God calls us to perfection (Matt 5:48). This can’t be obtained without the participation in the divine-human life of Christ. “Therefore the goal of Orthodox Spirituality is the perfection of the believer by his union with Christ.”
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 father—whom the Greeks call “Geron” and the Russians “Starets”, a title which in both languages means “old man” or “elder”. 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.
Here are a few thoughts on having a Spiritual Father in your life.
Orthodox Christians are blessed with a rich tradition of worship that has been passed down intact from ancient times, and most of us aware of what a great treasure we possess in our liturgical inheritance.
The spiritual father is ordinarily your parish priest, who will normally serve as your confessor. Sometimes, by specially arrangement, and with the blessing of your parish priest, a monastic may serve as a spiritual father, or even a priest at another parish with whom you may have established a meaningful spiritual relationship. But there is a primary sense in which the parish priest holds a fatherly responsibility for the health of the soul of each parishioner; it is a solemn and holy charge, which no good priest takes lightly, and which should be granted deep respect by members of the parish.
The epistles to Timothy and Titus are of a special nature in the New Testament because they are the only epistles written from a spiritual father to a disciple in the faith. Thus, they take on a different character than St. Paul’s epistles written to the general churches. Here we see the fatherly instructions given to a son on how to lead and a snap shot of the Early Church’s structure.
It is also helpful to know that St. Paul was writing these epistles to St. Timothy late in his own ministry, while in Rome under arrest. His instructions then are not as one who is young and inexperienced, but one who has been through many trials, sufferings and reflects a deep spiritual quality. Thus, while this epistle was written to the Apostle Timothy in the first century, we may find helpful direction from one of the earliest spiritual fathers for our own lives. May we be open to that guidance.
If we make diligent effort to read the Bible, study the writings of Holy Fathers with the mind to put these into effect in as much as it is proper for us to do so, then we too can gain some humility and move along the path of our salvation. Thus was St. Paul a spiritual father to St. Timothy. In the canon to St. Timothy, we find that he is known as the greatest of preachers in the Church. We need to allow the fatherly advice to his spiritual son in the faith to also become St. Paul’s advice to us who lack a spiritual father of that stature.
If someone takes his spiritual life seriously, he normally finds a priest with whom such a relationship can take shape – perhaps not immediately, but he will find one. This is very important for spiritual growth. When an unfamiliar person comes to me for confession, I always ask him whether he has a spiritual instructor. With the majority of people, it turns out that they do not, even if they have confessed before and have been going to church for years. This always saddens me. It is a pity that people who have been involved in church life for several years have not made the effort to find someone to instruct them in spiritual questions.
This short prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” – contains our entire Orthodox confession of faith; all dogma is built on it. If you say it attentively, then the Lord will gradually purify your inner world. But when thoughts overcome me, they pollute this world; and, even if I do not do anything bad to anyone, my polluted inner world will act upon my neighbors, on those with whom I interact, indeed on everyone around me. This is very important to remember: we are saved together. St. Seraphim of Sarov said: “Acquire the spirit of peace and thousands will be saved around you.”
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.
So everything you do, do it with your spiritual Father’s blessing. Wherever you live, go to your spiritual Father and ask him to give you a praying rule. So that he knows your rule of prayer and you, one the other hand, will do as much as you have received blessing for. It is also good to ask for advice and blessing for any good deed that you would like to do, or for keeping a fasting day, etc… Everything you do, do it with your spiritual Father’s blessing, my son, so that the enemy doesn’t feel bold enough to interfere with your effort… Fr. Paisie Olaru of Sihla
“A priest is a spiritual physician. Show your wounds to him without shame, sincerely, openly, trusting and confiding in him as his son; for the confessor is your spiritual father, who should love you more than your own father and mother; for Christ’s love is higher than any natural love. He must give an answer to God for you (Saint John of Kronstadt, ‘My Life in Christ’).”
Orthodox Prayer to Find a Spiritual Father or Mentor
By Saint Symeon the New Theologian
O Lord, who desirest not the death of a sinner but that he should turn and live, Thou who didst come down to earth in order to restore life to those lying dead through sin and in order to make them worthy of seeing Thee the true light as far as is possible to man, send me a man who knows Thee, so that in serving him and subjecting myself to him with all my strength, as to Thee, and in doing Thy will in his, I may please Thee the only true God, and so that even I, a sinner, may be worthy of Thy Kingdom.