The American Conservative [Washington DC]
November 2, 2022
By Rod Dreher
Evil and scandal abound in the churches today — but there is real hope
Last night at bedtime, I got to scrolling Twitter, which is stupid, and happened on stories which are hard to take, but have to be confronted, somehow.
I was reminded that I almost never hear about corruption in the Orthodox Church institution almost entirely because a) the Orthodox Church is tiny in the West, and b) I don’t speak languages used in the Orthodox world, so I can’t read their media. This Catholic twitter account @tomsdigest shows up on my Twitter feed so often that for a very long time I assumed I was following him. Only last night did I realize that I wasn’t, so I started to follow him, and my timeline blew up with really interesting news and commentary by him about issues related to Catholicism and other churches. It was there that I found this Romanian news documentary about wild financial corruption in the Romanian Orthodox patriarchate, complete with hidden camera footage of Patriarch Daniel’s men making dirty deals and admitting that the patriarch had been in the Securitate. If you watch this, turn on the subtitles:
I was told years ago by someone in a position to know that in the Orthodox Churches, ecclesial corruption usually has to do with money, whereas in the Catholic Church, it usually has to do with sex. It is all foul in the eyes of the Lord, though. One lesson I learned through a lot of pain and prayer, in the wake of the loss of my Catholic faith, was to detach myself emotionally from the institutional church. I certainly don’t deny that the church was founded by Christ, and is an integral part of our salvation process; I am not a free-church Protestant. But I also have had to come to grips with the fact that the difference between what the human institution of the Church says she is, and what she actually is, can be quite significant.
It’s a hard thing to work out, and I can’t pretend I’ve got it mastered. Let me come back to this in a bit, after I write about the other big news and commentary I got from the must-follow @TomsDigest last night. Have you ever heard of the Franciscan University of Steubenville? It’s a small conservative Catholic liberal arts college in the down-at-the-heels Rust Belt town of Steubenville, Ohio. Its orientation is towards the charismatic Catholic movement, but FUS has long been a by-word for an oasis of faithful Catholicism.
Well. The excellent independent Catholic news portal The Pillar brings the bad news. Excerpts:
“Both Franciscan University of Steubenville and its sponsoring religious order said Friday they would not comment on newly surfaced allegations, which claim that officials mishandled spiritual, psychological and sexual abuse reports from the victim of Fr. David Morrier, a former university chaplain who was convicted this year of sexual assault.
“The newly emerged allegations raise questions about statements in which the university and the Sacred Heart Province of the Third Order Regular Franciscans claimed they were not aware of sexual abuse allegations against Morrier until 2015.
“Morrier was sentenced in March to five years probation and a lifetime of sex offender registration, after he took a plea bargain on charges of rape and sexual battery.
“To avoid trial, the priest pled guilty to one count of sexual battery against a university student he is alleged to have groomed for years before committing serial sexual abuse, including multiple acts of rape.”
I remind you that we are twenty years past the Dallas protocols, which were meant to put a stop to this kind of thing. The thing is, there is no system strong enough to overcome people in authority who are determined to do evil. More from The Pillar:
The detailed allegations are part of an unfiled lawsuit, drafted by the attorney for Morrier’s victim. The suit was provided July 20 to attorneys and a mediator as part of settlement negotiations between the victim, the university, and the Franciscan province. The negotiations ended earlier this year with an undisclosed settlement.
But the draft lawsuit was sent this week to The Pillar and several other journalists, and was subsequently posted online. It has been reposted several times on social media, prompting sharp criticism of the university.
Here is a tweet that takes you to the download of the lawsuit. It makes for scalding reading. If its allegations are true — and if you don’t want to read the whole thing, The Pillar summarizes its allegations — then this priest, Morrier, engaged in the kind of sexual abuse and manipulation of this vulnerable girl that can only be described as demonic. I mean that literally. The stuff in that lawsuit is the kind of material that the Church’s worst enemy couldn’t make up. In fact, for years, many Catholics refused to believe these kinds of things because they sounded too fantastical to be true, like something a lurid 19th-century anticlerical would confect to damage the Church. But far too often, these reports were true.
If the lawsuit is correct, then FUS engaged in a long cover-up of Fr. Morrier’s abuse, and repeatedly lied to the public about the real state of matters regarding sex abuse at the university. The Pillar‘s report — seriously, read it all — explains how the shadow of cover-up goes to the religious order that owns and manages FUS. These are the kinds of cover-up allegations one was accustomed to reading about cases brought forth twenty years ago. It is truly shocking to see that a decade or more after the Scandal broke big nationwide. FUS clerical officials and their religious order were allegedly engaged in the same exact kind of lying, manipulation, and cover-up that was widely exposed back then. They learned absolutely nothing.
