A few days ago I was speaking with a pair of clerks in a local grocery store. One of the men was in his early twenties. The other appeared to be in his sixties. We began by chatting about generalities. The conversation evolved into the elder gentleman telling the younger clerk and me about how he had worked in the former Soviet Union during the late 1970’s. The fact that an American was allowed in under the Brezhnev regime was astonishing.
That was the final period of Leonid Brezhnev’s reign, the last of the four strongest Soviet dictators. The gentleman spoke sadly of how difficult it was for the Soviet people to understand that they could perform the tasks he was teaching without constant oversight. All they needed was to follow the instructions he was leaving them.
The younger gentleman simply could not conceive of it. I told him that the reason so many Russians my age wanted a dictator like Putin was because they had no concept of what life was like without a dictator. They did not know how to exist without an authoritarian government that ordered their lives. The young gentleman understood when we told him that the current regime is little more than a continuation of the Romanovs and the czars before them. Many of whom, I said, were glorified warlords in fancy underwear.
The danger for us all is that we, like the original Christians of Kyivan Rus, will find ourselves under the dictatorship of an emperor. Whether spiritual, temporal or both. Whether that person is in Constantinople, Kyiv, Moscow or any other world capital, they present a danger to us all.
To our souls.
I knew a Boston Irish Catholic priest who used to warn people about getting a spiritual director who was actually a spiritual dictator. Watching him in action, I became aware that he was precisely the sort of person he warned against. He not so subtly dictated to his followers the behaviors and thoughts he expected of them.
Small wonder I washed out of his coterie. I haven’t been a good acolyte since I was an eighth grader in Catholic school.
Our duty to ourselves is to be wary of would-be spiritual leaders who are little more than autocrats in search of an empire. Popes and other established church leaders can be among the least of our worries when we pay close attention to their words and actions. It is the would-be popes, those in opposition, those who build or inherit worldly kingdoms which preach the gospel of wealth rather than anything having to do with honest faith, hope or charity who belong under the microscope.
America has long been a roiling pot of faithless heretics. Of men and women more interested in enriching their back pockets than the souls of those they pretend to lead to greater spiritual heights.
Then there are the imports. It’s not merely that I never liked the Dalai Lama for no discernable reason. I never liked him because he always struck me as more of a king than a humble servant leading his people through rough spiritual and temporal times. He was an autocrat. He never struck me as much of a spiritual leader until other, more truly spiritual, holy Buddhist monks challenge his privileged place in this world. Then he had to bring it down several notches.
This is not unlike American revivalists who have created their private worlds of wealth while pretending all they ever wanted was to help the ordinary people. They were — and are — busy amassing great personal wealth. They overlook, like pseudo-spiritual leaders all around the world, one basic fact.
We come in naked and we’re not taking it out in a U-Haul.
The same is true of internet spiritual teachers. Of which I am a massive failure, thank goodness. I do not have a huge following. Those who read what I write do not sit around throwing credit cards and check books in the collection basket.
I do spiritual work. When I am asked. Preferably where it can’t be seen.
I don’t have a fan base of millions. A loyal crowd of adoring followers. The thought strikes me as embarrassing. Me with camp followers? How tacky. Better to be laughed at or ignored than turned into a demigod.
Our job is to come out battling the immoral slings and arrows of the pompous and the self-righteous.
Our job is to be truly spiritual and spirited at it. We are not saviors.
A friend who died earlier this year was an incredibly passionate woman. She loved her Creator deeply. She performed acts of service which often left the rest of us speechless, including her religious superiors. Her superiors long ago gave up trying to interfere with her work. They discovered that with or without their help, she was going to help the poor, the hungry, those who didn’t have a credit card to drop in the collection basket. She would simply apologize, agree not to do help the poor knocking down the door, then return to taking care of them.
An autocrat, a dictator, could have thrown her out on her ear. Someone who professed to believe what she believed had no choice but to find ways to support her. She lived to a ripe old age while making our world a better place.
This is the work of a spiritual warrior. We are not here for the fancy underwear.
We are here for each other.