The Broken Priest

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Such insight and perception of the all too frail human priest from Father Seraphim Aldea!

St. Drostan — Spiritual Fatherhood

Bishops, priests and monastics – male and female – can suffer (God willing, maybe not all of us do) from a type of loneliness that comes from the responsibility of always comforting (without being comforted), always forgiving (without ever being forgiven), always getting everyone back on their feet and spiritually renewed (while hardly ever receiving any spiritual support themselves). Yes, this is the cross we were given; and yes, this is the path we have taken. And yet, we are all human – clergy and monastics included – and like all humans, we need forgiveness, we need light, we need support, we need to be allowed to get up and start again. We need what all humans need – to feel loved.
There is so much I love about St Drostan, yet I suppose it is this particular miracle – the healing of a priest called Symon – that brings him instantly close to my heart. There is something special to me, a priest, about this story. St Drostan’s miracle speaks loudly about a suffering which is rarely talked about in the Church, a kind of suffering that goes mostly unnoticed by all except those who are affected by it – the clergy of the Church.
Because of this perception – that clergy should never need any help – priests and monastics tend not to ask for help when they suffer. And they do suffer, for it can be very lonely as a priest. It can be depressing. Life can get very dark. People forget that our bishops, priests and monastics are the most exposed among us – spiritually, they are on the front line, they are the ones under the greater attacks, they are the ones both God and the devil test most. God does it out of an excess of love; the devil – out of an excess of hatred.
St Drostan’s miracle spoke to me because it envolved the healing of a priest, but also because of the nature of that healing. Symen, the priest, needed light. The priest had lost his sight, had lost his direction, had lost his hope. When darkness engulfs the heart of a priest, that is no ordinary darkness, but the deepest of the deep. Symeon, the priest, goes to St Drostan to ask for light, and St Drostan opens his spiritual eyes to the Light of Christ.
When we were working on the compostion of this icon, there were a number of things I wanted it to convey. Priest Symeon (note his epitrachilion, a symbol of his priesthood) has his eyes closed, as a sign of the spiritual darkness which is fighting him. There is complete abandonment on his face. St Drostan is his last hope, and he places his soul in the hands of this holy man. I know from my own experience how much a priest longs to be blessed himself, to feel a hand over his own head taking away his sins, forgiving him, granting him light and the hope of a new beginning. A priest can hold his hands over hundreds of heads in a week, praying for all, absolving all, while his heart longs for a loving hand above his own head.
St Drostan does precisely that. His expression is loving, but focused and deep in prayer. He does not look at the kneeling priest, but at the Light pouring through his hands over Symeon’s hands, completely aware that this Light (not himself) is the source of all healing and salvation. Like all confessions, this icon depicts the meeting of three Persons, not two: the spiritual father, the son and God Himself. Symeon’s humility (he is kneeling before the saint) comes from his need and despair, but St Drostan’s humility (note his posture) comes from his awareness that he is doing God’s work, in His Maker’s presence (which is why is is slightly bowing, as if standing before Christ). I purposely chose not to depict St Drostan as a priest (although he was ordained), because I wanted to signify that spiritual fatherhood is not an exclusive charisma of the ordained clergy – the Tradition of the Church has kept the memory of simple monks (and, indeed, nuns) whom Christ had blessed for this particular work.
Finally, pay attention to the Light that crosses the icon diagonally, from the upper right corner to the lower left one. This Light, the Uncreated Divine Light, God Himself, descends from Heavens and first rests on the spiritual father. St Drostan’s hallo is ‘fed’ by the divine Light, as a sign that his holiness is God’s holiness – God and Man become one in His Divine Light. The Light then travels from the spiritual father onto his hands, as a sign that holiness is always translated into holy works. In this case, the holy deed is the healing, the restauration of Symeon’s sight, the very gift of the Divine Light from the spiritual father to his spiritual son, who have now become as one. in God’s Light.
… As I prayed for an understanding, for a vision of what this icon should look like, I was reminded once again of how much I owe my own spiritual father. I am totally aware that all I received through him came from Christ; I am aware he is only human. But for me, this ‘only human’ man has kept me spiritually alive (and has spiritually resurrected me many times).  … for one’s spiritual father, the most simple and direct way to tell him that nothing of his sacrifice is forgotten. It lives on through me. I am alive through this sacrifice.
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Suzana Monastery Retreat I

 

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Part A: How the little city hermit became a bird, a fountain, a tree and a pearl!

