Sing Ye Carols!

 Carol Singers William Gunning Kind

 

Sing Ye Carols: An Interview with Hierodeacon Herman by  • November 24, 2015 

Hierodeacon Herman (Majkrzak), Chapel Music Director and Lecturer in Liturgical Music at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, has started a small ministry during this Nativity fast – a series of Facebook posts highlighting lesser-known hymns and carols from the Western tradition. You can enjoy his posts here: Fr. Herman’s Choral Advent Calendar. We thought this a good opportunity to ask him to share some thoughts on Western hymns and carols, and what role they can play in Orthodoxy.

A painting depicting traditional Christmas carolers in Greece

A. Gould: Father Herman, to begin please tell us about your Facebook page, “Fr Herman’s Choral Advent Calendar.”

Hdn Herman: Andrew, thanks for hosting me at Orthodox Arts Journal. I think many of your readers would be interested in checking out what I’m calling my “choral Advent calendar.” I’ve based the name for the page on the delightful old German Advent calendars where each day leading up to Christmas you open a little door that reveals a holy image or a scripture verse or the like. My page is the same idea, but each day it’s a link to a piece of choral music.  And with each day’s post, I include a description or commentary, and the text of the piece. My hope is that people will take this fast as an opportunity to listen to music attentively ­– i.e., will learn something about a piece before listening, and will listen to it with their undivided attention, while not doing anything else, and while reading along with the text.

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Most of the pieces I’m posting are from the repertoire of Western choral music, especially carols and hymns, the subject of this interview. I do occasionally post Orthodox liturgical music as well, and in any case the posts are following the Orthodox liturgical calendar throughout the fast. For those on the Old Calendar, I’ll be refreshing each post thirteen days later, so you can follow and be sync liturgically with your parish.

You don’t need to have a Facebook account to access the posts, but for those who aren’t on Facebook, I also have an email list – write the OAJ editor if you’d like to be added, and tell him whether you want the new calendar or the old calendar posts.

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A Gould: A lot of people, including Christians, tend to be fed up with Christmas music. It’s everywhere, in stores, in offices, and on the radio, and so much of it is cheap and just helps in the commercialization and secularization of this important Christian holy day. It can be easy to become cynical or jaded. You must have some thoughts on this, given how much you think about carols.

Hdn. Herman: Absolutely, Andrew. I think we should really make an effort not to be cynical about Christmas. The world has tried to spoil Christmas in so many ways, but we shouldn’t let that effort triumph in our own lives, in our own hearts.

I prefer to look at the presence of carols in stores and malls as one of the last vestiges of Christianity in the public space here in America, and I think we should value this and build on it. Yes, the carols are sometimes cheap and often annoying, but it’s not all “Jingle Bell Rock”! I’m always delighted when I go into a department store in 2015 and hear songs about Christ’s virgin birth! Even if, as is usually the case, I don’t like the musical arrangements, I’m still so happy to hear them. Some Christians complain when they start hearing carols and seeing Christmas decorations long before Christmas. Okay, maybe this is not ideal, but, you know, really I’d prefer to go into a store on November 1st and hear a song about Our Savior – or even Rudolph! – than a song about licentiousness, which is what we’re treated to the rest of the year.

Young adults today will probably be the last generation to have grown up somewhat familiar with a basic repertoire of a dozen or so famous carols: “The first Nowell,” “Hark, the herald-angels sing,” “Silent night,” “O come, all ye faithful,” “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” and the like. For many people, memories of early childhood Christmases are some of the purest and happiest of their lives, even if mixed with avarice or bitterness surrounding gifts, and those memories are bound up with carols like these. This means that for the next fifty years or so, these carols will have the potential to connect to a very special part of people’s lives. Our task as Orthodox Christians in a society increasingly post-Christian, but still having these vestiges of Christian memory, is to elevate these carols, to help them be a window through which people can experience something beautiful, something peaceful, and have even just a glimmer of joy and gratitude. This is especially our job if we are musicians. We should organize concerts with carols, and go caroling in our neighborhoods or at local hospitals and nursing homes. Let’s not let the devil have Christmas. It doesn’t belong to him.

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A. Gould: You grew up as an Episcopalian, and you were an organist and singer in the Anglo-Catholic tradition before your conversion to Orthodoxy. How has your experience with Western liturgical music influenced your vocation as an Orthodox choir director?

Hdn Herman: Well, Andrew, when I think back to the time in my life, to early adolescence (not long before you and I first met), when I was moved to make a resolute commitment of my life to our Savior, Christ Jesus, it seems to me that it was liturgical music that the Lord used to open that door in my heart. Discovering the traditional canon of Western, and particularly English, church music inspired me to learn about and immerse myself in the more traditional forms of Western liturgy that that music was meant to accompany. So, for example, I will never forget the summer Sunday in 1991 or ’92 when for the first time I attended a solemn mass in the full Anglo-Catholic tradition. It’s a cliché, but it really was a life-changing experience to discover a much older, more full stream of liturgical tradition, largely unscathed by the banal impoverishments that the liturgical reform of the 60s had brought about in Western Christianity. I was twelve or thirteen, and I had discovered the joy of my life: traditional liturgical worship. It was traditional music that led me to take traditional liturgy seriously, and liturgy in turn inspired me to dip into theology in my early high school years. I read C.S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, and other contemporary apologists, but then went further with Thomas Aquinas and collections of Patristic homilies. I even read a ten volume set of Anglican dogmatic theology by F.J. Hall. This all may seem far afield of your question, Andrew, but it’s not, really, because without this theological self-education I would probably never have become Orthodox. In my early college years I realized that I needed to have complete integrity and unanimity between these three great loves of my life: music, liturgy, and theology. I could not have one without the other two, and it is only in the Orthodox Church where they constitute an integral whole. I take my work as an Orthodox choir director seriously because I see what an irrevocable effect good church music had on me in middle school, and I think Orthodox church music has even greater potential to direct the lives of our young people today on the path of righteousness and salvation.

