“Get Behind Me, Satan!”
In contemporary Orthodoxy in America, we’ve wandered far from what I denote “normal and ordinary Orthodoxy”, especially in the last fifty years. We’ve erected “strange gods” in the place of normative and historical Orthodoxy, and this has come to roost in our day. This is not only true of those on the theological “left”; it’s also bedevilled more traditional believers as well. The errors caused by the deification of Alexander Schmemann, of course, are obvious, but the antics of Count Grabbe and Hieromonk Panteleimon of Brookline were just as hurtful to a balanced expression of the faith as were the shenanigans perpetrated at SVS and Syosset. A false attitude crept into the Church, one illustrated well by a cleric of the ROCOR recently. His article is enlightening, and I recommend it to all. It does not apply solely to the ROCOR situation, and his insights are illuminating. Click here to read it. For our purposes at present, an excerpt from the above piece, I believe, says it all.
The aforementioned Fr Knox calls this mindset: ultrasupernaturalism. This is a belief that one is to expect definite and concrete signs of God’s grace. This view is evidenced by three characteristics:
- Extreme standards of perfection. The saints aren’t seen as spiritual athletes, an exception, but are the norm of the Christian life by which everyone’s judged. This is held especially against those who belong outside the group. Despite protestations that he’s just a sinner and doesn’t judge, the schismatic will judge everyone by these standards. This is born out of a narcissistic need to be seen as perfect. The narcissist wants either to be admired or will bask in the glow of another. In the Orthodox Church, many will tend to put on the cloak of false humility and then brag about their starets or bishop. They’ll speak of a long line of saints in their spiritual ancestry. This is done to bolster their own pride and to justify their actions. The purpose is ultimately to make themselves feel righteous and others feel shame.
- Rigidity concerning rules, especially regarding repentance. This follows from the first. Many schismatics believe that those who oppose them must repent of their errors. The standards of repentance are so rigid that it would be nearly impossible to achieve. Many believe that the bishops of the Russian Church were collaborators, ecumenists, or outright communists. They demand repentance. The fact that many have repented is irrelevant because they didn’t do a good enough job to satisfy the schismatic. The schismatic lacks empathy and understanding about the ambiguities of life. The Church to them isn’t about bringing sinners to repentance, but, rather, it’s an ideologically-pure organisation that demands perfection. If they accepted the faults of others, then, they couldn’t justify leaving. This sets up criterion number three.
- Exclusivity. The schismatic will have no halfway Christians. Christianity is only for the pure. This purity is more in ideological correctness or a rigid adherence to canons. Those in the group who don’t live up to the letter are made to feel shame and guilt. This can be done in a variety of ways. I recommend that people read Margaret Singer’s Cults in Our Midst to gain a greater understanding of the techniques used. These groups tend to be authoritarian, exclusive, and develop a double set of ethics. The latter is called antinomianism.
The Banishment of the Boyarina Morozova
A classic portrayal of a religious fanatic…
The exclusivity has already been mentioned. These groups tend to be centred around a charismatic leader, who’s seen as very spiritual. Sometimes, the leader holds great power over everyone. Other times, the leader’s a distant figure head symbolising the movement. In the latter case, everyone in the group has greater responsibility in maintaining the purity of belief. More often than not, there’ll be a small number of people who use the leader and they themselves are the true authorities. Either way, the average follower is under scrutiny to keep up the appearances of perfection. All this gives the schismatic a sense that he belongs to a different and superior society. The rules of the group are more important than that of the greater society. This gives the schismatics a sense of superiority and entitlement. Worldly society has no real authority over them and sinful people have no real rights. They may obey civil laws begrudgingly to avoid prison. Many begin to talk about belonging spiritually to theocracies and ideal governments that don’t exist. The realpolitik of political life is scorned. Some will even begin to develop their own communities.
The schismatic, suffering from a sense of superiority, entitlement, and exclusion, begins to see his group as an island haven in a sea of sin and hostility. The overwhelming sense of hostility will lead to the group developing paranoia. These groups become suspicious of others. People in the group begin to doubt the loyalty and fidelity of others. They speak little of their internal conflicts. The group image of perfection is upheld at all costs. When this occurs, the Christian schismatic become apocalyptic. People begin to talk more about the Devil and the Antichrist ruling the world. This way of thinking only increases the schismatic’s justification for his behaviour. There becomes an increasing belief that the end is near. Talk in the community will be about how God will only save the faithful remnant. Now, an interesting phenomenon occurs. The superior people, especially the leaders, begin to fall into antinomian behaviours. Antinomianism means against or opposed to the law. Throughout history, exclusive apocalyptic movements end up justifying immoral behaviours for themselves. The most common sins involve money and sex. It isn’t uncommon for the leader or leaders to exploit members for money and sex. Notice the number of money and sex scandals that are involved in these groups. Of course, these scandals happen everywhere, but the schismatic will justify the behaviour or claim persecution. They’ll make themselves out to be martyrs.
