Vladimir Moss

In a recent article entitled "Monasticism and Cultism" (Orthodox Tradition, vol. XIII, nos. 3 and 4), Archimandrite Akakios of St. Gregory Palamas Monastery has replied to an article by Archpriest Alexey Young ("Cults Within and Without", Orthodox America, March-April, 1996) in which a salutory warning is given about the dangers of false cults outside the Church and false elders within. Fr. Akakios does not seriously take issue with Fr. Alexey on false cults outside, but he does attempt to qualify or moderate his warnings on false elders within. In doing so, however, he makes certain errors which only tend to underline the truth and importance of Fr. Alexey's words.

Fr. Akakios in a gentle way chides Fr. Alexey 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". However, the phenomenon of false eldership, which is so rampant in our days, does not affect only monastics; nor are the principles of eldership an esoteric secret which is comprehensible and relevant only to monastics (although, as in all matters of the Faith, the more virtuous the life, the deeper the understanding). Many lay parishioners are given monastic-style obediences by parish priests who arrogate to themselves authority over them that is appropriate only to a true, Spirit-bearing elder; and Fr. Alexey is surely right to say that you should be wary "if you are a layman in a parish situation [and] are expected to get permission ("a blessing") from the priest before you change jobs, buy a new car, etc. Under normal circumstances these are not the proper purview of a parish priest, however wise and pious he may otherwise be. One may - and should - ask for prayers and advice about these and other non-controversial aspects of practical life, but asking for permission is quite a different thing." Since such demands for monastic-style obedience are often encountered by laymen, Fr. Alexey, as a pastor of laymen, has every right to express an opinion on the subject, basing himself, of course, on the Tradition of the Orthodox Church as revealed in the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Holy Fathers.

One of the Fathers who spoke most urgently about the dangers of false elders was Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, who wrote: "What has been said of solitude and reclusion must also be said of obedience to elders in the form in which it was practised in ancient monasticism - such obedience is not given to our time" (The Arena, Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1991, chapter 12, p. 43, emphasis supplied by present writer). Fr. Alexey does not mention Bishop Ignatius, but he follows in the same tradition when he asserts: "... 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). Fr. Akakios disputes this opinion, pointing out that the Optina elders flourished during the time of Bishop Ignatius, and that "in this century, many Holy Elders in Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Mt. Athos, Mt. Sinai and elsewhere have led countless [sic!] souls to salvation". However, disputes about the number of true elders in Russia or America in the 19th or 20th century are beside the point. The point is that the grace of true eldership has grown exceedingly scarce (how could it be otherwise in the era of the Antichrist?), and that great care must therefore be exercised before entering into a relationship of strict obedience to a supposed elder, insofar as obedience to a false elder, according to the witness of the Holy Fathers, can lead to the loss of one's soul.

Let us consider some examples.

In the sixth century, when monasticism was at its height and truly Spirit-bearing elders could be found in many places, St. John of the Ladder still found it necessary to warn: "When motives of humility and real longing for salvation decide us to bend our neck and entrust ourselves to another in the Lord, before entering upon this life, if there is any vice and pride in us, we ought first to question and examine, and even, so to speak, test our helmsman, so as not to mistake the sailor for the pilot, a sick man for a doctor, a passionate for a dispassionate man, the sea for a harbour, and so bring about the speedy shipwreck of our soul" (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Willits, Ca.: Eastern Orthodox Books, 1973, p. 67, Step 4, 6).

Again, in the eleventh century St. Symeon the New Theologian wrote: "If you wish to renounce the world and learn the life of the Gospel, do not surrender (entrust) yourself to an inexperienced or passionate master, lest instead of the life of the Gospel you learn a diabolic life. For the teaching of good teachers is good, while the teaching of bad teachers is bad. Bad seeds invariably produce bad fruits... Every blind man who undertakes to guide others is a deceiver or quack, and those who follow him are cast into the pit of destruction, according to the word of the Lord, 'If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a hole' (Matt. 15.14)." (Practical and Theological Texts, 32, 34, in The Philokalia, vol. 3).

In the eighteenth century, the situation had become so serious that, in spite of having an ardent desire to find a true elder to whom he could bow his neck in complete obedience, St. Paisius Velichkovsky was unable to find such a man, although he scoured all the lands between Russia and Mount Athos. Eventually he and a like-minded brother from the Holy Mountain entered into mutual obedience to each other, "having instead of a father and instructor the teaching of our Holy Fathers". As he explained in a letter to the priest Demetrius: "In the present cruel times, which are worthy of much weeping and lamentation, so few have such instructors [God-bearing elders] become that if any zealots among the monks should desire to please God by means of such a coenobitic life, their teacher and instructor must be God Himself and the divine writings of those Holy Fathers, the instructors of the common life, which have been preserved by God's Providence up to now. And if these zealots pay careful heed to these writings, as if it were to those Fathers themselves, by reading them with the fear of God and understanding, and with God's help, they may be in part imitators of their God-pleasing life, being guided and helped to understand by their own father who has gathered them in the name of Christ, or else has been unanimously chosen by them, as long as he instructs his spiritual children not from himself, but from the Holy Scriptures and from this same teaching of the Holy Fathers" (Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky, Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1976, pp.68,147-148).

