The Spiritual Father in Orthodox Christianity
-- by Bishop Kallistos Ware
One who climbs a mountain for the first time needs to follow a known route;
and he needs to have with him, as companion and guide, someone who has
been up before and is familiar with the way. To serve as such a companion and
guide is precisely the role of the "Abba" or spiritual fatherwhom the
Greeks call "Geron" and the Russians "Starets", a title which in both languages
means "old man" or "elder". 
The importance of obedience to a Geron is underlined from the first
emergence of monasticism in the Christian East. St. Antony of Egypt said: "I know
of monks who fell after much toil and lapsed into madness, because they
trusted in their own work . . . So far as possible, for every step that a monk
takes, for every drop of water that he drinks in his cell, he should
entrust the decision to the Old Men, to avoid making some mistake in what he
This is a theme constantly emphasized in the Apophthegmata or Sayings of
the Desert Fathers:
"The old Men used to say: 'if you see a young monk climbing up to heaven
by his own will, grasp him by the feet and throw him down, for this is to
his profit . . . if a man has faith in another and renders himself up to him
in full submission, he has no need to attend to the commandment of God, but
he needs only to entrust his entire will into the hands of his father.
Then he will be blameless before God, for God requires nothing from beginners
so much as self-stripping through obedience.'" 
This figure of the Starets, so prominent in the first generations of
Egyptian monasticism, has retained its full significance up to the present day
in Orthodox Christendom. "There is one thing more important than all possible
books and ideas", states a Russian layman of the 19th Century, the
Slavophile Kireyevsky, "and that is the example of an Orthodox Starets, before
whom you can lay each of your thoughts and from whom you can hear, not a more
or less valuable private opinion, but the judgement of the Holy Fathers.
God be praised, such Startsi have not yet disappeared from our Russia." And a
Priest of the Russian emigration in our own century, Fr. Alexander
Elchaninov (+ 1934), writes: "Their held of action is unlimited... they are
undoubtedly saints, recognized as such by the people. I feel that in our tragic
days it is precisely through this means that faith will survive and be
strengthened in our country." 
The Spiritual Father as a 'Charismatic' Figure
What entitles a man to act as a starets? How and by whom is he appointed?
To this there is a simple answer. The spiritual father or starets is
essentially a 'charismatic' and prophetic figure, accredited for his task by the
direct action of the Holy Spirit. He is ordained, not by the hand of man,
but by the hand of God. He is an expression of the Church as "event" or
"happening", rather than of the Church as institution. 
There is, of course, no sharp line of demarcation between the prophetic and
the institutional in the life of the Church; each grows out of the other
and is intertwined with it. The ministry of the starets, itself charismatic,
is related to a clearly-defined function within the institutional
framework of the Church, the office of priest-confessor. In the Eastern Orthodox
tradition, the right to hear confessions is not granted automatically at
ordination. Before acting as confessor, a priest requires authorization from
his bishop; in the Greek Church, only a minority of the clergy are so
Although the sacrament of confession is certainly an appropriate occasion
for spiritual direction, the ministry of the starets is not identical with
that of a confessor. The starets gives advice, not only at confession, but
on many other occasions; indeed, while the confessor must always be a
priest, the starets may be a simple monk, not in holy orders, or a nun, a layman
or laywoman. The ministry of the starets is deeper, because only a very few
confessor priests would claim to speak with the former's insight and
But if the starets is not ordained or appointed by an act of the official
hierarchy, how does he come to embark on his ministry? Sometimes an existing
starets will designate his own successor. In this way, at certain monastic
centers such as Optina in 19th-century Russia, there was established an
"apostolic succession" of spiritual masters. In other cases, the starets
simply emerges spontaneously, without any act of external authorization. As
Elchaninov said, they are "recognized as such by the people". Within the
continuing life of the Christian community, it becomes plain to the believing
people of God (the true guardian of Holy Tradition) that this or that person
has the gift of spiritual fatherhood. Then, in a free and informal fashion,
others begin to come to him or her for advice and direction.
It will be noted that the initiative comes, as a rule, not from the master
but from the disciples. It would be perilously presumptuous for someone to
say in his own heart or to others, "Come and submit yourselves to me; I am
a starets, I have the grace of the Spirit." What happens, rather, is
thatwithout any claims being made by the starets himselfothers approach him,
seeking his advice or asking to live permanently under his care. At first, he
will probably send them away, telling them to consult someone else. Finally
the moment comes when he no longer sends them away but accepts their coming
to him as a disclosure of the will of God. Thus it is his spiritual
children who reveal the starets to himself.
The figure of the starets illustrates the two interpenetrating levels on
which the earthly Church exists and functions. On the one hand, there is the
external, official, and hierarchial level, with its geographical
organization into dioceses and parishes, its great centers (Rome, Constantinople,
Moscow, and Canterbury), and its "apostolic succession" of bishops. On the
other hand, there is the inward, spiritual and "charismatic" level, to which
the startsi primarily belong. Here the chief centrs are, for the most part,
not the great primatial and metropolitan sees, but certain remote
hermitages, in which there shine forth a few personalities richly endowed with
spiritual gifts. Most startsi have possessed no exalted status in the formal
hierarchy of the Church; yet the influence of a simple priest-monk such as St.