Garry Wills, the archliberal Catholic, is not someone I’m used to quoting, but he absolutely nailed it here: [image of tweet].
If the type is too small for you to read, let me help: Wills says that the bishops convinced themselves that if people came to believe that the Church was anything but perfect, they would doubt its message of salvation. So, for the greater good of the souls of the faithful, the bishops needed to keep all this information about molester priests and the like hidden. Theirs was not an act of malice, but of fatherly protection of the “little ones,” so that they did not stumble. That was the self-serving rationalization for lying about priests who prey on the faithful sexually, suggests Wills. I’ve been thinking about this for two decades, and I can’t come up with a better explanation for the behavior of bishops who weren’t personally compromised by sexual corruption.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to Franciscan University after this. The reports, and the lawsuit, go straight to the heart of the university’s moral leadership, revealing it to be rotten. Thus do faithful orthodox Catholics learn that one of the few places where they thought they could send their kids to get away from the impiety and heterodoxy of much Catholic higher education in America is in fact corrupt, despite its outward orthodoxy.
I tell you, one of the first illusions to fall away from me when I started writing about this stuff decades ago was the idea that the line between good and evil in the Catholic Church (of which I was a part then) passed between church liberals and church conservatives. There was no such line. You could find this corruption everywhere. In fact, as I found out personally, having been manipulated by a bad priest, the wicked will happily instrumentalize one’s willingness to believe that the sin exists only among one’s opponents in the church. In 2005, it was learning that a priest who presented himself to my wife and me as a conservative persecuted by liberals was not, in fact, who he said he was, and was actually supposed to be suspended from ministry, that caused my wife and me to realize once and for all that we cannot trust the institutional church, or ourselves to be able to figure out who’s lying and who isn’t. And that ended up causing all our capacity to believe in Catholic claims of authority to bleed out. It was simply no longer possible for us to continue. Our faith was being destroyed.
This is all part of God’s judgment. A Russian friend from Moscow, a conservative churchgoer, once told me that Americans like to think of Russia as having a religious rebirth, but it’s really not true. He said that only four percent of Russians are in church on Sunday, and that Russia is probably twenty years behind the US in terms of accepting the moral dissolution that is at the core of Western popular culture. As regular readers will recall, I was told by a number of faithful Polish Catholics that their country, once rock-solid in its Catholicism, is headed the way of Ireland’s apostasy. This is an extremely hard thing for someone like me, who came of age in the era of John Paul II, to accept — but if you hear it often enough from the most faithful Catholic believers, you realize that it must be true. The churches — Catholic, Orthodox, and otherwise — ought to be a bulwark against this evil, but as we are discovering now, it’s just not so, at least not as we thought.
It’s an incredibly painful and difficult thing to realize that you really cannot completely trust ecclesial authority — not Catholic, not Orthodox, not Protestant (I trust that you have followed the scandals in the Southern Baptist churches).
So what does one do? I am an Orthodox Christian, and my faith today is not really challenged by revelations like that about the Romanian patriarch. Why is that? Because I also know that the corruption of the clergy does not negate the truths proclaimed by the Church (at least not the core ones), and I have learned how to deal with this internally, in a way that protects my faith. In fact, this is what all Christians have to learn how to do. Denial only makes it worse.
This research I’m doing for my next book, about re-enchantment, has been a great booster of my faith, in fact. It makes very clear that God is real, Christ is real, and that the holy work of the Church (churches) continues despite the corruption of the clergy. Miracles abound! They really do. The spiritual battle between light and darkness is a very real thing; it’s just that the battle lines are not always where we think they are.
I’m coming to understand that this book I’m working on might be more important than I realize, because it is going to present evidence and argument for the truth and the reality of Christianity, despite the horrific failures of institutional churches. Believe me, my faith has never been stronger than it is now, and it all has to do with the things I’m learning through my research, and the things that I am living through (specifically, trying to hold on to hope amid the wreckage of divorce). I write about this stuff all the time on Rod Dreher’s Diary, my subscription-only Substack; I don’t write about it much here, because most of what I’m learning is so religious/spiritual that it seems inappropriate for a news blog like this. It will all come out in the book, though.
