We began this series by underlining the absolute necessity to develop the virtue of discernment in our spiritual lives. According to the St John Cassian and the Fathers he encountered in the deserts of Egypt, discernment is the “mother, the guardian, and the guide of all the virtues.” 1 This may come as a surprise. Perhaps we would imagine another virtue to hold such a high office or maybe we just find ourselves at a loss in regard to the virtues and how they relate to each other. Whatever the case we find ourselves in a time that requires us to revisit and grow rather intimate with the virtues we need to acquire in order to grow up fully into the maturity of Christ (Col. 1:28).
We seek the wisdom of Christ and His saints, not the accruing of data, the storing of memes, or a collection of arguments, myths, wive’s tales, conspiracies, speculations, endless genealogies (this jurisdiction is purer than yours), and other fables that give the illusion of authority, knowledge, and wisdom but that are in fact idle talk and unable to actually edify the faithful (1 Timothy 1). We do in fact need to give attention to “reading, exhortation, and doctrine” but it must be done “in love, in spirit, in faith, [and] in purity” and under the guidance and authority of the “eldership” (1 Timothy 4:12-16).
We need discernment because there are false teachers. Those who are “obsessed with disputes and arguments over words”. It is their obsession that inevitably leads to “envy, strife, reviling, [and] evil suspicions” (1 Timothy 6:3-5). Those who interact regularly within the digital halls of Orthodoxy readily admit that these characters abound. They come to us from the “right” and from the “left”. They seek viewers and readers and there are always those with “itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:2-5).
This is why we need discernment. We are to be diligent and “take heed to ourselves and to the doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:16). The royal road is narrow and few diligently find it and commit themselves to traveling that road. The royal road is sober. The royal road has few roadside attractions to draw us in and endlessly entertain and puff us up. What is more pernicious and dangerous for our soul but to be completely convinced of our opinions and those of are self curated cast of teachers who seemingly leave behind them nothing but envy, strife, reviling, and evil suspicions?
How can we discern who these self appointed teachers and authorities are? Scrutiny will aid us immensely. We desperately need to learn the asceticism of scrutiny. St. Moses quotes St John bidding us: “Do not believe in every spirit, but make sure to find out if spirits are from God” (1John 4:1).2 Becoming Orthodox does not provide us with a license to believe everyone in a cassock, with a YouTube Channel, or with a doctorate in patristics. We must constantly ask of the things we read, listen and watch, as St. Moses asks, “Has [this] come purified from the divine and heavenly fire of the Holy Spirit?… [Or] Is its surface piety something which has come down from bloated worldly philosophy?”3
St. Moses continues relaying to us about those who had undertaken the monastic life and “were won over by the glitter of words or by the utterances of philosophers, all of which as they heard them, seemed to be right and seemed to accord with religion, for they had the deceptive gleam of gold.” Once these bought into these spurious and false teachings they were “dragged back either into the tumult of the world or else into heretical error and swelling presumption.”4
Scrutiny requires true asceticism. The restraining of one’s self to not rush to conclusions, of not believing things upon first sight, and of not accepting something because of perceived authority (a cassock or doctorate). Scrutiny requires expending the time and energy to think twice, to check sources, and to weigh what is being discussed against a web of prior commitments and truths which have proven themselves to be gold and not just gold glitter. Scrutiny requires prayer, patience, and formation. Prayer is necessary to scrutiny as some things require the grace of God’s spirit to reveal and to confirm. Patience is essential as it is rare that controversial subjects make themselves readily and easily apparent. Finally, we need ourselves to be forming ourselves in subjection to a confessor, a rule of life, and the studying of Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. If we do not have this formation we need to admit that we lack the tools to rightly scrutinize and to trust those who have had hands laid upon them and hold the weight of the stole or omophorion around their neck.
Scrutiny requires us to weigh the truths of Orthodoxy versus “the utterances of philosophers” and the sources which conspire and seek after continuous controversy. If someone online is courting and encouraging you to defy your Bishop and local Priest for the sake of their particular opinions, especially in applying the added weight of the “end times”, you need to scrutinize the source. If the blog, YouTube Channel, and Twitter account is littered with extreme political parties, conspiracy theorists, and other voices which trade in creating followers and inciting rebellion and fear then you need to scrutinize this source as a possibly deceptive source. If someone trades in a supposed specialization in the dogmas of the Orthodox Church and positions themselves as authorities about the intricacies of Christology, triadology, and ecclesiology but seems to exist and live only online and not rooted within a particular Orthodox parish, then scrutiny is necessary. If someone tells you “you have heard such and such” but due to contemporary realities all of the past truths of Orthodoxy are now in need of revision, then that source should be scrutinized. If someone quotes a contemporary elder of Mt. Athos, or Romania, or Russia and leans heavily on these quotes, which are very often redacted and given without context, then this requires scrutiny. If the source trades on their authority being rooted in holiness and tradition and you do not know this person IRL (in real life) then scrutiny should be applied in heavy doses. Likewise, if someone trades on their authority being rooted in their academic credentials then you should be ready to carefully scrutinize.
To not honor those clergy and pious laity who you actually know and who have worked long and hard in the vineyard of the Lord is to opt for self delusion, self direction, and can even lead to a self imposed exile. God has given us our local priest and a local community of faith for accountability and growth, the spiritual disciplines to grow in humility and self-knowledge, and also a treasure trove of wisdom found within the Fathers to guide us safely into the harbor of the kingdom. Flashy, controversial, and excitable material found online may be just empty philosophy, solipsistic ravings, or contentious material and individuals who seek only those with “itching ears”. We have the warnings about these false teachers from Scripture and the Holy Fathers. It is incumbent upon us to rightly discern and scrutinize these sources as to whether or not they are truly gold and not just golden glitter.
Next we look to the aspect of discernment which requires us to test the logic of “pious reasoning”. What is “pious reasoning”? Tune in next time…