SPIRITUALITY: AN ERRONEOUS PERCEPTION
(Igumen Petr Meshcherinov)
In December, 1998, the Patriarch of Moscow and the Holy Synod accepted a very important resolution concerning spiritual relationships, errors existing in this sphere of church life, and the necessity of overcoming them. This resolution is important not only in and of itself, but also because it testifies that our church is a living organism and, as it always has throughout its history, reacts in a reasoned and sensible manner to each distortion in the life of the Church.
Six years have now gone by and it is time to assess whether positive changes have taken place [as a result of the resolution]. Regrettably, the answer is “no.” The Synodal resolution, despite the fact that it clearly expresses will of the Patriarch and the Hierarchy, has not been implemented. It should have been widely published in every diocese and its contents explained to the faithful from every ambon. It should have been made known to every faithful Orthodox Christian. This has not happened. To the contrary, the grinding wheel of "pseudo mystical guruism" gathers ever more force. People are lured into thinking that only what is spoken by or done by “elders” is actually Orthodox. Thus the spiritual life is reduced to the searching for these "elders" and to giving attention only to that which proceeds from their mouths. Often, however, what comes from them has no relationship at all to Christianity.
What is the matter here? Why has the most sound and timely resolution of the church authority not been received and implemented? Why have so few shared the concern of the hierarchy? Let us investigate all this in the light of the aforementioned document.
What is the norm of pastorship in the Church? Let us turn to Holy Scripture. The Lord gave His Apostles and their successors, the bishops, the authority to build and preserve the Church. This authority is not secular, not implemented with compulsive power. It is a grace-filled gift of service, to celebrate the Holy Mysteries, to maintain the faith and to indicate the true path of piety. This grace-filled gift is preserved in the Church and is transmitted in the Mystery of the Consecration of Bishops. Salvation is impossible without the Church, consequently, as Saint Theophan the Recluse says, it is necessary to be in union with it, and this means that it is necessary to have communion with its ministers, bishos of the Church.
“He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16) says the Lord. “He who receives any one whom I send receives me” (John 13:20). “As Thou (the Father) sent me into the world, so I have sent them (the Apostles) into the world” (John 17:18). “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who well have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17), the Apostle writes. And so, through obedience to the pastors, we are in communion with the God-established order of Church life.
This does not in any way mean, however, that the Church is divided into supervisors and subordinates (in the worldly sense). Before God we are all equal and we differ only in the degree of Church ministry, as Saint Silouan of Athos says, “There is not a church divided into teachers and pupils,” that is, a caste of teachers and a mass of silent listeners. All of us are the one Body of Christ, each one of us has a place in the Church, and all of us are co-workers with each other, together helping one another. When we thus come to Christ, in Him we discover salvation and the Heavenly Kingdom. Well does Apostle Peter speak of this, “So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed: Tend to the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And where the chief shepherd is manifested, you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. Likewise you that are younger be subject to those who are older. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble....Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another. As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God's varied degree grace....that in everything God may be glorified through Christ Jesus. To Him belong glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” (1Peter 5:1-5; 4:8-11).
This is the norm for the relationship of pastors and flocks. Everything has been said. I consider that every father-confessor must copy out these words in large print and read them daily. There is yet another place in the New Testament that all should harken to: "But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted," says the Lord (Matthew 23:8-12). These words of the Lord in no way contradict the church pastorship established by Him, but rather indicate that spirit in which it must be realized. Here are its characteristic indications, as the Holy Scripture speaks about it:(1). A pastor is not a supervisor to a person, not a ruler, but a servant.
(2). Relationships of the pastor and flock are built exclusively on the basis of love and mutual respect.
(3). Finally, and this is the main point, the pastor cannot manifest pastorship from himself.
It is not his, it is Christ's (in this, we find the meaning of the Saviour's words cited above). Consequently, the pastor is obliged – and here we find the virtue of the pastor revealed – to help every soul, to teach about Christ and His Church, to help a Christian to come to the full measure of growth in Christ. These necessary virtues or skills recognise that individuals are different, and that the Lord opens a way for each soul. The relationship of man and God is a great mystery, and a pastor, with God's help, must fit a key to the heart of each person in order that he may minister precisely to the persons concrete external and internal situation – giving what the Lord Himself wishes to give to that soul. One must not attempt to place any person into a common mold, and thrust upon him what is, perhaps, theoretically good and correct, but in the given situation moment, not appropriate.