I’m writing about stories like the young Italian man I met in Barcelona a few years back, who told me of his own miraculous conversion. He was raised in Rome, in an atheist family. One day when he was an older teenager, he was walking around Rome with his buddies, when a homeless man approached him, greeted him by name, told him that he (the homeless man) had been waiting for this moment, and then proceeded to tell him his sins. The mysterious stranger told him that Christ was calling him — then the man walked away, and disappeared. It rocked the teenager to the bottom of his soul. Eventually he converted to Christianity, and get this: he witnessed to his entire family, and they converted too.
That really happened. That happened as surely as the abuse and cover-ups happened. What do we do with that? One does not negate the other, you know.
I will also be telling the story of Kevin Becker, an unassuming young American I met a couple of years ago. Kevin took a bad fall that left him comatose, paralyzed, and if he survived, highly unlikely to recover, or even regain consciousness. Here’s how he looked back then:
After meeting Kevin, I wrote a blog post about his story. From that account:
He was in the coma for nine days. During this time, he dreamed that he was living alone in his old house with a new roommate named Giorgio; all the other roommates were gone. Giorgio wouldn’t let him leave the house, telling him simply to be patient, that he wasn’t ready to go out yet. After Kevin emerged from his coma, he told his parents about the “angel” who had been with him in his coma dreams.
Finally Kevin’s mother showed him an image of the Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a 20th century Italian who died in 1925. Frassati was an avid mountaineer and devout Catholic living in Turin. Though he was from a well-to-do family, Frassati was passionately devoted to the poor of his city, and immersed himself in work for them through the St. Vincent de Paul Society. He also advocated for social reform. When he died from a sudden onset of polio at the age of 24 — it is believed he caught the disease visiting the slums of Turin — Frassati’s parents were shocked to see throngs of Turin’s poor turning out on the street to tell him goodbye. They were rich people who had had no idea that their son was spending so much time and money on helping the poor of their city.
When Frassati’s coffin was opened in 1981, his remains were found to be incorrupt. Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1990, following the verification of a miraculous healing attributed to his intercession. If the Vatican can confirm a second miraculous healing attributed to Frassati’s intercession in heaven, he will be canonized as a saint.
Which brings us to Kevin. When his mother showed him the image of Pier Giorgio Frassati — a man Kevin had never heard of — Kevin said that was his angel, the man in his dream.
Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati is not well known in the US. A family member had sent the prayer card image to Kevin’s family in the hospital, urging them to ask Blessed Pier Giorgio to pray for Kevin’s healing. The day after they placed the image at Kevin’s bedside, he awoke from his coma. A few days later, the college kid who wasn’t supposed to live, and if he lived, was supposed to be severely and permanently disabled, walked out of the hospital under his own power, and stood in the hospital parking lot tossing a football with his brother. Later, doctors were stunned by how rapid and complete his recovery was. Medical science can’t explain it.
Here’s Kevin today, or at least on the day we met a few years back:
This really happened! There are so many stories like this, and stories with even lesser miracles, or encounters with the numinous, that nevertheless testify to the truth of what Christianity claims. As wicked as churchmen can be, that wickedness does not negate these truths, this reality — but it can most definitely obscure it!
In his memoir, the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky quotes Hermann Hesse: “Truth has to be lived, not taught. Prepare for battle!” Tarkovsky says that line could be the epigraph for his great film “Andrei Rublev.” It will also probably be the epigraph for my upcoming book. When I came to faith in Christ in the early 1990s, it was through the Catholic Church. I had a naive conservative faith in Catholicism; had I become Orthodox back then, or had embraced some form of Evangelicalism, it would still have been as a naive conservative whose faith was primarily in his head. I had been taught the truth, but had not really lived it, not in a serious way. In other words, my principles were not put to the test.
In “Andrei Rublev,” the title character is in the same situation. He’s a medieval monk and iconographer who leaves the safety of his monastery to venture out into the world. There he encounters grotesque evil, and loses faith in his vocation to iconography. How can he write icons with so much evil triumphant in the world? But by the end, he regains his faith, not by denying the evil in the world — that’s not possible — but by learning how to see through it to the truth of Christ. That is to say, he was able to be delivered from the pit of despair he fell into when his Christian idealism collapsed under the weight of the world’s sin, and to be able to affirm the goodness of Creation despite it all. As Tarkovsky explains in his book, “Traditional truths remain truths only when they are vindicated by personal experience.” Tarkovsky says that “the artist cannot express the moral ideals of his time unless he touches its running sores, unless he suffers and lives these sores himself.” Well, I am not an artist, but I think what the filmmaker says about art here is also the challenge facing Christians today.