Fr. Akakios writes: "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."

So far so good. But then Fr. Akakios continues: "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."

The obedience of disciples produces elders, makes them images of Christ?! Perhaps this is just careless language on Fr. Akakios' part, but the prima facie sense of his words implies that the grace of eldership comes, not from above, but from below, not from God, but from the subjective and quite possibly misplaced faith of the disciple. Perhaps he means to say that God bestows the grace of eldership on a man in response to the eager faith of his disciple. But this is still unacceptable from an Orthodox point of view. A disciple can no more make an elder than a layman can ordain a priest.

Bishop Ignatius puts the point in typically trenchant fashion: "Perhaps you retort: A novice's faith can take the place of an incompetent elder. It is untrue. Faith in the truth saves. Faith in a lie and in a diabolic delusion is ruinous, according to the teaching of the Apostle. They refused to love the truth that would save them, he says of those who are voluntarily perishing. Therefore, God will send them (will permit them to suffer) a strong delusion, so that they will believe a lie, that all may be condemned who do not believe the truth but delight in falsehood (II Thess. 2.10-12)." (The Arena, p. 45, emphasis his).

How, then, are we to distinguish between true and false elders? I.M. Kontzevich provides the answer in his book on the Optina elders: "Those who have given themselves over to the direction of a true elder experience a special feeling of joy and freedom in the Lord. He who writes these lines has personally experienced this in himself. The elder is the immediate channel of the will of God. Communion with God is always accompanied by a feeling of spiritual freedom, joy and indescribable peace in the soul. Contrary to this, the false elder pushes God into the background, putting his own will in the place of God, which is accompanied by a feeling of enslavement, depression and, almost always, despondency. Besides, the complete submission of the disciple before the false elder exterminates his personality, buries his will, perverts the feeling of righteousness and truth, and, in this way, weans his conscience from responsibility for his actions.

"Concerning false eldership his Reverence Ignatius Brianchaninov says this: 'It is a terrible business, out of self-opinion and on one's own authority, to take upon oneself duties which can be carried out only by the order of the Holy Spirit and by the action of the Spirit. It is a terrible thing to pretend to be a vessel of the Holy Spirit when all the while relations with satan have not been broken and the vessel is still being defiled by the action of satan! It is disastrous both for oneself and one's neighbour; it is criminal, blasphemous.'

"False eldership produces hypnosis of thought. And since at the root of it there lies a false idea, this idea produces spiritual blindness. When the false idea covers up reality, then no arguments will be accepted any longer, since they stumble upon an idee fixe, which is considered to be an unshakeable axiom." (Optina Pustyn i yeyo Vremya, Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1970, pp. 12-13, emphasis his).

True eldership, according to Kontzevich, is nothing other than the gift of prophecy, the second of the gifts of the Spirit listed by the Apostle Paul (I Cor. 12.28). This is confirmed by Hieroconfessor Barnabas (Belyaev), Bishop of Pechersk, himself a clairvoyant elder, who wrote: "Elders in the Russian ecclesiastical consciousness are ascetics who have passed through a long probation and have come to know the spiritual warfare from experience, who by many exploits have acquired the gift of discernment, and who, finally, are capable by prayer of attaining to the will of God for man. That is, to a greater or lesser extent they have received the gift of clairvoyance and are therefore capable of giving spiritual direction to those who turn to them" (Pravoslaviye, Kolomna: New Golutvin Convent, 1995, p. 149, emphasis supplied by present writer).

Bishop Ignatius' warnings against false eldership should not be taken as a renunciation of all forms of monastic obedience. If they were, his works would hardly have been given as required reading for monastics by the Optina elders and Bishop Theophanes the Recluse. Hieromartyr Nicon of Optina, in his commentary on Bishop Ignaty's writings (Pis'ma k Dukhovnym Chadam, Kuibyshev, 1990), explains that Bishop Ignaty's warning apply only to the strictest kind of elder-disciple relationship: less strict forms of obedience still retain all their spiritual usefulness, even necessity; for no Christian can be saved without obedience and the cutting off of his will in some way. But in our apocalyptic age, when the love of many has grown cold and there is a general spiritual impoverishment, it is as dangerous to demand the strictest forms of obedience as it would be to demand the strictest forms of fasting or prayer or other kinds of ascetic endeavour. We must discern the signs of the times, and adapt our strategies for survival accordingly.

