Spiritual Father and Elder Cultism (Igumen Petr Meshcherinov, 2004)

Resolution of His Holiness, Patriarch Alexei and the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Metropolitan Hilarion with President Putin and Patriarch Alexei II.
Metropolitan Hilarion with President Putin and Patriarch Alexei II.

In December, 1998, the Patriarch of Moscow and the Holy Synod accepted a very important resolution concerning spiritual relationships, errors existing in this sphere of church life, and the necessity of overcoming them. This resolution is important not only in and of itself, but also because it testifies that our church is a living organism and, as it always has throughout its history, reacts in a reasoned and sensible manner to each distortion in the life of the Church.

One should say, “Whatever the elder believes, thinks, and decides, I also believe, think, and decide in exactly the same way”. - Geronda Ephraim of Arizona
One should say, “Whatever the elder believes, thinks, and decides, I also believe, think, and decide in exactly the same way”. – Geronda Ephraim of Arizona

Six years have now gone by and it is time to assess whether positive changes have taken place [as a result of the resolution]. Regrettably, the answer is “no.” The Synodal resolution, despite the fact that it clearly expresses will of the Patriarch and the Hierarchy, has not been implemented. It should have been widely published in every diocese and its contents explained to the faithful from every ambon. It should have been made known to every faithful Orthodox Christian. This has not happened. To the contrary, the grinding wheel of “pseudo mystical guruism” gathers ever more force. People are lured into thinking that only what is spoken by or done by “elders” is actually Orthodox. Thus the spiritual life is reduced to the searching for these “elders” and to giving attention only to that which proceeds from their mouths. Often, however, what comes from them has no relationship at all to Christianity.

“The Elder speaks, God speaks. The mouth of the Elder is the mouth of Christ.” - Elder Ephraim of Katounakia (d. 1998)
“The Elder speaks, God speaks. The mouth of the Elder is the mouth of Christ.” – Elder Ephraim of Katounakia (d. 1998)

What is the matter here? Why has the most sound and timely resolution of the church authority not been received and implemented? Why have so few shared the concern of the hierarchy? Let us investigate all this in the light of the aforementioned document.

"The experience of the Elders, the experience of so many centuries of monastic life says: 'If you comfort your Elder, you comfort God. If you don't comfort your Elder, you don't comfort God.'" - Geronda Ephraim Xeropotamou (d. 1984)
“The experience of the Elders, the experience of so many centuries of monastic life says: ‘If you comfort your Elder, you comfort God. If you don’t comfort your Elder, you don’t comfort God.'” – Geronda Ephraim Xeropotamou (d. 1984)

What is the norm of pastorship in the Church? Let us turn to Holy Scripture. The Lord gave His Apostles and their successors, the bishops, the authority to build and preserve the Church. This authority is not secular, not implemented with compulsive power. It is a grace-filled gift of service, to celebrate the Holy Mysteries, to maintain the faith and to indicate the true path of piety. This grace-filled gift is preserved in the Church and is transmitted in the Mystery of the Consecration of Bishops. Salvation is impossible without the Church, consequently, as Saint Theophan the Recluse says, it is necessary to be in union with it, and this means that it is necessary to have communion with its ministers, bishos of the Church.

“He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16) says the Lord. “He who receives any one whom I send receives me” (John 13:20). “As Thou (the Father) sent me into the world, so I have sent them (the Apostles) into the world” (John 17:18). “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who well have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17), the Apostle writes. And so, through obedience to the pastors, we are in communion with the God-established order of Church life.

"But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted," says the Lord (Matthew 23:8-12).
“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted,” says the Lord (Matthew 23:8-12).

