This is the story of how St. Symeon the New Theologian met his spiritual father, St Symeon Eulabes (The Pious). "This story illustrates the close bond uniting the master and the disciple, and how such love overcomes all fear. It also shows that before choosing and following a spiritual father one must first believe in him;
It was he (St Symeon the Pious), who invited Symeon to follow him. 'Come, my child I will lead you to God'. When Symeon hesitated, his spiritual father told him: 'Light a great fire, that I may pass into the center: do not follow me if I do not remain untouched! 'These words confused me', Simeon wrote, 'and I did what he had commanded. And the flame burned and he stood in its center, intact, unconsumed, and he called me to him. I said I'm afraid master, I am a sinner! He advanced, came to me and embraced me saying , Why were you afraid? Why this fear and trembling? This is a great and frightening wonder: you will see even greater things!'
Finally to subdue Symeon's fear, his spiritual master made him approach: 'He enfolded me with his arms, and he kissed me again with a holy kiss, and he yielded a fragrance of immortality. I believed, I chose to follow him, and I desired to become his slave, his alone." Archbishop Basil Krivocheine, In The Light of Christ, p.98-99, SVS Press 1986.
Fr Sophrony Sakharov quoting from St. John Climacus establishes the connection between spiritual fatherhood and Christ Himself in his book 'On Prayer', p.89 as quoted by Fr Zacharias;
"..spiritual fatherhood is linked with the mystery of the word of God, which is begotten in the heart of man through prayer" Fr. Zacharias Zacharou, 'The Enlargement of the Heart' p.164, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2006. Spiritual fathers are those who, in the fear of God, remain unwavering in the pre-eternal current of the will of God, and who are vouchsafed to hear the still small voice of Christ(I Kings 19:12), and to obey it with humility and discernment, overcoming their own psychological inclination,.". ibid p.164
"A spiritual father bears in himself the blessedness flowing from the knowledge of Christ way, and he thus becomes the means of leading the life of men out of the hell they have created, by the negative effect of their passions, and into pure Christian life and spiritual freedom.He is constrained by only one thought; how the person can be healed. ( Father Sophrony used to say that when the spiritual father prays for his children, as soon as he pronounces their names, he feels in his heart their state, weather they are in a good state or in a bad state, in comfort or in despair). The father confessor offers this sacred service on behalf of the little ones, the unfortunate ones who are themselves completely indifferent. He does not plot against their freedom, but instead considers exclusively his future reward. (That is to say, he must remain selfless, only consider God's reward, and not expect to be rewarded by anyone or anything in this world).The spiritual father is the image of the 'Good Shepherd' who has greater love, and lays down his life for his sheep. John 10:11" ibid p.174-175. "He offers repentance for himself and for all the sins of those whom God has entrusted to him". ibid p.177.
"But if Christ is to send such a father, he is to be sought in fervent prayer and in a spirit of repentance. Symeon (The New Theologian) told a Christian; 'humble yourself and say, O Lord, You do not desire the death of the sinner but that he be converted and live. You descended to earth precisely to resurrect the ones who have fallen and are dead in consequence of their sin. You enable them to see You, the true light, as far as this is possible to man. Send me a man who knows You, that by entirely submitting myself to his service as to Yours and by fulfilling Your will by doing his, I may please You, the only God, and be awarded Your kingdom, even, I a sinner'. A certain identification is made here between Christ and the spiritual father, but it is always Christ, the one true God, who remains the real father". Archbishop Basil Krivocheine, 'In The Light of Christ' p. 92-93, SVS Press,1986
Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos points out that "Only those who have been cured and have attained communion with God are theologians, and they alone can show Christians, the true way to reach the 'place' of cure." Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos in 'Orthodox Psychotherapy'
p. 30-31. "Therefore the theologian and the spiritual father are the same thing" ibid p.35
St. Nicetas Stethatos ( disciple of St. Symeon) states that, "anyone who is uninitiated in the spiritual life is falsely named even if by ordination he is set over all the others in rank and mocks them and behaves arrogantly" ibid p.91
Fr. Simeon P. Koutsas explains the role of the spiritual father in Orthodox tradition, in an article published by the Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Inquiries. It is published in this blog with written permission from O.O.D.E.
