The video recording from which this transcript was taken was made almost twenty-five years ago, on May 18, 1987. In those days, in connection with the millennial of the Baptism of Russia, international conferences were held in the Publishing Department of the Moscow Patriarchate. On that day, Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Surouzh appeared with his famous report, “Spirituality and the Role of a Spiritual Father.” His talk was unforgettable for both its essence and the power of its pastoral word.
The videotape of this film that I made after Metropolitan Pitirim had given me my own wonderful video camera was recently unearthed, and I was filming everything I could get my hands on. I needed experience, and that is how this film came into being. The films were somewhat mediocre, but I am just happy that they were preserved.
How is it that this tape was not lost? If I find the time, I will be looking for other interesting films, and I will definitely put them on our website.
Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov)
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The theme of my talk is spirituality and the role of a spiritual father, or if you prefer, spiritual nourishment, or care of souls.
I would first like to define the word “spirituality”. Usually when we talk of spirituality, we are talking about specific religious expressions of our spiritual life—such as prayer and ascetic struggles (podvigs); this is all clearly expressed in such books as those of St. Theophan the Recluse, for example.
Just the same, it seems to me that in speaking of spirituality, we have to remember that spirituality consists in what the movement of the Holy Spirit works in us, and what we usually call spirituality is the manifestation of this mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit.
This places us in a very specific position with regard to the role of a spiritual father, because we are thus not educating a person according to one or another principle or teaching him how to grow in prayer or asceticism along the lines of a template. The role of a spiritual father does not consist in this, but rather in the fact that regardless of his spiritual level, the spiritual father must pay sharp attention to what the Holy Spirit is bringing to pass in a person and enable this process, protect him from temptations, falls, or wavering in his faith. As a result, the work of a spiritual father may seem on the one hand much less active, but on the other hand much more significant than we often think.
I would like to say a couple of words before going on about how the role of a spiritual father is not an unambiguous concept. There are, as it seems to me, three degrees, or three types of spiritual fathers.
On the one hand, on the very basic level, he is a priest to whom is given the grace of the priesthood, which consists not only in the right, but also the grace-filled power to serve the sacraments—the Eucharist, Baptism, and Chrismation, and also Confession, which is peace-making between man and God.
There is great danger lurking for a young, inexperienced priest, just graduated from seminary full of enthusiasm and hope, who imagines that ordination has given him intelligence, experience, and “discernment of spirits”, and then becomes what in ascetical literature is called a “young elder”. We are talking about young men who have not yet reached spiritual maturity, do not yet possess even the knowledge that comes with basic personal experience, but who think that they have been taught everything needed to help take a repentant sinner by the hand and lead him from earth to heaven.
Unfortunately this happens all too often, in all different countries: a young priest, by virtue of his priesthood—not because he is spiritually experienced, not because God had led him to it—begins to direct his spiritual children and command them: Don’t do this; do that; read this or that spiritual literature; go to church; make prostrations…
As a result, his victims become caricatures of spiritual life, doing everything that the ascetics of piety did. However, the ascetics of piety did all this out of their spiritual experience, and not because they were trained animals. For the spiritual father this is a catastrophe, because he has intruded upon a realm where he has neither the right nor the experience to intrude. I emphasize this because it is an essential matter for a priest.
One becomes an elder only by God’s grace; it is a charismatic phenomenon, a gift. A person cannot learn how to be an elder no more than he can choose to be a genius. We can all dream of becoming geniuses, but we know perfectly well that Beethoven or Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci or Andrei Rublev possessed genius that cannot be learned in any school, not even through long experience, and which is a divine gift of grace.
I am belaboring this point, perhaps for too long, because it seems to me to be an essential theme, here in Russia perhaps even more that in the West, because the role of a priest here is much more central. Often priests who are young, either in years or in spiritual maturity or immaturity, direct their spiritual children instead of cultivating them.