We live in a time of falling away, of the lifting of the veil in apocalypse. Christians of past eras were shielded from these truths, for better or for worse. As hard as it is to bear these stories like the ones from Romania, and from Steubenville, we are better off knowing the truth, so we can deal with it — not only for the sake of healing those hurt by the Church, but also for steeling our own faith. It has taken me a long time, and much prayer, contemplation, and even suffering, to reach a point where, like Andrei Rublev, I can affirm Christianity’s truth in spite of the evil and corruption. I have lost almost everything in my life that mattered to me, except for my faith — but this excruciating experience has purified my faith and strengthened it. It has made me know — not just believe, but know — that without Christ, I am nothing. I would have been destroyed morally and spiritually a long time ago.
It has been just over five years since I published The Benedict Option, and I am even more convinced of its message now than I was then. If you haven’t read it, please put behind you the foolish claims that I urge people to head for the hills and hole up in a compound, or something. Rather, the general argument is that if Christians are going to keep their faith in this increasingly anti-Christian world, then they are going to have to ground that faith in something much more visceral and disciplined than the way most of us live today. It is going to require going deep into the faith, spiritually and intellectually, but also developing spiritual discipline, and building small communities. One of the most important lessons I learned from reporting Live Not By Lies is the value of small communities in keeping people tied to the faith under Communist persecution. For various reasons, normal Christian life wasn’t possible, but it was also extremely difficult to live out your faith in isolation. Believers would come together in small groups for prayer and fellowship, to keep their eyes on Christ through the thick black smoke of the day’s deceptions. What would you do if you had reason to believe that your priest or your bishop was an informer for the secret police? This was the reality that Christians of all churches faced under Communism. Many of us find it difficult to trust the institutional churches today, and for good reason, but think about what you would have done had you cause to believe that your pastor was an informant? A friend of mine who was a source for Live Not By Lies, and who reads this blog, told me that back in Prague, as a college student, he was almost shattered when he discovered that his priest was on the payroll of the StB, the secret police.
There is nothing that we in the West are going through, with regard to mistrust of the clergy and the institutional churches, that believers struggling under Communism did not go through, usually at a more intense level, because their liberties and even their very lives were on the line. Here is a story from Live Not By Lies that testifies to the power of a small group of committed believers. He talks about how he joined a small prayer group in Moscow, led by Alexander Ogorodnikov:
Viktor Popkov was one of the disillusioned young Soviets who had found his way into the tiny Christian movement of the time. I sit down with Popkov, an Orthodox Christian, in a kitchen in central Moscow. In the early 1970s, Popkov had no interest in faith. “I was just living in a swamp, trying to find just a little piece of dry land on which to stand,” he says.
Nothing was real about life under communism. The state’s control was total. What led Popkov to seek fellowship with Christians was reading The Stranger, the celebrated 1942 novel by Albert Camus, the French existentialist. Though Camus was an atheist, the novel compelled the young Russian living in an atheist state to look for Christ.
“The question stood before me: What is the point of living?” he tells me. “If Christ is real, what is that supposed to mean for me? That was my point of departure from Soviet life—and I know a lot of people who found similar points of departure.”
Slowly, Popkov felt himself drawn to church. The local Orthodox priest didn’t want to talk to him. If the government found out that he had been speaking to a potential convert, the priest could have been sacked. Popkov heard through the Moscow grapevine about groups of people coming together to talk about Christianity. Unfortunately, if he heard about it, the KGB usually had as well.
If you came to the meetings anyway, the KGB would pressure your parents and teachers to dissuade you from the faith, Popkov remembers. It was hard to deal with, “but at the same time, you gain experience of a different life. In this experience of faith and this encounter with Christ, you receive a new feeling, and you know that you would not go back to how you used to be for anything. You are willing to endure anything they throw at you.”
“You can’t really prepare for it,” he went on. “To have a living connection to Christ, it’s like falling in love. You suddenly feel something you haven’t felt before, and you’re ready to do something you’ve never done before.”
Popkov, Ogorodnikov, and others from the prayer group eventually ended up in prison for their faith. The had met Christ, in part in the fellowship of other believers, and this encounter gave them new life. Notice well that all of them were Orthodox Christians (and still are), though Communist persecution meant that they couldn’t have a normal relationship with the Church. That did not cause them to repudiate the Church, but rather to figure out new ways of living out its truths under duress.
This is the way for us today. I’m not just talking about in a time of persecution, which I am sure is coming, but also in this current time of disillusionment. A middle-aged German Catholic I met in Rome told me back in 2018 that he and his Catholic friends have accepted that the institutional Catholic Church in Germany would probably collapse in their lifetime. It has already collapsed morally in many places, and this moral collapse will become an institutional one, eventually, they believe. They are not panicking, though; they are making plans now to continue Catholic life in this coming time of trial. Forming strong networks of true believers is a key part of their strategy.