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A. Gould: It is often the experience of one who converts, that at first he feels it is a complete rupture – that nothing from his old ways are compatible with Orthodoxy. But over time, we mature, and come to understand that much of what we had known in the Western Church is highly sympathetic to Orthodoxy. And we start to see that the Western and Eastern traditions are not necessarily isolated alternatives, but rather are two related sisters in the Church’s history. Each has historically depended upon the other for inspiration, and they need to do so still, if liturgical art is to remain fresh and creative. This has been my experience since my conversion, and I wonder if yours has also followed this pattern?

Hdn Herman: I think you’ve put this very well, Andrew. This is a common path for converts, and I would even say it is a necessary path, first intentionally to distinguish yourself, to set yourself apart from what the service of reception of converts calls your “former delusion,” but then, perhaps years later, to go back and reacquaint yourself with these roots, viewing them with new, Orthodox eyes.

Yes, people who convert to Orthodoxy, especially from other Christian communities, should wholeheartedly immerse themselves in and be formed by the Orthodox tradition, not just in its dogmatic and moral teachings, but in its Eastern liturgical piety, its traditions of chant, iconography, and architecture, its ascetic disciplines, its monastic ethos. (And as an aside, to really do this well, I think you need to develop some measure of affection for and familiarity with one of the cultures from which Orthodoxy came to this country and to your parish. In my case that meant the culture and faith of Russia.) This is so important, because this is the path to making Orthodoxy your own: you are completely uprooted from your previous confession, and then you’re deeply planted in the soil of the Church. And I’d say that the new convert should not be too concerned with distinguishing between what is essential and what is incidental in Eastern Orthodox practice. (And to be clear, by incidental, I don’t mean insignificant.) Such distinctions are important, and will come with time and education, but new converts are not capable of making such distinctions, really, and if they try, they may become confused and perhaps be led astray.

But later, having undergone that clear separation and having internalized the ways of one’s new home, having laid a firm foundation for one’s new identity as an Orthodox Christian, one is then able to look at traditional Western Christianity with clearer vision and with more sympathetic eyes, and one sees that there is so much there that is beautiful and true and worthy of our close attention and admiration. You’re still aware of the problems, certainly, but you no longer fixate on them. And, yes, as you say, the more you learn about Church history, the more you see that, despite the Schism, despite the dogmatic divergences, East and West have never been two isolated, watertight compartments within Christianity. It is one common culture, with its roots in the Roman Empire. There are different emphases, of course, but the family resemblances are often quite charming.

Christmas carolers, Ukraine

A. Gould: Regarding Western hymns and carols, how would you characterize their strengths and weaknesses as a liturgical art? What do they do really well, and what do they offer us that may be lacking in the Eastern choral traditions?

Hdn Herman: That’s a huge question, Andrew. I’ll come at it from a few different angles.

Let me begin by clarifying that Western carols are not, technically, liturgical. Though often sung in Church, their origin is not found in prescribed liturgical texts or chant books, but rather they arise out of the spontaneous devotion of Christian people. And such extra-liturgical or, perhaps, paraliturgical singing exists within Orthodox cultures as well: one thinks especially of the famous Russian and Ukrainian Christmas carols, transplanted and sung to this day with such great fervor by Yup’ik Orthodox in Alaska, of the Arabic carol for Lazarus Saturday, “Rejoice, O Bethany,” or of the many carols from Greece or Serbia, including 20th-century compositions by St Nektarios of Aegina or St Nikolai of Zhicha. So I’d want to rephrase your question and make it less about East and West and more about liturgical and non-liturgical.

Put in that light, I think it’s really important for us to nurture extra-liturgical expressions of our Faith, and singing together about Christ and his Incarnation is one of the best ways of doing this I can think of. People who sing together about joyful things become joyful themselves. You and I did this for hours on end when we were teenagers, and I think this should be a regular part of the lives of all Orthodox children, youths, and grown-ups. Singing hymns and carols together is much better than making playlists of rock music on Spotify or playing video games! The one draws us into the embrace of a centuries-old Christian culture, the other conforms us to the world.

Koledari Christmas Carolers, Bulgaria

So, what extra-liturgical music should Orthodox be singing? For English-speaking Orthodox, the answer is obvious: we have a tradition ready to go, we just have to make it our own! And I think it’s wonderful when we as Orthodox say, “Everything, anywhere, that is good and true and beautiful belongs to Christ and belongs to His Church, and so we will preserve it and pass it on because it is, in fact, ours.” We are the custodians of all that is good in Western Christian culture, because we are Orthodox Christians who speak a Western language and who live in the West. That’s a serious responsibility, when you think about it, and unfortunately Western Christians, with some notable exceptions, are not taking their patrimony seriously! Isn’t it ironic that we as Orthodox might pick up and treasure the Western carol tradition just as so many Western Christian denominations are turning away from their own traditional music and embracing contemporary musical forms that are shallow by comparison?

Christmas carolers, Romania

To return to your question, I probably wouldn’t say that there’s anything lacking in the Eastern choral traditions for the context in which they originate. The liturgical hymnography and chanting of, say, Slavic or Romanian or Arabic lands is complemented by a culture of pious folk singing that brings the Faith into the home. These Eastern carols are often much simpler melodies than the liturgical chants of the Church, they are composed in meters and verses that are easy to learn and remember, and so have immediate popular appeal – and yet they are also suitable for more elaborate arrangements and for performance at a very high and nuanced artistic level.