Seraphim of Sarov has exceeded that of any patriarch or bishop in
19th-century Orthodoxy. In this fashion, alongside the apostolic succession of the
episcopate, there exists that of the saints and spiritual men. Both types
of succession are essential for the true functioning of the Body of Christ,
and it is through their interaction that the life of the Church on earth is
Flight and Return: the Preparation of the Starets
Although the starets is not ordained or appointed for his task, it is
certainly necessary that he should be prepared.The classic pattern for this
preparation, which consists in a movement of flight and return, may be clearly
discerned in the liyes of _St. Antony of Egypt_
(http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/death/vita-antony.aspx) (+356) and St. Seraphim of Sarov (+1833).
St. Antony's life falls sharply into two halves, with his fifty-fifth year
as the watershed. The years from, early manhood to the age of fifty-five
were his time of preparation, spent in an ever-increasing seclusion from the
world as he withdrew further and further into the desert. He eventually
passed twenty years in an abandoned fort, meeting no one whatsoever. When he
had reached the age of fifty-five, his friends could contain their curiosity
no longer, and broke down the entrance. St. Antony came out and, 'for the
remaining half century of his long life, without abandoning the life of a
hermit, he made himself freely available to others, acting as "a physician
given by God to Egypt." He was beloved by all, adds his biographer, St.
Athanasius, "and all desired to 'have him as their father."  Observe that the
transition from enclosed anchorite to Spiritual father came about, not
through any initiative on St. Antony's part, but through the action of others.
Antony was a lay monk, never ordained to the priesthood.
St. Seraphim followed a comparable path. After fifteen years spent in the
ordinary life of the monastic community, as novice, professed monk, deacon,
and priest, he withdrew for thirty years of solitude and almost total
silence. During the first part of this period he, lived in a forest hut; at one
point he passed a thousand days on the stump of a tree and a thousand
nights of those days on a rock, devoting himself to unceasing prayer. Recalled
by his abbot to the monastery, he obeyed the order without the slightest
delay; and during the latter part of his time of solitude he lived rigidly
enclosed in his cell, which he did not leave even to attend services in
church; on Sundays the priest brought communion to him at the door of his room.
Though he was a priest he didn't celebrate the liturgy. Finally, in the last
eight years of his life, he ended his enclosure, opening the door of his
cell and receiving all who came. He did nothing to advertise himself or to
summon people; it was the others who took the initiative in approaching him,
but when they camesometimes hundreds or even thousands in a single dayhe
did not send them empty away.
Without this intense ascetic preparation, without this radical flight into
solitude, could St. Antony or St. Seraphim have acted in the same 'degree
as guide to those of their generation? Not that they withdrew in order to
become masters and guides of others. 'They fled, not, in order to prepare
themselves for some other task, but out of a consuming desire to be alone with
God. God accepted their love, but then sent them back" as instruments of
healing in the world from which they had withdrawn. Even had He never sent
them back, their flight would still have been supremely creative and
valuable to society; for the monk helps the world not primarily by anything that
he does and says but by what he is, by the state of unceasing prayer which
has become identical with his innermost being. Had St. Antony and St.
Seraphim done nothing but pray in solitude they would still have been serving
their fellow men to the highest degree. As things turned out, however, God
ordained that they should also serve others in a more direct fashion. But this
direct and visible service was essentially a consequence of the invisible
service which they rendered through their prayer.
"Acquire inward peace", said St. Seraphim, "and a multitude of men around
you will find their salvation." Such is the role of spiritual fatherhood.
Establish yourself in God; then you can bring others to His presence. A man
must learn to be alone, he must listen in the stillness of his own heart to
the wordless speech of the Spirit, and so discover the truth about himself
and God. Then his work to others will be a word of power, because it is a
word out of silence.
What Nikos Kazantzakis said of the almond tree is true also of the starets:
"I said to the almond tree, 'Sister, speak to me of God,' And the almond
Shaped by the encounter with God in solitude, the starets is able to heal
by his very presence. He guides and forms others, not primarily by words of
advice, but by his companionship, by the living and specific example which
he setsin a word, by blossoming like the almond tree. He teaches as much by
his silence as by his speech. "Abba Theophilus the Archbishop once visited
Scetis, and when the brethren had assembled they said to Abba Pambo,
'Speak a word to the Pope that he may be edified.' The Old Man said to them, "if
he is not edified by my silence, neither will be he edified by my
speech.'"  A story with the same moral is told of St. Antony. "It was the custom
of three Fathers to visit the Blessed Antony once each year, and two of
them used to ask him questions about their thoughts (logismoi) and the
salvation of their soul; but the third remained completely silent, without
putting any questions. After a long while, Abba Antony said to him, 'See, you
have been in the habit of coming to me all this time, and yet you do not ask
me any questions'. And the other replied, 'Father, it is enough for me just
to look at you.'" 
The real journey of the starets is not spatially into the desert, but
spiritually into the heart. External solitude, while helpful, is not
indispensable, and a man may learn to stand alone before God, while yet continuing to
pursue a life of active service in the midst of society. St. Antony of
Egypt was told that a doctor in, Alexandria was his equal in spiritual
achievement: "In the city there is someone like you, a doctor by profession, who
gives all his money to the needy, and the whole day long he sings the
Thrice-Holy Hymn with the angels."  We are not told how this revelation came
to Antony, nor what was the name of the doctor, but one thing is clear.
Unceasing: prayer of the heart is no monopoly of the solitaries; the mystical
and "angelic" life is possible in the city as well as the desert. The
Alexandrian doctor accomplished the inward journey without severing his outward
links with the community.
