Share   Print
Related Content

Cultism Revisited

A Corrective to Mr. Moss' Rejoinder

by Bishop Auxentios and Hieromonk Gregory

In the combined summer-autumn 1996 issue of Orthodox Tradition (Vol. XIII, Nos. 3 & 4), in a short critique entitled Monasticism and Cultism (pp. 47-50), Archimandrite Akakios addressed certain overstatements in an otherwise commendable article by Father Alexey Young, Cults Within & Without, which appeared in the March-April 1996 issue of Orthodox America (Vol. XV, No. 7 [1391, pp. 10-11). His critique, in turn, prompted a critical response from Vladimir Moss, published in the July 1996 issue of Orthodox America: Cultism Within: A Rejoinder (Vol. XVI, No. 1 [141], pp. 11-12), which also makes some important and valuable points. In her introduction to Mr. Moss's rejoinder, the editor of Orthodox America notes that "Father Akakios' attempt to qualify or moderate Father Alexey's warnings on false elders within the Church...contained...certain errors which only tend to underline the truth and importance of Father Alexey's words." She then characterizes Mr. Moss's unsolicited rejoinder "...not so much as a defense of Fr. Alexey's article as...a valuable extention [sic], adding that, having deliberately deleted references to the source... [and]...author of Father Akakios' critique, ...it is not our intent to debate the subject, [but] merely to clarify [it]."

In responding to Mr. Moss's extension to Father Alexey's comments, we, too, wish to avoid debate. Our purpose is twofold: first, to restate and to clarify the main points contained in Father Akakios' critique of Father Alexey's article on Eldership and Orthodox cultism, which points Mr. Moss at times misunderstands and mis-states; and second, to offer a corrective balance to the latters own fall to overstatement and a spirit of excessive apocalypticism, a fall that could lead an incautious reader into serious error. With regard to these endeavors, let us make it clear that we are not attributing error to Mr. Moss or, for that matter, to Father Alexey. The issue of Eldership, especially, is one which touches on the area of pastoral matters, where the antipodes of right and wrong do not apply. It is for this reason that the attribution of errors by the lay editor of an Orthodox Church periodical to the Abbot of an Orthodox monastery writing about monastic guidance is perhaps inappropriate, even if the latter is not identified by name. The delicate subject of spiritual guidance should never be approached with a spirit of advocacy and counter-advocacy. We must simply seek to understand differing views in a spirit of mutual edification.

Mr. Moss begins his rejoinder by saying that "Father Akakios, in his response to Father Alexey, chides the latter 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" [emphasis added]. Father Akakios simply points out, as his words, independent of Mr. Moss's addendum to them, affirm, that in general a non-monastic Priest (or, in the case of Mr. Moss, a layman), lacking the Grace of the monastic tonsure and, by definition, the particular insights that ideally derive from years of struggle and experience within that estate, must undertake any consideration of the Angelic life only with trepidation and acknowledging his inadequacy in fully understanding that life. A priori, he must understand that he is an outsider looking in. Indeed, one of the points that Father Akakios makes repeatedly in his response to Father Alexey's consideration of monasticism is that it is a uniquely Grace-filled institution not to be trifled with, even when it apparently comes to naught.

We have no qualms, in this same vein, about Mr. Moss's contention that, "Fr. Alexey, as a pastor of laymen, has every right to express an opinion on the subject of demands for monastic-style obedience...by laymen from their parish Priests." Father Akakios and we would be the first to agree with both Father Alexey and Mr. Moss that parish Priests are in no position to make such demands. In fact, the communities received into the modernistic Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese several years ago from a former Evangelical Protestant sect have often been the object of our criticism, in the pages of Orthodox Tradition, for the misuse of monastic-like obedience in their parishes—an abuse which Father Akakios has openly characterized as cultism, as a matter of fact. Father Akakios' warnings about Father Alexey's comments on monastic obedience, as a careful reading of his critique will reveal, center on those instances in which Father Alexey goes beyond parish matters and addresses the institution of monasticism itself. And if Mr. Moss finds Father Akakios' wholly charitable admonitions in this respect objectionable, we might contrast them against the rather stark words of the Optina Elder Saint Anatoly, written to a nun under his spiritual direction about those in the world who undertake to criticize the monastic estate: "[They] swarm around without any consciousness of what they are doing, like worms burrowing in the dirt. All they do is look at other peoples weaknesses and judge monastics as worthless—whereas they themselves have no conception of monasticism. And even concerning God and the future life, they speak alluding to books read long ago or even simply off the top of their heads."

