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Friday, December 10, 2010

A Question Regarding the So-Called "Prophecies" of Holy Elders


Below is a long question to an important issue that I think troubles many Orthodox Christians. This is why I have published it in its entirety, together with my brief reply that I hope many find helpful, though it is by no means exhaustive on this subject.

Question:

Hello, my brother John!

This entire email is, actually, just one long question. I have tried to sum it up and present the issue in the way which would be the easiest to understand. However, the answer to the question will probably be much shorter than the question itself.

I thank you for your effort in advance. If you are not sure about this, I would like very much if you could pass this question to a priest or theology professor whom you respect. I am a Serbian Orthodox, and in my experience it is very difficult to find an answer to this kind of question in our Serbian Church (SOC). Most older priests are not well educated in theology, and younger priests who graduated from the Theological faculty in Belgrade tend to take a position which is, in my opinion, too liberal.

1. HOLY ELDERS BARSANUPHIUS THE GREAT AND JOHN THE PROPHET

I found on your blog excerpts from the book of spiritual advices from Saints Barsanuphius the Great and John the Prophet: http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/02/saints-barsanuphius-great-and-john.html. I assume that you have the whole book either in Greek or in English. I have it in Serbian language. If you don’t have the book, I can translate the questions and answers which are relevant to this issue, but since I assume that you have it, for now I will simply point to the relevant questions.

Question 379 involves a person who asked an elder whether a certain thing will happen or not (he asked for a prophecy). However, certain things happened because of which the person began to doubt the words of the elder. In his reply, Saint Barsanuphius said, among other things (my translation):

“If, however, the brother does not believe that God speaks through the mouth of the one (elder) who he asked, he will be considered as not-believing and as the one who has already been condemned long ago.”

(This thought from the holy elder is the main reason for this email, and our position to the statement made in it is the main issue I am interested in and worried about!)

Holy elders offered more insight to this issue in other answers published close to this one – in answers number 360, 361 and especially 380. The most important messages (again, in my opinion) from these answers are:

1. that a faithful person MUST believe that the words of an elder are words of God;

2. that a prophesied event might not happen because some of the people involved in the chain of events repented after hearing the prophecy; thus God has altered His will;

3. that a prophecy might be fulfilled only in a spiritual sense, which might be contrary to what we see with our eyes – this is explained in answer 380.

2. MY CONFUSION EXPLAINED

For me, this relationship and attitude towards elders and their words can be confusing and problematic in our times.

First issue would be – are contemporary elders also infallible when asked about something? In this post: http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/01/mischievous-designs-and-problematic.html you have published an article which shows that if we get any information that a particular elder said something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he did say it. But sometimes, there is a video recording of an elder, and sometimes we have testimonies from more witnesses who claim that an elder said something in front of them (so I think that those testimonies are pretty reliable as well).

For example, I have read information on a Serbian forum that the elder Porphyrios once rebuked Elder Paisios on the issue of some apocalyptic prophecies which, allegedly, Elder Paisios had spread. This claim has at least some credibility for me simply because it is widely known that Elder Paisios was concerned about the possibility that “the number of the beast” might (some day) be on our documents, while it is also known that Elder Porphyrios wasn’t concerned about this issue at all. If this story is true, then it means that even a holy elder can make a mistake when asked about something. Now, I know that even a holy man can make a mistake if he doesn’t ask God in prayer for an answer. If he answers simply from his mind, he can make a mistake.

But the issue becomes more complicated when it involves a prophecy about a future event. If a holy elder had a vision, and we are convinced that he indeed is holy and not in spiritual deception, than what he saw must be right, right?

Sometimes, it is not clear whether an elder had a vision himself, or he is retelling a prophecy from someone else, or he simply made a conclusion based on the information which he had at the time. This last possibility – “conclusion, not a prophecy” - is especially problematic for me, because it is very hard, or even impossible, to tell the difference between the two. And if an elder is holy, I understand that he has grace and the gift of reasoning, so how can it even be a possibility that he could come to a wrong conclusion about anything? Also, I have a thought that a holy elder wouldn’t even dare to speak of future events unless he had a vision or is retelling a reliable vision. How can a holy man claim that something will happen simply because it “seems” so to him?