There are also many instances in which flight and return are not sharply
distinguished in temporal sequence. Take, for example, the case of St.
Seraphim's younger contemporary, Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov (t1867). Trained
originally as an army officer, he was appointed at the early age of twenty-six
to take charge of a busy and influential monastery close to St.
Petersburg. His own monastic training had lasted little more than four years before
he was placed in a position of authority. After twetity-four years as Abbot,
he was consecrated Bishop. Four years later he resigned, to spend the
remaining six years of his life as a hermit. Here a period of active pastoral
work preceded the period of anachoretic seclusion. When he was made abbot,
he must surely have felt gravely ill-prepared. His secret withdrawal into
the heart was undertaken continuously during the many years in which he
administered a monastery and a diocese; but it did not receive an exterior,
expression until the very end of his life.
Bishop Ignaty's career  may serve as a paradigm to many of us at the
present time, although (needless to say) we fall far short of his level of
spiritual achievement. Under the pressure of outward circumstances and
probably without clearly realizing what is happening to us, we become launched on
a career of teaching, preaching, and pastoral counselling, while lacking
any deep knowledge of the desert and its creative silence. But through
teaching others we ourselves begin to learn. Slowly we recognize our
powerlessness to heal the wounds of humanity solely through philanthropic programs,
common sense, and psychiatry. Our complacency is broken down, we appreciate
our own inadequacy, and start to understand what Christ meant by the "one
thing that is necessary" (Luke 10:42). That is the moment when we enter upon
the path of the starets. Through our pastoral experience, through our
anguish over the pain of others,' we are brought to undertake the journey
inwards, to ascend the secret ladder of the Kingdom, where alone a genuine
solution to the world's problems can be found. No doubt few if any among us would
think of ourselves as a starets in the full sense, but provided we seek
with humble sincerity to enter into the "secret chamber" of our heart, we can
all share to some degree in the grace of the spiritual fatherhood. Perhaps
we shall never outwardly lead the life of a monastic recluse or a
hermitthat rests with Godbut what is supremely important is that each should see
the need to be a hermit of the heart.
The Three Gifts of the Spiritual Father
Three gifts in particular distinguish the spiritual father. The first is
insight and discernment (diakrisis), the ability to perceive intuitively the
secrets of another's heart, to understand the hidden depths of which the
other is unaware. The spiritual father penetrates beneath the conventional
gestures and attitudes whereby we conceal our true personality from others
and from ourselves; and beyond all these trivialities, he comes to grips
with the unique person made in the image and likeness of God. This power is
spiritual rather than psychic; it is not simply a kind of extra-sensory
perception or a sanctified clairvoyance but the fruit of grace, presupposing
concentrated prayer and an unremitting ascetic struggle.
With this gift of insight there goes the ability to use words with power.
As each person comes before him, the starets knowsimmediately and
specificallywhat it is that the individual needs to hear. Today, we are inundated
with words, but for the most part these are conspicuously not words uttered
with power.  The starets uses few words, and sometimes none at all; but
by these few words or by his silence, he is able to alter the whole
direction of a man's life. At Bethany, Christ used three words only: "Lazarus, come
out" (John 11:43) and these three words, spoken with power, were
sufficient to bring the dead back to life. In an age when language has been
disgracefully trivialized, it is vital to rediscover the power of the word; and
this means rediscovering the nature of silence, not just as a pause between
words but as one of the primary realities of existence. Most teachers and
preachers talk far too much; the starets is distinguished by an austere
economy of language.
But for a word to possess power, it is necessary that there should be not
only one who speaks with the genuine authority of personal experience, but
also one who listens with attention and eagerness. If someone questions a
starets out of idle curiosity, it is likely that he will receive little
benefit; but if he approaches the starets with ardent faith and deep hunger, the
word that he hears may transfigure his being. The words of the startsi are
for the most part simple in verbal expression and devoid of literary
artifice; to those who read them in a superficial way, they will seem jejune and
The spiritual father's gift of insight is exercised primarily through the
practice known as "disclosure of thoughts" (logismoi). In early Eastern
monasticism the young monk used to go daily to his father and lay before him
all the thoughts which had come to him during the day. This disclosure of
thoughts includes far more than a confession of sins, since the novice also
speaks of those ideas and impulses which may seem innocent to him, but in
which the spiritual father may discern secret dangers or significant signs.
Confession is retrospective, dealing with sins that have already occurred;
the disclosure of thoughts, on the other hand, is prophylactic, for it lays
bare our logismoi before they have led to sin and so deprives them of their,
power to harm. The purpose of the disclosure is not juridical, to secure
absolution from guilt, but self-knowledge, that each may see himself as he
truly is. 
Endowed with discernment, the spiritual father does not merely wait for a
person to reveal himself, but shows to the other thoughts hidden from him.
When people came to St. Seraphim of Sarov, he often answered their
difficulties before they had time to put their thoughts before him. On many
occasions the answer at first seemed quite irrelevant, and even absurd and
irresponsible; for what St. Seraphim answered was not, the question his visitor had
consciously in mind, but the one he ought to have been asking. In all this
St. Seraphim relied on the inward light of the Holy Spirit. He found it
important, he explained, not to work out in advance hat he was going to say;
in that case, his words would represent merely his own human judgment which
might well be in error, and not the judgment of God.
