Tuesday, 6 February 2007

How to Become an Elder of the Orthodox Church

After our last post, we thought that it might arise that someone would like to become an Elder of the Orthodox Church. So we thought we would talk a little about what it takes to become an Orthodox Elder, especially from the point of view of the good Evagrius, the ascetical theoretician.

We ourselves, ‘Orthodox Monk’, have been trying to get into Orthodox Elder School for years. We have been turned down every time. In fact, we are so upset by this that we are thinking of changing our name to ‘Orthodox Gardener’ and getting a job as a groundskeeper at Orthodox Elder School. We would make a point of tending the flower-bed outside the classroom window whenever they were teaching the ‘Orthodox Elder Secret Doctrines’ class. The only thing we are waiting for is an opening at the School for groundskeeper.

Seriously, though, how can I become an Elder? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know the name of the person who comes to see me—before he tells me? To know who’s going to win the trifecta? Even to be a nice guy about it all? To show love to the sinner all of whose secrets I know?

To become a monk in the Orthodox Church, we are tonsured by a priest (in the Russian typikon, for a monk of the Great Schema, by a bishop). The priest reads a certain Church service, part of which we posted here, and discussed here and here; and then solemnly vests us with the monastic habit. [Update, May 14, 2007: we have posted the complete service here.] If we want, we can get a letter attesting that we were tonsured to such and such degree of Orthodox monk on such and such a day at such and such a place. If we want to change monasteries, we bring this letter with us.

To become a priest in the Orthodox Church (or deacon or bishop etc.) we are ordained by a bishop or, in the case of bishop, by several bishops. We are solemnly vested with the relevant priestly garments and participate immediately in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. We receive a certificate of ordination. If we want to change dioceses, we provide our certificate of ordination.

To become an Elder, however? There is no Orthodox Elder School in the Orthodox Church. There is nowhere to go to get a certificate of ‘Elder of the Orthodox Church’.

However, if there ever was a candidate for Orthodox Elder School it is Optina Pustin at Optina Monastery in Russia: from the early 19th Century through to the Russian Revolution in the early 20th Century there was an unbroken chain of Elders there, all of whom have subsequently been canonized. Also, Mount Athos is usually considered ‘Mount Athos Elder School of the Orthodox Church’.

Hence, even if ‘Orthodox Monk’ were to transform himself into ‘Orthodox Gardener’, he would have a hard time finding a classroom window outside which to eavesdrop on the ‘Orthodox Elder Secret Doctrines’ class.

So who’s an Elder? Eldership in the Orthodox Church is a charismatic ministry. The Holy Spirit decides who is going to be an Elder and who isn’t. As someone pointed out, Elders are discovered in the Church by other members of the Church. ‘A city set on a hill cannot be hid.’ The light attracts moths; the Elder attracts the faithful.

Elder Sophrony remarks that the soul of a man is a mystery known in its fullness and entirety only to God and that God reveals the soul of the other to the Elder (recall our discussion of the charism of discernment in this post). But, Elder Sophrony says, in no case does God give such a gift to someone who is not humble. The reason is obvious. A proud man who knew the interior life of others, who knew the future, would be a loaded gun pointed at the Church. He would be dangerous.

While it is true that Eldership is a charismatic ministry in the Orthodox Church determined solely by the Holy Spirit—and validated by the body of the Church—Evagrius offers us an analysis that will help us to understand at least schematically what is involved in becoming an Elder.

The reader will recall that it was Evagrius who defined the three stages of the spiritual life: the purgative stage, the illuminative stage and the unitive stage.

What interests us here is the purgative stage. As we pointed out, since the Fall of Adam and Eve in Paradise, we all of us have been born with emotional tendencies to sin. These emotional tendencies to sin are each of them, with the exception of sorrow, based on a pleasure of the senses. Evagrius uses the word ‘passion’ for a tendency to sin in us based on a pleasure of the senses. We pointed out in the last post that there is also another meaning for the term ‘passion’: repeated sins of the same kind lead to a enslavement to that sin, so that a person is addicted to the particular pleasure of the senses involved and cannot stop sinning: he has a ‘passion’.