Mr. Moss goes on, in his rejoinder, to discuss the nature of Eldership in general. In so doing, he introduces an artificial dichotomy in Orthodox spiritual life, that of obedience to truly Spirit-bearing elders and other forms of monastic obedience, the implication being that obedience shown to a truly Spirit-bearing elder is somehow more effectively salvific than simple monastic obedience. This false distinction arises when Mr. Moss too narrowly interprets the thought of I. M. Kontzevich, who defines a true elder as having, among other gifts, the gift of prophecy, i.e., the gift of clairvoyance. In a subtle way, he unwittingly suggests that spirit-bearing Elders fall into one class, false Elders into a second, and simple monastic superiors— those who mediate other forms of monastic obedience—into a third. Thus, one who, by inference, sees the future and demonstrates supernatural powers is an Elder, while a false Elder is one who pretends to have such powers, and those who do not demonstrate them belong to another category of spiritual leadership. As in the arguments put forth by Father Alexey, too, about false Elders, Mr. Moss fails to grasp the wider dimensions of prophetic gifts.

As countless spiritual writings and Scripture itself attest, the gifts of prophecy and clairvoyance are not necessarily extraordinary manifestations of premonition and prescience. Endurance, love, and humility are also prophetic gifts; and to the extent that they bring us face-to-face with spiritual truth, they involve the highest form of clairvoyance: a clear vision of God in His Energies. Subtle spiritual insight and discretion likewise border on clairvoyance, and the prophetic dimensions of spiritual guidance often involve such seemingly commonplace things as calling a sinner to repentance, offering confessional succor, and administering the Mysteries of the Church. Too frequently we dismiss the overwhelming miracle of the resurrection of a sinful soul as something which pales before the resurrection of the dead, notwithstanding the fact that Angels in Heaven rejoice over the former, a true and often lasting victory over human nature, while the resurrection of a dead body, a miracle which nonetheless culminates in eventual death, was almost ordinary to a number of Saints. We must not, once more, limit the sphere of the spiritual to what is dramatically supernatural—and this especially so among laymen. Thus, Saint John of the Ladder advises us, in choosing a spiritual Father, not to seek those who have the gift of foreknowledge and foresight, but rather those who are unquestionably humble and whose character and place of residence corresponds to our maladies.

Given what we have said, it is little wonder that Mr. Moss expresses befuddlement at Father Akakios' assertion, in his response to Father Alexey's misunderstanding of Eldership as a personal attribute, that, ...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. If true Eldership were exclusively determined by the presence or absence of dramatic elements of clairvoyance in one's spiritual Father, as Mr. Moss assumes, then it would indeed be something personal, focusing on some psychic quality in the Elder; and, in such a case, his contention that Father Akakios "...implies that the grace of eldership comes, not from above, but from below..." would carry some weight. But, of course, such a contention deviates from the basic notion of Eldership found in the Patristic consensus. It has always been understood that the Grace of Eldership is precisely that: Grace; i.e., an outpouring of Divine Energy from Heaven to earth. We Orthodox are, after all, not atheists; we assume that God acts in all spiritual things. When we speak of spiritual power, we presuppose that it is the product of Divine Grace and not a mere personal predisposition or charisma. As one exemplary practitioner of monastic obedience, highly respected in Greece for his extensive knowledge of the Fathers and his own personal sanctity, declares: "[A monk] is always prepared, that he might, with the Prophet Samuel, immediately respond to the call to obedience and self-abnegation. Speak, O Lord, for thy servant hears. However, the Lord speaks to us through our Elder. The spiritual Father is given authority from on high....The spiritual Father exercises an authority which Heaven reveres and before which demons tremble."

