Vol. 3 No. 2 - Pentecost 2008
"Independent" Orthodox Life:
Spiritual Delusion and Our Times
"For the saints, every human sin has a history as long as the distance from Adam to us."
- Saint Nikolai Velimirovic,
Prologue of Ochrid, February 4
Soon after Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman Empire in the fourth century, a remarkable reaction occurred. Up until that time, to be a Christian meant almost certain death. Once the Faith became legal (and soon after, the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire), Christian citizenship meant rewards, comfort, and all the struggles that come with life in a congregation of various kinds of people - some faithful, some lukewarm, and some who cared little about the Faith.
Centuries ago, the reaction to problems in parish life often took the form of monasticism: an individual would travel out into the wilds, abandoning the comforts of home and family, and live out their lives in strictness and prayer. This was a strong antidote to comfortable life in the city, yet it was not for everyone, and most faithful who were not called to the monastic life and its order and obedience, continued to carry on the struggle of Christian life in the world.
In the last number of years, Church scandals and disputes in parish life, coupled with a sense that many parishes have become spiritually dry or empty, have inspired a new reaction: a movement to a kind of "independent" Orthodox Christianity. Such a movement is not a monastic movement, since it lacks the order and obedience of day-today life in a monastery. This trend is also not related to the simple, ascetical life that every Christian is called to live out in their own parish community.
This individualistic tendency is of course rooted in the Fall: it is the ever-present temptation to live and find our fulfillment apart from God. It can be seen in the Roman Catholic concept of the power of the papacy, in Protestant individualism, and in the temptation for every Orthodox Christian to find their way in the spiritual life using their own distorted sense of what is a holy life, without the divine illumination given through ongoing spiritual guidance and relationships with others in the Church.
Monastic life and ascetic life in the world both grew out of the authentic experience of the Church: the examples of lives of holy people, repeated again and again, over place and time. Both roads are authentic paths of the Orthodox Christian life because they are tested by time, confirmed by the experience of others within the Church, and not apart from Her.
The movement toward "independent" Orthodox living is very different. Influenced by modern niche marketing, suburban isolation, and the consumer culture, "independent" Orthodox Christianity carries all the marks of an Orthodox Christian life on the outside - prayer, fasting, icons, right beliefs and "correct" actions, and vocabulary. Yet the interior disposition of the heart tells a very different story. While the symptoms may differ between individuals, as we shall discuss below, one common spiritual sickness can be seen, and this is the desire for a self-directed spiritual life, based on personal interests and affections.
Several varieties of the "independent" Orthodox Christian life have made themselves known in our time:
Parish Shoppers - In this variety of the "independent" Christian life, individuals will embark upon a perpetual search for the ideal parish. Such individuals will often have a set of criteria for finding the "right" parish - or at least a parish that is "right" for them. Such persons will often not be attached to a regular confessor or spiritual father. Typically, one will identify within a few months (or sometimes weeks or even hours or minutes) the weaknesses of a particular parish: liturgical qualities (the way the priest serves, the music, and especially the conduct of other people), theological focus (emphasis of sermons, selection of literature in the parish bookstore), or personal qualities (qualities of the priest, the behaviour of people at coffee hour, the parish executive, volunteers, etc.)
The thing that distinguishes a parish shopper from other Orthodox Christians is not simply the presence of these qualities, which are struggles for most people, but the fact that these characteristics take over the spiritual life, driving them from one parish to another, often in rapid succession.
Nonattending Supporters - This affliction often affects individuals with good and upright intentions, but who for various reasons have intense pressures on their personal and family time. Conscious of the need to attend to spiritual responsibilities, there is a temptation for those with this spiritual affliction to reduce the Orthodox Christian life to two essentials: pay and pray. With little regular contact with parish life, the person may try to support the work of the Church through donations, and may even try to live out their prayer life each day. With no access to Holy Mysteries, however, the life of such an individual is not safeguarded from the everyday effects of life in the world. Spiritual growth becomes impossible. If the individual tries to undertake a route of spiritual development on their own, the pressures of time, family, work or recreation quickly take over and disrupt their efforts, since they are without a solid foundation or any external guidance.
People who become non-attending supporters rarely deny their faith, and may continue to attend irregularly for many years. They often have a very positive opinion of the Church, their local parish, the priest, and people in their local Orthodox community. Yet it is this comfort level which can lull them into a certain complacency, developing in them a sense that the spiritual life can be led by proxy and at a distance. If and when a crisis arises and they turn to the Church for help, it can become very difficult for them to make any progress in spiritual healing, since they are used to a casual approach to the Christian life, and think that this should be enough to help, even in a crisis. Those who in a crisis do make a shift out this habit can often fall into one of the other spiritual sicknesses.