This does not in any way mean, however, that the Church is divided into supervisors and subordinates (in the worldly sense). Before God we are all equal and we differ only in the degree of Church ministry, as Saint Silouan of Athos says, “There is not a church divided into teachers and pupils,” that is, a caste of teachers and a mass of silent listeners. All of us are the one Body of Christ, each one of us has a place in the Church, and all of us are co-workers with each other, together helping one another. When we thus come to Christ, in Him we discover salvation and the Heavenly Kingdom. Well does Apostle Peter speak of this, “So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed: Tend to the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And where the chief shepherd is manifested, you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. Likewise you that are younger be subject to those who are older. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble….Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another. As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied degree grace….that in everything God may be glorified through Christ Jesus. To Him belong glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” (1Peter 5:1-5; 4:8-11).

This is the norm for the relationship of pastors and flocks. Everything has been said. I consider that every father-confessor must copy out these words in large print and read them daily. There is yet another place in the New Testament that all should harken to: “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted,” says the Lord (Matthew 23:8-12). These words of the Lord in no way contradict the church pastorship established by Him, but rather indicate that spirit in which it must be realized. Here are its characteristic indications, as the Holy Scripture speaks about it:

(1). A pastor is not a supervisor to a person, not a ruler, but a servant.

(2). Relationships of the pastor and flock are built exclusively on the basis of love and mutual respect.

(3). Finally, and this is the main point, the pastor cannot manifest pastorship from himself.

“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who well have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17)
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who well have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17)

It is not his, it is Christ’s (in this, we find the meaning of the Saviour’s words cited above). Consequently, the pastor is obliged – and here we find the virtue of the pastor revealed – to help every soul, to teach about Christ and His Church, to help a Christian to come to the full measure of growth in Christ. These necessary virtues or skills recognise that individuals are different, and that the Lord opens a way for each soul. The relationship of man and God is a great mystery, and a pastor, with God’s help, must fit a key to the heart of each person in order that he may minister precisely to the persons concrete external and internal situation – giving what the Lord Himself wishes to give to that soul. One must not attempt to place any person into a common mold, and thrust upon him what is, perhaps, theoretically good and correct, but in the given situation moment, not appropriate.  Such is the pastoral norm. The distortions of it are instantly visible in the light. Let us note the most characteristic of these distortions.

On the part of the pastor, there can be two main distortions:

(1). Incomprehension, insensitivity, ignorance and the circumstance indicated above – the pastor is not someone who is self-sufficient and self-dependent. He is a servant of Christ, a flexible and tactful instrument to His grace. Consequently, he must only and solely guide people to the teaching of Christ and the Church. Unfortunately, pastors frequently teach people not Christianity, but what they understand as Christianity, that is, they substitute the servant [themselves] in place of God and the Church.

(2). The second error is the notion that the grace of the priesthood acts automatically, merely on the strength of the ordination. Yesterday he was a plain person, but today after ordination, the attitude that everything coming from the lips of the newly-beginning pastor is from the Holy Spirit. This is a most widely spread delusion (and not simply a delusion, but a distorted behaviour emanating from it).

We must elucidate this. In the Church there is nothing automatic. Any mystery surmises a co-working of God and man, and is manifested according to its moral strengths. The Mystery of the priesthood is no exception. We had stated that the task of the pastor is to teach people the teachings of the Church, and never his own notions about it, and a bringing together of the people with Christ. This is only possible the pastor exerts himself to master the Church’s teaching, not merely in knowledge, but also in life, when he himself has an experienced notion of the Orthodox Christian spiritual life. If he accomplished this, the grace of the priesthood is revealed in him and brings forth an abundant result. Without such struggle, grace by itself will do nothing. It will not “automatically” make an ignoramus into a wise man, a vainglorious man into a humble one, one who is greedy into a generous man. Yes, the Mystery [or ordination] will take place according to the authority of the Church, but in order to give leadership to people, one must work very hard on the organization of one’s own life, in order to teach the Church’s teaching one must master it in the proper manner.

Unfortunately, the conditions of our times have been the reason for the ordination of many people not fully ready for this, not mature enough to understand what the service is that has been entrusted to them, and what it demands of them.

“He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16) says the Lord. “He who receives any one whom I send receives me” (John 13:20).
“He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16) says the Lord. “He who receives any one whom I send receives me” (John 13:20).

