NOTE: This selected list is adapted from Cults in Our Midst, by Dr. Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich (Jossey-Bass Publishers, April 1995)
Continuous over-breathing causes a drop in the carbon dioxide level in the bloodstream, producing respiratory alkalosis. In its milder stages it produces dizziness or light-headedness. More prolonged over-breathing can cause panic, muscle cramps, and convulsions. Cults often have people do continuous loud shouting, chanting or singing to produce this state, which they reframe as having a spiritual experience.
[Note: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, this technique is applied in the form of ceaselessly yelling the Jesus Prayer throughout the day. There is also a 1 hour period during the nightly personal vigil/prayer rule, where the monastics go outside and yell the Jesus Prayer].
Constant swaying motions, clapping or almost any repeated motion helps to alter a person’s general state of awareness. Dizziess can be produced by simple spinning or spin dancing, prolonged swaying and dancing. Group leaders re-label the effects of these motions as ecstasy or new levels of awareness.
[Note: The only repetitive motion of “swaying motions” is the daily 150 prostrations–300 during Great Lent–of the daily prayer rule. And any additional prostrations due to punishments. As well, during Great Lent, there are specific points of the Service where the monastics have to do repeated prostrations (the recital of St. Ephraim’s prayer, certain chants, etc). The repeated prostrations do give a “head rush” and endorphin boost].
Former members report that a leader of one cult would pass among the followers pressing on their eyes until the optic nerve caused them to see flashes of light. This is called “bestowing divine light.” Some group members were instructed to push on their ears until they heard a buzzing sound, which was interpreted as hearing the “divine harmony.”
[Note: The only real body manipulations would be if one postured themself a certain way for Prayer of the Heart and beating oneself (NSSI-Non-Suicidal Self Injury) when various thoughts, emotions, etc. become too overwhelming].
TRANCE AND HYPNOSIS
A number of cults use hypnosis and trance to put people into altered states of consciousness, making them more compliant. Examples of techniques that induce trance include prolonged chanting, meditation, singing and phrase repetition.
[Note: In the monasteries, the chanting would be the daily church services, some of which can last quite a few hours. The “meditation”–though not considered as such by Orthodox monastics–would be the time allotted for Prayer of the Heart which entails breathing techniques. Singing and phrase repetition would be the ceaseless recital of the Jesus Prayer–either noetically or verbally].
Cult leaders use a number of different guided-imagery techniques to remove followers from their normal frames of reference. For example, long detailed visual stories can absorb the listeners in a trance-like state where they become more susceptible to suggestion. Another effective method popular with therapy cults uses guided imagery to regress members back to the pain and loneliness of their childhood.
[Note: Though images, fantasies and day dreaming are discouraged for monastics, Geronda Ephraim often gives homilies containing many stories, not to mention lunch and dinner have readings in the Trapeza. As well, the monastics have a few hundred mp3 homilies of Geronda Ephraim on their iPods (each homily lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to 2+ hours). Also, in each monastery, the Geronda or Gerondissa will frequently give homilies with storytelling and cautionary tales].
NOTE:This is a woman’s account of growing up in the Russian Orthodox/St. Herman of Alaska/Old Calendar church. For those unfamiliar with the background of this organization, Fr. Jonah Paffhausen wrote an article about the “Journey of the Holy Order of MANS / Christ the Saviour Brotherhood and the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood into the Canonical Orthodox Church”:
Welcome. Please take a few moments to read a personal account of one family’s life after entering an Eastern Orthodox cult in America. This is a brief memoir about the serious consequences of blindly following a “spiritual father”, and what happened to a loving, normal family because of this. I also relate how it feels to be disowned by one’s own family for not being part of the cult. My hope is that this site will be of help to at least one other person coping with similar circumstances. I also hope it will serve as a warning to families: NEVER disown, abandon, or shun a person simply for believing differently.
I am a former “Russian Orthodox Abroad” member; my “identity” was Xenia of St. Petersburg, a woman whose life I was told mine own should resemble, according to God’s will. A frightening thought, if you know how this woman lived. I was forced into the church by my parents, kept in complete control throughout my teenage and young adult years, and finally escaped: first, in my mind and soul, and then physically. I still suffer some PTSD symptoms, common with cult withdrawal; however, I am finding the faith of my childhood, something simple and bright, which is the first light I have seen in a long, long time. My wish is that this blog will help ONE person, somewhere, to have the courage to speak out and perhaps even say all alone, “The Emperor has no clothes!” (Hans Christian Andersen). View my complete profile
Below are ten techniques of unethical thought reform and mind control (I quote), with some examples of how these were used by the Orthodox cult. 1) Focus on felt needs & defects, with exaggerated promises of fulfillment.
It was drilled into us over and over that we were spiritually “sick”, that our whole “mind-set” and way of life were evil, and that we were damned if we didn’t accept the new baptism and join the church. We were promised unending love from the church, help in any crisis, and spiritual fathers who would get us past the “toll-houses” and save our souls after we died. We were promised to always be the “right believers” who were the “elite and the elect of God”, and who would play a large role in the conversion of others before the final Tribulation.