Such is the pastoral norm. The distortions of it are instantly visible in the light. Let us note the most characteristic of these distortions. On the part of the pastor, there can be two main distortions:
(1). Incomprehension, insensitivity, ignorance and the circumstance indicated above – the pastor is not someone who is self-sufficient and self-dependent. He is a servant of Christ, a flexible and tactful instrument to His grace. Consequently, he must only and solely guide people to the teaching of Christ and the Church. Unfortunately, pastors frequently teach people not Christianity, but what they understand as Christianity, that is, they substitute the servant [themselves] in place of God and the Church.
(2). The second error is the notion that the grace of the priesthood acts automatically, merely on the strength of the ordination. Yesterday he was a plain person, but today after ordination, the attitude that everything coming from the lips of the newly-beginning pastor is from the Holy Spirit. This is a most widely spread delusion (and not simply a delusion, but a distorted behaviour emanating from it).
We must elucidate this. In the Church there is nothing automatic. Any mystery surmises a co-working of God and man, and is manifested according to its moral strengths. The Mystery of the Priesthood is no exception. We had stated that the task of the pastor is to teach people the teachings of the Church, and never his own notions about it, and a bringing together of the people with Christ. This is possible only in one case, when the pastor compels himself to mastering the Church teaching, not only in knowledge, but also in life when he himself has an experienced notion of the spiritual, Christian, Church life. Then the grace of the priesthood is revealed in him and brings forth an abundant result. Without moral toil grace, by itself, will do nothing. It will not "automatically" make an ignoramus into a wise man, a vainglorious man into a humble one, one who is greedy into a generous man. Yes, the Mystery will happen according to the strength of the empowerment of the Church, but in order to morally lead people, one must work very hard on the moral organization of one's life, in order to teach the Church's teaching one must master it as is proper. Unfortunately, the objective conditions of our times were the reason for the ordination of many people not fully ready for this, perhaps, not mature enough to understand what the service is that has been entrusted to them, and what it demands of them.
On the part of the flock, the following are the errors:
(1). In response to the notion of an "automatically acting" grace of the priesthood, there is born the notion of an "automatic" and "blind" obedience. It is reasoned in this manner: it is of no importance that the priest says one thing but lives in another way. What is important is that my faith in the strength of the grace of the priest's priesthood ushers God's will to me. This is a widely spread ideology and it is entirely not of the Gospel. The Lord did not say -- if of the two blind men the second one believes that the first one is not blind, then the first one will fall into the pit but the second one, through his faith, will not fall. No, the Lord said that both will fall into the pit. This in no manner means that one must judge the priests or go into an examination of their lives, and one has only to soberly respond to life and to remember that there is nothing "blind" in the Church. In particular, obedience naturally is born from normal relationships between pastor and flock, when they -- the relationships of mutual love and respect, when the pastor does not teach about himself and his opinion about the Church, the spiritual life, etc, but strives to bring people to Christ. Then, obedience brings its grace-filled fruit, then it is natural, and there can be no other talk about it. When the relationship of the older and the younger in the Church is not of the Gospel, then obedience becomes an object of speculation, it loses its spiritual meaning, and instead of a means to salvation, it becomes a slavish submission which only drives a person from the Lord.
2). But what is most important is what begets the abnormalcy of spiritual relationships -- the fear of freedom and responsibility. Where there is the Lord's Spirit, there freedom is, says Apostle Paul. Christianity granted people a great gift -- freedom. But, since freedom is impossible without a personal responsibility for one's own life, then it becomes heavy for many people. It is easier to shed it from oneself so that someone else could decide about it, it is easier to hide behind traditions, corporatism, rules, plans, etc, than to responsibly and consciously build one's own Christian life. Thus all the life of the flock is foisted upon the confessors. People, in place of freedom, want to receive a "guarantee of salvation." But a refusal of freedom is a refusal of Christianity, since it can be accomplished only personally, "under one's own responsibility." The demand begets a notion -- and here the immediate confessors cease to be co-sojourners, co-workers, advisors of Christians, but become their undivided rulers. Thereby, spiritual relationships go beyond the borders of Church order. Being even important, but still a part of the spiritual side of life, they illegally spread entirely upon it. Then, not only the entire Christian order becomes skewed, but life in general. This can be observed, for example, in "Orthodox" families when, frequently enough, the husband does not become the head of his wife, but the confessor, or when, let us say, in order to fulfil service obligations, it is necessary "to receive the confessor's blessing." And now, the husband or the supervisor at work depend upon completely extraneous and outrageous factors, while being puzzled: what sort of "orthodoxy" is this? Conflicts arise on this soil and families even fall apart, and the spiritual relationships become manipulations.