Veselak, Deacon Jan, On the Psychology of Schism
“Throughout history, exclusive apocalyptic movements end up justifying immoral behaviours for themselves. The most common sins involve money and sex. It isn’t uncommon for the leader or leaders to exploit members for money and sex. Notice the number of money and sex scandals that are involved in these groups”. This is a textbook description of the current long-running crisis in the OCA, it fits perfectly. A priest in Maryland, one Raymond Velencia, blabs to the entire world what he heard in confession and counselling, and the leadership rewards him by calling him a “goals-oriented priest” and defends him and his actions. As all know the sordid details of the financial and sexual escapades amongst the OCA hierarchy, there’s no need to repeat it.
This is what “true-believers” and schismatics do to the Body of Christ…
Why did this situation come about? The Metropolia wasn’t so, in fact, it was known for its prudence, caution, and good-sense. In fact, when I asked a fellow-parishioner, “What would’ve happened in the old Metropolia to this priest (Rev Velencia, he who blabbed confessions)?” She replied without hesitation, “They would’ve ripped his head off”. What happened? It’s a salutary warning to all of us. A single man, Alexander Schmemann, brought his singular ideas to fruition because of a fortuitous series of events. Firstly, there was a generational crisis in the Metropolia, as the generation born in the ’30s and ’40s was ashamed of their roots and tried to efface them. Secondly, Schmemann was better educated than any of his American contemporaries. Thirdly, the Russian Church was under attack by the atheist authorities and unable to help. Lastly, his notions of an “autocephalous American Church” were seconded by Nikodim Rotov, who used Schmemann in an attempt to mitigate the attacks of the communists on the Church (it had nothing to do with America, thank you very much). All of these factors had to be present, and, unfortunately, they were. That’s why a repetition of this is impossible at the present time.
Schmemann founded the cult of autocephaly and launched the pervasive spread of American phyletism in the OCA and AOCANA (the latter is more infested than the former, intriguingly enough). In some OCA circles, you can say nothing against Schmemann. They say, “You see, the present crisis would have been avoided only if Schmemann had escaped an early death from cancer”. He’s become a godlike figure, especially to uninformed American converts who never met him. As long as one invokes the god-man Schmemann (no irreverence intended), one can do as one pleases, unfettered by common morality and decency. I’ve had the opportunity to observe one of the OCA apparatchiki at length, and it disturbs me. There’s a complete lack of restraint in the man, and I find that he completely disregards the truth. 25 years ago, he attacked the ROCOR unmercifully, and, now, he’s done a complete volte-face. He’s never said that he was sorry; he merely changed his position because it was expedient. I’ve seen a man who embodies all the principles of Orwell’s 1984, anything inconvenient goes down the “memory hole” and all his statements are in Newspeak delivered with an unctuous smile. Don’t think that the priesthood is immune from temptation and evil, I’ve seen for myself that isn’t true. Reflect on the fact that such a moral monster (and Rev Velencia) finds favour with SVS and the Syosset apparat.
I should say at this point that I am far from perfect, and I do not place myself as a standard for anyone else. However, after some 54 years of life, I realise that the ordinary truths of the Church resonate throughout the ages. I also know that we should never put a mere human in the place that is reserved for Our Lord Christ alone. That’s why the OCA is foundering and why the AOCANA is probably going to leave mainstream Orthodoxy (there is no space to go into the topic of the megalomania of Philip Saliba, an interesting study). It’s time to topple the idols. After the image of Schmemann falls, one shall find, just as we saw after the fall of communism in 1991, that few actually believed in it at the end. That’s the sadness of it all. Save for a few deluded pseudo-intellectuals and ignorant converts, no one actually believes in Schmemann’s drivel today. Yet, it’s used as the justification for keeping a corpse of an organisation alive. I’d say to His Holiness Patriarch Aleksei, “Smash the idols, sir, and set these people free”. May such happen soon.
Albany NY USA