May 28, 2021

The Syndrome of Archpriest Avvakum in the Church Today

By Metropolitan Nektarios of Argolidos

Recently I received the book "The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum", published by Kedros. I had read it years ago, when it was first published, and I wanted to read it again. I had the feeling that there are some elements in common with the situation we are experiencing within the Church and especially with the upheaval brought by COVID 19.

Archpriest Avvakum was born in 1620 and died in 1682. He was sentenced to death by fire. He was a descendant of a levite/priestly family. His father was a priest, but addicted to the passion of alcoholism.

The first thing we can easily note is the trauma he suffered from his drunken priest-father, which later led him to an extreme ascetic practice. He was ordained a 19-year-old deacon and a 21-year-old presbyter, despite the canons which are very strict in terms of age. It is no coincidence that he will soon become the strict observer of the canons. And we have seen the same thing many times. The violators of the sacred canons become "canonists" and use the sacred canons as "cannons", as Saint Paisios used to say.

In his first parish, being young, inexperienced and extreme, he tried to impose his extreme ascetic practices, but the villagers reacted and expelled him. The same was repeated in the other parishes he took over. It is true that the moral collapse of the clergy and the people at that time was obvious. And this whole sad situation was combined with primitiveness, superstitions and at best with formalism. Avvakum became a member of the brotherhood "Zealots of Ancient Piety", led by Archpriest Stefan Bonifatiev.

The problems began when the Patriarchal throne was vacated. Avvakum and the brotherhood wanted Stefan to become Patriarch. Eventually Nikon became Patriarch. This provoked the reaction of the zealots and Avvakum, who reached extremes on the occasion of the reforms. Nikon attempted a liturgical reform of the Russian Church, turning to the Byzantine tradition and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchates. He corrected the liturgical texts that had many errors, e.g. the name of Christ was wrongly pronounced Ісусъ and the correct pronunciation Іисусъ was proposed, the "alleluia" should be sung three times and not twice, and the sign of the cross was to be made with the three fingers and not with two.

All these reforms were considered by the zealots as apostasy from the faith of their fathers. Avvakum called Nikon "the incarnate Antichrist" and began the resistance. He despised the Church, calling it a "robber" and arguing that "a piece of straw is better than a church".

Avvakum now embarked on an incredible adventure. Constant persecution, exile, torture. Everywhere he preached his obsession was with the "faith of our fathers" and incited the world against the "antichrist" Patriarch, against the "heretical" Church. (Every resemblance to us today is merely coincidental.) Distinguished by fanaticism and religious primitivism, He viewed God only as one who punishes and wished if it were possible "to take the gift of the Prophet Elijah and burn all the heretics."

"I am not afraid that I would cook my hands, for I would sanctify them," he writes in his autobiography. He believed that if he died he would go to stand next to God and become a "commander of the army" of God, to punish the heretics mercilessly. Thus was born the Old Believer movement, a religious community devoid of hierarchy and sacramental life and which proclaimed Avvakum a saint.

His whole life of torment was spent trying to remain faithful to the "faith of our fathers". The main thing he emphasized was the sign of the cross to be made with both fingers. This was a sign of Orthodoxy. He writes, for example, about the monk Ivan Neronov, who had first revolted against Nikon and at the end expressed his remorse:

"The poor man could not bear the many sufferings, for he embraced all three fingers and died."

It is, therefore, something to grieve, because a clergyman caused so much trouble in the Church, became guilty of schism, suffered himself, and suffered martyrdom for trivial and minor matters. And he was convinced that in this way he protected the tradition, the faith of our fathers.

The symptom of Archpriest Avvakum is not unique in the history of the Church. Especially in recent centuries it reappears in various forms. A typical example is the Calendar Reform of 1924, which was considered a "heretical deviation" and created the well-known Old Calendar schism. If the great fathers fought hard and reached the point of martyrdom for matters of faith, which were crucial for the salvation of man, the occasionally emerging "zealots of the traditions of our fathers" persist and fight for minor issues that do not touch the essence of the faith of the Church.

