Alfred Eaker, Contemplation, Contemporary approach to Franciscan Spirituality, Contemporary Spirituality, Ecumenical Mysticism, Eddie Russell, Flame Ministries, Fr. Justin Belitz, Fr. Justin Belitz OFM, Franciscan spirituality, fundamentalism, Justin Belitz, Justin Belitz OFM, The Franciscan Hermitage
Debunking Eddie Russell’s Catholic In Name Only Flame Ministries:
Eddie Russell fancies himself something akin to a pre-Vatican II-styled avenging crusader, taking it upon himself to expose, correct, and abuse wrong-thinking Catholics. In short, Eddie Russell is a fundamentalist extremist; the type that the late Fr. Andrew Greeley advised against arguing with. However, this is not a polemic meant to engage Russell (which, would fall on deaf ears anyway). Rather, as in with a current political leader, this is holding hostilities and aggression to accountability. Additionally, it’s a heeding against Russell’s online aggrandizing, which is anything but Catholic. His perspective, style, social media rhetoric, and antagonizing springs from fear, paranoia, and assumptions in a way that echoes the bizarre Anti-Catholic propaganda of the notorious Protestant Chick Tracts (founded by the late Jack Chick). Like that infamous fundamentalist organization, Russell’s Flame Ministries, abiding in an either/or arena, propagates half-truths to demonize what he clearly does not and chooses not to understand. Like far too many self-styled Protestant evangelists, Russell imagines himself as a super solider and self-appointed prophet for the absolute truth, narcissistically setting himself up as kind of Protestant fundamentalist anti-pope. Of course, fancying himself one of the few and elite devout 21st century Catholics, Russell would never speak against a pope, but what he spews is directly antithetical to much that Pope Francis teaches. Indeed, Francis could have been speaking of Russell himself when he warned against the dangers of fundamentalism: “In the Catholic church we have some — many — who believe they possess the absolute truth and they go on sullying others through slander and defamation and this is wrong. Religious fundamentalism must be combated. It is not religious, God is lacking, it is idolatrous.”
Naturally, Russell’s brand of idolatry has numerous targets. Among them is the famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Yet, Pope Francis doesn’t agree: “Merton remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people…Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions… with the fruit of faith which sows peace in the contemplative style. ” Poor Mr. Russell is not a man of peace and, apparently feels he knows more than Francis, lumping Merton with a group of heretics who have promoted yoga, visualization, and New Age; Oh my!
Apart from his paranoid (and unquestionably) Anti-Catholic iconoclasm, what Russell gets worked up the most up about is anything he subjectively labels New Age. That’s an ambiguous category, but essentially what Russell deems New Age is in fact very old age: Mysticism. Russell, being a dogmatist, would take issue with the likes of Hildegard of Bignen and many other contemplative saints. Merton once reflected that when people say they want a return to the early church, they do not mean the first church. Rather, they mean the medieval church. That would describe Eddie Russell and his Flame Ministries.
Among Russell’s most prominent targets is Fr. Justin Belitz O.F.M. of the Franciscan Hermitage in Indianapolis, Indiana.http://www.flameministries.org/justinbelitz.htm
Having known Fr. Belitz for many years, unlike Russell, I am not on the outside looking in-jumping to half-baked generalizations. Of course, Russell would immediately accuse me of being a Justin Belitz apologist. First; a self-styled apologist accusing another of apologetics is something akin to being childishly labeled a bigot for being bigoted against bigotry. This writing is not an apologetic. Rather, it is confronting the misguided mindset of that old song, “I don’t like what I don’t understand and it scares me half to death.” It is also setting straight some Flame Ministries half-truths.
Let me begin with Russell’s use of an alleged Fr. Belitz quote: “I think that the Christian tradition has done a great disservice to organized religion by concentrating on adoration of Jesus Christ.” ~ Fr Justin Belitz OFM. Only, it’s not alleged. Fr. Belitz has indeed said this, as part of a longer statement, which Russell intentionally (and quite manipulatively) leaves out. I’ve heard Fr. Belitz say this more than once and what Russell omits is as follows… “Not that there’s anything wrong with adoring Christ. However, we should be modeling and following Christ first and foremost, as Christ himself instructed we do.” Indeed, we get so caught up in redemption language that we forget Christ as teacher and prophet. Scripture pointedly warns us repeatedly that we must follow Christ’ example. The entire letter of James tells us that faith without works is dead and, indeed, faith without modeling Christ, renders our faith moot. The late Fr. Hilary Ottensmeyer O.S.B. once gave a homily describing a Satanic theology as one that paints Christ so beautiful, so pedestaled, so inhuman, so perfect that he becomes the quintessential Pharisee. In other words, a Satanic theology omits Christ the prophet in favor of Christ the King. Fr. Belitz was a close friend of Fr. Ottensemeyer and their teachings here are closely related, but not as Russell misleadingly and intentionally paints to demonize Fr. Belitz.
