Thursday, 3 September 2009

Discerning the Elders and Prophets

We have been travelling for a while. This has prevented us from posting. However, we have now parked our dog sled in the attached garage of our igloo and started to get on again with our monastic life. What with global warming it’s getting more and more difficult to find a parking place when you go on a journey!

We have received two emails during this fallow season that we would now like to discuss. One of the emails is from someone known to us through the medium of this blog although we have never met him. Let us call him Gordon Lafayette. Mr Lafayette was our interlocutor in a series of posts starting with a post on December 16, 2006 called Orthodox Monasticism 16A – Passion and Dispassion in the Ladder 1. Although Mr Lafayette comes across in that series of posts as a vehement proponent of Dom John Main’s method of contemplative prayer, he was later received into the Orthodox Church by Baptism. He has turned out to be a devout Orthodox believer who now understands that the method of prayer he practiced before becoming Orthodox was based on false premises; this we have learned from an email correspondence with him. Now he was written to us after a substantial silence to ask our opinion on two Orthodox Elders. Here is the text of his email, somewhat redacted.

Dear Orthodox Monk,

I hope you are well.

I would like to ask you … a delicate question to which I think you may be equipped to respond. This question is regarding the gift of prophecy and the implications of false prophecies for the source of the false prophecy. In other words, do prophecies which do not come true imply that the source of the false prophecy is by conclusion a false prophet? As I was told by someone, in the Church those with the gift of prophecy are not as Nostradamus, getting some things correct and other things wrong. In this question I am not referring to conditional prophecies such as are found in the Old Testament, where a prophet may say that unless the people repent, ‘such and such’ will occur. In this case, of course, if the people do repent the events prophesied do not come about.

You can address my question generally, but specifically I am concerned about some things I have heard about Elder Samson [name changed by Orthodox Monk] on the one hand, and Elder Jeremiah [name changed by Orthodox Monk] on the other hand…

I am told that Elder Samson dug a hole beside his cell … and prophesied that he would die and be buried in this hole. As it turned out, he died [elsewhere] and was buried there. There are other instances besides this.

Regarding Elder Jeremiah, a reputable priest … visited Elder Jeremiah … and was told by him that [such and such would happen]. Several people … related this same story to me regarding what Elder Jeremiah said, and the accounts were identical. In any case, [the prophecy seems not to have been fulfilled]. In the case of Elder Jeremiah, I have never felt entirely comfortable with his account that the Saint So-and-So appeared to him and instructed him to [do such and such] only for Elder Jeremiah to say a few months later that St So-and-So appeared to him a second time telling him to [do something completely different]. Why would St So-and-So give such different and seemingly contradictory advice in the span of a few months?

In any case, I would be interested in your feedback on this issue of prophecy.

In Christ,

Gordon Lafayette

The second email is from someone we do not know, although we do wonder whether Theodor has returned in a new incarnation. Let us call the author Richard. This second email presents an issue connected to the issue addressed in Gordon Lafayette’s email. Here is Richard’s email, somewhat edited for style:

Dear Monk,

I am an Orthodox Christian (OCA) ever since I was 16. I am 25 now. I bought the Philokalia Volume 1 a month ago and I feel moved reading it. I also have connections with a person from Italy who goes to Mount Athos very often for years. He writes on monasticism. I have many of his books which [?] are blessed by the Metropolitan of Italy.

For years I feel a spiritual struggle. I feel like my soul is being torn away from God or hidden from his presence. If you ask my co-workers and the people around me, they will tell you that I am a hard worker and very humble. I talked my parish priest about this and about finding a spiritual teacher to help me. He told me not to be too hard on myself and there is a laywoman that God gave her discernment. I have not followed the church's calendar for fasting. I feel like I am alone in my quest for God. All the books I read about monasticism say one needs a spiritual teacher. I know you do not know me so it is hard to give me concrete advice but who do I go to that will listen to me? Of course I know Jesus is always here…

So in the first case, Gordon Lafayette is casting doubt on the prophetic charisms of two Orthodox Elders, both well known among the faithful; and in the second case, Richard feels alone: he wants to find an Elder to listen to his pain, to comfort him and to tell him what to do.

On the one hand someone doubts that some Elders he’s heard about are to be respected and listened to; on the other hand someone is looking for an Elder to respect and listen to.

Let us run through some basic ecclesiology. The Orthodox Church, the Church founded by Jesus Christ, is the true Church. The source of dogmatic authority in the Church is tradition, well defined by Vladimir Lossky in the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church as the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Dogmatic authority inheres in the Church as the body of Christ made up of souls collected into one in Baptism by the Holy Spirit.

An Elder in the Orthodox Church is someone who has a specific charismatic ministry in the Orthodox Church. To say that an Elder has a charismatic ministry is to say that in the Orthodox Church the ministry of Eldership is given by the Holy Spirit. It is not a sacramental mystery. Orthodox Eldership isn’t something you can go out and ask to be ordained into, the way you might decide to become a priest. You might have all the best qualifications in the world, but if the Holy Spirit isn’t interested, you’re out of luck. If the Holy Spirit grants you the charismatic ministry of Eldership, then you’re an Elder, at least in the sight of God.

However, the Church is ruled not by the saints in Heaven who might come down and ‘give orders’ (they don’t), nor by charismatic ministers, but by the Bishops—on important matters, by the Bishops sitting in synod.

Here it is well to recall the passage in the Gospel where the Lord gives the apostolic authority to the Apostles: whatever they bound on earth would be bound in Heaven and whatever they loosed on earth would be loosed in Heaven. What does this mean? That God listens to the rulers of the Church. If they say white, he doesn’t say black; he says white. If they say black; he doesn’t say white; he says black. Of course there are limits to what Man can do if it is contrary to the revelation of God in the Holy Spirit.

