The Spiritual Father in Orthodox Christianity

Three Gifts of the Spiritual Father
by Bishop Kallistos Ware
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 knows—immediately and specifically—what 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 banal.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 that 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.

St. Arsenios the Cappadocian with his spiritual child Elder Paisios the Athonite

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 own 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 love—this 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 whopar excellence bears the burdens of others. “A starets”, writes Dostoevsky inThe 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]

St. John of Kronstadt with his spiritual daughter.

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 creation—for 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 Motovilov, 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 me?”

“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].

St. Seraphim of Sarov with spiritual son Nikolay Motovilov.
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