In St. Seraphim's eyes, the relationship between starets and spiritual
child is stronger than death, and he therefore urged his children to continue
their disclosure of thoughts to him even after his departure to the next
life. These are the words which, by his on command, were written on his tomb:
"When I am dead, come to me at my grave, and the more often, the better.
Whatever is on your soul, whatever may have happened to you, come to me as
when I was alive and, kneeling on the ground, cast all your bitterness upon
my grave. Tell me everything and I shall listen to you, and all the
bitterness will fly away from you. And as you spoke to me when I was alive, do so
now. For I am living, and I shall be forever."
The second gift of the spiritual father is the ability to love others and
to make others' sufferings his own. Of Abba Poemen, one of the greatest of
the Egyptian gerontes, it is briefly and simply recorded: "He possessed
love, and many came to him."  He possessed lovethis is indispensable in
all spiritual fatherhood. Unlimited insight into the secrets of men's hearts,
if devoid of loving compassion, would not be creative but destructive; he
who cannot love others will have little power to heal them.
Loving others involves suffering with and for them; such is the literal
sense of compassion. "Bear one anothers burdens and so fulfill the law of
Christ" (Galatians 6:2). The spiritual father is 'the one who par excellence
bears the burdens of others. "A starets", writes Dostoevsky in The Brothers
Karamazov, "is one who takes your soul, your will, unto his soul and his
will. . . . " It is not enough for him to offer advice. He is also required to
take up the soul of his spiritual children into his own soul, their life
into his life. It is his task to pray for them, and his constant
intercession on their behalf is more important to them than any words of counsel. 
It is his task likewise to assume their sorrows and their sins, to take
their guilt upon himself, and to answer for them at the Last Judgment.
All this is manifest in a primary document of Eastern spiritual direction,
the Books of Varsanuphius and John, embodying some 850 questions addressed
to two elders of 6th-century Palestine, together with their written
answers. "As God Himself knows," Varsanuphius insists to his spiritual children,
"there is not a second or an hour when I do not have you in my mind and in
my prayers . . . I care for you more than you care for yourself . . . I
would gladly lay down my life for you." This is his prayer to God: "O Master,
either bring my children with me into Your Kingdom, or else wipe me also out
of Your book." Taking up the theme of bearing others' burdens,
Varsanuphius affirms: "I am bearing your burdens and your offences . . . You have
become like a man sitting under a shady tree . . . I take upon myself the
sentence of condemnation against you, and by the grace of Christ, I will not
abandon you, either in this age or in the Age to Come." 
Readers of Charles Williams will be reminded of the principle of
'substituted love,' which plays a central part in Descent into Hell. The same line
of thought is expressed by Dostoevsky's starets Zosima: "There is only one
way of salvation, and that is to make yourself responsible for all men's
sins. . . To make yourself responsible in all sincerity for everything and for
everyone." The ability of the starets to support and strengthen others is
measured by his willingness to adopt this way of salvation.
Yet the relation between the spiritual father and his children is not
one-sided. Though he takes the burden of their guilt upon himself and answers
for them before God, he cannot do this effectively unless they themselves are
struggling wholeheartedly for their own salvation. Once a brother came to
St. Antony of Egypt and said: "Pray for me." But the Old Man replied:
"Neither will I take pity on you nor will God, unless you make some effort of
your own." 
When considering the love of a starets for those under his care, it is
important to give full meaning to the word "father" in the title "spiritual
father". As father and offspring in an ordinary family should be joined in
mutual love, so it must also be within the "charismatic" family of the
starets. It is primarily a relationship in the Holy Spirit, and while the
wellspring of human affection is not to be unfeelingly suppressed, it must be
contained within bounds. It is recounted how a young monk looked after his
elder, who was gravely ill, for twelve years without interruption. Never once in
that period did his elder thank him or so much as speak one word of
kindness to him. Only on his death-bed did the Old Man remark to the assembled
brethren, "He is an angel and not a man."  The story is valuable as an
indication of the need for spiritual detachment, but such an uncompromising
suppression of all outward tokens of affection is not typical of the Sayings
of the Desert Fathers, still less of Varsanuphius and John.
A third gift of the spiritual father is the power to transform the human
environment, both the material and the non-material. The gift of healing,
possessed by so many of the startsi, is one aspect of this power: More
generally, the starets helps his disciples to perceive the world as God created
it and as God desires it once more to be. "Can you take too much joy in your
Father's works?" asks Thomas Traherne. "He is Himself in everything." The
true starets is one who discerns this universal presence of the Creator
throughout creation, and assists others to discern it. In the words of William
Blake, "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything will appear to
man as it is, infinite." For the man who dwells in God, there is nothing
mean and trivial: he sees everything in the light of Mount Tabor. "What is a
merciful heart?" inquires St. Isaac the Syrian. "It is a heart that burns
with love for 'the whole of creationfor men, for the birds, for the beasts,
for the demons, for every, creature. When a man with such a heart as this
thinks of the creatures or looks at them, his eyes are filled with tears;
An overwhelming compassion makes his heart grow! small and weak, and he
cannot endure to hear or see any suffering, even the smallest pain, inflicted
upon any creature. Therefore he never ceases to pray, with tears even for
the irrational animals, for the enemies of truth, and for those who do him
evil, asking that they may be guarded and receive God's mercy. And for the
reptiles also he prays with a great compassion, which rises up endlessly in
his heart until he shines again and is glorious like God."' 