So it is that when a monk is tonsured, that is, when he is invested with the Divine Grace necessary to live monastically, he promises obedience to his spiritual Father, not on the condition that the spiritual Father must be clairvoyant, but unconditionally. A monks obedience is founded on the explicit belief that Christ speaks directly to him through his spiritual Father, despite any human foibles present in his guide. The link of obedience, from human to human, is energized by Divine Grace; it becomes a conduit through which spiritual wisdom and enlightenment are passed. Thus, when Mr. Moss suggests that, Perhaps what is meant is that God bestows the grace of eldership on a man in response to the eager faith of his disciple, he renders Father Akakios' formula unilateral, which it is not meant to be. Not only does God bestow Grace where it is warranted—that is, where an eager disciple seeks a true Elder—, but the eager faith of a disciple is also a response to the Grace of Eldership bestowed by God in his very relationship to his spiritual Father. And the prophecy and clairvoyance of Eldership—limited not to the obviously supernatural, but encompassing, as well, dedicated leadership, the administration of the Mysteries, and good monastic demeanor—also rest in and derive from this relationship. In the end, a good Abbot or spiritual guide who offers moral guidance, remains faithful to the traditions of monasticism, preaches Orthodoxy in fidelity to the Fathers, practices love, chastises those who go astray, inspires obedience in those placed in his care, and remains firm in his commitment, is a holy Elder. And Eldership is ultimately measured in this way, not by worldly notions of prophecy and clairvoyance. There are but two forms of Eldership: genuine and false, and the dividing line between them is not marked by glitter and the obviously miraculous, but by sobriety and a commitment to the wholeness and continuity of Orthodox Tradition.

Risking redundancy, let us strongly emphasize, one more time, something that is essential to understand in this portrayal of Eldership and obedience: Divine Grace is operative whether or not an Elder is manifestly clairvoyant. In, fact, it so happens that Elders, themselves, are at times unaware that Grace is acting through them. Let us call to mind, for example, the famous story of Saint Proklos, who, wanting to introduce a certain nobleman to Saint John Chrysostomos, was unable to do so, since each time that he approached his Elder's quarters and peered in, he saw an old man leaning over him and whispering in his ear, as the Saint intently composed what became his celebrated commentaries on the Epistles of Saint Paul. This occurred for three nights in succession. The venerable old man, it turned out, was Saint Paul himself, under whose guidance the Divine Chrysostomos, unaware of the fact, was ostensibly recording his own thoughts. If the Grace of Eldership is so subtle and so elusive that even those under its influence are unaware of its energy within them, who can characterize it as a personal attribute? And if he who enjoys that Grace does not always see it, how careful one must be in unequivocally declaring that there are no holy Elders in this or that place. Eldership is a function, a power that operates in context and in specific response to a given task, and is actuated by the Will of God and defined spiritual relationships and duties. Its presence or absence is not an issue to be discussed lightly and in sweeping terms.

Ultimately, in failing to understand that the Grace of Eldership is not personal, but transpersonal—for God is no respecter of persons—, Mr. Moss makes the pithy but irrelevant comment that, "A disciple can no more make an elder than a layman can ordain a priest." We might note, as Saint Theodore the Studite observes, that no human ordains a Priest per se: Ordination is from God. The Bishop exercises the power of his office through the Grace of God. And so, it is not the disciple who makes the Elder, as Father Akakios clearly states, but the action of the Holy Spirit, which operates through a disciples obedience and the sacred relationship between a disciple and his Elder. And just as the faults and failures of a Bishop do not limit the actions of God performed through him, so the faults and deficiencies of an Elder in no way impede the Grace of God as it acts through his relationship to a spiritual disciple. As Saint Herman of Alaska says: "Our sins do not in the least hinder our Christianity." A more legitimate concern in spiritual guidance, we might observe, is the indispensability of right belief—that is, Orthodoxy—in the action of Grace. Where right belief exists, human shortcomings become incidental. Thus it is Orthodoxy, and not the gift of clairvoyance, which serves as a fundamental characteristic of true Eldership. Here again, prophecy and clairvoyance are understood as expansive concepts, critically dependent upon and intimately linked to—more than anything else—correct belief. To a faithful disciple of an Elder who is truly Orthodox, even if that Elder is not notably virtuous, the experience of Grace, that intangible grasping of the Divine dimension which undergirds created existence, is always accessible.

