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The Charismatic Movement and Orthodoxy

Question: Would you comment on the so-called "Charismatic Renewal" and its relation to Orthodoxy? (M.B., TX)

Answer: This subject deserves constant attention, since the charismatic movement is gaining more and more attention in the media and among Orthodox. We will begin our remarks by recounting an episode that occurred several years ago. A very dedicated and sincere clergyman, as best we could gather from speaking with him, visited our monastery during the Paschal Season. He entered the monastery Church with one of his followers, who had "converted" to Orthodoxy under the influence of this Priest, who was active in the charismatic movement among Orthodox, from a Protestant Pentecostal sect. Both the Priest and his companion were somewhat uneasy on entering the Church, not knowing what to do in confronting a place of worship free of pews (as all Orthodox Churches should be), where men and women were standing on opposite sides.

The two visitors began to follow the service in one of the standard Lenten service books used in the more modernized Orthodox jurisdictions or, of necessity, by English-speaking Orthodox. It was immediately apparent that they were lost, as they discovered that their books contained only portions of the prescribed services—something tremendously unfortunate, since the Lenten services are so magnificent in their structure. Added to the fact that they expected the service to last ninety minutes, when it fact it was almost three hours in length, the inadequacy of their service books obviously frustrated them, since they began to pray aloud and to make loud exclamations—"Praise the Lord..... Amen."

Finally, one of the Faithful, not knowing that the Priest, who had no beard and wore western clerical garb, was Orthodox, quietly informed him that Orthodox worship in silence and solemnity, with great attention to inner prayer. He explained that the clergyman and his companion were interrupting the service and thus cutting the Faithful off from the mystical quiet that is so conducive to true worship. The Priest and his friend stood through the rest of the service quietly and apparently moved by the worshipful atmosphere.

Afterwards, we cordially greeted the clergyman and his young friend. They openly expressed their pleasure at the service, the chanting, and the solemnity of the Faithful. We pointed out to them that we preserve many of the external traditions of the Church, if only because they aid one to lift his mind into the spiritual realm. In the glory of all of the traditions of the Church, complete and unaltered, we explained to our visitors, there is a spiritual fullness that has sustained Orthodox throughout the ages—these traditions reaching down to how a Priest dresses, whether the Faithful stand during worship, and even how we position ourselves, in terms of posture, during prayer. There was no response from the clergyman and no attempt to "push" any charismatic theology on us.

This incident has always struck us. It is precisely because we have—in America, mostly through modernization and an uncareful attitude toward tradition—, abandoned the richness and fullness of the Church's services that the charismatic movement has taken hold in many of our Churches. And it is precisely in the most modernistic Churches, those with the most innovative services, that the movement is rampant. In a good, traditionalist Orthodox community, this could not happen. It is only where something is missing in Orthodox tradition that something like the charismatic movement can move in to fill the empty spaces. This is a very difficult and wounding thing for most clergymen to accept. Most, in fact, fight the notion "tooth and nail." Nonetheless, it is true. This failure, however, is not the fault of the Priest, but convicts the whole of the Orthodox Church for being less than vigilant in fulfilling St. Paul's injunction that we guard the traditions handed down to us, challenging us, not to be innovative, but to return to Holy Tradition.

In Churches where Priests look and act like lay people, where quiet meditation and spiritual chanting have been replaced by organs and the theatre, where pews dull our senses and cater to our bodies, where physical preparation for an encounter with the divine (fasting, prostrations, etc.) is inadequate—is it not exactly here that we find Pentecostal emotionalism spreading like fire among the simple Faithful and the unfulfilled believers? We need not even answer the question.

In fact, the Orthodox Church is ever renewed by the Presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit in its services, their mystical content, when properly and completely performed, transforming the soul and transcending the senses and emotions. And when we strive, as true Orthodox Christians, not to babble and throw ourselves into unseemly emotional fits, but to reach up to Christ through the established methods of the Orthodox Church (quiet meditation, fasting, standing, proper posture, proper breathing, etc.), we grow in Grace, finding always within us the subtle, elusive comfort of the Holy Spirit—a quiet whisper or wind, not a loud, ugly gale. But this true, subtle growth in the Spirit demands work and sacrifice from us—a true sacrifice of turning from the world, from creature comforts, from the din of emotional religion, from the realm of man. And it is because true birth in the Holy Spirit is so profound and such a task that so many turn to the easy world of evangelical shouting and arrogant affirmations of "re-births", "gifts," and "renewals," mocking the Holy Spirit in its quiet whispers to the human heart.

As for those who misinterpret, twist, and rearrange the words of the Fathers (especially St. Symeon the New Theologian) and thereby try to support their charismatic goals from within the Orthodox Church, let them think about this: At no time in the history of Orthodoxy—in a history of almost two thousand years—did the Faithful or the Fathers ever throw their hands frantically in the air, babbling, interrupting the chanting, and declaring the Church to have anything but the pleroma, or fullness, of the Holy Spirit. Never! Never!

Our Fathers raised the dead. They cured the ill. They ascended into the Heavenly Realm and conversed with angels. They went to speak to those who spoke another tongue and found that, without having learned that tongue, they could preach to the people. (This evangelical gift, which allowed the Apostles to spread the message of Christianity, was present in the Early Church. St. Paul even warns those who have it not to cause confusion, but, in order to be consistent with the purpose of the gift—that of witnessing to the Faith—, to use the gift only if interpretation is available.) Our Fathers were so united with the power of things spiritual, that often their flesh was infused with the Spirit, their bodies failing to corrupt after death. YET, never once did the Fathers babble senselessly in tongues, let alone in the midst of the liturgy. Never did they conduct themselves in the manner of the modern charismatics. We can only conclude, then, that this movement is a demonic ruse, an attempt to fulfill our Orthodox longing for the fullness of Church Tradition with the emotional frenzy of Pentecostal sectarian pietism.

There is nothing Orthodox about the charismatic movement. It is incompatible with Orthodoxy, in that it justifies itself only by perverting the message of the Fathers, suggesting that the Church of Christ needs renewal, and indulging in the theological imagery of, Pentecostal cultism. With such things, one cannot be too bold in his language of condemnation and reprobation.

As for those caught in the web of the charismatic movement, under no circumstances are we justified if we condemn them. Those who imagine themselves saved by all of this are victims of a demonic arrogance which blinds them to true evangelical humility, which often serves certain personality deficits, and which, more often than not, convinces them inwardly of their own salvation—indeed, a dangerous thing. We must reach out to these people with charitable words, constantly assuring them that the Orthodox Church has a fullness which is not yet realized in America. Within that fullness, we must tell them, rests a true spiritual treasure, not a dull stone glimmering with the polish of deceit and emotionalism. And then, to be sure, we must set about restoring the fullness of the Church's traditions, admitting readily that WE, not the Church, have lacked fullness!

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. I, Nos. 4&5, pp. 29-32.