When I watch that video about the corrupt Romanian patriarch, I am grieved, but my faith is not shaken one bit. I have been to the liturgy in Romania, and had fellowship with faithful lay Christians there — men and women whose faith is luminous. I have been to the monasteries in Bukovina, and found there sources of true spiritual strength. Does the corruption of the patriarch negate these realities? Not at all! Nor, though, does the holiness within Romanian Orthodoxy negate the evil done by corrupt churchmen. Somehow, we have to figure out how to live within this paradox. This past spring, I wrote about my trip to Romania, and to the monasteries. Excerpt:
In our conversation, I shared with [the Abbot Melchizidek] a particularly painful cross that I have been carrying for some time — having to do with the nostalgia for the happy family I thought I was returning to when I moved back to Louisiana in 2011, and the acute sense of exile I have had since all that collapsed in 2012. He encouraged me to stand strong under its weight, and never to doubt that God can work through my sacrifice for the good of many. He said, “Brother Benedict, do you really think that you can do the kind of work you do in this world, and not attract the attention of the Devil?”
His point was that in the mystery of our life in Christ, God sometimes allows suffering for the sake of overcoming evil. If God himself was beaten, humiliated, and nailed to a Cross for our salvation, we who follow Him should expect no less — and we should follow His example, and bear up under the weight.
The revelations about the patriarch are a cross for the Romanian Orthodox. The revelations about Franciscan University of Steubenville are a cross for the Catholics. All of it is a scandal for Christians the world over. The days of an easy walk of faith are over, if ever they existed. I offer to you this passage from my Romania visit, in which I spoke with Father Chrysostom, a monk:
I sat next to Father Chrysostom, and asked him about how he came to monastic life. He is 42 now,but when all this happened, he was in his mid-twenties. He said:
I was a theologian. I was a very nice Christian, so to speak. I was fasting, going to church, I was working in the radio station of the church. I was somehow well-behaved. At a certain point, I think it was in 2005, I felt that there was something missing. The missing stuff was huge, because I was not able to feel God. I entered into what I call a depression — it was clinically diagnosed. I didn’t take any medicine, but as a theologian, I was trying to solve my problems theologically, but it didn’t work. I exhausted all the possibilities in the practice of my faith, but not inside my soul. I remember it very well.
I remember it very well. I was inside a cathedral. I had to make a small radio story of the divine liturgy. It was St. Demetrius’ feast day. I was talking about God, but I was empty on the inside. I was at the point where I didn’t think God existed. I was talking to Him, but he was rather absent. He was not doing the things I expected him to do. It was my last chance. I made a decision that was a radical one. I said to God, “If you exist, please do something, because I’m going to lose myself.”
Then it was like in The Matrix, when everything stopped. Then I heard something like a voice — not in my ears, not in my brain, not in my heart. It was filling the whole universe, and consumed my entire existence. It told me to go to a particular spiritual father.
That spiritual father told me how to meet the living God. Because I was meeting an idea, a ritual. I do believe that these things are important – knowing things about God, and being together in a ritual. We need ritual to meet the other. But I was only on there. But this spiritual father helped me to meet the living God. And it was … simple.
“What did he do?” I asked.
The usual thing, making confession. And he was telling me how to make things interior. For example, I was going to the services of the church, and doing my prayers. I told the spiritual father that I was going through a tough period. I mean, this experience didn’t solve things. It was nothing magical. That spiritual father told me, okay, you’re telling me these things, like a normal person, but what are you telling God? Are you talking to him like a living person, as a You. I asked him what’s the use of the akathists [a kind of formal prayer], then? He said those are training exercises, but they’re not the real thing. He taught me how to pray, and how to meet God.
The other important thing he taught me is that I don’t have to get rid of the state I was in. God is not solving things, but he is somehow giving value to them. I discovered that depression might be a very good friend of mine. It helped me see in a straightforward way the reality of the world.
I had lucidity. From that moment on, I was no longer impressed by anything, unless it had something significant to say to me. So I became a monk.
“You made that sacrifice,” I said.
