The Spiritual Father
by Bishop Kallistos Ware

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 importance of obedience to a Geron is underlined from the first emergence of monasticism in the Christian East. St. Antony of Egypt said: “I know of monks who fell after much toil and lapsed into madness, because they trusted in their own work … So far as possible, for every step that a 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.” [2]

This is a theme constantly emphasized in the Apophthegmata or Sayings of the Desert Fathers: “The old Men 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 man has faith in another and renders himself up to him in full submission, he has no need to attend to the commandment of God, but he needs only to 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.’” [3]

This figure of the Starets, so prominent in the first generations 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 19th Century, the Slavophile Kireyevsky, “and that is the example of an Orthodox Starets, 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 judgement of the Holy Fathers. God be praised, such Startsihave not yet disappeared from our Russia.” And a Priest of the Russian emigration in our own century, Fr. Alexander Elchaninov (+ 1934), writes: “Their held 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.” [4]

The Spiritual Father as a ‘Charismatic’ Figure

What entitles a man to act as a starets? How and by whom is he appointed?

To this there is a simple answer. 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. [5]

There is, of course, no sharp line of demarcation between the prophetic and the institutional 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. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the right to hear confessions is not granted automatically at ordination. Before acting as confessor, a priest requires authorization from his bishop; in the Greek Church, only a minority of the clergy are so authorized.

Although the sacrament of confession is certainly an appropriate occasion for spiritual direction, the ministry of the starets is not identical with that of a confessor. The starets gives advice, not only at confession, but on many other occasions; indeed, while the confessor must always be a priest, the starets may be a simple monk, not in holy orders, or a nun, a layman or laywoman. The ministry of the starets is deeper, because only a very few confessor priests would claim to speak with the former’s insight and authority.

But if the starets is not ordained or appointed by an act of the official hierarchy, how does he come to embark on his ministry? Sometimes an existing starets will designate his own successor. In this way, at certain monastic centers such as Optina in 19th-century Russia, there was established an “apostolic succession” of spiritual masters. In other cases, the starets simply emerges spontaneously, without any act of external authorization. As Elchaninov said, 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 (the true guardian of Holy Tradition) that this or that person has the gift of spiritual fatherhood. 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 starets 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. Finally 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 starets to himself.

The figure of the starets illustrates the two interpenetrating levels on which the earthly Church exists and functions. On the one hand, there is the external, official, and hierarchial 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 inward, spiritual and “charismatic” level, to which the startsi primarily belong. Here the chief centçrs 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 St. Seraphim of Sarov has exceeded that of any patriarch or bishop in 19th-century Orthodoxy. In this fashion, alongside the apostolic succession of the episcopate, there exists that of the saints and spiritual men. 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.

Flight and Return: the Preparation of the Starets

Although the starets is not ordained or appointed for his task, it is certainly necessary that he should beprepared.The classic pattern for this preparation, which consists in a movement of flight and return, may be clearly discerned in the liyes of St. Antony of Egypt (+356) and St. Seraphim of Sarov (+1833).

St. Antony’s life falls sharply into two halves, with his fifty-fifth year as the watershed. The years from, early manhood to the age of fifty-five were his time of preparation, spent in an ever-increasing seclusion from the world as he withdrew further and further into the desert. He eventually passed twenty years in an abandoned fort, meeting no one whatsoever. When he had reached the age of fifty-five, his friends could contain their curiosity no longer, and broke down the entrance. St. Antony came out and, ‘for the remaining half century of his long life, without abandoning the life of a hermit, he made himself freely available to others, acting as “a physician given by God to Egypt.” He was beloved by all, adds his biographer, St. Athanasius, “and all desired to ‘have him as their father.” [6] Observe that the transition from enclosed anchorite to Spiritual father came about, not through any initiative on St. Antony’s part, but through the action of others. Antony was a lay monk, never ordained to the priesthood.

St. Seraphim followed a comparable path. After fifteen years spent in the ordinary life of the monastic community, as novice, professed monk, deacon, and priest, he withdrew for thirty years of solitude and almost total silence. During the first part of this period he, lived in a forest hut; at one point he passed a thousand days on the stump of a tree and a thousand nights of those days on a rock, devoting himself to unceasing prayer. Recalled by his abbot to the monastery, he obeyed the order without the slightest delay; and during the latter part of his time of solitude he lived rigidly enclosed in his cell, which he did not leave even to attend services in church; on Sundays the priest brought communion to him at the door of his room. Though he was a priest he didn’t celebrate the liturgy. Finally, in the last eight years of his life, he ended his enclosure, opening the door of his cell and receiving all who came. He did nothing to advertise himself or to summon people; it was the others who took the initiative in approaching him, but when they came—sometimes hundreds or even thousands in a single day—he did not send them empty away.

