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The Spiritual Father:
Spiritual paternity in the light of Orthodox Tradition
by the Reverend Simeon P. Koutsas, Metropolis of Nea Smyrni, Athens.
A Publication by the Sacred Metropolis of Kalavryta and Aegialia, Aegion 1995.
Re-published, from: http://www.myriobiblos.gr/texts/greek/koutsa.html
In the ancient Church, where the faithful (almost the majority) received Baptism at a mature age, the spiritual father for a Christian was the ecclesiastic pastor that would catechize him, provide him with the baptismal sacrament and then proceed to lead him into the in-Christ way of life. Nowadays, when almost everyone is baptized as an infant, the spiritual father of a Christian is oftentimes not the same priest that baptized him, but the one who at some point in time led him into believing consciously and then directed him towards a consistent Christian way of life.
The example of the Apostle Paul allows us to perceive the mystery of spiritual paternity in all its spiritual splendour. Paul is the spiritual father of the Christians of Corinth, as well as many other cities of his time.
When addressing the Christians of Corinth, he writes (in 1 Cor.4:14) : "I do not write these things to reprimand you, but advise you as beloved children of mine. For even if you have ten thousand teachers in Christ, you do not have many fathers; for I have begotten you in Jesus Christ, through the Gospel."
Paul, therefore, to the Christians of Corinth was not simply their instructor and teacher in Christ; he was their father. He was the one who had given spiritual rebirth to them. He was the one who introduced them into the family of the Redeemed. His apostolic heart was ablaze with his love for his spiritual children. That in-Christ paternal love was the motive power behind his apostolic concern. He longed to transfuse not only the Gospel to them, but also his soul (1 Thess. 2:8). He struggled painstakingly to form Christ within them (Gal. 4:19). He never ceased to advise "each one individually" and "with tears", in his desire for their spiritual edification and their stabilization in the in-Christ way of life. (Acts 20:31, Ephes.4:12-16).
This Paulian perception of the content and the significance of spiritual paternity permeates the whole of Orthodox spiritual tradition. Saint Simeon the New Theologian, one of its most genuine bearers (whom we will be frequently referring to), wrote the following to one of his spiritual children: "We conceived you through teaching, we underwent labour pains through repentance, we delivered you with much patience and birth pangs and severe pain and daily tears" [Epistle 3, 1-3). As we can see, spiritual birth is compared to natural childbirth and, just like the latter, the former likewise entails three stages: conception, gestation and labour.
For a better understanding of the role of our spiritual father, we are also enlightened by two other images that we frequently encounter in the texts of our holy Fathers. The first one is the climb up a steep and rough mountainside. He who attempts such a climb for the first time, must necessarily follow a specified path; he must have a climbing companion and guide who has been up that mountainside before and knows the way up. That is precisely the role of a spiritual father: an experienced climbing companion and guide on our spiritual path, our in-Christ way of life. The second image is from the realm of physical training, the realm of athletics. All those who train in any athletic sport whatsoever are in need of an experienced guide, their trainer, who will introduce them to the secrets of that sport and will guide them meticulously during their period of training. Analogous is the mission of the spiritual father: having acquired experience himself on in-Christ living, he then undertakes to initiate his spiritual children.
As time passed and the institutions of the Church developed, likewise the institution of spiritual paternity took root and developed. The place where it was especially cultivated was, naturally, the desert. The place of monasticism. And as in the case of other elements, so did this institution spread and permeate the spiritual life of the entire Church.
We are all familiar with the terms that we encounter in ascetic literature: "Abba" and "Elder" or "Geron" in the Greek equivalent and "Starets" in the language of our co-believing Russian brethren.
«What is that which prompts someone to become an Elder? How is he instated and by whom?» This question was posed by one of the most noteworthy theologians of the Orthodox Diaspora - Bishop Kallistos Ware - in order to highlight the character of spiritual paternity in the answer that he gives ("The Kingdom Within", Akritas publications, Athens 1004, p.117). From this answer of his, I shall convey his more basic positions:
father or Elder is essentially a "charismatic" and prophetic
personality, who has undertaken that ministry with the direct
intervention of the Holy Spirit. No human hand ordinates
him, only the hand of God. It is the Church's expression of an
"event" and not the Church's expression of an institution.