I do not want to dwell on specific events of recent years. We all know them. I will focus only on the issue of the pandemic, which has taken on some theological and dogmatic dimensions. It is true that COVID 19 brought to the surface many pathogens, many underlying diseases, both in the social and in the ecclesiastical space.

The pandemic that came into our lives so suddenly created great embarrassment. Neither the State, nor the scientific community, nor the Church, much less the people, were ready to manage it. What appeared from the beginning was the terrible transmissibility of the virus and the main cause of transmission was interaction. So the State was forced to take harsh measures, including the closure of churches. This had happened in the past only during periods of persecution. Next was to create division and confusion in the body of the faithful and an emotional reaction, especially among the "zealots of the traditions of our fathers".

We largely lacked sobriety, composure and we had a storm of various reactions.

The first was the resurgence of the feeling that everyone has targeted the Church, and with the occasion of the coronavirus they are trying to dismantle it. "That is why they closed the churches, that is why they question Holy Communion," etc. Known symptoms, combined with the theories of catastrophes, conspiracy theories, Zionism, the antichrist, prophecy, etc.

A second reaction was the denial of disease and danger. Denial is a human defense against a small or big risk, and psychiatry has a lot to say about it. They say: "All this is a lie, a fraud aimed at manipulating people and imposing a global superpower." It was also said: "This is a simple flu, used by the big pharmaceutical companies to get rich." When you inform them of statistics and numbers of cases, intubated or dead, they claim that all this is false information, a well-established fraud.

The medical community has given some instructions for our protection - avoid interacting, sanitize your hands and use a mask. Although for some of the citizens the use of sanitary measures was considered excessive and for many it was treated with indifference, for a large portion of the faithful it was considered an insidious blow. "Theological" theories have been developed, that the church is an antimicrobial cage and no protection measures are needed. "Germs and viruses are burned by the uncreated grace of God" etc. etc. In church you can catch a cold, you can faint, have a heart attack or stroke, slip and break your leg or arm, but you cannot catch the coronavirus. The mask, the main protection measure so far, was considered a betrayal of the faith. A purely technical, medical issue became a theological issue. To the modern-day Avvakum, it is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

I recently read with sadness about an incident that happened in a parish of Attica. A super-Orthodox man entered the church without a mask. The priest asked him to respect the sanitary provisions and the decisions of the Holy Synod. The gentleman in question did not even listen. A commotion was created. The priest had to call the police. This man paid the fine and entered the church again very provocatively and with the arrogance of the Pharisee: "God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are." Of course, he did not want to keep this "confession" to himself, but he published it on ecclesiastical websites, even showing the receipt of the fine.

A few days ago, a lady called me, a serious woman with a conscious spiritual life. She is convinced of the necessity of the measures and observes them. But in the church everyone looks at her with contempt because she is wearing a mask. And her spiritual father in her confession forbade her to commune. Not because she fell into some deadly sin, but because she wears a mask!

The vaccine also became the target of the deniers. Especially in the ecclesiastical space. Vaccines against measles, meningitis, hepatitis, tuberculosis, etc. you are allowed to take. But not the coronavirus vaccine. A myriad of theories have been circulated about chips, the use of aborted fetuses, and the altering of DNA. Revered holy elders were recruited, who are of course misinformed and they were exposed irreparably, talking about medical issues they did not know about. The Holy Synod took a very positive stance, but the deniers and modern-day Avvakums also saw here a heretical deviation and betrayal of the faith. Therefore disobey the Church that betrayed the faith! Some even said that those who are vaccinated "placed themselves out of the Church" and in order to return they must be accepted by chrismation!

In vain do serious scientists write and rewrite texts that indicate that all these theories about the use of aborted fetuses do not correspond to reality. Deniers insist and will persist.