 

All the same things can be said of Western carols. And for English-speaking Orthodox, English carols and hymns, whether for Christmas or other seasons of the Church year, give us the unique opportunity of hearing our faith sung in poems originally written in English, hearing our faith expressed in poetic and musical forms native to our culture and our language. This is something immensely valuable. This is something that really helps us make the Faith our own as English-speakers, and it’s something that helps us elevate our Anglo-American culture so that it partakes of the Spirit of the Church and the life of Christ. The same can certainly be said about, say, French- or German-speaking Orthodox and those respective carol traditions, but I’m speaking from my own experience and vantage point as an English-speaker.

A troupe of self-described 'Hipster Carolers' in New York City.

A. Gould: Can you give an example of a carol that expresses good theology in a uniquely Western way – a carol that is wholly sympathetic to Orthodoxy, but that could never have been written in the East?

Hdn Herman: Well, I’d hesitate to say what “could never have been written in the East.” Eastern hymnography encompasses a huge variety of themes and expressions, and of course the hymnography contained in the received texts of our service books is only a fraction of the hymnography composed in the Eastern Church.

But one can readily find Western hymns and carols that express perfectly Orthodox theology, and that do so in poetic forms more familiar to the Western ear. An example that comes to mind is the majestic hymn, Of the Father’s Heart Begottena translation of the fourth century Latin hymn, Corde Natus Ex Parentis, by Aurelius Prudentius Clemens. With this and so many other early Latin hymns, not only is its content Orthodox, but so is its author, since Prudentius lived centuries before the Schism. The text has a simple, regular meter and rhyme scheme; the melody is solemn, yet lyrical and joyful – though a liturgical hymn, it demonstrates many carol-like qualities.

The text expounds the mystery of the Incarnation, beginning with the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father, moving on to the Creation of the world, and the foretelling by “seer and sybil” of Christ’s advent to bring salvation from the curse of sin and death, and arriving at the Incarnation itself, the birth of the eternal Son from his Virgin Mother. It moves forward into the future (in a verse unfortunately omitted in the linked recording), to sing of Christ’s Second Coming as Judge of creation, and concludes in an explosion of glorious praises by angels and men and all creation, singing with joy around God’s throne.

Of course, these are all themes we can find in Eastern hymnography, but perhaps what makes this hymn distinctly Western is its sweeping survey of the entire economy of salvation within one, long hymn. The focus is the Incarnation – this is a Christmas hymn – but it places that mystery in the context of the whole history of creation and beyond; indeed in its first verse it sings of Christ as the beginning and the end:

He is Alpha: from that Fountain,
All that is and hath been flows;
He is Omega, of all things
Yet to come the mystic Close,

thus, in just four pithy lines, drawing together the vast expanse of time and eternity. It does so with an allusion to the Book of Revelation (the Alpha and the Omega), which itself is uncommon in Eastern hymnography, since that book is not part of the lectionary of the Eastern Rite.

Christmas carolers, Ukraine

A. Gould: The English-language translations of Orthodox hymnography currently available are disappointing with regard to poetic language, and the tones to which they are usually sung are disappointing with regard to melody. Most of our hymnography, as sung in American churches, compares negatively to the elegance of great English hymns. Do you think that, over time, with better translation and better musical settings, it will be possible to sing Orthodox hymnography with this kind of poetic refinement and fitting melody?

Hdn Herman: Good questions. You’re asking both about the chant melodies used for our stichera, troparia, and other hymns, and also about the English translation of these texts. There’s not much I have to say about the melodies themselves. When sung beautifully, and in their most authentic forms, they are beautiful, and I don’t think inventing a new body of chant melodies ex nihilo would ever gain much traction. Whether working with Byzantine chant or one of the Slavic chant families, our job as choir directors and singers is to sing stichera sensitively and reverently. The temptation in Russian chant, certainly, is to make a caricature out of these sacred melodies, in each musical phrase racing through the recitation, and then dragging out the ending as if somehow to compensate for how fast one had just been singing. Often the hymn is not pointed well to begin with, with phrases that are too long to be sung meaningfully, or divided at the wrong part of the sentence, or with emphases put on unimportant words, where they could with slight adjustment be used to bring out more substantive words. If there is an area of Western church music that could inspire us to sing Russian chant more sensitively, it would be Anglican Chant, with its flexible, recitation-based melodies used by English cathedral choirs for the singing of Psalms. But one cannot simply imitate the style of Anglican Chant when singing Kievan Chant – the result could be quite comical. This is a difficult subject to articulate.

Malankara Orthodox Christmas Carolers in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.

Regarding English translations, this is a can of worms, but impossible to avoid. The English language culturally is not in good shape at the beginning of the third millennium, alas. I’m reminded of a letter written by poet W.H. Auden to his parish priest (Auden was an Episcopalian) probably in the early 70s:

Our Church [i.e., the Anglican Church] has had the singular good-fortune of having its Prayer-Book composed and its Bible translated at exactly the right time, i.e., late enough for the language to be intelligible to any English-speaking person in this century (any child of six can be told what ‘the quick and the dead’ means) and early enough, i.e., when people still had an instinctive feeling for the formal and the ceremonious which is essential in liturgical language.

This feeling has been, alas, as we all know, almost totally lost. (To identify the ceremonious with ‘the undemocratic’ is sheer contemporary cant.) The poor Roman Catholics, obliged to start from scratch, have produced an English Mass which is a cacophonous monstrosity (the German version is quite good, but German has a certain natural sonority): But why should we imitate them?