Although the mystery of Confession is definitely a suitable opportunity for spiritual guidance, the function of an Elder does not relate to that of a confessor. An Elder provides guidance, not only during a person's confession, but also in many other cases. It is a fact, that while a confessor must always be a Priest, an Elder can be an ordinary Monk...
But, if an Elder is not ordained, nor instated by an act of the official hierarchy, how does he reach the stage of undertaking such a ministry?... Within the continuing life of the Christian community, it becomes apparent to the faithful people of God - the true guardians of Sacred Tradition - that this or that person has the gift of spiritual paternity or maternity. Then, with a free and unofficial manner, people begin to approach those persons for counsel or guidance.» ("The Kingdom Within", Akritas publications, Athens 1004, p.117-119)
We would need many hours if we were to describe the person of the spiritual father, the way that it surfaced from within our age-old ecclesiastic tradition, and to enumerate the individual charismas that characterize a genuine Elder. We shall therefore very briefly touch on two of his most essential charismas.
The first is perspicacity and discernment, «in other words, the ability to intuitively penetrate the secrets of another's heart; to comprehend the secret depths that the other is not aware of. The spiritual father sees beyond the conventional gestures and habits with which we hide our true personality from the others - and even from our very self. And beyond all these trite details, he conceives the unique person - the one that was created in the image and the likeness of God. This power is a spiritual one and not a physical one; it is not a hyper-sensitive perception, nor is it a sanctified divination, but a fruit of Grace, which has the prerequisite of continuous prayer and uninterrupted ascetic labour.» (Ware, as above, pp. 126-127).
«Behold, here am I and the children that You gave to me; protect them in Your Name, shelter them with Your right hand. Lead us to the harbor of Your Will and inscribe their names in Your book... Lord, either include my children along with me in Your Kingdom, or erase me also from Your Book... » (as above, Response 99, p. 82-83).
«Brother, beseech the Lord extensively that He might show you a man, who is able to shepherd you well, to whom you will owe obedience as if to God Himself, and the things that he says to you, you should unhesitatingly heed, even if those instructions appear to be against you and harmful.» (Catechesis 20, SC 104, 334).
That same teacher in his 7th moral homily provides us with an example of a prayer with which we can beseech God to send us an experienced spiritual father:
«Lord, You who do not want the death of the sinner as much as You do his return so that he may live; Who descended for this reason to earth, so that those who are under sin and are dead because of it may be resurrected and look upon You, the true Light, as much as a person is able to see, make me worthy, send me a man who knows You, so that by serving him as though serving You and submitting myself with all my might and doing Your will within his will, be enabled to please You, the only God, and myself the sinner become worthy of the Kingdom» (Ethika 7, SC 129, pp.186-188).
A first and fundamental prerequisite is love. The bond that is forged between the spiritual father and his spiritual child is one of mutual love. The faithful responds to the spiritual father's love with his own reciprocal love. «There is nothing that can lead to learning thuswise; only by loving and by being loved» observes saint John the
Chrysostom (Homily 6, 1 on A' Timothy, PG 62, 529). Spiritual bonds are far stronger than the natural ones, and the love that springs from Christ is far stronger than the one that is inspired by blood kinship. «For what can be more desirable than a true father?» saint Theodore the Studite asks himself (To Plato 2, PG 99, 909Â), thus expressing his personal experience on his own spiritual father.
"He who has attained clear-cut faith - that is to say, trust - towards his father in God, when seeing him, he considers that he is seeing Christ, and, by staying with him or following him, he believes with certainty that he is with Christ and is following Him. One who is thus, will not desire to speak to anyone else, nor will he prefer anything of the things of this world above the remembrance of him, along with love." (Chapters, 1, 28, SC 51, 47).