An all-embracing love, like that of Dostoevsky's starets Zosima,
transfigures its object, making the human environment transparent, so that the
uncreated energies of God shine through it. A momentary glimpse of what this
transfiguration involves is provided by the celebrated _conversation between
St. Seraphim of Sarov and Nicholas Motoviov_
(http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/wonderful.aspx) , his spiritual child. They were walking in the forest
one winter's day and St. Seraphim spoke of the need to acquire the Holy
Spirit. This led Motovilov to ask how a man can know with certainty that he is
"in the Spirit of God":
Then Fr. Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: "My son,
we are both, at this moment in the Spirit of God. Why don't you look at
"I cannot look, Father," I replied, "because your eyes are flashing like
lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and it hurts my eyes
to look, at you."
"Don't be afraid," he said. "At this very moment you have yourself become
as bright as I am. You are yourself in the fullness of the Spirit of God at
this moment; otherwise you would not be able to see me as you do. . . but
why, my son, do you not look me iii the eyes? Just look, and don't be
afraid; the Lord is with us."
After these words I glanced at his face, and there came over me an even
greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light
of its mid-day rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement
of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes and you hear his
voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders, yet you do not see his hands,
you do not even see yourself or his body, but only a blinding light spreading
far around for several yards and lighting up with its brilliance the
snow-blanket which covers the forest glade and the snowflakes which continue to
fall unceasingly .
Obedience and Freedom
Such are by God's grace, the gifts of the starets. But what of the
spiritual child? How does he contribute to the mutual relationship between father
and son in God?
Briefly, what he offers is his full and unquestioning obedience. As a
classic example, there is the story in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers about
the monk who was told to plant a dry stick iii the sand and to water it
daily. So distant was the spring from his cell that he had to leave in the
evening to fetch the water and he only returned in the following morning. For
three years he patiently fulfilled his Abba's command. At the end of this
period, the stick suddenly put forth leaves and bore fruit. The Abba picked
the fruit, took it to the church, and invited the monks to eat, saying,
"Come and taste the fruit of obedience." 
Another example of obedience is the monk Mark who was summoned by his Abba,
while copying a manuscript, and so immediate was his response that he did
not even complete the circle of the letter that he was writing. On another
occasion, as they walked together, his Abba saw a small pig; testing Mark,
he said, "Do you see that buffalo, my child?" "Yes, Father," replied Mark.
"And you see how powerful its horns are?" "Yes, Father", he answered once
more without demur.  Abba Joseph of Panepho, following a similar policy,
tested the obedience of his disciples by assigning ridiculous tasks to
them, and only if they complied would he then give them sensible commands.
 Another geron instructed his disciple to steal things from the cells of
the brethren;  yet another told his disciple (who had not been entirely
truthful with him) to throw his son into the furnace. 
Such stories are likely to make a somewhat ambivalent impression on the
modern reader. They seem to reduce the disciple to an infantile or sub-human
level, depriving him of all power of judgment and moral choice. With
indignation we ask: "Is this the 'glorious liberty of the children of God'?" (Rom.
Three points must here be made. In the first place, the obedience offered
by the spiritual son to his Abba is not forced but willing and voluntary. It
is the task of the starets to take up our will into his will, but he can
only do this if by our own free choice we place it in his hands. He does not
break our will, but accepts it from us as a gift. A submission that is
forced and involuntary is obviously devoid of moral value; the starets asks of
each one that he offer to God his heart, not his external actions.
The voluntary nature of obedience is vividly emphasized in the ceremony of
the tonsure at the Orthodox rite of monastic profession. The scissors are
placed upon the Book of the Gospels, and the novice must himself pick them
up and give them to the abbot. The abbot immediately replaces them on the
Book of the Gospels. Again the novice take the scissors, and again they are
replaced. Only when the novice him the scissors for the third time does the
abbot proceed to cut hair. Never thereafter will the monk have the right to
say to the abbot or the brethren: "My personality is constricted and
suppressed here in the monastery; you have deprived me of my freedom". No one
has taken away his freedom, for it was he himself who took up the scissors
and placed them three times in the abbot's hand.
But this voluntary offering of our freedom is obviously something that
cannot be made once and for all, by a single gesture; There must be a continual
offering, extending over-ourwhole life; our growth in Christ is, measured
precisely by the increasing degree of our self-giving. Our freedom must be
offered anew each day and each hour, in constantly varying ways; and this
means that the relation between starets and disciple is not static but
dynamic, not unchanging but infinitely diverse. Each day and each hour, under
the guidance of his Abba, the disciple will face new situations, calling for
a different response, a new kind of self-giving.
In the second place, the relation between starets and spiritual child is
not one- but two-sided. Just as the starets enables the disciples to see
themselves as they truly are, so it is the disciples who reveal the starets to
himself. In most instances, a man does not realize that he is called to be
a starets until others come to him and insist on placing themselves under
his guidance. This reciprocity continues throughout the relationship between
the two. The spiritual father does not possess an exhaustive program,
neatly worked out in advance and imposed in the same manner upon everyone. On
the contrary, if he is a true starets, he will have a different word for
each; and since the word which he gives is on the deepest level, not his own
but the Holy Spirit's, he does not know in advance what that word will be.
The starets proceeds on the basis, not of abstract rules but of concrete
human situations. He and his disciple enter each situation together; neither
of them knowing beforeh and exactly what the outcome will be, but each
waiting for the enlightenment of the Spirit. Each of them, the spiritual father
as well as the disciple, must learn as he goes.