Well, lucky for us Orthodox, many of our translators did not feel they needed to “start from scratch,” but produced solid English translations that built on the wording and the spirit of Jacobean liturgical English. The difficulty is that neither the Prayer Book nor the Bible gives us models of how to render the florid rhetoric of Byzantine hymnography in English. I think that Metropolitan Kallistos’s translations (though some may disagree with certain word choices here and there, naturally), do the best job of any translation of bringing together the style of traditional liturgical English (admitting of some careful and limited modernization) and the text of Byzantine hymns. I wish he had gone on to complete Mother Mary’s draft of the Octoechos and Pentecostarion!

When we look to the tradition of the English translation of Latin carols and hymns, we see that they are almost always translated metrically, i.e., according to the original Latin meter, so that they can be sung to the same melody, which is composed to fit the text like hand in glove. This is also how the liturgical books prepared by Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline translate Byzantine hymnography, because they intend them to be sung to Byzantine melodies composed for the Greek texts. But a metrical translation is always a paraphrase, and sometimes this can be problematic. In any case, when translating for Russian chant, fidelity to the Greek meter is not required, since Russian chant melodies are by nature expandable and contractible, so as to allow for more or fewer syllables per phrase, as needed.

In general, I would love to see a greater poetic sensitivity in our liturgical translations, but one that is rooted in the tradition of English scriptural and liturgical translation that stretches back to the sixteenth century—this too is part of our patrimony as English-speaking Orthodox! However, there are many who strongly disagree with me, thinking that we should create our own style of liturgical texts using 21st century literary English style as the starting point. I take Auden’s approach here: ours is not the right era for this, because we have lost that “instinctive feeling for the formal and the ceremonious which is essential in liturgical language.” By the way, this principle Auden articulates is nothing new, but was present even in the earliest liturgical translations from Greek to Latin. This has been demonstrated by the linguistic historian Christine Morhmann.

Carolers in Bucharest, Romania, 1929

A. Gould: Is there a way for Orthodox churches to incorporate Western hymnography into their worship? There has always been some paraliturgical music in Orthodox services – hymns that are commonly used in local traditions, but which do not appear in the service books. Why should English-speaking churches not use old English hymns as paraliturgical anthems? Can you give us your thoughts on this question, and maybe some practical suggestions?

Hdn Herman: I’d be very cautious about this, actually. There is not really any open slot in our services for paraliturgical hymns, with the possible exception of the time during the Communion of the clergy at Divine Liturgy. There are those who argue that only the prescribed Communion Psalm should be sung at this time, but given that so many of our people rarely attend Vespers and Matins, I often will sing stichera during Communion, rather than repeating Psalm 148 every Sunday. If paraliturgical hymns are sung during Communion, I believe they should only be hymns by Orthodox hymnographers, either ancient (including pre-Schism Western hymns), or modern.  After the dismissal of a service, as during the veneration of the Cross after Liturgy, I would be comfortable with later Western carols or hymns. I once saw a video of Christmas Liturgy from Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow in which they sang Russian translations of Western Christmas carols during the veneration of the Cross. (I specifically recall hearing “Angels we have heard on high…”) I think this is good.

 

Christmas Vespers at the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior, Moscow, 2013

A parish can also sing carols during coffee hour or parish meals, at Holy Supper on Christmas Eve, or following a class or lecture. And parishioners should organize carol sings in their homes too, as well as in neighborhoods, downtown shopping areas, and nursing homes, hospitals, and prisons. All these possibilities embody the goal of letting our devotion to God flow out of Church and into our daily lives. Families could sing a different carol together each night after dinner during the Nativity fast and up through the end of the festal season.

A project I’ve been thinking about for some time is to compile several dozen of the best Christmas carols (both familiar and less-well-known) for use by Orthodox communities, carefully choosing which versions of each carol to use, to bring out the richest content. So many Protestant hymnals, unfortunately, have meager selections, missing verses, or poor harmonizations, or have altered the words for political reasons… but at present, as a convenient resource, I recommend finding a used copy of the Hymnal 1940 from the Episcopal Church. It’s quite solid, and unlike most Protestant hymnals it includes many hymns from the pre-Schism West – the old Gregorian office hymns, many of which are quite ancient.

A. Gould: Father Herman, you’ve given our readers much to think about. Do you have any closing comments?

Hdn Herman: I do indeed, Andrew! You’ve got me on a roll. Just a few final words about music more generally, as it relates to the life of the spirit and the life of the Church.

Our culture is drowning in music; many people are to some extent addicted to having music playing in the background throughout their day, and much of that music does not edify but draws us away from Christ in subtle or sometimes blatant ways, to say nothing of the resulting absence of silence. With the choral advent calendar, I’m trying to give people an opportunity to be more intentional about their music, and to help folks find music which can warm their hearts and help them draw near to God.

Christmas carolers, Poland

Now, taking the next step, and not just listening to good, Christ-centered music, but singing it: this is really important for Orthodox Christians in America. Our young people especially should be singing much more than they are, both in Church and at home (and hopefully at school too). Parents with any musical ability should make this a regular part of their family time, and children with any musical ability should have the formal study of music, especially piano and singing, as a central part of their education – required, not optional.

Why do I insist on this? Not only because Orthodox Churches across North America are in desperately dire need of proficient singers and choirmasters, but also because this can be such an important element in basic human developing and flourishing. And it’s on this subject that I’ll close, leaving you with a few words by Fr. Seraphim (Rose) of Platina:

The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music, as a result of which young people are formed haphazardly under the influence of television, rock music, and other manifestations of today’s culture (or rather, anti-culture); and, both as a cause and as a result of this – but most of all because of the absence on the part of parents and teachers of any conscious idea of what Christian Life is and how a young person should be brought up in it – the soul of a person who has survived the years of youth is often an emotional wasteland, and at best reveals deficiencies in the basic attitudes towards life that were once considered normal and indispensable …

Sometimes a spiritual father will deny his child the reading of some spiritual book and give him instead a novel of Dostoevsky or Dickens, or will encourage him to become familiar with certain kinds of classical music, not with any “aesthetic” purpose in mind – for one can be an “expert” in such matters and even be “emotionally well-developed” without the least interest in spiritual struggle, and that is also an unbalanced state – but solely to refine and form his soul and make it better disposed to understand genuine spiritual texts.

