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Cultism Within

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  • stnephon@aol.com
    Cultism Within: A Rejoinder Fr. Alexe y Young s article, Cults Within and Without (OA March-April 1996) provoked a response which appeared recently in
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 29, 2001
      Cultism Within: A Rejoinder

      Fr. Alexe'y Young's article, "Cults Within and Without" (OA March-April 1996)
      provoked a response which appeared recently in another Orthodox periodical,
      with an
      attempt to qualify or moderate Fr. Alexey’s warnings on false elders within
      the Church. The response contained, however, certain errors which only tend
      to underline the truth and importance of Fr. Alexey's words. The following
      unsolicited rejoinder to this response is printed here not so much as a
      defense of Fr. Alexey's article as it is as a valuable extention. We have
      deliberately deleted references to the source of the response and its author,
      as it is not our intent to debate the subject, merely to clarify. -- ed.
      The author of the Response chides Fr. Alexey for talking about monasticism at
      all, since it is, he observes, "an estate which, in general, cannot be
      adequately studied outside its confines, and especially by non-monastics."
      However, the phenomenon of false eldership, which is so rampant in our days,
      does not affect only monastics; nor are the principles of eldership an
      esoteric secret which is comprehensible and relevant only to monastics
      (although, as in all matters of Faith, the more virtuous the life, the deeper
      the understanding). Many lay parishioners are given monastic-style obediences
      by parish priests who arrogate to themselves authority over them that is
      appropriate only to a true, Spirit bearing elder; and Father Alexey is surely
      right to say that you should be wary "if you are a layman in a parish
      situation [and] are expected to get permission ("a blessing") from the priest
      before you change jobs, buy a new car, etc. Under normal circumstances these
      are not the proper purview of a parish priest, however wise and pious he may
      otherwise be. One may -- and should -- ask for prayers and advice about these
      and other non-controversial aspects of practical life, but asking for
      permission is quite a different thing." Since such demands for monastic-style
      obedience are often encountered by laymen, Fr. Alexey, as a pastor of laymen,
      has every right to express an opinion on the subject, basing himself, of
      course, on the Tradition of the Orthodox Church as revealed in the Holy
      Scriptures and the writings of the Holy Fathers.
      One of the Fathers who spoke most urgently about the dangers of false
      elders was Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, who wrote, "What has been said of
      solitude and seclusion must also be said of obedience to elders in the form
      in which it was practiced in ancient monasticism -- such obedience is not
      given in our time (The Arena, Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1991,
      chapter 12, p. 43, emphasis mine). Fr. Alexey does not mention Bishop Ignaty,
      but he follows in the same tradition when he asserts: "... in this country,
      at least, there are NO true elders today whose voice can he the voice of
      heaven for a disciple or spiritual child" (emphasis his). The Response
      disputes this opinion, pointing out that the Optina elders flourished during
      the time of Bishop Ignaty, and that "in this century, many Holy Elders in
      Russia, Romania Bulgaria, Greece, Mt Athos, Mt Sinai and elsewhere have led
      countless souls to salvation." However, disputes about the number of true
      elders in Russia or America in the 19th or 20th century are beside the point.
      The point is that the grace of true eldership has grown exceedingly scarce
      (how could it be otherwise in the era of the Antichrist?), and that great
      care must therefore be exercised before entering into a relationship of
      strict obedience to a supposed elder, insofar as obedience to a false elder,
      according to the witness of the Holy Fathers, can lead to the loss of one's
