The fourth chapter of Jean-Claude Larchet’s study, Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing, is dedicated to “Insanity of Spiritual Origin.” Larchet opens the chapter with these words:
Although, for the Fathers, one category of mental illness or form of insanity had a somatic etiology, and a second category a demonic one, the third category is of spiritual origin. While the first has (our fallen) nature for its cause and the second demons, the free will on an individual is responsible for the third, even if demonic activity and our free will sometimes share responsibility in the first two situations.“Mental illnesses of spiritual origin,” Larchet writes, “should not be confused with the spiritual illnesses themselves.” For the Fathers, “an important share of the disorders today considered to be purely psychic actually have to do with the spiritual realm. In this sense the nosography and treatment of spiritual illnesses embraces, but goes beyond psychopathology.” In comparing the modern psychiatric perspective with that of the Fathers, the following points can be made.
1) A certain number of problems examined by standard modern nosography appear to be related to what Patristic nosology called the passion of pride. Modern psychiatry, while not unaware of the pathogenic character of this attitude, has however divorced it from its moral and spiritual dimension, most often designating it as a “self-valorization” or “hypertrophy of the ego.” This attitude is present to a high degree in paranoid psychoses. It is also found in hysteria. Many of the difficulties in maintaining relationships – a symptom present in the majority of neuroses – can be connected with it. (...)
2) The anxiety and anguish present in most psychoses as well as in all neuroses can be linked in part to what the Fathers considered to be the passion of fear and sadness.
3) The aggressiveness to be found in the majority of neuroses and in certain psychoses can be linked to the passion of “anger” in the broad sense we have defined it.Larchet begins with a consideration of the nosology of sadness, writing: “Sadness (lupe) appears to be state of soul which, beside the simple meaning of the word, involves discouragement, debility, psychic heaviness and sorrow, dejection, distress, oppression, and depression most often accompanied by anxiety and even with anguish. Larchet notes the following causes for sadness: the frustration of desires, anger, unmotivated sadness, and demonic activity. Larchet then turns to a discussion of the nosology of acedia, which he writes “is akin to sadness, and to such a degree is this the case that St Gregory the Great, the inspirer of the ascetic tradition in the West, unites the two passions of acedia and sadness into a single one. The eastern ascetical tradition however distinguishes between them.”
4) Debility, a symptom common to many mental illnesses corresponds rather closely to one of the essential components of acedia.
5) Depressive symptoms, to be found in many neuroses and psychoses, can be directly linked to acedia and sadness.
6) Apart from these symptoms, several syndromes appear to be connected to the passions in spiritual nosology.
7) The neurotic phobias appear to have some connection with the passion of fear; they are moreover standardly defined as “agonizing fears.”
8) Anxiety neurosis can be understood in relation to the passion of sadness, but also and above all to fear.
9) Psychotic melancholia can be to some degree connected with both acedia and sadness, especially in its extreme form of “despair."
Without any doubt the closest and most direct relationship can be established between the acedia and sadness of Patristic nosology and the different forms of depression. Nor has this relationship failed to attract the attention of certain psychiatrists who have recently devoted several studies to this subject. And its importance warrants our repeating the essentials of the analysis we have devoted to these two passions, limiting ourselves however to their psychic dimensions and effects.
The treatment of sadness, more than of other passions, “presupposes the awareness that one is ill and that one wishes to be cured.” The first possible cause of sadness “is the frustration of an existing or anticipated pleasure, and more to the point the loss of some sensible good, the frustration of some desire, or disappointment over some worldly hope”; a second case of sadness is anger, “whether it follows from it or is the consequence of some offense suffered, frequently taking in such a case the form of spite.” Treating acedia is even more difficult, as “it has the peculiarity of seizing all the faculties of the soul and inflaming nearly all the passions.” Treatment comes through through resistance, patience, hope, grief and tears, the remembrance of death, manual labor and, above all, prayer.
God willing, I’ll continue with Larchet’s fifth and final chapter, “A Most Singular Kind of Folly – the Fool for Christ,” tomorrow.