[NOTE: The general teaching of the Orthodox Church is that all humans are spiritually sick. The Church or Monastery is the hospital where the sick faithful go to be treated. The sacraments are the medicines that the Physician uses to cure the souls of the sick. In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, the general consensus is, “You can be saved in the world, but it’s better to go to confession in the monasteries and have Geronda Ephraim–or one of his priest(monk)s as a confessor. In the last days, all the orthodox churches in the world will have apostasized and joined the ecumenist World Church/Religion. True orthodoxy will only be found in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries.
Some spiritual children of Elder Ephraim have read Elizabeth Ann’s story and callously stated that these things only happened because she didn’t have a holy elder nor was she part of the canonical church (In monastery double speak, this is code for “you’re hopelesswithout Geronda Ephraim or one of his priest-monks”). With an air of self satisfaction, they would state with all certainty that such things could never and would never happen in Elder Ephraim’s monasteries or parishes.
It is an odd phenomena but laymen who visit the Elder’s monasteries and decide to become dedicated disciples, often become Geronda Ephraim experts almost overnight. After a handful of visits and hours of absorbing stories concerning “miracles”, “visions”, and “prophecies”(minus the multitude that never came to pass), this lay person is now an “expert” and can tell you everything that doesn’t happen in the monasteries despite never having been invited into the monks’ quarters, nor a monks’ only homily, etc. It’s amazing.
2) Rigid Control of Time and Activities
Required to attend more and more services; demanded to read lengthy prayer books at home throughout the day; pushed to do the “Hours”; taught by book “Way of the Pilgrim” to constantly chant the “Jesus Prayer” at all times, even in school.
[NOTE: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, monastics are required to recite the Jesus Prayer ceaselessly; either mentally or out loud. This is expected no matter what they are doing: listening to someone speak to them, eating, going to sleep, working, attending church services, etc. In theory, his monastics aren’t suppose to idle talk or be too chit chatty with other monks or laymen. Everyday of the monastic’s life is ruled by someone else, and their time and activities are rigidly filled controlled.
3) Information Control
Not allowed to read newspapers, magazines, or non-religious books, especially during the time as “catechumens.” Told that all new movies and T.V. programs and T.V. news were “of the devil.” Given more and more Orthodox “patrisitic” ( holy fathers’) writings to read and re-read. Told to cut off family, which my mother did by way of letters.
Those who control the information control the person. In a mind control cult any information from outside the cult is considered evil, especially if it is opposing the cult. Members are told not to read it or believe it. Only information supplied by the cult is true.
[NOTE: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, the monastics aren’t allowed to read worldy publications (many do though when they’re afforded the opportunity), let alone information critical of Geronda Ephraim or his monasteries. If they are allowed, this will be curated by the Superior and many times it will turn into a mocking fest of the writer or commentator (many times, the monastics don’t actually get to see the article or news clip to make an informed decision. The Superior gives them only the “necessary” details and makes the informed decision of interpretation for the disciple. With big events like 9/11, some monastics were allowed to watch the news clips and footage of the planes. In some monasteries, Greece winning the World Cup in soccer is also a big enough event, so big that many of Geronda Ephraim’s monastics had a blessing to watch the highlights and in one case, the entire game (nationalist and patriotic sentiment for Greece is very high in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries)].
4) Language Manipulation
Besides being taught to laugh at certain words such as “the Latins” or “the West”, we were taught an exclusive new vocabulary for “insiders”, some of which is put in bold print in the posts at right. Our new names were to replace our real names, forever. The lovely name “JESUS” was seldom used.
[NOTE: The monasteries also have their own vocabulary and special knocks which many laymen also adopt for their everyday use at home and among like-minded Christians–“Na Einai Evlogemeno” (“Let it be blessed”), response to be asked to do something. “Evlogeson” (“Bless”), asking forgiveness, usually a response to making an error or offending someone.
One of Geronda’s elders once observed, “Sorry lost all meaning when the word ‘Evlogeson’ was invented.” He was referring to the fact that no matter how greatly a monastic errs or offends, they have a reflex response to say ‘Evlogeson’ without thinking, with no heartfelt meaning.
Though “Latins” and “the West” are words and concepts looked down upon and sometimes laughed at in the monasteries, this is also the same spirit of almost all the Orthodox patristic writings and encyclicals since the Great Schism of 1054. Other words that receive similar attention are: “Oi Ebraioi” “The Jews” (lit. “The Hebrews”); “Oi Zionistes” (“The Zionists”); “Ta Protokolla” (“The Protocols of Zion”); “Tektonismos” (“Freemasonry”); “O Patriarches” (“The Patriarch”)].
