The Burning Bush

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The Role of a Spiritual Father

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

The Burning Bush

“It is easy and expected for a spiritual child to have humility. But what humility a priest or spiritual father must have in order not to intrude upon that sacred realm, to treat a person’s soul in the way that God commanded Moses to treat the ground surrounding the Burning Bush! Every human being—potentially or actually—is that very Bush. Everything surrounding him is sacred ground upon which the spiritual father may step only after removing his shoes, never stepping in any other way than that of the publican who stood in the back of the temple, looking in and knowing that this is the realm of the Living God, that this is a holy place, and he has no right to enter unless God Himself commands him, or as God Himself suggests he proceed or what words to say.”
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Fatherhood consists in a person—and he or she may not even be a priest—giving another person birth to spiritual life. Looking at his spiritual father, that person saw, as the old saying goes, the radiance of eternal life in his eyes, and therefore was able to approach him and ask him to be his instructor and guide.

The second thing that distinguishes a father is that a father is as if of the same blood and spirit as his disciple; and he can guide his disciple because there is not only a spiritual but also a psychological resonance between them. Probably you remember how the Egyptian desert was once filled with ascetics and instructors, but people did not choose their instructors according to signs of his glory. They did not go to the one about whom they had heard the best reports, but rather sought out instructors who they understood, and who understood them.

This is very important, because obedience does not mean blindly doing what someone who has either material-physical or emotional-spiritual authority over us says. Obedience is when a novice has chosen an instructor whom he trusts unconditionally, in whom he finds what he has sought for. He hearkens not only to his every word, but even his to tone of voice, and tries through all of what manifests the elder’s personality and his spiritual experience to re-cultivate himself, to partake of that experience and become a human being who has grown beyond the limits of what he could have done by himself.

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Obedience is first and foremost a gift of hearing—not only with the mind, or with the ear, but with one’s whole being, with an open heart; a reverent contemplation of the spiritual mystery of another human being.

On the part of the spiritual father, who has perhaps given you birth or received you already born but became a father to you, there should be a deep reverence for what the Holy Spirit is working within you.

A spiritual father, just as the simple and ordinary, commonplace priest, should be in a condition to see the beauty of God’s image in a person that cannot be taken away. (This condition often takes effort, thoughtfulness, and reverence for the person who comes to him.) Even if a person is marred by sin, the priest should see an icon in him that has been harmed either by conditions in life, from human neglect, or blasphemy. He should see an icon in him and have reverence for what has remained of this icon; and only for the sake of this, for the sake of the divine beauty within that person, he should labor to remove everything that deforms that image of God.

When Fr. Evgraf Kovalevsky was still a layman, he once said to me that when God looks at a human being, He does not see the virtues that he may lack, or the successes he has not attained—He sees the unshakeable, radiant beauty of His own Image.

Thus, if a spiritual father is incapable of seeing this eternal beauty in a person, to see the beginning of the process of fulfilling his call to become a God-man in the image of Christ, then he is not capable of leading him, for people are not built or made. They are only aided in their growth according to the measure of their own calling.

At this juncture, the word “obedience” calls for a bit of an explanation. Usually we talk about obedience as submission, being under authority, and often as a kind of enslavement to a spiritual father or a priest whom we call our spiritual father or elder—not to own our detriment only, but also to his.

Obedience consists in, as I have said, hearing with all the powers of our soul. However, this obligates both the spiritual father and the “listener” equally, because a spiritual father should also be listening with all his experience, all his existence, and all his prayer. I will even go further to say that that he should listen with all the power of the Holy Spirit working in him to what the Holy Spirit is bringing to pass in the person entrusted to his care. He should know how to search out the paths of the Holy Spirit in him, to be in awe before what God is doing, and not bring him up according to his own image or how he thinks he should develop, making him a victim of his spiritual guidance.

… One of the tasks of a spiritual father consists in educating a person in spiritual freedom, in the royal freedom of God’s children. He must not keep him in an infantile state all his life, running to his spiritual father over every trifle, but growing into maturity and learning how to hear what the Holy Spirit is wordlessly speaking to him in his heart.