Although Elders have a charismatic ministry—and either you have the charism or you don’t—the presence of an individual Elder in the Church is discovered by the body of the Church. In other words, you might have the charism, and really be an Elder, but if no one takes you seriously, then you’re just someone with an interesting spiritual life. Usually the way that an Elder is discovered by the body of the Church is through the Elder’s exercise of the charisms of clairvoyance, prophecy and discernment. Word goes out that So-and-So told me everything I ever did, just as the Lord told the Samaritan woman at the Well of Jacob everything she ever did and she went and told everyone in the village.

However, the essence of the charismatic ministry of Eldership has to do with leading souls to God as purified living sacrifices, not with the secondary tools of clairvoyance, prophecy and discernment. There is also a hidden ministry among Elders.

Clearly, there is a temptation here for more light-headed monks and laypersons. Out of vainglory they might harbour a secret or not-so-secret ambition to become an Elder and hence might succumb to a temptation to false clairvoyance, false prophecy and false discernment. This is a serious danger, especially now that the charismatic renewal is abroad. An example of such a false Eldership can be found in the life of St Pachomios: the fellow who walked on live coals. St Pachomios is also one of the first examples of a monastic Elder with the charism of clairvoyance. As you might expect, he was put on trial and someone made an attempt on his life.

So it is here that Gordon Lafayette is pivoting: are the two name Elders, Samson and Jeremiah, false prophets?

Now it so happens that on our recent travels we passed through Mt Athos for a day or two and thus had the opportunity to discuss important Elders with various people there. What have we figured out?

First of all, in assessing based on anecdotal evidence whether Elders Samson and Jeremiah are real Elders, you have to exercise certain basic scientific skills. You have to find out what really happened.

Someone told us on Mt Athos that the real and noted Elder, Fr Paisios, told him personally that not everything said in his name had anything to do with him: there were stories circulating, Fr Paisios said, that he knew nothing about.

What happens here is rather complicated. It is in the nature of rumour and oral tradition that there is a basic kernel of fact—unless the rumour-monger is an out and out scoundrel—that is transformed according to the psychological condition of the persons repeating the rumour or oral tradition up to the time that the rumour or oral tradition says more about the consensus psychological condition of the group within which the rumour or oral tradition is circulating than about the basic kernel of fact.

In this regard, we are reminded of two lives we read of an ancient French saint. We don’t recall the details of which saint it was. However one of the lives was written by one of the saint’s personal disciples and the other was written much later by another fellow, incidentally also a canonized saint of the Church, who had no personal connection to the saint in question. In the original life, the saint heals one leper while he is journeying on foot to Geneva. In the second life, written by a recognized saint, the saint heals seven lepers on the road to Geneva. Obviously the same episode is involved but there has been an evolution between the time the original disciple wrote the life and the time the later saint wrote the life—obviously the later saint did not have access to the original life or if he did chose not to rely on it but rather to rely on a later tradition.

However, Elder Paisios went further and said to our acquaintance that there were stories circulating about him that had no basis in fact whatsoever.

So, here, Gordon Lafayette has to consider that he may not be getting the ‘straight goods’ concerning the Elders in question, Samson and Jeremiah. The first thing to establish is the facts. What really happened? What really was said? In the case of Elder Samson, what really did he say about the hole he dug?

The next thing is to assess the Elder in context: is he a loving man? In other words, it is a fundamental mistake in approaching a supposed Elder to lock onto his supposed prophetic gifts either positively or negatively, ignoring whether he has the fruits of the Spirit. Recall that the Gospel is clear in the Sermon on the Mount that it is not prophecies and miracles that make a disciple of Christ but the keeping of Christ’s commandments. So here Gordon has to look not at whether Elders Samson and Jeremiah have made prophecies, but whether they have the fruits of the Holy Spirit and, above all, love for their fellow man.

To see what we are getting at, consider the story that another monk on Mt Athos told us concerning the real Elder Paisios, and we know the man to be telling the truth:

I was working outside the monastery when a man passed by and we fell into conversation. He asked to see me once I had finished my work and having taken the proper permission I met with the man.

The man asked me whether on Mt Athos today there were any monks like the saints of old. I said to him rather cautiously, well, you know, many people go to see Fr Paisios [this was when the Elder was still alive].

The man replied, well, curious that you should say that because I went to visit Fr Paisios a few days ago and there was a young child there who was bringing Fr Paisios flowers. I asked the child why he was bringing Fr Paisios flowers and he said that he was paralyzed and his father carried him in his arms to Fr Paisios. Fr Paisios said some prayers over him and his father left with him in his arms. On the footpath that led away from Fr Paisios’ cell he got well, so now he brings flowers to Fr Paisios once a year.

I wondered, and said, well what else are you looking for?

In this episode of healing, it is not merely that Elder Paisios ‘did a miracle’. There is a difference in spiritual atmosphere between the love shown to a young boy carried in his father’s arms, and the theatrics of a Benny Hinn or other television evangelist. Moreover, we can see that it is not just the charism of prophecy that marks an Elder. A noted Elder heals a young boy. How? He said some prayers in love. Why? He had compassion on the young boy.

Was it merely the prophetic gifts that distinguished St Seraphim of Sarov or was it not also his love? People respond to the love you have in your heart—and this whether you are an Elder or not.

Of course there is the case of St Leonidas, one of the first Optina Elders. He was a rough character, a bit of a fool for Christ. You have to have some discernment with Elders.