The mutuality of their relationship is indicated by certain stories in the
Sayings of the Desert Fathers, where an unworthy Abba has a spiritual son
far better than himself. The disciple, for example, detects his Abba in the
sin of fornication, but pretends to have noticed nothing and remains under
his charge; and so, through the patient humility of his new disciple, the
spiritual father is brought eventually to repentance and a new life. In such
a case, it is not the spiritual father who helps the disciple, but the
reverse. Obviously such a situation is far from the norm, but it indicates
that the disciple is called to give as well as to receive.
In reality, the relationship is not two-sided but triangular, for in
addition to the starets and his disciple there is also a third partner, God. Our
Lord insisted that we should call no man "father," for we have only one
father, who is in Heaven (Matthew 13:8-10). The starets is not an infallible
judge or a final court of appeal, but a fellow-servant of the living God;
not a dictator, but a guide and companion on the way. The only true
"spiritual director," in the fullest sense of the word, is the Holy Spirit.
This brings us to the third point. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition at its
best, the spiritual father has always sought to avoid any kind of
constraint and spiritual violence in his relations with his disciple. If, under the
guidance of the Spirit, he speaks and acts with authority, it is with the
authority of humble love. The words of starets Zosima in The Brothers
Karamazov express an essential aspect of spiritual fatherhood: "At some ideas you
stand perplexed, especially at the sight of men's sin, uncertain whether
to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide, 'I will combat it by
humble love.' If you make up your mind about that once and for all, you
can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force; it is the
strongest of all things and there is nothing like it."
Anxious to avoid all mechanical constraint, many spiritual fathers in the
Christian East refused to provide their disciples with a rule of life, a set
of external commands to be applied automatically. In the words of a
contemporary Romanian monk, the starets is "not a legislator but a mystagogue."
 He guides others, not by imposing rules, but by sharing his life with
them. A monk told Abba Poemen, "Some brethren have come to live with me; do
you want me to give them orders?" "No," said the Old Man. "But, Father,"
the monk persisted, "they themselves want me to give them orders." "No",
repeated Poemen, "be an example to them but not a lawgiver."  The same
moral emerges from the story of Isaac the Priest. As a young man, he remained
first with Abba Kronios and then with Abba Theodore of Pherme; but neither
of them told him what to do. Isaac complained to the other monks and they
came and remonstrated with Theodore. "If he wishes", Theodore replied
eventually, "let him do what he sees me doing."  When Varsanuphius was asked
to supply a detailed rule of life, he refused, saying: "I do not want you to
be under the law, but under grace." And in other letters he wrote: "You
know that we have never imposed chains upon anyone... Do not force men's free
will, but sow in hope, for our Lord did not compel anyone, but He preached
the good news, and those who wished hearkened to Him." 
Do not force men's free will. The task of the spiritual father is not to
destroy a man's freedom, but to assist him to see the truth for himself; not
to suppress a man's personality, but to enable him to discover himself, to
grow to full maturity and to become what he really is. If on occasion the
spiritual father requires an implicit and seemingly "blind" obedience from
his disciple, this is never done as an end in itself, nor with a view to
enslaving him. The purpose of this kind of shock treatment is simply to
deliver the disciple from his false and illusory "self", so that he may enter
into true freedom. The spiritual father does not impose his own ideas and
devotions, but he helps the disdple to find his own special vocation. In the
words of a 17th-century Benedictine, Dom Augustine Baker: "The director is
not to teach his own way, nor indeed any determinate way of prayer, but to ins
truct his disciples how they may themselves find out the way proper for
them . . . In a word, he is only God's usher, and must lead souls in God's
way, and not his own." 
In the last resort, what the spiritual father gives to his disciple is not
a code of written or oral regulations, not a set of techniques for
meditation, but a personal relationship. Within this personal relationship the Abba
grows and changes as well as the disciple, for God is constantly guiding
them both. He may on occasion provide his disciple with detailed verbal
instructions, with precise answers to specific questions. On other occasions he
may fail to give any answer at all; either because he does not think that
the question needs an answer, or because he himself does not yet know what
the answer should be. But these answersor this failure to answerare always
given the framework of a personal relationship. Many things cannot be said
in words, but can be conveyed through a direct personal encounter.
In the Absence of a Starets
And what is one to do, if he cannot find a spiritual father?
He may turn, in the first place, to books. Writing in 5th-century Russia,
St. Nil Sorsky laments the extreme scarcity of qualified spiritual
directors; yet how much more frequent they must have been in his day than in ours!
Search diligently, he urges, for a sure and trustworthy guide. "However, if
such a teacher cannot be found, then the Holy Fathers order us to turn to
the Scriptures and listen to Our Lord Himself speaking."  Since the
testimony of Scripture should not be isolated from the continuing witness of
the Spirit in the life of the Church, the inquirer will also read the works
of the Fathers, and above all the Philokalia. But there is an evident danger
here. The starets adapts his guidance to the inward state of each; books
offer the same advice to everyone. How is the beginner to discern whether or
not a particular text is applicable to his own situation? Even if he
cannot find a spiritual father in the full sense, he should at least try to find
someone more experienced than himself, able to guide him in his reading.