Unattached Pilgrims - Individuals who are afflicted with this spiritual condition often seek out "holy" places or "holy" people, to the exclusion of anything else in the Orthodox life. This search may be fueled by the holy examples of lives of saints, and those who seek them may have strong expectations to find such examples of holiness in daily life in parishes or monasteries. When few examples of living holiness are found (as is inevitably the case in the fallen world), the search is rarely abandoned, but rather intensifies. On a certain level, this is a right and proper thing; taken exclusively, it can grow into a spiritual affliction.
As a result of this condition, such an individual may never put down roots in a parish, and would never have to deal with ongoing relations with other people. Such a situation places no demands of Christian love on the affected person, and allows no development of Christian maturity. The individual thereby remains forever immature in Christ. In some cases, individuals with this affliction can ultimately become so frustrated that they abandon their faith altogether, or even apostatize. This condition can sometimes combine with other varieties of afflictions to produce more complicated effects, deepening the resulting delusion.
Church Connoisseurs - People who affected with this spiritual delusion usually have a positive approach to life in the Church, but this rarely goes beyond a surface level. Enamoured with icons, beautiful worship services, the smell of incense, correct doctrines and poetic prayers, the experience of the spiritual life becomes much more prominent than its content; the five senses take precedence over the spiritual heart. Often those with this mindset will perpetually visit an Orthodox Church, but will never become Orthodox Christians, although sometimes if they do convert, they will continue to focus on external things. Their contribution to the common life of other people within a parish community will often be minimal, since their focus inevitably becomes limited entirely to abstract concerns, making an authentic life of love and commitment to other people quite secondary.
Isolated Urban Ascetics - Faithful with this tendency often keep their keen and intense faith a secret from most people, even those within the Church. A regular life in a parish is often rejected as spiritually second rate, and a search begins for a kind of spiritual intensity that meets the arbitrary standard of the individual. The satisfaction of this search may come partly from pilgrimages to monasteries, or from a relationship to a spiritual father; where these spiritual supports deepen the life of the individual, and encourage the complete living out of the spiritual life with other faithful in a larger Orthodox community, such a search can have healthy results. Yet in certain cases, pilgrimages and contact with the spiritual father or confessor can become infrequent, and a relationship with a local parish does not develop. Caught in a kind of spiritual limbo and isolation, the individual has neither the supports of life in a monastery, nor the corrective influences of community life. Such cases often give rise to an individually crafted spiritual life, based on undirected spiritual readings, infrequent or non-existent spiritual direction, limited catechism, and a religious emphasis rooted in personal preferences. One may become completely disengaged from parish life, since most parishes are not made up of faithful who are so spiritually intense. Parishes in which a comprehensive spiritual life of prayer, fasting, Confession and Communion are discouraged or ridiculed only deepen this estrangement from the parish. The urban ascetic may find a virtual community of faithful in other places, often at a distance (such as Internet discussion groups), which preclude more authentic spiritual support, and lack concrete, living examples of normal spiritual life.
Each of these spiritual afflictions - which undoubtedly affect each one of us at some time in our life - is complicated by the fact that they are easily mistaken for an authentic spiritual life. Outwardly, each of them bears certain qualities of a faithful life: generosity, zeal, or a search for truth and holiness. Unlike outward heresy or apostasy (which are obvious in their errors), the "independent" Orthodox Christian life appears to many people, including those afflicted by it, to be a faithful path. Each of the varieties lacks the life-saving qualities of external spiritual direction (a spiritual father or confessor) and humility - the critical quality of self-examination, and an openness to the possibility that each of us can be, and often is, misguided, wrong, or deluded.
It is in this that the "independent" Orthodox life is so dangerous. While contemporary culture affirms whatever passing fancy we may entertain, the authentic Christian life calls us to do the opposite: to submit our own delusions to the scrutiny of the whole Church, those living and those with Christ, in order to develop spiritual health, and in order to spiritually mature. It is against this self-reliance that we are warned time and time again by the saints of the Church. The spiritual father and life in the parish require us to live life beyond the limits of our own deluded minds, saving us from the temptations of an unexamined life, and ultimately saving us from ourselves.
Father Geoffrey Korz, (Pentecost, 2008)
© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2008.