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Monasticism and Cultism

by Archimandrite Akakios

An article—a reprint, if I am not mistaken—by Archpriest Alexey Young, a gifted and intelligent writer and an Orthodox clergyman, recently appeared in the popular Church periodical Orthodox America (Cults: Within & Without, March-April 1996). The author makes some needed, if perhaps imprecise, observations about non-Orthodox cults. He then applies the criteria by which he distinguishes cults, criteria drawn from non-Orthodox social observers, to Orthodoxy itself, making specific reference to monasticism (an estate which, in general, cannot be adequately studied from outside its confines, and especially by non-monastics). In so doing, despite his obviously good intentions, Father Alexey sets the stage for misunderstanding. I would like to make some cautionary comments, therefore, about his references to Orthodox cultism—what he calls cultism within—and about his observations on the monastic life.

Orthodoxy has seen cults before [emphasis mine], as Father Alexey asserts. This is true. But it is wrong to include among these cults, as he does, Russian Old Believers or the Khlysty or Skoptsy sects. On the one hand, not all Old Believers were cultists; only a small minority of them practiced such outrages as self-immolation; and the vast majority of moderate Old Believers have been reconciled to the Church in modern times, bringing with them a rich spiritual tradition. The Khlysty and Skoptsy sects existed outside Orthodoxy and are no more part of Her domain than Rasputin, a married man with children, was a monk. Rather than address these extraordinary circumstances, we must confine our study of Orthodox cultism to instances where those within the Church have strayed from Her standards. In so doing, since the Orthodox Church is not just another religion, but the very Church of Christ, we must proceed with caution.

If non-Orthodox cults are dangerous because their leaders are wrongly motivated and bring their followers to ruin by exploiting certain disciplines and spiritual practices, in Orthodoxy a downfall usually occurs, not because Church leaders have employed improper techniques for the transformation of the Faithful, but because the Evil One has inspired in them spiritual delusion, leading to the abuse of these very techniques. One must be very careful, then, not to attribute to the abuse of our spiritual disciplines, and especially those found in monasticism, the cult-like motivations that prompt non-Orthodox sectarians to use these methods in a manipulative or cult-like way. The same techniques and disciplines—often adopted from Orthodox monasticism, since they are tested and effective—that the cults abusively use to destroy souls are, within Orthodoxy and when properly applied, means to the very end of salvation. While Father Alexeys warnings about cultism within Orthodox are certainly correct, they can be misunderstood, if this principle is ignored. The motivations and goals behind certain spiritual practices are at issue here, not the consequences of their abuse. This peculiar attribute of Orthodoxy led St. Justin (Popovich) to remark, with astonishing boldness, that Orthodox culture is a cult of the God Christ, service to the God Christ. Even cultism, then, is transformed by Orthodoxy and must be understood, when applied to Her, in a special way.

Father Alexey begins his comments on Orthodox cults by asserting that ...in this country, at least, there are NO true elders today whose voice can be the voice of heaven for a disciple or spiritual child [ emphasis his]. This opinion was held in his time by no less a spiritual giant than Bishop Ignaty (Brianchaninov). But it is an opinion. The idea that the Holy Spirit no longer transforms and enlightens our spiritual Fathers is incorrect. Nor is Eldership bound by geography or nationality. If it is wrong to state, as Father Alexey later does, that all of the bishops have gone bad, then it is equally wrong to say that Elders do not exist wherever monasticism survives. St. Gregory Palamas and St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite, among other monastic writers, tell us that Eldership is no less a foundation of the spiritual life than the Episcopacy. Both are present in Scripture, Jesus Christ Himself is an image of the Perfect Bishop (Shepherd) and the Perfect Elder, and the Episcopacy and Eldership, like Him, are unending.

