Ever since the Covid pandemic began, interest in the end times, the mark of the beast, and other similar themes has increased. Considering the lack of stability in many societies in the world today, it’s not surprising. When we Christians see cultures decline, economies sink, and governments become more hostile, we often conclude: We’re in the end times!
The conclusion is not ridiculous. We place a great deal of trust in worldly institutions. If we had a healthy childhood, we looked to our parents for stability and safety. As adults, we do the same with the government, our employers, and other important people. We seek certainty and security in a world that promises both but provides neither one. That applies to everyone across the political and religious spectrums.
Our fearful reaction to uncertainty exposes our imperfect faith in God. Sometimes when we do turn to God, it’s in a frenzied, frantic sort of way. In consequence of our spiritual confusion, we mix faith, politics, or other worldly things. Being a “good Christian” now requires others to act, think, and vote like us. We’re quite certain God is on our side, and the world would become a more stable place if more people would join us.
Politicians have not been the only ones to promise new structures of stability. There exists a trend to follow strong, charismatic leaders who carry themselves with confidence, even arrogance. Their confidence exudes a feeling of certainty and, therefore, safety.
Still, others have turned to religion. As a priest, that’s where my primary interest in this conversation lies. But how might this religious trend be unhealthy?
Turning to Religion
Many Orthodox priests have seen a tremendous influx of visitors and new converts in their parishes. We praise God for that. But I have to admit, some of it has been weird. Some people come to Orthodoxy seeking feelings of certainty more than intimacy with Christ. They view the Orthodox Church as an anchor of stability in a rapidly shifting culture. While it is an anchor of traditional values, it is much more than that.
Joining the Orthodox Church to fulfill a need for stability or security is not good. Such a person joins us for the wrong reasons. Quite frankly, we’re not here to make anyone feel safe. Instead, we exist to help people encounter Jesus Christ. We exist to make dead people alive, transform sinners into saints, to help one another pick up our crosses and follow our Lord Jesus to Golgotha. Like St. Paul, there are some weeks we have little more to say than, “We preach Christ crucified,” a stumbling block to those looking for worldly security and foolishness to many others (cf. 1 Cor. 1:23).
Searching for Gurus
Years ago, I heard Dr. Albert Rossi say something like, “The inability to accept ambiguity is the mark of an immature mind.” Children often crave certainty, and giving them an answer, even if it’s a wrong one, will often satisfy them. As adults, we’re not doing any better. We cling to answers, even wrong ones, if they give us a feeling of certainty. That’s why people will hold to either government narratives or conspiratorial narratives with religious ferocity.
In the Orthodox world, this sometimes plays out in what could be called The Elder Phenomenon. Monastic elders are treated like Hindu gurus – we want them to grant us special, secret knowledge about the world. A monk – simply because he has a white beard and lives at an ancient monastic dwelling – suddenly becomes the ultimate authority on all theological, eschatological, medical, and scientific matters. His words often reinforce hardened opinions, and they are used as a weapon to beat others down. The teachings and consensus of the Church Fathers are sometimes ignored to seek out the latest word from the holy elders. The phenomenon reminds me a bit of my former Charismatic years. At times, I witnessed well-intentioned Christians ignore the Scriptures for the latest revelation from a supposed prophet of God.
Similarly, comments or speculations about the end times made by recent saints and elders are ripped out of their contextual setting and misapplied to today’s situation. Still others seek a monastic elder to be their father confessor because an ordinary parish priest simply isn’t enlightened enough. In all these things, people are pursuing a spiritual guru to resolve their problems rather than patiently praying through their uncertainty. It’s a sign of spiritual immaturity.
While great benefit can come from visiting a monastery periodically, such pilgrimages are not meant to replace life in the local Orthodox community. Quite the opposite. Visits to a monastery should enhance our spiritual life at home and in our local parish.
The internet has given a platform to both deserving and undeserving teachers. Due to the way social media is immorally designed, that which is sensational or divisive tends to draw in the most people. Confident, charismatic personalities are rewarded for their self-assurance rather than quality of content. Internet users are seeking truth but are being manipulated by wannabe prophets, armchair theologians, and divisive zealots.
Regardless of who the online personality is, when they sow seeds of divisiveness, discord, distrust, anxiety, doubts, frustration, or pride, then we have to remember our Lord’s words: “The tree is known by his fruit” (Matt. 12:33, KJV). I’ve had people reach out to me who have been worked into a frenzy of anxiety from listening to various internet Orthodox voices.
The Orthodox message is certainly one of inward death and bearing a cross, but such things should be done in joy and peace. If we’re filled with anxiety about the world or our spiritual life, then something is wrong. The peace of our Lord Jesus should guide us in all things, and a moment of self-evaluation, “Is this bringing the peace of Christ into my life?” can be an excellent spiritual litmus test.