On the part of the flock, the following are the errors:

(1). In response to the notion of an “automatically acting” grace of the priesthood,there is born the notion of an “automatic” and “blind” obedience to the priest. It is reasoned in this manner: it is of no importance that the priest says one thing and does another. What is important is that my faith in the strength of the grace of the priest’s priesthood ushers God’s will to me. This is a widely spread ideology and it is completely at odds with the Gospel. The Lord did not say – of the two blind men “if the second one believes that the first one is not blind, then the first one will fall into the pit but the second one, through his faith, will not fall.” No, the Lord said that both will fall into the pit. This does not mean that one must judge the priests or go into an examination of their lives. One has only to respond to life with sobriety, and to remember that there is nothing “blind” in the Church. This is particularly true of obedience, which must arise naturally from normal relationships between pastor and flock, when the relationships is one of mutual love and respect, when the pastor does not teach or speak about himself and his opinions, but strives to bring people to Christ. When the relationship is not of the Gospel, then obedience becomes an object of speculation, it loses its spiritual meaning, and instead of a means to salvation, it becomes a slavish submission which only drives a person away from the Lord.

2).It is most important to examine what it is that gives birth to abnormal spiritual relationships. It is the fear of freedom and responsibility. Where there is the Lord’s Spirit, there is freedom, says Apostle Paul. Christianity granted people a great gift – freedom. But, since freedom is impossible without a personal responsibility for one’s own life, then it becomes heavy for many people. It is easier to yield one’s freedom of responsibility from oneself so that someone else makes one’s decisions, it is easier to hide behind traditions, corporatism, rules, plans, etc, than to responsibly and consciously build one’s own Christian life. Thus all the life of the flock is foisted upon the confessors. In place of freedom, people want to receive a “guarantee of salvation.” Such a refusal of freedom is, however, a refusal of Christianity, since this can be accomplished only personally, “under one’s own responsibility.” The notion of [blind obedience and yielding personal responsibility] creates a situation in which the confessors cease to be co-sojourners, co-workers, advisors of Christians, but become their rulers.

Thereby, spiritual relationships go beyond the borders of Church order. They [priests] build upon this, and in the spiritual side of life, they illegally rest it entirely upon this. Then, not only the entire Christian order becomes skewed, but life in general become disordred. This can be observed, for example, in “Orthodox” families when, far too frequently, the pastor, not the husband becomes the head of his household, or when, one feels that in order to fulfil service obligations, it is necessary “to receive the confessor’s blessing.” In such situations, the husband becomes dependant on completely extraneous and outrageous factors, while being puzzled: what sort of “Orthodoxy” is this? Conflicts arise on this soil and families can even fall apart, as the spiritual relationship has become sheer manipulation.

How is one to refuse to allow any of this?  How are these relationships to be normally built? What is the place of a confessor in a Christian’s life?

First of all, something general must be said. The task of a confessor is not to remake a person, not to make of him his own image, a “clone.” He (the priest) should rather, with great love and respect to the individuality of each person, help give Christ a place in his life so that a person, having himself, with the help of the Holy Spirit, defeated the sin that is in him, becomes such as Christ wants to see him – unique, free, responsible, conscientious, a developed individual. The confessor must teach him to discern where the grace of the Holy Spirit is, where the natural course of things is, where passion and sin are, so that all this might not become jumbled in a person’s head, mangling his life. This is an entirely educative process.

In particular, a confessor is needed most of all at the beginning when a person just enters the Church and perceives the rudiments of spiritual life. Here, the confessor is a thoughtful guardian and teacher. The aim of this teaching is singularly to give the beginning Christian the correct direction of growth so that he becomes “of the Church, not deviating to church substitutions, not falling into false ascetic rigourism, nor descending into relativism, etc. Then, after the beginning, the relationship changes somewhat: they become as if more “equal,” not in the sense of any diminishing of the priestly office, but internally, spiritually equal. The person will thus be mature, he will have more freedom, more trust, and less tutelage, a smaller quantity of rules, advice, exhortations, etc.