At the time that Bishop Ignaty was writing, he felt that true Elders were difficult to find. He did not, however, discount the possibility of true Eldership; nor did he offer his opinion as a final word on the matter. Indeed, there were true Elders even in his time, many of them later Glorified by the Church, along with St. Ignaty, who was himself a true Elder! In this century, many Holy Elders in Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Mt. Athos, Mt. Sinai, and elsewhere have led countless souls to salvation. There have also been and no doubt are Elders in contemporary America, even if they hide and conceal their holiness. And while I am not an Elder, and have never claimed to be, I have known genuine Elders who are adorned with all of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

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. 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. Where this charismatic and Apostolic office goes astray, it is often as much the fault of the disciple, who may fail to see Christ, rather than a mere man, in his Elder, as that of the Elder. And this fall occurs, not because of cultism, but because of the jealousy and hatred of the Evil One. Many monasteries which have failed, and which have later been dubbed cults, have in fact been the victims of demonic activity. One cannot condemn Eldership simply because it sometimes comes to naught. To equate cultism with monastic Eldership is, in any event, ill-advised.

Father Alexey rightly condemns any atmosphere in which an us versus them mentality holds forth. However, True Orthodox today are the victims of real persecution, slander, and misinformation. We must not mistake their struggles and trials for something cult-like. Not all instances of slander can be covered by epithets like paranoid talk. Moreover, there are also good monasteries and convents and monasteries and convents which fall short of the standard. And though charity and humility must mark our motivations in such statements, we are bound, as responsible Christians, and especially in the monastic estate, to evaluate various communities and to advise our spiritual children to avoid places that we know to be dangerous. This is not, as Father Alexey suggests, necessarily a sign of cultism. Certainly, too, we must not, for fear of being called cultists, hesitate to advise our monastic wards to remain within their communities, to avoid contact with the world, and to follow their superiors. Instances in which such things deteriorate into name-calling and immoral acts in the name of obedience are rare, indeed, and the warnings contained in the article at hand should, in this sense, be carefully and circumspectly considered.

Let me also note that harsh language is not necessarily a sign of cultism. Father Alexey warns against the use, by spiritual leaders, of words like stupid, vulgar, peasants, worldly. I would agree that, in most instances, these words are inappropriate. But it was the late Hieromonk Seraphim of Platina, a man known for his immense gentility and kindness, who referred to a number of his spiritual wards as baboons. No one familiar with the Church Fathers, moreover, can escape the fact that their writings are filled with what a superficial observer might call demeaning language (the oft-used appellation Copronymos, or Dung-Named, comes immediately to mind). Their condemnation of any number of spiritual infractions as worldly, moreover, is ubiquitous, indeed. Nor were the recently Glorified St. Nicholas (Planas) or St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, whom Father Alexey specifically mentions, always quiet and peaceful in their witnesses. St. Nicholas, who is unfortunately known to the English-speaking world primarily through a single book about his life, was humble and self-effacing. But his admonitions, as the Blessed Photios Kontoglou tells us, were often marked by a severity of language that shocked his listeners. Likewise, in the life of St. John, we read that ...people envied and condemned the Saint when he dealt harshly with them in accordance with the sacred canons of the Church. If we may criticize non-Orthodox cultists for meaninglessly degrading others with harsh or abusive language, we must be careful to admit that our Orthodox spiritual leaders have often used strong expressions and uncompromising language to awaken and to chastise their spiritual wards. Here again, motivation, not externals, is the issue.