The iconoclastic Russell hypocritically uses imagery for further demonization tools and his style (or lack thereof) is blatantly in the Chick Tract/National Enquirer vain. To hammer his points across regarding Fr. Belitz’ Silva teachings, Russell insets a photograph of a goth girl, with heavy black makeup, waving her hands at the lens, something akin to a modern-day version of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. It’s so absurd as to be laughable. Russell also uses an image of a wolf in sheep’s clothing to paint Fr. Belitz as a vile occultist. Despite these cheap Protestant fundamentalist styled tactics, Russell has the chutzpah to call himself a Catholic.
In addressing Russell’s demonization of Silva as a mind control straight from the pits of hell, he reads mind control as an outside force (namely, the Silva Method and Fr. Belitz) as taking control of a helpless victim’s mind. Again, Mr. Russell jumps to the assumption of an outsider looking in. Rather, Silva gives tools to help one control their own mind. Essentially, Silva uses scientific language for something very simple-it teaches the importance and vitality of emotional intelligence, which in this day and era, is sorely needed. It also teaches contemplation detached from doctrine or dogma, which is also essential today.
We cannot throw a blanket over or sweep under the rug the multifarious harms caused by organized religion. Bishop Fulton Sheen was aware of this and once said in a televised homily (from the 1960s!) that all too often we (the Church) create our own prodigals through indifference, negligence, and abuses. Fr. Belitz is also aware of religious scars. For a priest who is a heretical Catholic (according to Russell), Fr. Belitz often talks of his own father who had left the Church to become a Jehovah’s Witness. With tears in his eyes, I have seen Fr. Belitz recount how his father became religiously abusive to his faithfully Catholic mother and even refused to allow his own Franciscan son to say mass at home. I’ve also seen Fr. Belitz tear up with joy when sharing how his father, on death bed, came back to the Church. That’s remarkable for a dangerous Franciscan priest, who isn’t even Catholic (again, per Mr. Russell). Ironically, the dangerous Fr. Belitz doesn’t spend his time aggressively fanning the flames of vilification online. Rather, it is Mr. Russell who does that. Of course, it is a given that CINOS (Christians In Name Only) hate their hypocrisy being called out probably more than anything else.
Silva, and even more-Fr. Belitz’ Success: Full Living, Success: Full Thinking and (especially) Success: Full Relating are meditational gateways for everyone, including prodigals harmed by religion. As an artist, I personally prefer Belitz’ own teachings over the science language heavy Silva, and, as a onetime prodigal, I needed an entry point that wasn’t a dogmatic one.
Having grown up in an abuse-laden Pentecostal fundamentalist church, I recognize Mr. Russell’s likeminded fear-soaked brand of proselytizing, judgments, and demonization. It did not surprise me at all to read Mr. Russell painting himself as a charismatic. Like many of the charismatics, he bypasses much in scripture and hones in on the day of Pentecost (with his own private interpretation, which St. Peter warns against) along with apocalyptic doom and gloom. It was because of attitudes like Russell’s that I considered myself a militant atheist when, as a young man, I met Fr. Hilary Ottensemeyer at an art gallery showing of my work. Strangely, a friendship developed and primarily we talked about a shared love of Beethoven. We almost never discussed religion, but when I finally breached that subject sometime later, Fr. Ottensmeyer said: “Every priest has a niche. You have a lot of hostility-I’m guessing from religious scars. That’s not my niche. That’s Fr. Justine Belitz’ niche. He’s a Franciscan. Here’s his number if you want to call him and set something up. In the meantime, we can continue with Beethoven. Fr. Ottensmeyer was once the director of St. Meinrads and he knew what he was doing. Needless to say, I went to see Fr. Belitz and through him (along with Fr. Ottensmeyer) I officially converted to Catholicism in 1992. Again, that’s remarkable for a Catholic priest who isn’t Catholic and, no, Fr. Belitz did not introduce me then to Silva, even though he taught it. As a matter of fact, I did not even take Fr. Beltiz’ Silva and Success classes until a few years ago.
I would like to add that few of Russell’s (questionable) sources regarding the Satanic Silva come from persons who actually took the classes because that’s what bigotry does- it cites other outside looking in bigots to validate their own outside looking in bigotry. Russell also refers to Fr. Belitz’ prayer groups as pseudo prayer groups. I’ve attended many of Justin’s prayer groups at the Hermitage where we actually prayed the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and offered up various prayer requests (a sick loved one, etc). As we take the Eucharist, Fr. Belitz invites us to imagine the light of the Eucharist touching every soul on the planet for world peace, which I suppose is imaging of a sort- that I would hardly call Satanic.