It is possible to learn also from visiting places where divine grace has
been exceptionally manifested and where prayer has been especially
concentrated. Before taking a major decision, and in the absence of other guidance,
many Orthodox Christians will goon pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mount Athos,
to some monastery or the tomb of a saint, where they will pray for
enlightenment. This is the way in which I have reached the more difficult decisions
in my life.
Thirdly, we can learn from religious communities with an established
tradition of the spiritual life. In the absence of a personal teacher, the
monastic environment can serve as guru; we can receive our formation from the
ordered sequence of the daily program, with its periods of liturgical and
silent prayer, with its balance of manual labor, study, and recreation. 
This seems to have be en the chief way in which St. Seraphim of Sarov gained
his spiritual training. A well-organized monastery embodies, in an
accessible and living form, the inherited wisdom of many starets. Not only monks,
but those who come as visitors for a longer or shorter period, can be formed
and guided by the experience of community life.
It is indeed no coincidence that the kind of spiritual fatherhood that we
have been describing emerged initially in 4th-century Egypt, not within the
fully organized communities under St. Pachomius, but among the hermits and
in the semi-eremitic milieu of Nitria and Scetis. In the former, spiritual
direction was provided by Pachomius himself, by the superiors of each
monastery, and by the heads of individual "houses" within the monastery. The
Rule of St. Benedict also envisages the abbot as spiritual father, and there
is no provision for further development of a more "charismatic" type. In
time, of course, the coenobitic communities incorporated many of the
traditions of spiritual fatherhood as developed among the hermits, but the need for
those traditions has always been less intensely felt in the coenobia,
precisely because direction is provided by the corporate life pursued under the
guidance of the Rule.
Finally, before we leave the subject of the absence of the starets, it is
important to recognize the extreme flexibility in the relationship between
starets and disciple. Some may see their spiritual father daily or even
hourly, praying, eating, and working with him, perhaps sharing the same cell,
as often happened in the Egyptian Desert. Others may see him only once a
month or once a year; others, again, may visit a starets on but a single
occasion in their entire life, yet this will be sufficient to set them on the
right path. There are, furthermore, many different types of spiritual father;
few will be wonder-workers like St. Seraphim of Sarov. There are numerous
priests and laymen who, while lacking the more spectacular endowments of
the startsi, are certainly able to provide others with the guidance that they
Many people imagine that they cannot find a spiritual father, because they
expect him to be of a particular type: they want a St. Seraphim, and so
they close their eyes to the guides whom God is actually sending to them.
Often their supposed problems are not so very complicated, and in reality they
already know in their own heart what the answer is. But they do not like
the answer, because it involves patient and sustained effort on their part:
and so they look for a deus ex machina who, by a single miraculous word,
will suddenly make everything easy. Such people need to be helped to an
understanding of the true nature of spiritual direction.
In condusion, I wish briefly to recall two startsi of our own day, whom I
have had the happiness of knowing personally. The first is Father
Amphilochios (+1970), abbot of the Monastery of St. John on the Island of Patmos, and
spiritual father to a community of nuns which he had founded not far from
the Monastery. What most distinguished his character was his gentleness,
the warmth of his affection, and his sense of tranquil yet triumphant joy.
Life in Christ, as he understood it, is not a heavy yoke, a burden to be
carried' with resignation, but a personal relationship to be pursued with
eagerness of heart. He was firmly opposed to all spiritual violence and cruelty.
It was typical that, as he lay dying and took leave of the nuns under his
care, he should urge the abbess not to be too severe on them: "They have
left everything to come here, they must not be unhappy."  When I was to
return from Patmos to England as a newly-ordained priest, he insisted that
there was no need to be afraid of anything.
My second example is Archbishop John (Maximovich), Russian bishop in
Shanghai, in Western Europe, and finally in San Francisco (+1966). Little more
than a dwarf in height, with tangled hair and beard, and with an impediment
in his speech, he possessed more than a touch of the "Fool in Christ." From
the time of his profession as a monk, he did not lie down on a bed to sleep
at night; he went on working and praying, snatching his sleep at odd
moments in the 24 hours. He wandered barefoot through the streets of Paris, and
once he celebrated a memorial, service among the tram lines close to the
port of Marseilles. Punctuality had little meaning for him. Baffled by his
unpredictable behavior, the more conventional among his flock sometimes
judged him to be unsuited for the administrative work of a bishop. But with his
total disregard of normal formalities he succeeded where others, relying on
worldly influence and expertise, had failed entirelyas when, against all
hope and in the teeth of the "quota" system, he secured the admission of
thousands of homeless Russian refugees to the U.S.A.
In private conversation he was very gentle, and he quickly won the
confidence of small children. Particularly striking was the intensity of his
intercessory prayer. When possible, he liked to celebrate the Divine Liturgy
daily, and the service often took twice or three times the normal space of
time, such was the multitude of those whom he commemorated individually by
name. As he prayed for them, they were never mere names on a lengthy list, but
always persons. One story that I was told is typical. It was his custom
each year to visit Holy Trinity Monastery at Jordanville, N.Y. As he left,
after one such visit, a monk gave him a slip of paper with four names of those
who were gravely ill. Archbishop John received thousands upon thousands of
such requests for prayer in the course of each year. On his return to the
monastery some twelve months later, at once he beckoned to the monk, and
much to the latter's surprise, from the depths of his cassock Archbishop John
produced the identical slip of paper, now crumpled and tattered. "I have
been praying for your friends," he said, "but two of them"he pointed to
their names"are now dead and the other two have recovered." And so indeed it
Even at a distance he shared in the concerns of his spiritual children. One
of them, superior of a small Orthodox monastery in Holland, was sitting
one night in his room, unable to sleep from anxiety over the problems which
faced him. About three o'dock in the morning, the telephone rang; it was
Archbishop John, speaking from several hundred miles away. He had rung to say
that it was time for the monk to go to bed.
