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Appendix: Spirituality and Spiritual Guidance

Anthony, the Metropolitan of Sura

I will begin with the definition of the word "spirituality," because when we speak of spirituality, we speak of specific expressions of our spiritual life, such as prayer, ascetism; and this is clear from such books as, for example, the books of Theophan the Recluse. But, I think, one must remember, that spirituality is what the grace of the Holy Spirit accomplishes within us.

This immediately puts us in relation to spiritual guidance into a very clear position, because now the discussion does not refer to raising a person by some kind of principles and teaching him to develop in prayer or asceticism by some kind of stereotype. Spiritual guidance will then mean that the spiritual guide, no matter what level he himself is at spiritually, would keenly observe what the Holy Spirit is doing in and over the person, would stir His activities, protect against temptation, downfall, and vacillations of loss of faith; and the result of the activity of spiritual guidance may appear, on the one hand, much less active, while on the other — much more meaningful than we often think.

Before going on, I want to say two words about the fact that spiritual guidance — is not an unequivocal concept. There are, as I see it, three types of spiritual guides.

On the most basic level is the priest who is given the blessing of priesthood, which in itself carries not only the right, but the sanctified power to perform the sacraments — the sacrament of the Eucharist, the sacrament of Baptism, Anointing, as well as the sacrament of Confession, i.e. the reconciliation of a person with God. The great danger for a young inexperienced priest, full of enthusiasm and hope, lies in the fact that often young people, coming out of theological schools, imagine that the laying on of hands gave them brains and experience and "differentiating between spirits" and become what in ascetic literature was called "young elders": that is, not yet possessing spiritual fruition, not possessing even the knowledge that is given by pure personal experience, they think that they already know everything that can help take a repentant sinner by the hand and lead him from earth to heaven.

And, unfortunately, this happens too often, and in all countries: a young priest, through the power of his priesthood, but not because he is spiritually experienced, and not because God led him to this, begins to lead his spiritual children with "directives": don’t do this; don’t do that; do not read this kind of literature; go to church; do prostrations… The final result is a kind of caricature of spiritual life in his "victims," who do everything, that maybe even ascetics do — but those do it from spiritual experience, and not because they are trained animals. But for a spiritual guide — this is a catastrophe, because he enters into such an area, where he has no right, and no experience to be. I insist on this because this is a vital question for the priesthood.

One can only become a starets, or elder, through the grace of God, this is a charismatic phenomenon, a gift. To learn to be an elder is impossible, just as it is impossible to learn to be a genius. We all understand perfectly, that Beethoven and Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci and Rublev possessed genius which cannot be learned in any school, through no prolonged labor or long experience, because it is an expression of God’s gift of grace.

I insist on this, maybe, too much, because it appears to me to be a vital issue — in Russia, possibly, more than in the West, because the role of the priest in Russia is much more centralized. And often, young priests (young either through age, or their spiritual fruition or non-fruition) "direct" their spiritual children, rather than tend them.

Tending — means relating to them and behaving towards them as a gardener behaves toward his flowers or his plants: one must know the nature of the plant, must know the conditions in which they are placed, climatic or other, and only then may one help (and this is all that one can do) this plant develop the way it is natural for it to develop, according to its nature. To break a person in order to make him resemble oneself — is impossible. One spiritual writer of the West said: "One can lead spiritual children only to themselves, and the path into his life can sometimes be very long…" In the lives of the saints one can see how great elders knew how to do this, how they could be themselves, but see in the other person their exceptional, unique characteristic, and give this person, and another, and a third, the ability to also be themselves, and not replicas of their elder or, even worse, a stencil copy.

An example from the history of the Russian Church — is the meeting of Anthony and Theodocius Pechersky. Theodocius was taught by Anthony, but their spiritual paths were quite different, in the sense that Anthony was a recluse, while Theodocius — put down the foundation for a monastic society. One might ask — how could Anthony prepare him to create that which he himself would not begin to do, and to raise him to be a person that he himself did not want to be? It appears to me, that here one must clearly see the difference between our desire to make a disciple similar to ourselves, and the desire to make him similar to Christ.

Being an elder, as I said, is a gift of grace, it is spiritual genius, and for thus none of us can think of behaving like an elder (starets). But there is a middle ground — that is fatherhood. And again, too often a young — and maybe not so young — priest, only because he is called "Father so and so" imagines, that he is not only a confessing priest, but a true "father" in the sense in which Apostle Paul spoke, that you have many care-givers, but I bore in you Christ; and the same was said by St. Seraphim of Sarov in his time. Fatherhood consists of some person — and maybe not even a priest — bearing to spiritual life another person who, looking deeply into the former, saw, as in the old expression, in his eyes and face the light of eternal life, and for that reason was able to approach him and ask him to be his instructor and guide.