"The ear of God is at the mouth of the priest. The stole has great power." - Geronda Ephraim of Katounakia
“The ear of God is at the mouth of the priest. The stole has great power.” – Geronda Ephraim of Katounakia

At this point, we have revealed before us the main problem. We observe spiritual relationships of people in our Church and are amazed at how immature they are! No one wishes to mature. Neither the flock which seems to be essentially “stuck” in spiritual infancy, looking at the world through the eyes of its priest-confessor, at the very time when the Lord wants us to become fully ourselves, and to grow in the measure of Christ. The priest-confessors find it uncomfortable to see around them people who have matured. Somehow, they do not know how to treat them.

Clearly, many pastors have a need to see their flock exclusively as unreasonable children with whom they can speak condescendingly, in a language of commands, admonitions, and lectures. In all of this we see a mutual disrespect and a forgetting of what is the primary reality – that the

Church is not a kindergarten where there are authoritarian educators and foolish children, but rather it is the Body of Christ, that is, the spiritual organic union in Christ of mature people who have come into their own measure, each one having from God his own gift of serving. It is indispensable to begin to realize this.

The Elder speaks, God speaks. The mouth of the Elder is the mouth of Christ.
The Elder speaks, God speaks. The mouth of the Elder is the mouth of Christ.

Also, let us touch upon another question about “elders.” Inexperienced “eldership” remains one of the most painful problems in the life of the Church today. There is an ideological basis for this. Many with full seriousness affirm that “Orthodoxy is true only because it has elders.” To find an “elder” is the main “spiritual” task of many Orthodox people. For them, the opinion of the “elders” is the highest authority, much greater than the authority of Holy Scripture, not to mention the views of the hierarchy. One might as well sound a serious alarm concerning this epidemic of “gerontocracy.” What is the reason for this phenomenon?

We saw that in the Church there is a God-established hierarchy, in whom the grace of the Holy Spirit is entrusted to illumine people with the Mysteries, to teach them the truths of the faith and morality. This teaching comes from the bishops by the authorization of the Church; it does not bind or crush freedom, and is accomplished in a spirit of love. Pastorship is advice, example, a mutual movement of the elderly and the youth together in the Church, toward Christ. While this is a great thing, some consider it insufficient. Pastors of the Church and pastoral guidance is not enough for them. They want something greater and higher – elders. Some Orthodox people feel some sort of actual loss and incompleteness in their spiritual life without elders. Some strive to [get a second opinion] from an elder to verify the advice of their confessor. All this is nourished by a sizeable number of corresponding Orthodox literature.

Who are these elders in actual fact? An elder simply speaking is a person who has attained holiness and is worthy from God the gifts of discernment and perspicaciousness. There always were few real elders (and now, assessing everything, there are none), but many books about them have remained. In reading these books and seeing the salutariness and abundant results of eldership, people naturally strive to acquire something similar in their lives. Searching begins by looking for external signs: a large white beard, or a claimed ascetic model of life, or a great crowd of women or apocalyptic predictions and a certain opposition to the Hierarchy, etc. The law of supply and demand begets a notion and “elders” of such a type are found without difficulty.

"Tend to the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock." (1 Peter 5:2-3)
“Tend to the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3)

Why are they necessary? Firstly, as I have already said, to shirk one’s responsibility for oneself. They want to find an elder, to believe wholeheartedly in him and to think about or care about nothing. Entry into paradise is guaranteed, they think. Secondly, simply put, some people want to know the future. As a rule no one goes to an elder with the question of how to be saved, because this is completely clear in the Gospel, and any parish priest can in one way or another answer this question satisfactorily. An elder is now asked: to get married or to go to a monastery? To change one’s living quarters or to sell them? To undergo an operation? To start a business or, to the contrary, to get rid of it quickly, etc, etc.? Of course they ask the elders if the end of the world is soon and what are the signs of antichrist. And here, by the way, there is a complete manifestation of the most real Ecumenism. In other religions, for the deciding of these very questions, there exist gurus, sheikhs, shamans, lamas, tsadikim, druids, etc. And for unbelieving persons, they will go to a fortuneteller and telepathist.