Cultivating them means treating them and working with them as a gardener would with flowers or other plants. He has to know the soil, the nature of the plant, the climactic or other conditions they are set in, and only then can he help. And help is all he can do, because one or another plant can only grow into what it should be by nature.
We should never break a person in order to make him like ourselves. One religious writer in the West said: A spiritual child can only be brought to his own self, and the road in his life can be very long.
If you read the lives of the saints you will see how great elders were able to do this, how they were able to be themselves, but also see in another person his exclusive, inimitable qualities, and to give that person—and another, or a third person—the opportunity to also be himself and not a replica of an elder; or in the worse case, a cookie-cutter repeat.
Take an example from the history of the Russian Church, the meeting of Saints Anthony and Theodosius of the Kiev Caves. Anthony was Theodosius’s spiritual father, but their lives were completely different in the sense that St. Anthony was a recluse while Theodosius was a founder of coenobitic life. One might ask, how could St. Anthony prepare Theodosius to do what he himself would not do, to become a man that he himself did not want to be, to fulfill a divine calling entirely different from his own?
It seems to me that here we can clearly discern the difference between the desire to make a person like ourselves and the desire to make him like unto Christ.
As I have said, eldership is a gift of grace, it is spiritual genius, and therefore none of us can think about behaving the way an elder would.
But there is a middle realm—spiritual fatherhood. Very often, just because both young and not so young priests are called “father”, they imagine that they are not only confessing priests, but true fathers in the sense that the Apostle Paul said of himself in the Epistles: “You have many schoolmasters, but I have given birth to you in Christ.” St. Seraphim of Sarov said the same thing in his time.
Fatherhood consists in a person—and he or she may not even be a priest—giving another person birth to spiritual life. Looking at his spiritual father, that person saw, as the old saying goes, the radiance of eternal life in his eyes, and therefore was able to approach him and ask him to be his instructor and guide.
The second thing that distinguishes a father is that a father is as if of the same blood and spirit as his disciple; and he can guide his disciple because there is not only a spiritual but also a psychological resonance between them. Probably you remember how the Egyptian desert was once filled with ascetics and instructors, but people did not choose their instructors according to signs of his glory. They did not go to the one about whom they had heard the best reports, but rather sought out instructors who they understood, and who understood them.
This is very important, because obedience does not mean blindly doing what someone who has either material-physical or emotional-spiritual authority over us says. Obedience is when a novice has chosen an instructor whom he trusts unconditionally, in whom he finds what he has sought for. He hearkens not only to his every word, but even his to tone of voice, and tries through all of what manifests the elder’s personality and his spiritual experience to re-cultivate himself, to partake of that experience and become a human being who has grown beyond the limits of what he could have done by himself.
Obedience is first and foremost a gift of hearing—not only with the mind, or with the ear, but with one’s whole being, with an open heart; a reverent contemplation of the spiritual mystery of another human being.
On the part of the spiritual father, who has perhaps given you birth or received you already born but became a father to you, there should be a deep reverence for what the Holy Spirit is working within you.
A spiritual father, just as the simple and ordinary, commonplace priest, should be in a condition to see the beauty of God’s image in a person that cannot be taken away. (This condition often takes effort, thoughtfulness, and reverence for the person who comes to him.) Even if a person is marred by sin, the priest should see an icon in him that has been harmed either by conditions in life, from human neglect, or blasphemy. He should see an icon in him and have reverence for what has remained of this icon; and only for the sake of this, for the sake of the divine beauty within that person, he should labor to remove everything that deforms that image of God.
When Fr. Evgraf Kovalevsky was still a layman, he once said to me that when God looks at a human being, He does not see the virtues that he may lack, or the successes he has not attained—He sees the unshakeable, radiant beauty of His own Image.
Thus, if a spiritual father is incapable of seeing this eternal beauty in a person, to see the beginning of the process of fulfilling his call to become a God-man in the image of Christ, then he is not capable of leading him, for people are not built or made. They are only aided in their growth according to the measure of their own calling.