A Father is distinguished, also, as though he is of one blood, and in spiritual life — of one spirit — with his disciple, and can lead, because between them there is true, not only spiritual, but also mental, harmony. You probably remember that at one time ascetics and teachers filled the Egyptian deserts, but still people did not seek a teacher by merit of his apparent glory, they did not go to the person who was praised the most, but sought teachers whom they could understand, and that could understand them.

And this is very important, because obedience is not blindly doing what someone who has material-physical, or mental-spiritual power over you, says; obedience consists of the acolyte, choosing a teacher for himself in whom he believes completely, and in whom he sees that which he himself seeks, strains to hear not only every word, but also the tone of the voice, and tries through the expression of the teacher’s identity, and all the expression of his spiritual experience, to grow above himself, to partake of this experience and become such a person, who has already grown beyond the boundaries which he could have attained under his own power. Obedience is first of all the desire to listen, and to listen not only with the mind, not only with the ear, but with the entire being, with open heart, reverent contemplation of the spiritual mystery of the teacher.

What concerns the spiritual father, who bore you or took you on already born, is that he must have a deep reverence to that which is being accomplished within you by the Holy Spirit. The Spiritual father also, strictly speaking, like any conscientious parish priest, should be able (and this is always obtained by the price of effort, thoughtfulness, reverent attitude to those who come to him) to see in a person that beauty of the image of God, which is never taken away. Even if the person is damaged through sin, the spiritual father must see in him that beauty of the image of God, which suffered from the conditions of life, or from human carelessness, or from sacrilege; to see in him an icon and venerate that which remains in him, and on behalf of this Godly beauty which is within him, to work to eliminate everything, which deforms this image of God. Father Eugraph Kovalevsky, while he was still a lay person, once said to me: When God looks at a person, He does not see in him the virtues, which may not even exist, nor his successes, which he doesn’t have, but He sees the unwavering, shining beauty of His Own Image… And if the spiritual father is not capable of seeing this ever-eternal beauty in a person, and the already commencing act of his being called to become, according to the image of Christ, a God-person, then he cannot lead him, because one cannot build a person, one cannot make one, but one must help him grow by measure of his own personal calling.

And here the word "obedience," maybe, should be somewhat clarified. Usually we speak of obedience as subordination, subjection, and sometimes enslavement to the spiritual teacher or whom we call — entirely in vain and with harm not only to yourself but to the priest — spiritual father or one’s elder. Obedience consists particularly of what I mentioned above: in listening with all the power of the soul. But this obligates both the spiritual teacher and the disciple; because the spiritual teacher must listen with all his experience, all his being and all his prayer, and I will say more: with all the activity in him of the All Holy Spirit’s Grace, to that, which the Holy Spirit is doing in the person who has trusted himself to him. He must be able to follow the path of the Holy Spirit within him, revere that which God is performing, and not try to raise either according to his own image, or the way he thinks the person should be developing, as the "sacrifice" of his spiritual leadership.

And humility is demanded from both sides. We easily expect humility on the part of the disciple or spiritual child; but how much humility is needed by the priest, the spiritual guide, in order not to ever invade a holy region, to relate to the soul of a person in the way that Moses was ordered by God to relate to that soil, which surrounded the Bush that did not Burn. Each person — potentially or in reality — is already such a bush; and everything, which surrounds it, is holy ground, on which the spiritual guide can tread only taking off his boots; never stepping otherwise than the publican, standing at the threshold of the church, looking into the church and knowing, that that is the region of the living God, a holy place, and he does not have the right to enter unless the Lord Himself commands, or the Lord Himself suggests, what activity to perform or which word to say.

One of the problems of the spiritual teacher consists of raising the person in the spiritual freedom of God’s children, and not keeping him in an infantile condition all his life: so he does not come with trifles to his spiritual father, but would grow in such measure, that he can learn to hear that, which the Holy Spirit says in unspeakable words in his heart.

And if we consider what humility means, we can turn to two short determinations. First: "humility" in Russian — means a state of reconciliation, when a person is reconciled to God’s will, that is, has given himself up to it limitlessly, fully, joyfully, and says: "Do with me, Lord, what You will! — but in result is reconciled with all the conditions of his personal life: everything — is God’s gift, both good and terrible. God has call us to be His envoys on Earth, and He is sending us where there is gloom, to be light; where there is hopelessness — to be hope; where joy has died — to be joy. And our place is not only where it is peaceful, in church, or at the liturgy, where we are protected by our mutual presence, but there, where we stand alone as the presence of Christ in the gloom of the disfigured world.