The entire article is well worth reading, but can best be summed up by the grace-filled words of St. Paul: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8)

So, thanks, again, Andrew, and may you and all your readers have a very blessed Nativity fast!

A. Gould: Thank you, Father Herman.

Source: Orthodox Arts Journal at http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/sing-ye-carols-an-interview-with-hierodeacon-herman/

Fr. Herman’s Choral Advent Calendar Curated daily posts of (mostly Western) choral music and carols for the Nativity Fast, Christmas, and Theophany, each with brief introduction and text. http://www.svots.edu/

 

Anam Cara

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“O Master, either bring my children with me into Your Kingdom, or else wipe me also out of Your book … 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.” (Abba Varsanuphius)

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St. Brigid and Anam Cara

A young cleric of the community of Ferns, a foster-son of Brigit’s, used to come to her with wishes. He was with her in the refectory, to partake of food. Once after coming to Communion she strikes a clapper. “Well, young cleric there,” says Brigit, “hast thou a soulfriend?” “I have,” replied the young cleric. “Let us sing his requiem,” says Brigit, “for he has died. I saw when half thy portion had gone, that thy quota was put into thy trunk, and thou without any head on thee, for thy soulfriend died, and anyone without a soulfriend is a body without a head; and eat no more till thou gettest a soulfriend.”

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Anam Cara (lit. “soul-friend”) originates in Celtic Orthodox monasticism where it was initially applied to a monk’s spiritual father and finds its best expression in the role of  the “Abba” or spiritual father for all faithful —whom the Greeks call “Geron” and the Russians “Starets” for all faithful.

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The Spiritual Father in Orthodox Christianity

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”. [1]

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 Startsi have 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]

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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 centers 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.

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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 be prepared.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.

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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 twenty-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.

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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 our logismoi 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.”

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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 in Descent 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.

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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].

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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 the Sayings 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 over our whole life; our growth in Christ is, measured precisely by the increasing degree of our self-giving. Our freedom must be offered anew each day and each hour, in constantly varying ways; and this means that the relation between starets and disciple is not static but dynamic, not unchanging but infinitely diverse. Each day and each hour, under the guidance of his Abba, the disciple will face new situations, calling for a different response, a new kind of self-giving.

In the second place, the relation between starets and spiritual child is not one- but two-sided. Just as the starets enables the disciples to see themselves as they truly are, so it is the disciples who reveal the starets to himself. In most instances, a man does not realize that he is called to be a starets until others come to him and insist on placing themselves under his guidance. This reciprocity continues throughout the relationship between the two. The spiritual father does not possess an exhaustive program, neatly worked out in advance and imposed in the same manner upon everyone. On the contrary, if he is a true starets, he will have a different word for each; and since the word which he gives is on the deepest level, not his own but the Holy Spirit’s, he does not know in advance what that word will be. The starets proceeds on the basis, not of abstract rules but of concrete human situations. He and his disciple enter each situation together; neither of them knowing beforehand exactly what the outcome will be, but each waiting for the enlightenment of the Spirit. Each of them, the spiritual father as well as the disciple, must learn as he goes.

The mutuality of their relationship is indicated by certain stories in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, where an unworthy Abba has a spiritual son far better than himself. The disciple, for example, detects his Abba in the sin of fornication, but pretends to have noticed nothing and remains under his charge; and so, through the patient humility of his new disciple, the spiritual father is brought eventually to repentance and a new life. In such a case, it is not the spiritual father who helps the disciple, but the reverse. Obviously such a situation is far from the norm, but it indicates that the disciple is called to give as well as to receive.

In reality, the relationship is not two-sided but triangular, for in addition to the starets and his disciple there is also a third partner, God. Our Lord insisted that we should call no man “father,” for we have only one father, who is in Heaven (Matthew 13:8-10). The starets is not an infallible judge or a final court of appeal, but a fellow-servant of the living God; not a dictator, but a guide and companion on the way. The only true “spiritual director,” in the fullest sense of the word, is the Holy Spirit.

This brings us to the third point. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition at its best, the spiritual father has always sought to avoid any kind of constraint and spiritual violence in his relations with his disciple. If, under the guidance of the Spirit, he speaks and acts with authority, it is with the authority of humble love. The words of starets Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov express an essential aspect of spiritual fatherhood: “At some ideas you stand perplexed, especially at the sight of men’s sin, uncertain whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide, ‘I will combat it by humble love.’ If you make up your mind about that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force; it is the strongest of all things and there is nothing like it.”

