"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, September 3, 2021

Almsgiving and Therapy in the Thought of Chrysostom

One of the things I learned in the early days of the pandemic last year, when so much was so unknown and we were all stuck at home doomfully ruminating, was that one of the best ways to manage my anxiety was to do something very concrete for others--take my kids for a walk, get groceries for an elderly shut-in neighbor, help pack boxes at the foodbank. If I were inclined--and I am most certainly not--towards immediately racing out to copyright this idea and market it as every other psychotherapist on the continent seems hell-bent on doing--I might call this ARCS ("Anxiety-Reducing Community Service"). Almost all such "modalities" and their jumble of acronyms are merely mercenary repackaging (dread and ugly word: "branding") of what has been obvious for centuries. 

In any event, my very minor and perhaps even banal discovery about myself not only took the focus off myself and the tendency to catastrophize, but even more important it helped serve someone else. Thus in my late 40s did I remember something I had once learned in my early 20s (when I did extensive volunteer work) but then gotten crowded out of my memory by the press of having a family and full-time job. 

In any event, my realization seems to have a long pedigree as a new book suggests. This does not really surprise me for as I've been arguing for some time in a variety of places, much that is good in modern psychotherapy was already to be found, however inchoately, in early Christian monastic practice. This seems confirmed by the recent advent of John Chrysostom: On Almsgiving and the Therapy of the Soul by Junghun Bae (Brill, 2021), 207pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this: 

In recent years, there has been significant scholarly focus on John Chrysostom’s appropriation of ancient psychagogy, demonstrating that he was a skilled Christian physician of the soul who sought to promote the somatic and psychological health of his congregation by proposing preaching and various ascetic disciplines as medical treatments. 

In these studies, however, relatively little attention has been devoted to his use of philosophical therapy in relation to almsgiving. To address this, this book aims to take a closer look at Chrysostom’s view of almsgiving and soul therapy within the context of ancient philosophical therapy. Ancient philosophers identified passions (πάθη), desires, and distorted thought as the diseases of the soul and developed various kinds of cognitive and behavioural remedies to cure these. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach between Greco-Roman philosophy and social ethics in early Christianity, particularly in the tradition of the Greek Fathers, what follows pursues a giver-centered analysis which has largely been ignored in the previous receiver-oriented research. 

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