Letters To A Troubled Monastic

Excerpts From Recent Correspondence Between a Monk and Fr. Gregory (edited):

Monk: Christ is risen! Thanks again for your thoughtful and thought-provoking letter, Father.

Fr. G: I understand too well the dilemma in which you find yourself, and am quite certain it is one which is widespread. I make no claim to being able to determine whether any hierarchy “has grace” or not. Indeed, I’m quite convinced this is an unanswerable (and perhaps altogether unwise, even false) question. I think we’re assured that the Holy Spirit “bloweth where It listeth”. Does the Holy Spirit watch over and at least in some sense guide my children (and friends) who find themselves on a radically different path from mine (even entirely non-Orthodox)? I certainly hope so. Is He active throughout the world, even in people & places where the true Faith is completely unknown? To say otherwise would, I think, be heresy. So that’s not where the “solution” is to be found.

Are manifestations of divine grace to be found in the Moscow Patriarchate, in the altogether modernist/ecumenist jurisdictions? Certainly — but what do they signify? I think it would be an error to claim them as “stamps of approval”. They are also found in wholly heterodox, even non-Christian contexts. Such things are meant to lead us to the Truth — not to prove that we are already “there”. In many cases, they are doubtless calls to repentance, to conversion, though they may also of course in some instances be great consolations. So there’s no “solution” there either.

It’s obvious you already have a pretty good grasp of the “data” — the outright heretical behavior of the Church of Antioch, etc. So there’s no point in belaboring any of that. For some people, of course, this is not the case — they are ignorant, either innocently or willfully, of what is really going on. You are not.

For me, the situation was and is quite clear — my conscience simply will not permit me to enter into sacramental communion with such violations of the Truth. Prior to the debacle of Ascension 2007, I was often in a very uncomfortable position. The official teaching of our Church precluded such communion, but that teaching was all too often ignored in practice, often quite blatantly so, by some of our hierarchs and a considerable number of our clergy. That “thorn in my side” was removed when all of those folk — may the Lord forgive and correct them — departed for more comfortable “lodgings” in the bosom of the MP. I no longer have to live with that ambiguity.

Neither I nor my bishop make any “judgement” as to the “gracefulness” or lack thereof of other hierarchies — but I must discern where the Orthodox Faith is being kept and where it is not (or where there is no certainty that it is) — and act accordingly. Thus, I could not place myself under the omophorion of any of those various bishops (regardless of whether they need to be identified as schismatic or not) who explicitly or implicitly claim to have such knowledge, and (usually) declare themselves and only themselves to be Orthodox. By God’s grace, a path was provided — Vladyka Agafangel simply “stayed put” in the Faith and Church as I had known it from my (spiritual) infancy — and so did I and my flock.

I cannot tell you what you should do; I only know what I must (and must not) do. For you, a monastic, there is of course a complicating element which doesn’t apply to me — the vow of monastic obedience and stability, something which I can only “know” from the outside and somewhat in the abstract. I long regarded Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York, as my “spiritual home”, but there was a decided “weather shift” there long before 2007 which made me increasingly less comfortable and less “at home” there. In fact, it’s been many years since I’ve spent more than a few hours at a time there — it felt as if what I had once known there had “gone missing”. Indeed, it had pretty much gone missing from the Church as a whole, though it took me a long time to realize it.

Indeed, I only really recognized the absence when suddenly I once again experienced it, in the celebration of the Apostles’ feast at the conclusion of the first major gathering of the clergy of our “remnant” Church in the summer of 2007 — something I had known at Holy Trinity Monastery, known when I was blessed to serve with St. Philaret, to which I cannot put a name. Once again I was (and remain) “home”. Thanks be to God!

Your troubled state of mind & soul is, I think, a positive sign. At least you don’t have your head buried in the sand! But it’s also an indication, as you clearly perceive, that something is badly wrong. Were it otherwise, you would be at peace (but of course there are some unfortunate souls who seem quite incapable of being at peace — I pray you’re not one of them!).

What to do about it? That I really can’t tell you. I know that I couldn’t live with what you are living with (the blatant contradiction between what you know to be true Orthodoxy and the behavior of those with whom you find yourself in communion), even were it to require (God forbid!) that I stand absolutely alone. Apparently others, presumably good and honest (all my Orthodox relatives included) somehow find it possible to live with that contradiction. I don’t judge them — but neither can I commune with them.

So we try to find ways to get along — and sometimes they are peculiar indeed. Imagine a vigil service concluding (others had needed to leave early) with me serving, a Metropolia (“OCA”) priest and ROCOR/MP deacon chanting the rest of the service — and concluding with the two of them chanting the polychronion for Met. Agafangel!

Practically speaking, should you come to the conclusion that you cannot live with a divided heart, I’ll do my very best to assist in whatever way possible.

I fear I may succeed only in making your torment worse — but if so, may it serve as a spur to enlightenment and growth which in the end leads to peace. Please forgive me if I have in any way offended you or hurt you — far from my intention!

In Christ Jesus,
Fr. Gregory Williams

Monk: “First, you yourself believe grace to be both in World Orthodoxy and ROCOR-A (your synod).”

