When I was inquiring into Orthodox Christianity, I (and the group I was a part of) became convinced early on that we needed a staretz, an elder of profound holiness and insight to guide us. At the time, it made perfect sense. In the milieu from which we came, sincere earnestness was the primary—if not the only—indicator we had to spiritual vitality. And since we were an intensely earnest bunch of enquirers, we seemed to ourselves (although we never would have actually said this) to be spiritually alive to such a degree that normal guidance from just any priest would certainly not be adequate for us. We thought we were a special case, but the staretz never came.
After our community had been Orthodox for a year or two, we began to experience a lot of strife among the leaders of the community. The “system” of relationship, leadership and decision making that had created our community and led it to Holy Orthodoxy began to crack. From my perspective, the crisis was perhaps most acutely precipitated by the events leading to the death of our great friend and head chanter, Dn. Timothy. Suffice it to say that our new milieu, the Orthodox Church, provided ways of thinking about conflict and loving those who succumb to weaknesses of various sorts, ways that our community’s leaders did not equally recognize or appreciate. And then, of course, there was the bishop.
We were the first large group of converts that Bishop Joseph had received into Holy Orthodoxy. He had only been in the United States for one year, his English skills were still developing and he was completely unfamiliar with American Evangelical sensibilities. This was a recipe for misunderstanding and confusion if ever there was one. And still no staretz came. Misunderstanding and accusation bloomed like a red tide. Quickly factions emerged. It’s a funny thing about factions in a community: you don’t really have to be on anyone’s “side” to be on someone’s side. The very fact that you don’t vociferously defend (or accuse) the villain (or hero) of the moment makes you a de facto member of one party or another.
The most painful few years of my life were these years of trouble: wishing, hoping and praying for a holy man who could speak definitively and clearly, who could draw a line in the sand so that we could know which was the right side to be standing on. But the staretz never came. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that God did not confirm our delusionary self importance; rather, he let it self destruct. There was no right side or wrong side. There was no line to cross or not cross, as is the case with almost all conflict in the Church (and it’s that “almost” that makes conflict in the church so difficult to negotiate). There were only confused and frustrated people who wanted earnestly to do the right thing; and that earnestness itself was part of the delusion that needed to be purged, along with the assumption that the right thing was anything more than to love one another.