3. A FEW THOUGHTS FROM FATHERS DANIIL SYSOYEV AND SERAPHIM ROSE

Russian priest Daniil Sysoyev wrote an article which I only have in Serbian and I couldn’t find it for you in English. The title would be something like “Sects and heresies which behave like parasites in Orthodoxy”. In this text, he spoke against the cult of elders, stating that modern elders LIE very often. He described some truly sick cults in Russia which are lead by “elders” who are officially “Orthodox”. However, he did not speak against the well-known and respected elders, he simply pointed out that the “institution” of an elder can be misused.

I also read in a text by Fr. Seraphim Rose that spiritual guidance in our time doesn’t work in the same way as it did in the past. He wrote that spiritual fathers of the past gave answers by the Holy Spirit, while today they give answers from their experience. The consequence of this is also that absolute obedience is not required. However, I don’t know if this relates in any way to our obligation to believe in a prophecy. Also, we have a renewal of monastic life and we have holy elders once again. I don’t know if Fr. Seraphim was aware of elders like Porphyrios and Paisios.

4. TWO CONTEMPORARY SERBIAN ELDERS – TADEJ AND GAVRILO, AND MY ISSUES WITH THEIR WORDS

Two very famous elders in the contemporary SOC were Elder Tadej of Vitovnica (passed away in 2003, I think) and Elder Gavrilo (passed away some time in the late 90's). Elder Tadej is more widely known and respected throughout the Church, but apocalyptic prophecies of Elder Gavrilo are well known (there are videos on YouTube of him telling these prophecies).

A Hieromonk in the Serbian monastery Hilandar on the Holy Mountain, Dositej, was a spiritual child of Elder Tadej. He wrote to me that some people, who were not truly Orthodox, but rather spiritists, talked to Elder Tadej and told him many stories about the alleged “Beast” computer in Brussels, and similar apocalyptic stories. Dositej says that it seems that those people were convincing the elder regarding certain issues. Now, the holiness of Elder Tadej is without a question. His spiritual gifts, including gift of clairvoyance, were obvious and there are many witnesses to this (including Father Dositej). How could it be that he could be persuaded into believing stories like the one about the "Beast" in Brussels? Where is the gift of reasoning? And bare in mind that I am always looking at these issues aware of the above mentioned quote by Saint Barsanuphius: “If, however, the brother does not believe that God speaks through the mouth of the one (elder) who he asked, he will be considered as not-believing and as the one who has already been condemned long ago.”

Allegedly, Elder Tadej said, among other things (I am quoting from memory):

1. that people should avoid moving to the capital of Serbia, Belgrade, as the city would face devastation, especially in the areas close to the rivers Danube and Sava,

2. that people should not keep their money in banks as it will be lost there; rather that they should buy land in central Serbia,

3. you have probably heard of dictator Milosevic who ruled over Serbia until October 2000. Elder Tadej prophesied that Milosevic would be removed from power, but he said, allegedly, that those who replace him would be even worse than he was, and that they would bring harm to Serbia on many fields (issues),

4. that Americans will come and rule in Serbia; that it won't be bad economically, but that the people won't have their freedom, etc.

Elder Gavrilo was even more precise with his prophecies. He also said that Belgrade would suffer devastation, but he gave more detail. Allegedly, the builders had dug too much (or something like that) when the city was built and structures close to the rivers will be damaged/destroyed because of this. He said that Belgrade, because of its sins, no longer has the blessing to be the Serbian capital, and that in the future, the capital will be the small town of Kru¹evac in central Serbia. The SOC would fall into heresy/apostasy, I don't know, and only five bishops would remain faithful, etc. By the way, he also said that he saw that all people who passed away and who smoked were in hell. Elder Gavrilo's prophecies are mostly respected among people who are somewhat fanatic about the faith and who share sympathies for the Greek Old-Calendar zealots. Younger priests who I have asked about this either flat out reject his prophecies or refuse to comment on them (but I think that they just don't want to say openly that they don't believe in them).

