Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy

Review by Bruce Foltz, Professor of Philosophy, Eckerd CollegeAlexis Trader

With Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron  Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds, Fr Alexios Trader has offered us a rich and even lavish feast of ideas and spiritual counsel in a very modest package, just as one might expect for an Athonite monk whose practice of humility over many years has become embedded in his writing style.  Ostensibly, this is an admirably thorough exposition of cognitive therapy—which many readers will be delighted to find has largely replaced the far more reductionistic behavioral therapy as the can-do, default approach to counseling and therapy—together with a point-by-point comparison of this very modern approach to mental healing with the highly developed ascetic theology of the Ancient Fathers.  But although it is rock-solid academically, this is so much more than a scholarly treatise.  For example, in its first two chapters, it offers a brilliant reflection on how traditional Christian thought can deal with the fruits of modern culture, without compromising either itself or the contemporary ideas with which it engages—a stimulating and inspiring reflection that should be read both by the suspicious and agonistic Tertullians of our age (who wish to barricade themselves against modernity) as will as by our own, motley varieties of Gnostics, who like Valentius in the second century, think that Christianity is most palatable in a soluble form, i.e. when it is fully dissolved into the inviting libations of the present age.  And similar praise is due for its extended discussions of childhood development and education, to name only a few of the many other topics one might not expect to find in such a book.

But above all, it is a remarkable exploration of spiritual and psychological health, brimming over with practical insights and useful techniques.  Indeed, it is perhaps one of the most solid and powerful and useful “self-help” books of our time, because it draws discerningly upon both the proven methods of cognitive therapy (which follows from the ancient Stoic insights that it is not events that make us happy or unhappy, but our interpretations of them) as well as upon the ancient wisdom of two thousand years of spiritual practice, enriched and refined not in the research library or classroom, but in the monastic cell, the true laboratory of human soul.  Moreover, Fr. Alexios has not only intellectually mastered both the psychological and spiritual material, but he has fully lived it, both as a monk for many years on Mt Athos, and more recently as a confessor and spiritual father.  Thus he writes from the rare position of knowing not just the ways in which modern therapeutic techniques may or may not be compatible with the Christian life, but of being able to skillfully place them into the context of the great path of theosis or union with God, that for traditional Christians represents the eternal path of salvation itself—a knowledge he has gained from his careful reading of the ascetic Fathers, from his own spiritual practice, and from helping others as a spiritual father himself.  Of course, the notion that the tradition of ancient Christian asceticism, and Orthodox spirituality in specific, can be comprehended as a kind of psychotherapy is not by itself completely new: it was argued generally by Fr John Romanides, who saw the Church as a “spiritual hospital”; worked out in theory by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos in his classic, Orthodox Psychotherapy; and explicated in tantalizing tidbits by Archbishop Athanasios of Limassol (Fr Maximos) in Kyriakos Markides’ very popular Mountain of Silence.  The last of these perhaps comes closest to articulating these practices and insights in a way that contemporary, non-monastic readers might be able to appropriate them, but as presented there they are neither systematic nor comprehensive nor very extensive. Fr Alexios’s book, in contrast, offers all the wealth of detail for which many readers of the latter two books have long been waiting, along with much more that will far exceed their expectations.

For the spiritual seeker, then, this book has the potential to serve as the vessel for a great voyage of spiritual discovery.   And since it appeals to a therapeutic approach that deals largely with watchfulness (nepsis) over the current of thoughts (logismoi) in which we are immersed much of the time, its insights are relatively safe to be practiced on ones own, although of course the guidance of a competent spiritual guide will enhance spiritual growth much more surely.  Indeed, this book has the potential to become something of an underground classic, appropriated by individual readers who have little or no interest in the practices for which it was overtly intended: pastoral counseling, the rising profession of Christian counseling, and the use of those secular therapists who are sufficiently respectful of their Christian patients’ spiritual integrity that that they seek to understand their concerns from within.  And for these latter three audiences, it goes without saying that the book will serve as a masterful handbook of spiritual and psychological counsel.  Happily, it is beautifully and very solidly bound, so that it will stand up to the many years of regular use to which they will surely put it.  Indeed, this reviewer has over many years become acquainted with hundreds, and more likely thousands of books of psychological and spiritual counsel, and has found this to be the best and most useful that he has encountered so far.  For those who are hungry for the enduring insights of the ascetic Fathers of the Church, developed from within a practical and contemporary lexicon, it is hard to imagine a better choice than this remarkable book.  It has the power to transform lives, and deserves to become a classic of spiritual reading.

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