      Let us consider some examples.
      In the sixth century, when monasticism was at its height and truly
      Spirit-bearing elders could be found ~n many places, Saint John of the Ladder
      still found it necessary to warn:
      When motives of humility and real longing for salvation decide us to
      bend our neck and entrust ourselves to another in the Lord, before entering
      upon this life, if there is any vice and pride in us, we ought first to
      question and examine, and even, so to speak, test our helmsman, so as not to
      mistake the sailor for the pilot, a sick man for a doctor, a passionate for a
      dispassionate man, the sea for a harbor, and so bring about the speedy
      shipwreck of our soul. (The Ladder of Divine Ascent; Willits, CA: Eastern
      Orthodox Books, 1973, p. 67, Step 4:6).
      Again, in the eleventh century Saint Symeon the New Theologian wrote:
      If you wish to renounce the world and learn the life of the Gospel, do
      not surrender (entrust) yourself to an inexperienced or passionate master,
      lest instead of the life of the Gospal you learn a diabolic life. For the
      teaching of good teachers is good, while the teaching of bad teachers is bad.
      Bad seeds invariably produce bad fruits... Every blind man who undertakes to
      guide others is a deceiver or quack, and those who follow him are cast into
      the pit of destruction, according to the word of the Lord, If a blind man
      leads a blind man, both will fall into a hole (Matt. 15:14). (Practical and
      Theological Texts, 32, 34, in The Philokalia, vol. 3).
      In the eighteenth century, the situation had become so serious that,-in
      spite of having an ardent desire to find a true elder to whom he could bow
      his neck in complete obedience, Saint Paisius Velichkovsky was unable to find
      such a man, although he scoured all the lands between Russia and Mount Athos.
      Eventually he and a like-minded brother from the Holy Mountain entered into
      mutual obedience to each other, "having instead of a father and instructor
      the teaching of our Holy Fathers." (Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky, Platina,
      CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1976, pp. 68, 147-148).
      The author of the Response writes: "We must also understand what true
      Eldership is. True Elders do not, of course, ask us to do what is immoral or
      wrong. Nor do they claim to speak with the authority of Heaven or to possess
      infallibility. We Orthodox are not Papists."
      So far so good. But then he continues: "To the extent that we entrust
      our souls to our Elders, make them images of Christ, and let God work through
      them, their human errors become inconsequential. In short, our obedience
      within monasticism, covered as we are by the Grace of the sacred tonsure,
      produces eldership. Eldership is not personal. Wherever there is sincere
      monastic obedience, there is Eldership."
      The obedience of disciples produces elders, makes them images of
      Christ? Perhaps this is just careless language, but the prima facie sense of
      the words implies that the grace of eldership comes, not from above, but from
      below, not from God but from the subjective and quite possibly misplaced
      faith of the disciple. Perhaps what is meant is that God bestows the grace of
      eldership on a man in response to the eager faith of his disciple. But this
      is still unacceptable from an Orthodox point of view. A disciple can no more
      make an elder than a layman can ordain a priest.
      Bishop Ignaty puts the point in typically trenchant fashion:
      Perhaps you retort: A novice's faith can take the place of an
      incompetent elder. It is untrue. Faith in the truth saves. Faith in a lie and
      in a diabolic delusion is ruinous, according to the teaching of the Apostle.
      They refused to love the truth that would save them, he says of those who are
      voluntarily perishing. Therefore, God will send them (will permit them to
      suffer) a strong delusion, so that they will believe a lie, that all may be
      condemned who do not believe the truth but delight in falsehood (II Thess.
      2:10-12). (The Arena, p. 45, emphasis his).