Fr. G: Not quite how I would put it. I believe divine grace, the Holy Spirit, to be everywhere (“Who art every where present and fillest all things…”). To the question “Is the (true) ROCOR a grace-filled Church,” I would readily reply with an unqualified “Yes”. I could not do that with respect to the MP, Antiochians, etc., but no way would I deny that there is any presence of the Holy Spirit therein. But then I wouldn’t say that even of blatantly schismatic or overtly heretical “churches” — “the Spirit listeth where It willeth.”

This doesn’t mean there is no difference between, e.g., the MP & the Primitive Baptists, but that difference doesn’t lie in the presence or absence of “grace”. It is to be found in the answers to questions such as to what degree one or the other is indeed preaching (and living) the Gospel — and the answer to that can’t be an unqualified negative even with respect to absolute pagans (so says St. Paul).

Monk: “Also you said, that you could simply not accept to follow falsehood. Well, there we are! Do you see, Fr. Gregory, the whole issue has been approached the wrong way from my side. It is not a question whether or not there actually is grace in World Orthodoxy, but whether or not they actually are confessing the correct faith.”

Fr. G: That is indeed the key question, and one which I have no difficulty answering — with the results you see.

Monk: “Bishop Christodoulos from the old-calendar Greek Orthodox Church (Chrysostomos II) once said to me: ‘Just follow the commandments, and you will know what to do.’”

Fr. G: Very good advice, I think. But, as you observe, not so transparent in its implementation — until you do know, and then everything becomes very clear. One key indicator — when we are on a right and godly path, the “confusion” of which you earlier wrote falls away (but of course, regrettably, there’s also the possibility of being “unconfused” simply because one is stubborn or blind!).

Monk: “Because ROCOR/MP have essentially adopted the very same thinking and spirit as World Orthodoxy, which we see in, e.g.,the shameless defrocking of Vl. Diomid, one of their very own fellow-hierarchs; their attitude towards the old-calendar Churches as graceless schismatics; the concelebration with heretical Orthodox Churches etc.”

Fr. G: This combination is a very powerful indicator of what is really going on: condemnation of those who struggle truly to live the Orthodox Faith, and blatant disregard for that Faith evidenced by such actions as maintaining communion with the now officially heretical Church of Antioch (because of its arrogant violation of the Councils in communing with the Monophysites).

Monk: “For some years I have been thinking of just settling down in the country-side some remote place, build myself a small 12 by 12 foot cabin, install a woodstove and pray (all my Orthodox life I have always been drawn to silence in a remote place). I am not approaching this light-mindedly.”

Fr. G: I am ill-suited to advise a monastic, but would nevertheless give a word of caution, both from reading and my own experience: Isolation can be very dangerous to someone who is not yet spiritually prepared for it. Our world does not lend itself to such preparation, which can perhaps come about only after long experience in a genuinely communal monastic life (I’m not at all certain your monastery qualifies for that). The same caution would apply to “starting” a monastic community. Certainly, I would suggest that neither step should be taken at the same time as your separation from the MP (and thus your present monastery) and embarking on a new life — at least, certainly not without the well-considered blessing of your “new” hierarch (and thus monastic superior).

Monk: “Well, in any case, whatever I decide (hopefully pleasing to God), is there any possibility that you would have a place for me for some time (maybe even up to a year) if it should come to that? I would then just sell my crafts (for some small income), pray, commune and trying to figure out what next (if you need some help with anything, I can help).”

Fr. G: I can’t give any definitive answer to this. As I said earlier, we are in no position to support anyone, but do have lots of space. Certainly, we could not take on a “monastic resident” without Vl. Agafangel’s blessing. Should he give it, and you be in a position to support yourself (including some token contribution to the serious costs of maintaining such a place as this — taxes alone over $3000/yr), we could explore the possibilities.

Monk: “I can not join any synod yet, so officially I will be in nobody`s synod.”

Fr. G: In that event I don’t see how you can commune; I don’t think the Church communes “free agents”.

Monk: “I then wrote a 40-page long letter intended for Vladyka Hilarion commenting on these issues, hopefully making him think of what ROCOR/MP is now participating in. Are you interested in reading this letter, before I send it?”

Fr. G: I’m afraid Met. Hilarion is fully aware of what he is doing. I’ve known him since 1980, some of the time quite closely, and cannot imagine otherwise. The apostasy of Antioch is too well-known and documented (including, unofficially, intercommunion as well with the Melkite Roman Catholics) to require more documentation. Nevertheless, if your letter includes well-referenced documentation, I would be interested in seeing it.

May the Lord bless and preserve you in your journey!
Fr. Gregory+
Afterfeast of Ascension 2009

The above article appears in the most recent issue of Living Orthodoxy. Subscription: $22/year

1 comment:

Joanna Higginbotham said...

There now is an announcement on our official ruschurchabroad website which says: "Welcome back to our church, Hieromonk Andrew (Erastus), formerly in Jordanville, and a famous icon painter, now assigned to our Melbourne, Australia parish"

In case anyone is wondering, Hieromonk Andrew is not the monk who had this correspondence with Fr, Gregory in this post.