How is one not to allow any of this? How are these relationships nevertheless to be normally built? What is the place of a confessor in a Christian's life?
First of all, something general must be said. The task of a confessor is not to work a person over, not to make of him his own copy, a "clone," but with greater love and respect to the individuality to give Christ a place in his life so that a person, having defeated, by the Holy Spirit, the sin living in him, becomes himself, such as Christ wants to see him -- unique, free, responsible, conscientious, a developed individual. The confessor must teach him to discern where the grace of the Holy Spirit is, where the natural course of things is, where passion and sin are, so that all this might not become jumbled in a person's head, mangling his life. This is an entire educative process.
In particular, a confessor is needed most of all at the beginning when a person just enters the Church and perceives the rudiments of spiritual life. Here, the confessor is a thoughtful guardian and teacher. The aim of this teaching is singular, to give the beginning Christian the correct direction of growth so that he becomes precisely churchly, not deviating to "near" and "pseudo" church substitutions, not to false ascetic rigorism, not to relativism, etc. Then, after the beginning, the relationship changes somewhat: they become as if more "equal", not in the sense of familiarity or revocation of the priestly rank, but internally. The person will be mature, he will have more freedom, more trust, and less tutelage, a smaller quantity of rules, advice, exhortations, etc.
Perhaps here is revealed our main trouble. I observe spiritual relationships of people in our Church and am amazed at how immature they are! No one wishes to mature. Neither the flock which seems to be satisfactorily "stuck" in Church infancy, looking at the world through the eyes of its confessor, at that time when the Lord wants us to become precisely ourselves, to grow in the measure of Christ. Neither the confessors for whom it is uncomfortable to see next to them people who have matured. They somehow do not know how to treat them. It seems that many pastors have to see their flock exclusively in the form of unreasonable children with whom one can speak "condescendingly," in a language of commands, admonitions, lectures. In all of this I see some sort of mutual disrespect and a forgetting of what is the main thing -- that the Church is not a kindergarten where there are authoritarian educators and deliberately foolish children, but is the Body of Christ, that is, the spiritual organic union in Christ of mature people who have come in their own measure, each one having his own church serving from God. It seems to me that it is indispensable to begin to realize this.
Also, let us touch upon another question about "elders." Young eldership remains one of the most painful problems of today's Church life. There is an ideological basis for this. Many with full seriousness affirm that "Orthodox is true only because it has elders." To find an "elder" is the main "spiritual" task of many Orthodox. For them the opinion of the "elders" is the highest authority, much greater than the authority of Holy Scripture, not even speaking of "some sort of opinions" of the hierarchy. One might as well sound a serious alarm concerning this epidemic of "gerontology." What is the reason for this phenomenon?
We saw that in the Church there is a God-established hierarchy, in whom the grace of the Holy Spirit is entrusted to illumine people with the Mysteries, to teach them the truths of the faith and morality. This teaching comes from the person and by the authorization of the Church; it does not bind or crush freedom, and is accomplished in a spirit of love. Pastorship is advice, example, a mutual movement of the elderly and the youth in the Church toward Christ. And, it would seem, that this is very much, but people find this little. Simply pastors of the Church and pastoral guidance is not enough for them. They want something greater and higher -- elders. Some Orthodox feel some sort of actual loss and incompleteness in their spiritual life without elders. Some strive to "verify" in the elder the advice of their confessor. All this is nourished by a sizeable number of corresponding "near Orthodox" literature.
Who are these elders in actual fact? An elder simply speaking is a person who has attained holiness and is worthy from God the gifts of discernment and perspicaciousness. There always were few real elders (and now, judging by everything, there are none), but many books about them have remained. In reading these books and seeing the salutariness and abundant results of eldership, people naturally strive to acquire something similar in their lives. Searchings begin, according to external signs: a large white beard, or an emphasized ascetic (seen by everyone) model of life, or a great crowd of women or apocalyptic predictions with a certain opposition to the Hierarchy, etc. A demand begets a notion and "elders" of such a type are found without difficulty.
