Interview with Fr. George Morelli: To Teach and To Heal
A seasoned psychologist, priest, Archdiocese department chair, and prolific author, Fr. George Morelli has shared his articles with Antiochian.org readers for over six years. The assistant pastor at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in San Diego, Fr. George has taught university and seminary courses in psychology and pastoral theology, supervised doctoral clinical psychology interns, and authored many articles in his field. He can also be heard on his weekly Ancient Faith Radio podcast, Healing: Orthodox Spirituality and Psychology.
You have been a faithful columnist for Antiochian.org for a number of years. What motivates you to write and is there a common thread that runs through all your columns?
My motivation is that I see Christ as our ultimate Physician and Healer of our souls and ultimately our bodies following the brokenness (i.e. passions) that we have inherited from our ancestral parents. I am acutely aware that any of the gifts that I have been given are a gift from God and to be used to glorify His Name, to emulate as best I can the Trinitarian love the Persons of the Holy Trinity have for themselves and have extended to all creation and onto all mankind. I have an obligation to use these gifts as best I can to reflect this love.
Mankind is made in God's image and called to be like Him. In the spirit of St. Maximos the Confessor, we know that grace builds on nature. I have been gifted by God to have clinical-scientific reasoning talents. Thus the doctoral and postdoctoral educational level I have been able to achieve and the clinical experience I have acquired after many years I have applied to Christ's healing ministry. Hopefully the Holy Mysteries of the Church can be shored up by these Godly gifts of nature.
Scientific excellence is very important to me. I emphasized this in my university and seminary teaching career and pastoral-clinical practice. Unfortunately, in the field of mental health there is much that purports to be 'psychology,' but is actually the 'snake oil' of modern times. I have developed this idea further in a paper I wrote called Orthodoxy and The Science Of Psychology. That we must use the 'best of the science of our day' to understand the cosmos and ourselves was understood by the early Church Fathers who set up monastery healing centers. They had physicians on staff that were the most highly trained and skilled in their time. They also had to be men of great spirituality. The spirituality factor is critical, which is why I see myself as a priest-psychologist and not a psychologist who is a priest. I have developed this issue further in an article I wrote several years ago, The Ethos of Orthodox Christian Healing.
You deal with people every day in your work as a counselor, academic, and priest. Where do you see people struggling most in their lives, and how does the Church offer help and healing to them?
In the 19th Century we had the Industrial Revolution. In the 20th-21st Century we have the Information Revolution. My Galaxy S4 Smartphone is more powerful that the fledging computers that accompanied the first flight into space. The world people knew years ago was limited to a short travel distance. Smartphones today make anywhere in the world, from public spaces to private spaces, a button push away. There is no activity that cannot be accessed and participated in by anyone anywhere. We pray "lead us not into temptation." With the Smartphones and other instantaneous computer technology we can lead ourselves into temptation easier than anytime in the history of mankind. Murder, rape, torture, fornication, bullying, blackmailing can be accessed for one's 'viewing pleasure'.
Of course Information Technology (IT) is a two-way sword. Orthodox information Websites, for example, our own Antiochian website as well as the websites of the other jurisdictions, can also be accessed and are a blessing. In fact, much of the research I do for my writing, I do online. Thus IT can be used for good. We have to be aware of hidden disguised ensnarements. We all know of computer fraud, cyber-bullying and identification theft and the like. The other day I received an email from myself to myself. How some hacker was able to send me an email from my own email address is beyond me. Besides my computer or smartphone being infected with a computer virus, more importantly, would be the spiritual virus exposure by any visuals or sounds that may have come up if I had clicked onto the link or others like it. Of course, I did not click onto this link; I immediately deleted the entire message. In today's high technology world we have to follow Christ's warning with great discernment, skill and vigilance: "Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves." (Mt 10: 16)
I do see one psycho-spiritual consequence that is greatly disturbing. Possibly it is due to the de-personalization that goes along with the Information Revolution: that is the de-individuation of others. We no longer see them as persons of individual value, let alone made in God's image and called to His likeness but as 'avatars,' (as an internet icon-animation), that can be brutalized, bullied, killed, degraded, etc. It is as if those around us can be related to or considered as merely "computer gaming" action figures.
One of your themes has been the application of "Smart Parenting" Principles. What challenges are today's parents encountering, and if you had one word of advice for moms and dads in 2013, what would it be?
First is the spiritual challenge that all Orthodox Christians have in the world today. It is not 'de rigueur' to be a Christian. If I may make reference to the caste system of India, it is almost as if we are the "untouchables" of Western society. When I was in graduate school, religiously oriented people were considered somehow less intelligent than atheists or agnostics. It was as if atheism and agnosticism were a sign of higher intelligence.