I don’t consider this a sacrifice. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I was forced, somehow, into this. You know the saying of St. Maximus, that God has three wills: the good will, the will when he’s trying to help you solve things, and the third will is when he’s leaving you alone. That’s terrible, because you are there with your will all alone. God somehow put me in front of a mirror and said, ‘OK, this is who you are.’ It was terrible because I went to the theological school because I loved God. Since childhood I had wanted to be a priest. So it wasn’t a sacrifice, but I did accept somehow that there is a message, a meaning in all this. Being in a bad state of mental health is somehow a blessing. It was a blessing, and it is still a blessing, because my depression is still there. But it can be a friend.
I’m a spiritual father, and I’ve noticed something very strange. The vast majority of young men and women coming to me for advice are struggling with the same things I was struggling with a long time ago: depression and a lack of meaning. When we are 24 and 25, we finish college, and don’t know what to do. A lot of them are seeking direction for their life, and it’s very easy for me, because I have been there. I tell them what happened with me: that I searched for spiritual guidance, and was on that path in a very strict way when, I’m convinced, God sent me to that particular person.
A second thing that happened to me: I was in Jerusalem, and in the morning I was at the Holy Liturgy in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I am not a good friend of the early morning, but it was very early. There were Russians, Greeks, Romanians, Muslims, Catholics, Copts, and all the people in there. And I was judging God: if we are the right faith, the right confession, why couldn’t you give to us this sacred place? One of the consequences of my conversion was that I was becoming very strict. God told me, in the same way as the first time, ‘I’ve been struggling for many years to bring them together, and you’re judging me?’ I realized it was the only place on earth where everybody is in there together around God, even if they’re fighting each other, they are there with God. So I’ve learned nuance.
After that visit, when I came back home, I received a spiritual gift of guidance, which is not something you ask for. It’s important when you have people coming to you not to be very strict with them, but to understand them, and help them to become more than they are when they come to you.
It’s up to God to change them. We have to help them. They’re coming to us, and waiting for us to say you’re okay like that. They like that very much. But when you say to them that they can be more than that through God, they pull back.
This is especially true with the young men. When you first meet them, they’re somehow excited to meet the living God. But then they get frightened. They somehow feel that God is pushing on them, is taking away something from them. It’s important for us, the guides, to be with them, even on this path.
“Do you think that mysticism plays an important role in helping people believe that God is real?” I asked. I brought up the sociologist Christian Smith’s view that young Americans will never be re-converted through moralism. Or, I would say, rational argumentation.
“The mystical theology of the Church of the East,” he said. “Our theology is mystical. It’s about meeting God. It’s not about performing the sacred.” He went on:
There are three temptations Christ had at the beginning of his mission, from the Devil. And at the end of his mission He had three temptations, which are still our temptations in the Church today. In the first one, they asked if we are allowed to give money to Caesar. Christ says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” This is important, because in the Church, we tend to be too close to Caesar, not to God.
The second temptation came from the Sadducees, from the woman who had seven husbands. The question was, who will be this woman’s husband in the end? Christ said you don’t know God. You don’t know the Scriptures. God is beyond the law.
The third is when the Pharisees say, “Which is the greatest commandment?” Christ tells them, and then tells them to go do it
So the three temptations of today’s church are: the law — formalism, you know, incense, colors, which are important, but not the main thing. The second is thinking that you are saved because you know a lot of things. And the third is when the Church is too involved in politics.
We have our mind connected to Christ — our nous, not our analytical mind — so for us it should be simple to see where society is making bad choices. The Church should be like a prophet. The prophet is the one who sees the will of God beyond everything else. The young people are coming to the Church to see this spirit of prophecy, which is giving this mystical way. We don’t have that spirit in the Church today, because we are too caught up in formalism; we know things. The spirit of prophecy gives you this mystical way. It’s not an intellectual way, and it’s not even an aesthetic way.
The holy hermits who lived their lives in the forest didn’t have a Byzantine icon to venerate. We have to be careful not to make idols of everything that is beautiful. We even make an idol of mysticism.
The most threatening thing to the modern mind is the Person of God. He’s not a force that we can manipulate by magic. The Holy Eucharist is sometimes seen as a magical thing, through which we can manipulate God. He refuses to go there. He is a person as I am, and He decides when He will meet us. He is a Person too, just like we are. It’s not the case that we can perform some sacred rites, and God will come because He is impressed.
“Why are people unable to sense God’s presence today?” I asked. “What can they do to open their eyes?”
Because they are afraid. God’s presence is something terrible. Something special. It’s not something easy to cope with. When you meet God, you know you can no longer be as you were. Father Nicolae Steinhardt was a Jew who converted in prison. He talked about how after his baptism, he had a vision. He said that after his vision, he could no longer think evil about others. That’s what the presence of God does. It’s something very difficult to cope with, because you have to change, and people really don’t want to change.