Mr. Moss's potentially misleading comments about Eldership are reinforced, in part, by his misuse of Patristic warnings about inexperienced or ill-intentioned Elders, warnings which, while important (and especially in our days), address the issue, not of true Eldership, but, quite obviously, of false Eldership and the abuse of obedience. All of his extensive quotations from Bishop Ignaty (Brianchaninov), from Saint John of the Ladder, and from Saint Symeon the New Theologian, in fact, invariably make, in each case, nothing more than a point about the dangers of false Eldership. The inferred repudiation of Eldership, on account of instances of its abuse, can lead an incautious reader to conclusions which Mr. Moss certainly does not advocate, as evidenced by his admission that the scarcity of true Elders in our own times does not mean that they do not exist at all. Scarcity and abuse are not adequate arguments against the need for spiritual guidance; moreover, were Mr. Moss to put such warnings in context, he would be forced to admit that the same Fathers whom he so liberally quotes about the perils of false Eldership also point out a corresponding danger, equal to that of following false Elders: following one's own will and one's own judgment.

With regard to Mr. Moss's reference to Bishop Ignaty's famous claim that ancient monastic obedience to holy Elders does not exist in our age, we might observe—as did Father Akakios in response to Father Alexey's assertion that there are no true Elders in America—that this holy man, recently Glorified by the Moscow Patriarchate, held an opinion in some ways at odds with the consensus of other spiritual Fathers, if we are to understand his words literally. Indeed, we should also note, one can persuasively argue, on the basis of a thorough consideration of his writings, that Bishop Ignaty warns us not against the pursuit of monastic obedience, but against failing to heed the limited ability of spiritual aspirants, in our day, to respond to that pursuit. Whatever the case, we do not wish to call into question his sanctity or the absolutely central part that many of his writings should play in the training and formation of contemporary monastics. We wish simply to point out that this one area of thought in Saint Ignaty's writings must be studied with circumspection and caution and weighed against his constant admonitions against self-direction and dependence on one's own thoughts.

In addition to misgivings about the possibility of obedience as we read of it in the early monastics, it is well known that Bishop Ignaty also believed that true Eldership had almost disappeared in his day. Mr. Moss applies these reservations to modern times. Bishop Ignaty drew his conclusions, however, from personal experiences with contemporary directors suffering from blindness and self-delusion. This was for him a great occasion for temptation. Therefore, he dedicates no small portion of his commentaries on monasticism to the phenomenon of false Eldership. But what he presumed to be a scarcity of Elders at the time did not lead him away from his understanding that one must follow assiduously the directions of the Church Fathers, those Elders bound in leather, whose writings tell us nothing, again, about self-reliance or spiritual independence, but speak constantly of submission and obedience to the Church, its precepts, and its worthy leaders. Indeed, Bishop Ignaty admits that, while we do not feast at the banquet table of monasticism today, we are still left with the crumbs that fall from the spiritual table of the Fathers, and he does not deny the efficacy of such advice and instruction as can be borrowed from contemporary Fathers and brethren. One must never understate this foundational element in the writings of Saint Ignaty, exploiting and concentrating upon those things among his writings that can be too easily misused to justify spiritual and ecclesiastical anarchy.

Saint John of the Ladder, whose warnings against false Elders, or inadequate guides, Mr. Moss also cites, was not, on account of his condemnation of the abuses of Eldership, an advocate of spiritual independence. Let us quote from his own words: "Without a guide, it is easy to wander from the way, however prudent one may be; and so, he who walks on the monastic path under his own direction soon perishes, even though he may have all the wisdom of the world." Had Mr. Moss continued reading the passage which he quotes from Klimakos about inadequate spiritual guides, he would have found himself arguing against the idea that our spiritual guides must be constantly scrutinized and, in most cases today, abandoned; for, after his admonition that a monastic aspirant verify the credentials of his guide-to-be—among which, again, he does not necessarily include clairvoyance and prophecy in their more dazzling forms—, Saint John says that, once we have entered the arena of piety and obedience, we must no longer judge our good manager in any way at all, even though we may perhaps see in him some slight failings, since he is only human. The issue, here, is not one of merely avoiding false Eldership, but more importantly of strengthening the disciples faith in his undoubtedly imperfect human Elder. The weak link in the mystery of Eldership, for Saint John, is not the poor Elder, but the disciples imperfect faith. Moreover, it is to Saint John whom we turn for an understanding of the spiritual hierarchy of the Church: Angels are a light for monks and the monastic life is a light for all men. Here we see basic support for the rule that we are not all spiritual equals, but depend on others for spiritual light, and see that, despite the caution that many wise Fathers rightly prescribe with regard to Eldership gone awry, such caution does not justify spiritual self-reliance and sweeping generalizations about the ascendancy of personal judgment over spiritual obedience to one's superiors—whether among monastics or laymen.