Over the last couple decades, the field of psychology has developed an interest in "spirituality." However, the term is very different than the Orthodox Spiritual tradition as would be known, say, by the Spiritual Fathers whose writings are in The Philokalia. For an Orthodox Christian, spiritual life is a dynamic journey into which he or she is born spiritually ill, inclined to sin, and is cleansed and made new in spirit by the reception of baptism. After baptism, while on earth, his or her life becomes a journey of continual purification and healing, eventually attaining theosis [union with God] or, as St. Peter puts it in his second Epistle, "partaking of the Divine Nature." Christ is the Physician and Psychotherapist, and the Church is the hospital in and through which the Christian receives this purification and healing. True theologians are people of prayer and people of prayer are the true theologians.
The spirituality acceptable to modern so-called intellectuals would be based on the Eastern or Native American cultures. Mindfulness (from the Buddhist tradition) is the current darling of "spiritually oriented psychologists." (My thoughts on Christian mindfulness, called "watchfulness," are expressed here.)
In the secular world, homogenized Christianity would be barely acceptable. Moral and religious relativism are the ground rules of secular society. Immorality is disguised as a 'civil right': e.g., abortion, female ordination, same sex marriage, etc.) At the bare minimum, one religion is as good as another. Of course, many secularists would want to eradicate all reference to religion in society. This is one of the reasons I wrote the recent article Living as an Orthodox Christian in a Non-Orthodox world. There are various social pressures to conform to secular life.
In previous articles I have written extensively about the Conformity and Obedience studies and possible ways to develop psycho-spiritual inoculation to immoral societal pressures. However it is not easy. By the standards of secular society, Orthodox Christianity and Christians are way beyond 'bare acceptability' and are the 'outcasts' of society. The ultimate insult to orthodox Christianity is simply to ignore us as if we are not here at all. At least in Russia the [rock band] Pussy Riot thought enough of the Russian Church that they sought to desecrate it.
One of the problems, and I do not mean this in a haughty manner, is the woeful ignorance of Orthodox Christian theology of the ordinary parishioner, let alone husband-wife (father-mother) ordained by their blessed marriage to educate themselves and their children in the teachings of Christ and His Church. How can they teach what they do not know and practice? Who is at fault? I do not want to play a blame game. There are possibly many complex reasons. Possibly some clergy did not offer proper training. Possibly it was offered and rejected. Possibly misinformation was given out. Possibly individuals and or families are just disinterested in anything religious. To teach the ethos of all that makes up the Orthodox Church it must be understood and lived in order to be a smart parent. I write more on this in The Ethos of Orthodox Catechesis: The Mind of the Orthodox Church. To summarize, the life has to be lived totally from the depth of the heart and mind, and here I borrow from a real estate adage: "Location, location, location." It is all about Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy.
Another theme, emphasized especially in your "Chaplain's Corner" reflections, is that of unity and peacemaking. What can we as Orthodox Christians do to further the cause of unity between Christians, between Orthodox, and in the broken relationships of our lives?
First, the disunity the world witnesses especially among the Apostolic Churches (Catholic, Roman and Eastern, Orthodox, Eastern and Oriental), is a scandal and broadcasts utter hypocrisy. To the world at large, those not understanding Eastern versus Western Christianity, equally scandalous is the problem of the Protestant separation from the Roman Church. Thus this condition is an example of brokenness, sinfulness, missing the mark, for all involved. And we know a wound to one member of Christ's Body is a wound to all. As St. Paul told the Corinthians: "And if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it; or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it." (1Cor 12:26). This erodes the message of Christ and His true Church.
I do want to say my comments are that of an Orthodox Christian priest. For unity to occur (among the Apostolic Churches) all the Churches, their bishops, priests and people would have to concur with a Church Council. No single individual can bring about unity themselves as an individual, although depending on our gifts, we all have an obligation to heal this disease and illness of brokenness by using the gifts we have been given.
Of course there are historical and political factors that have contributed to the disunity we see today. As I am not an historian, I will not comment on these issues. As a priest-psychologist, I see the main psycho-spiritual contributor to disunity is pride and its offshoots: anger, power and prestige. The simple, but most difficult to attain, solution to overcome pride and its consequences is to acquire the virtue of humility. This is summed up by a saint I quote often in my articles, St. Isaac of Syria, actually more known as the saint of proclaiming God's mercy, but on humility he says:
The man who has reached the knowledge of the extent of his weakness has reached perfect humility. Humility runs in advance of grace, and conceit runs in advance of chastisement. He that has become proud because of his knowledge is permitted to fall into blasphemy, and he who is filled with presumption because of his own wisdom is permitted to fall into the murky snares of ignorance.