Anxious to avoid all mechanical constraint, many spiritual fathers in the Christian East refused to provide their disciples with a rule of life, a set of external commands to be applied automatically. In the words of a contemporary Romanian monk, the starets is “not a legislator but a mystagogue.” [26] He guides others, not by imposing rules, but by sharing his life with them. A monk told Abba Poemen, “Some brethren have come to live with me; do you want me to give them orders?” “No,” said the Old Man. “But, Father,” the monk persisted, “they themselves want me to give them orders.” “No”, repeated Poemen, “be an example to them but not a lawgiver.” [27] The same moral emerges from the story of Isaac the Priest. As a young man, he remained first with Abba Kronios and then with Abba Theodore of Pherme; but neither of them told him what to do. Isaac complained to the other monks and they came and remonstrated with Theodore. “If he wishes”, Theodore replied eventually, “let him do what he sees me doing.” [28] When Varsanuphius was asked to supply a detailed rule of life, he refused, saying: “I do not want you to be under the law, but under grace.” And in other letters he wrote: “You know that we have never imposed chains upon anyone… Do not force men’s free will, but sow in hope, for our Lord did not compel anyone, but He preached the good news, and those who wished hearkened to Him.” [29]

Do not force men’s free will. The task of the spiritual father is not to destroy a man’s freedom, but to assist him to see the truth for himself; not to suppress a man’s personality, but to enable him to discover himself, to grow to full maturity and to become what he really is. If on occasion the spiritual father requires an implicit and seemingly “blind” obedience from his disciple, this is never done as an end in itself, nor with a view to enslaving him. The purpose of this kind of shock treatment is simply to deliver the disciple from his false and illusory “self”, so that he may enter into true freedom. The spiritual father does not impose his own ideas and devotions, but he helps the disciple to find his own special vocation. In the words of a 17th-century Benedictine, Dom Augustine Baker: “The director is not to teach his own way, nor indeed any determinate way of prayer, but to instruct his disciples how they may themselves find out the way proper for them … In a word, he is only God’s usher, and must lead souls in God’s way, and not his own.” [30]

In the last resort, what the spiritual father gives to his disciple is not a code of written or oral regulations, not a set of techniques for meditation, but a personal relationship. Within this personal relationship the Abba grows and changes as well as the disciple, for God is constantly guiding them both. He may on occasion provide his disciple with detailed verbal instructions, with precise answers to specific questions. On other occasions he may fail to give any answer at all; either because he does not think that the question needs an answer, or because he himself does not yet know what the answer should be. But these answers—or this failure to answer—are always given the framework of a personal relationship. Many things cannot be said in words, but can be conveyed through a direct personal encounter.

In the Absence of a Starets

And what is one to do, if he cannot find a spiritual father?

He may turn, in the first place, to books. Writing in 5th-century Russia, St. Nil Sorsky laments the extreme scarcity of qualified spiritual directors; yet how much more frequent they must have been in his day than in ours! Search diligently, he urges, for a sure and trustworthy guide. “However, if such a teacher cannot be found, then the Holy Fathers order us to turn to the Scriptures and listen to Our Lord Himself speaking.” [31] Since the testimony of Scripture should not be isolated from the continuing witness of the Spirit in the life of the Church, the inquirer will also read the works of the Fathers, and above all the Philokalia. But there is an evident danger here. The starets adapts his guidance to the inward state of each; books offer the same advice to everyone. How is the beginner to discern whether or not a particular text is applicable to his own situation? Even if he cannot find a spiritual father in the full sense, he should at least try to find someone more experienced than himself, able to guide him in his reading.

It is possible to learn also from visiting places where divine grace has been exceptionally manifested and where prayer has been especially concentrated. Before taking a major decision, and in the absence of other guidance, many Orthodox Christians will goon pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mount Athos, to some monastery or the tomb of a saint, where they will pray for enlightenment. This is the way in which I have reached the more difficult decisions in my life.

Thirdly, we can learn from religious communities with an established tradition of the spiritual life. In the absence of a personal teacher, the monastic environment can serve as guru; we can receive our formation from the ordered sequence of the daily program, with its periods of liturgical and silent prayer, with its balance of manual labor, study, and recreation. [32] This seems to have be en the chief way in which St. Seraphim of Sarov gained his spiritual training. A well-organized monastery embodies, in an accessible and living form, the inherited wisdom of many starets. Not only monks, but those who come as visitors for a longer or shorter period, can be formed and guided by the experience of community life.

It is indeed no coincidence that the kind of spiritual fatherhood that we have been describing emerged initially in 4th-century Egypt, not within the fully organized communities under St. Pachomius, but among the hermits and in the semi-eremitic milieu of Nitria and Scetis. In the former, spiritual direction was provided by Pachomius himself, by the superiors of each monastery, and by the heads of individual “houses” within the monastery. The Rule of St. Benedict also envisages the abbot as spiritual father, and there is no provision for further development of a more “charismatic” type. In time, of course, the coenobitic communities incorporated many of the traditions of spiritual fatherhood as developed among the hermits, but the need for those traditions has always been less intensely felt in the coenobia, precisely because direction is provided by the corporate life pursued under the guidance of the Rule.

Finally, before we leave the subject of the absence of the starets, it is important to recognize the extreme flexibility in the relationship between starets and disciple. Some may see their spiritual father daily or even hourly, praying, eating, and working with him, perhaps sharing the same cell, as often happened in the Egyptian Desert. Others may see him only once a month or once a year; others, again, may visit a starets on but a single occasion in their entire life, yet this will be sufficient to set them on the right path. There are, furthermore, many different types of spiritual father; few will be wonder-workers like St. Seraphim of Sarov. There are numerous priests and laymen who, while lacking the more spectacular endowments of the startsi, are certainly able to provide others with the guidance that they require.

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.

Contemporary Examples

In conclusion, I wish briefly to recall two startsi of our own day, whom I have had the happiness of knowing personally. The first is Father Amphilochios (+1970), abbot of the Monastery of St. John on the Island of Patmos, and spiritual father to a community of nuns which he had founded not far from the Monastery. What most distinguished his character was his gentleness, the warmth of his affection, and his sense of tranquil yet triumphant joy. Life in Christ, as he understood it, is not a heavy yoke, a burden to be carried’ with resignation, but a personal relationship to be pursued with eagerness of heart. He was firmly opposed to all spiritual violence and cruelty. It was typical that, as he lay dying and took leave of the nuns under his care, he should urge the abbess not to be too severe on them: “They have left everything to come here, they must not be unhappy.” [33] When I was to return from Patmos to England as a newly-ordained priest, he insisted that there was no need to be afraid of anything.

