Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Orthodoxy  and Psychotherapy


The Function of Spiritual Paternity

by Presbyter fr. Stavros Trikaliotes

Source: Transcript of the homily by fr. Stavros Trikaliotes, parish priest of the Holy Temple of Hagia Paraskevi of Attica.

Re-published by the Holy Metropolis of Glyfada, Attica:  http://www.im-glyfadas.gr/01/03/01030028.asp


The faithful are called upon to choose a spiritual guide; one who will guide them to the salvation of their soul.  This choice must not be made randomly and without careful consideration. The holy Fathers have provided us with high-level specifications for this need. Saint Simeon the New Theologian counsels us to be careful not to assign our spiritual guidance to an inexperienced and impassioned teacher who will teach us a diabolical instead of an evangelical way of life.  He then exhorts the faithful to resort to intense praying accompanied by tears, so that the Lord might send them an unimpassioned and saintly guide.  In fact, he doesn't stop there either, but also exhorts the faithful to embark on a personal study of the Holy Scriptures as well as the practical advice given by the holy Fathers, so that whatever they read may be compared to the things that their spiritual father "teaches and enforces" and thereafter, whatever is in accordance to the Holy Scriptures will be accepted by them unreservedly, whereas whatever is adulterated and foreign to the Holy Bible may be removed from their minds, so that they will not be misled. In closing, he actually quotes the following: "For there are many nowadays who have become misleaders and false teachers" (Philokalia, vol.3, p.242, Aster Publications).

Don't we indeed see many victims of such misled and impassioned spiritual guides nowadays?  Aren't there indeed many who have strayed from the evangelic and patristic teachings and have taught other people an unbecoming and schizophrenic mixture of evangelical and secular teachings, which can only confuse those people, because those teachers are themselves confused?  The Elder Porphyrios - that saintly spiritual father of our own time - used to stress that: "You should be careful which spiritual fathers you go to".  Elsewhere, he would teach in a more patristic manner: "A spiritual father's guidelines do not bear the character of revenge or of punishment, but only of edification, and they have nothing to do with the guidelines that are imposed by certain spiritual fathers during Confession, who, either out of excessive zeal or ignorance, exhaust the limits of punishment without perceiving that in that way, instead of doing good, they are committing a crime.  I always reprimand them and advise them to NOT mete out severe punishment but instead give proper advice; This is because severe punishment will only provide "him" (=the devil) with a large "clientele". Which is exactly what "he" is waiting for. That is what he is laying in wait for, with arms outstretched to welcome them, even making them wild promises. That is why serious attention must be given to the choice of a spiritual father. Just as we instinctively look for the best doctor, so should we do when looking for a spiritual father. Both are physicians; the one for the body and the other for the soul!"  (by Elder Porphyrios the Monk, "Anthology of Advices", page 338, «The Transfiguration of the Saviour» publications, Milesi Attica, 2002).

The agonized prayer to God by Hossios Simeon the New Theologian was: "send me a man who knows You".  There are many today who, influenced by the existence of contemporary far-sighted spiritual fathers, tend to seek spiritual fathers that are decorated with the gift of foresight, thus absolutizing this exceptional gift that God gives selectively, only to certain people. This tactic is an inappropriate one, as we are told by Hossios John of the Ladder in his age-old words:  "Let us not seek those (implying elders) with foreknowledge or with foresight, but at any rate, and before anything else, those with a humble mien and suitable for the ailments within us." (Ladder, p.112, publication of the Sacred Monastery of the Paraclete). A spiritual father is inspired and has as his model the Most Wonderful Advisor: God Himself.  And just as the prophets used to say:  "thus sayeth the Lord", so does the spiritual father give utterance and advice by God. The Apostle Paul exhorted the Christians of Ephesus to pray a lot, so that he might be provided with the appropriate words to say: "And pray for me, so that the words may be given to me upon my opening my mouth, so that with outspokenness I might come to know the mystery of the Gospel."  (Eph.6:19)

Saint Basil the Great recommends that one should try to find a "friend of God", whom he feels certain that God speaks through.  The spiritual father is called upon to become the instrument of the Holy Spirit. Besides, that is the reason for the term "spiritual" father; i.e., the one who is animated by the Holy Spirit; one who has himself been healed: "Physician, heal thyself" (Luke 4:23); one who has gone through the stages of catharsis (cleansing) and enlightenment of the nous and the heart by the Holy Spirit. Or, if a spiritual father has not attained these stages, at least he must be able to convey whatever the holy Fathers teach, but without any distortions or misinterpretations, as he will be accountable for each and every soul that God Himself has entrusted to him for confession.  The spiritual father's words towards each and every faithful must be crystal-clear and true, without any ulterior motives and mortal calculations. As the Apostle Paul has taught: "...for we are not like the others, who adulterate the word of God, but as ones who are sincere, as ones sent by God to speak, in Christ, in the presence of God."  (2 Cor. 2:17)