Further, Russell claims that Silva graduates leave, claiming to be ESP masters after yoga meditations in which participants go into a trance and read each other’s minds. I have taken the Silva course, don’t claim to be an ESPer, and not once did I, or anyone else, go into a trance or receive an invitation to read each other’s minds. Nor did we read each other’s minds at the Hermitage. However, now one person did bring in maple doughnuts, which I have a passionate weakness for. She didn’t know that from reading my mind. She merely noticed that when she brought in an assortment, I went straight for the maple. Additionally, Mr. Russell relays how Silva participants project themselves in the minds of animals, take ESP tests, and have psychic evaluations-none of which I saw or experienced. He claims that New Age spirituality is an extension of theosophy, which promotes a humanistic one world religion. Yes, because, you see humanism is such a vile thing. Regardless, these are the rantings of a conspiracist (who would fit right in with some current, secular fringe movements). All that’s missing is the claim of a potential Illuminati takeover. Besides, I’ve never viewed Fr. Belitz teachings as that ultimately vague New Age.
Now, I want to address another Russell focus: The film, Jesus and Her Gospel Of Yes because I made that film and I should know, more than anyone, what it’s about. Fr. Belitz had a small part in it, at my request. Given the flack that Fr. Belitz has received over it, I’m not sure if, given a chance to change that, I would have asked him, but my initial reasoning was a sincere one. As for the film, Russell again assumes and makes comments on a work of art, while clearly having no understanding of art. The ONLY reason I address the film is because Mr. Russell condemns Fr. Belitz’ participation in this blasphemy. First, the film is a kind of dadaistic performance art piece and I have a long history of doing performance art. Second, the title comes from the concept of the fifteenth century mystical nun Julian of Norwich who uses the phrase, Christ, Our Mother to image the maternal in Christ. Third, the gospel of John instructs: go and spread the good news. News is always new and thus should be an invitation to tell a familiar story afresh. Finally, a quote from Oscar Romero abided when I made it:
The first claim Russell makes regarding the film is that I portray Christ as a lesbian, which is a falsehood. I have one vignette, spoofing the old TV Show Love, American Style in which Jesus and Magdalene reach in for a kiss (but don’t kiss). Why? It’s one of many commentaries I make on the kitsch commercialization on Christ. After all Christ was a prophet, but one would not know that from things like TESTAMINTS (a scripture verse in every mint) and so on (all of which I spoof). I am not mocking Christ. I am mocking the hypocrisy and the vulgar commercialization of Christ by CINOS. I did that because they mock Christ in cheapening and ignoring his teachings and rendering him not much more than an income source. Scripture warns us, point blank, that these will be rejected because they did not welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked. They use the cross as a means to justify Unchristian charity (repeatedly). It’s as old as time itself.
As Mr. Russell informs, I didn’t stop there. I also addressed the prevailing downright misogynistic attitudes towards Mary in Protestant churches. In the church that I grew up in, Our Lady was shown the same respect as a prostitute. Being devout in my Mariology (my Masters thesis was on Marian art), I used a 4th century gnostic gospel, which portrayed her as such, to throw it right back at them. Yet, there are layers underneath all the confusing nonsense of 40,000 plus denominations (!) I show Christ as a woman-like her mother. Why? Because anyone who reads the Magnificat and then reads the Beatitudes KNOWS that Mary had an epic influence on Christ’ spirituality. The Beatitudes clearly spring from the womb and influence of the author of the Magnificat. Perhaps, I was too complex, too symbolic in the way I presented it, but that was my intent.
Another hypocrisy I address in the film is the western acceptance of violence and the demonization of nudity. True to form, many who saw it complained of brief nudity and said not a word about Jesus being brutally shot (in a contemporary setting). Point made and remade. I made the film to prevent myself becoming a prodigal again after I had learned of clergy abuses in the Church, which smacked too close to the church I grew up in, too close to home. Fr. Belitz knew this and not only did he consul me into not leaving the Church, but he also encouraged that art-as-therapy expression and, later, my working for and obtaining a Masters degree in theological studies. Fr. Belitz once compared me to an Augustine type in my boundlessly expansive conversion. I’m also a St. Peter type (whose conversion was gradual) as opposed to St. Paul (whose conversion was instantaneous). Fr. Belitz is astute enough to recognize this and, as Christ instructed, he patiently does his best to keep the door open. Knock and the door shall be opened. However, Mr. Russell would shut that door and lock it.
One of the great beauties I find in the Church is its egalitarianism. Fr. Belitz interprets Catholic as universality through differences. Mr. Russell interprets it as universal through subjugation. Like many self-styled super patriots (another cult), he would say something akin to: accept my interpretation of it or get out, which is inherently Anti-Catholic. Mr. Russell’s point of view is ultimately naïve and one can’t help but empathize with the poor man because we all have been locked in naiveté at different points in our spiritual promenade. However, that does not mean lying down to his many abuses. Some time ago, Fr. Belitz reached out to Mr. Russell and offered to pray for him. Mr. Russell’s response was:” I don’t want you praying for me.” Sadly, that rather sums it up.
*This article was written by Alfred Eaker. Fr. Justin Belitz O.F.M did not authorize the writing or ask it to be written. I did this of my own accord, having been compelled to.