Confession is one more important duty of the faithful. We trustingly confess everything to our spiritual father; not only the things we have done, but also our innermost thoughts. Saint Basil the Great urges us to "not keep any movement of the soul secret, but to bare whatever is hidden in the heart" ("Oroi Kata Platos" - Conditions breadthwise, 26, ÂÅÐÅÓ 53, 184). Nothing concealed from our spiritual father. With humility and filial trust, we should place everything at his feet. That is the only way our sins are forgiven by God. We are freed of the burden of guilt. We uproot our passions. And the spiritual father thereafter guides us safely through our spiritual life.
Everything that we outlined very briefly so far has to do with the faith and the experience of the Church on the institution of spiritual paternity, the way it evolved and developed in the past, and in fact more so in the sphere of monastic spirituality.
The question therefore that very naturally arises here is: Does spiritual paternity - can it - function in the same way today, in our era? This question is opportunely significant, and can quite easily be the subject of another, separate homily. That is why tonight you must allow me to present only certain issues that are related to our theme, which seriously preoccupy many Christians and can be categorized in what could be referred to as the pathology of spiritual paternity.
Unfortunately, this is not a rare phenomenon. Many of our clergymen - several of whom may even be endowed with charismas and abilities - become zealous for the "glory" of an Elder far too soon. Extremely young in years, still immature as personalities, inexperienced as pastors, without ever having studied near - or submitted themselves under - another, more experienced spiritual father, they advertise themselves, or they artfully strive to project themselves through their environment as new Barsanuphs or as charismatic child-Elders... They roam - according to the words of our Lord - "both sea and land, in order to make one proselyte" (Matth.23:15); in other words, they go hunting for followers. They exercise a crushing oppression on the conscience of people, supposedly in the name of an obligatory "blind" obedience to one's Elder. They cultivate an unhealthy dedication to their person.
Unfortunately - and may His Eminence permit us to point this out - our bishops are equally responsible for this phenomenon; those bishops who perform ordinations too quickly and who assign spiritual paternity thoughtlessly to those still immature clergymen.
Truly wise are the observations that the recently reposed and veritably spirit-guided Elder Paisios had made, in one of his letters that recently saw the light of publicity, after his repose. It referred to the person of the elder that a candidate monk was called upon to select. Nevertheless, his words are also helpful to us in the world, with regard to choosing a spiritual father:
"Strive as much as you can, (a) for your Elder to be a spiritual man, with virtues, and more practical rather that just a teacher. It is good, if he has become a captain after being a deck-hand, so that he won't enforce on others all the monastic information that he learnt by merely studying it, or, to have by nature immense love and discernment, so that he will ache for his children and not want to send them off to Paradise immediately, in the manner of Diocletian... It is also immensely helpful for the subordinate, if his Elder is at least eighteen or twenty years older than himself, because that will also generate a natural respect in the subordinate. (b) to find an Elder who lives a simple life, without cares and secular, redundant concerns, and who does not aspire to personal benefits, but aspires to the benefit of his subordinate's soul, and in general to the benefit of our Mother the Church." (Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain, Epistles, Publications of the Sacred Retreat «Evangelist John the Theologian», Souroti, Thessaloniki 1994, p. 43).
The duty of a genuine and experienced spiritual father is to orientate the gaze and the heart of his spiritual children towards the Person of the Lord, and not to his own person. Person-worship - whether pursued by the priest, or displayed by his spiritual child (and not rejected by the former) - is a sickness and constitutes a serious spiritual risk to both of them. Proper spiritual fathers do not project their own person, but the hyper-substantial Person of our Lord. They should not project themselves to such a degree that their "stature" looms between Christ and their spiritual child - thus obstructing it from gazing towards the Person of Christ; instead, they should stand aside, discreetly, and direct the spiritual child towards the Person of the One Who is our Redeemer.
According to Bishop Kallistos Ware: «In reality, the relationship is not bilateral, but triangular, because beyond the Elder and his spiritual child there is a third party: God. Our Lord tells us that we should not call anyone "father", because we have only one father - the one in heaven (Matth.23:9). The Elder is not some kind of infallible judge or appellate, but a co-servant of the living God; he is not a dictator, but a guide and companion on the journey. The only true "spiritual guide" - in every sense of the word - is the Holy Spirit» (The Kingdom Within, p. 139).
