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Newsletter, May 2018

A Theology of Dependence. A Way of Symphony

Ye. Rydalevskaya
Narcologist, executive director of Diaconia Charitable Foundation, St. Petersburg

Man does not love himself in this life. He loves, or rather, thinks that he loves his passions and for this reason has no clear idea of his own self. There is only one principal contradiction of a human given: 'God has made mankind upright; but they have gone in search of many schemes' (Åññ. 7:29).

Passion, however, is not only a drive but also an agony that, in case of a chemical dependency, manifests itself as a physical and mental pain and cannot be cured by medicines or through a surgical interference.

Drug addiction or alcoholism lead to the utmost disorder of one's mental resources - intellectual, emotional and sensual. The most precise definition of the state characteristic of people dependent on alcohol can be found in St. Paul: 'They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed' (Eph. 4:18-19).

Strikingly, this description coincides to a great extend with the definition of six addiction indicators described by Prof. V. D. Mendelevich in the 20th century [1]:

  • Continued use despite harmful consequences;
  • Need to take a substance or excite a certain activity (in case of game addiction);
  • Impaired ability to control one's own actions;
  • State of withdrawal;
  • Characteristics of tolerance;
  • Progressive neglect of alternative interests.

Let us dwell upon these characteristics, since to make an impact on the manifestations and causes of a disease, it is necessary to understand what we are dealing with.

What does mean 'darkened in their understanding'?

Holy fathers describe the rational power of the soul as the 'natural' mind' and, after the fall, call it the 'carnal' mind. It serves for adjustment to the surrounding world. It analyses, reasons, thinks, enters into dialogue, develops notions and ideas, but its judgements for the most part are restricted to the sensual world.

Since the sensual world of a dependent person is closely linked with a thirst for the experience of a 'chemical joy' or removal of distress and discomfort caused by a withdrawal syndrome, mind, in this situation, will serve these needs resorting to the most sophisticated forms of lie and manipulation up to a full loss of common sense. We find in Holy Scriptures a confirmation that the rational mind can be lost: 'they are a nation without sense, there is no discernment in them (Deut. 32:28). Man can distort his mind so much that it can be called foolish (Lev. 5:4; 1 Chronicle 21:8; Ps.49:10; Mt.7:26ff) or make his mind sly: 'But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. 'This is the heir,' they said. 'Let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' (Lk. 20:14; Mt. 21:25-27).

According to the teaching of St. Dionysius the Areopagite about the supersensual world, the mind guesses or receives knowledge from the intellect: "The mind makes conclusions about intellectual things not on its own but only coming in contact with the intellect (????)" [2].

In case of a dependence, there is an assumption that man proves to be a captive of the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms and for this reason, the mind is clouded demonically by holding it as much as possible from the understanding of God's will. Rev. Sergiy Goncharov deliberates on it in this way, 'In the mystical sense, not only the passion for drugs but also any other unnatural passion is a spiritual fornication with fallen forces… Only a certain insight prompts that drug addiction is a special form of fornication, a special form of contact with devils…' A person can get rid of mistaken judgements only when he has the inner unity with the intact source of the Truth, which is Christ.

As a person's dependence develops into a disease - and the modern medical science believes any abuse of psychoactive substances (PAS) is a disease - the iceberg of the tri-composite human soul turns upside down to bring on top the sensual part of the human soul and to make a person's need for PAS a factor that defines his behaviour. His soul, though suffering from shame and guilt, submits together with the mind to his passion in serving this need. A dependent person can commit insane acts since for him there is only one acceptable logic, that of the use of PAS before any other action: 'they are… separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed' (Eph. 4:18-19).

Alienation from God in one's practical life leads to commitment of sins, violation of God's commandments without repentance, without a clear awareness of what is good and what is evil. A person morally and spiritually comes down to the primitive state, his logic becoming like that of a cave-dweller as in a famous story about a missionary who came to the Papuans and asked whether they know what is good and what is evil. Papuans told him that when a neighboring tribe invades and leads away their wives and cattle - it is evil, and when they themselves attack their neighbors and take away their property - it is good'.