 

Deep peace of Christ, silence, hesychia, these are the words that come to my mind when I remember Suzana monastery and my three-day retreat there this summer. Also, self-emptying, kenosis. But above all, silence!

 

Only through poetry can such silence be conveyed, so I will paraphrase a favourite poet of mine, Rumi, to convey to you what I experienced here.

 

I had begged the Wise One to tell me
 the secret of my existence, my calling in this world.
 Gently, gently, He whispered at Suzana monastery “Be quiet,
the secret cannot be spoken,
 It is wrapped in silence.”

 

I ground myself, strip myself down, to this overpowering Silence. I feel spiraling into a void of silence where a hundred voices thundered messages I longed to hear.

 

At its unfathomable bottom I encounter a vast fullness, the Spark of LIFE and LOVE, a secret passage to the WAY which wandering talk blocks, a dimension where HE was waiting for me, for my soul to shake.

 

I was carrying so much baggage while seeking the signs of the Way.

 

But at Suzana* monastery, I am ‘forced’ to stop, open up, surrender to this thundering silence, be invaded by ‘It’, and 
stay there until I Saw, until I looked at this blinding Light 
with infinite eyes.

 

This overpowering Silence kidnaps me to the core of Life. There is a sacredness in it. Silence is indeed the language of God, and all else is poor translation.

 

This is exactly what I experience when I am trying to write a poem, how I feel especially when I finish a poem. A great silence overcomes me and I wonder why I ever thought to use language.

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Silence is indeed the sea, and speech is like the river. The sea is seeking you: don’t seek or walk into the river. Don’t turn your head away from the signs offered by the sea. Listen to the ocean.

 

The sound of Waters and the sound of Silence is a motif in Suzana monastery. At least for me. Everywhere the sound of waters reaches you, so overwhelmingly that I often feel the need to stay in my ‘cell’ and not even venture out.

 

Just listening to that sound was so overwhelming! The very moment I set my foot on this monastery, the sound of Living waters immobilized me, an ocean wave, a mighty river in flood, a cascading waterfall, a fountain of benediction, a Life- Giving spring, welling up to Eternity.

 

Isaiah 43:19

19 Behold, I will do a new thing,
Now it shall spring forth;
Shall you not know it?
I will even make a road in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert.

 

John 7:38

38 He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”

 

 

 

Kenosis is also another state I suffered there:

“And they shall build the old wastes,

they shall raise up the former desolations,

and they shall repair the waste cities,

the desolations of many generations.” (Isaiah 61:4)

 

I needed so desperately such ‘Decluttering’ in my life, a Relentless Focus, a Subtraction, Becoming ‘poor’, an Unburdening, a Curtail, a Reduction and Emptying, Until my rebellious bones sore.

 

 

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This silence, this moment, every moment, this silence brought all what I needed. I sat quietly, and listened for a voice which told me ‘Be more silent.’ ‘Die’ and be quiet. Maybe quietness is the surest sign that you’ve ‘died’. My old life was such a frantic running from silence. Suzana monastery moved me, even for a little, outside the tangle of fear-thinking.

 

In the end, I became a pearl!

 

“And since I have wandered in thee, pearl,

I will gather up my mind

And by having contemplated thee,

Would become like thee,

In that thou art all gathered up into thyself;

And as thou in all times art one,

One let me become by thee!” (St Ephraim, The Pearl)

 

This very old, poor, secluded, fairy-tale monastery, surrounded by forests, mountains and springs, and steeped in holiness, is most certainly God’s special Providence for my tired, exhausted self.

 

I feels like coiling in a virginal womb, unwinding time, beholding

 

“The memory of the glory that I had when I was entirely with You and entirely in You, before time and temporal illusions.

 

When I, too, was a harmonious trinity in holy unity, just as You are from eternity to eternity.

 

When the soul within me was also in friendship with consciousness and life.

 

When my soul also was a virginal womb, and my consciousness was wisdom in virginity, and my life was spiritual power and holiness.

