These excerpts are from a paper on the Orthodox Christian monastic life, yet all they say about the role of the spiritual father, I find it equally relevant to those who live in the world.
“… you choose, or rather, recognize your spiritual father or mother, and he or she will recognize you as his/her spiritual child.
The spiritual father does not need to be some kind of clairvoyant elder. Rather, he is someone to whom you can open your heart. There is often a mutual recognition, that “this is my father,” and “this is my son.” Or, at least, that this is a person with whom I want to work out my salvation.
The discipler, the spiritual father or mother, is the one to whom you will promise obedience, as a means of being obedient to Christ. It is a sacramental relationship: obedience given to the spiritual father for Christ’s sake becomes obedience to Christ. The spiritual father will not give you something immoral or illegal—it would be your duty to disobey such a command. Being obedient means cutting off our own will. It is training. But it is also a means of grace, because we are obedient to Christ through our obedience to the spiritual father. This is itself a means of grace, a synergy or cooperation with God, and accomplished by the power of His energy. We strive to harmonize our will with God’s will, by cutting off our self-will in obedience. Then it becomes all grace, God’s activity within us. But the more we resist, rebel and protest, the more self-willed and independent we are, the more we reject the grace of God.
The passions of envy and jealousy, abandonment anxiety, pride, and anything else surface in the first few years [of the discipleship], if things are working right.
Obedience is not about subjugation. It is not about depriving the disciple of his will, or much less surrender of one’s personhood. These are abuses. Rather, obedience is willing submission in love.
It is a relationship of the most profound intimacy and openness.
The relationship between a spiritual father and son is a relationship of love and respect, mutual in every dimension. It becomes the context in which we authentically develop our personhood, and transcend our ego-centrism. Submission to a spiritual father means to enter into a mutual striving for salvation together (1Peter 5:5). It is a relationship of the most profound intimacy and openness. You come to know each other profoundly. And yet, the relationship of a spiritual father and son is also a participation in Christ’s own sonship to the Father. It is a relationship that is sacramental, full of grace. That grace does not depend on the charismatic gifts of the spiritual father, his maturity or clairvoyance. Of course he should be someone blessed by the Church to have such a ministry, and likely will be a priest. If the relationship is undertaken in good faith, on both parts, it becomes that sacramental bond in Christ by the Spirit.
We must remember that this relationship, because it is the very means of working out our salvation, will be tried by fire.
It is important to respect and have faith in your spiritual father. But know for certain that your spiritual elder is a sinful man with passions and shortcomings, like yourself. If you have the idea that he is sinless and infallible, you are only setting yourself up for a huge fall. And if you judge your spiritual father for his inevitable failings, you are also setting yourself up for a fall from your own pride and arrogance. We must remember that this relationship, because it is the very means of working out our salvation, will be tried by fire. Our faith in our spiritual father will be tried by enormous temptations, by his mistakes and shortcomings, and by our own brokenness, rebelliousness and arrogance. But what is important is to persevere through the temptations, and not allow ourselves to judge him. It is said that there are very, very few great elders in the world, but what is even more rare is the true disciple. We must remember that our judgment exposes our own hypocrisy, more than anyone else’s.
Our faith in our spiritual father will be tried by enormous temptations, by his mistakes and shortcomings, and by our own brokenness, rebelliousness and arrogance.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the Lord’s most vivid illustrations, and used extensively for the monastic life. How profoundly we betray our Father, going off and living prodigally, wasting his riches on harlotry and riotous living. Coming to our self, finally, we repent and return to the Father. How the Father has waited for the return of his beloved son, no matter how much the son’s insensitivity, words and actions have hurt the father. The Father does not assign us a place with the servants, but restores to us our birthright—now a gift of grace. So also does our spiritual father wait for us to repent, to return, so that we may receive the gift of his love.
‘Make haste to open to me Thy fatherly embrace, for as the prodigal I have wasted my life. In the unfailing wealth of Thy mercy, O Savior, reject not my heart in its poverty. For with compunction I cry to Thee, O Lord: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before Thee. ‘(Troparion at Monastic Tonsure)
You have found your spiritual father when knowing you, you realize that he loves you unconditionally.
Always in a spirit of unconditional love and acceptance, even when the passions are raging and the son is in a state of rebellion and stubbornness.
The relationship to the spiritual father is the way to work out authentic self- acceptance. The spiritual father loves the spiritual son unconditionally, and that love is the foundation for the son to learn how to love the other, to accept himself, and to look at himself in naked honesty and love himself in a healthy way. Constant confession, opening the heart to the spiritual father, and exposing the most shameful and inmost thoughts and inclinations, is the way to this deep cleansing of the heart. The father must give his son both the encouragement and the rebukes that help him see himself. But this is always in a spirit of unconditional love and acceptance, even when the passions are raging and the son is in a state of rebellion and stubbornness.
All the rage, anger, rebelliousness and hatred that are concealed in the heart get projected onto the spiritual father.
So the spiritual father is called to be patient, no matter how hurtful the son can be. All the rage, anger, rebelliousness and hatred that are concealed in the heart get projected onto the spiritual father. The passions of envy and jealousy, abandonment anxiety, pride, and anything else surface in the first few years [of the discipleship], if things are working right.
The spiritual father is called to be patient, no matter how hurtful the son can be.
Obedience is one of the most important things to expose the passions. Obedience demands the cutting off of the will; and our passions are in what we will. Obedience also demands cooperation with the other brothers. We easily cooperate when we want to do something; when we don’t, that is the key point in the confrontation with our will. And if we have underlying passions, such as envy and jealousy, pride and arrogance—Why did he get to do that? [He] loves him more than me… Why should I have to do that?… or I should have gotten to do that… etc.—so the real battleground of purification is obedience.”
Dedicated with a love and gratitude which words can’t express to my spiritual father, one I recognised very soon, as “this is my father”, one who loves me unconditionally
Dedicated also to St. Dositheus, ο αληθής υποτακτικός, the true obedient, a Saint I am personally very drawn to.
Anything that the late Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh has to say is of the utmost importance for our spiritual life, even more so when such a gifted spiritual father talks about “SPIRITUALITY AND THE ROLE OF A SPIRITUAL FATHER”