I do not want to come off as being an expert, I just trust serious and even faithful scientists for topics that go beyond my subject matter. But I would like to ask a question that torments me: Have we thought about, as the statistics say, how all of us "civilized" people live at the expense of third world people? Have we thought how each of us "civilized" people, in order to live with basic amenities (car, refrigerator, appliances, etc.), four people will have to die from the third world? Surely a secular person won't think about this. But how can a Christian and even a super-Orthodox sleep at night without regrets?

I was recently reading the following disturbing facts.

"Today, one in five mobile phones works thanks to a mineral piece (tantalum) that has come from the Congo. In many cases the mining is done by tens of thousands of minors, of course under miserable conditions. The same goes for playstations, laptops, and even pacemakers. We are not talking about the 19th century and the famous Leopold II. We are in 2021 and we are still stealing Africans to buy cheaper mobile phones."

Have all of us who own one and two cell phones and can send inflammatory messages against traitors of the faith thought about this? I do not see any concern, no protest from the zealots of the traditions of our fathers or even from the defenders of human rights.

When the pandemic first started, even the medical community was embarrassed. Some findings may have seemed inadequate and contradictory. It is one of the arguments of the deniers: some said this, some said that. With time and continuous worldwide research, today there is a huge amount of experience to draw on. The virus is indeed dangerous, it does not consider if you are rich or poor, high-ranking or low-ranking, educated or uneducated, faithful or unfaithful.

It showed that in holy places, churches, monasteries, Mount Athos, it does not discriminate. Many bishops, priests, monks, entire monastic brotherhoods and sisterhoods fell ill, some mildly, some severely, others lost their lives. Mostly the deniers took the beating. Some, to their honor, having gone through the horrible experience of the disease, acknowledged their mistake. Others are unable to see reality. Again, they put forward defenses and excuses or their own interpretations. "So and so did not die from the coronavirus but from an in-hospital infection or had an underlying disease."

It strikes me that some monastic brotherhoods and sisterhoods do not mention the coronavirus as the cause of death of a member, but generally and indefinitely some disease. Deep down they do not want to admit the real cause, because they think that the structure of their faith will collapse! But this attitude is extremely dangerous for the health and lives of others. I know of such examples, which in many cases have created a crisis of faith in sufferers or relatives of the dead from the coronavirus.

One day we have to understand these things. Christians are not invulnerable. Like all people we get sick, we suffer, we die. Our relationship with God is not "life insurance." At our baptism we did not sign any "insurance policy" with any supernatural "Allianz". Being a member of the Church means I can be in pain, but I can also be hopeful. It is the duty of all of us, and especially of the clergy, to show this dimension to the faithful and not to lead them into a business relationship with God. Let us not give false worldly hopes, but real hope.

Once again, I will refer to the phenomenon of prophecy and miracles. It was a tool widely used by Archpriest Avvakum to proclaim false prophecies, dreams, visions, and even miracles. It's something that sells a lot in the world, especially in difficult historic times. It would be very interesting for a researcher to collect all the prophecies that circulated this year and draw his own conclusions.

I remember such a time last year, when people were embarrassed and anxious, the rumor circulated that a respected elder appeared - who had reposed - and said that in a few days the virus would disappear. Of course, it is not the elder's fault, but the sick minds of those who released it, intensifying the anxiety and frustration of the people.

The syndrome of Avvakum, forgive me, has existed, exists and will continue to exist. Personally, I am more optimistic about the disappearance of COVID-19 than about the change in the mentality of some members of the Church. The Church will continue to suffer from the occasionally emerging Avvakum, which hatches in diseased ecclesiastical settings.

I was discussing the matter with a dear fellow-bishop. He also had similar anxieties. It has reached extremes from the attitude of some clergy and laity. I quote his words:

"You will ask me, what can we do? First we must recognize that these people are also children of God, they are our flock. Whatever they do, no matter how much they react, no matter how much they accuse us, we as shepherds cannot reject them, but save them as much as we can."