5) Discouraging Critical, Rational Thought and Questions
Obvious contradictions and questions were greeted with either long, convoluted, and evasive explanations, or we were told that “you will understand later when you have become an adult in the faith. Just become like little children.” I was laughed at when I pointed out specific verses in the Bible, which I knew very well. I was even called “that Baptist girl” in a derogatory way. We were told during the second liturgy that clergy and priests must ALWAYS be obeyed, EVEN IF THEIR PERSONAL LIVES WERE NOT HOLY (i.e. they had murdered a person!) I quote Br. B. Now I add (“even if they have sodomized your child.”)
[NOTE: In orthodoxy there is an “answer” for every question, even those with no answers. Most things that are in conflict with orthodoxy or don’t fit in with the vague and contradictory theology around creation and the fall are usually dismissed as “unimportant” or “unnecessary”… “Dinosaurs aren’t important to salvation, don’t waste your time with those things” (common monastery advice to youth)… “Don’t read the Old Testament, the New Testament is what’s important. Anything of real worth in the Old Testament can be found in our church services, it’s better to read those” (advice to those who start getting ‘demonic warfare’–monastic code word for critical thinking and rational thought–after reading about God commanding His people, the Hebrews, to commit infanticide, genocide, and other atrocities)…”God allowed it in His mercy to rescue the children being abused and to punish the sinners; i.e. human traffickers, pedophiles, polytheists, etc. See, you judge God as merciless and cruel but He has a wisdom and reason we can’t always see right away” (a Hieromonk’s explanation for the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami)… to the question of “Why does God allow some children to get raped and others not?” this hieromonk replied with the who can know the Lord’s mind response that is supposed to stop the questions there.
6) Instruction in Trance Induction Techniques
One of the first things taught to us: how to stand completely still, stare at the icons, and say “Lord Have Mercy” in five different languages, sometimes amounting to 120 phrases at a time. Again, “The Way of a Pilgrim” was to be memorized and internalized, to learn how to breathe properly and chant simultaneously. Continuous repetitions during Complines, Matins, and then Liturgy, while staring at the icons, made me go into a kind of half-sleep–still able to listen intently and remember things.
[NOTE: When the monasteries first started, Geronda Ephraim only allowed the Jesus Prayer to be said in Greek. This did result in a bit of protestations from non-Greek monastics (mainly converts) who wanted to say the Prayer in their native language. One novice spoke to Geronda Ephraim personally, who responded, “The Prayer is better in and more powerful in the Greek language. It’s the language of the Holy Spirit, it’s the language the New Testament was written. Also, we’re a Greek monastery mainly for the Greeks so it’s better if they hear the Greek language.” In some monasteries, as years went by, some individuals were blessed to say the Prayer in their native tongues (English or Russian or Romanian, etc.).
Geronda Ephraim’s monastics are also required to focus mainly on the Jesus Prayer during all the church services, in order not to be distracted by the words of the services.].
7) Confession Sessions (a powerful tool to manipulate, blackmail, and emotionally bond you to the priest; a depersonalization or stripping of yourself–submission to the group.)
As explained at left. Confessions would be labeled “good” or “bad”, depending on how much we could come up with and whether we started “weeping”. The priests put each person under an intense “grilling” session, delving into EVERY thought and action.
[NOTE: Confession is a very powerful tool in the monasteries, especially to keep the monastics in line. If one is sinning in a specific way, the Superior many times exposes this action in front of all the other monastics in an attempt to humble and crush the disciple’s ego. Other times, a monastic can be put in the Lity, near the entrance of the Church, where they go on their knees and repeatedly beg everyone for forgiveness, stating their sin or passion, until the last person exits the church. Often, a lay person’s confession will be revealed to the monastics for their spiritual “edification” and also to see how “it’s hell” in the outside world. Though the superior or senior monastic revealing these private, personal stories usually don’t reveal the name, most monastics can figure out who they are talking about. Some monastics will then take this information and speak cryptically to this lay person trying to pass themselves off as some kind of clairvoyant. They won’t say anything outright and feign humility about this “gift” but in the process, this awestruck layperson will also reveal more personal information about his friends and family. This cycle continues until the superior finally catches on, one way or another. It’s embarrassing to witness.
8) Guilt and Fear (Weapons used to maintain group/church loyalty, suppress questions and defections.)
As I have already said, FEAR was the most powerful tool which made us listen to and believe every lie we were told. The Antichrist was ALIVE and about to begin his prophesied ministry; “it was later than we thought”, and unseen demons were constantly around us. The realization of our immense sinfulness (which was never relieved) caused terrible guilt. Some of us were made to feel guilty about going to the bathroom, because our pure guardian angels would have to watch this. Thoughts of going to another church, or none at all, caused immense spontaneous guilt.
[NOTE: Geronda Ephraim would never confirm if the Antichrist was born but he would talk cryptically in ways that would make people think that he was or was soon to be born. He often gives homilies to his monks telling them they’re the monastics of the last days, the last generation, and will be martyred under the Antichrist. When Geronda use to visit Saxonburg in the early 90s, he’d point to children and say, “They’re going to see the Antichrist.”