Now Evagrius says that the purgative stage of the spiritual life is dedicated to healing our emotional tendencies to sin. It is dedicated to our passing from a state of being impassioned to a state of being virtuous.

Now we all of us have virtues: which of us is killing off his neighbours? Stealing his neighbour’s wife? And so on.

However, Evagrius has a much deeper sense of what it means to pass from passion to virtue. He wants a complete transformation of the person so that all his emotional tendencies are ordered to virtue, even in thought. And this is not an external behavioural virtue imposed on an unruly subconscious that is seething with all kinds of odd fantasies and dreams, but a complete purification of the unconscious. Moreover, finally, by the suffused grace of the Holy Spirit, the person whose unconscious has been purified is rendered virtuous. He no longer needs to impose an external virtue on himself: he is virtuous from the inside out, illuminated by the Holy Spirit and suffused with the grace of the Holy Spirit.

There are two aspects to this purification of the emotional tendencies to sin: bodily asceticism and mental asceticism. Usually when we think of monks, we think of bodily asceticism (hair shirts and all that), but in the Orthodox tradition of the Philokalia, mental asceticism is at least as important as bodily asceticism, if not more so. This mental asceticism is in the Orthodox Church associated with the tradition of the Jesus Prayer. It involves the use of the Jesus Prayer but includes much more than just the Jesus Prayer; it is a cluster of practices that aims to purify completely the interior life of the monk or nun.

The person who engages in this mental asceticism for emotional purification is par excellence the Hesychast: he purifies himself even in his thoughts. A very large part of the practice of Hesychasm is the purification of the fantasy life of the Hesychast so that his unconscious is completely purified. This opens the Hesychast up to the transforming advent of the Holy Spirit. This is a very high stage of mental asceticism.

That is why we were so sceptical of our Episcopalian friend who practised the contemplative method of Dom John Main: they were making claims of states of contemplative spiritual attainment that ignored the depth of utter spiritual purification necessary in the Orthodox Church for the attainment of those contemplative states.

The expert on this emotional purification and healing through mental asceticism is St Hesychios, who appears to have been a disciple of St John of Sinai. St Hesychios spends all his time on the interior practice of the Hesychast, following in St John of Sinai’s footsteps. St Hesychios is next on our list for discussion in these posts on the history of Orthodox monasticism.

We would like to return here to the coercive Christianity that we discussed in our last post. The problem in this Christianity can be addressed from a number of different points of view. At this juncture, however, the issue is precisely this inner purification of our emotional tendencies to sin and our subsequent acquisition of virtue through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Calvin, as far as we know, along with Luther rejected this road of purification. This is the monkery (i.e. asceticism) that was rejected by the Reformation. But the problem that arises in Reformation Christianity is this: since I am making no effort to purify my passions (since I am either justified by faith without works or elected eternally to salvation), what am I going to do with all these emotional tendencies to sin that I find, as a man born on the face of the earth, inside myself?

Recall that when one erring pastor would go to his co-counselling sessions, everyone was ‘blessed’ while he felt like dirt. We remarked that there was a great pressure to conform, a great pressure to perform according to the script. The ‘blessedness’ was an external virtue—or posture of virtuousness—imposed by each member of the group on himself, on his own unpurified soul: there was no possibility for any member of the group to admit to, much less purify, his emotional tendencies to sin based on pleasures of the senses. It just wasn’t part of the doctrine of the Church they attended. So each member of the co-counselling session simply refused to admit that such passions existed within himself. Until the passions found their outlet in action—and, as they say, the rest is history.

Evagrius tells us that the purgative stage of the mystical ascent has an end: emotional health, virtue. He remarks that the offspring of this state is love. Christian charity. This has nothing to do with backslapping bonhomie.

Evagrius goes on further in his works to say that the person who has reached this state is precisely an Elder. (He uses another term.) He identifies the clairvoyance that is the hallmark of the Orthodox Elder with this state of emotional health. That is, a person who is fully emotionally healthy is naturally clairvoyant.

But just wait: Evagrius has a very high standard for what constitutes emotional health. The emotionally healthy person has a completely purified unconscious: his fantasy life has been completely healed. So clairvoyance is not just a matter of stopping killing my neighbour and leaving his wife alone. There’s more to it.