My second example is Archbishop John (Maximovich), Russian bishop in Shanghai, in Western Europe, and finally in San Francisco (+1966). Little more than a dwarf in height, with tangled hair and beard, and with an impediment in his speech, he possessed more than a touch of the “Fool in Christ.” From the time of his profession as a monk, he did not lie down on a bed to sleep at night; he went on working and praying, snatching his sleep at odd moments in the 24 hours. He wandered barefoot through the streets of Paris, and once he celebrated a memorial, service among the tram lines close to the port of Marseilles. Punctuality had little meaning for him. Baffled by his unpredictable behavior, the more conventional among his flock sometimes judged him to be unsuited for the administrative work of a bishop. But with his total disregard of normal formalities he succeeded where others, relying on worldly influence and expertise, had failed entirely—as when, against all hope and in the teeth of the “quota” system, he secured the admission of thousands of homeless Russian refugees to the U.S.A.

In private conversation he was very gentle, and he quickly won the confidence of small children. Particularly striking was the intensity of his intercessory prayer. When possible, he liked to celebrate the Divine Liturgy daily, and the service often took twice or three times the normal space of time, such was the multitude of those whom he commemorated individually by name. As he prayed for them, they were never mere names on a lengthy list, but always persons. One story that I was told is typical. It was his custom each year to visit Holy Trinity Monastery at Jordanville, N.Y. As he left, after one such visit, a monk gave him a slip of paper with four names of those who were gravely ill. Archbishop John received thousands upon thousands of such requests for prayer in the course of each year. On his return to the monastery some twelve months later, at once he beckoned to the monk, and much to the latter’s surprise, from the depths of his cassock Archbishop John produced the identical slip of paper, now crumpled and tattered. “I have been praying for your friends,” he said, “but two of them”—he pointed to their names—’are now dead and the other two have recovered.” And so indeed it was.

Even at a distance he shared in the concerns of his spiritual children. One of them, superior of a small Orthodox monastery in Holland, was sitting one night in his room, unable to sleep from anxiety over the problems which faced him. About three o’dock in the morning, the telephone rang; it was Archbishop John, speaking from several hundred miles away. He had rung to say that it was time for the monk to go to bed.”

*

Such is the role of the spiritual father. As Varsanuphius expressed it, “I care for you more than you care for yourself.”

*

 Source: Bishop Kallistos Ware, “The Spiritual Father in Orthodox Christianity” at http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/spiritualfather.aspx)
* For a non-religious, secular analysis of “anam cara” read Anam Cara and the Essence of True Friendship, by Maria Popova

Mundi Peregrinatione

Explore in 360 degrees the Sistine Chapel, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and many more – all online.

http://www.vatican.va/various/cappelle/sistina_vr/index.html

Christians have been making pilgrimages to holy sites and churches around the world for centuries. Can’t make a pilgrimage? Here’s the next best thing!

Some tours are embedded on this page, while others can be found with the link provided.

Enjoy!

1) Sistine Chapel – Vatican City

 Maus-Trauden / Wikipedia
Maus-Trauden / Wikipedia

Built in the 15th century and painted in the 16th century, the Sistine Chapel is one of the great artistic masterpieces in the world. Michelangelo painted the ceiling and the Last Judgement fresco, while the frescoes on the other walls were painted by a number of other artists. Among other things, the Sistine Chapel serves as the location for conclaves of Cardinals that elect new popes.

This one can only be viewed on the Vatican website, so click on the picture or on the link to check it out.

LinkStart the tour!

http://www.vatican.va/various/cappelle/sistina_vr/

http://www.vatican.va/various/cappelle/sistina_vr/

2) Church of the Holy Sepulchre – Jerusalem

Jorge Láscar / Flickr
Jorge Láscar / Flickr

Located in Old Jerusalem, the Church of Holy Sepulchre is venerated by Christians for containing within its space what is believed to be the places of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection – which makes it pretty important! The original church was built in the 4th century under Constantine but has endured several rounds of extensive damage and restoration since.

LinkStart the tour! (here’s another virtual tour of the same place)

http://www.holysepulchre.custodia.org/default.asp?id=4098

http://www.holysepulchre.custodia.org/default.asp?id=4098

3) St. Basil’s Cathedral – Moscow, Russia

michael clarke stuff / Wikimedia Commons
michael clarke stuff / Wikimedia Commons

Not to be confused with the Kremlin (which is nearby), St. Basil’s Cathedral was built in the 16th century on orders from Ivan the Terrible and served as a Russian Orthodox cathedral for centuries until it was confiscated and forcibly secularized in the late 1920s by the Soviet Union. It remains property of the Russian government today and is used as a museum.

LinkStart the tour! (Note: the virtual tour can take a little bit of time to load.)

http://en.ria.ru/infographics/20110903/166323377.html

http://en.ria.ru/infographics/20110903/166323377.html

4) Basilica of St. Peter – Vatican City

Public Domain / Wikipedia
Public Domain / Wikipedia

This great wonder of the world was built in the 16th century in the midst of the Protestant reformation, replacing the aging church that had stood on that site since the 4th century. The largest church in the world, it is built on top of what is believed to be the grave of St. Peter, the first pope.