A monastic, and layperson if possible, is instructed to always find some reason to reproach themselves. In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, the monastics constantly listen to and read homilies by their Elder. In all his talks, Geronda Ephraim criticizes, insults and reproaches himself. All his monastics believe he is the holiest man in the world, the last great saint of the Orthodox Church. Geronda Ephraim says he sees himself as nothing more than an useless, pathetic, beast not worthy of anything in this world. The monastics are constantly trying to acquire this mindset; not to believe only in lip service but rather to the depths of their entire being.
The Orthodox Patristic texts, as well as Geronda Ephraim, encourage their followers to cultivate an anxiety and fear that they call “Holy”.]
9) Control of Sexuality and Intimacy
In this cult, all sexual desires, normal sex in marriage, and physical love in marriage was “impure” and part of the “fallen flesh.” So it was severely restricted to only certain times during the week and the year. All was to be confessed.
[NOTE: Geronda Ephraim and his priests generally teach their spiritual children to abstain from carnal relations the night before Holy Communion, on Feast Days of the Virgin Mary, during the fasts ordained by the Church (Wednesdays, Fridays, Great Lent, Dormition, Christmas, etc). Essentially, there are over 200 days of the 365 day year where an Orthodox Christian couple must abstain from sex. These numbers don’t factor in the abstinence days when a woman is on her menstrual cycle or pregnant.
On days where sex is allowed, Geronda’s spiritual children are encouraged only to do basic missionary sex, try not to enjoy the carnal passion too much so it doesn’t lead to dirtier things, and avoid contraceptives or the pull-out method. Any act related to oral (felatio, cunnilingus, etc.) or anal (penetration, analingus, etc.) is to be avoided as they are sins that carry heavy penances (i.e. years without communion, etc.). These admonitions are only for married spiritual children as any sexual act outside of marriage (including solo acts such as masturbation) are considered serious sins and punishable under the canons.
Abstaining from sex when a couple stops having children is also encouraged. The monasteries call it “Living like brother and sister.”
10) Excessive Financial Obligations (a form of complete submission to God.)
The only place for tithes and donations was cultic Orthodox churches or monasteries (the one in Dog Canyon never was built.) Later on, in a Russian Abroad Church in Sunnyvale, CA, I was pushed to give my monthly wages to dubious causes, such as the “compound” which was to be built, with greenhouses and all.
[NOTE: Most of Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries don’t pass around collection plates during the Liturgy, nor do they have fixed prices for Sacraments (i.e. baptism, marriage, etc.). Everything is run on donations and there are various things each monastery does to raise funds on top of whatever art, craft, food, they sell.
Rich benefactors, or potential benefactors, can sometimes be groomed and cultivated into a lifetime helper. It helps if the individual has a sick husband or wife and is desperate for a cure or miracle. If the individual goes into remission or the medication treats whatever (though more emphasis is placed on the blessing with relics than western medicine) one could be looking at a lifetime benefactor who will also bring other rich people to the monasteries. This kind of cultivation isn’t viewed as unethical because the monastery is repaying these individuals spiritually with prayer and offering them the means of salvation which “is worth more than all the money in the world combined.”
RECRUITMENT AND MIND CONTROL (Steve Hassan)
“…’mind control’ may be understood as a SYSTEM of influences that disrupts an individual’s identity (beliefs, behavior, thinking, and emotions) and replaces it with a new identity.” (p. 7, Combatting…)
“If deception, hypnosis, and other mind control techniques are used to recruit and control followers, then people’s rights are being infringed upon.” (p.37.)
Note: Steve Hassan’s FOUR COMPONENTS OF MIND CONTROL are best described and connected with the Orthodox cults in the PSEUDO-PROPHET.org webpage. Personal family experiences are briefly recounted below:
1) BEHAVIOR CONTROL (includes control of environment: location, clothing, diet, sleep patterns, jobs, rituals..)
We learned to act like Br. B. and the other cult members. We learned how to fast, to celebrate feasts (on the proper old-Calendar days), how to cut off the outside world and even American holidays. (I LOVE AMERICA!!!–Elizabeth Ann.) We learned how to do all the prayer services; how to cross ourselves with three fingers, properly, at specific times during the day; how to venerate icons. We learned how to speak, dress, etc.
2) THOUGHT CONTROL
Besides the new language, we learned “stop” wicked thoughts, or “blocking” techniques like chanting “Lord Have Mercy,” or the “Jesus Prayer” over and over, louder and louder. My parents and brothers still start to chant and talk “over a conversation”, which is VERY RUDE, if the person they are talking with questions their beliefs. We learned to feel the “unseen battle” and consider ourselves the “Church Militant”, as opposed to the “fallen outside world.”