The next point to be made is that the Sermon on the Mount is clear that those who keep the commandments of Christ and teach others to do so will be called great in the Kingdom of God. Hence, in the particular case of the charismatic ministry of Eldership, the issue must ultimately be whether the Elder is teaching others to keep the commandments of Christ.

Now this is not as simple as it might look. To the naïve Orthodox, the bible-thumping Evangelical Protestant might seem to be keeping the commandments of Christ. He might even seem, as he preaches on the street-corner, to be teaching others to keep the commandments of Christ. But he might not be under the influence of the Holy Spirit of the Living God but under the influence of another spirit of deception.

Moreover, when we teach someone to keep the commandments of Christ, this is not a sort of political indoctrination, the internalization of a set of right-wing Christian beliefs so that the convert might then stand on the next street-corner thumping the Bible in order to snare even more unwary souls. In the Orthodox Church teaching someone to keep the commandments of Christ is a much deeper activity that aims at the transformation of the person into a living sacrifice to God in Jesus Christ.

It is here that the charism of clairvoyance comes into play. To direct a soul in the path that will lead to God, it is necessary to see that soul in its entirety. This is what the clairvoyant gift gives the Elder: the ability to see who the person in front of him really is, what his needs really are, what his spiritual condition really is, what his spiritual problems really are. Unfortunately Orthodox Monk lacks this charism.

The charism of prophecy is necessary in special cases to prevent the soul from falling into a pit—or at least warning it (usually it doesn’t listen) not to go in a certain direction. Remember that we never lose our free will. Even Judas could have repented but didn’t.

The charism of prophecy is also very useful in determining the path that the soul should take to fulfil its vocation in the sight of God: the Elder may know what God has in store for the person and direct him accordingly. For example, God reveals to the Elder that the person in front of him is destined to become a Bishop. The Elder directs the soul to study theology since that is necessary for a Bishop. The next soul comes because it wants to get the Elder’s blessing to study theology and the Elder seeing that God has destined the soul to be a missionary doctor in Africa sends the soul to study medicine. The Elder might choose not to explain his guidance in detail so that things might not make sense until many years later.

The charism of discernment, in the sense we are here using it, enables the Elder to assess the spiritual condition and spiritual experience of the person in front of him. ‘Elder I had the following vision. Is it real?’ The Elder listens for a while and ‘sniffs’ at the odour of the vision. Is it the perfume of the Holy Spirit? The stink of the Devil? The body odour of the human imagination?

However, in all these cases, the charism is in the service, ideally, of a loving Elder who is directing a soul to God. And this is what has to be assessed, ultimately, by the Church.

One of the stories we heard about Elder Paisios on Mt Athos was this. Many people visit the cell near Karyes called ‘Panagouda’ where Elder Paisios last lived. One day the monk who now has the cell noticed someone carting a tree-stump away from the yard, one of the tree-stumps that Elder Paisios used to use as seats for his many pilgrim visitors. The monk, we understand, asked the fellow why he was taking the tree-stump away. The visitor replied that he had been a shyster lawyer whose life had been changed by his meeting with Elder Paisios; he wanted something to remember the Elder by. The monk let him take the tree-stump.

It is characteristic of Fr Paisios that he had that sort of effect on people. One person remarked that he was ‘free as a bird’. Another remarked that Elder Paisios bore the whole world on his frail shoulders. Another who knew him quite well remarked that it was only after some years that he realized that Elder Paisios was a miracle worker; that Elder Paisios was the only person he had ever really fully trusted in his lifetime; that once when he was in need and the Elder knew it, he could feel the prayers of the Elder from a long distance away; and that what had always struck him about Elder Paisios was the Elder’s humaneness: the Elder really cared about his fellow man.

So what one has to look at in the case of Elders Samson and Jeremiah is whether they are changing people’s lives so that these people turn into good Orthodox Christians, and that not on a superficial level. Of course, such a transformation takes time, and there are many failures, so it might not be easy to make sense of the results until the Elder is long gone. That is why canonization can be delayed up to centuries: so that the Church can let the dust settle and see what actually happened.

Ultimately, though, the criterion of an Elder’s teaching is always the doctrine of the Orthodox Church. In other words, the Elder’s teaching has to be consistent with the Bible as understood by the Orthodox Church.

The next issue is: to whom was the Elder speaking? This is a serious matter because there is no public office of prophecy in the Church today. That is, the public revelation is closed. Hence, when an Elder is speaking, he is ordinarily speaking to someone personally. Who is that someone? Consider that ordinarily an Elder has a charism that allows him to see the interior spiritual state of the person before him and that the Elder is speaking to that person. Another person with ostensibly the same problem might come an hour later and be given completely different advice because the Elder sees a completely different soul in that other person. So normally an Elder’s words are contextualized by the spiritual condition of the person to whom he is speaking—as indeed is the case with a good confessor.

Elder Sophrony discusses the birth of the word of God in the heart of the Elder so that the word that the Elder gives is personally given from the Holy Spirit to the person in front of the Elder. There is an interesting although concise discussion of this in Elder Sophrony’s introduction to St Silouan’s writings.

However, Elders may have a much freer approach: they may discuss in a more or less human fashion with their interlocutor their interlocutor’s spiritual and practical condition, and this on the basis of their clairvoyant insight both into their interlocutor’s soul and into the details of his personal life and health. In this regard, someone once commented that Elder Paisios was more concerned about his problem than he was—and he was concerned; that was why he had gone to Elder Paisios!

After such discussion the Elder may pray for the ‘solution’: the summary advice to their interlocutor what to do. Such advice may govern the person’s life for five or ten years, or be valid for a lifetime.

With this method the Elder after a fashion first hoes the garden of the other person’s soul before planting the word of God in it, so that the seed of the word of God takes root properly.