It’s typical also for our relationships. We meet somebody, and we like them, but we want them to change, not us. We don’t want to create the world together. Loving each other is not looking at each other, but to look outward in the same direction. To love each other is to create something from the same experience. It’s the same way with God. To live with God is to look in the same direction, and to create together.
We don’t do this because we are held by our sins, but mostly by fear. We don’t like God as He really is. We prefer God to be like an idol. When I was studying theology, I used to wonder why the God of Israel was always so bothered by idols. Idols are the things that are keeping us away from who God really is. It’s not the statues; it’s the concept. It’s the things that I think about, the things that I revere. My way of seeing the world. But when I have to sacrifice this to see the world as God sees it — that’s very difficult.
I asked Father Chrysostom if he ever experienced a miracle, aside from the one that led to his deeper conversion.
After that experience, everything looked like a miracle. I would be eating, and it seemed like a miracle. I could sleep, which was very rare — for more than four or five months prior to this, I couldn’t sleep properly. I had eating disorders, things like that. It’s hard to say. For example, I had an accident with my foot, and I was reading a book about the spiritual fathers, and asked the Romanian St. Paisius to heal my foot. I woke up in the morning and it was healed. I went to the doctor, and he said this was a very serious injury, how were you healed? I told him it happened during the night. But I’m not making a big deal about this, because miracles are less about outer things, and more about inner things. If a miracle doesn’t transform you, it is still objectively a miracle, but to me, it’s not really a miracle.
In fact, it’s something normally to avoid, because it could create in you the sense that you are special, that you somehow deserve it. If the Lord is a Person, and he gives me a gift, it’s not because I deserve it, but because He is showing me love. So the perspective is somehow different. So I’m not looking for miracles. If they are coming, then I’m thankful for them. It’s a miracle that I’m at this monastery, that I met Father Efrem, and Father Lucian [a young priest who was with us that day].
“Do you think that Western people today have barriers that keep them from seeing things of the spirit?” I asked. He told me a story about a mother who overheard Father Chrysostom talking about his struggle with depression in a conference. Later, she brought her adult son to see him. The young man had been suicidal, and none of the priests she had brought him to before, and none of the prayers they had said, had any effect.
But after talking to Father Chrysostom for fifteen minutes, the young man started on the road to recovery. That’s all it took. The monk added:
If you need something, search for it. This mom was not searching for me because I was the giver of solutions. I was a patient who was struggling, just like her son. We became friends. I didn’t promise him anything. I didn’t tell him that he would be healed. In fact, this is the healing process. He met the Christ who was not a judge, but a healer.
This is the way. One of the great gifts Orthodoxy gave me was to break my intellectualism, and the false relationship I had with Church authority. To be clear, Orthodoxy is very much NOT against authority! But its approach to Christianity is more experiential than theoretical. Practicing the Orthodox faith for the last sixteen years, I have learned that Orthodoxy is a Way with an institution attached to it. If one of the institutional leaders is revealed to have been a bad man, that does not negate the Way, though it can trick us into losing our path. Because of my experience with Catholicism, and having to come to terms with my own failings in the loss of my Catholic faith, I practiced Orthodoxy in such a way as to not be scandalized by the failures of the clergy and the institution. If you learn to see the Church — the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Protestant churches — not as ends (not ever as ends), but rather only as means to the end that is a transformative encounter with the living God, then you will be better prepared for things like what’s happening at Franciscan.
I’ll leave you with this. It’s the Orthodox icon of the Transfiguration:
It’s the event in the life of Christ in which He went up to Mount Tabor, and met with Moses and Elijah. His disciples Peter, James, and John were with him, and fell down in fear when they saw the Lord bathed in light, and meeting with the prophets.
If even the disciples fell down when confronted with a vision of the Lord’s true holiness, what can we expect of ourselves? If we saw Him as He really is, don’t you think this would happen to us? It seems to me that we need to live in such a way that we don’t fall down, so to speak, when evil is apocalyptically revealed in the Church, but rather go to our knees in awe when holiness makes itself known to us. Put another way, unlike when I was an immature Christian, I can bear revelations of evil, because I have spent so much time meditating on the reality of radical holiness. When I think of the Romanian Orthodox Church, I don’t think about corrupt patriarchs, but about the monks I met. When I think of the Catholic Church, I don’t think about abuser priests and those in authority who covered up for them, but rather of the Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, and Kevin Becker. Don’t get me wrong here — you can’t defend the holiness of the church by saying that wicked priests are somehow not part of the Church. They are. Christ told us that the weeds would grow up amid the wheat. But what you can say is that the holiness of the church’s founder, Jesus of Nazareth, the second person of the Holy Trinity, is so immense that even his own disciples fell down when they caught a glimpse of Him in His true glory.