In the process of the abuse of PAS, the disease turns a person into such a Papuan: if a dependent person stole and was not caught, he feels to be a deft and lucky brave spirit. He is exited and satisfied since the tension caused by abstinence is finally relieved in the use. If someone in a dependents' flat died of overdose, they take him out to the stairs and continue taking drugs. If the money for PAS are obtained by any, even the most dishonest ways, be it robbing, killing or violence, the feelings of an ordinary man, his pangs of conscience, would be unbearable but for the 'hardening of the heart', which psychologists will describe as psychological defense. A dependence is called the disease of 'frozen feelings', since a human being cannot live experiencing an unbearable pain. He has to find a way to hide from it. 'Adam, where are you? - I was naked; so I hid (Gen. 3:9-10). Accordingly, having become 'senseless', man loses the ability to discern feelings and hence to control them. He cannot either name them or, consequently, become aware of his own feelings. It means he also loses an adequate contact with both himself and the world around him; for it is only through feelings that we can enter into relations of love with those around us, when attachment is born precisely from shared experiences, not from a mere a vicinity in space or combined actions. Since '…to love means to hear the other, to put oneself in his place, to understand him, to be interested in him. To love means to respond to his call and to his innermost needs. It means to empathize with him, to suffer together with him, to cry when he cries, to rejoice when he rejoices. To love also means to be happy when he is by your side, to be sad when he is away; it means to interpenetrate each other, finding refuge in each other. 'Love is a uniting power', Dionysius Areopagite says [3].

In case of a dependence, the heart makes a step away from love to maximal, limitless, pathological egoism experienced as utmost loneliness, when it hears only its own need. And this need is for an increasing dose of the substance due to the changed biological chemistry of the body, the changed tolerance (substance tolerance) and the development of compulsion. Hence the state of 'greed' mentioned by the apostle.

The very turnover of the hierarchical pyramid of the human soul, in which the mind and soul are subjected to the sensual nature and damaged in this condition - which in the Russian succinct and adroit language is called 'rasstroennost' (tri-lateral disorder-tr.) - leads to make it impossible for a person to achieve the main goal of human life, which is the unity of all the soul's resources organized around a human being as the image of God. It is only on the path of assembling the true self, one can feel inner wholeness, harmony and integrity, 'for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you' (Lk. 17:20-21).

It is important to say here that holy fathers distinguished between nature and personality (hypostasis) in man. 'Just as in the doctrine of the Triunity the essence lies in distinguishing between nature and hypostasis. But in the Trinity, there is one nature in three Hypostases, while in Christ there are two natures in one Hypostasis. Hypostasis includes the both natures: It remains one becoming the other: 'The Word became flesh…' [4].

According to V. Lossky, 'Personality should not by defined by its nature but it itself can define nature likening it to its Divine Prototype' [4].

In case of a dependency developing as a disease, a reverse process takes place. Dependent people lose their personal identity to become alike. This likeness is especially noticeable in the peculiarity of a substance they have chosen. Opioid drug-addicts differ from those who abuse psycho-stimulants, while alcoholics from saline drug-addicts. The portrait of a person becomes deem and is lost under the specific mask of the disease. From this it is possible to make a conclusion that a dependent person losing his own personality is ultimately defined in his actions by the nature damaged by the disease. And since the nature - including the bio-chemical changes in the body, behavior stereotypes and neurological disorders - in dependent people is damaged by a similar substance in a similar way; they become alike in accordance with changes that take place in their nature damaged by the disease, namely, in their psychological changes, social problems and other disorders accompanying the disease. Doctors actually say so: 'HABITUS' or an examined person's appearance made of his bearing, skin color, peculiar facial expressions and look characterizing his state of mind which allow them to make a judgement as to his health condition and disease.

Yet it would be wrong to state that his personality, as it were, no longer exists. "As a personal being, a human being can accept or reject the will of God. He remains a personality even when he walks far away from God, when he does not become like Him in his nature. It means that the image of God is indestructible in man. However, so far as personality is inseparable from the nature existing in it, the natural imperfection and every 'unlikeness' limits the personality, darkening 'the Image of God'… Learning and desiring according to his imperfect nature, a personality is actually blind and powerless; he no longer knows how to make a choice and too often yields to urges of the nature which has become a slave of sin" [5].