Saint Symeon, whom Mr. Moss also quotes, warns us that we should not submit ourselves to an inexperienced or passionate master. This admonition does not, however, mean that, despite the decline in spiritual life that Saint Symeon saw even in his own age, he rejected the necessity of spiritual guidance: "But to deny that at this present time there are some who love God, and to deny that they have been granted the Holy Spirit and Baptism by Him as sons of God, to deny that they have become gods by knowledge and experience and contemplation—that wholly subverts the Incarnation of our God and Savior Jesus Christ! It clearly denies the renewal of the image that had been corrupted and put to death, and its return to incorruption and immortality." Lest anyone object that the Saint's words applied only to his own era, let us hear a contemporary monastic writer, Hieromonk Theodosius, writing in 1911 in an appendix to a letter by Elder Cleopas of Vvedensk: "And so, my dear brother, do not despair. Be zealous, be zealous for God; do not say that it is impossible to be saved, that there are no holy Fathers and that the time is not the same. There are Fathers, and the time is good for working out one's salvation. And those who say otherwise, as witnesses Saint Symeon the New Theologian, are raising blasphemy against God, which will not be forgiven." Quite obviously, if we read with care the words of Saint Symeon and heed with intelligence the comments of Father Theodosius, it is impossible for one to believe fully in the Incarnation of Christ and argue that, however scarce, spiritual leadership does not exist at all times in the Christian Church, a point, once more, that Father Akakios made abundantly clear in his response to Father Alexey and a point which Mr. Moss unfortunately obfuscates in his references to false Eldership and the limitations of modern monks in fulfilling the ancient standards of obedience.

In concluding his comments on Eldership, Mr. Moss applies what he gleans from the aforementioned Patristic sources to modern spiritual life. He observes: "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 and gain complete control over his disciples, adding, in the case of disobedience, fearsome sanctions, very strict penances, curses and even anathematization and expulsion (supposedly) from the Orthodox Church." Such thoughts, unfortunately, foster a lack of confidence in the ability of Providence to direct and guide the course of a man's life towards salvation. Moreover, the greatest Fathers of the Church were experienced psychologists, adding to their understanding of human behavior the wisdom of spiritual insight. And not a few Fathers visited sanctions and strict penances, if not anathemas, on their erring spiritual wards—not, of course, with the aim of punishing them, but for the purpose of bringing them to repentance and asking of them sure signs of their having turned from disobedience and error to a correction of their sinful ways. Such things are indispensable to the spiritual life.

It is not Mr. Moss alone who so fiercely condemns Eldership in our contemporary Church life. There are many non-monastics today who, having wrongly placed themselves under the quasi-monastic guidance of a false Elder and having been sadly wounded and hurt by this experience, are strongly motivated to lash out at Eldership itself and at all of those things, such as penances, curses, and other ecclesiastical sanctions, that were inappropriately used against them. They become obsessed, at times, with discrediting anything that smacks of Eldership or submission to Church's authority—and this not only innocently, but at times because they lack the humility to face their past errors and to seek out a more responsible spiritual guide in a more salutary context. There are also many monks who, either having been abused by false Elders or, on the other hand, having failed to obey a true Elder and to live an exemplar monastic life, fall to the error of rejecting what they knew improperly or that to which they could not, in its proper manifestation, adequately respond.

In the case of such laymen, they are too often, ironically enough, the victims of what it is that they only come to eschew after the fact: that is, of embracing monastic obedience without the one thing that is absolutely indispensable: the Grace of the monastic commitment itself. In the case of monks who have fallen to warfare against true monasticism, the issue is a complex one that leads not a few such aspirants to the disaster of self-reliance and the judgmentalism that goes with it. They either forget or choose to ignore, for their own self-serving reasons, the fact that Christianity involves tremendous risk, for which reason our Lord Himself tells us that many who strive to enter through the strait gate will fail. While Mr. Moss does not dismiss spiritual obedience or monastic submission as such, he sets forth arguments that can lead not only to a misunderstanding of spiritual guidance, but to a serious departure from an Orthodox understanding of the Church and to a falsely comfortable, ostensibly safe reliance on one's self that courts disaster.

