March 6, 2013

Testing the Spirits

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)

As we move towards Great Lent the gospel readings remind us that we are headed ultimately towards Holy Week and the events of Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion and death. It is striking how righteous the crowd of condemners is at every stage. They are absolutely certain that they are doing God’s work and ridding the world of a dangerous false prophet.

St. Anthony the Great
Saint Anthony the Great

Discernment, being able to rightly “test the spirits” is a deep spiritual gift, so it is not surprising that we often get it wrong. The monastic fathers of the church reflected much on this subject based on their experience. Saint Anthony the Great says that a vision of the holy ones is not agitated but occurs quietly and gently, so that the soul is filled with joy, gladness, and confidence. In contrast, assaults of the evil one are noisy and followed immediately by “apprehension of soul, confusion and disorder of thought, dejection, hatred toward ascetics, spiritual sloth, affliction, the memory of one’s family, and fear of death.” Origen says that calm and freedom are the marks of a godly decision. Pachomius says it’s absence of doubt. Diadochus points to unmixed consolation that leads to love. There is no one absolute set of criteria for discerning easily between true and false, and much of the time we still see “through a glass darkly.” But the scriptures and fathers give us some general guidelines for how to sense we are going in the right direction.

For those who wish to explore this topic further, see “On ‘Discernment of Spirits’ in the Early Church,” by Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J. (Theological Studies 41 (1980): 505-29, available online).

A Visiting Priest

The other day a young priest from Eastern Europe was visiting the chancery to speak with Metropolitan Tikhon and me about the possibility of transferring to the Orthodox Church in America. He speaks excellent English, his bishop overseas is willing to release him, he has completed all the forms we now require (including police background check and psychological evaluation), the preliminary process is well underway and this was now his second visit to Syosset.

In our conversation over lunch I was especially interested in his impression of life in the United States. He’s been here for a few months and it hasn’t been easy. No clear decision as yet for serving here as a priest (he still has to go through the process of getting a “religious worker” visa). Living in an unheated church basement in a rough section of town, away from his wife and two children. He’s heard drug deals going down and gun shots at night. But he’s also struck by the kindness he has encountered from strangers. On the plane coming over he met a Christian man (a Protestant) who invited him to his home for Thanksgiving. The man’s five brothers and sisters then each took turns inviting him to their homes over Christmas.

That is exceptional. God grant that we might become the sort of people who would do the same.