THE ROLE OF A SPIRITUAL FATHER

By dogcatcher on February 25th, 2012

 

The Role of a Spiritual Father – Written by a Student of our Faith
(See Editor’s Note at the end of this article)

“A person without a soul-friend is like a body without a head.”
Saint Brigid of Kildare

These are the words of St. Brigid, abbess of the Kildare Convent in Ireland. In the Celtic tradition, a person called an anam chara, Gaelic for soul friend, played the same role as a spiritual father. They were a guide, a confessor, a friend, and most importantly a person with whom the Christian journeyed and with whom they shared all their joys and sorrows. Her words sum up the importance of the spiritual father in the lives of Orthodox Christians of 5th century Ireland, and even the Orthodox Christians of the modern world.

The role of spiritual father is an important component of an Orthodox Christian’s life. As an individual’s chief guide and confessor, they educate and guide their spiritual sons and daughters through the joys and sorrows of life. They are called upon to heal the wounds of both body and soul and, most importantly, they help the individual on the road to theosis, or the ultimate attainment of union with God. Although the role of spiritual father is of great importance, it can be misused to the detriment of not only the spiritual child but also the spiritual father.

The process of choosing a spiritual father should be one that is both time consuming and prayerful. A spiritual father should not be chosen simply based on the recommendation of others who find him to be “spiritual” or because they find that he strictly follows the canons of our faith. Although the advice of friends can be helpful, when choosing a spiritual father one should remember that they are in many ways choosing a physician who can best deal with their particular challenge or illness. Just as one would not go to a plastic surgeon for heart surgery, neither should one go to a geronda simply because he is good at treating your friend’s specific issue. The role of the geronda is to heal us and not to cripple us. One should visit and pray with several spiritual fathers. More importantly, one should not limit their choices to the ranks of the monastics. While monastics can and do make suitable spiritual fathers, married clergy who are prayerful and wise, also make excellent spiritual fathers. The words of St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite are helpful:

Examine the diligence that you have placed in trying to find a good spiritual father; for what greater need do you have than finding a good guide for such a journey that you need to embark on, full of dangers, like the one to heaven is. Now my beloved child consider what terrible danger you will find yourself in if not only do you search for such a spiritually worthy man to guide you correctly to your salvation and to heal you well from you passions and sins. Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite, The Rudder. Vas. Rigopooulos edition, Thessalonika. 2003. p. 488. Print.

Further, be wary of those who use the spiritual father/child relationship to further their own ends rather than focusing on Christ. A good spiritual father will, much like our parents, correct us not so as to cripple us and make us dependent on them, but so we may learn and grow. A good spiritual father will teach us so that, hopefully, we will ascend to greater heights than them. A good geronda will know, and will likely tell you, that your salvation will never depend on him or another human being. He will tell you that your salvation always depends on Christ and the Holy Spirit (emphasis added).

In addition, a good spiritual father is just that, a father. He is not a dictator who burdens his children with crippling obedience. He will not use confession as a tool to control his children nor will he use it as a form of interrogation, something that violates the canons (emphasis added). Further, he will not expect them to live as monastics in the world. As Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver noted in a 1998 protocol titled “The Lord Does Not Want Slaves in His Kingdom”:
It may be that some of our people, by following the monastic rule in the outside world, feel convinced that they are becoming more spiritual. However, they are sadly mistaken: for the monastic, as a novice, is willingly obedient in order to determine if he wishes to live the life of a monastic. Once he is accepted as a monk, he must resume the use of his free will in conforming to the way of life which he has chosen. The laity, on the other hand, cannot use the monastery or the spiritual elder as one uses a horoscope, not functioning unless they receive permission.

Further, a good spiritual father will not burden married couples with Gnostic restrictions that, as Archbishop Lazar Puhalo stated in 1998, “…seek to place guilt on married people for their normal and healthy heterosexual relations”. http://www.rickross.com/reference/ephraim/ephraim10.html. Instead of helping a spiritual child learn and grow, these kinds of restrictions prevent the child from becoming a rational member of Christ’s flock. Nor are these things matters of purity and salvation. Instead, they lead to people severing relationships with others and in the case of married couples, ending their marriages. Breaking the sanctity of marriage should be avoided at all costs. A spiritual child is not a slave to his or her spiritual father, nor should they deaden or be encouraged to deaden their free will. As Metropolitan Isaiah also noted:

This spirit of blind obedience with the deadening of the free will is unfortunately being practiced among some of our people and even by some of our clergy. They will not do anything without first receiving a ‘blessing’ from their ‘spiritual father’. And if they have been convinced that the spiritual father is a walking saint, they will eat his unfinished food after the common meal and even consume other things which may have touched the spiritual father in some particular way. This is nothing more than idolatry. It puts God aside and constitutes the worship of His creature.