 

 

When I, too, was all light, and when there was no darkness within me.

 

When I, too, was bliss and peace, and when there were no torments of imbalance within me.

 

When I also knew You, even as You know me, and when I was not mingled with darkness.

 

When I, too, had no boundaries, no neighbors, no partitions between “me” and “you.” (St. Nikolai Velimirovich, Memories – Prayers By the Lake XXX)

 

Even the very fact that I cannot not speak Romanian, just barely understand it, is an added blessing, an extra ‘precaution’, a ‘just in case’ … Speaking all too often impoverishes, drenches us. As St. Seraphim of Sarov wisely urges us, “Keep away from the spilling of speech”.

 

Hesychia, Deep peace of Christ wrapped me in green leaves like a tree;

I breathed like a tree in the quiet light!

 

* Suzana Monastery is a Romanian monastery about 5.5 to 6 hours away from Rasca monastery in Bucovine, North Moldavia, where Fr. Seraphim Aldea was tonsured as a monk in 2005. After my retreat here I have a slightly better, more ‘intimate’ understanding of ‘Romanian’ Orthodoxy and Fr. Seraphim’s calling to found the first Orthodox monastery, Mull monastery, in the Hebrides in over a millennium. In a sense only a Romanian hieromonk would be really equipped, spiritually, emotionally, as well as intellectually, to undertake such a huge task! Glory to God for everything!

 

 

 

 

 

Continue to Part II

Confessing to Grow Closer to God

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“Confessing to Grow Closer to God” Fr. Seraphim reflects on his experiences confessing, the role of a spiritual father, and he gives three recommendations to help get the most out of each confession. Podcast here

“Continuing in Confessional Growth”Fr. Seraphim continues his discussion from last week on how to get more out of each confession, by recommending three more exercises to help grow closer to both the spiritual father and Christ. Podcast here

“Confessing to Grow Closer to God”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
While I have done my best to record these podcasts in silence and moments of the day, or rather moments of the night, when there is silence, enough silence for me to focus on the things I want to talk to you about and also enough silence for you to be able to hear me, I do live in England, so it is almost always impossible to hide from rain. We’ll just have to live with that.I have mentioned in some of the previous podcasts that the monastery has started writing and publishing a series of booklets on various subjects. We have one booklet published on the topic of prayer, and it will be followed by a second one on the subject. There is one which we have published on the island of Iona, including a small guide, a sort of spiritual guide, to St. Columba’s isle. And I’m now working on a booklet on confession and the role of the father-confessor in monastery life.I have decided to write this particular booklet because the questions surrounding a monastic father-confessor and the way one relates to a spiritual father are very frequent. Everywhere I go and meet people to talk to them about the monastery, this is one of the central questions I get asked. So as I am preparing this booklet, I would like to discuss with you some of the topics and some of the ideas I am considering to include into the final form of the booklet. If you feel that there are other aspects you would like covered, if you feel I have not properly addressed or have not addressed at large some of the aspects I am discussing, please feel free to send me an email, and I shall do my best to either reply to you personally or in future podcasts.What I would like to tell you today is just a tiny bit of my own experience with confession. I remember when I started confessing that I was quite puzzled about the whole ritual. I didn’t quite understand what I was supposed to talk about. I didn’t quite understand to whom I was confessing—if it was the priest, if it was Christ, if I was actually simply there to acknowledge things in front of my own conscience. Then I went through a series of more or less difficult experiences with my father-confessor. I had to change my spiritual father when I went to the monastery, and that was a nightmare. Other times I felt that my spiritual father did not have enough time or he didn’t pay enough attention to what I was saying. There were instances when he felt rushed or even almost annoyed and upset for the things I was telling him.But through it all, I kept going. I kept confessing. And as a general attitude, I often thought that the more difficult it feels, the more distant my father-confessor seems, the more useless, pointless the whole experience may feel—the more it is worth doing it, almost like hitting a wild animal when you are attacked. You’re not supposed to simply lie down and be eaten alive because you are attacked. If you are under attack, you fight back. So the more difficult confession felt to me, the more determined, almost stubborn I was to make it work.