I agreed. But I have to admit that the pastoral care of these people is a very difficult field and needs a lot of discernment. By their obsession with certain shapes, I would say they have found a balance. A sudden disturbance of this balance can cause a disorganization and bring the person to collapse. To lose their faith, as little and twisted as it is, and to find a meteor.

When you have mythologized some people and situations and see that you are being lied to, that the emperor has no clothes, this can lead to despair.

In the Soviet Union, a few decades ago, all propaganda was directed at the great leader, the "god Stalin." Even people who had suffered unimaginably believed in Stalin's omnipotence, in his messianism. The first shock was his death. God is dead! It was the first crack. The second biggest shock was the 20th congress when Khrushchev demystified the great leader and revealed his crimes.

It was such a shock to the delegates that after the end of the conference, some people committed suicide. And as Arthur Keistler used to say, "Nothing is more painful than breaking a myth."

I will refer to a phenomenon of the last decades, "elderism" and "elderlust". Not to be misunderstood, I consider the presence of modern holy elders as a great blessing of God, which spiritually enriches the body of the Church. Unfortunately, however, because the word "elder" sells, there have appeared many who call themselves "elders".

And people, thirsty, run to them, with criteria that are genuine and orthodox. You see, every genuine coin is in danger of being counterfeited and proven to be without value. So it happens here. These "fake elders", I believe, have done a lot of harm to people's souls. They create a clique around them, they are walled off and isolated from the body of the Church. And here the following happens. When, for example, a political party disbands, an external danger is created to hold back the followers.

The same happens in sects. The followers are being held hostage by terror, the feeling that everyone is plotting against us. Exactly the same happens to us. The "elders" to keep their followers create or discover new enemies of the Church, who plot against its existence. New Agers, New World Order, Zionists, Papists, Ecumenists, Baarlamites, bought off patriarchs and bishops, etc., etc. Thus the team feels the need to defend themselves and build a fence around themselves.

Today, they say, the great danger is COVID-19, which is used by all neo-pagan organizations to subjugate the world and destroy the Church. The mask and the vaccine are the means to an end. Therefore their denial of them is a confession of Christ! It is no coincidence that most denier "elders" have fallen victim to the coronavirus. Some died, others suffered. The bad thing is that they also got their spiritual children around their necks. One of my sufferers confessed to me that he is now going through a crisis of faith. He had believed in the "elder" and now, where are his certainties and promises?

To repeat the words of Keistler: "Nothing is more painful than breaking a myth."

I will end with a recent event. The anxiety of all of us, clergy and laity, for a long time, was whether churches would remain open for Holy Week. Various scenarios were circulating, which were exacerbated by the cases that remained high. The Holy Synod in consultation with the State reached a compromise solution. And here again the Avvakum syndrome. The change to celebrating the Resurrection three hours earlier became a dogmatic and canonical issue.

The internet lit up again. I remember the first year that Daylight Savings Time was introduced, the "zealots of the traditions of our fathers" did not agree to change the time. They performed the Resurrection at 1:00am instead of midnight. So from Old Calendarists they became Old Timers!

I wonder again: Does the timeless God hold a clock to cast lightning on those who don't do things at the right time? Do the inhabitants of the Far East, Siberia, etc., who celebrate the Resurrection a few hours before, betray their faith?

Is changing the time so serious that it causes another split? When will we understand that for God neither time nor worldly customs play a role, but rather how we will celebrate Easter. The troparia say something about repentance, about remorse, about crucifixion with Christ. In fine letters.

A lady with coronavirus told me that she suffered for two whole months in the hospital and I do not know how long she is still in the physiotherapy clinic. She said:

"The responsibility is mine. I did not pay much attention and I paid attention to what others would say. I was ashamed to wear the mask so as not to be ridiculed. Pure egoism. And I said: God will protect me. I realized that is not the case. When Christ was at the tomb of Lazarus, He did not order the stone to roll away. People could do that. He did what people could not do. To resurrect Lazarus!"

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.