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 Myriobiblos
A. THE FORMING OF THE INSTITUTION
1. The Significance of the Institution
Each and every person has a biological father - the one to whom he owes his entry into this life. Apart from his biological father however,a Christian also has a spiritual father. He is the one to whom he owes his spiritual rebirth - the one who introduces him into the life in Christ and guides him towards the path of Salvation. Our biological birth brings us into this life; it introduces us into the community of human beings. Our rebirth in Christ - a different kind of birth - introduces us into the community of the Church and provides us with the potential to actually live that life in Christ.
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 Pauline 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 labor 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.
2. How it Evolved Within the Historical Course of the Church
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:
« The spiritual 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. Nevertheless, there exists no dividing line between the prophetic and the institutional elements in the life of the Church; each develops within the other and is entwined with it. Thus, the ministry that the Elders provide - which is charismatic per se - is linked to a clearly defined function within the institutional framework of the Church, which is that of a Priest-Confessor... 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)
3. The Spiritual Father's Mission
What, exactly, is the work of a spiritual father? «To attend to the souls that are redeemed by the blood of Christ» we are told by Basil the Great (Epitome of Terms ΒΕΠΕΣ 53, 305). The spiritual father is a guide to in-Christ living. He is the physician of the soul,who, «with much compassion, according to the science of the Lord's teaching» (Basil the Great, "Ethika" ΒΕΠΕΣ 53, 129), heals the passions and helps his spiritual child to acquire an in-Christ health; that is, a live faith and a stable spiritual life. If the condition and the purpose of Christianity - we are taught by Basil the Great - is the emulation of Christ, then «those who are entrusted with the guidance of the many ought to project the emulation of Christ to the weaker ones, with their (personal) intermediation». ("Oroi Kata Platos" ΒΕΠΕΣ 53, 204). On the path that leads to communion with Christ and theosis (deification), our spiritual fathers are the experienced guides and untiring supporters. But for a pastor to serve such a lofty and responsible opus, he must necessarily be truly spiritual himself - an instrument «attuned and played by the Spirit», as Saint Gregory the Theologian writes. Only one who has learnt something out of personal experience is capable of imparting it; thus, for a spiritual father to guide others into the Christian way of life, he must first be living it himself. He must be a «norm for the faithful» (1 Tim. 4:12) and a «living Gospel». According to Basil the Great, he must provide «his own life as a distinct exemplar of every commandment of the Lord» (as above, ΒΕΠΕΣ 53, 204). His example should speak more than his words; He should inspire, with his virtuous living, edify, with his love and paternal affection, since - according to Saint John of the Ladder - «a true shepherd is proven by his love. It was for the sake of love that the Great Shepherd was crucified.» (To Poemen 24, PG 88, 1177Β).
4. Two Fundamental Characteristics: Perspicacity and Love
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 persona - 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).
The spiritual father's charisma of insight reveals itself par excellence as a discernment of thoughts. Discernment according to saint Simeon is the spiritual «lamp» and «eye», with which the spiritual father can see, both within his own heart as well as the hearts of his spiritual children. That way, he is able to make the correct diagnosis every time and impose the most suitable therapy (Catechesis 18, SC 104, 292). The discernment that has a cleanliness of the heart as a prerequisite is a charisma - a gift of the Holy Spirit. A spiritual father therefore, «who does not have the light of the Holy Spirit inside himself, can neither see his own actions clearly, nor will he be fully informed if they are pleasing to God. But neither will he be able to guide others or teach the will of God, or be worthy of perceiving foreign thoughts...» (Catechesis 33, SC 113, 250).