Accordingly, to help a dependent person it is necessary to define a sequence of actions that makes it possible to clear up 'the Image of God'. Properly speaking, the path of creative work should be stepwise so that a person could be helped to recover his lost dignity step by step.

The first step towards healing understood as the restoration of 'the Image of God' in a person will be his placing, with his consent, into a safe space where there will be no violence and access to a substance that caused the dependency.

The principal factor, without which all the rest is unthinkable, will be the creation of a therapeutic environment. Its distinctive properties are as follows:

  • Respectful, warm and inter-personal relations or acceptance (like family ones);
  • The feeling of belonging to a therapeutic community and awareness of the fact that people in it seek to achieve the same goal.

It is necessary for a therapeutic environment to show attention to the other involving little by little his whole life and recognition of his bond with other members of the community. 'To love means to listen to the other, to place oneself in his place (indeed, events in the life of various dependent people have very much in common), to understand him, to be interested in him' [3]. Therefore, 'a small group' will be one of the instruments as a space for listening and love in which feedback is organized in a way that each could feel it. To help means to participate in the life of the other, to participate in his emotional experience. EACH person who has become a charge in a therapeutic community, HAS A NEED FOR ATTACHMENT AS A WAY TO COME OUT OF LONELINESS. Attachment is a feeling of psychological bond between people. It is based on the past experience and, very importantly, on a shared emotional experience. One of our most important emotional needs is the need to see our own reflection in the other, to feel that the other responds to us, discerns and shares our experiences.

In Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning, there is a reflection on what is to be done by a person who found himself in the hell of a concentration camp. Essentially, it is just about what is to be done by a person who has fallen into the hell of dependence. 'What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us… Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual'.

The clear bounds defined in a rehabilitation center for dependent people help an individual to form the skills of right behavior that life expects from him. It is respect for others, ability to come to terms without violence and obscene language, ability to advance and timely participate in all the program activities, to fulfil in a responsible way the tasks entrusted to him; and then to go from simple to more complicated things, such as the ability to introspect, to assume responsibility, to form trust, to search for faith and for intelligent relations with God. And here one will need both reflections and talks as therapeutic measures for clearing one's clouded mind, to improve one's communicative skills, to search for new ideas, thoughts and meanings.

In this way we can gradually help a person to restore his disordered personality, to heal his damaged nature, to bring him back to his personality in all its uniqueness, dignity and characteristic gifts.

A therapeutic environment also helps to ensure a person's preparation for self-determination in basic spheres of life, spiritual, psychological, working and everyday family life. It is important that a person should be helped to formulate his new value and meaning guidelines, to let him get an appetite for a new life free from psychoactive substances, violence and loneliness. In addition it helps develop a person's ability to realize himself, to form his contacts and to prepare him for independent and responsible work in various spheres. It teaches him to organize his leisure time, to develop his ability for self-regulation and structuring his leisure time.

In a broad sense, the Church of Christ itself is primarily a grace-giving therapeutic space for a patient with dependency on the sin of humanity. Therefore, there is nothing new in our process of rehabilitation except for specialization in the most asocial manifestations of dependency. But there is an inevitably new language of definitions and detailed elaboration of ascetic actions, that is, concrete exercises in self-discipline, self-restrain and introspection aimed at inner transfiguration and change conforming to modern realities, which ultimately lead one who takes these actions to a full and profound awareness and change of one's own distorted human nature.

The basic information and skills to be received in the rehabilitation process can be grouped under three stages: 'Coming to one's senses', 'Coming to God' and 'Coming to people'. One can take a closer look at these stages in the author's program 'Metanoia' available on the website of the Diaconia charitable foundation at www.diaconiafond.ru.


  1. Guidelines for addictology / Ed. prof. V. D. Mendelevich. SPb .: Rech, 2007, p. 7.
  2. Michael Psellos. De anima // PG 122, 1029.
  3. Jean Vanier. The Community, a Place of Forgiveness and Feast
  4. V. Lossky. Ocherk misticheskogo bogosloviya Vostochnoy Tserkvi, Dogmaticheskoe bogoslovie [An Essay on the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Dogmatic Theology] Moscow 1991.
  5. Sv. Feofan Zatvornik. Nachertanie Hristianskogo nravouchenia [St. Theophanes the Recluse. An Outline of the Christian Ethical Teaching] Moscow 1885.

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