapeutically. Thus many individuals who exhibit the behaviors of outwardly holy lives, and who consider themselves to be like saints, can fall into anger at the slightest provocation. Furthermore, it doesn’t occur to such individuals to repent and confess their anger as a sinful disorder of the will; instead, they think of anger as an annoying passion to be swept aside much as an aggravating insect flying about one’s face.

Religious Life

In religious life, individuals can be driven into an outward appearance of obedience by cold, unemotional stoicism, but under the surface of their apparent compliance there will often be found seething confusion and anger that lead to spiritual failure.

Now, it’s true that in the military, for example, punishment, fear, and hate can shape a person into an efficient, cold-hearted killer. But a cold heart has no legitimate place in Christianity; the great spiritual battle against evil is not fought with hate but with love for God.


For a religious, obedience to one’s superiors signifies an obedience to God’s will. The religious must do everything the superior requires, and it must be done without question or grumbling. Thus it must be done cleanly, joyfully, and with total trust in God. In such a case, suffering can help a person grow in spiritual virtue.
But if a superior is stoic and inflicts harsh penances to smack down any hint of unwanted conduct, then “obedience” becomes useless. Yes, it might help someone get somewhat stronger spiritually, but it will also cripple the person from growing as spiritually strong as he or she could have become under the guidance of gentle compassion. Thus, only Catholic psychotherapy, not stoic harshness, can correct the psychological impediments to a pure, loving surrender to God.


Therefore, successful religious life today must take into consideration that the world in which young people are currently being raised has been corrupted both spiritually and physically. The world has been corrupted spiritually with divorce, emotional abuse, pornography, atheism, and Satanism; it has been corrupted physically such that our food supply has been so tainted with genetic modifications, bacteria, and viruses that food allergies and health issues are rampant. These massive corruptions work relentlessly to undermine love for, and trust in, God. Thus, to be successful today, religious life has to maintain a careful blend of faithfulness to traditional values of detachment from the world (especially in regard to entertainment and social media) and of astute understanding of the nature of emotional vulnerability and health issues—and modern Catholic psychotherapy must be used constantly as a resource of emotional and spiritual healing.


Some individuals have such deep emotional wounds from childhood that without modern Catholic psychotherapy they cannot get past their unconscious distrust of God and, consequently, their unconscious resistance to serving Him. Sadly, in that case, prayer and penance, without psychotherapy, have no healing effect on them. They can be berated and humiliated by confessors and superiors, but their response will be, “All right. So you’re going to treat me miserably? Well, I’ll show you! I’ll take everything you can dish out and I’ll take it without a murmur. So there!” But, oh! Just wait. Slowly the frustration builds, and then the anger and disobedience erupt!


 Read an article by Orthodox psychotherapists
about Orthodoxy and Psychoanalysis



 Back to the list of questions


No advertising—no sponsor—just the simple truth . . .

For the sake of truth, this is a website with NO ADVERTISING.

If you find these pages to be informative and helpful, please send a donation in appreciation,
even if it’s only a few dollars, to help offset my costs in making this website available to you and to all.



Questions and Answers

Spiritual Counsels                                                         

INDEX of Subjects


Privacy Policy

Permissions Policy                                           


About CSF                                   

Social Media


In San Francisco?



in association with
A Guide to Psychology and its Practice

Copyright © 1997-2022 Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

All material on this website is copyrighted. You may copy or print selections for your private, personal use only.
Any other reproduction or distribution without my permission is prohibited.
Where Catholic therapy (Catholic psychotherapy) is explained according to Catholic psychology in the tradition of the Catholic mystics.