To be perfectly honest, I have many problems with these prophecies. The described idea that Belgrade will suffer devastation simply doesn't make much sense to me; buildings don't simply collapse on a massive scale just because the constructors dug deep when making them. But what if I have to understand and accept this in a purely spiritual sense (like in answer 380 from Saint Barsanuphius)?

By profession, I am an economist. If I have to believe that banks will relatively soon go bankrupt and that the money will be lost, I will be unable to perform most of the required tasks.

Or, let’s take the political analysis. I hated Milosevic’s regime and believe the current government to be much better than his. But Elder Tadej said that this government would be worse. So I feel pressure to believe in something which goes directly against my experience. Even if taken in a spiritual sense, I don’t see how Milosevic was “less bad” spiritually then the current government (there are arguments for both sides if we question the spiritual effect of these political options).

5. FINAL SUMMARY OF MY ISSUES, FEARS AND QUESTIONS

I want to be saved, but I don’t want to be paralyzed and I don’t want my creative thought process to be limited by being forced to believe in something which wasn’t said to me personally and which doesn’t make sense to me. And this issue truly paralyses me. I got to the point where I am afraid to read anything what certain elders said, simply because I then feel that I have to believe in it, even if it doesn’t make any sense to me and even if it goes directly against what I believe in the core of my being. This truly is a double edged sword. If I refuse to believe in something what I must believe in – I will be condemned to hell; if I do believe in something which I don’t like and possibly don’t have to believe in – I am hurting my soul, freedom and this life.

What do you think is the criterion for discerning what we MUST believe in, and what we can ignore, or even say bravely: "I don't believe in that?"

Should the attitude of a contemporary Orthodox Christian to our elders be the same as the one described by Saint Barsanuphius?

How can we recognize if modern elders have grown to that level of holiness as the elders of old?

How is it even possible (if possible at all) that a holy elder analyses an issue and comes to a wrong conclusion?

Best regards,

Nemanja


Answer:

Nemanja,

This is a very difficult issue to discuss because there is so much confusion over the nature of these so-called "prophecies" coming from people who are very often confirmed "living saints". Too often pious Orthodox read these prophecies and wonder just how obliged they are to believe in them. Some however seem so incredible that it is a temptation to discredit a holy elder altogether just for making the statement.

It is interesting that when one examines the early patristic literature on the subject, there is already a tradition in place of exegetical speculation regarding the interpretation of the Book of Revelation. What is interesting is that even when one reads people who were associated with the Apostle John among the Apostolic Fathers, not even they knew how to interpret the book - and these are Saints of the Church! The Fathers however did not hesitate to offer their speculations, but it is pretty clear that most of these speculations were clearly written as speculations. Sometimes they were even honest enough to say that other exegetes of Scripture had other opinions and that they were merely offering their own. For example, some early Christian exegetes said the Antichrist had already come in the person of Nero and that everything prophesied in the Book of Revelation had already taken place. For many, this is still a valid theory, though generally these days it is accepted that though there are many antichrist's throughout history, before the end of time there will be one major Antichrist. But were these early Christian exegetes prophesying when offering their opinions about future events leading to the end of time? The answer clearly is no.

We should also bear in mind that the Book of Revelation comes with a warning in its closing verses: "For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book: If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book." From this it is clear that no new revelation of the end times can take place outside of what was revealed to the Apostles from the Lord Himself, who may I add even said He did not know the day nor the hour of the end. This verse must always be kept in mind when we read of what holy elders said about the end times.