We do not wish to deprive these vital questions their significance, but when they appear as the main thing in life, then the Church becomes magic for people, and the vector of spiritual life is directed so that “at the expense of God” it would be good “here and now.”

It is, moreover, necessary to note one essential difference of an elder from a simple priest of the Church. The latter ideally does nothing other than only bringing the Church’s teaching to a person in his concrete situation. Elder are seen as acting on the basis of some sort of personal charisma, and caution is necessary here. Saint Seraphim of Sarov said that when he spoke from himself and not from the Holy Spirit, there were errors. Saint Silouan of Athos, in citing this phrase of Saint Seraphim, wrote that the errors can be small, but there can also be large ones. Thus the Church commands us to have great sobriety in any contact with such personal things. But in our times there is no sobriety. As if that were not enough, there is quite evident a reverse process of mythologising everything that is connected with “elders.”

St. Seraphim of Sarov said that when he spoke from himself and not from the Holy Spirit, there were errors. St. Silouan of Athos, in citing this phrase of St. Seraphim, wrote that the errors can be small, but there can also be large ones.
St. Seraphim of Sarov said that when he spoke from himself and not from the Holy Spirit, there were errors. St. Silouan of Athos, in citing this phrase of St. Seraphim, wrote that the errors can be small, but there can also be large ones.

One might think that there is nothing negative in such a “childlike” perception (not childlike in a Gospel sense) of the spiritual life. But in Actual fact there are far more serious things behind this than simply childishness and immaturity.At the basis of “gerontophilia” lies an incorrect notion of God, of God’s will and the relationship of man and God. We draw your attention to this because it is extremely important.  Gerontophiles [elder worshippers] consider that God’s will in relationship to the individual is something predestined, pre-programmed, and something completely mysterious and that it is necessary “to foresee.” Thus, in order to guess this “computerized” will, to get it right, an elder is needed, and an elder he possesses a certain secret knowledge of this most mysterious “will.” We have guessed it and everything is going perfectly well; the children are not ill, and business is prospering. If it has not been guessed at [by the elder], then everything is bad. Worse still, to doubt the “mysterious knowledge” of the elder leads to total ruin. This is a completely non-Christian, magical, pagan attitude. It reduces our religion from the Good tidings about God about the loving Father, about Christ the Saviour into “ill tidings,” to the concept that Christianity is a minefield which cannot be crossed without a field engineer. The elder is the field engineer. The Orthodox Church does not teach anything like this. God’s will is not something programmed, automatic, something that has to be “calculated.” It is also not some kind of esoteric mystery. “I have spoken openly to the world…I have said nothing secretly” (John 18:20) said the Lord. On the contrary, God revealed to us His own will in Christ, in Holy Scripture, in the Church. The earthly life of a person is defined by a personal relationship of the heart, the soul toward God. God’s will is recognized from the sum of the circumstances, from the commands of the conscience, from the disposition of the heart, from choices with regard to sin.

Undoubtedly, pastoral advice is appropriate – but advice precisely in the spirit of the Gospel, the Church, not at all in some sort of false mystical guru-like “guessing.” If we do not take this into account, then our inner life ceases to be truly spiritual and Christian but acquires a certain occult colouration.

Let us sum this up. Spiritual relationships must be an expression of the following church principles: we are all the Church, the Body of Christ; together we mature in God. The older in the Church help the younger both by the giving of God’s grace, and the examples of life and lesson. But spiritual relationships, if they are correct, never obscure the One for Whose sake they exist. Like everything in the Church, these relationships are one of the means of Christian life, and they cannot become a substitute their goal, which is Christ.

In conclusion, I return the reader’s attention to the Synodal resolution about pastorship and confessorship with the wish that it be read and accepted in the way the Church wishes it.

Igumen Petr Meshcherinov.
Igumen Petr Meshcherinov.