Once you have decided, once you have chosen your father-confessor, your spiritual father, my advice is to trust him more than you trust yourself, at least for the first years. When I say “the first years,” I do not mean one or two years; I mean the first ten years at least. Trust him more than you trust yourself. After these ten, fifteen years, there may be the case that you should start placing your trust more in Christ than in yourself. With that general rule, you should be right.

Now let us turn back to confession. Confession can simply be a listing of your sins or your weaknesses, but it can be a lot more. It is entirely up to you to make it more, to make it better. Confession can indeed simply be an encounter between you and your spiritual father during which you tell him of your weaknesses and your sins and the ways in which you have failed God and yourself and your neighbors, but it can be much more if you put a bit of work into it. I am going to list a few exercises for you to consider trying out during your confession. These are things I have discovered simply through experience, and I have learned that, as a general rule, anything can be useful, anything can be turned into a useful experience from which you can learn something. I will give you only one example of what I mean by this, and then we’ll turn to the exercises.

The best thing to do when you prepare for confession, the best practical thing you can do, is to allow your father-confessor time. Never go for confession at the end of Lent or at the end of the fasting period before Christmas or Dormition. Never go and confess at the end of a long queue of 20 or 30 people. If your father-confessor has the time to hear you, if you allow him the time to hear you, he will be paying much more attention to you than if he feels pressed to hear 20 more confessions after you or if he feels exhausted for having heard 50 confessions prior to yours.

And that does happen. I remember in the monastery in Moldavia that we would be for hours, every day, especially during long periods of fasting, hearing the confession of people coming from the villages and the towns nearby. After five or six hours of hearing confessions, all you wanted to do is hide somewhere, find some sort of hole and crawl into it and never come out again, because the confessor is also a human being, and you take all that negativity, all those negative experiences, all the pain, all the failure, all the things that weigh so heavily on the shoulders of all those people whose confessions you’re hearing—it all ends up weighing down on your own shoulder. If you plan your time, if you plan your confession properly, you will be the one who benefits from it.

Now, this is the general rule. That being said, I have once noticed that if I went to my father-confessor when he was absolutely exhausted, the experience of confession felt entirely different. Yes, he as a human being was clearly not paying as much attention as he could have. He simply wasn’t able to any more. He wasn’t there any more. His attention wasn’t there any more. He was simply exhausted. But somehow, from that hollow being, from that exhausted person, came the most extraordinary advice I could possibly hope for, and these were not things my father-confessor would have normally said. After 15 years of confessing to the same person, you end up eventually knowing more or less what to expect. But I have noticed that if I want to hear not my father-confessor’s voice but somehow the voice of his conscience or his heart—I wouldn’t say God’s voice through him, but that is what I’m thinking—if I wanted a clearer view of that, then I should approach him when he, as a human being, is exhausted, when he has reached his limits.

All I wanted to say by giving you this example is that if you want to hear God, if you want to grow, anything can be turned into a positive, useful tool. If you allow the time for your father-confessor to hear your confession properly, you will definitely benefit from it, because your father-confessor understand the context, and he has the ability to think through all possible implications, and he will give you the best possible advice. So take that and use it for your salvation and rejoice in this gift.

On the other hand, though, if you ended up confessing at the end of a long period of fasting or when your father-confessor is simply tired or just not there, for any reason, known or unknown to you, then even that can be turned into a positive experience. The golden rule is that if you tell Christ in your heart, “I want to hear you. Please speak to me,” Christ will speak to you, regardless whether your father-confessor is tired or not, whether he is paying attention or not, whether he’s wholly entirely there or not. The sacrament—you must remember this—the sacrament is between you and Christ. The confessor, the spiritual father, is merely a tool. If there are problems in confession, they are never because of the spiritual father; they are always because something is not working between you and Christ, something is not working, something is not right in the way you have approached confession.

That being said, I just want to list a few exercises for you, and feel free to pick and choose which of these you think may benefit your confession. But I do encourage you to try them at least once. The first and most useful one is to try to reduce your confession as much as possible. Try to keep it under three minutes, for example. The way to do that is to look for the source of evil. I mean, do not make philosophy. Do not be expanding your confession. Do not give any sort of context. Be as simple and plain as you possibly can. Just list the things you need to confess: “I lied.” Full stop. “I am lazy and waste time.” Full stop. “I am proud and yet envious.” Full stop. And so on.