This is the truth hidden from direct perception of our eyes. It is a truth that is further obscured by evil clerics, and all the evils of the world. I do wonder, though, if I were on Mount Tabor, and saw Jesus for who He is, what would happen to me, given my many sins. I mean, I would hope that I would meet Jesus as both judge (who revealed my hidden sins and brokenness to me) and healer (who removed them from me, and brought me to wholeness). This is what the Christian life is. This is what we have to keep our eyes on. I hope this new book I’m working on will help people find that Way, as researching it is helping me in this arduous passage of my life.
One more thing: Mosfilm has placed some of its catalog on YouTube for free — including “Andrei Rublev.” It’s over three hours long, and quite an experience, but I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s one of the greatest works of cinematic art ever — and a powerful statement about the nature of art and faith.
UPDATE: A Romanian friend, and reader, writes:
I just read your post on TAC about the corruption in the Church, namely, in the Romanian Church. I would have preferred a more complex commentary, but since you redistributed a “documentary” on the subject, I urge myself to write o shorter reaction.
1. You must remember that in the East and specifically in the orthodox countries there are connections between state and church that are not similar to those in USA. It’s a long story that has a modern version of it, but those connections are not, per se, corruption or submission to the state. It’s a different context. That being said, it is a vulnerability, but as I said, a more complex discussion is required on the matter.
2. The so-called documentary, “Clanul Marelui Alb”, simply does not make justice to what a journalist investigation and documentary must be. It’s a combo of a hit piece and PR stunt, but make no mistake: does not bring to the fore not even a single documented and attested fact of corruption of the so called “Marele Alb” (that is The Patriarch Daniel). It’s what we call in romanian “vrăjeală”, „fonfleu de presă”: nothing serious, unproven allegations, fallacious logic, but well done mis-en-scene. In fact, it was largely considered an epic fail.
3. The producers of the documentary are what you can call the anticlerical branch of the new online media. Mostly with not so transparent financing (talking about corruption?), those guys have clearly a bias towards The Orthodox Church. Believe me, Rod, there are problems, some huge, in my Church, but those guys, so-called journalist investigators, are trying for years to find something compromising about the church and they just keep failing.
4. What’s the idea, then? Well, returning to nr. 1 issue: the complex context of the church-state relations in Eastern Europe. The stake is to reduce or cancel the social and public influence of the Church so as to make it more vulnerable and more controllable. I’m not a fan of the present patriarch, but I must say that he is not submissive in front of the state, but rather the avoiding type. Apparently that attitude is not so much and of course is not the ideal situation, but in cases like education, family, anti-church Covid restrictions and others this can make a difference.
UPDATE.2: Another Romanian writes:
I’d like to reinforce what your previous correspondent said concerning the “Clanul Marelui Alb” story. In the Romanian Orthodox world, no one took seriously the so-called “sensational breaking news” of that hidden camera press story concerning the employees of the Romanian Orthodox Church Patriarchy, as there is nothing really illegal or immoral that the footage shows: those bits and pieces of dialogue are simply framed into a tendentious light by Recorder – a leftist, radical progressive, and overtly anti-clerical organization that attacked on many occasions the Church. When they released that story, one year ago, they were very upset that the Patriarch was not urging Christians to get the Covid boosters. There is no real issue related to the funding of that Cathedral, nor with the funding of the Church in general, not even to the auction – the Church cannot be obliged to organize auctions for its projects and construction works, as it is not a State-owned organization.
I repeat, the devout Orthodox Christians did not pay too much attention to that story, because, in fact, it did not show anything truly problematic, based on solid facts; there were no solid facts there – just speculations and allegations that, combined with the subversive angles of the camera, created the illusion of something fishy that was going on – in fact, there was nothing fishy with those particular topics. It was a press scandal just because the progressive media turned it into a scandal, and the radical leftist influencers rolled out and exaggerated the story, without any real proof or evidence of “systemic corruption.” As your corespondent said, there are indeed underlying issues with the Romanian Orthodox Church. But this is not a good example and does not tell anything about any real issue – it is just (another) “red herring” thrown by the radical leftists in a context where they were dissatisfied with the Church’s attitude concerning a “hot topic” (as in many other similar instances) and were most likely trying to force the Patriarchy to change course and embrace the left’s agenda.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming—as well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life.Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.