The second charisma of a spiritual father is love, the ability to love others and to undertake the sufferings and the trials of others.Without love, there can be no spiritual paternity. Love, according to our spiritual teachers, is not just the most basic of qualifications of a spiritual father, but the foundation and the essence of spiritual paternity. A love for the others presupposes a «co-suffering», a sharing of their passions with them - which is the literal meaning of the (Greek) word "sympathize": «lift each others' burdens, and thus fulfil the law of Christ» (Galatians 6:2). The spiritual father is the one who par excellence carries the burdens of others. of his spiritual children. He takes upon himself their sorrows, their guilt, their trials, their sins. And he agonizes and tirelessly attends to their improvement in Christ. «Brother Andreas, beloved of my soul», writes Abba Barsanuphius to one of his spiritual children, «... not even a blink of the eye, is the time that I do not have you in mind and in my prayer; and if I love you thus, then God, Who has fashioned you, loves you even more, and Him I beseech to guide you and govern you according to His will» (Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, "Book of Barsanuph and John", Sot. Schinas Publications, Volos 1962, Response108, p.132).
In the same book of responses by Barsanuph and John we encounter a soul-stirring prayer that makes the immense love of a spiritual father for his spiritual children apparent: «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).
5. The Necessity of Seeking an Experienced Spiritual Father
The significance that a spiritual father has on the path to our in-Christ perfecting simultaneously proves the necessity for all of us to have - to discover - an experienced and foolproof spiritual guide. This is both a duty and a right. The responsibility of choice belongs to us also; it is a choice that we must make with the utmost care, since, as saint Simeon observes: «Truly rare, and in fact even until this day, are those who as caretakers of logical souls shepherd and heal well.» (Catechesis 20, SC 104, 346). Caution, therefore, is required. We must neither remain on our own (because we risk either becoming prey to the soul-devouring wolf - the devil - or, on falling, we will not have someone who will help us get up again - according to the words of the Ecclesiast: «Woe to the one, when he falls and there is no second one to raise him» (Ecclesiastes 4:10), but neither should we follow thoughtlessly behind a wolf or an «inexperienced physician» in which case it is certain that we shall undergo spiritual damage or remain incurable [cmp. Catechesis 20, SC 104, 348 and Epistle 1, (Words on confession) , Published by Κ. Ηοll (Enthusiasmus und Bussgewalt bein griechischen Moenchtum, Leipzig 1898) p. 117].
Albeit the choice of spiritual father is - as already mentioned - our right and rests on our judgment, nevertheless, the discovery of an experienced spiritual guide is, finally, a grand gift of God.
That is why Saint Simeon counsels us as follows:
«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).
6. The Reciprocation of the Spiritual Child to His Spiritual Father
The in-Christ edification of the faithful through their bond with a spiritual father is not self-evident. It presupposes their reciprocation to the love that they will be receiving and the concern that their spiritual father will be showing them.
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 thus wise; 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, 909Β), thus expressing his personal experience on his own spiritual father.
The love towards our spiritual father is genuine, when expressed as "faith" - that is, as trust - in his person. We assign our entire self to our spiritual father. We acknowledge him as our guide on the path to salvation, therefore we must have faith in him, and follow without any hesitations and inner doubts whatever he advises. Our Holy Fathers persist on this point very emphatically: «One must believe without a care in those who have undertaken to tend to us» advises Saint John of the Ladder (Ladder 4, PG 88, 717Β). Without a wholehearted trust in our spiritual father we cannot progress in Christian living.
In his "Chapters", Saint Simeon writes the following:
"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).
If the duty of a spiritual father is to remain alert for the soul of his spiritual child, it is likewise the child's duty to obey and faithfully observe his guidance (Hebr.13:17). God Himself speaks to us, through our spiritual father. With the obedience therefore that we show him, we are essentially obeying the will of God. We are safeguarded from the errors that we would most certainly fall into, if we were to follow our own will. Finally, we attain inner freedom and thus attract the grace of God. 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, ΒΕΠΕΣ 53, 184). Nothing is 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.
