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Diakonia of Orthodox Counseling

by V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli, Ph.D

When the apostles began their ministry of spreading the “good news” of Jesus Christ, they used the means they had available to them in their day. They traveled from village to village on horseback and foot. They journeyed to large cities by boat. They went to the temples and preached to the people, Jews and Gentiles alike. Indeed they were men of their era. St. Paul tells us “ ….using what I have said and done by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus all along the way from Jerusalem to Illycricm, I have preached Christ’s Good News to the utmost of my capacity. (Rm. 15: 19-20)

Certainly, we today should be no less zealous followers of Christ than His beloved apostles. It behooves us to use every means available to spread the word of Christ and His ministry of service, healing and love. In today’s world we are not limited by horseback, foot or boat. The information technology revolution, [computers, etc.] has opened for us new channels for engaging in this healing ministry. Modern scientific breakthroughs in the understanding and treatment of mental disorders can be so valuable and was not a resource available just a generation ago. Using science and technology should be considered a spiritual requirement and necessity in counseling ministry, because it is a product of the “intelligence” with which we were created. God created mankind in his image. So many of the Church Fathers, viewed one aspect of this image is: “intelligence.” Healers, therefore can grow in the “likeness of God” when using their intelligence ‘to the utmost of capacity.”

The professional psychologically trained priest or layperson seeped in Orthodox spirituality is in a unique position to serve as minister of Diakonia in the modern world. So many individuals and families are increasingly aware of the need for counseling to cope with the problems of everyday living. Individuals and families have difficulties adjusting and coping with their world. The demands of occupation, marriage, children, family life and the secular values that permeate society are fertile ground for stress, anxiety, depression, anger as well as the sickness of sin. The Pastoral Counselor represents the amalgamation of the training of a psychologist and the service and ministry of the priesthood, or in the Eastern Church tradition, also the guidance by a lay person with great personal holiness. The view of “pastoral counseling”, to include lay individuals is unique to the Eastern Church. In Western Churches, as witnessed for example, in the guidelines of pastoral counseling associations, such as the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, pastoral counseling is limited to a trained “ordained minister”. Spiritual direction in the early church,  the precursor of what today is called pastoral counseling was on the contrary often done by unordained lay persons of great holiness. This can so easily be seen from advice on this ministry dated from 11th Century, cited by Hauscherr (1990): “In the city where you are living or in other neighboring towns seek a God-fearing man [woman], you need grieve no more; you have found the key to the Kingdom of Heaven; adhere to him [her] with soul and body; observe his [her] life; his [her] walking, sitting, looking, eating, and examine all his [her] habits, first of all my son, keep his [her] words, do not let one of them fall to the ground; they are more precious than pearls-the words of the saints.” [I have taken the liberty of adding ‘woman and her’ to the quote as in the paragraph before this quote, Hauscherr, states “this is a ministry also exercised by woman.”]

Of course, today, legally and ethically, anyone who practices as a mental health practitioner, (marriage and family therapist, nurse-practitioner, psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker), whether they be clergy or laity must be duly trained and licensed by the appropriate government professional board wherein they practice. In addition if one is clergy or laity, if one incorporates the teachings and healing of Christ in counseling of any kind, it behooves them to take the advice of the 11th Century mentor cited above and be a ‘God-fearing man or woman;’ or as St. John of the Ladder instructs: be a “living icon of Christ.” (Haucherr, 1990).

The healing of Christ has it’s origin in the love of the persons of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit for one another. The healing of Christ also has it’s origin in the kenosis or emptying of Himself, by taking on our human nature, to cure us of sin and death. The diakonia of counseling, thus is of Divine origin.  (1 Jn. 4: 7-14). Glory to God in all things!

Haucherr, I. (1990). Spiritual direction in the early christian east. Kalamazoo, MI : Cistercian Press.