Finding Unity at Home
St. Ignatius of Antioch, who died around 110 A.D., was a friend of the Apostles. He stressed the importance of finding unity with the local church community. Ignatius lived during an interesting time that had some parallels to our own. Since the death of the last Apostle (John), “Savage wolves” (Acts 20:29) were entering the churches, trying to take control while also teaching strange doctrine. To counter such influences, St. Ignatius stressed the importance of turning to the local bishop, presbyter (priest), and the deacons. On his march to his death, he wrote,
Therefore, as children of light and truth, flee from division and wicked doctrines; but where the shepherd is, there do ye as sheep follow. For there are many wolves that appear worthy of credit, who, by means of a pernicious pleasure, carry captive those that are running towards God; but in your unity they shall have no place (Epistle to the Philadelphians, 2).
St. Ignatius also tells us this about the local church community:
In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the Sanhedrin of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church (Epistle to the Trallians, 3).
Apart from our local community, there is no Church – only a vain striving to create something in our own image. That is why we must learn to sit patiently with our uncertainty, not seeking an elder or guru to resolve our problems prematurely. In another place, St. Ignatius tells us,
Do nothing without the bishop; keep your bodies as the temples of God; love unity; avoid divisions; be the followers of Jesus Christ, even as He is of His Father (Epistle to the Philadelphians, 7).
Unless your local bishop or priest is teaching some grave heresy (as defined by a great Church council and not someone on the internet), the apostolic command is for us to obey our local clergy. The Church has always been incarnational because our God became incarnate. There is no replacement for struggling side by side with our local Orthodox brothers and sisters.
By writing these things, I’m not demanding blind obedience. There’s always room for disagreements with the clergy and hierarchy on non-dogmatic issues. For example, we may disagree about wearing masks in church, but that’s a non-doctrinal issue. Consequently, we mask up if we’re told to do so, but we can politely let our dissent be known. With time, the right thing will be done. It is worth bearing in mind that, historically speaking, controversial issues have often taken the Church years to resolve. We should be patient with our hierarchs and clergy and pray fervently for them every day.
We should also bear in mind that, in non-dogmatic areas, disobedience is often thinly veiled idolatry: it’s a worship of our ego.
Where We Go from Here
Obedience is hard because it requires humility. In our sinful state, with corporations and American culture telling us we’re entitled demi-gods, obedience and humility feel unnatural. But they’re salvific. St. John of the Ladder tells us, “It is impossible for those who have not first lived in obedience to obtain humility” (The Ladder, Step 26.72). Obedience is not listening to those who tell us to do what we would have done anyway. It is “absolute renunciation of our own life, clearly expressed in our bodily actions” (The Ladder, Step 4.3).
The path of salvation for today’s Orthodox Christian has not changed the slightest since St. Ignatius of Antioch told people to cling to their local priests and bishops. We are still called to fast and pray, to read the Scriptures and the Fathers, to attend divine services locally, to receive the sacraments regularly, to not think highly of ourselves or our ability to discern the times (cf. The Ladder, Step 25.11), to serve in our local parish, to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to love God with all our heart.
If we do these things, staying out of Church politics, worldly politics, and unrevealed mysteries, then we will be walking the path of salvation. We will participate in a sane and stable Orthodoxy that is able to weather storms (both theological and cultural). There are undoubtedly serious problems happening in the world, and unfortunately, even in the Church. If I’m not careful, I easily fall into anxiety, worry, or anger when I see what’s going on.
But we must be patient in these uncertain times, and “In your patience possess ye your souls” (Lk. 21:19). The Lord has given us the Church Fathers and the Scriptures. These are more than sufficient for our salvation. We need not seek the latest word descending from the lips of a white-haired guru on a mountain, filtered through an internet Orthodox personality. Instead, “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). And in another place, “Seek the Lord and his strength, seek his face continually” (1 Chron. 16:11).
Our desire for security and certainty has an antidote, but it can’t be found on the internet. It is found in prayer, asceticism, and the sacramental life of our local church community.
Further Reading: The Arena by St. Ignatius Brianchininov is quite applicable to our situation today. Fr. Thomas Hopko called it the second most important book in his life (second to the Bible). While it was originally written as a guide to young monks, its teachings are applicable to anyone who calls himself a Christian. It discusses reading the Bible, the Church Fathers, finding a spiritual guide, the dangers of pride, developing the virtues, etc.
Image Credit: Getty Museum. It comes a book of the Hours created for a young lady named Denise. Death is portrayed in front of her with several corpses at its feet. Denise prays and contemplates plagues, the sword, and many things that make life so brief in our world. The contemplation of death can rescue us from trying to use the Orthodox Church to bring us certainty and temporal safety in this world. Instead, it strengthens us to embrace repentance at the thought of our mortality.