B. THE PATHOLOGY OF SPIRITUAL PATERNITY IN OUR DAY
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.
1. "Elderism" in Many Contemporary Clergymen
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 Barsanuphius 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).
2. The Danger of Person-Worship
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).
3. The Degree of Obligatory Obedience to Our Spiritual Father
The purpose of spiritual paternity is not to secure a continuous dependence of the spiritual children on their father, but a source of assistance for them to gradually reach the state of spiritual freedom. A genuine spiritual father does not condemn his children to a lifelong spiritual infancy, but struggles constantly for them to mature spiritually and to become - according to the teaching of Saint Paul - "unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the full stature of Christ" (Eph. 4,13). (Ven.Christoforidou, Spiritual paternity according to Simeon the New Theologian, Thessaloniki 1977, p.31). Constraint and spiritual violence have no place in the relationship between a spiritual father and his spiritual children. Due obedience to our spiritual father is not a "blind" one, but a conscious one. It does not abolish our personal responsibility either, as that springs from our freedom 'in-Christ'. «The duty of a spiritual father is not to destroy a person's freedom, but to help him see the truth for himself. He does not strive to oppress a person's personality; only to give him the potential to discover himself, to develop, to mature, and to become what he is in reality... A spiritual father does not impose his own personal ideas and virtues, but helps his student to find his own exclusive calling... In short, he is only an usher of God, and he is duty-bound to lead souls onto God's path, and not his own.» (The Kingdom Within, p. 141).
Saint Barsanuphius says the following:
«You know that we have never placed shackles on anyone, not even on ourselves».
«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.
4. The Risk of Excessive Sentimentalism
The bond that exists between a spiritual father and his spiritual children resembles the relationship that exists within a normal family. Thus, just as the father and children in a normal family must be united in a mutual love, the same must also apply in a "charismatic family": that of a spiritual father, of an Elder. Nevertheless, it must not escape our attention that this bond is a par excellence Holy-Spiritual relationship, which needs to be purified of all sentimental relations and safeguarded from anything that might possibly hide an impassioned or a dangerous, sickly-sweet sentimentality.
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
This is another frequent phenomenon. Many boast about their Elder. And they mention him thoughtlessly, with every opportunity, but in such a way that exposes their own spiritual nudity and their dangerous, sickly-sweet sentimentality. This phenomenon is not a healthy one. Saint Simeon the New Theologian brings the following to our attention: «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). And Saint John of the Ladder speaks more austerely:
«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, PG 88, 713Α).
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.
Once, as mentioned in the Gerontikon (Book of Elders), a brother visited Saint Anthony the Great and beseeched him: «Pray for me».
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
As already mentioned, the choice of spiritual father rests on our own free judgment and preference. Nevertheless, the God-bearing Fathers point out that a change in an existing spiritual father could entail risks to our spiritual progress, and even to our very salvation.
Saint Simeon writes as follows:
«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).It is therefore unacceptable and spiritually risky to wander here and there, changing spiritual fathers every now and then, without reason.
«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).
I again invoke the testimony of Bishop Kallistos: «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,
The Orthodox ecclesiastic tradition is not something that leads back to the Past only; it is simultaneously Present and Future. It is the perennial faith and the incessant experience of the Church, in Grace. 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: It is our duty to have a permanent and steady spiritual father. At the same time, it is our right to choose the one whom we will judge as being the most suitable. Not the most "accommodating" one, but the most experienced one - a man who is truly of God - and one who we can feel spiritually "comfortable" with and with whom we feel safe.
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 un-impassioned and holy»(Chapt.1, 49, SC 51, 53) - a guide on our course for the heavenly Kingdom.
From the Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Inquiries