Indeed, in developing his dangerous idea that false Eldership justifies some sort of self-reliance and spiritual independence, Mr. Moss cites an anecdote translated from the sayings of the desert Fathers and attributed to Abba Poimen, in which this great monastic Saint supposedly advises a monk, who complains that he cannot stay with his Elder without losing his soul, that he should leave his Elder. The translation which Mr. Moss uses (by Benedicta Ward) is misleading. In fact, Saint Poimen only reluctantly advises the monk in question, after two visits, that it is better, more correctly, to heal himself by leaving his Elder than to remain where he is. The Saint does not, as the translation in question suggests, tell the monk that he is saving himself by abandoning his Elder. He is told that he cannot find salvation in such a circumstance. The reason for this, however, is not the Elder himself, but the disciple's lack of faith and obedience, which impedes that natural relationship, between Elder and disciple, through which God operates.

Bishop Ignaty, commenting on this anecdote, concludes (though without evidence from the text) that the Elder to whom Abba Poimen refers must have broken the moral tradition of the Church, and thus rightly argues that his disciple would have imperiled his soul by remaining with him. It should be firstly noted that, if Bishop Ignaty is correct in his conclusion, we are dealing with an extraordinary circumstance here. As much as lay people would like to think that such is not the case, immorality between spiritual Fathers and their spiritual children is extremely rare. For every monastic community assailed by the demon of immorality, there are by far many more monasteries and convents, even in our days and even in America, where people follow lives of absolute purity. Such rare instances, as well as cases of open heresy, do indeed justify, if not demand, the separation of a disciple from his Elder. But they must not be taken as justifications for the rejection of Eldership as such or for a retreat into independent judgment.

In commenting on this anecdote, Graham Gould, in his pivotal book, The Desert Fathers on Monastic Community, quite succinctly makes this same point: "Poemen's attitude is...complex. Outwardly he remains neutral, but in fact realizes that ultimately the brother will have to leave. Only when the brother had come to the end of his endurance does Poemen affirm his decision and assure him that he has acted for the best." In some ways this saying is an exception to almost all of the rules which the Desert Fathers made for the behaviour of a disciple. The same hesitancy that Gould sees in Abba Poimen to advise a disciple to leave his Elder, prompted by the Saint's regard for the sacred nature of spiritual relationships, we see expressed in the words of Elder Anatoly, whom we quoted above, to another nun under his direction, who had separated from her spiritual Mother: "From your last letter I see that you have decided to break off your relationship with the Matushkas, your Eldresses, but you did not explain the reason. Was this a whim or something valid? Whatever the case, I will not hasten to praise you for this. And I will not hesitate to scold you the moment I find out the reasons you have preferred a self-directed life to the guidance of eldership" [emphasis added].

(Parenthetically, we might add that the anecdote about Abba Poimen is, in fact, exceptional not only in its advice, but with regard to the manuscript tradition. It is not contained in the standard collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum in the Patrologia Graeca or in the Evergetinos, but is taken from sources of uncertain provenance.)

Let us note, secondly, that Abba Poimen, despite the very selective choice by Mr. Moss of an exceptional anecdote about his spiritual precepts, does not in theory or in principle advocate spiritual self-reliance and a self-willed departure from one's spiritual guide. Let his own words speak for themselves: "Do not be misled into thinking that you are able to govern yourself in things spiritual....Submit yourself to an experienced elder and let him guide you in all things." It is of great significance, in fact, that it was only with the Saint's blessing that the monk in question finally sundered the spiritual relationship between himself and his Elder. There is to be found in this anecdote no justification for the rejection of Eldership on the grounds that one bad apple spoils the whole tree. The continued reliance of a spiritual aspirant on good guidance, following the collapse of his relationship with a bad or errant Elder, furthermore, is perfectly consistent with canonical tradition. For example, in the questions appended to the Canons of Saint Nicephoros, Patriarch of Constantinople, we read that a monk may sever his ties to a spiritual Father only when he has the blessing of his Bishop (Question VII). Self-dependence is not a spiritual alternative to proper Eldership, even when the latter has gone bad or is difficult to find.