Humility in Russian means a state of being at peace, when a person has made peace with God’s will; that is, he has given himself over to it boundlessly, fully, and joyfully, and says, “Lord, do with me as Thou wilt!” As a result he has also made peace with all the circumstances of his own life—everything for him is a gift of God, be it good or terrible. God has called us to be His emissaries on earth, and He sends us into places of darkness in order to be a light; into places of hopelessness in order to bring hope; into places where joy has died in order to be a joy; and so on. Our place is not necessarily where it is peaceful—in church, at the Liturgy, where we are shielded by the mutual presence of the faithful—but in those places where we stand alone, as the presence of Christ in the darkness of a disfigured world.

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On the other hand, if we think about the Latin roots of the word humility, we see that it comes from the word humus, which indicates fruitful earth. St. Theophan writes about this. Just think about what earth is. It lies there in silence, open, defenseless, vulnerable before the face of the sky. From the sky it receives scorching heat, the sun’s rays, rain, and dew. It also receives what we call fertilizer, that is, manure—everything that we throw into it. And what happens? It brings forth fruit. And the more it bears what we emotionally call humiliation and insult, the more fruit it yields.

Thus, humility means opening up to God perfectly, without any defenses against Him, the action of the Holy Spirit, or the positive image of Christ and His teachings. It means being vulnerable to grace, just as in our sinfulness we are sometimes vulnerable to harm from human hands, from a sharp word, a cruel deed, or mockery. It means giving ourselves over, that it be our own desire that God do with us as He wills. It means accepting everything, opening up; and then giving the Holy Spirit room to win us over.

It seems to me that if a spiritual father would learn humility in this sense—seeing the eternal beauty in a person; if he would know his place, which is nothing other (and this is a place that is so holy, so wondrous) than the place of a friend of the bridegroom, who is appointed to safeguard the meeting of the bride—not his own bride—with the Bridegroom. Then the spiritual father can truly be a travelling companion to his spiritual child, walk with him step by step, protect him, support him, and never intrude upon the realm of the Holy Spirit.

Then the role of the spiritual father becomes a part of that spirituality and that maturing into the sanctity to which each of us is called, and which each spiritual father should help his spiritual children attain.

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

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

 

And to:

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The Struggle of Great Lent – Ι

 

At this time we’re entering the great spiritual arena of the blessed Great Lent. Holy and Great Lent is a time of compunction, for repentance, for tears, for a change in ourselves, for a new stage in the spiritual life. Like an affectionate mother caring for her children, us Christians, the Church has designated this time of Lent as dedicated to the struggle, in order to help its children fight harder, to purify themselves, draw closer to God and to counted worthy of celebrating the great day of the radiant Resurrection.

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Christians, especially monks, have always paid particular attention to this spiritual arena and have thought it especially sacred, because it’s a period which envisages both spiritual and bodily struggles. There’s the struggle of fasting, the struggle of vigils, the struggle of purification and the struggle to fulfill one’s spiritual duties which are many more than at other times of the year. There’s a spiritual “defragmentation” and people pay greater attention to the voice of their conscience in order to correct what they’ve maybe neglected and to improve spiritually.

The Church assists us but with penitential hymns and services, as well as with teachings, to oil us up for the fight for the purification of our souls.

We have the penitential evening Divine Liturgies of the Presanctified Gifts. The Presanctified is extremely beneficial. It’s Cherubic Hymn is full of spirituality, contemplation, angelic presence. That’s why we should come to these liturgies during Great Lent with even greater compunction. We who consume the Body and Blood of Christ must be so pure and clean, so straight in body and soul for divine grace to have its effect. For this reason we must lead very careful lives. Both n our cells and in church we must wet our face with tears so as to wash our souls and be worthy to take communion. Of course, the devil often makes us wanting in compunction, me more than anyone. Which means we can’t have tears and we often have bad thoughts. Bad thoughts and the sinful images that accompany them must be rejected as soon as they make their appearance. And when we have wicked thoughts or our soul is cold towards one of the brethren, let’s not approach the God of lover, Who is so pure and holy.

