The Spiritual Guide in the Orthodox Christian Church (Part IV)

Hieromartyr Mocius the Presbyter of Amphipolis in Macedonia

Hieromartyr Mocius the Presbyter of Amphipolis in Macedonia

My beloved spiritual children in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,

By Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia

Obedience and Freedom

This brings us to the third point. In the Orthodox Tradition at its best, spiritual guides have always sought to avoid any kind of constraint and spiritual violence in their relations with their disciples. If, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they speak and act with authority, it is with the authority of humble love. Anxious to avoid all mechanical constraint, they may sometimes refuse 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 spiritual father 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 (Father) 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 a story told by Isaac the Priest. As a young man, he remained first with Abba (Father) 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 St. Barsanuphius was asked to supply a detailed rule of life, he declined, 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 people's free will, but sow in hope; for our Lord did not compel anyone, but He preached the good news, and those who hearkened to Him."

Do not force people's free will. The task of our spiritual father is not to destroy our freedom, but to assist us to see the truth for ourselves; not to suppress our personality, but to enable us to discover our own true self, to grow to full maturity to become what we really are. 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, not with 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 liberty; obedience is in this the door to freedom. The spiritual father does not impose his personal ideas and devotions, but helps the disciple to find his own special vocation. In other words of a seventeenth-century Benedectine, Dom Augustine Baker: "The director is not to teach his own way, nor indeed any determinate way of prayer, but to instruct 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.

Such was also the approach of Father Alexander Men. In the words of his biographer Yves Hamant, "Father Alexander wanted to lead each person to the point of deciding for himself, he did not want to order or to impose. He compared his role to that of a midwife who is present only to help the mother give birth herself to her baby. One of his friends wrote that Father Alexander way" above us yet right besides us."

In the last resort, then, what the spiritual mother or father gives to the disciple is not a code of written or oral regulations, nor a set of techniques for meditation, but a personal relationship. Within this personal relationship the Abba (Father) grows and changes as well as the disciple, for God is constantly directing them both. The Abba (Father) 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 thinks that the question does not need an answer, or because he himself does not yet know what the answer should be. But these answers--or this failure to answer--are always given within the framework of a personal relationship. Many things cannot be said in words, but can only be conveyed through a direct personal encounter. As the Hasidic master Rabbi Jacob Yitzhak affirmed, "The way cannot be learned out of a book, or from hearsay, but can only be communicated from person to person."

Here we touch on the most important of all, and that is the personalism that inspires the encounter between disciple and spiritual guide. This persona contact protects the disciple against rigid legalism, against slavish submission to the letter of the law. He learns the way, not through external conformity to written rules, but through seeing a human face and hearing a living voice. In this way the spiritual mother or father is the guardian of evangelical freedom.

When people imagine that they have failed in their search for a guide, often this is because they expect him or her to be of a particular type; they want a Saint 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 aeus 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 conclusion, I wish to recall two elders of our own day, whom I have had the privilege and happiness of knowing personally. The first is Father Amphilochios (+1970), at one time abbot of the Monastery of Saint John on the island of Patmos, and subsequently geronta to a community of nuns which he had founded not far from the Monastery. What most distinguished his character was his gentleness, his humor, the warmth of his affection, and his sense of tranquil yet triumphant joy. He smile was full of love, but devoid of all sentimentality. Life in Christ, as he understood it, is not a heavy yoke, a burden to be carried with sullen 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."

Two things in particular I recall about him. The first was his love of nature and, especially, of trees. "Do you know," he used to say, "that God gave us one more commandment, which is not recorded in Scripture? It is the commandment Love the trees." Whoever does not love trees, he was convinced, does not love Christ. When hearing the confessions of the local farmers, he assigned to them as a penance (epitimion) the task of planting a tree, and through his influence many hill-sides of Patmos, which once were barren rock, are now green with foliage every summer.

A second thing that stands out in my memory is the counsel which he gave me when, as a newly-ordained priest, the time had come for me to return from Patmos to Oxford, where I was to begin teaching in the university. He himself had never visited the west, but he had a shrewd perception of the situation of Orthodoxy in the diaspora. "Do not be afraid," he insisted. Do not be afraid because of your Orthodoxy, he told me; do not be afraid because, as an Orthodox in the west, you will be often isolated and always in a small minority. Do not make compromises but do not attack other Christians; do not be either defensive or aggressive; simply be yourself.

My second example of a twentieth-century starets known to me personally is St. John Maximovitch (+1966), Russian bishop in Shangai, then in Western Europe, and finally in San Fransisco...

In private conversation he was abrupt yet kindly. He quickly won the confidence of small children. Particularly striking was the intensity of his intercessory prayer. It was his practice, whenever possible, to celebrate the Divine Liturgy daily, and the service often took twice 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 entries on a list, but always persons. One story that I was told is typical. It was his custom each year to visit Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY. As he made his departure after one such visit, a monk gave him a slip of paper with four names of those who were gravely ill. St. 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 St. 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, while the other two have recovered." And so indeed it was.

Such is the role of the spiritual father. As Saint Barsanuphius expressed it, "I care for you more than you care for yourself."




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

+Father George