However, things are much more fluid than Westerners sometimes think: Elders are much more flexible than we might expect and do not always follow mechanical rules. It would be naïve to go to a Greek Elder expecting him to say nothing until the word of God was born in his heart ‘the way it says in the book by Elder Sophrony’.

Now it is the case that sometimes even today Elders and Saints speak general prophecies. But because public prophecy is closed, these prophecies never have a binding character on the faith or action of the laity, or the faith and action of anyone else. Of course, the Elder’s disciples will take seriously what their Elder says; otherwise they wouldn’t be his disciples. But others are under no obligation to listen to such a prophecy. Moreover, no one is obliged to become the disciple of an Elder. If you don’t like the way he combs his hair, that’s enough: hit the road; he’s not for you.

St Andrew the Fool for Christ added to the prophecies of the Revelation to St John (the Apocalypse). No one is obliged to pay attention to these prophecies even though St Andrew is a recognized Saint of the Church who appeared in recent times on Mt Athos to request that a church that was in the process of construction there be dedicated to him since he was rather poor in terms of churches dedicated to him. The man is a saint; the apparition is considered genuine; but you’re free to read his prophecies or not as you prefer—and even free to venerate him or not at the church on Mt Athos now dedicated to him.[1]

St Arsenios the Cappadocian told his parishioners to save as much as they could because they would soon be leaving their homeland. When asked whether it was this year or that year, he said, not yet. Finally they all left in the great exodus of Greeks from Asia Minor. Was anyone obliged to listen to St Arsenios? No. The problem, of course, is that those who didn’t listen would have had problems in their new land.

The next thing to realize is that all prophecies are conditional. In Ezekiel 33 (LXX), the Prophet states explicitly in the name of God that if God intends good for a just man and that person begins to do evil, then God will change his intention from good to evil; and similarly, if God intends evil for a bad man and that person repents and begins to do good, then God will change his intention from evil to good. You can’t get around human free will and its consequences.

The next thing is to establish whether the Elder was speaking from the Holy Spirit or humanly when he said what he said. It’s not the same thing. The Elder does not cease to be a human being. The human being might have some personal limitations. No one but no one is perfect. The granting by the Holy Spirit to someone of the charism of Eldership is not a seal that the person is perfect but the granting of a charismatic ministry in the Church. The Elder might have personal opinions on various things, be a creature of his time and place. St Seraphim of Sarov remarked that when he spoke from himself and not from the Holy Spirit he made many mistakes. Of course, for the Holy Spirit to grant a person such a charismatic ministry, the person must be able to perform the ministry.

Moreover, even the word of the Elder from the Holy Spirit might be imperfect. St Barsanuphios (6th Century) speaks of this in Question 605:

Question 605

Question: Father, you really are a guide of the blind, and a light in Christ to those who have been darkened, and the truth has been made clear to us through you. For we now find even in the books of the Elders[2] that there was a certain great Elder who used to speak from ignorance that the bread that we partake of is not the body of Christ but a symbol (antitypon), and if he had not asked God about it first, he would not have known the truth.

And another, he also a great Elder, thought that Christ is Melchizedek, and only when he asked God did God reveal [the truth] to him. But forgive me, Father, for the sake of the Lord. I am being daring asking about those things which are beyond me. But since through your saintliness our God has enlightened us in the way of truth, a way free of deception (aplani), I ask that [the matter] be made completely clear concerning this [issue], so that our mind and infirm heart[3] be purified through the discussion of these things. For what reason did God allow such men as these[4] to be deceived? Even if they did not ask, why was this [correction of their doctrinal errors] not given to them in grace for the sake of destroying the damage that would occur to their subsequent readers? For if even these saints were not impeded as concerns correct faith and virtue, yet even so those who like me are slack and negligent but who look toward these saints’ believability for the sake of [our own] faith are quite easily damaged severely here, not knowing the very things you said, that the saints were not able to comprehend the mysteries completely, and that they did not ask God for an answer of spiritual assurance whether these things were true.

Therefore, clarify this also for me, compassionate Father, as you stoop to my infirmity.

Answer: Child, God did not allow such men as these to be deceived for he who allows someone to be deceived is he who is asked concerning the way and does not speak the truth. They, then, did not ask God concerning this so that they might receive the truth from him. If, however, you say, ‘Why did God not prevent them by grace for the benefit of those reading those things after them,’ you could also say this concerning every sinner: ‘If God knew that if so-and-so would sin he would set an example for many, why did God not prevent him by grace so that many not be damaged through him?’ And life is found to be compelled for men [i.e. there is no longer any human freedom]. And what therefore prevents God from saving every man in this way?

For why—are there not sayings in Scripture that are a stumbling-block to the uneducated and to those who do not know the spiritual sense of Scripture? Are we therefore obliged to say: ‘Why did God not speak the spiritual sense of Scripture openly so that people might not be damaged, but instead God left to the saints of various times the work of interpreting the things sought?’ For this reason there are teachers and explainers, as the Apostle says.

Do not be deceived, then, concerning the men you asked about. For if they had asked God, they would have received. For he says: ‘Everyone who asks receives and he who seeks shall find.’ Just as God has made known the road of life through the Prophets and Apostles, thus each saint has spoken partially. And God has not spoken through one man only, but if this man [here] has left something out then that man [there] has spoken by the will of God. And God has acted thus in the case of the saints after those. And if the first say something doubtful, the last allegorize [i.e. reinterpret in an Orthodox way what the first have said], so that God is always glorified through his saints—for he is the God of the first and the last. To him be the glory to the Ages. Amen. [Emphasis added.]