Why are they necessary? Firstly, as I have already said, to remove from oneself responsibility for oneself, to find an elder, to believe wholeheartedly in him and to think about or care about nothing. Entry into paradise is guaranteed. Secondly, simply put, to know the future. As a rule no one goes to an elder with the question of how to be saved, because this is completely clear in the Gospel, and any parish priest can in one way or another answer this question satisfactorily. An elder is not asked: to get married or to go to a monastery? To change one's living quarters or to sell them? To undergo an operation? To start a business or, to the contrary, to get rid of it quickly, etc, etc.? Of course they ask the elders if the end of the world is soon and what are the signs of antichrist. And here, by the way, there is a complete manifestation of the most real ecumenism. In other religions, for the deciding of these very questions, there exist gurus, sheikhs, shamans, lamas, tsadikim, druids, etc. An unbelieving person will go to a fortuneteller and telepathist. Of course, I am far from depriving these vital questions their significance, but when they appear as the main thing in life, then the Church becomes magic for people, and the vector of spiritual life is directed so that "at the expense of God" it would be good "here and now."
Moreover it is necessary to note one essential difference of an elder from a simple priest of the Church. If the latter ideally does nothing other than only bringing the Church's teaching to a person in his concrete situation, the elder acts on the basis of some sort of personal charisma, and caution is necessary here. Saint Seraphim of Sarov said that when he spoke from himself and not from the Holy Spirit, there were errors. Saint Silouan of Athos, in citing this phrase of Saint Seraphim, wrote that the errors can be small, but there can also be large ones. Thus the Church commands, in general, to have great sobriety in any contact with something personal. But in our times there is no sobriety. As if that were not enough, there is completely evident a reverse process of mythologising everything that is connected with "elders." As an example, in the biography of one of them we read that he wallowed in vice, drank vodka, behaved like a hooligan, etc. Instead of explaining this as being the upbringing and, let us say, a "simpleton's" organization of this person, all those qualities "are elevated" and almost ascribed to the Holy Spirit.
It would seem as if -- let's think, there is nothing special. Such a "childlike" perception (but, I will note, in no way in a Gospel sense) of the spiritual life. But in Actual fact there are far more serious things behind this than simply childishness, immaturity. At the basis of "gerontophilia" lies an incorrect notion of God, of God's will and the relationship of man and God. I point this out to your attention because it is extremely important.
Gerontophiles consider that God's will in relationship to the concrete person is, on the one hand, something predestined, earlier "programmed," and, on the other hand, something completely mysterious and that is necessary "to foresee." And so, in order to guess this "computerized" will, to get it right, an elder is needed, who is an elder precisely he possesses a certain secret knowledge of this most mysterious "will." We have guessed it and everything is going "swimmingly;" the children are not ill, and business is prospering. And if it has not been guessed, there everything is bad. And, worse still, to doubt the "mysterious knowledge" of the elder is total ruin. This is a completely non-Christian, magical, pagan attitude. It reduces our religion from the "good tidings" about God about the loving Father, about Christ the Saviour into "ill tidings", that Christianity is a minefield which cannot be crossed without a field engineer. The elder is the field engineer. The Orthodox Church does not teach this. God's will is not something programmed, automatic, what has to be "calculated." It is also not some kind of esoteric mystery. "I have spoken openly to the world...I have said nothing secretly" (John 18:20) said the Lord. On the contrary, God revealed to us His own will in Christ, in Holy Scripture, in the Church. The earthly life of a person is defined by a personal relationship of the heart, the soul toward God. God's will is recognized from the sum of the circumstances, from the commands of the conscience, from the disposition of the heart, from choices with sin. Undoubtedly, pastoral advice is appropriate here -- but advice precisely, in the spirit of the Gospel, the Church, but not at all some sort of false-mystical guru-like "guessing." If we do not take this into account, then our inner life ceases to be strictly spiritual, Christian but acquires a certain even occult colouration.
And so, let us sum it up. Spiritual relationships must be an expression of the following church principles: we are the Church, the Body of Christ; together we mature in God. The older in the Church help the younger both by the giving of God's grace, and the examples of life and lesson. But spiritual relationships, if they are correct, never hide the One for Whose sake they exist. Like everything in the Church, they are one of the means of Christian life, and they cannot substitute by themselves its aim which is Christ.
In conclusion, I return the reader's attention to the Synodal resolution about pastorship and confessorship with the wish that it be read and accepted in the way the Church wishes it.