In contrast to the unrepresentative anecdote that Mr. Moss draws from the counsels of Abba Poimen, one can cite more numerous instances from the Evergetinos in which personally corrupt Elders are, through the obedience of their disciples, ultimately led to salvation. These anecdotes should not serve as prescriptive texts, but they are didactic and serve to place both true Eldership and its abuse in better perspective. We will cite two examples. The first concerns a disciple who submitted himself to an Elder given to the vice of drunkenness. This Elder exploited the ready and uncomplaining obedience of his disciple, in order to indulge his drinking habit even more. After having endured much abuse from this Elder, the disciple was one day beset by the temptation that it was spiritually unprofitable for him to remain with such a drunkard. But with true monastic fortitude, he immediately cut off this thought, and for this act was vouchsafed an Angelic vision, revealing his impending demise. When the disciple relayed this vision to his Elder, the cynical Elder initially mocked him; however, his attitude was speedily transformed into one of wonderment when the words of his disciple came to pass and he died. Painfully aware of his own passions in the light of his disciples radiant virtues, the Elder from that moment on resolved to abandon his former drinking habit and thus succeeded, through the obedience of his disciple, in saving his soul.

The second example is similar. Outside Alexandria, there lived an irascible and fussy hermit whom no one could stand. A certain pious young man made a pact with God that he would live with this hermit, patiently enduring his misanthropic character, in return for Divine forgiveness of sins. After six years, seeing that the young man faithfully upheld his end of the bargain by courageously accepting every abuse visited upon him by his callous Elder, God deigned to reveal to His patient disciple that half of his sins had been forgiven. Thenceforth, the disciple redoubled his efforts to endure, counting as a loss every day in which he failed to receive some sort of maltreatment or privation from his Elder. After another six years, the disciple reposed, with the remaining balance of his sins having been forgiven. To a certain pious and experienced monk it was revealed that, on account of his patience, the disciple had been granted a Martyr's crown and was deemed worthy of bold intercession before the throne of God. And, indeed, through the very prayers of his own obedient disciple, the stone-hearted Elder repented of his abusive and selfish behavior, thereby attaining salvation.

We are not arguing, here, that one should endure immorality or heresy in a spiritual guide. We are not arguing, either, that the kind of obedience that we see in these two stories—nearly unattainable and certainly rare, anyway—should be lightly undertaken in our age. Nor do we believe that such instances of monastic obedience should be applied to the life of lay people. What we are pointing out, in response to Mr. Moss's unbalanced and misleading presentation of spiritual Eldership, is that obedience and spiritual relationships are Grace-bearing, and especially and specifically so in the monastic estate, and that the action of God in sanctifying and saving the Christian soul is not dependent on mere personal virtue or on the charismatic qualities of an Elder. Eldership is a mystery of the Church, and as such it provides a channel through which Divine Grace can act, effectively operating, not only through one's personal gifts, but often in spite of one's faults.

Taking into account all that we have said about the nature of obedience and Eldership in the monastic life, as well as our admission that he and Father Alexey are right to express caution with regard to the abuse of these things in the lives of laymen, the real danger set forth in Mr. Moss's rejoinder to Father Akakios' critique is his inference that Eldership gone astray justifies self-reliance: "[T]hat most quintessential attribute of man made in the image of God [is] independent judgment, and the ability to turn to God directly for enlightenment and help." To see the danger of this shocking deviation from the teachings of the Church Fathers, we need only quote Abba Dorotheos of Gaza: "I know of no fall that happens to a monk that does not come from trusting his own judgment. Some say, A man falls because of this, or because of that, but I say, and I repeat, I do not know of any fall happening to anyone except from this cause. Do you know someone who has fallen? Be sure that he directed himself. Nothing is more grievous than to be one's own director, nothing is more pernicious." That this admonition applies to laymen, too, is clear in the words of Saint Gregory Palamas: "Any man who seeks God without a spiritual guide, resting on his own thought, is straightway bound for a fall."