When we see, on the one hand, how difficult it is to be a Christian in the maze of modern life, and, on the other, with what swiftness and apparent ease the monks and pious laymen of past ages attained salvation through strict obedience to a God-bearing elder, it is tempting to find such an elder even when he does not exist. But when we surrender our will to a false elder, we become slaves of a man, a man who is suffering a very grave spiritual sickness; whereas the Apostle Paul says: "You were bought with a price; do not become the slaves of men" (I Cor. 7.23). And having become slaves of men, we lose that most quintessential attribute of man made in the image of God - independent judgement, and the ability to turn to God directly for enlightenment and help.

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 to gain complete control over his disciples, adding, in the case of disobedience, the threat of fearsome sanctions, including very strict penances, curses and even anathematization and expulsion (supposedly) from the Orthodox Church! - a tragic situation which may lead to the convert's abandoning the Orthodox Church altogether, and which the present writer has personally observed in True Orthodox communities in England, Russia, Bulgaria and Greece.

Many who have fallen into the trap of false eldership and begin to see their real situation, are deterred from breaking free by false feelings of guilt, as if there were no circumstances in which a disciple can disobey an elder. But, even apart from heresy, there are certain conditions in which it is right to disobey and leave one's elder, as we read in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: "A brother questioned Abba Poemen, saying, 'I am losing my soul through living near my abba; should I go on living with him?' The old man knew that he was finding this harmful and he was surprised that he even asked if he should stay there. So he said to him, 'Stay if you want to.' The brother left him and stayed there. He came back again and said, 'I am losing my soul.' But the old man did not tell him to leave. He came a third time and said, 'I really cannot stay there any longer.' Then Abba Poemen said, 'Now you are saving yourself; go away and do not stay with him any longer,' and he added, 'when someone sees that he is in danger of losing his soul, he does not need to ask advice'" (The Alphabetical Series, Pi, Poemen, 189, London: Mowbrays, 1975).

Perhaps the most characteristic mark of the last times is the spiritual isolation of the individual believer. Of course, no true Christian is ever really alone: he always has with him God and the Mother of God and all the saints and angels of the Heavenly Church. But in the last times the support of the Heavenly Church may be the only real support that the conscientious believer has, as the Earthly Church grows weak and small, and even such leaders as are left become ensnared in uncanonical situations or suspect in some other way.

This has been the experience of many thousands of believers of the Russian Catacomb Church, and it is therefore from the Catacomb Church that we hear the most urgent admonitions to preserve our spiritual freedom, "lest imperceptibly and little by little we lose the freedom which our Lord Jesus Christ, the Liberator of all men, has given us as a free gift by His Own Blood" (8th Canon of the Third Ecumenical Council). Thus Hieromartyr Bishop Damascene, Bishop of Glukhov, said: "Perhaps the time has come when the Lord does not wish that the Church should stand as an intermediary between Himself and the believers, but that everyone is called to stand directly before the Lord and himself answer for himself as it was with the forefathers!" (E.L., Episkopy-Ispovedniki, San Francisco, 1971, p. 92). Again, Hieromartyr Joseph, Metropolitan of Petrograd, emphasized the possibility that the true Christians of the last times will have to leave all the recognized spiritual guides; for "perhaps the last 'rebels' against the betrayers of the Church and the accomplices of Her ruin will be not only bishops and not protopriests, but the simplest mortals, just as at the Cross of Christ His last gasp of suffering was heard by a few simple souls who were close to Him..." (I.M. Andreyev, Russia's Catacomb Saints, Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1982, p. 128).

Thus we may be moving into the last period of the Church's history, when the wheel has come round full circle and the Church has returned to the molecular structure of Abraham's Family Church, when true bishops are few and far between, when charismatic spiritual guides have more or less disappeared, and when the individual believer has to seek the answers to his spiritual problems from God and God's word alone, remembering David's words: "It is better to trust in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to hope in the Lord than to hope in princes" (Psalm 117.8-9).

If even the Apostle Peter was rebuked for making damaging concessions to the Jews (Galatians 2.11-12), how can we expect never to be in conflict with our spiritual leaders? And if even the Apostle Paul feared "lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (I Cor. 9.27), how can we deny the possibility that our spiritual guides may also lose grace, necessitating our departure from them? Those who point out these facts are not inciting to rebellion - far from it! They are calling men to a sober understanding of the nature of the times we live in. They are warning that those who, unlike the true apostles and holy fathers and God-bearing elders of all ages, attempt to "lord it over our faith" (II Cor. 1.24) must be rejected for the sake of that same faith, out of obedience to the one and only infallible authority, God Himself.


August 25 / September 7, 1996.

Apostles Bartholomew and Titus.


(Published in Orthodox America, July, 1996, pp. 11-12)