Throughout this period, at every service in Great Lent, we say the prayer of Saint Efraim the Syrian, whish is as follows: “Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of sloth, inquisitiveness, lust for power or idle talk, but give rather the spirit of sobriety, humility, patience and love to me, your servant. Indeed, Lord King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for you are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen”.

With these words, the saint wishes to make us understand very clearly, that, apart from other virtues we need to take special care with the last case, that of self-censure and of criticism of our bothers and that without love for our fellow human beings there’s no chance of making even the slightest progress towards our spiritual purification. If we don’t pay attention to our thoughts, our words and our heart, there’s no benefit in fasting. Fasting is of benefit when it’s combines with love for our neighbour and when we don’t criticize others. When we don’t criticize our fellows and instead criticize ourselves, then we’re marked by love for others and love for our soul, concern for purification and the fulfillment of the great commandment, that of love of God and one’s neighbour. Love for God and for our fellows  are the two great virtues which support the whole of the spiritual structure, because if they are absent, they others cannot take form. “God is love and those who live in God in love have God living in them, too” (I. Jn. 4, 16).

Another issue which demands that we push ourselves as hard as possible is prayer We should pray in the name of Christ, without neglecting any opportunity and without any waste of time. In the personal vigil in our cell, we should push ourselves, shouldn’t let sleep overcome us, nor neglect nor idleness; we should engage willingly I spiritual matters. As soon as we wake up, prayer should take first place then our rule, our prayer-rope, study and the contemplation of God. We should go to church with great readiness and so get the best results from our presence in the arena.

Apart from this, fasting together with bodily exertion helps as regards the forgiveness of sins. “Behold my humility and my efforts and forgive all my sins”. When we labour with the fast, with kneeling, with prayers, with an effort from our heart and mind, this Godly exertion is holy and is richly rewarded by God, because it make people worthy of the crown of glory and honour. The demons fear the fast greatly, because it lays them low. “This kind [of demon] will not depart other than with prayer and fasting”, said the Lord (Math. 17, 21). This is why the holy fathers always began any Godly task with a fast. They considered a fast to be very powerful and that the Holy Spirit does nor overshadow people when they’re replete with food and their stomachs are full. And any Christian who desires purification has to start from this foundation which is fasting, prayer and vigilance. When these three are combined, then people have acquired great stature.

In olden times, the fathers had a holy custom. On the eve of Lent, they would leave the monasteries and go deeper into the desert, where they lived in great asceticism until Lazarus Saturday, when they returned in order to celebrate Palm Sunday all together. Some would take a few of the basic essentials as far as food was concerned, others would eat only green plants, in order to struggle more fiercely in the desert. Thereafter they would spend all the days on Great Week together in church, existing on a piece of fried rusk and a few nuts a day. We were given the blessing and the grace of knowing ascetic people who spent not only Great Lent in fasting and spiritual struggle.

Our departed elder, Elder Iosif the Cave-Dweller (he used to live in caves, which is where I met him), kept a very strict fast during Great Lent. And, of course, he imposed it on us, too. From Monday to Friday, five days of the week there was no food, except a handful of flour, from which we made a batter with just water. That was it. A little plate every twenty-four hours. And, at the same time, hard work lifting loads on our back during the day and the whole night hundreds of prostrations and hours of prayer. And all of this in order to purify the inner person, to make it cleaner, more honourable in the eyes of God, in order to acquire boldness before God and be able to pray for the whole world. Because the world, people everywhere, needs the prayers of the saints, particularly those of ascetics. Saint Anthony the Great supported the whole world with his prayers.

By Elder Ephraim of Arizona, a living legend, a priest-monk for almost 60 years, who has served as an elder for more than 50 years. He was a disciple of Elder Joseph the Hesychast of Mount Athos and lived in monastic obedience to him for 12 years until his Elder’s repose in 1959. He is the spiritual guide of several monasteries on Mount Athos and Greece, and has founded several (20 and going!) monasteries in the United States. He resides in Arizona at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery.

 

 For those who cannot understand Greek, please do not despair 😃, as there is a translator in English, and Greek and English sessions alternate throughout the video.

Source: Pemptousia

[To Be Continued]