LinkStart the tour!

http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_pietro/vr_tour/Media/VR/St_Peter_Altar/index.html

http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_pietro/vr_tour/Media/VR/St_Peter_Altar/index.html

5) Church of the Nativity – Bethlehem, West Bank

young shanahan / Flickr
young shanahan / Flickr

Church of the Nativity is located on the place that Christians have traditionally believed that Jesus was born. The first church was built in the 4th century under Constantine but was destroyed by fire and then rebuilt in the 6th century. Since then it has gone through numerous restorations, additions, etc. Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic representatives run and maintain the current church.

LinkStart the tour!

http://www.bethlehem.custodia.org/default.asp?id=455

http://www.bethlehem.custodia.org/default.asp?id=455

6) Cathedral of St. Paul, National Shrine of the Apostle Paul – St. Paul, MN

Jeremy Noble / Wikimedia Commons
Jeremy Noble / Wikimedia Commons

Atop the highest hill in the Twin Cities (with the Minnesota state capital just a bit lower down the street!), the St. Paul Cathedral is everything you’d expect of a beautiful European cathedral – except that it’s in the U.S.! It’s the third largest completed church in the U.S., and the fourth tallest. Built in the early 20th century, it is a co-cathedral with the Basilica of St. Mary (see #6) for the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis.

https://www.google.com/maps/@44.9469453,-93.1090568,3a,75y,262.12h,114.8t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1sU1_gbXFY_AG2EOYw2_51-Q!2e0!3e2!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en-US

7) Basilica of St. Mary – Minneapolis, MN

Beatrice Murch / Wikimedia Commons
Beatrice Murch / Wikimedia Commons

Built in the early 20th century, the Basilica of St. Mary was the first church designated a basilica in the U.S., and serves as a co-cathedral with the Cathedral of St. Paul for the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis.

https://www.google.com/maps/@44.9731394,-93.2863352,3a,75y,357.32h,90t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1si0wv1yLqYgqL0xnh6PB72w!2e0!3e2!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en-US

8) Canterbury Cathedral – Canterbury, England 

Hans Musil, Wikipedia
Hans Musil, Wikipedia

When was Canterbury Cathedral built? That’s a hard question to answer, since different parts of the current structure were built, torn down, rebuilt, added on, etc over nine centuries, from the 10th to the 19th, with the site having been used as a cathedral since the 6th century. During the Protestant reformation in the 16th century, the Church of England took control of the church from the Roman Catholic Church.

LinkStart the tour!

http://www.canterbury-cathedral.org/visit/tour/
http://www.canterbury-cathedral.org/visit/tour/

9) Exeter Cathedral – Exeter, England

WyrdLight.com / Antony McCallum / Wikipedia
WyrdLight.com / Antony McCallum / Wikipedia

Built from the 12th century to the 15th century, Exeter Cathedral serves as the seat of the Anglican bishop of Exeter. Among its large collection of relics, the church has what is supposedly the Burning Bush, as well as part of a candle used by an angel in Christ’s tomb. Like the Canterbury Cathedral, Exeter Cathedral was originally a Roman Catholic cathedral, but was acquired by the Church of England in the 16th century.

LinkStart the tour!

http://www.peterstephens.co.uk/virtual_tours/exeter-cathedral/2012/virtualtour.html
http://www.peterstephens.co.uk/virtual_tours/exeter-cathedral/2012/virtualtour.html

10) St. Patrick’s Cathedral – New York City, NY

Mr. Kjetil Ree / Wikimedia Commons
Mr. Kjetil Ree / Wikimedia Commons

Directly across the street from Rockefeller Center in the middle of New York City, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was built in the 19th century when midtown wasn’t as populated, and its large size dominated the area. Construction began in 1858, paused during the Civil War, and was finished in 1878. Further work was done in the early 20th century, and it was named a National Historic Site in 1976. It is currently used as the seat of the Catholic Archbishop of New York.

https://www.google.com/maps/@40.7586705,-73.9765313,3a,75y,111.35h,82.11t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1sE_1fHJcwaJp2kITv5ZMA-A!2e0!3e2!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en-US

11) Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Chartres – Chartres, France

Olvr / Wikipedia
Olvr / Wikipedia

Built mostly in the 13th century, Chartres Cathedral is the latest of at least five churches that have stood in its location. Amazingly, most of the stained glass in the church is original. Among its many boasts, the church claims to have the Sancta Camisa, the tunic worn by the Blessed Virgin Mary at the birth of Jesus. It is still the seat of the Catholic bishop of Chartres.

LinkStart the tour!

http://mappinggothic.org/archmap/media/buildings/001000/1107/panos/1107_vr_00004.swf
http://mappinggothic.org/archmap/media/buildings/001000/1107/panos/1107_vr_00004.swf

12) Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception – Washington D.C.

AgnosticPreachersKid / Wikipedia
AgnosticPreachersKid / Wikipedia

Located on the campus of Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception “is the largest Catholic church in the United States, the largest church of any kind in the western hemisphere, the eighth largest church building in the world, and the tallest habitable building in Washington, D.C.” Construction began in 1920, but wasn’t completed until 1961 due to the Great Depression and WWII. Even so, significant additions have been made as recently as 2012. In addition to a beautiful array of images of the Blessed Virgin Mary from different cultures, the basilica houses the papal tiara of Pope Paul VI.

LinkStart the tour!

http://www.nationalshrine.com/site/c.osJRKVPBJnH/b.5842239/k.A7C7/Virtual_Tour_360.htm
http://www.nationalshrine.com/site/c.osJRKVPBJnH/b.5842239/k.A7C7/Virtual_Tour_360.htm

Source: 12 Amazing Virtual Tours of the World’s Most Spectacular Churches

http://www.churchpop.com/2014/08/10/12-amazing-virtual-tours-of-the-worlds-most-spectacular-churches/