Healing the Mind in the Byzantine Empire

In the Byzantine Empire, there was little separation between healing the body and mind from healing the soul.  Today, there is a greater schism between our salvation and our health.  On one hand, we go to healthcare practitioners, try to eat right and exercise for physical health.  On the other, we go to the church for the salvation of our souls.  Yes, we pray when our bodies are sick, but there really is a interconnection between healing our soul, our body and our mind.  Our culture sees no connection between what we eat and how it relates to our salvation process (fasting).  We don't think that manual work or exercise relates to our salvation.  But it does. 

Even in western medicine there is a tendency to separate our minds from our bodies.  People who struggled with depression and anxiety were sent to counselors or psychoanalysts.  When people changed their thinking and their beliefs, their emotional life improved.  But that was only part of the solution.  Doctors discovered certain medications in the 1950's that helped people with severe depression.  This eventually led to new and "safer" medications that people could take for mild depression.  We have one camp of people suggesting medication to reduce anger, quiet lust and improve marriages.  On the other, cognitive behavioral therapist have proven that people can alter their thinking which increased serotonin levels.  Strangely enough, each camp has about the same effectiveness for depression and anxiety.  But why does it need to be "either/or." 

We are now realizing that what we eat affects our minds.  In fact, 30% of your caloric intake is used for your brain, even though it weighs only about 3 lbs. This split between the mind and the body has influenced western Christianity.  The desert fathers and mothers who taught their spiritual children how to fast and how certain foods inflamed the passion we the first to understand this.  In Orthodox Christianity, the understanding of the connection between the health of our bodies and minds, and our salvation process has been preserved for centuries. 

St. Basil the Great wrote in a letter to his friend, Eustathius who was a physician,

Humanity is the regular business of all you who practice as physicians. And, in my opinion, to put your science at the head and front of lifeís pursuits is to decide reasonably and rightly. This at all events seems to be the case if manís most precious possession, life, is painful and not worth living, unless it be lived in health, and if for health we are dependent on your skill. In your own case medicine is seen, as it were, with two right hands; you enlarge the accepted limits of philanthropy by not confining the application of your skill to menís bodies, but by attending also to the cure of the diseases of their souls.

St. Basil later in this letter, thanks his friend for the counsel that helped his deal with the attack of the enemy.

You have most skillfully dispersed it and by pouring in your soothing words have allayed the inflammation of my heart. Having regard to the successive and diversified attacks of my enemies against me, I thought that I ought to keep silence and to bear their successive assaults without reply, and without attempting to contradict foes armed with a lie, that terrible weapon which too often drives its point through the heart of truth herself. You did well in urging me not to abandon the defense of truth, but rather to convict our calumniators, lest haply, by the success of lies, many be hurt.[1]

The early Church's prayers for healing also include petitions for the "forgiveness of sins," and "healing for the mind" and "healing for the body."  Most importantly is our prayer for the healing from the passions, the particular sins that the early church has laid out, that have afflicted our minds and our bodies.  Prescriptions of fasting, prayer, bodily labors, tasks, and understanding of the particular passion was taught to the disciple.  The fathers talked about the "noon day demon," a type of depression that afflicted the person during the day.  Was this serotonin and norepinephrine levels crashing or hypoglycemia?  Was it an attack from satan's messengers or logismoi (assaultive thought/images)?  It might be any of these things.  But seeing things from the spiritual cause or only the biological will lead us down a path that might not be the true path of healing.  We don't want to say, what sin did the afflict do that cause his malady?  Nor do we want to "better living through chemistry" or "positive thinking."  Scriptures teaches us that "people perish for lack of knowledge."  We may error on either side when we are ignorant of what they spiritual or biological has to offer.  What about the relational side of healing.  People that are happy in their marriages live longer and have fewer accidents?  Well that is another article.  The point is that it doesn't stop there.  There is a whole relational side to our healing.  We cannot take the medicine of immortality and have it produce healing if we are angry at our brother.

We need healing in our souls more than we need healing in our bodies.  If our world put the same effort towards healing our souls as we did our bodies, we would have a lot more saints.  Let's not separate the healing we need from Christ whether it be our minds, our bodies or our very life itself.


[1]Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series: Volume VIII, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1997.






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