See also Question 604, to which Question 605 is a continuation. Here is the money quote from Question 604:

Answer: …May all the Fathers, all the saints who have pleased God and the righteous men and the genuine servants of God, pray for me. But do not think that, even if they were saints, they were able to comprehend genuinely all the depths of God. For the Apostle says: ‘We know in part and we prophesy in part.’ And again: ‘To whom it is given through the Spirit’, the one thing and the other—and not all those things in one man but some things thus and other things differently. However, the one and the same Spirit operates all things. Knowing the things of God, that they are incomprehensible, the Apostle cried, saying: ‘O the depth of the wealth and wisdom and knowledge (gnosis) of God! O how unsearchable his judgements and untraceable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has become his counsellor?’ And the rest.

Contriving, then, to become teachers of their own accord or being forced to come to this by men, they made very great progress, even beyond their teachers, and being filled with spiritual assurance composed new dogmas, at the same time, however, remaining in the possession of the traditions of their teachers, lessons which were not correct.[5] And after these things, progressing and having become spiritual teachers, they did not ask God about their teachers, whether they spoke through the Holy Spirit, but treating them as wise men and gnostics (gnostikos), they did not discern their words; and so the teachings of their teachers were mixed together in their own teachings, and they spoke at one time from the teachings that they learned from their teachers, and at another time from the genius of their own mind, and thus their words were written in their name. For receiving from others and progressing and being improved, they spoke through the Holy Spirit, if they were spiritually assured with something by it, and they spoke from the lessons of the teachers who were before them, not discerning the words, if they were obliged to be spiritually informed by God with assurance through entreaty and prayer if they were true. And the teachings were mixed together, and because they were spoken by them, they were written in their names.

When you hear from one of them that he heard from the Holy Spirit what he is saying, this is an answer of spiritual assurance and we are obliged to believe. When he speaks concerning those words and you do not find him saying this, then it is not from an answer of spiritual assurance but it is from the lessons of his first teachers, and paying attention to their knowledge (gnosis) and wisdom, he did not ask God concerning these things if they were true.

Behold! You have heard all of my foolishness. Quiet down then and be occupied with God; and, ceasing from vain talk, pay attention to your passions, concerning which passions you will be required to give an account in the Day of Judgement. For concerning these things you will not be required: ‘Why did you not know these things or learn these others?’ …

The next issue is why the Elder said what he said. What was his purpose in saying it? What point was he trying to get across? Very often what the Elder means is hidden by symbolic language so that it only makes sense after the fact. In other words, in some cases the prophecies are not intended to be understood literally and moreover might not be comprehensible until they have been fulfilled. In such a case the prophecy is spoken so that after it is fulfilled the person realizes that God spoke and thus comes to his senses. Recall that St Peter says in one of his Epistles that prophecies are not a matter of human interpretation but of the interpretation given by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, that is why the Creed says that the Holy Spirit spoke through the Prophets (of the Old Testament): the Creed is asserting that the Holy Spirit that resides in the Church of Christ both makes the prophecies (including the prophecies of the Old Testament) and gives their interpretation.

When stories circulate about an Elder, they are first taken from the Elder according to the capacity of the person hearing the Elder to grasp spiritually and intellectually what the Elder is on about when he is speaking. In other words, the Elder can be speaking in front of a group and each member of the group will grasp what the Elder says in accordance with his own spiritual capacity to understand the Elder. Another Elder present would have the more or less complete ability to grasp what the Elder meant while a sinner or beginner might grasp nothing.

Consider two fellows who are in the audience in a group meeting with the real Albert Einstein. The first is Wolfgang Pauli, a fellow Nobel laureate in physics who has worked professionally with Albert. The second is a journalist for a tabloid that specializes in sex scandals; he knows a little about Albert’s private life. When the two report on what Albert said before the group—and what he meant!—is it going to be the same? Moreover, even though he understands exactly what Albert is getting on about, is Wolfgang going to be able to communicate to the layman the fine points of Albert’s remarks on the formulation of the gravitational curvature equation? Is the tabloid journalist going to be able to report on the fullness of what Albert said? Or is he only going to report some vague superficial impressions perhaps spiced with sexual innuendo—eccentric genius; refugee from the Nazis; hair all askew; hadn’t washed in a month? So it is with anyone reporting what an Elder has said; and the matter is compounded by the fact that every rumour and oral tradition passes through a chain of persons of varying spiritual capacity to understand what the matter is about.

In the particular case of the prophecy of Elder Jeremiah the details of which we redacted out of Gordon Lafayette’s email, we discussed the objective subject matter of the prophecy with someone who is academically trained in the area. He said that the jury is still out on the matter, that humanly speaking it still isn’t clear which way things are going to go. St Peter remarks that God is not slow with regard to the fulfilment of his prophecies, but a thousand years is as one day and one day as a thousand years in the sight of God. Hence, maybe Gordon should just be a little more patient.

Finally, because Elders are human just like you and me, it is possible for an Elder to be tempted and to fall. St Silouan himself records that he was deceived twice, and this after he had had his authentic vision of the risen Christ. Hence, it is possible for an Elder to err, perhaps grievously.

Here it should be noted that whereas we lesser mortals might be tempted by moral temptations to fornication or avarice, more advanced Elders can be tempted by temptations to a false gnosis—i.e. they might be tempted not by fornication or even avarice but by a false revelation.

So who is to tell? Well, here, ‘it takes one to know one’. We ourselves don’t have the charism of discernment, so we can’t tell Gordon Lafayette what Elders Samson and Jeremiah are all about. Other Elders have to judge. Moreover, even their judgement might not be unanimous. It might take a decision of the Church after many years to conclude whether Elder So-and-So was a saint or not, whether his teaching was sound, whether his prophecies were sound.