Thus I have tried to use my gifts as a priest-psychologist to write and give workshops on attenuating dysfunctional emotions (i.e. the passions) and develop psycho-spiritual skills to dampen conflict and set the groundwork for forgiveness and peacemaking which would be necessary for any unity of the Churches to occur.
I also have served for a number of years as the President of the Society of St. John Chrysostom-Western Region (SSJC-WR), which is a grassroots ecumenical organization of laity and clergy of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Eastern Catholic and Roman Catholic Churches. Its purpose is to make known the history, worship, spirituality, discipline and theology of Eastern Christianity, and for the fullness of unity desired by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. A personal comment: I will say that those of us active in the organization no longer see each other as adversaries, but as brothers and sisters in Christ, desperately praying, desiring and working for unity. Of course, as I mentioned before, unity has to come from all the Church: bishops, priests and laity, each according to their own function, to quote from St. Basil's Liturgy "not to confuse any one of us."
Pastorally and clinically I have seen that anger and conflict is the great psycho-spiritual cancer of individuals and families, tearing them apart. As I said previously, it is the consequence of pride. St. John of the Ladder describes this in Step 23 of his Ladder of Divine Ascent: "Pride is a denial of God ... a source of anger." This is one of the main reasons I have been so steadfast in doing all I can to write about the cognitive-behavioral-emotional skills that can be developed and enlivened by the Holy Mysteries of the Church to heal these diseases.
Also I have never understood those who use or condone any form of corporal punishment or engage in harshness against others. Consequences shape behavior; hitting or screaming models inappropriate behavior, teaches others to do the same, undermines credibility.
St. Seraphim of Sarov said, "Acquire the spirit of peace and a thousand of souls will be saved around you." My own version of his spiritually blessed counsel is: "Acquire the spirit of kindliness and a thousand of souls will be saved around you." I see no room for harshness, which is the fruit of evil; rather, kindliness is next to Godliness.
Is it difficult at times to reconcile your Orthodox faith and practice with the demands of your professional life? Are there opportunities to witness to your faith, and do you have a word of encouragement for lay people who are laboring in professions where the majority of people aren't Christians, much less Orthodox?
The simple answer is no. The more nuanced answer: God is "ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever existing and eternally the same." Thus the laws of nature discovered by the sciences are ways of learning about God's creation. For example, if God willed to create man through the process of evolution, so be it. What is important is the spiritual meaning of the creation narrative in Genesis, and that God ensouled our first parents from whom we all descend by His breath (spirit).
On the psychological side, a patient coming into my office (a home office) cannot miss the spiritual connection. First, I received a blessing from Metropolitan Philip to open a counseling center called Holy Cross Center. The name is on the building entryway. A screen separates the living room, which serves as a waiting room and the office proper which is off the main foyer. The waiting room and the office have many icons. I always dress in casual clerical clothing. On page 2 of the 8-page Patient Intake Sheet is a question asking the religious background of the patient and family and the degree of religion and spirituality in their lives (0-10 scale). Ethically, a psychologist can integrate the spiritual value system of the patient with the scientific treatment of the patient's presenting problem. If the patient is not religious, then the values of the patient can be discovered during the therapeutic encounter and value clarification and integration into their thoughts, emotions and behaviors can be a treatment goal.
There is an Orthodox spiritual basis that underlies my approach. First, we are created by God in His image and called to be like Him. He created us with free will. Thus I as a priest-psychologist have to respect the free will of the patient. This is in regard to their belief or disbelief in God, or in the teachings of Christ and His Church regarding dogma and morality. If asked, I can tell others about the teachings of Christ and His Church, but at the same time I must respect their free will. At times I have been asked to consent, condone or participate in something clearly contrary to Christ's teachings and I have not hesitated to emphatically state that I cannot do so. In matters regarding sexual behavior, such an important contemporary concern in our highly sexualized society, I have made it clear that the same standards of the sanctity of the body, complementarity of the sexes, the sacredness of a blessed marriage of male and female apply to all, despite sexual orientation.
I have found the use of a Cognitive Therapy technique helpful when someone wants me to agree to something I do not agree with. I use the disarming technique, which basically makes a neutral comment saying nothing; e.g., "I see you are happy with your choice." Such an approach should equally apply to all Orthodox Christians, ordained or not.
The complete archive of Fr. George's articles is available on his dedicated Website page. His Chaplain's Corner can be viewed on the Department of Chaplain & Pastoral Counseling Ministry page.