3) EMOTIONAL CONTROL
Fear reigned supreme. Fear of other people not in the cult (almost the whole world! ), fear of imminent death, fear of the Apocalypse, fear of the living Antichrist, fear of PERSECUTION, fear of demons, fear of the consequences of leaving the cult–or questioning things like the “Holy Fire”. Oh, did I mention that ALL psychologists, counselors, and psychiatrists were trained in satanic methods? Fear of the world conspiracies. At one point, my parents were certain that our phones were always “bugged” by the government, because of our foreign friends!!
GUILT. About supposed “bad thoughts” and made-up sins. Confessions.
4) INFORMATION CONTROL
As I describe at right: no worldly newspapers, TV news, non-religious books or magazines; even old friends and family were shunned in case they would “draw us away from the faith.” We never again saw a movie in a theater together as a family (except for ‘Pinocchio’, once). The “Orthodox America” paper gave modern movie reviews, which almost always were negative and demonic. All questions had to be through the “spiritual fathers” or clergy. Rational, critical thinking was abandoned.
THREE STEPS TO GAIN MIND CONTROL
(These are explained on pp. 67 -72 of Steve Hassan’s book, Combatting Mind Control. Here I briefly connect them with my own experience.)
As my family “died” to our “old selves” and old lives, we were broken down physically, mentally, and emotionally. Fasting, sleep deprivation, rigorous prayer schedules, confessions, lectures, and lack of contact with old friends and family did this. We believed our former lives had been ALL evil, wrong, and deluded. We were the most pitiable creatures on earth–spiritually fallen.
We were given our new baptisms, new names, and new identities, with life instructions. More reading material, more lectures, and complete compliance with the behaviors of the cult members were required. We were “re-taught”.
After being completely divested of our old selves and old lives, then “taught” how to live the “truth”, we BECAME the new people. We were now part of the family! Immediately, we were told to form a “mission” church, to bring in more converts (and their checkbooks.)
Well, that is a brief overview of the initial cult experience as it related to our involvement with the Russian Orthodox/St. Herman of Alaska/Old Calendar church. It didn’t end there.
This article was first presented at the Fall, 2000, Conference of Orthodox Christian Laity in Dallas, Texas
”Protected by your coming, O Mother of God, the faithful people solemnly celebrate today. Gazing upon your pure ikon, they humbly say: ‘Watch over us with your noble protection and deliver us from all evil by asking your Son, Christ our God to save our souls.’” — Troparian of the feast of the Protection of the Theotokos (Pokrov), celebrated October 1/14
God asked Mary to be the mother of God, and she agreed. She made a personal choice; she was given individual responsibility. Individual responsibility is more than just the topic of this conference, an academic topic, or a political issue: it is an integral part of our Faith. My web site called Protection of the Theotokos confronts the crucial necessity of individual responsibility in the church. The site confronts the lack of responsibility by clergy and laity in handling the topic of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. It also confronts the taking away of individual responsibility in the case of mind-control and cult activity within an Orthodox context.
The reason I became aware of both cult activity and sexual abuse in the church is because of my own personal experience in my parish. More than ten years ago it was discovered that my four year old sister and several of her friends were victims of sexual abuse by a man who claimed to be a convert to the Orthodox faith. Upon investigation it was discovered that the molester had been involved in a cult group (listed by several national cult awareness networks). Several other members in my parish were also converts from the same group and exhibited a continuing cult mentality as they had known the molester for fifteen years or more, yet didn’t tell my family, or any of the other families in the parish, let alone law enforcement officials, that this man was a violent criminal who was breaking his parole by attending our parish. It became apparent that certain converts in our parish still maintained an allegiance to their previous group. Later it was discovered that while they gave us the impression that they were converts from another orthodox jurisdiction, it turned out that they were from a group that is documented as a Gnostic mystery cult with pagan and occult rituals that had recently adopted orthodox rituals as a means of gaining credibility by mainstream society. Court records show that the leaders in the cult sent letters to court pleading leniency for the molester and another letter invited him to a monastery that housed children.
I first started Protection of the Theotokos web site as a way for myself and my family to reach out to others that had experienced abuse in the church first hand. We list articles on abuse, resources and a list of documented perpetrators. I had no idea the extent of the abuse problems; however I am now informed of cases in the Orthodox Church on a near weekly basis. Without much publicity, we have an average of 800 visits to the web site a month. I have received more than 2000 email messages in response to the site. Perpetrators are listed on my website that have conviction records, but I have a growing file of more than fifty other perpetrators NOT listed on my web site. I have received multiple reports on most of these fifty plus perpetrators, most of whom continue today as ”pastors” in Orthodox parishes. Needless to say, the list of victims is staggering.
This conference is honored by the presence of two courageous orthodox mothers — Catherine Metropoulos and Melanie Sakoda — who have stepped forward after seeing their children violated at church. They are both advocates for all children, not just their own. In both of their cases, they were told be silent and not speak about what happened to them, and in both cases their children could have been spared harm if others had spoken out. Yet, both Catherine and Melanie have stopped the cycle of silence and used their individual responsibility to the church to warn others of dangers in their communities.
