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August 3, 2021

The impregnable fortress of orthodoxy (II)

Naturally, the official theology is more democratic and leaves the doors open for anyone, but de facto monks and nuns are the privileged of Orthodoxy. The Orthodox church is extremely clerical, but also extremely monastic. All bishops have monastic background. The major voices of Orthodox theology either have monastic background, or promote a monastic-type ascetic culture, (like Dumitru Staniloae). The great ‘prophets’ of today were monks: Arsenie Boca, Ilie Cleopa, Iustin Parvu, Teofil Paraianu, plus others, less important, but still very influential in certain milieus. The prescriptions of daily life for lay people come from monastic personalities, through various channels (often via priest-confessors, formed at the monastic school). The best sold religious books (which actually are among the generally best sold in bookshops) are written by monks. Let alone the consecrated objects sold at monasteries, present in almost all the houses inhabited by orthodox believers.

It seems the portrait of a God-loving society, faithful to its religious values. But what are the perverted effects of this incredible cultural prestige of monasticism? There are no credible alternatives to a life animated by Christian pathos. What better could hope a teenage girl wishing for ‘spiritual growth’ than become nun? Because any other existential gestures are lower in this tendentious hierarchy of virtues. Accused of ‘protestant spirit,’ all those who remind that the texts of the Gospel are not aimed at monastics, but at a much more complex humanity than the one reduced to certain ascetic practices, are promptly rebuked in the name of a crushing dominant Orthodox culture. Orthodox believers – many of them – do not live only under the influence of this monastic culture, but their interior tensions are, more than once, existentially and intellectually sterilised. Thus, it is more than legitimate making a difference between the concepts of ‘ascetic and ‘monastic,’ so they no longer overlap in favour of the latter, as well as to significantly reduce the role of monasticism in the Orthodox culture. An extremely disputable role, if we have a lucid consideration of both the history of Church and the concrete reality of today.
A second matter is the role of the priest-confessor. For those who want to observe the evolutions of the spirit in which confession was exercised, worth of interest are the studies (regarding the Catholic world, but largely applicable, in a mirror, also to the Orthodox world, especially as the post-Byzantine Orthodox rebirth that begin in the 18th Century was marked by tendencies specific to the Catholic counter-reform) of historian Jean Delumeau. But what is a priest-confessor? He is a priest that listen the confession of sins, but who also directs in religious terms the life of the person that comes to him. Merging these two practices is not devoid of ambiguities, even some significant ones. Of course, guidance cannot be reduced to strictly religious matters, because the intention of a religion like Christianity is to fundamentally change the life of human beings, using various methods, first the mobilisation of conscience. Plus, let’s not neglect the human aspiration toward thorough, even in-depth guidance.
There are confessors who even recommend whom one should marry, what bank to deposit one’s money with, what to read (or not) and what friends one should (not) have. The mystical basis of this guidance is the belief that God speaks through the mouth of the confessor. It is a different version of the ancient oracular cultures: humans need concrete guidance for their lives. With the advent of the modern world, a rival of the confessor has appeared: the psychologist. The real problem is: what are the competencies of theology graduates who implicitly become priest-confessors, especially in the context of this great confidence, sometimes blind, in their guidance? Who verifies them? Nobody, as a matter of fact. Psychologists, at least, have a supervisor. Confessors take with them to the grave not only the secrets of confessions, but also the case strategies. Which, realistically speaking, can be disastrous more than once.
But even more concerning than all these is the contempt of the Orthodox culture for ethics. Of course, the Decalogue is actual, people are advised not to steal, not to kill, not to hate, not to cheat on their spouses, not to drink in excess, not to make abortions etc. But these are just the major interdictions. Ethics refers to much more, it is about options, about valuable or efficient options and ways of life, meant to lead at spiritual growth, to cultivate the friendship and intimacy between people, or the equilibrium between the various tendencies of the human being. In the Orthodox culture there is a serious competitor to ethics: ‘the spiritual life.’
Almost like Kierkegaard, who sees the religious stage as exceeding the natural categories of ethics (following the model of Abraham, willing to kill his own son), Orthodoxy grants priority to cultivating the spiritual life, even if it leads to religious individualism, the relativisation of the sense of responsibility or disinterest for the ethical implications of the diverse human activities. The Orthodox discourse, on one hand, is moralising (which represents a twisted form of ethics), while on the other it discredits the ethics in the name of a ‘superior’ spiritual life. If a popular ‘spiritual father’ says something stupid, he cannot be opposed with the usual, logical, ethical instruments. Because his authority is above the limits of regular human understanding, and contradicting him is almost blasphemy.
Let’s imagine that the respective teenage girl actually became a nun. Could she have considered ‘from the outside,’ at a later moment, the closed culture she had joined? In other words, could she have doubted this prestige, crushing for anyone?

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