      How, then, are we to distinguish between true and false elders? I. M.
      Kontzevich provides the answer in his book on the Optina elders:
      Those who have given themselves over to the direction of a true elder
      experience a special feeling of joy and freedom in the Lord. He who writes
      these lines has personally experienced this in himself. The elder is the
      immediate channel of the will of God. Communion with God is always
      accompanied by a 'feeling of spiritual freedom, joy, and indescribable peace
      in the soul. Contrary to this, the false elder pushes God into the
      background, putting his own will in the place of God, which is accompanied by
      a feeling of enslavement, depression and, almost always, despondency.
      Besides, the complete submission of the disciples before the false elder
      exterminates his personality, buries his will, perverts the feeling of
      righteousness and truth, and, in this way, weans his conscience from
      responsibility for his actions.
      Concerning false eldership his Reverence Ignaty Brianchaninov says
      this: "It is a terrible business, out of self-opinion and on one's own
      authority, to take upon oneself duties which can be carried out only by the
      order of the Holy Spirit and by the action of the Spirit. It is a terrible
      thing to pretend to be a vessel of the Holy Spirit when all the while
      relations with satan have not been broken and the vessel is still being
      defiled by the action of satan! It is disastrous both from oneself and one's
      neighbor; it is criminal, blasphemous."
      False eldership produces hypnosis of thought. And since at the root of
      it there lies a false idea, this idea produces spiritual blindness. When the
      false idea covers up reality, then no arguments will be accepted any longer,
      since they stumble upon an idde fixe, which is considered to be an
      unshakeable axiom. (Optina Pustyn i yeyo Vremya, Jordanville: Holy Trinity
      Monastery, 1970, pp. 12-13, emphasis his).
      True eldership, according to Kontzevich, is nothing other than the
      gift of prophecy, the second of the gifts of the Spirit listed by the Apostle
      Paul (I Cot. 12:28). This is confirmed by Hieroconfessor Barnabas (Belyaev),
      Bishop of Pechersk, himself a clairvoyant elder, who wrote: "Elders in
      Russian ecclesiastical consciousness are ascetics who have passed through a
      long probation and have come to know the spiritual warfare from experience,
      who by many exploits have acquired the gift of discernment, and who, finally,
      are capable by prayer of attaining to the will of God for man. That is, to a
      greater or lesser extent they have received the gift of clairvoyance and are
      therefore capable of giving spiritual direction to those who turn to them" (
      Pravoslaviye, Kolomna: New Golutvin Convent, 1995, p. 149, emphasis mine).
      Bishop Ignaty's warnings against false eldership should not be taken
      as a renunciation of all forms of monastic obedience. If they were, his works
      would hardly have been given as required reading for monastics by the Optina
      elders and Bishop Theopban the Recluse. Hieromonk Nikon of Optina, in his
      commentary on Bishop Ignaty's writings (Pis'ma k Dukhovnym Chadam, Kuibyshev,
      1990), explains that Bishop Ignaty's warnings apply only to the strictest
      kind of elder-disciple relationship: less strict forms of obedience still
      retain all their spiritual usefulness, even necessity; for no Christian can
      be saved without obedience and the cutting off of his will in some way. But
      in our apocalyptic age, when the love of many bas grown cold and there is a
      general spiritual impoverishment, it is as dangerous to demand the strictest
      forms of obedience as it would be to demand the strictest forms of fasting or
      prayer or other kinds of ascetic endeavor. We must discern the signs of the
      times, and adapt our strategies for survival accordingly.
      When we see, on the one hand, how difficult it is to be a Christian in
      the maze of modern life, and, on the other, with what swiftness and apparent
      ease the monks and pious laymen of past ages attained salvation through
      strict obedience to a God-bearing elder, it is tempting to find such an elder
      even when he does not exist. But when we surrender our will to a false elder,
      we become slaves of a man, a man who is suffering a very grave spiritual
      sickness; whereas Apostle Paul says, You were bought with a price; do not
      become the slaves of men (I Cor. 7:23). And having become slaves of men, we
      lose that most quintessential attribute of man made in the image of God --
      independent judgment, and the ability to turn to God directly for
      enlightenment and help.
      Many converts are tempted to submit to a false elder for another reason
      -- that he led them to Orthodoxy and may well be the only Orthodox leader in
      the vicinity. Then a mixture of gratitude and the fear of becoming completely
      isolated may lead the convert to conclude that Divine Providence must have
      led him to submit his whole life to this man for the salvation of his soul.
      The false elder, who is often a cunning psychologist, can exploit this
      situation to gain complete control over his disciples, adding, in the case of
      disobedienc or the threat of fearsome sanctions, including very strict
      penances, curses and even anathematization and expulsion (supposedly) from
      the Orthodox Church! -- a tragic situation which may lead to the convert's
      abandoning the Orthodox Church altogether, and which the present writer has
      personally observed in True Orthodox communities in England, Russia, Bulgaria
      and Greece.
      Many who have fallen into the trap of false eldership and begin to see
      their real situation, are deterred from breaking free by false feelings of
      guilt, as if there were no circumstances in which a disciple can disobey an
      elder. But, even apart from heresy, there are certain conditions in which it
      is right to disobey and leave one's elder, as we read in the Sayings of the
      Desert Fathers:
      A brother questioned Abba Poemen, saying, "I am losing my soul through
      living near my abba; should I go on living with him?" The old man knew that
      he was finding this harmful and he was surprised that he even asked if he
      should stay there. So he said to him, "Stay if you want to." The brother left
      him and stayed there. He came back again and said, 'I am losing my soul." But
      the old man did not tell him to leave. He came a third time and said, "I
      really cannot stay there any longer." Then Abba Poemen ,raid, "Now you are
      saving yourself; go away and do not stay with him any longer. And he added,
      "When someone sees that he is in danger of losing his soul, he does not need
      to ask advice." (The Alphabetical Series, Pi, Poemen, 189, London: Mowbrays,