Hossios Petros of Damascus stresses that in order for someone to give counsel he first has to be asked for it, and in fact with willingness and not under duress or forcefully. We need to underline here the respect that a spiritual father has for the freedom of the person.  Confession must take place in a spirit of freedom and comfort. The person confessing is similar to a tiny blossom that requires time and watering in order to bloom. Any other method of oppression and imposition or general handling by the spiritual father that is forced on the person confessing is from the very beginning condemnable.  Confession is a deaconship performed in humility, and not a procedure of strangulation of the other's conscience.  Invisibly present is God Himself, Who is the One receiving the outpouring of the confessions of the faithful.  Furthermore, according to Hossios Petros of Damascus, in order for the spiritual father to give his counsel, he must previously have received from God the charisma of discernment and have acquired through many years of ascesis a "perspicacious nous".  When these prerequisites do exist, then "the counsel is imprinted in the soul of the listener and he is warmed by his faith in it, seeing his counselor as one who is benevolent" (Philokalia, vol.3, p.91, Aster publications).  It is the duty of a faithful (we are told by Hossios John of the Ladder) to examine and to question the ship's commander before selecting him as a spiritual father, in case he has mistakenly chosen a sailor instead of a captain, and an ailing person instead of a doctor, and someone impassioned instead of unimpassioned.  However, once he has chosen him, he must not seek to cross-examine the 'good trainer', even if he possibly observes in him -inasmuch as he too is a human being- certain minor flaws.  Differently, there will be no benefit from one's submission to a spiritual father." (John of Sinai, "The Ladder", p.67-68, publication of the Sacred Monastery of the Paraclete).

We mentioned earlier that for the process of selecting a spiritual father by the faithful, the Fathers have placed strict specifications. These specifications are indicative, and are intended to assist the faithful in becoming more sensitized in regard to the criteria governing their choice.  However, we should not go the opposite extreme and say: "well, if there are no available spiritual fathers who fulfil these specifications, then we need not go to confession at all."   A reply to this was given by the divinely illuminated Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain: "These are just excuses. Each spiritual father has divine authority, given that he wears the officiating stole. He performs the Sacrament (of Confession); he has divine Grace, therefore when he reads the blessing of forgiveness, God erases all of the sins that were confessed with sincere repentance.  The degree that we are benefited by the Sacrament of Confession is entirely up to us."  (Words of the Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain, vol.3 "Spiritual struggle", p.244, published by the Sacred Hermitage "Evangelist John the Theologian", Souroti, Thessaloniki).

The Bishop - who is the one that gives permission to a priest to be a confessor - bears the basic responsibility and he is the one who must display a special concern when choosing suitable persons for this task.  However, we are not entirely devoid of responsibility either, as we too must strive to find spiritual fathers that have the "external good witness" (1 Tim.3:7), inasmuch as they should not be immoral; they must have an orthodox and patristic spirit and not a papist or papist-prone one; they must have an unimpeachable past life; they must be serious, prudent and discreet. They must have studied alongside tried spiritual fathers; they must be merciful by nature according to the model of the Heavenly Father; in other words, be the trustees of divine philanthropy (as we are taught by Saint Gregory the Nazianzene).  They must not be neophytes in the function of spiritual paternity, but must have themselves been "toughened" accordingly, during the stage of submission to their own spiritual father.  We must take care that we do not choose "parachutists" who have undertaken the spiritual responsibility but have not been toughened by the hardships of life; who have become captains from the start and have not first gone through the deaconship of a deck-hand.  An added criterion for us can also be the experience and the discipleship that we can reap from others who go to confession, as long as they are discerned for their staidness and their virtuous lifestyle.

Pastors should also exercise with a special zeal and willingness the deaconship of spiritual paternity, which demands labours and sacrifices and at times may even surpass human strength.  Also very characteristic are the words that were said to a spiritual child by Saint Simeon the New Theologian:  "We conceived you through teaching, we have experienced labour pains through repentance, we have given birth to you through much patience and pangs and powerful pain and daily tears"  (In simpler terms: We conceived you spiritually through teaching; we suffered spiritual pangs for you through repentance; we gave birth to you spiritually with a lot of patience and labours and intense hurt and shedding tears every day for you) [Epistle 3, 1-3). How can you not submit yourself to such a spiritual father, who verily sheds his blood in order for you to be reborn spiritually and so that he can lead you into your true freedom - the one offered by Christ? (Gal.5:1). 

Saint Cyril of Alexandria tells us that with Christ, the relationship of master-slave that used to be, was replaced by the Mystery of Father-Son. That is why, in its essence, spiritual paternity has no other reason for existence than to lead a person from the stage of slave to the freedom of a child of God.  With Holy Baptism, we become -through Grace- the children of God, and through Holy Confession, we maintain the Grace of Divine Adoption.



Source: Transcript of the homily by fr. Stavros Trikaliotes, parish priest of the Holy Temple of Hagia Paraskevi of Attica.

Translation:  K.N.

Δημιουργία αρχείου: 18-1-2009.

Τελευταία ενημέρωση: 18-1-2009.