Sexual abuse is such an explosive issue in the Orthodox Church that people aren’t even allowed to talk about it. My website, which publishes the facts (court documents, newspaper reprints, etc.), is so controversial that one member of the clergy (not present at this conference) attempted to have me removed from the program today. I also made reports to the FBI after receiving threatening messages from another source which indicated that my personal safety may be in jeopardy. It seems that talking about the crimes is actually worse than the crimes themselves. What I want to talk about today may be more difficult to confront than sexual abuse — and is sometimes a cause of sexual abuse — it is the confusing and controversial subject of what I call cult mentality and activity in the Orthodox Church.
What is a ”cult mentality” or ”cult?”
There are many different thoughts on the subject, but Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a respected authority on cult activity, describes three main factors which are a charismatic leader, brainwashing and emotional, economic, sexual or other type of exploitation of members by the leaders. Cult activity can occur on a very large scale, in a small group situation, and even on a one-on-one basis. In Russia there has recently been some trouble with cult mentality in the Orthodox Church. An article from 1999 said the following: ”
Russian Orthodox priests have abused their authority over believers by intruding into their private lives and setting up, cult-like followings, the church’s Synod has complained. ‘The priests ban parishioners from marrying for love, force others to divorce their spouses because they were not married in church, and even compel some believers to enter monasteries or nunneries …. Instead of leading people to God, such priests are more interested in surrounding themselves with tightly knit groups of admirers and warring against rival parishes and traditions within the church.’”
Group mentality in Parishes and monasteries
These same kind of things are seen more and more in the U.S. as well. A cult mentality is seen in sexual abuse cases, for instance, when groups of people will still believe a priest is innocent after a guilty verdict or a guilty plea in court. Often it is the use of cult tactics that make people vulnerable to sexual and other types of abuse.
People have contacted me confused why a priest is suddenly making changes, they are being told what to do, everyone is supposed to follow the priest in every way, etc. Often changes are made in the parish council giving the priest more and more control. Parishioners are told not to question or talk about the changes, and if they do they are called ”unorthodox,” or ”ethnic/ nominal orthodox.” Sometimes people are derided and told that they don’t understand their own Faith. This makes them intimidated and embarrassed to speak out. One person wrote to me about their experience in their Greek Orthodox parish:
”Soon after the new priest arrived, he began to wear the monk attire: black cassock, black skoufos hat, and long beard. He began to refer to …..spiritual obedience a lot, performed daily liturgies, focused on the desert fathers in his sermons, and encouraged those women who favored spiritual obedience to him to wear scarves during liturgy and refrain from communion if they were menstruating. Some people began wearing (long) prayer ropes ….. wrapped around their wrists several times. Soon it was evident which group of parishioners were the super Orthodox and which group were moderates. … Small groups of the growing cadre of spiritually obedient parishioners went on retreats to the monastery, several states away. Their purpose was to gain a blessing from (the elder) …..They returned saying that (the elder) truly had the power of discernment. Individuals took personal questions for (the elder) seeking answers, such as, Should I buy this property? Should I have a baby? Should I marry this man/woman? Should I become a monk/nun? Throughout this time, a division within the parish became evident, especially at voting time for the Parish Council. The question was, Will this man/woman support the priest or remain a moderate?”
As shown in the letter I just read, group thinking can effect a regular parish. To me one of the most important points of that quote is that people weren’t encouraged to think for themselves, or to ask questions. They were forced to conform to an imposed standard of piety. It is important to remember that the Orthodox faith is full and multifaceted and doesn’t always fit one particular mold.
I have a personal anecdote. In my last parish there were two members who were chrismated into the parish who still lived and worked at a orthodox-style cult commune during the week, but came to our parish on the weekends. I thought this was a concern, both for the parish, and the people in the cult. However, when I asked the priest about it he accused me of gossiping. This is a common thing people are told to keep them from asserting their personal opinions. In fact Margaret Singer, one of the definitive experts on cult activity, says that:
”In many groups, there is a ‘no gossip’ or ‘no nattering’ rule that keeps people from expressing their doubts or misgivings about what is going on. This rule is usually rationalized by saying that gossip will tear apart the fabric of the group or destroy unity, when in reality the rule is a mechanism to keep members from communicating anything other than positive endorsements. Members are taught to report those who break the rule, a practice that also keeps members isolated from each other and increases dependence on the leadership.”
One person wrote to my web site about his abusive spiritual director, and I believe it shows how leaders can be deceptive:
”This man looked homely, dressed modestly, behaved in a gentle, self effacing manner, but had a highly charismatic personality that did not seem charismatic at all–art that concealed art. Whether aware of it or not, he had a splendid voice, and knew when to inflect his words so as to dramatically enhance the impact of what he said at key moments–the effect on me was almost hypnotic. Others were also enchanted. …… (M)y spiritual advisor ‘pulled’ people’s attention toward himself, rather than the God he supposedly honored, and ostensibly served. All in all, I knew something was very wrong, did not want to trust my gut instincts because I felt unable to bear the loneliness involved in ending the relationship — plus I had been going through some terrible crises and had gotten some genuinely valuable support from this man. The worst thing was that he had such a reputation for sanctity, that I and others felt afraid to even question his motives — he was protected by our own unconscious, wishful desire for evidence that God still cared enough to rise up saints in this sad world. I blamed myself and felt guilty all the time.”
