The Burning Bush

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The Role of a Spiritual Father

Excerpts from a transcript of a talk by Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh about the role of a spiritual father; an unforgettable talk, for both its essence and the power of its pastoral word.

The Burning Bush

“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.”
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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.

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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.

… 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.

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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.

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For more food for thought on this matter, go to:

WHAT IS SPIRITUAL DIRECTION? WHAT IS SPIRITUAL DECEPTION? by Fr Alexey Young (now Hieroschemamonk Ambrose), a spiritual child of Fr. Seraphim Rose, who offers some insightful words on the role of a spiritual father in our lives and how to relate to him, seeking to avoid deception and leading us to a true knowledge of God. Fr. Alexey also offers some recollections of his own spiritual father, Fr. Seraphim Rose.

 

And to:

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Visited by God

Jeanne Harper, Visited by God: The Story of Michael Harper’s 48 Year-long Ministry (Aquila Books, 2013), 146 pages.

Visited by God is the extraordinary spiritual journey of an extraordinary Spiritual man – Michael Harper. I think that I would not be missing the mark to say that Michael Harper was the leader of the Charismatic renewal in England and many other parts of the Globe. Beginning as an Anglican chaplain under John Stott at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, his journey finally culminated in his introducing an authentically British Orthodoxy as Dean of a new Antiochian Orthodox Deanery with English-speaking parishes all over the country.

His journey was a long and often ‘very difficult’ and testing one. In some ways I can liken it to the journey of St. Paul in that he depended solely on the Holy Spirit to lead him and lead him the Holy Spirit did! It all began in 1962 when Michael was visited by God while studying St Paul’s two prayers in his Epistle to the Ephesians. He ‘saw’ the Church as God saw her – broken by divisions and untended wounds.

It was almost from that very moment that Michael’s God-given mission for unity in the Church began. But there were many in the Anglican Church who opposed this renewal and together with Pentecostalism the movement was dismissed as over-emotionalism and therefore unacceptable. Inevitable disputes and arguments occurred but this did not deter Michael. On the contrary his detractors spurred him on! He continued to go wherever in the world there were people hungry for the power to live what they believed.

One might come to the conclusion that Michael’s journey as leader of the Charismatic renewal movement would result in a very broad liberality but when the Church of England’s General Synod of 1975 passed the motion allowing women into the priesthood, Michael felt more than just stirrings of discontent. Jeanne Harper describes Michael’s anguish which led to a most difficult and painful decision – to leave the Church of England – whom he called his foster mother, so faithfully had she cared for him and led him to his real mother, Orthodoxy.

Jeanne describes how he was led by the Holy Spirit to the Orthodox Church and in 2000 Michael founded the English-speaking Antiochan Orthodox Parish of St. Botolph’s near Liverpool Street, London. At the same time Michael was appointed as a director of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies Cambridge. And in 2005 he was elevated to Archpriest.

The silken thread of a spider is spun from behind him as he moves forward to spin his web. The spider cannot see his work until he looks back and then the pattern of his web with all its links is revealed. Looking back over the web of Michael Harper’s life one thing is clear – from the very beginning Michael’s journey had a pattern and this pattern was a pure reflection of God’s will in his life. Once this was achieved Michael was taken in 2010 and lives in constant joy and prayer along with the saints in glory.

Jeanne Harper shares this God given Spirit filled journey of her husband with the reader and in so doing cannot fail to make us all yearn for the presence of the Holy Spirit to touch and lead all our lives.

And let us not lose this opportunity.

Reviewed by David Suchet CBE

* Last but not least, the concluding chapter “The British Antiochian Orthodox Deanery Mission” is written by Fr. Jonathan Hemmings, one of the priests of the Deanery, whose parishes are strategically spread over England and are to be found in Ireland, north and south. The Dean who succeeded Father Michael, is Father Gregory Hallam, whose vibrant parish is in Manchester. Fr. Jonathan Hemmings ministers in Lancaster at the Orthodox Church of the Holy and Life Giving Crossworshipping at St Martin of Tours, Westgate. He writes the following chapter on the story of the Deanery and its missionary vision.