Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Finding a Spiritual Father

One of the mistakes my friends made, which I am able to pass on to you, was to seek out somebody worthy of being their spiritual father, worthy of giving them advice.

Now besides that quest requiring us to be judgmental, the reality is, all any of us needs is a spiritual father or mother who is a little ahead of us in the journey. And the further reality is, that's a great many people. Yes, each of us is unique and infinitely special, but we (Orthodox) are all on the same path, after all. The traps, the pitfalls, the dangers along the way are well known and have been signposted by wise Christians for 2,000 years. The average parish priest is quite competent to hear our confessions (which are FAR from unique!) and to offer us the usual, handed-down, but personalized, tailored-just-for-me wisdom we need. We do not need to find somebody who walks on water.

But my friends were looking for that saint. They say part of what motivated them was pride but another part of it was a desire to duck responsibility, not to have to make decisions any more, but leave it all in someone else's hands, whom they would blindly and absolutely obey, no matter what. You can't, of course, give full control of your body and soul over to just anybody.

My friends had good motives, too, mixed in with these, more good motives than bad; but it's the bad ones need our attention, lest we meet a similar fate.

Back to reality for a moment. Every human being who ever existed was born with a conscience. Christ is the Light enlightening every man coming into the world, according to St. John. Moreover, we Orthodox have been chrismated, given the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul wrote, "We have the mind of Christ." There is no need to have someone else do all our thinking for us. In fact, it's a terrible thing to resign our conscience, to give up the use of that mind of Christ He has given us, to relinquish "the glorious liberty of the children of God." Archbishop Puhalo reminds us that God doesn't want us to become dependent, spiritual cripples, but to exercise responsibility and serve God in freedom.

The worst danger of all for the person seeking a saint to guide him is if he should find one - or think he has. "It can slip too easily into idolatry," my friend told me.

A normal, good spiritual father or mother will never, ever allow this to happen. He will give you advice and you will fully obey, but in complete freedom and with the full approval of your own mind, your own heart, and your own conscience, and not in conflict with these.

But should the seeker fall into the wrong hands, that's a differnt story. A spiritual father or mother suffering from pride, or intoxicated by control over people, or someone deluded about his own role and his own holiness, that man or woman might let it happen. He may even encourage us to put him, in effect, in that place Christ alone should hold, and may describe any resistance to this as thoughts from the devil.

To protect ourselves, let us think of it this way: Who am I to need a worthier spiritual father than anybody else? If the parish priest is good enough for most of his flock, why shouldn't he be good enough for me?

The temptation is to reply to ourselves: Because he's a slacker. I need someone who will guide me in properly strict, TRUE Orthodoxy.

No, we don't. Orthodoxy as usually practiced is plenty strict enough. Try to do an even more demanding version of it and most likely we will fail spiritually, either because we couldn't do all that stuff, or else because we could. That's why there's this beautiful irony that if we DID actually find a saint to guide us, he or she would have us start out in baby steps anyway, doing even less than all those "slackers" we so judgmentally think we perceive out there. And then we might judge him another slackard!

The safeguard seems to be
to get over ourselves
to get real.


DebD said...

you said: "To protect ourselves, let us think of it this way: Who am I to need a worthier spiritual father than anybody else? If the parish priest is good enough for most of his flock, why shouldn't he be good enough for me?"

Amen! I've never understood the lure of finding a monastic spiritual father (or "worthier" as you so aptly put it). But maybe it's because I'm lazy ;)

So, you said your friends said it was pride. Does this mean they have gotten themselves out of their bad situation and come back?

Ezekiel said...

Interesting comments, to be sure!

I've found that often a spiritual father/mother (apart from my priest) is indeed right at hand -- but I don't want to hear what HE/SHE says ... have to look further! :)

There have been those seeking a saint for a spiritual father that have never found that person.

And of course, many times in our pride, we just as soon not listen to the "still, small voice" of our priest or someone close at hand.


Marsha said...

it requires a certain humility to listen to another human being sometimes. After we've struggled for awhile, we often feel like if we just had someone ELSE to listen to us and guide us, we wouldn't fail. Which is a lie of course. I think my parish priest is an excellent spiritual father by the way!

Chocolatesa said...

Thank you for these recent posts :) Great thoughts on this.

s-p said...

Excellent. Pride gets us SO many ways. The problem is, people fall for "gurus" because they are in the market for one. If there is no "desire" the temptation has no place to land. sigh.

margaret said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
margaret said...

I have a spiritual father (married) who reminds me of Nancy Astor's husband saying he had hitched his wagon not to a star but a V2 rocket. I also have a hieromonk confessor who is like an old-fashioned family doctor, he gives advice that's the spiritual equivalent of "wrap up warm, take a hot toddy and call me in the morning if it doesn't work" but it always does work. I was kind of disappointed at first but when I started doing what I was told it was amazing.