The Spiritual Guide in Orthodox Christianity (Part III)

Apostle Simon Zealotes

Apostle Simon Zealotes

My beloved spiritual children in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen! Χριστός Ανέστη!  Αληθώς Ανέστη!

Obedience and Freedom

Such, are, by God's grace, the gifts of the starets (elders or gerontes). But what of the spiritual child? How does he or she contribute to the mutual relationship between guide and disciple?

Briefly, what the disciple offers is sincere and willing; 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 stick in the sand and to water it daily. So distant was the spring from his cell (kellion) 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 (Father's) command. At the end of this period, the stick suddenly put forth leaves and bore fruit. The Abba (Father) picked the fruit, took it to the church, and invited the monks to eat, saying, "Take and eat the fruit of obedience."

Another example of obedience is the monk Mark, who while copying a manuscript was suddenly called by his Abba (Father); so immediate was his response that he did not even complete the circle of the letter O that he was writing. On another occasion, as they walked together, his Abba (Father) saw a small pig; testing Mark, he said, "Do you see that buffalo, my child?" "Yes, father," replied Mark. "And you see how elegant its horns are?" "Yes, father," he answered once more without demur. Abba (Father) Joseph of Panepho, following a similar policy, tested the obedience of his disciples by assigning paradoxical and even scandalous tasks, and only if they complied would he then given them sensible commands. Another geronta (elder) instructed his disciple to steal things from the cells (kellia) of the brethren; yet another told his disciple (who had not been entirely truthful with him) to throw his son into the furnace.

At this point it is surely necessary to state clearly certain serious objections. Stories of the kind that we have just reported are likely to make a deeply ambivalent impression upon a modern reader. Do they not describe the kind of behavior that we may perhaps reluctantly admire but would scarcely wish to imitate? What has happened, we may ask with some indignation, to "the glorious liberty of the children of God?" (Romans 8:21)?

Few of us doubt the value of seeking guidance from someone else, whether man or woman, who has a greater experience than we do of the spiritual way. But should such a person be treated as an infallible oracle, whose every word is to be obeyed without any further discussion? To interpret the mutual relationship between the disciple and the spiritual mother of father in such a manner as this seems dangerous fro both of them. It reduces the disciple to an infantile and even subhuman level, depriving her or him of all power of judgment and moral choice; and it encourages the teacher to claim an authority which belongs to God alone. Earlier we quoted the statement from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers that someone under obedience to an elder "has no need to attend to the commandment of God." But is such an abdication of responsibility desirable? Should the geronta (elder) be allowed to usurp the place of Christ?

In response, it needs to be said first of all that "charismatic" elders (gerontes), such as Saint Antony the Great or Saint Seraphim of Sarov, have always been exceedingly rare. The kind of relationship that they had with their disciples, whether monastic or lay, has never been the standard pattern in the Orthodox Tradition. The great sartsi (gerontes), whether of the past or of the present day, do indeed constitute a guiding light, a supreme point of reference; but they are the exception, not the norm.

In the second place, there is clearly a difference between monastics, who have taken a special vow of obedience, and lay people who are living n the "world." (Even in the case of monastics, there are extremely few communities where the ministry of eldership is to be found in its full form, as described in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers or as practiced in nineteenth-century Optino.) A contemporary Russian priest, Father Alexander Men--himself much revered as a spiritual father before his tragic and untimely death at unknown hands in 1990--has wisely insisted that monastic observances cannot be transferred wholesale to parish life: "We often think that the relation of spiritual child to spiritual father requires that the former be always obedient to the latter. In reality, this principle is an essential part of the monastic life. A monk promises to be obedient, to do whatever his spiritual father requires. A parish priest cannot impose such a model on lay people and cannot arrogate to himself the right to give peremptory orders. He must be happy recalling the Church's rules, orienting his parishioner's lives, and helping them in their inner struggles."

Yet, when full allowance has been made for these two points, there are three further things that need to be said if a text such as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers or a figure such as Satrets Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov are to be interpreted aright. First, the obedience offered by the spiritual child to the Abba (Father) is not forced but willing and voluntary. It is the task of the starets (genonta) 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 (geronta) asks of each one that we offer to God our heart, not our external actions. Even in a monastic context the obedience is voluntary, as is vividly emphasized at the rite of Monastic Profession: only after the candidate has three times place the scissors in the abbot's hand does the latter proceed to tonsure him.

This voluntary offering of our freedom, however, even in a monastery, is obviously something that cannot be made once and for all, by a simple gesture. We are called to take up our cross daily (St. Luke 9:23). There has to be a continual offering, extending over our whole 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 (elder) and disciple is not static but dynamic, not unchanging but infinitely diverse. Each day and each hour, under the guidance of his Abba (Father), 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 (elder) and spiritual child, as we have already noted, is not one-sided, but mutual. Just as the starets (elder) enables the disciples to see themselves as they truly are, so it is the disciples who reveal the starets to himself. In most instances, someone does not realize that he is called to be a starets (elder) 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 (geronta), he will have a different word for each; he proceeds on the basis of not abstract rules but of concrete human situations. He and his disciple enter each situation together, neither of them knowing beforehand exactly what the outcome will be, but each willing for the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Both of them, the spiritual father as well as the disciple, have to learn as they go.

The mutuality of their relationship is indicated by stories in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers where an unworthy Abba (Father) is saved through the patience and humility of his disciple. A brother, for example, has an elder who is given to drunkenness, and is sorely tempted to leave him, but, instead of doing so, he remains faithfully with his Abba (Father) until the latter is eventually brought to repentance. As the narrator comments, "Sometimes it is the young who guide their elders to life." The disciple may be called to give as well as to receive; the teacher may often learn from his pupils. As the Talmud records, "Rabbi Hanina used to say, 'Much have I learnt from my teachers, more from my fellow students, but from my pupils most of all."

In reality, however, the relationship is not two-sided but triangular, for in addition to the Abba (Father) and his disciple there is also a third partner, God. Our Lord insisted that we should call no one "father," for we have only one Father, Who is in heaven (St. Matthew 13:8-10). The Abba (Father) is not an inerrant judge or an ultimate court of appeal, but a fellow servant of the living God; not a tyrant, but a guide and companion on the way. The only true "spiritual Director," in the fullest sense of the word, is the Holy Spirit.

(To be continued)




With sincere agape in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George