The Spiritual Guide in Orthodox Christianity (Part I)

St. Theodore the Sykeote the Bishop of Anastasiopolis

St. Theodore the Sykeote the Bishop of Anastasiopolis

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

By Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia

More important than all possible books if we are climbing a mountain for the first time, we need to follow a known route; and we also need to have with us, 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 father--of the one whom the Greeks call geron or geronta and the Russians starets, a title which in both languages means "old man" or "elder."

The importance of obedience to a geron (elder) is underlined from the very first beginnings of Eastern Christian Monasticism. It is clearly evident, for example, in the saying attributed to Saint Anthony of Egypt:

"I know of monks who fell after much toil and lapsed into madness, because they trusted in their own works and did not give due heed to the commandment of him who says, 'Ask your father, and he will tell you' (Dent. 32:7). If possible, for every step that 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."

The need for spiritual guidance is a master-theme throughout the Apophthegmata or Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

The old men (gerontes) 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 person places his faith in someone else and surrenders himself to the other in full submission, he has no need to attend to the commandment of God, but he needs only 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 (elders) so prominent in the first generation 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 nineteenth century, the Slavophil Ivan Kireyevsky, "and that is the example of an Orthodox starets (elder), 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 judgment of the Holy Fathers. God be praised, such startsi have not yet disappeared from our Russia." And a priest of the Russian emigration in the twentieth century, Father Alexander Elchaninov, writes: "Their field 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 Guide as a "Charismatic" Figure

What entitles someone to act as spiritual guide? How and by whom is he or she appointed?

To this there is a simple answer. The elder or starets is essentially a "charismatic" and prophetic figure, accredited for her or his task by the direct action of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual guides are ordained, not by human hands, but by the hand of God. They are an expression of the Church as "event" or "happening," rather than of the Church as institution. There is, however, no sharp line of demarcation between the prophetic and the institutional elements 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, a priest requires authorization from his bishop; and in the Greek Orthodox Church, at any rate, only a minority of the clergy are so authorized. Yet, although the Sacrament of Confession is certainly an appropriate occasion for spiritual direction, the ministry of the starets is by no means identical with that of a confessor. The starets (geronta) gives advice, not only at confession, but on many other occasions. Moreover, while the confessor must always be a priest, the starets (geronta) may be a simple monk, not in holy orders, or even a layman; the ministry of eldership may also be exercised by a nun or a laywoman, for in the Orthodox Tradition there are spiritual mothers as well as spiritual fathers. The starets, whether ordained or lay, frequently speaks with an insight and authority than only a very few confessor-priests possess.

If, however, spiritual fathers or mothers are not appointed by an official act of the hierarchy, how then do they come to embark on their ministry? Sometimes an existing starets (geronta), designates his own successor. In this way, at certain monastic centers such as Optina in nineteenth-century Russia there was established an "apostolic succession" of spiritual masters, in their cases, the starets are appointed spontaneously, without any act of external authorization. As Father Alexander Elchaninov says, they are "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-which is the true guardian of Holy Tradition--that this or that person has the gift of spiritual fatherhood or motherhood. 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 that--without any claims being made by the person himself--others 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. Eventually 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 elder to himself.

The figure of the geronta or starets illustrates the two interpenetrating levels on which the earthly Church exists and functions. On the one hand, there is the external, official and hierarchical 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 inner, spiritual and "charismatic" level, to which the starets (geronta) primarily belongs. Here the chief centers 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 Saint Seraphim of Sarov exceeded that of any patriarch or bishop in nineteenth-century Orthodoxy. In this fashion, alongside the apostolic succession of the episcopate, there exists also the apostolic succession of the Saints and Spirit-bearers. 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 accomplished.

(To be continued)



The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


Glory Be To GOD For All Things


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George