In this regard, Vladimir Lossky was completely unimpressed by St Silouan’s writings as presented to him by Elder Sophrony. Eventually the Church concluded that St Silouan was a saint.

In this regard also it is well to bear in mind two famous episodes in Acts. In one, St Paul the Apostle bickers with St Barnabas the Apostle over the behaviour of St Mark the Evangelist and the three split up, St Barnabas going with St Mark to Asia Minor while St Paul continues on his way. The three men are saints and Apostles; the fellow causing the rift is one of the Four Evangelists.

In the other episode, St Paul the Apostle is together with St Peter the Apostle in Damascus. Before men come from St James, the brother of Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem, St Peter eats with the gentile converts to Christianity—i.e. he is living as a gentile and not according to the Mosaic Law. But when the men come from St James, then out of fear St Peter draws back and keeps kosher with the Jewish converts. St Paul convicts him publicly to his face of hypocrisy.

Elders might not agree among themselves about something, even another Elder. If the Apostles couldn’t get it straight, who will? Ultimately the Bishops in synod decide, just as the issue of the gentile converts and the Mosaic Law was decided by the Apostles in synod. And that decision of the Bishops in synod has to be received by the body of the Church.

The reception by the Church of a person as a saint is itself a complicated issue, because although the Church is ruled by the Bishops, historically the reception by the Church of a person as a saint has been guided not by the Bishops but by the cult practised by the faithful. In other words, today, saints in the Orthodox Church become saints by a decision of the Bishops in synod but this usually happens only after there has developed a devotion among the laity to the saint in question. In this matter, the reader might wish to consult the life of St Symeon the New Theologian as concerns his reception and liturgical celebration of his own Elder as a saint without prior recourse to the Bishops meeting in synod in Constantinople.

Just like everyone else in the Church, Elders are subject to the authority of the rulers of the Church, the Bishops, including their local Bishop. That is why you might see in the life of an Elder the assertion that he never fell out with his local Bishop or with the Church. However, in the Orthodox Church the Episcopal authority is much more organic and fluid than it is in the Roman Catholic Church. Prior exposure to Roman Catholicism or even Protestantism might give the Western convert to Orthodoxy a sense of rigid, hierarchical ecclesiology. The Orthodox Church is much more fluid, much more a family.

With regard to the revelation to Elder Jeremiah from St So-and-So to do such and such, it so happens that the Bishops, the rulers of the Church, got involved in that particular matter. It would take sitting down with Elder Jeremiah and asking him what precisely happened—what saint it was; how the saint communicated with him; what exactly the saint said; what Elder Jeremiah then proceeded to do on the basis of the exact revelation of the saint and what on the basis of his own personal judgement. Then you have to factor in the authority of the Bishops to bind and to loose, a power that is binding even on the saints in Heaven. The Bishops got in on the act and ordered Elder Jeremiah to do something different than he wanted to do—or else. So you would have to ask Elder Jeremiah for the exact details of the second apparition of St So-and-So after the Bishops got in on the act, what exactly was said and so on and so forth.

Gordon, was it not King Hezekiah who had a prophecy changed from the time the Prophet made the prophecy to the time the Prophet got half-way out of the Palace?

There is a strand in the Orthodox Church of great saints going against the wishes of the Bishops in synod; this is the road either of great sanctity or of personal disaster. We have in mind the saints who opposed Arianism, Origenism, Iconoclasm and so on. Closer to the topic, there is St Symeon the New Theologian, St Gregory Palamas, St Mark Eugenikos and so on. Usually the saints in question spend time in exile and/or prison for their opposition to the Bishops in synod. This is not an endorsement for anyone who disagrees with his Bishop to get up on a soap-box: when you are at the level of St Athanasios the Great of Alexandria or St Symeon the New Theologian you will have the spiritual discernment to know what to do.

Let us turn to Elder Jeremiah. We ourselves have listened to a number of Elder Jeremiah’s homilies and while we are not a professor of dogmatic theology we heard nothing in them that bothered us. Moreover, the homilies were like prayer. We rather felt that we were praying when we listened to them.

Next, you have to take into account that Elder Jeremiah has a lot of enemies. In part, it seems to us, this is because he is bearing witness that certain people are not doing right. In other words, we are struck that many of Elder Jeremiah’s enemies have an agenda that is not completely Orthodox. Here it must be borne in mind that there are various tendencies in the Orthodox Church, both liberal and conservative. (We will leave the interested blog reader to position Orthodox Monk on the spectrum of these tendencies.)

We do know that one fellow who considers Elder Jeremiah ‘dangerous’ seems to be spouting a sort of Evangelical Protestant Orthodoxy rather than patristic Orthodoxy. The criterion in Orthodoxy is whether you are in harmony with the teaching of the Orthodox Fathers of the Church. This is ultimately the test whether you are, as the Sermon on the Mount says, keeping the commandments of Christ and teaching others to do so.

So ultimately this is the test that will be applied to Elder Jeremiah: did he teach others to live patristic Orthodoxy in a concrete way in their own personal lives? If there were defects in his teaching, were those defects excusable?

Here it should be remarked that there are different standards in the Church for clerics (priests), monks and lay people: what it means to live patristic Orthodoxy differs from the one group to the next. The priest must meet the standards of the Church for priests. He has requirements concerning his handling of the Holy Things and his execution of the various mysteries. If he hears confessions, he must meet the Church’s standards in regard to the direction he gives to souls and in regard to the confidentiality with which he treats the confession. Moreover, if he is married, he has obligations related to his priesthood. The monk has vowed celibacy and a number of other vows; he must maintain a different standard of purity of heart from the married priest or layman. He has intense obligations concerning prayer. The layman has other standards to meet according to whether he is single or married; he has obligations to God concerning his wife and children (including his unborn children), and concerning his relations with his neighbours and the public authorities. These standards are embedded in the teachings of the Fathers of the Orthodox Church. For the layman a good place to start is St John Chrysostom, especially his commentaries on Matthew.

