I have heard it said since the very first day I encountered Orthodoxy: “There aren’t any elders anymore, at least not like in the old days.” And I was told that I shouldn’t be looking around for any.
In preparation for our class, I’ve been reading ahead in The Arena, by St. Ignatius. Even in his day, he bemoaned the lack of true elders and he warned against false men claiming the title. He suggests that we find our guidance in the writings of the Fathers alone. Sound advice.
But why has it come to this? One idea is that the times are too evil. We are too modern, too sophisticated, too materialistic, and too hedonistic.
All true, of course. Yet there has always been evil in the world (at least according to my history books). People have always pursued pleasure, godlessness, and material well-being at the expense of someone else. To quote the Preacher of Ecclesiates, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Why is today any different?
Another idea is that Orthodox monasticism is in its infancy in the West. The monasteries that exist have not had time to sink roots deep enough to produce the fruit of spiritual eldership.
I am no expert on monastic life, but I can see the point. We all need to pray for our monasteries that God will protect them from demonic attack and give them space to plant deep roots in the soil of the Gospel.
Still, I have a conviction that I know another reason why God has given us so few (if any) spiritual elders. Let me quote from the book of Proverbs:
“A wise son heareth his father’s instruction; but a scorner heareth not rebuke.” (13.1)
“Open rebuke is better than secret love.” (27.5)
“Correct thy son, and He shall give thee rest; yea, he shall give delight unto thy soul.” (29.16)
But on the other side:
“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes..” (12.15)
“A fool despises his father’s instruction, but he that regardeth reproof is prudent.”
Perhaps the words “rebuke” and “reproof” are a bit harsh for us genteel folk. We prefer to believe that we are open-minded, educated, and teachable. Shall I show you my degrees?
This isn’t what Solomon was talking about. To be instructed, or rebuked, is to be shown that I am on the wrong path and heading in a direction that will harm or destroy me. It is to be shown that there has been a moral or a spiritual error on my part, or that I have come to call sin “habit” and evil “good.”
Well, no one wants to be corrected. NO ONE! Our pride is too big for that. I want, I need to believe that I am a good man, that I have figured it out, that I am on the right path, loved and esteemed by all. I hate it when someone shows me my error. I am embarrassed and I get furious. After all, I am the Priest; who dares to correct ME??? In confession, I share just enough to show my “humility” but I hide enough to maintain the facade that I am the right man on the right path. If I share too much, I run the risk that Father will correct me. Hmmm…I can’t have that.
Of course, it is a terrible risk to speak any “negative” word to anyone, even to a friend. It is possible that you will lose them. Few priests have the courage to truly correct people. They know that if they were to “rebuke” someone, chances are that person will become hurt or angry and leave the church in a snit. Priest’s learn to walk on eggs and offer little if any spiritual advice during confession. Instead of soul saving words of instruction, they give “helpful hints for hurtful habits.” Some people ask for correction, but even then a priest will walk very carefully.
To be teachable doesn’t mean that I attend class to learn some new and interesting facts about the Babylonians. It means that I begin to have a profound distrust in my own understanding. It means that I realize that without the perspective of others, I will walk blindly into the pit. I begin to understand the full scope of my ego and how it makes me “wise in my own eyes.” I come to appreciate those who love me enough to speak a word of caution to me knowing that they risk losing me. I believe that “open rebuke is better than hidden love.” I realize that even the humblest of God’s servants can be my teacher. I quit defending my position and I stop my self-justification. Basically, I shut up and listen, even if it hurts.
If we are unwilling or unable to be instructed, why do we need elders? What would they do with their time? I think this may be why God has sent us so very few, if any.
What’s the cure? The crucifixion of my pride.
That’s not an easy thing to accomplish. I’m open for suggestions. Anyone?