Now it is just a little more complicated than Evagrius says about how we become an Elder by purifying our emotional tendencies to sin. As far as he goes, Evagrius is correct. However, he is ignoring the charismatic dimension of the Holy Spirit. As purified as I might be, I am not going to become a charismatic Elder of the Orthodox Church until the Holy Spirit decides that that’s what he wants. Then he makes me an Elder of the Orthodox Church. Then the light attracts the moths. Until then…

There is another point here, a point emphasized by St Paul in 1st Corinthians. In 1 Cor. 12, 29–31, St Paul, the voice of the Holy Spirit, says this:

Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of signs? Are all possessed of charisms of healing? Are all speaking in tongues? Are all interpreting? Be jealous of the better charisms. And yet I show you a way which is far beyond all of this.

He then goes on to speak of love. This is Christian love, of which St John the Apostle said, ‘God is love.

And we ourselves testify, all kidding aside, that if a Christian attains to this love he doesn’t need to become an Elder. He has found his road.

We would like to return here to the coercive aspect of the Christianity that we discussed in the last post. There is a very complex psychological cluster here. On the one hand, there is a born-again conversion experience that is not accompanied by a movement to inner purification of the born-again person’s emotional tendencies to sin. On the other hand, there is a tendency to a fascist refusal to respect the other person, a tendency to impose with psychological if not physical violence a world-view on the other person. This includes an imposition not only on other people inside the group, where the conversion and counselling experiences can be both confrontational and psychologically brutal, but also on outsiders, in the relations of the group or of individual members of the group with those outsiders. Have you ever found a meek evangelical? Where the meekness was not something sentimental that was innate to his personal psychology? On the third hand, there is a political dimension. The dynamic that we have just been discussing is transferred to the political realm. Indeed, this transfer to the political realm is perhaps a natural outcome of the lack of interiority in this Christianity: the whole psychological dynamic is faulty, based as it is on a lack of interior purification, interior freedom and interior respect for the other, and the consequences are connected. The problem is most likely this: since the born-again experience does not foresee the continued existence of emotional tendencies to sin in me, I am unable to view my very own self freely: I have to repress (or suppress) the emotional tendencies to sin in myself so as to maintain my born-again identity. But that means that I no longer have psychological freedom as concerns my own self. And if I don’t have psychological freedom in regard to my own self, how can I have psychological freedom in regard to the other so as to respect the other’s freedom? And if I transfer this dynamic to the political realm—this transfer to the political realm being, perhaps, the natural consequence of my being unable to turn inward—how can I respect the political freedom of the other?

Evagrius doesn’t have much to say about this. A fundamental lack of respect for the interior freedom of the other to love God or not just wasn’t an issue in his time. It was taken for granted that people were free and that Christianity was all about choosing one road over another through a free choice. In their anthropology, the Greek Fathers emphasize that part of the image of God in man is man’s free will. It would never occur to them to violate that free will: they would thus be doing violence to the image of God in man, thus doing violence to God himself.

While it is true that the idols were finally destroyed, there was never any sense that the pagans were to be forcibly converted to Christianity. This can be seen for example in Augustine’s Confessions. It is very, very clear in Augustine’s autobiographical description of his own conversion experience that conversion was considered a matter of spiritual example and rational persuasion, not of psychological or physical violence. Hence, conversion was always a matter of interior freedom, so that after baptism (the proper born-again experience), the newly-made Christian was able to relate to his own self freely, and thus to relate to the other freely.

The violence appears to start around the 11th Century in the West, first in the Roman Catholic Church, influenced perhaps by an excessive rationalism that looked to the ‘truth’ and not to individual freedom, and then in the Reformation churches which stood Roman Catholicism on its head without first getting out of its dynamic of coercive Christianity.

To get back to the issue of becoming an Elder of the Orthodox Church, as we can see, until he purifies his emotional tendencies to sin, ‘Orthodox Monk’ is going to have to work in his garden weeding it from the passions and making some attempt to plant the virtues. He’s a long way off from ‘Orthodox Elder’. And as far as asceticism is concerned, he is ‘Amateur Gardener’.

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