Where is the new influence coming from?
In the last twenty years there has been an increased interest by mainstream society in the Orthodox church. An increasing percentage of clergy are converts. Besides the cult group I mentioned earlier that was in my own parish, there are many non-orthodox religions that have adopted orthodox icons, liturgics, theology and music into their traditions. Some of these groups are entranced by the beauty of the rituals, others are truly seeking the essence of the faith, others are using the traditions to cover up for a lack of legitimacy. Some of these groups have tried to join the church en masse — some have succeeded. Individual people interested in the Orthodox faith can be from varied backgrounds According to Don Lattin in an SF Chronicle (3/5/00):
”There has been a growing number of conversions to Orthodox Christianity … both by individuals and entire congregations. Some converts are traditionalists, such as Episcopalians upset over the ordination of women as priests and bishops. Others are evangelicals tired of the spiritual fads and the pop music of Pentecostalism. Some are serious students of the faith who read a little history and conclude that the Orthodox may have the closest structure to the early Christian churches. And there are all those spiritual seekers who dabble in Zen, Sufism or humanistic psychology and then stumble across some Orthodox monk with a long beard and a twinkle in his eye.”
My family converted from the Anglican church. We spent more than a year studying the Orthodox faith and attending the cycle of services. It was an important decision we made, each as individuals, to join the church. As converts my family was welcomed by long-time cradle Orthodox who taught us what it meant to be Orthodox, and we continue to learn more about Orthodoxy from them.
Orthodox people should be proud of the traditions they have maintained for generations and passed on to so many. Another convert is Bishop Kallistos whose book The Orthodox Church reminds us of these traditions. He points out that while the church is hierarchical, it is also ”charismatic and Pentecostal.” He goes on to say that ”the whole people of God are prophets and priests.” He also reminds us that in the Orthodox tradition, clergy and laity are equally responsible for guarding the faith. However, if lay people are no longer allowed to think for themselves, and told they must always obey their priest or bishop, this precious tradition is lost. As Bishop Isaiah of Denver recently reminded us, God wants loving sons and daughters, not slaves in his kingdom.
How is thought reform implemented? How are people made to be obedient?
The ”no gossiping” rule is one way, charismatic leadership is one way, but Margaret Singer also cites changes in diet, sleep and stress as ways of implementing thought reform or persuasion in a cult situation. While I am not condemning fasting or liturgical services, an increased cycle of services can result in sleep deprivation, and trance states and rules of fasting can cause protein deprivation, malnutrition and other health problems. Several of the letters I have gotten describe severe health problems resulting from fasting. One former nun told me of how she left her convent after she almost died when she was told to follow the convent’s dietary restrictions which were against doctor recommendations. Extreme fasting can cause other problems even in healthy people. It can make even the strongest of us too weak to use our good judgment, and more open to suggestion.
The use of spiritual fathers and elders and confessors in the orthodox church is also a way that cult activity can be imposed. In many books about cults, confession is listed as one of the techniques used to apply cult mentality and have people second guess their own judgment. This is in contrast to a healthy use of confession as a reaffirmation of God’s love for us. It can also be used as a way for a leader to impose guilt, which is another cult tactic. Margaret Singer tells how confession is used so that members reveal past and present behavior, contacts with others, and undesirable feelings, seemingly in order to unburden themselves and become free. However, whatever you reveal is subsequently used to further mold you and to make you feel close to the group and estranged from non members. … through the confession process and by instruction in the groups’ teachings, members learn that everything about their former lives, including friends, family, and nonmembers, is wrong and to be avoided.
Here is some of a testimony I received from one former monk who was one of many victims of sexual and spiritual abuse from the spiritual father of his monastery:
”Father carefully cultivates among his novices and monks the concept of absolute obedience to the ‘elder’ (staretz), i.e. himself. He does this by his own interpretations of the Scriptures and the writings of the Holy Fathers and by pointing to certain patristic statements found chiefly in the Ladder of Divine Ascent (e.g. 4:121, ”It is better to sin against God than against our father”). Novices and monks are led to believe that total obedience is a monk’s only path into the Kingdom of Heaven and that a monk can gain access to God only through his elder; they are led to believe that their belief in God and their belief in their ‘elder’ are one and the same; they are led to believe that if they disobey their ‘elder’ by any action or even thought, they have disobeyed and betrayed God and are therefore no better than atheists unless they repent, that is, obey.”
Who is vulnerable?
