"Meletti" - On the Question of "Gerontas" or Spiritual Elders and the Problem of Guru Cultism
Oct 18, 1998
By Archbishop Lazar Puhalo
Brothers and sisters, before we begin our usual question and answer time, I want to say something, first, about the meaning of "geronta" [elder; starets]. Sadly, in our day, perhaps more in North America than in Greece, but even in Greece, there has developed a new guru cult concept of "gerontes." Alas, this cultish idea is actually cultivated by many self-styled and even acknowledged "elders." Gerontes or elders, many of them self-appointed and self advertised, others acknowledged by monastic establishments, have begun to act and be looked upon like the Hindu gurus, and this may be linked in part to the all-encompassing New Age Movement. In English, we call this a "cult." It means that people have begun to have a "proskynisis" [worship] for the "geronta," that comes parlously close to idolatry, but often even passes over the border into real idolatry. This is a great danger for us in our time. One frequently encounters people who say with complete conviction, "my salvation depends on Father so and so, my geronta." Such people often even forget about Jesus Christ, because they place their hope only in some human being, and begin to make excessive and emotional claims for that person - and some of these "gerontas" make some astonishing claims for themselves, cultivating the emotional insecurities and fears, as well as the superstitions and delusions, of some of their more emotional followers. Those among them who should be easily recognized as charlatans or deluded and in plani (prelest), attempt to control and manipulate their followers and victims by interjecting into the sanctified and privileged realm of marital relations. They use confession as a tool for control, as a means of crippling people and making them dependent followers. They sometimes even ruin marriages and cause divorces by placing unscriptural and Gnostic restraints upon marital relations. Instead of counselling moderation and warning against "exotic" practices which lead to addictions, they seek to place guilt on married people for their normal and healthy heterosexual relations. This is not done in the interest of purity or salvation, but in the interest of control, in the interest of crippling people and undermining their ability to function as whole and rational Christians. This is part, and perhaps the worst part, of the violations and corruptions of the eldership which are so much a part of the general corruption and decay in the Orthodox Church today.
Nevertheless, the office of geronta or elder is an important and firmly established aspect of our Orthodox Christian life. It is very good to have somebody who has experience and knowledge that we can talk to and seek guidance from. The true "geronta," the true elder, like a trained physician, helps lead us to the healing grace of the Holy Spirit, comforting us, correcting us and strengthening us in our struggle. On the other hand, some people develop not only a superstition about the "geronta," but a crippling dependency on him, which a true and divinely inspired elder would never, ever permit. The truth is, a true geronta will teach us and impart knowledge to us but, then, he expects us to have knowledge and attain understanding. When a parent, whether father or mother, is raising a child, they try to educate the child and hope that, in the end, he or she will know more than the parent does, will be wiser and better educated and perhaps even more pious than they. We always hope that our children will surpass us in anything that is good and positive. The same thing has to apply to a true geronta: he will want you to know as much as he knows and, if possible, to excel him. The idea is to guide you toward knowledge and understanding, not to cripple you and make you dependent upon him, as some neurotic parents do with their children. Your salvation will never, ever depend on some human elder or guru. It will always depend only on our Lord Jesus Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit. A true geronta does not focus your faith on him, but focuses our faith on our Lord Jesus Christ, encouraging us to learn and to know, to understand and to grow. Blind faith is no faith, especially when it is faith in a human being.
When we serve the Divine Liturgy, before we pronounce the epiklisis, in which we call upon the Holy Spirit to change the bread to the Body of Christ, we pray that God will send down the Holy Spirit upon all of us. If we pray that the Holy Spirit comes upon all of us at this most sacred and holy moment, it means that the fullness of the "Ekklisia," [the Church] is the whole synaxis of the people of God and not only those who are standing inside the altar. It means that we are all worshipping and praying together and we all receive the Holy Spirit together.
Why and how have we become so cripple and feeble over the years that the people have forgotten that everybody, the "laos," as well as the clergy and hierarchy, are responsible for the faith, and we have left everything pertaining to faith and worship to the clergy, and surrendered so much of our personal our personal responsibilities to both gerontas and would be gerontas. To be sure, many people will go to war with the clergy and hierarchs over money and real estate and privileges, but few will take them to task over matters of the faith itself, and those things which pertains to our salvation and the integrity of the gospel. People either became so indifference or so dependent, or so "comfortable" and desensitized that when the clergy went off the path, the people forgot that, they are supposed to push them back onto the path. Sometimes, as with our old calendarist brethren, people, saw that hierarchs and clergy went off the path, but they themselves are also ignorant about the faith that instead of pushing the clergy back onto the path, they pushed others off the path, in a different direction and became a scandal themselves.
My point in all this is that we are never called upon to surrender our role and responsibilities - neither to the hierarchy nor to the gerontas. Our obligation is not to become emotional and spiritual cripples, but knowledgable and rational sheep in the flock of Jesus Christ, able to defend the faith and able to ascend to true understanding. We are all called upon to move to purification through the struggle for a clear and pure conscience, one that can stand without reproach before the judgment of the Son of God.
We have here a quandary in that we must never think that we know more than we do know but neither should we be satisfied with knowing only what we now know, nor should we think that we are incapable of knowing all that we should know, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
The "job," the duty of the true geronta is not to know more than the people know and consider the people to be ignorant dependents but to make sure that the people learn and know all that is necessary for them, land even more than he knows, if possible. Even if we know all of the holy fathers so that we could quote every word by memory, if we have the knowledge only in our head, it means nothing. We have to have knowledge and understanding in our hearts. People become very arrogant because they know Orthodoxy in their mind, but they do not have Orthodoxy of the heart. This is absolutely necessary for us. If we have Orthodoxy in the heart, then we hold the faith in peace and with love; we do not become fanatical, and we do not become hard and arrogant. On the other hand, neither do we participate in any betrayal of Orthodoxy, because we truly and clearly realize that any betrayal of Orthodoxy is a betrayal of Jesus Christ.
Thus, we have to be very careful that we examine whoever is supposed to be a "geronta" and make sure that we do not trust somebody who tries to emotionally cripple us and make us dependent on him. But, I have to say the same thing about hierarchs. It is also not a good hierarch who tries to cripple you and make you dependent upon him. It is one thing to be a leader, it's quite another thing to be a dictator. The bishop is called upon to be the shepherd of sheep, but the shepherd sometimes, leads the sheep for slaughter. So first of all, the bishop is supposed to be the shepherd and not a dictator, but he not supposed to be leading us to the slaughter, but leading us into the pasture so that we can be nourished by the food of God's Word. The pasture is not just the words written in the Holy Bible, and not just the words of the holy fathers, but the spirit of the Scripture and of the holy fathers. We must, therefore, be diligent in our time, first of all, that we do not become arrogant and think we know everything, and, on the other hand, that we do not become crippled and dependent upon our teachers and would be teachers. We must seek some reasonable balance.