And this leads to the next important factor when we consider general prophecies of the end times. When we read of certain prophecies, how do we know they are in fact prophecies? What is interesting to examine is that the holy elders who generally make end time prophecies are really not prophesying at all, but offering traditions and opinions. If they were in fact prophesying, they would specify: "Thus says the Lord..." since no prophecy can come about except through the Lord. When saints perform miracles, it is to God they give the glory and ascribe the power, but such is not the case when they make their so-called "prophecies". Their prophecies in fact are usually told in the middle of conversations or when they discuss some issue on paper. Some of the more gullible and simple Orthodox laity read this and think these holy ones are prophesying in the name of the Lord when in fact they aren't.

Now to get to your specific issues:

1. Regarding the advice of St. John (not Barsanuphios here), personally I have no problem with it, but it must be read with discernment and untainted by the situation of our times. In other words, one must apply the first rule when interpreting either Scripture or the Fathers - context, context, context. When an elder speaks with an individual one on one, it puts it in that specific context. When that individual is a monk, it puts it in another context. So what we have in these answers of St. John are specific answers to inquiries of a monk who is having trouble in his monastic calling understanding what it is to have faith in the words of the elders. The primary askesis of the monk is obedience to his elder in all things so as to cut off one's will entirely. Without this a monk cannot hope to survive in his monastic vocation and progress spiritually. A monk should be as one dead to the world, and by functioning by obedience they are able to avoid sin and acquire the virtues, most especially that of humility. What St. John and Barsanuphios address often in their letters is to not trust one's thoughts, but to wholly submit to one's elder in whom one has entrusted their soul.

This is basically the context of the passage you quoted. There is no supposed "prophecies" being spoken of as we know them, nor does it imply that we are to be obedient to any holy man or woman regarding these prophecies. The context is for that individual monk to be obedient to his spiritual father in order to ensure his success in the monastic life. For monastics, where one is required to reveal one's thoughts on a daily basis to one's spiritual father, this is great advice. For anyone else, this really does not apply. It appears to me therefore that you are reading St. John out of context and in fact reading much more into what he is saying than is the case, and this will only lead someone into either misunderstanding, confusion, despair or delusion.

St. John makes clear in letter 383 (your 380) that holy elders speak only that which is spiritually profitable and like a good physician should be obeyed when it comes to matters that will heal the inner man. The prophecies here are spiritual prophecies and do not apply to what you are applying it to with the so-called "prophecies" of modern elders. When authentic saints make prophecies, even if they do not come true, then we should know that God will make it so that our obedience to the elders is spiritually profitable (though it should be noted that these prophecies St. John speaks of are not end times prophecies, but prophecies regarding matters at hand in the immediate future that may not necessarily be about what is actually being asked). I will add that any other conversation, unless spoken in the name of the Lord, is their opinion. And that is not to say their opinion cannot be valued. For example, did the Holy Spirit tell St. Paul to write Timothy to drink some wine when he was sick? Of course not, but this was just side conversation, and we should remember that St. Paul very often merely only offered his opinion on certain subjects apart from revelation, which is clearly explained when he speaks of marriage and celibacy. And when St. Paul advises his listeners to abstain from marriage since the end of time was near, he makes clear that he was speaking his opinion. This is how the holy elders speak also when one examines what they say in context.

2. I'm not aware of Elder Porphyrios rebuking Elder Paisios, but I would not be surprised if this was true. It should be questioned why Elder Porphyrios did not warn us of Zionists while Elder Paisios did. Elder Paisios, like many monks, especially on Mount Athos, spoke of the end times according to the tradition that was handed down to them that goes back centuries since the fall of Constantinople (and even before). Whatever he said was really nothing new, except that he put it in the context of our times. Never did he say that he received these "revelations" directly from God, but he believed in them very much. This is why he spoke of Zionists coming against the Church, or why he advised Christians to not receive an ID card with a bar code that bore 666, or why he would speak of Constantinople being returned to the Greeks and a great conversion of Turks. The origins of the first and second come from Fundamentalist Protestant and antisemitic literature which have plagued Orthodox nations, especially in the early and mid-twentieth century, and which Orthodox absorbed thinking these conspiracies were really going on in the West as they sat secluded in their monastic cells. This is why often there really is little difference when speaking eschatology with Fundamentalist Protestants and conspiracy theorists in the West, and speaking with some holy elders in the East. This however should not discredit them, since they are not scholars or historians to be able to discern these things which take much study, though some do, but they are primarily spiritual physicians and this is what they specialize in. The problem in essence is not with the holy elders who answer questions according to their own opinions, but in Orthodox laity who ask the questions. Instead of asking about prayer, temptations, virtues, sin and ascetic practices, people are more curious about the Antichrist, the number of the Beast, and the whore of Babylon. What they don't realize is that the answer they get is merely an opinion usually based on a strong local tradition, but because eschatology is suddenly being discussed and the holy elder sees interest in this, then immediately the simplistic Orthodox faithful take the answers and make them into prophecies, which they technically are not.