To bolster his argument, Mr. Moss cites two Russian Catacomb Saints, Bishop Damascene of Glukhov and Metropolitan Joseph of Petrograd. Saint Damascene he quotes as follows: "Perhaps the time has come when the Lord does not wish that the Church should stand as an intermediary between Himself and the believers." Lamentably, this quotation can easily be misinterpreted to mean, not only that Elders have disappeared, but that the Church itself has disappeared. The Saint meant, of course, no such thing. He was referring specifically to his own national Church, the liquidation of which was taking place before his very eyes at the hands of Bolshevik toadies masquerading as Orthodox Christians. That he was not an advocate of self-reliance is evident in a careful consideration of his life and writings. Thus it is that, in another passage, which helped to lay the groundwork for the Catacomb Church, Bishop Damascene writes: "[C]reate first a small nucleus of a few people who are striving towards Christ, who are ready to begin the realization of the evangelical ideal in their lives. Unite yourselves for grace-given guidance around one of the worthy pastors, and let everyone separately and all together prepare themselves for yet greater service to Christ.... Just a few people united in such a life already make up a small Church, the Body of Christ, in which the Spirit and the Love of Christ dwell.... If we do not become members of the Body of Christ, the temple of His Life-giving Spirit, then this Spirit will depart from the world, and the frightful convulsions of the dying world organism will be the natural result of this" [emphasis added].

Saint Joseph of Petrograd Mr. Moss cites as having said that, in the last times, there may be even among the elect those who betray the Church. This statement is, of course, consistent with Scripture, too. However, it is not an invitation to laymen to declare that the end of time is here. Nor is it an invitation to declare oneself the measure of all things. In the first place, excessive apocalypticism can be very dangerous. While we are undoubtedly in troubled times and, as a number of contemporary Elders have said, entering the age of Antichrist, we must take care to preserve the Church, the pillar and ground of truth, with special zeal. This may mean that we will have to be cautious in all things spiritual, but it does mean that we can unilaterally fall to the sin of self-reliance and the folly of rejecting all spiritual guidance, simply because some (or even many) of the Church's elect have fallen to false belief. Let us also remember that Catacomb Bishops like Hieromartyrs Damascene and Joseph found themselves in unparalleled circumstances of great intensity, which led them to the seemingly inescapable conclusion that the end of the world had arrived in their very days. In such desperation, they must have felt abandoned and isolated, and their statements must be clearly read in such a context. They must not be used to support an excessively apocalyptic spirit or an abandonment of the Church and its teaching ministry.

Mr. Moss ends his rejoinder to Father Akakios' critique of Father Alexey's article with these words: "Thus we may be moving into the last period of the Church's history..., when the individual believer has to seek the answers to his spiritual problems from God and God's word alone." Here, he has moved beyond his perhaps wise caution with regard to false Eldership to what borders on a Protestant justification of self-reliance. We must remember, of course, that the Word of God, properly speaking, is not the Bible, as a naive reader might imagine, but Christ Himself Whose Body is the Church. While Holy Scripture reflects and perfectly describes the Glory of God, it does not contain the experience of that ineffable Glory. Father John Romanides states this overlooked fact succinctly: "Neither the Bible nor the writings of the Fathers are revelation or the word of God. They are about revelation and about the word of God. Revelation is the appearance of God to the prophets, apostles, and Saints. The Bible and the writings of the Fathers are about these appearances, but not the appearances themselves. This is why it is the prophet, apostle, and saint who sees God, and not those who simply read about their experiences of glorification. It is obvious that neither a book about glorification nor one who reads such a book can ever replace the prophet, apostle, or saint who has the experience of glorification." In short, whatever the dangers, the experience of glorification, the tasting of Divine Grace—or theosis, an Orthodox synonym for salvation—, comes to us in the reality of the Church, Elders, and spiritual guidance. Even when the institutional garb of the Church is rent asunder by the perverse forces of Antichrist, or Eldership becomes corrupt, the Church Herself, as the very Body of Christ, cannot and will never be defiled. And if Elders seem to have disappeared or to have become corrupt, the phenomenon of dependence on spiritual guidance, if not Elders themselves, cannot and will never disappear. We cannot—indeed, we must not—guide ourselves, whatever the risk.

From A Supplement to Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XIV, No. 1 (1997)