Any one of us can exhibit cult mentality: it happens whenever we allow our thoughts and actions to be dictated by someone else, or by outward appearances. For instance, it can occur in sexual abuse cases against the clergy, when people continue to believe a priest is innocent after a guilty verdict, or even after a guilty plea, simply because he is a priest. However, young people and converts are especially vulnerable, as are people going through a difficult time, such as a divorce, or the death of a loved one. Converts to Otrhodoxy are open to new ideas and willing to learn new things, but they may have a limited idea of what Orthodoxy really is. If they are told that to be Orthodox they must give blind obedience to the clergy, they might not know better.
Young people are similarly vulnerable. Not only are they usually expected to obey their elders, but they also may not yet have developed a mature understanding of Orthodoxy. There is a developing trend in this country of monastery schools, for children as young as five, or teenage novices. I personally feel that having children at monasteries is very wrong. We must certainly make sure that these children are being taught the importance of individual responsibility, not blind obedience.
Vulnerability to blind obedience is particularly problematic when whole groups, with their former leadership intact, are received into the church. If the group’s understanding of Orthodoxy is in error, if they do not understand that they need to exercise their individual responsibility to preserve our heritage, you have not one lay convert, whose misconceptions can be corrected by a priest or by other parishioners, but a serious threat to the Faith. These groups may go on to attract more converts, but only those who are looking for someone else to do their thinking for them.
This brings me to my next subject ….
Outside groups that may influence the Orthodox Church
In this country there are no rules or laws about who wears a clerical robe. There are no rules about who calls themselves Orthodox. Many groups in this country are self proclaimed orthodox. There is also a priest shortage. As a result of these factors, there are more and more priests converts from outside groups, often with no backgrounds or qualifications other than cult leadership positions to lead an Orthodox parish. More and more priests and bishops do not have a seminary education.
In one parish a convert Orthodox priest, formerly with a cult, pronounced excommunication on several devout long time Greek parish council members, simply for asking him to account for missing funds. The priest wrote to them saying:
”….(Y)ou have been suspended from the Sacraments. This difficult action has been taken because of your divisive actions [i.e.: asking about funds] and your refusal to follow the directions of your Priest and Bishop in resolving the problems within our parish. …. Suspension from the Sacraments means you are not a member in good standing, and thus may not continue as a member of the … Council, nor as its chairman …. Restoration to the sacraments is possible and in fact desirable upon ….: resignation from your position on the parish council, confession, and an expressed desire to accept and put on the spirit and practice that characterizes the …. diocese.”
Many of you come from parishes in which the parishioners are essentially like the parish council members described above, but where there is no influence from outside non-orthodox groups. Unfortunately in more and more communities in the Orthodox world, including my own home town of San Francisco, there are groups that appear orthodox, call themselves orthodox, but aren’t affiliated with any Orthodox jurisdictions. Among the controversial groups listed on my web site, four are not currently attached to any canonical Orthodox jurisdiction. There are many more groups that we are still investigating.
Some people may ask:
Why are cults a problem? Shouldn’t they just join the Orthodox Church?
On a list assembled by Margaret Singer, she lists one of the dangers of cult activity is that cults threaten legitimate institutions Many people would say since some groups are not really orthodox, then it doesn’t effect the ”real” church. However, many of these self-trained or cult-trained orthodox have been chrismated and ordained into the Orthodox Church, sometimes on the same weekend. One non-orthodox group, for instance, has made it its mission to ”save the orthodox from themselves,” and has attempted to send out members to convert to local established Orthodox parishes to establish connections within a parish. Many of these converts present themselves as long-time Orthodox and look to fill positions as Sunday school teachers and ordained deacons or readers. The sacraments are not meant to be a magical spell. Chrismation and ordination do not impart understanding of the Faith, or erase cult mentality.
Most of you know about the conflicts surrounding the widely publicized Antiochian Evangelical Orthodox Mission situation, which was considered a cult before its reception. Currently some Orthodox jurisdictions are attempting to take in other groups, just not so publicly. Recently I heard that one SCOBA jurisdiction is considering taking in the group that my sister’s molester had belonged to. When someone who works with me called the church headquarters to ask if this was true, the phone call was unceremoniously terminated. I then called myself and they hung up on me as well. We were not allowed to ask a simple question and receive a civil answer, much less express an opinion on the wisdom of this alleged reception.
Orthodox unity, you see, is more complicated than it seems.
Perhaps you think that these issues do not affect you or your parish, but take a look at the icon prints, periodicals and books sold in your parish book shop. Many pseudo orthodox groups sell orthodox wares as ways to make money and gain credibility.
Is that an ”orthodox bookstore” down the street from your parish, or does it just call itself Orthodox?
I believe Orthodoxy in America is at an important crossroads. The Orthodox Church is NOT a cult — but as lay people we each have a responsibility to make sure that it does not become one. The danger is there. The antidote is the example of Mary. God asked Mary to be the Theotokos, and understanding what was asked of her, she said yes. The Mother of God was a loving daughter, not a slave. We should all strive to be no less.