Therefore, a good spiritual father does not place his children in chains. Rather by educating and loving them and by setting a good example for his children, he guides them to work with grace. It is Christ and the Holy Spirit who set them free. This is why it is so important to choose a spiritual father wisely for he can lead us to great heights. Conversely, one can lead to great burdens in such a manner that those heights remain forever unattainable.

Remember that a spiritual father is not a guru. He and his spiritual children are not the only “true Orthodox” in the world (emphasis added). All the bishops are not heretics, nor are all gerondas walking saints who are the only people who hold the “fullness of Orthodoxy”. If your geronda is teaching heresy or imparting theologumen as Truth you are not only free to leave your geronda, it can be argued that you must do so. This is because, as St. Ignatius Brianchaninov says:

“Through the acceptance of false teachings, and through the distortion of the dogmatic and ethical teaching that God Himself revealed to us, the corruption of the spirit is achieved because of the impact and interference of these false teachings. Instead, man ends up as a son of the devil.” http://patristic.easternorthodoxy.com/hypakoe.pdf.

A spiritual father must himself be obedient to those that have oversight of him because how else is he to teach obedience unless he knows how to be obedient himself? If a geronda is knowingly teaching false doctrines, or disobeying either his own spiritual father or hierarchy how can he expect his spiritual children to obey him when he is setting a bad example for them? The spiritual father is at times referred to as if sitting in the place of Christ. It is impossible for a disobedient or heretical spiritual father to do that because Christ simply did not seek his own will rather he sought to do the will of His Father who sent him. Therefore, if a spiritual father is seeking his own will, it is in the best interests of his children to flee from him and to seek better guidance elsewhere.

Moreover, it borders on heresy to claim that even a bad spiritual father can lead a person to great spiritual heights/salvation if the spiritual child is obedient to him. If a spiritual father is asking his children to sin or teaching them false and heretical beliefs, both the father and the child are in danger although likely to a different extent. God will not just gloss over the sins and transgressions of either person because there was obedience involved. Sin is sin and obedience does not change sin into glory. Sin is by its very nature disobedience and specifically disobedience of God and His Commandments. Christ at no time encouraged, or commanded that His Holy Apostles should disobey Him and as such neither should a spiritual father, who is in the place of Christ, do the same thing.

In conclusion, we have stated that the role of the spiritual father is a time honored and important aspect of the Orthodox Faith. A good spiritual father can and to this day does lead his children to great heights of piety, humility, and sanctity. He desires that his spiritual children will, hopefully, one day surpass him by growing and flourishing spiritually. He will see to this by educating his children and by not burdening them with tasks or obedience that he is unwilling to do himself or that are borderline or out rightly heretical. Conversely, a bad spiritual father will burden his children thus stunting their spiritual growth by acting like a despot. He does this by demanding blind obedience that makes people slaves as opposed to a rational member of a pious, living group. As a result, people are being separated from not only loved ones, but also from the Church, and hence Christ, without whom there is no salvation. Good teachings lead to salvation, bad teachings lead to death and the Church has always taught this. Therefore, let us keep in mind the words of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ in Matthew 7:15-20:

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%207&version=KJV.

Editor’s Note:
This article was written and edited by young men of our faith. The Editors at GOTRUTHREFORM.ORG commend both men for taking action by writing this article and thank them for their collective efforts because only through such efforts can we stem the growing cancer which have landed on the shores of North America around 20 years ago. We ask you, our readers, to consider the following:

1. Do you know anyone with an Ephraimite Spiritual father who has experienced a distorted version of our faith which has caused them harm?

2. Do you know anyone who has been crippled by their spiritual father because he is demanding blind obedience from them?

3. It is important to carefully choose your spiritual father or to whom you give confession because according to our faith, once a penance is given, it cannot be altered by your Parish Priest.