Without this intense ascetic preparation, without this radical flight into solitude, could St. Antony or St. Seraphim have acted in the same ‘degree as guide to those of their generation? Not that they withdrew in order to become masters and guides of others. ‘They fled, not, in order to prepare themselves for some other task, but out of a consuming desire to be alone with God. God accepted their love, but then sent them back” as instruments of healing in the world from which they had withdrawn. Even had He never sent them back, their flight would still have been supremely creative and valuable to society; for the monk helps the world not primarily by anything that he does and says but by what he is, by the state of unceasing prayer which has become identical with his innermost being. Had St. Antony and St. Seraphim done nothing but pray in solitude they would still have been serving their fellow men to the highest degree. As things turned out, however, God ordained that they should also serve others in a more direct fashion. But this direct and visible service was essentially a consequence of the invisible service which they rendered through their prayer.

“Acquire inward peace”, said St. Seraphim, “and a multitude of men around you will find their salvation.” Such is the role of spiritual fatherhood. Establish yourself in God; then you can bring others to His presence. A man must learn to be alone, he must listen in the stillness of his own heart to the wordless speech of the Spirit, and so discover the truth about himself and God. Then his work to others will be a word of power, because it is a word out of silence.

What Nikos Kazantzakis said of the almond tree is true also of the starets: “I said to the almond tree, ‘Sister, speak to me of God,’ And the almond tree blossomed.”

Shaped by the encounter with God in solitude, the starets is able to heal by his very presence. He guides and forms others, not primarily by words of advice, but by his companionship, by the living and specific example which he sets—in a word, by blossoming like the almond tree. He teaches as much by his silence as by his speech. “Abba Theophilus the Archbishop once visited Scetis, and when the brethren had assembled they said to Abba Pambo, ‘Speak a word to the Pope that he may be edified.’ The Old Man said to them, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, neither will be he edified by my speech.’” [8] A story with the same moral is told of St. Antony. “It was the custom of three Fathers to visit the Blessed Antony once each year, and two of them used to ask him questions about their thoughts (logismoi) and the salvation of their soul; but the third remained completely silent, without putting any questions. After a long while, Abba Antony said to him, ‘See, you have been in the habit of coming to me all this time, and yet you do not ask me any questions’. And the other replied, ‘Father, it is enough for me just to look at you.’” [9]

The real journey of the starets is not spatially into the desert, but spiritually into the heart. External solitude, while helpful, is not indispensable, and a man may learn to stand alone before God, while yet continuing to pursue a life of active service in the midst of society. St. Antony of Egypt was told that a doctor in, Alexandria was his equal in spiritual achievement: “In the city there is someone like you, a doctor by profession, who gives all his money to the needy, and the whole day long he sings the Thrice-Holy Hymn with the angels.” [10] We are not told how this revelation came to Antony, nor what was the name of the doctor, but one thing is clear. Unceasing: prayer of the heart is no monopoly of the solitaries; the mystical and “angelic” life is possible in the city as well as the desert. The Alexandrian doctor accomplished the inward journey without severing his outward links with the community.

There are also many instances in which flight and return are not sharply distinguished in temporal sequence. Take, for example, the case of St. Seraphim’s younger contemporary, Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov (t1867). Trained originally as an army officer, he was appointed at the early age of twenty-six to take charge of a busy and influential monastery close to St. Petersburg. His own monastic training had lasted little more than four years before he was placed in a position of authority. After twetity-four years as Abbot, he was consecrated Bishop. Four years later he resigned, to spend the remaining six years of his life as a hermit. Here a period of active pastoral work preceded the period of anachoretic seclusion. When he was made abbot, he must surely have felt gravely ill-prepared. His secret withdrawal into the heart was undertaken continuously during the many years in which he administered a monastery and a diocese; but it did not receive an exterior, expression until the very end of his life.