When you cut away the context, there is no way for you to use that context to justify your sinfulness. If you keep it very simple and try to go back to the source of evilness, things become very clear to you. It is the first step you must take. You must understand that there is evilness in you, or that you are fighting evilness. This is not about you selling an image to your father-confessor. This is not about you playing a game or putting on a show: the pious Christian show or the rebel Christian show or whatever else attracts you. This is simply about you being as naked as possible before Christ. Try to limit your confession under three minutes. Try to list, for instance, all your sins on a piece of paper before you go to confession, and then group them into categories, and try to see what is the source of each category. What is that initial mistake, that initial thing that generates all the visible outcomes, so to say? You may have yelled at your brother and your sister, and that is a sin, but what lies underneath that reaction? You may have wasted time, and that is a sin, but what lies underneath that behavior? And so on and so forth.

Really, this simply helps you to understand the depths of our sinfulness and not focus merely on the surface of it. If you simply list the mistakes you’ve made, you are really just focusing on the visible side of your sinfulness, but the depth of it, the heaviness of it lies hidden.

A second thing I try to do from time to time—and again, these are things I do on purpose—is to confess one thing that is extremely disturbing to me, even if it’s not necessarily heavy or as heavy as other things, but it is the sort of thing that, in my mind, will make my father-confessor think less of me, something that I feel horribly guilty for or disgusted. To do that is an exercise of humility, of forced humility. It is a way to empty yourself as much as you can before your spiritual father. It is a way to be as naked, spiritually naked, as you can before him and Christ.

I remember that the first time I’ve done this was after reading the Life of one of those Russian fools-for-Christ. You know who they are. They purposely commit some sort of horrible, disgusting thing in front of people, just so they feel lower and more humble than everyone else. It is useful to do that in front of your father-confessor because it is fighting your pride, and this is one of the best ways of fighting your pride. When you feel pride in your heart, always commit something stupid, on purpose, and do it in front of the people whose opinion counts most for you.

I know of monks in my monastery in Moldavia who would fast according to the strictest of rules, but then when they had guests coming over, they would always behave as if they had entirely forgotten that it was a fasting day. And this is not something that was invented by the Russian fools-for-Christ. You find this type of behavior even in the lives and the stories of the Desert Fathers, the Fathers from Egypt, the first generations of monks. There are these stories of some of the Desert Fathers going and wandering through the desert to collect leftovers or empty bowls which they would then carry to their cells and spread all around, and they did that so that the people who came to visit them would think, “Oh, what a gluttonous monk! He is good for nothing! We should move forward, as nothing good… there’s no good advice we can get from him.”

You can do the same thing in confession, and the experience of grace which you shall receive will be more than you can imagine. In a way, this will help you face your own emptiness, your own nothingness. It is a way to crush these idols we all construct of ourselves. It is also a way to test the love of your father-confessor, because the one thing that you must look for in your father-confessor is his love for you. I remember once that my father-confessor told me, “You do realize that I shall have to stand before Christ on the Judgment Day and protect you against all those who accuse you of your sins?” And that was the day I understood that that man loved me more than anyone has ever loved me. Love is what makes a priest into a spiritual father, not the ability to apply rules, not the ability to build for himself the image of an elder, not his intellectual wisdom, but simply his love.

I think I shall stop now. I’ve listed really three things you could try out. Try to confess when your father-confessor has the time, and then try to confess when he is absolutely exhausted, but in both cases keep in mind that the conversation happens between you and Christ, and he is merely a tool, a channel. Secondly, try to reduce your confession to the absolute minimum, because that will help you see the source of your failures; that will help you move from focusing on the tip of the iceberg to the real depths of it. Once you understand, once you face the roots of your sinfulness, your healing can properly begin. And thirdly, try to systematically, almost like a ritual, crush this idol we all build of our own person, and the best way to do that is to confess something that feels horribly intimate, almost disgusting, to your father-confessor.

There are some other things, some other exercises we could talk about, and perhaps I shall mention them in a second podcast on this subject. Remember to pray for me. Remember to pray for the Monastery of the Celtic Saints in Scotland. And remember to support us if you can. May God bless you and this whole world, now and forever. Amen.”