Such is the role of the spiritual father. As Varsanuphius expressed it, "I
care for you more than you care for yourself."
1. On spiritual fatherhood in the Christian East, see the well-documented
study by I. Hausherr, S. L., Direction Spintuelle en Orient d'Autrefois
(Orientalia Christiana Analecta, 144: Rome 1955). An excellent portrait of a
great starets in 19th-century Russia is provided by J. B. Dunlop, Staretz
Amvrosy: Model for Dostoevsky's Staretz Zossima (Belmont, Mass. 1972); compare
also I. de Beausobre, Macanus, Starets of Optina: Russian Letters of
Direction 18341860 (London, 1944). For the life and writings of a Russian
starets in the present century, see Archimandrite Sofrony, The Undistorted Image.
Staretz Silouan: 18661938 (London, 1958).
2. Apophthegmata Patrum, alphabetical collection (Migne, P.G., 65, pp.
3. Les Apophtegemes des Pres du Desert, by J. C. Guy, S.jj. (Textes de
Spiritualit Orientale, No. 1: Etiolles, 1968), pp. 112, 158.
4. A. Elchaninov, The Diary of a Russian Priest, (London, 1967, p. 54).
5. I use "charismatic" in the restricted sense customarily given to it by
contemporary writers. But if that word indicates one who has received the
gifts or charismata of the Holy Spirit, then the ministerial priest, ordained
through the episcopal laying on of hands, is as genuinely a "charismatic"
as one who speaks with tongues.
6. The Life of St. Antony, chapters 87 and 81 (P.G. 26, 965A, and 957A.)
7. Quoted in Igumen Chariton, The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology
(London, 1966), p. 164. [Webmaster Note: I could not determine where this
footnote appeared in the original article.]
8. Apophthegmata Patrum, alphabetical collection, Theophilus the
Archbishop, p. 2. In the Christian East, the Patriarch of Alexandria bears the title
9. Ibid., Antony p. 27.
10. Ibid., Antony, p. 24.
11. Compare Ignaty's contemporary, Bishop Theophan the Recluse (+l894) and
St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (+l753).
12. Three of the great banes of the 20th century are shorthand, duplicators
and photocopying machines. If chairmen of committees and those in seats of
authority were forced to write out personally in longhand everything they
wanted to communicate to others, no doubt they would choose their words
with greater care.
13. Evergetinos, Synagoge, 1, 20 (ed. Victor Matthaiou, I, Athens, 1957,
14. Apophthegmata Patrum, alphabetical collection, Poemen, p. 8.
15. For the importance of a spiritual father's prayers, see for example
Les Apophtegmes des Peres du Dsert, tr. Guy, "srie des dits anonymes", P.
16. The Book of Varsanuphius and John, edited by Sotirios Schoinas (Volos,
1960), pp. 208, 39, 353, 110 and 23g. A critical edition of part of the
Greek text, accompanied by an English translation, has been prepared by D. J.
Chitty: Varsanuphius and John, Questions and Answers, (Patrologia
Orientalis, XXXI, 3, Paris, 1966). [Webmaster Note. This and many other fine books
on spiritual direction are available from _St. Herman Press_
17. Apophthegmata Patrurn, alphabetical collection, Antony, p. 16.
18. Ibid., John the Theban, p. 1.
19. Mystic Treatises of Isaac of Nineveh, tr. by A. J. Wensinck,
(Amsterdam, 1923), p. 341.
20. "_Conversation of St. Seraphim on the Aim of the Christian Life_
(http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/wonderful.aspx) ," in A Wonderful Revelation
to the World (Jordanville, N.Y., 1953), pp. 23-24.
21. Apophthegmata Patrum, alphabetical collection, John Colobos, p. 1.
22. Ibid., Mark the Disciple of Silvanus, pp. 1, 2.
23. Ibid., Joseph of Panepho, p. 5.
24. Ibid., Saio, p. 1. The geron subsequently returned the things to their
25. Les Apophtegmes des Peres du Desert, tr. Guy, "serie des dits
anonymes," p. 162. There is a parallel story in the alphabetical collection,
Sisoes, p. 10; cf. Abraham and Isaac (Gen. 22).
26. Fr. Andr Scrima, "La Tradition du Pre Spirituel dan l'Eglise d'Orient."
Hermes, 1967, No. 4, p. 83.
27. Apophthegmata Patrurn, alphabetical collection, Poemen, p. 174.
28. Ibid., Isaac the Priest, p. 2.
29. The Book of Varsanuphius and John, pp. 23, 51, 35.
30. Quoted by Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation. (1960), p.
31. "The Monastic Rule," in G. P. Fedotov, A Treasury of Russian
Spirituality, (London, 1950) p.96.
32. See Thomas Merton, op. cit., pp. 14-16, on the dangers of rigid
monastic discipline without proper spiritual direction.
33. See I. Gorainoff, "Holy Men of Patmos", Sobornost (The Journal of the
Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius), Series 6, No. 5 (1972) pp. 341-4.
From Cross Currents (Summer/Fall 1974), pp. 296-313.