Bishop Ignaty’s career [11] may serve as a paradigm to many of us at the present time, although (needless to say) we fall far short of his level of spiritual achievement. Under the pressure of outward circumstances and probably without clearly realizing what is happening to us, we become launched on a career of teaching, preaching, and pastoral counselling, while lacking any deep knowledge of the desert and its creative silence. But through teaching others we ourselves begin to learn. Slowly we recognize our powerlessness to heal the wounds of humanity solely through philanthropic programs, common sense, and psychiatry. Our complacency is broken down, we appreciate our own inadequacy, and start to understand what Christ meant by the “one thing that is necessary” (Luke 10:42). That is the moment when we enter upon the path of the starets. Through our pastoral experience, through our anguish over the pain of others,’ we are brought to undertake the journey inwards, to ascend the secret ladder of the Kingdom, where alone a genuine solution to the world’s problems can be found. No doubt few if any among us would think of ourselves as a starets in the full sense, but provided we seek with humble sincerity to enter into the “secret chamber” of our heart, we can all share to some degree in the grace of the spiritual fatherhood. Perhaps we shall never outwardly lead the life of a monastic recluse or a hermit—that rests with God—but what is supremely important is that each should see the need to be a hermit of the heart.

The Three Gifts of the Spiritual Father

Three gifts in particular distinguish the spiritual father. The first is insight and discernment (diakrisis), the ability to perceive intuitively the secrets of another’s heart, to understand the hidden depths of which the other is unaware. The spiritual father penetrates beneath the conventional gestures and attitudes whereby we conceal our true personality from others and from ourselves; and beyond all these trivialities, he comes to grips with the unique person made in the image and likeness of God. This power is spiritual rather than psychic; it is not simply a kind of extra-sensory perception or a sanctified clairvoyance but the fruit of grace, presupposing concentrated prayer and an unremitting ascetic struggle.

With this gift of insight there goes the ability to use words with power. As each person comes before him, the starets knows—immediately and specifically—what it is that the individual needs to hear. Today, we are inundated with words, but for the most part these are conspicuously not words uttered with power. [12] The starets uses few words, and sometimes none at all; but by these few words or by his silence, he is able to alter the whole direction of a man’s life. At Bethany, Christ used three words only: “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43) and these three words, spoken with power, were sufficient to bring the dead back to life. In an age when language has been disgracefully trivialized, it is vital to rediscover the power of the word; and this means rediscovering the nature of silence, not just as a pause between words but as one of the primary realities of existence. Most teachers and preachers talk far too much; the starets is distinguished by an austere economy of language.

But for a word to possess power, it is necessary that there should be not only one who speaks with the genuine authority of personal experience, but also one who listens with attention and eagerness. If someone questions a starets out of idle curiosity, it is likely that he will receive little benefit; but if he approaches the starets with ardent faith and deep hunger, the word that he hears may transfigure his being. The words of the startsi are for the most part simple in verbal expression and devoid of literary artifice; to those who read them in a superficial way, they will seem jejune and banal.

The spiritual father’s gift of insight is exercised primarily through the practice known as “disclosure of thoughts”(logismoi). In early Eastern monasticism the young monk used to go daily to his father and lay before him all the thoughts which had come to him during the day. This disclosure of thoughts includes far more than a confession of sins, since the novice also speaks of those ideas and impulses which may seem innocent to him, but in which the spiritual father may discern secret dangers or significant signs. Confession is retrospective, dealing with sins that have already occurred; the disclosure of thoughts, on the other hand, is prophylactic, for it lays bare ourlogismoi before they have led to sin and so deprives them of their, power to harm. The purpose of the disclosure is not juridical, to secure absolution from guilt, but self-knowledge, that each may see himself as he truly is. [13]

Endowed with discernment, the spiritual father does not merely wait for a person to reveal himself, but shows to the other thoughts hidden from him. When people came to St. Seraphim of Sarov, he often answered their difficulties before they had time to put their thoughts before him. On many occasions the answer at first seemed quite irrelevant, and even absurd and irresponsible; for what St. Seraphim answered was not, the question his visitor had consciously in mind, but the one he ought to have been asking. In all this St. Seraphim relied on the inward light of the Holy Spirit. He found it important, he explained, not to work out in advance hat he was going to say; in that case, his words would represent merely his own human judgment which might well be in error, and not the judgment of God.