The Church is not run by the Heavenly Security Council:

Uniformed saints sit tensely at terminals with maps and images flitting by that show the dispositions of the Devil’s forces. One saint presses a button to launch a vision. Another quickly types a message to another saint to appear immediately to Elder Jeremiah to order Elder Jeremiah to do such and such. Another saint presses a button to launch a miracle to heal a paralyzed little boy visiting the cell of Elder Paisios. A claxon sounds and a voice is heard saying, ‘It has been decided and is ordered that Elder Samson is to be removed from the list of authorized Elders because his last prophecy was more than 15% out of kilter.’ Everyone at the terminals quickly makes the change in their list of authorized Elders.

All this sort of stuff is for television shows that show how the Situation Room works in the White House, not how the Church of Jesus Christ works.

The Church of Jesus Christ runs on love.

The prophecies of Nostradamus run on deceit.

It might be good for all our readers to reread the passage in I Corinthians 13–14 concerning the charisms. In part it says: ‘Now, then, faith, hope, love abide, these three; the greatest of these is love. Pursue love and be zealous for the spiritual things, especially that you prophesy: for he who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one hears since he speaks mysteries in the Spirit. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself but he who prophesies edifies the Church.’

We wonder about this whole problematic of Gordon Lafayette. Although we like Gordon, we are inclined to ask him: Why, Gordon? What is the source of your doubt? Why are the demons tempting you? Is it that your conscience is bothering you, perhaps about something totally unconnected to these two Elders? In that case, even if you are a sinner, and who isn’t, you aren’t obliged to go to Elder Jeremiah or Elder Samson either physically or in prayer—or even to listen to what they teach. If you want you can ignore them completely. And this is true even if your conscience isn’t bothering you: you aren’t obliged to follow any Elder. We repeat: no one in the Orthodox Church is obliged to pay attention to or follow any Elder.

However, you are obliged to keep the commandments of Jesus Christ and to obey the laws of the Church according to whether you are a priest, monk or layman; and it would be good to make a deep confession to a good, sound confessor with patristic principles.

If Gordon concludes that either Elder Samson or Elder Jeremiah, or anyone else for that matter, isn’t teaching the commandments of Jesus Christ, isn’t teaching true patristic Orthodoxy, should he go out and proclaim—perhaps on a blog—their deviance from true Orthodoxy? If Gordon is a saint with a revelation from God to do so, it might make sense. If not, well, as St Paul’s teacher Gamaliel says to the Sanhedrin in Acts, be careful that you don’t end up battling with God. We once heard an Abbot (not from Mt Athos) dismiss Elder Samson’s sanctity. The hardness in his voice made us wonder.

In the case of Richard, the fellow who feels alone, we are not going to give Richard any advice what to do.

We have had very serious problems trying to help some of the readers of this blog by email. We have sworn off and will only reply to emails publicly on the blog now. Gordon Lafayette is one of our few success stories. The Internet seems to attract the unstable. It is very difficult to discern from an email received through the Internet—and the Internet is rehashed electrons served with a cold topping of paranoia—just what is happening in a person’s soul.

The only things we can suggest in cases such as Richard’s are that:

a) He have a serious talk with his confessor, especially concerning the possibility that he has hidden pride—we are a little taken aback that Richard’s fellow workers would, he thinks, bear witness that he is very humble.

b) He not take seriously ‘laywomen with discernment’—if you can’t find your way around with name Elders, what’s going to happen with a nameless laywoman especially when you’re a young man of 25?

c) He consider seeing a psychiatrist. More and more we are beginning to see that many so-called spiritual issues have psychiatric issues underlying them, perhaps even genetically grounded. It might be that there is nothing whatsoever psychiatrically wrong with Richard—we don’t know, not having met him—but there is no harm in having the possibility excluded by a visit to a psychiatrist. This would include eliminating the possibility that there are physical disorders. Of course it would help if the psychiatrist were an Orthodox believer.

d) He pray for a spiritual father. In this, Richard should study what we have said to Gordon above.

May God enlighten all Orthodox believers with the light of his love.

–Orthodox Monk

[1] The reception of St Gregory Palamas’ theology depends on its explicit reception by the Bishops in synod, not merely on the reception of St Gregory as a saint of the Orthodox Church.

[2] The questioner would be referring to the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

[3] The questioner is not a heart patient. He means his inner spiritual centre.

[4] I.e. authors such as St Gregory of Nyssa.

[5] The issue at hand in this particular question and answer is the presence in St Gregory of Nyssa’s writings of the heretical doctrine of the ‘Restoration of all Things’.


  1. Dear Monk,
    My name is "Richard." commenting on your response to "Discerning the Elders and Prophets."
    You provided the information I needed spiritually on how to find an Elder by "exercising certain basic Scientific skills" by finding out what
    really happened my going to the source or a reliable source. I thought your analysis was fair and just.
    When I wrote you the email, I was distracted by my strong will to reach out to God. I firmly believe without the (Jesus) prayer, grace, and fasting, I can do nothing.
    Let me explain in detail what I meant when other people that I work with think I am very humble. I've been with this grocery company for almost two years now.
    The management team put me into difficult situations from working day, night, and overnight in one week to working almost 21 hours a day. I am always on time, I have not
    been disciplined, I do not complain about work, and I work well with people from part-timers to full timers and Unsalary management to salary management. Many of my coworkers and
    management have came up to me and complimented me on how good of a Christian I am and on how it is good to see me when I come in because I always smile, positive and
    listen to the compliments of others without dismissing them or judging them.
    There is so much sadness and anger out there. I believe if I can be nice to people by making them laugh, and having a strong work ethic, people will be encouraged to shine.
    I am not bragging about myself nor think I am humble because I am far from it. St. Mark the ascetic says, "Do not become a disciple of one who praises himself, in case you learn
    pride instead of humility." I do not bring up discussions on the Orthodox faith to others for it is written in James 3:1 KJV My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.

