Last week, from Sept. 24-27, the fifth meeting of the Inter-Orthodox Network of Initiatives for Research of Religions and Destructive cults was held in Novi Sad. The article below, which I loosely translated, appeared in yesterday’s Politika, Serbia’s premier paper.
When the Spiritual Father Makes Himself the Criterion
The faithful, in their battles with temptations, turn to their spiritual fathers, the clergy and monastics, but they too can fall under temptation in abusing their call and from a spiritual father they become totalitarian spiritual leaders who seek unquestioning obedience.
When such a priest or monk places themselves – instead of God – as the measure or criterion; when they bring the faithful in constant dependence on themselves, when they begin to involve themselves in every detail of their lives and tell them when to sleep, eat, live, then they cease being spiritual fathers and become gurus, says Bishop Porfirije, Vicar Bishop of Jerag.
“Instead of this he should spiritually lead and teach the faithful to be father, friend and brother to them, someone who, above all, has love towards the faithful and spiritual children, attempts to support the freedom of the faithful so that, in going to Christ they become that which they are. A spiritual father should lead the faithful to God, and not attempt to lead the faithful to himself leading them to a completely slavish, subordinate tie to his own person, blocking the image of Christ. Such spiritual fathers have a guru mentality and abuse the authentic, healthy and sincere need of every person’s yearning towards God, for the mystical, the metaphysical,” says Bishop Porfirije.
Guruism was one of the key terms and phenomena discussed by the participants of the recent Pan-Orthodox Conference Network of Initiatives for Research of Religious and Destructive Cults, held in Novi Sad, and one of the lecturers was Bishop Porfirije. “Orthodox guruism”, even though the very phenomena of a “spiritual totalitarian”is in no way foreign to other churches and faith communities, can draw in those who look to the Church and Christianity in order to find a magical solution to all of their problems, while those who openly and sincerely approach their faith, can even turn from the Church, encountering such spiritual teachers who do not preach that which their faith essentially is, notes Bishop Porfirije.
In the participant’s review of this conference, the term guruism was not taken from its traditional, historic meaning of a spiritual teacher in the Hindu religious tradition, but in its broader meaning, connected with the idea of its activity within a manipulative sect, explains Andrei Protic from the Center for anthropological studies.
“It is about the appearance of false spiritual or ideological leadership which always uses manipulation in receiving their followers, requiring total control over them. These are sort of pseudo-religious leaders who attempt, in a manipulative manner, to make their followers dependent on them, their system of values and their ideas,” says Protic.
On the one hand, the real goal of such groups is that the leader of the movement or cult be worshiped as the only authority or source to the solution of all problems, while on the other hand is the economical abuse of the followers, points out Metropolitan Christopher of the Orthodox Church in Cyprus.
“Such cult groups, in abusing or exploiting various problems and temptations in offering people an easy, quick and successful solution, are hiding their true faces and present themselves falsely so that people would think that in such organizations they will solve their spiritual and existential problems. The Orthodox Church acts against such phenomena in three ways: first through sermons it attempts to bring to light the truth of the Gospel which has as its goal to completely build up the man and make him a free person with a perspective towards eternal freedom; then, through a studying of the contents of the teachings and the dangers which arise from such groups and through public announcements that people know what they are about. Finally, the Church also deals therapeutically, attempting to assist the victims or the families of the victims in distancing themselves from their dependency to the cults and sects and to freely, at their own pace, become more active in the spiritual life of the church,” notes Metropolitan Christopher.
It is exactly this third way, however, which can be problematic. Rehabilitation of the victims of false prophets and other “earthly gods” is very difficult and requires the organized work of a psychologist, social workers, priest and even lawyers, says Aleksandar Dvornik, one of the most renown Russian anti-cult activists and director of the Center of St. Irineus of Lyons, which deals with these phenomena.