In St. Seraphim’s eyes, the relationship between starets and spiritual child is stronger than death, and he therefore urged his children to continue their disclosure of thoughts to him even after his departure to the next life. These are the words which, by his on command, were written on his tomb: “When I am dead, come to me at my grave, and the more often, the better. Whatever is on your soul, whatever may have happened to you, come to me as when I was alive and, kneeling on the ground, cast all your bitterness upon my grave. Tell me everything and I shall listen to you, and all the bitterness will fly away from you. And as you spoke to me when I was alive, do so now. For I am living, and I shall be forever.”

The second gift of the spiritual father is the ability to love others and to make others’ sufferings his own. Of Abba Poemen, one of the greatest of the Egyptian gerontes, it is briefly and simply recorded: “He possessed love, and many came to him.” [14] He possessed love—this is indispensable in all spiritual fatherhood. Unlimited insight into the secrets of men’s hearts, if devoid of loving compassion, would not be creative but destructive; he who cannot love others will have little power to heal them.

Loving others involves suffering with and for them; such is the literal sense of compassion. “Bear one anothers burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). The spiritual father is ‘the one who par excellence bears the burdens of others. “A starets”, writes Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, “is one who takes your soul, your will, unto his soul and his will…. ” It is not enough for him to offer advice. He is also required to take up the soul of his spiritual children into his own soul, their life into his life. It is his task to pray for them, and his constant intercession on their behalf is more important to them than any words of counsel. [15] It is his task likewise to assume their sorrows and their sins, to take their guilt upon himself, and to answer for them at the Last Judgment.

All this is manifest in a primary document of Eastern spiritual direction, the Books of Varsanuphius and John,embodying some 850 questions addressed to two elders of 6th-century Palestine, together with their written answers. “As God Himself knows,” Varsanuphius insists to his spiritual children, “there is not a second or an hour when I do not have you in my mind and in my prayers … I care for you more than you care for yourself … I would gladly lay down my life for you.” This is his prayer to God: “O Master, either bring my children with me into Your Kingdom, or else wipe me also out of Your book.” Taking up the theme of bearing others’ burdens, Varsanuphius affirms: “I am bearing your burdens and your offences … You have become like a man sitting under a shady tree … I take upon myself the sentence of condemnation against you, and by the grace of Christ, I will not abandon you, either in this age or in the Age to Come.” [16]

Readers of Charles Williams will be reminded of the principle of ‘substituted love,’ which plays a central part inDescent into Hell. The same line of thought is expressed by Dostoevsky’s starets Zosima: “There is only one way of salvation, and that is to make yourself responsible for all men’s sins… To make yourself responsible in all sincerity for everything and for everyone.” The ability of the starets to support and strengthen others is measured by his willingness to adopt this way of salvation.

Yet the relation between the spiritual father and his children is not one-sided. Though he takes the burden of their guilt upon himself and answers for them before God, he cannot do this effectively unless they themselves are struggling wholeheartedly for their own salvation. Once a brother came to St. Antony of Egypt and said: “Pray for me.” But the Old Man replied: “Neither will I take pity on you nor will God, unless you make some effort of your own.” [17]

When considering the love of a starets for those under his care, it is important to give full meaning to the word “father” in the title “spiritual father”. As father and offspring in an ordinary family should be joined in mutual love, so it must also be within the “charismatic” family of the starets. It is primarily a relationship in the Holy Spirit, and while the wellspring of human affection is not to be unfeelingly suppressed, it must be contained within bounds. It is recounted how a young monk looked after his elder, who was gravely ill, for twelve years without interruption. Never once in that period did his elder thank him or so much as speak one word of kindness to him. Only on his death-bed did the Old Man remark to the assembled brethren, “He is an angel and not a man.” [18] The story is valuable as an indication of the need for spiritual detachment, but such an uncompromising suppression of all outward tokens of affection is not typical of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, still less of Varsanuphius and John.