3. Regarding Fr. Daniel's article, I have not read it, but I would agree that some elders do lie when they come off as being prophets regarding end time events. Once they say: "Thus says the Lord..." and then they begin to speak of a vision they had regarding an end time event, usually this will indicate a false prophet. It is difficult to speak generally about this and everything would need to be examined individually to really be able to discern where the lies are told and where opinions are being expressed.

4. As for Fr. Seraphim Rose's quote, I'm not sure where that is from, but there is much truth to it. Today thousands of people flock to holy personalities seeking advice. In reality most are just curious and they are looking for an experience. The authentic holy elders, in the simplicity of their hearts, who do not judge the intentions of men unless it is revealed to them by the Lord, see this and they have compassion. They speak freely and openly, yet I don't believe they understand the spiritual harm they do by being this way. I have seen it myself many times. They may have the intention to help, but often they only bring harm unknowingly. Many people see holy elders as some sort of occultic figure, as if their clairvoyant powers, if they have been so graced by God, are continuoulsy turned on. But this is not how such spiritual gifts work. Out of 100 confessions, it could be only one that God allows for the elder's gift of clairvoyance to work for the benefit of the hearer.

5. I am not familiar with these prophecies of elders Tadej and Gavrilo. However, they are typical of some prophecies. What these reveal is that they are not prophecies at all, but interpretations of traditions they have received which they apply to their context. This is why you often hear Serbian elders speaking of issues in Serbia, Greek elders speaking of issues in Greece, Russians about Russia, Romanians about Romania and Bulgarians about Bulgaria, etc etc. It is not that their opinions are valueless, but are they revealed to them by God? Do they say they were revealed these things from God? From what I have read, and I have read much, the answer is usually no. Does this mean they will not come true? Not necessarily, but one must be open to the fact that since these opinions are not revelations, they may not come true. Bear in mind also that these prophecies are usually very anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Jew. The reason this is the case is because these holy elders follow an international geography that is over a millenium in age. In their world the earth is divided into Orthodox Christians, the West (Papists and Protestants), Jews, Heretics and Pagans. In essence, it is a very simplistic view of the world which again shows that what they are saying belongs more to the realm of tradition than prophecy.

6. To get to your last question regarding how one can discern what is a real prophecy and what is not, I have a very simple answer. The more one avoids meditating on prophecies and the end times and trying to discern the signs of the times, the better. We have been told by the Lord to always be ready, and this should really be enough. Are we that bored in our lives that we seek excitement in prophecies? This should not be our concern. When we visit holy elders, we should not ask them about such matters. The more you open yourself to such issues, the more I can only guarantee your delusion and confusion. You will never get all the answers you want. And even if a holy elder says something, we should ignore it until it is fulfilled. I see no benefit to even discussing it. If one holy elder offers a dire warning about something, such as a cataclysmic event in your hometown within the next few months, then, as you would a doctor about a serious health issue, get a second opinion. Or if you are compelled to believe it, then fine, but one must find out the credibility of the prophecy and seek to know the details of how such a revelation came to him. Every individual case requires an individual answer, but we must always remember that no one is infallible in the Church and even our greatest saints and the apostles themselves post-Pentecost were often wrong on certain things. This is why we should be more careful about our questions than we are about the answers we receive.

With love in Christ,

John Sanidopoulos
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