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Given the Demotion to Auxiliaries Again and Ongoing Troubles:
Fear and Trembling or Irrational Dread?

by Fr. Oliver Herbel, Fargo ND

St. Maximos the Confessor produced some of the most insightful reflections on Christology that our Church possesses. At least one point he made applies directly to us today in the midst of our ongoing ecclesiastical dramas within Orthodoxy. In his disputation with Pyrrhus, St. Maximos stated that Christ’s fear in the Garden of Gethsemane was not evidence of a division between human and divine wills. Christ’s will was always aligned with the divine will. As a human, however, he willed with fear. Yet, that fear must be distinguished from irrational dread. The latter is sinful. If Christ had had that, he would have sinned and would not have borne the Cross. Christologically, this is important because an opposition of wills would imply that salvation is not complete, for humanity would continue to exist in opposition to the divine. Yes, the divine will could force the human will only to act in a certain way, but then that still would not really be salvation, for freedom would be lost. In Christ, there never was any opposition to overcome. To those who might object that there would then be no free will in heaven, we need to remember that God is infinite and there are a plurality of goods from which to choose (another point St. Maximos makes).

My reason for raising all of this is that there is an ethical component that flows forth from this Christological observation. As Orthodox Christians, we may be fearful, but we are not to act out of irrational dread. Irrational dread occurs when we fear to the point of refusing to bear our cross. Note that the question here is not whether one should avoid all fear and trembling, and therefore all discernment, and be reckless. I am not advocating recklessness. Recklessness would be St. Peter cutting off a servant’s ear. Bearing one’s cross with fear and trembling is what one does when he or she knows something of the cost. One does not need to know it all in detail. One may not even be able to know it all in detail beforehand. That comes from feeling the nails being hammered in and the cross itself raised. This is, in fact, part of the fear, for we often fear the unknown. Therefore, when faced with situations where the right thing to do is to take a stand, not knowing the full consequences of that stand, we must bear that cross and stand. We should not be reckless and just start swinging our sword, but we should take a stand nonetheless. Taking a stand does not mean fighting every battle, but it does mean standing up for the Gospel and accepting the cross we are given.

The bishops, priests, and laity in many segments of Orthodoxy have been or are being choked by irrational dread. The examples of speaking up, even in closed meetings or private conversations, are important gasps of life-giving air, but have not yet given the life and strength needed to stand up and bear the cross, to break the chains of irrational dread. This is because some sectors of Orthodoxy display a collective expression of betrayal trauma, where one does not refuse the abuser anything for fear of retribution. In fact, betrayal trauma theory posits that a sufferer of abuse deals with the cognitive dissonance between what an authority figure should do and what he or she does by bonding with that abusive authority figure. In this way, a sufferer of betrayal trauma comes to see the abusive behavior as normal, even good.

A sufferer of betrayal trauma has been abused by a person or institution on which he or she depends. Spiritually, we depend on the Church. We need the Church to give us life from Life. In spite of this, we have a metropolitan who appears sometimes to react vindictively. The fear of Metrpolitan Philip was obvious to me at the General Convention. Yet, this is not simply a case of blaming the metropolitan, for others are in collaboration with this abuse—from people who do their best to prevent free access to microphones to those who take the microphones to those who jeer people making motions to those who shout curses from the convention floor to a bishop who thinks he found the devil in the midst of the convention to criminals who steal money and threatens priests and bishops and others. The distorted system is clearly in place. In response to this, there is often fear, paralyzing fear, that one can only best describe as irrational dread. It is irrational because only actions based on the Gospel are truly rational.

When the supporters of a person in power do not feel the need to offer apologies for their behavior but anyone even raising questions is supposed to kow tow and retract, rationality has been sacrificed. If the Church is a hospital, the AOCANA may be a mental ward. Of course, many will object that there are problems elsewhere. Indeed, there are! The AOCANA, however, suffers from a betrayal trauma in a way currently unseen elsewhere in America. Others will object that I’m not being fair, that I’m too biased, and that there are good people in this archdiocese. I may be too biased and I agree there are good people in the archdiocese, but they are being hindered by irrational dread. I know of many good priests and laity who simply are too scared even to ask questions with some persistence, much less claim that certain behaviors and decisions are wrong. A crowd stands up to critique the few voices willing to ask questions, make motions, or critique in love. Where are the others? Why have only a few spoken out?

To regain some sanity, we need rational behavior based on the Gospel of Christ. Rational behavior is not often liked by those who are mentally and emotionally unstable and irrational, but it is what is needed to right the situation at hand. Rational behavior means moving forward with a fear and trembling that does not avoid the cross. For some the cross might be great. I cannot say that a cross will be light. I can say a burden is light. When one picks up one’s cross, he or she is no longer shackled or burdened by irrational dread. He or she is no longer shackled by whomever or whatever he or she fears. This is a central Christian paradox. Unless one bears his or her cross, he or she will always be weighed down by irrational burdens. Silence must end. If there are issues and concerns not being addressed, then there must be clergy and laity who write letters and speak up. Start standing up. As more do, more will. Had Christ given in to irrational dread, he would have sinned. Let us not do so.


Fr. Oliver Herbel is a scholar and former priest of the Antiochian Archdiocese, presently serving in the OCA in a mission in Fargo ND.  The following is reprinted with permission from  his blog Frontier Orthodoxy. You can read the original  here. /





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