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  • Writer's pictureJ. Basil Dannebohm

Don't make this weird: maintaining healthy spiritual boundaries with online 'personalities'

By J. Basil Dannebohm

"It is not the clever, the noble, the polished speakers, or the rich who win, but whoever is insulted and forbears, whoever is wronged and forgives, whoever is slandered and endures, whoever becomes a sponge and mops up whatever they might say to him. Such a person is cleansed and polished even more. He reaches great heights. He delights in the theoria of mysteries.

And finally, it is he who is already inside paradise, while still in this life."

-- St. Joseph the Hesychast

Jeremy Basil Dannebohm
J. Basil Dannebohm

Yesterday, I reflected on how being too political at the pulpit can lead a priest into pride and cause division in a parish. Another almost sure-fire parish divider is the result of the obsession of certain laity with so-called "influencers."

It's commonly referred to as a "cult of personality."

Sometimes we happen across a podcaster or a YouTube personality that says something that really speaks to us. So, we decide to indulge ourselves with more of that person's materials.

Now, at first glance that seems harmless, right?

It can indeed be harmless. If that influencer is quoting sacred scripture, the Church Fathers, or some other worthy sources, there can be merit in the material. Edifying resources aren't dangerous on their own. But adding as little as one small drop of poison can cause an entire well to become toxic.

A number of online influencers deliberately avoid having their content peer (theologically) reviewed. Likewise, they rarely seek the input of their spiritual father (assuming they have one) as a means to discern whether or not the message they are broadcasting is healthy. When this occurs, the influencer tends to twist the words of scripture and the wisdom of the fathers to suit his narrative. As I mentioned in a previous commentary, St. Jerome warns us, "A false interpretation of scripture causes the gospel of the Lord to become the gospel of man, or worse, of the devil."

Taylor Marshall and Michael Hichborn, fear-mongering 'influencers' with little regard for facts.

One thing that often draws a subscriber to an influencer is that they perceive the influencer to have some sort of deep spiritual knowledge or a profound relationship with God. Hence, the subscriber believes that the influencers words must be full of grace.

In reality, however, knowledge of theology doesn't equate an intimate relationship with God. Therein lies the problem. Many of these influencers spend all of their time appeasing a social media audience, leaving them little time for authentic prayer and contemplation.

His Eminence, Metropolitan Saba Esper tells us:

"There is a big difference between knowing God through the work of our mind in what relates to Him and knowing Him through what He reveals to us from His Divine Energies. Knowing Him only intellectually puts us in danger of creating an image of Him that is very far from reality, because we would have deduced it through our human energies only. God is not known except through living with Him and in Him. He is a living person with Whom we share an experience of meeting, communion and life. Western theology took an intellectual tendency to approach God and thus philosophy became the main foundation of studying theology; intellectual effort became the focus in the quest for Divine Knowledge. In the East, however, approaching God remained dependent on experience and Unity with Him; the focus remained on the effort to be purified and cleansed."

Indeed, when we only 'know' God in an intellectual theological sense, we can easily fall into the trap of convoluting scripture to our liking and agenda.

However, quite often another thing that draws a "subscriber" into an influencer has very little to do with scripture of wisdom of the saints. Instead, it has to do with the influencer's personality and the propaganda that influencer is peddling.

Within both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, generally that propaganda includes fear and criticism of the Church -- specifically the hierarchs. The message of the influencer often includes passionate verbal cadence and ominous graphics, both of which are aimed at captivation and fear. In other words, a cunning way to lure you in -- some people refer to it as "clickbait."

A number of these influencers with ulterior motives use their words to paint frightful images of the future of both the world and the Church. As Metropolitan Saba mentioned, Western thought generally encourages us to seek out answers and to know what lies ahead. These influencers know this and capitalize off it (literally). But as Elder Thaddeus Vitovnica reminds us:

"We need to stop trying to guess how and what will happen. We are all puzzling over how everything will be. The Lord arranges everything in the end in a completely different way. And then what did we spend our nerves and worry about?"