    Secondly, Was I not politically correct when I wrote, "laywoman."? Would your answer would have been different if I had wrote, layperson?
    Is it not legal for women to set foot on Mount Athos even after the monks believe it is "The Garden of the Virgin Mary".

    "According to tradition, the Virgin Mary with John the Evangelist, on their way to visit Lazarus in Cyprus, encountered a stormy sea that forced them to temporarily seek refuge in the port which is now the Holy Monastery of Ivira. The Virgin Mary, admiring the wild beauty of the place, asked God to give her the mountain as a present. Then the voice of our Lord was heard saying: "Let this place be your lot, your garden and your paradise, as well as a salvation, a haven for those who seek salvation". Since then, Mount Athos is considered as "The Garden of the Virgin Mary".
    In the 5th century AD, the first monks came to Mount Athos, who disappointed from the boredom of everyday communal life, found this beautiful and uninhabited place ideal for worship their God."

    I am not assigned a confessor and do not find the time to make an appointment with her. My father only goes to church on Sunday. My two sisters and mother do not.
    It is difficult to be encouraged to increase in the teachings of the Church if there is no one practicing with you. continue(...)

  2. I am happy that Gordon has one of the few "success stories" and I am an "unstable cold topping of paranoia" because of the imperfections in my story.

    St Mark the Ascetic wrote, "There are acts which appear to be good, but the motive of the person who does them is not good; and there are other acts which appear to be bad, while the motive of the doer is good.
    The same is true of some statements. This discrepancy is due sometimes to inexperience or ignorance, sometimes to evil intention, and sometimes to good intention."

    Although I feel like your intentions are good, I was a little concerned that you will only reply to emails publicly on the blog now and I was the example.
    I feel like a fly compared to you which is an elephant...because you have more experience, knowledge, and wisdom. There is no way I fly has a chance to challenge.

    I am afraid of writing you after this because if this was posted and also your reply, My heart will sink. May I politely ask you to remove my e-mail to you two and to leave Gordons’.

    If not, I will accept it being posted asking God for forgiveness.
    I have no negative feelings towards you because I feel that you are men doing Gods' works.
    In Love,

  3. We will reply to Richard's two comments in detail in a post on the blog, but immediately here are a few corrections of serious misunderstandings:

    1. "Secondly, Was I not politically correct when I wrote, "laywoman."?" We were responding to the notion of a 25 year-old man being guided by a laywoman. It doesn't make sense to us. Political correctness does not enter into it.

    2. "Is it not legal for women to set foot on Mount Athos even after the monks believe it is "The Garden of the Virgin Mary". No it is not legal, but we were not writing out of misogyny (hatred of women).

    3. "I am happy that Gordon has one of the few "success stories" and I am an "unstable cold topping of paranoia" because of the imperfections in my story." Since we haven't heard from Gordon, maybe we spoke too soon. Richard, you completely misunderstood what we wrote--you are going to have to go back to the blog and read it carefully. We said:

    "In the case of Richard, the fellow who feels alone, we are not going to give Richard any advice what to do.

    "We have had very serious problems trying to help some of the readers of this blog by email. We have sworn off and will only reply to emails publicly on the blog now. Gordon Lafayette is one of our few success stories. The Internet seems to attract the unstable. It is very difficult to discern from an email received through the Internet—and the Internet is rehashed electrons served with a cold topping of paranoia—just what is happening in a person’s soul."

    Our decision not to respond by email to people was not based on your email. We do not know anything about you, but we have had some serious difficulties counselling OTHER PEOPLE by email. We have sworn off. Simply your email was the occasion for us to point that out. Moreover, as you can see our estimation of the internet as "rehashed electrons served with a cold topping of paranoia" is a general evaluation. There is no reason for you to think that that has anything to do with your email.

    Moreover, when we referred to the internet as attracting unstable people that was again a general evaluation of the internet with no relation to you--go to a political site and see for yourself.

    4. Our remark that it might be wise that you pass by a psychiatrist was based on our general personal experience. We don't know you. How would we know if you are unstable, disturbed or whatever? We don't know you. We can only give general advice, and that with the utmost diffidence.

    5. People who contact a blog on the Internet have to realize that what they do they do in public. Hence, although Richard doesn't want his comments posted, they are being posted. We realize that we have to protect the anonymity of our posters, and we ourselves changed Richard's name from the name he supplied so no one would know who he is. We don't think that his description of his work activities is sufficient for anyone to identify him.

  4. Dear Orthodox Monk,

    This article is a very good reminder to all of us laypeople (laypersons?? LOL) to:
    Behave ourselves
    Be obedient
    be vigilant
    Be kind
    Be loving toward all

    There is no time in history like now, where people's souls are in danger. Our church is being attacked by lawsuits, the spirit of division and strife is everywhere and people within the church are stirring up trouble and saying nasty things about their brothers and sisters in Christ.

    I want to thank you so much for your blog. I am very grateful that you take all this time to write it and to remind us all of "the middle way". God bless you and the other brothers,
    One Hope-One Love,
    In Christ,