At this juncture, the word “obedience” calls for a bit of an explanation. Usually we talk about obedience as submission, being under authority, and often as a kind of enslavement to a spiritual father or a priest whom we call our spiritual father or elder—not to own our detriment only, but also to his.
Obedience consists in, as I have said, hearing with all the powers of our soul. However, this obligates both the spiritual father and the “listener” equally, because a spiritual father should also be listening with all his experience, all his existence, and all his prayer. I will even go further to say that that he should listen with all the power of the Holy Spirit working in him to what the Holy Spirit is bringing to pass in the person entrusted to his care. He should know how to search out the paths of the Holy Spirit in him, to be in awe before what God is doing, and not bring him up according to his own image or how he thinks he should develop, making him a victim of his spiritual guidance.
This also requires that both have humility. It is easy and expected for a spiritual child to have humility. But what humility a priest or spiritual father must have in order not to intrude upon that sacred realm, to treat a person’s soul in the way that God commanded Moses to treat the ground surrounding the Burning Bush! Every human being—potentially or actually—is that very Bush. Everything surrounding him is sacred ground upon which the spiritual father may step only after removing his shoes, never stepping in any other way than that of the publican who stood in the back of the temple, looking in and knowing that this is the realm of the Living God, that this is a holy place, and he has no right to enter unless God Himself commands him, or as God Himself suggests he proceed or what words to say.
One of the tasks of a spiritual father consists in educating a person in spiritual freedom, in the royal freedom of God’s children. He must not keep him in an infantile state all his life, running to his spiritual father over every trifle, but growing into maturity and learning how to hear what the Holy Spirit is wordlessly speaking to him in his heart.
Humility in Russian means a state of being at peace, when a person has made peace with God’s will; that is, he has given himself over to it boundlessly, fully, and joyfully, and says, “Lord, do with me as Thou wilt!” As a result he has also made peace with all the circumstances of his own life—everything for him is a gift of God, be it good or terrible. God has called us to be His emissaries on earth, and He sends us into places of darkness in order to be a light; into places of hopelessness in order to bring hope; into places where joy has died in order to be a joy; and so on. Our place is not necessarily where it is peaceful—in church, at the Liturgy, where we are shielded by the mutual presence of the faithful—but in those places where we stand alone, as the presence of Christ in the darkness of a disfigured world.
On the other hand, if we think about the Latin roots of the word humility, we see that it comes from the word humus, which indicates fruitful earth. St. Theophan writes about this. Just think about what earth is. It lies there in silence, open, defenseless, vulnerable before the face of the sky. From the sky it receives scorching heat, the sun’s rays, rain, and dew. It also receives what we call fertilizer, that is, manure—everything that we throw into it. And what happens? It brings forth fruit. And the more it bears what we emotionally call humiliation and insult, the more fruit it yields.
Thus, humility means opening up to God perfectly, without any defenses against Him, the action of the Holy Spirit, or the positive image of Christ and His teachings. It means being vulnerable to grace, just as in our sinfulness we are sometimes vulnerable to harm from human hands, from a sharp word, a cruel deed, or mockery. It means giving ourselves over, that it be our own desire that God do with us as He wills. It means accepting everything, opening up; and then giving the Holy Spirit room to win us over.
It seems to me that if a spiritual father would learn humility in this sense—seeing the eternal beauty in a person; if he would know his place, which is nothing other (and this is a place that is so holy, so wondrous) than the place of a friend of the bridegroom, who is appointed to safeguard the meeting of the bride—not his own bride—with the Bridegroom. Then the spiritual father can truly be a travelling companion to his spiritual child, walk with him step by step, protect him, support him, and never intrude upon the realm of the Holy Spirit.
Then the role of the spiritual father becomes a part of that spirituality and that maturing into the sanctity to which each of us is called, and which each spiritual father should help his spiritual children attain.