One thing that frankly baffles me about both Eastern and Western influencers is that more often than not, they are converts who seem to have an ax to grind with the faith they chose of their own volition. Instead of discussing their frustrations with their parish priest or any other such healthy manner, they take to social media and angrily rant to a crowd of online strangers (enablers).

The Righteous Seraphim Rose once said:

"No matter how "right" you may be on various points, you must be diplomatic also. The first and important thing is not "rightness" at all, but Christian love and harmony. Most "crazy converts" have been "right" in the criticisms that led to their downfall; but they were lacking in Christian love and charity and so went off the deep end, needlessly alienating people around them and finally finding themselves all alone in their rightness and self-righteousness. Don't you follow them!”

Both Eastern and Western Christendom have seen more than their fair share of "crazy converts" (often self-taught) who, when things don't go "their way," move on. The Church however, is not Burger King, and contrary to the belief and aim of some movements, you can't have it "your way."

I'm reminded of the words of St. Paisios of Mount Athos:

Some people tell me that they are scandalized because they see many things wrong in the Church.

I tell them that if you ask a fly, “Are there any flowers in this area?” it will say, “I don’t know about flowers, but over there in that heap of rubbish you can find all the filth you want.” And it will go on to list all the unclean things it has been to.

Now, if you ask a honeybee, “Have you seen any unclean things in this area?” it will reply, “Unclean things? No, I have not seen any; the place here is full of the most fragrant flowers.” And it will go on to name all the flowers of the garden or the meadow.

You see, the fly only knows where the unclean things are, while the honeybee knows where the beautiful iris or hyacinth is.

As I have come to understand, some people resemble the honeybee and some resemble the fly.

Those who resemble the fly seek to find evil in every circumstance and are preoccupied with it; they see no good anywhere. But those who resemble the honeybee only see the good in everything they see.

When following an influencer, a lay person should ask, "Is this individual serving as a honeybee to my soul, or a fly?"

St. John Chrysostom tells us that "The bee is more honored than other animals, not because she labors, but because she labors for others."

So, too, should an influencer.

His words should not incite fear, nor anger. Rather, they should be thought provoking in a way that aids a soul on its journey to the Kingdom.

When a member of the faithful gets hooked on an influencer, which is to say caught up in the cult of personality, it can quickly become problematic. A certain toxic Kool-Aid is ingested that's difficult to regurgitate. Under his spell of deception, the individual becomes hyper defensive of the influencer. A sort of Stockholm syndrome manifests in the individual. This presents a challenge for both the individual and his or her priest. Often, if the subscriber's priest doesn't agree with the opinion of the influencer, the subscriber takes his leave of that particular parish in search of somebody who supports the narrative being promulgated by the influencer.

Sometimes, however, that subscriber sticks around the parish and causes trouble. The person may or may not be aware of the fact that they've become a troublemaker. So entranced by their online guru, the individual is often delusional to the fact that others don't conform to, or appreciate the opinions that subscriber is making known.

The subscriber, like the influencer, often aims to talk loud and draw a crowd. When that happens, it becomes difficult for the pastor to regain control of what has begun a toxic situation.

It's up to the faithful to assist the pastor in this effort by shutting down the subscriber or ignoring them entirely. Eventually that person will either shut up or go away.

I realize, of course, that it's imperative to make every attempt to save that person's soul. Although, sometimes that person needs more help than we can offer. Sometimes their needs are better suited for a psychiatrist than a faith community. However, should that person return to his or her faith community healed, having shaken the snares of the influencer, we must welcome them back just as the father welcomed home the Prodigal Son.

I often tell people that the end is not as near as they would like to think, hence, they must learn to cope. Likewise, we don't always need to know what the future may hold. We don't need the answers to everything. In the words of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, "It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder."

It is of the utmost importance that we never permit an influencer to somehow cloud our wonder. Be on guard and protect your soul against online toxicity. Perhaps harmless at first, it can quickly become a bitter addiction that's hard to shake.

Recommended Reading:

Once again I strongly recommend, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil by M. Scott Peck, MD and The Ethics of Beauty by Dr. Timothy Patitsas.


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