“Physician, Heal Thyself”: first steps towards an Orthodox psychotherapy


The phrase “Physician, heal thyself” is recognized the world over as perhaps the single greatest put-down in recorded history aimed, of course, at Jesus Christ by his accusers during his passion on the cross.

Christ performed many public healings so it must have seemed unbelievably ironic to those standing around that he was unable to heal himself on the cross. But the famed put-down would instead prove to be the single greatest case of Avoir l’air fin (egg on your face) moment for the accuser, as not only did Christ rise from the dead but his healing would reach untold millions throughout history as a result.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that “physician, heal thyself” is an empty, irrelevant phrase simply because it was once terribly misapplied. It’s still an amazing put-down.

Like many, I’ve been acquainted with a host of people who fit the bill of healers-impotent-at-self-healing: alcoholic physicians, grossly obese physicians, diabetic nurses, drug abusing nurses, narcissistic and emotionally abusive psychologists, suicidal psychiatrists, and in my own field innumerable counselors with every imaginable emotional disturbance on the planet (myself included), etc., and yet the people occupying these professions should know better than anyone how to avoid the pitfalls – the very ones which they are hired to help others deal with.

I think it goes without saying that people should find fairly good success in their own lives with whatever they specialize in professionally. If not then the person is tragically comical. Like, if you’re a professional financial planner who’s drowning in debt you have some real problems; and hopefully I’d find that out before hiring you to help me with my financial well-being.

This basic ethos along with uber amounts of personal study into Orthodox Christian psychotherapy has me believing that when it comes to the Orthodox counselor it is not merely sage advice to be healed of the illness which you plan to help others conquer, it is mandatory!

Many quotes from Scripture and saints are appropriate for this subject but let a few suffice to make the point. Here is St. John of Kronstadt’s thoughts on the matter: “He who strives to cure others, must himself be in good health… for evil is not amended by evil, but by good. ‘Overcome evil with good,’ first root out in yourself that which you wish to root out in others.”

What is this “must” about? When one is trained to be a psychotherapist, at least in the US, there is no “must”; it is highly advised that you work through your own mess, but there is no “must”. This seems to me a major starting point in understanding the uniqueness of Orthodox therapy among its secular counterparts.

St. Thalassios the Libyan emphasizes what constitutes a true physician: “The truly physician-like intellect is one that first heals itself and then heals others of the diseases of which it has been cured.”

For the Orthodox therapist it follows that if one desires to be a true – authentic, able, actual – physician then one must himself be in good health. The main reason for this is because for any psychotherapy to be considered an authentic Orthodox therapy requires the therapist to be not merely a counselor who gets their patient up and over psychological bumps on the road with coping skills, communication strategies, and referrals for medication (which, unfortunately, makes up a bulk of general counseling today) but one who is able to traverse the depths of illness in ways that secular counselors simply cannot (those specific ways are the subject for another article).

Orthodox priest, V. Rev. Dr. Michael Butler states that the Orthodox therapist must, “live lives of spiritual integrity… diligently working through the classic stages of purification, illumination and towards an even deeper union with God,” in order to be able to “penetrate the outward appearances of human physiology and psychology and discern the logoi (principles of his being, or presence of God) inherent in human beings.”

The whole reason the Orthodox therapist must himself be healthy psychologically and spiritually is because his task is much broader than the secular therapist, taking on far more risk spiritually speaking. His art is truly all encompassing, taking the whole person into consideration when dealing with both the illness and the cure. It is not enough to pacify the illness with medication or coping skills. One must, like Virgil leading Dante through the 9 circles of the Inferno, be able to guide the ill safely through the colossal forces within the depths of the psyche; forces that could otherwise endanger both the therapist and patient if traveled blindly.

I feel a tangent coming on which would far exceed the boundaries of a blog article so I will unplug and leave the reader with one of my favorite sections of the Greek Philokalia by my patron saint, St. Nilus the Ascetic. He emphasizes just how serious and risky is the business of leading souls on the spiritual way; a seriousness that I myself definitely need constant reminding of. Thanks for reading!

“To master any art requires time and much instruction… The only art which the uninstructed dare to practice, because they think it the simplest of all, is that of the spiritual way. What is difficult the majority regard as easy; and what Paul says he has not yet apprehended (Phil 3:12), they claim to know through and through, although they do not even know this: that they are totally ignorant…If such people realized clearly how much painful toil is required to guide others on the spiritual way, and if they knew the risks involved, they would certainly abandon the task as beyond their powers. Let no one imagine that to be a spiritual guide is an excuse for ease and self-indulgence, for nothing is so demanding as the charge of souls. Anyone undertaking this task must prepare himself for a severe struggle.”


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