      Perhaps the most characteristic mark of the last times is the spiritual
      isolation of the individual believer. Of course, no true Christian is ever
      really alone: he always has with him God and the Mother of God and all the
      saints and angels of the Heavenly Church. But in the last times the support
      of the Heavenly Church may be the only real support that the conscientious
      believer has, as the Earthly Church grows weak and small, and even such
      leaders as are left become ensnared in uncanonical situations or suspect in
      some other way.

      This has been the experience of many thousands of believers of the
      Russian Catacomb Church, and it is therefore from the Catacomb Church that we
      hear the most urgent admonitions to preserve our spiritual freedom, "lest
      imperceptibly and little by little we lose the freedom which our Lord Jesus
      Christ, the Liberator of all men, has 'given us as a free gift by His Own
      Blood" (8th Canon of the Third Ecumenical Council). Thus Hieromartyr Bishop
      Damascene, Bishop of Glukhov, said, "Perhaps the time has come when the Lord
      does not wish that the Church should stand as an intermediary between Himself
      and the believers, but that everyone is called to stand directly before the
      Lord and himself answer as it was with the forefathers!" (E.L.,
      Episkopy-spovedniki, San Francisco, 1971, p. 92). Again, Hieromartyr Joseph,
      Metropolitan of Petrograd, emphasized the possibility that the true
      Christians of the last times will have to leave all the recognized spiritual
      guides; for "perhaps the last 'rebels' against the betrayers of the Church
      and the accomplices of Her ruin will be not only bishops and not
      protopriests, but the simplest mortals, just as at the Cross of Christ His
      last gasp of suffering was heard by a few simple souls who were close to
      Him..." (I.M. Andreyev, Russia's Catacomb Saints, Platina, CA: St Herman of
      Alaska Brotherhood, 1982, p. 128).

      Thus we may be moving into the last period of the Church's history, when
      the wheel has come round full circle and the Church has returned to the
      molecular structure of Abraham's Family Church, when true bishops are few and
      far between, when charismatic spiritual guides have more or less disappeared,
      and when the individual believer has to seek the answers to his spiritual
      problems from God and God's word alone, remembering David's words: It is
      better to trust in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to hope in the
      Lord than to hope in princes (Psalm 118:8-9).
      If even the Apostle Peter was rebuked for making damaging concessions
      to the Jews (Gal. 2:11-12), how can we expect never to be in conflict with
      our spiritual leaders? And if even the Apostle Paul feared lest after
      preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (I Cor. 9:27), how can we
      deny the possibility that our spiritual guides may also lose grace,
      necessitating our departure from them? Those who point out these facts are
      not inciting to rebellion -far from it! They are calling men to a sober
      understanding of the nature of the times we live in, They are warning that
      those who, unlike the true apostles and holy fathers and God-bearing elders
      of all ages, attempt to lord it over our faith (II Cot. 1:24) must be
      rejected for the sake of that same faith, out of obedience to the one and
      only infallible authority, God Himself.
      August 25/September 7, 1996 Apostles Bartholomew and Titus
      By Vladimir Moss

      Hadzi Igor stefan
      brotherhood of st Nephon

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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