There has always been a natural complement between the Church Hierarchy and monasteries. Certainly monastics must not justify schism and arrogance in the name of spiritual integrity. But they have been the natural critics of Church authority, and it is wrong to associate such criticism, as Father Alexey does in another of the traits which he attaches to Orthodox cultism, with improper monasticism. The reticence, on the part of monastics, to embrace immediately the administrative structure of the Church has often proved positive, since it has traditionally led them to guard the charismatic integrity of the Church. In this regard, one need only cite the rule of the Studite monks, in particular, in combatting the heresy of the Iconoclasts. The Episcopacy, too, monastics understand as a charismatic office, a Eucharistic witness, as St. Ignatios of Antioch tells us. A sense of fear with regard to an institutional, rather than spiritual, understanding of Episcopal authority is thus not unknown to the monastic state and, if not exaggerated, is not necessarily an unhealthy phenomenon. Indeed, the injunction to flee women and Bishops is Patristric in origin. It is not directed against women or the Episcopacy (after all, in healthier times, Bishops came out of monasteries), but against the temptations of the world and any departure from spiritual priorities. This is important to remember in an Orthodox world where neo-Papist Patriarchs and Bishops, calling themselves official and the spiritual leaders of Orthodoxy, openly preach the heresy of ecumenism, denigrate and ridicule monasticism, and march towards a union with the heterodox at the cost of communion with their True Orthodox brethren. If you don't become a monk I can guarantee that you will go to hell....If you leave, you will be lost.... Such statements Father Alexey associates with cultism. Here, too, we must be careful in evaluating what, in most circumstances, may be simple manipulation, but what in some instances is spiritual insight. As a matter of fact, we know that St. Savvas the Younger once cured a demoniac by exacting from her a promise that she would become a monastic, telling her that: If you wish perfect freedom from the evil and filthy spirit that torments you, take on the yoke of Christ in the monastic and angelic schema. Similarly, the Calabrian cave-dweller, Elder Elias, once told a young boy that he could not be cured unless he became a monk. The boy accepted this advice, became a monk, and was cured of his disease. Many of the Desert Fathers also warned monastic aspirants that, were they not to pursue a monastic course, they would return to a life of immorality in the world. While such statements should not be used off-handedly or in a contrived way, within the monastic life one often develops an intuitive sense about individuals. And that sense, well or poorly developed in accordance with ones level of spiritual insight, is not to be ridiculed or set aside. Nor should it be dismissed as a sign of cultism.

In the same vein, to address another issue that Father Alexey raises in his article, those who are asked to leave monasteries—and often because they are immoral, mentally unstable, or disobedient—very rarely admit that they were asked to leave, but invariably state that they left on their own, after being falsely accused of this or that problem. Their reports to the contrary are not inevitably valid evidence of cultism, as Father Alexey contends, or the desire of monastic leaders to misrepresent facts or to denigrate those who fail in the monastic life. Very few spiritual Fathers are, in fact, motivated by such pettiness, even if others perceive this to be the case. Rather, the reputations of many good monasteries have been damaged by the understandable hostility of those who have been asked to leave them and who, in order to justify their failure, make every sort of unsavory and outrageous accusation against their former spiritual guides. Those outside monasticism must understand that moral and mental problems, if they cannot be treated in a monastic setting, open the door for demonic manifestations, leading failed monastics to lives often characterized by revenge, hostility, and a bitterness that helps no one involved. It is sad that these manifestations must be addressed, but to do so for the protection of a monastery or for the well-being of a failed aspirant is not, again, necessarily characteristic of cruelty, deception, or cultism, but of spiritual sobriety.

The higher calling of monasticism, financial needs, and the sense of mission that is appropriate to the Angelic life can be exploited, as Father Alexey observes, and can be the cause of abuse within monasticism. I have no argument with this. But as with the foregoing instances that I have considered in detail, we are not, in the case of such exploitation, dealing with cultism, but with a fall to demonic delusion. Orthodox monasticism, at least that which exists within jurisdictions that enjoy the Grace bestowed by genuine Apostolic Succession (we are not accountable for those who claim to be Orthodox but who lack this essential qualification), I would repeat emphatically, is not subject to the religious standards of the non-Orthodox world. Its struggle is for souls, a battle waged in an arena where the criteria of the world, however much such may seem to be the case, do not apply. If I can congratulate Father Alexey on his insight into cults, I must remind him and those who have read his article not to apply this insight indiscriminately to Orthodox monasticism. It is a peculiar and Divine institution. And even where it fails, by worldly standards, it still inspires and enriches the Church. Cultism is deadly, whether it is successful in its efforts or not. Successful monasticism produces Saints; but even failed monasticism is instructive and Grace-filled.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XIII, Nos. 3 & 4 (1996), pp. 47-50.