A third gift of the spiritual father is the power to transform the human environment, both the material and the non-material. The gift of healing, possessed by so many of the startsi, is one aspect of this power: More generally, the starets helps his disciples to perceive the world as God created it and as God desires it once more to be. “Can you take too much joy in your Father’s works?” asks Thomas Traherne. “He is Himself in everything.” The true starets is one who discerns this universal presence of the Creator throughout creation, and assists others to discern it. In the words of William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything will appear to man as it is, infinite.” For the man who dwells in God, there is nothing mean and trivial: he sees everything in the light of Mount Tabor. “What is a merciful heart?” inquires St. Isaac the Syrian. “It is a heart that burns with love for ‘the whole of creation—for men, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for every, creature. When a man with such a heart as this thinks of the creatures or looks at them, his eyes are filled with tears; An overwhelming compassion makes his heart grow! small and weak, and he cannot endure to hear or see any suffering, even the smallest pain, inflicted upon any creature. Therefore he never ceases to pray, with tears even for the irrational animals, for the enemies of truth, and for those who do him evil, asking that they may be guarded and receive God’s mercy. And for the reptiles also he prays with a great compassion, which rises up endlessly in his heart until he shines again and is glorious like God.”’ [19]

An all-embracing love, like that of Dostoevsky’s starets Zosima, transfigures its object, making the human environment transparent, so that the uncreated energies of God shine through it. A momentary glimpse of what this transfiguration involves is provided by the celebrated conversation between St. Seraphim of Sarov and Nicholas Motovilov, his spiritual child. They were walking in the forest one winter’s day and St. Seraphim spoke of the need to acquire the Holy Spirit. This led Motovilov to ask how a man can know with certainty that he is “in the Spirit of God’:

Then Fr. Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “My son, we are both, at this moment in the Spirit of God. Why don’t you look at me?”

“I cannot look, Father,” I replied, “because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and it hurts my eyes to look, at you.”

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “At this very moment you have yourself become as bright as I am. You are yourself in the fullness of the Spirit of God at this moment; otherwise you would not be able to see me as you do… but why, my son, do you not look me iii the eyes? Just look, and don’t be afraid; the Lord is with us.”

After these words I glanced at his face, and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its mid-day rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes and you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders, yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his body, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and lighting up with its brilliance the snow-blanket which covers the forest glade and the snowflakes which continue to fall unceasingly [20].

Obedience and Freedom

Such are by God’s grace, the gifts of the starets. But what of the spiritual child? How does he contribute to the mutual relationship between father and son in God?

Briefly, what he offers is his full and unquestioning obedience. As a classic example, there is the story in theSayings of the Desert Fathers about the monk who was told to plant a dry stick iii the sand and to water it daily. So distant was the spring from his cell 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 command. At the end of this period, the stick suddenly put forth leaves and bore fruit. The Abba picked the fruit, took it to the church, and invited the monks to eat, saying, “Come and taste the fruit of obedience.” [21]

Another example of obedience is the monk Mark who was summoned by his Abba, while copying a manuscript, and so immediate was his response that he did not even complete the circle of the letter that he was writing. On another occasion, as they walked together, his Abba saw a small pig; testing Mark, he said, “Do you see that buffalo, my child?” “Yes, Father,” replied Mark. “And you see how powerful its horns are?” “Yes, Father”, he answered once more without demur. [22] Abba Joseph of Panepho, following a similar policy, tested the obedience of his disciples by assigning ridiculous tasks to them, and only if they complied would he then give them sensible commands. [23] Another geron instructed his disciple to steal things from the cells of the brethren; [24] yet another told his disciple (who had not been entirely truthful with him) to throw his son into the furnace. [25]

Such stories are likely to make a somewhat ambivalent impression on the modern reader. They seem to reduce the disciple to an infantile or sub-human level, depriving him of all power of judgment and moral choice. With indignation we ask: “Is this the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God’?” (Rom. 8:21)

Three points must here be made. In the first place, the obedience offered by the spiritual son to his Abba is not forced but willing and voluntary. It is the task of the starets 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 asks of each one that he offer to God his heart, not his external actions.

The voluntary nature of obedience is vividly emphasized in the ceremony of the tonsure at the Orthodox rite of monastic profession. The scissors are placed upon the Book of the Gospels, and the novice must himself pick them up and give them to the abbot. The abbot immediately replaces them on the Book of the Gospels. Again the novice take the scissors, and again they are replaced. Only when the novice him the scissors for the third time does the abbot proceed to cut hair. Never thereafter will the monk have the right to say to the abbot or the brethren: “My personality is constricted and suppressed here in the monastery; you have deprived me of my freedom”. No one has taken away his freedom, for it was he himself who took up the scissors and placed them three times in the abbot’s hand.

But this voluntary offering of our freedom is obviously something that cannot be made once and for all, by a single gesture; There must be a continual offering, extending