The Spiritual Father in Orthodox Christianity

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". [1]
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
does." [2]
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.'" [3]
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." [4]
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. [5]
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_
(  (+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." [6] 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
tree  blossomed."
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.'" [8] 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.'" [9]
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." [10] 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 [11] 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.  [12] 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. [13]
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." [14] 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. [15]
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." [16]
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."  [17]
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." [18] 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."' [19]
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_
( , 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  [20].
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." [21]
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.  [22] 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.
[23] Another geron instructed his  disciple to steal things from the cells of
the brethren; [24] yet another told  his disciple (who had not been entirely
truthful with him) to throw his son into  the furnace. [25]
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."
[26] 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." [27] 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." [28] 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." [29]
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." [30]
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." [31] 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. [32]
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.
Contemporary Examples
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." [33] 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,
pp. 168-9).
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_
( ," 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
rightful owners.  
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.


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