Saint Barsanuph says the following:
«Do not exercise pressure on (another's) intentions, instead, sow with hope; for even our Lord did not force anyone - He preached, and whoever wanted to, would listen» (Response 51 and 35, as above, p. 56 and 49).
Furthermore, we must not confuse the degree of monastic obedience with the Christians' obedience to their spiritual fathers. Monastic obedience, with regard to its magnitude and duration, differs from that of Christians living in the world. For this reason, a spiritual father is not "legally" justified in demanding - and the spiritual child is equally not obliged to provide - the kind of obedience that an Elder is entitled to demand from a monk, who is indeed obliged to obey him "to his dying day" : an obligation that springs from the monastic vows that were given during his tonsure as a monk.
Most certainly, love is often expressed with external signs. This of course also applies to spiritual bonds. Nevertheless, it requires a great deal of caution and discernment. In-Christ bonds must be distinguished by their modesty and their Doric austerity. And in order for these bonds to preserve these characteristics, a spiritual distancing is necessary.
5. Boasting about our spiritual father
«Do not boast about your teacher for his being honoured by many, nor about having many obeying you because of his name; rather, rejoice if your name is to be written in the heaven of humility» (Catech.20, SC 104, 338).
«I saw an
unproven student boasting to certain people about his teacher's
achievements, and although believing he would attain glory for
himself by tending someone else's wheat, he instead caused
himself ignominy, when everyone asked him "How is it, that such
a good tree brought forth such a fruitless branch?"» (Ladder, 4,
Attention should also be paid to another similar phenomenon. It concerns the outspokenness of our spiritual father in the presence of God. Our Fathers therefore recommend that we should not be content with it. Nor should we confine ourselves to asking them to pray for us. We have a duty to struggle with zeal ourselves, for the sake of our salvation.
To which the elder replied: «Neither shall I be charitable, nor will God, if you yourself do not strive and beseech God» (Gerontikon, i.e. The Sayings of holy elders, P.B.Paschos publications, Athens 1961, p. 2b).
6. And one final point: changing to another spiritual father
«Do not wander here and there looking for renowned monks, and do not scrutinize their life. If, by the grace of God, you have found a spiritual father, tell your issues to him and him alone» (Ethika 7, SC 129, 184).
«Let us not look for those with foreknowledge, nor foreseers, but above all, those who are in every way humble and are suitable for our ailments» (Ladder 4, PG 88, 725D).
This advice by Saint John of the Ladder reflects exactly the mentality of many Christians of our time and their futile quests, which inevitably lead them to frequent changes in spiritual father. (Cmp. Saint Simeon the New Theologian, Catech. 20, SC 104, 334).
«There are many who think that they cannot find any spiritual father, because they imagine him as a particular type of person: they want a Saint Seraphim of Sarov, so they close their eyes to those that God sends them in reality. Quite often, their supposed problems are not that complicated, and they already know in their hearts what the answer is. However, they do not like the answer, because it demands a constant and persistent effort on their part; so, they search for a "Deus ex machina" who with one only miraculous word will suddenly make everything easy. People like these should be helped to understand the true character of spiritual paternity» (The Kingdom Within, p.145).
Reverend father, dear brethren,
This also applies to spiritual paternity, an ecclesiastic institution that we endeavoured to shed light on tonight - even if only a very faint one - with the light of our Orthodox tradition. And the conclusion that is reached from this brief walk through the field of ecclesiastic tradition is:
Saint Simeon observes something that still applies in our day: Those who know how to "shepherd well and to heal logical souls" are rare, in every era (Catechesis 20, SC 104, 346).
That is why we need to exercise care when choosing. And we should pray fervently, so that God will make us worthy of such a superb gift. «With prayers and tears», writes the same teacher, «beseech the Lord to send you a guide who is unimpassioned and holy» (Chapt.1, 49, SC 51, 53) - a guide on our course for the heavenly Kingdom.
Article published in English on: 17-9-2009.
Last update: 17-9-2009.