If we then consider the Latin root of the word humility, then "humilitas" comes from "humus" meaning fruitful earth. Consider (Theophan the Recluse also writes of this) what the earth appears like: it lies silent, open, defenseless, vulnerable, before the face of heaven; it takes heat from the heavens, and the sun’s rays, and rain, and dew, but it also accepts that which we call fertilizer, that is, manure, scraps, everything, which we throw into it — and what happens? — it brings fruit, and the more it bears that, which we call spiritual degradation, insults, the more fruit it brings.

It follows, then, that to reconcile oneself — means to open oneself before God so completely, that one cannot revolt against Him, against the activity of the Holy Spirit or against the good image of Christ and His teaching; to be receptive to the action of grace. As in our sinfulness we are sometimes injured at hands of humans, from a sharp word, or a cruel deed, from taunts, thus we must so to give ourselves up to God’s will that by our own wishes, God would do with us everything that is in His will, and we would accept everything, open up, and then permit the Holy Spirit to subdue us.

It appears to me, that if the spiritual teacher will learn humility in this sense: to see in a person the certain beauty, and know his own place (and that place is so miraculous, so holy: the place of the groom’s friend, whose role is to arrange the meeting of bride and groom), then the spiritual teacher can truly be the companion of his spiritual child, go with him step for step, protecting him, upholding, and never treading into the region of the Holy Spirit. Then the spiritual teaching becomes part of the spirituality and the growth to holiness, to which each of us is called and which each spiritual teacher must help their spiritual children attain.

But where to seek spiritual teachers? The trouble is, that elders, even spiritual teachers, should not be sought, because we could travel the world and not find them; but experience shows that sometimes, God will send the necessary person at the right minute even for a short time. And then he suddenly becomes for us that, which were previous elders.

I sometimes think, that an example for me is the donkey of Balaam (Numbers 22:23), which began to speak and told the prophet that, which he did not understand. Something similar happens to me: sometimes, a person comes to me, and I do not know what to answer him, and suddenly I say something — and it turns out to be correct. I think that at such moments, God provides the needed words; but one cannot count on the fact that your own experience or knowledge will give you the ability to always to so; and for this reason one must very often be humbly silent, and then say to the person: You know, I cannot answer you right now…We have a wonderful example from the life of starets Ambrose of Optina: people came to him, asking for advice, he made them wait two-three days. Once a merchant came to him, saying: "I have to go home, my store is shut, but you are not giving me an answer…" The elder answered: "I cannot tell you anything! I asked the Mother of God, but She is silent…"

And I think, that we should answer: I could suggest something from my own mind, from books or tales, but this would be unreal — and it is better not to say anything. Pray and I will pray, if God places anything in my soul, I will write or tell you — and the person will regard the word you say completely differently, than if for all life’s occurrences you have some truism, because everyone knows these truths by heart. But the person has only one vital question to which he has to know the answer.

Now I want to explain, that, when I speak of genius, I do not speak of the priesthood, not even about the category of spiritual parenthood, but specifically and exclusively of eldership. And I used the word "genius" because in the area of the spoken word it explains that, which otherwise might be called "blessedness." In worldly matters this genius is musical, artistic, mathematical — it is something which we cannot achieve with any of our own efforts. For this reason I speak not of the priesthood in general, and, of course, do not mean to denigrate the parish priest, the youngest, simplest, but honest, doing his work, confessing people, sharing with them that which he learned from the Church fathers, from theologians, from their own spiritual guide, from the surrounding Christian praying environment. This is a valuable thing. But there is a moment, which disturbs me somewhat; that is when some priests — the more they are spiritually illiterate and unripe — the more they sure are that, as soon as they put on their vestments, that they are already speaking from God.

I remember one respected person (whom some people consider a great elder) who said to me: I do not pray any more when people ask me something, because since after prayer the Holy Spirit speaks through me, and then, if they do not do what I say, then they sin against the Holy Spirit and they will not receive forgiveness… This is precisely what I had in mind: this, thank God, is an extreme example. And I was horrified that a person might think that, if he thrice said: "Lord, enlighten my mind, which is darkened by evil lust," that his next words would simply be a prophecy from God.

And I think that simple elementary sense plays a role here: one may speak of that which one knows surely. Say, taking an example from a huge spectrum: the Holy Apostle Paul may speak with complete assuredness that Christ rose from the dead, because he met the living, risen Christ on the way to Damascus. About other things he can speak with not such first-hand knowledge. Other people also have certain experience, on a smaller scale, maybe, of less power, but of which they can say,"Yes, I know for sure." Thus one unbeliever, who turned to God, wrote a book in France called, "God exists, and I met Him."

The priest and layman may also speak from church experience, because they are involved — even if they do not possess it completely; because, having some common experiential premises with others, they can listen to the experience of other church people, and when necessary, they can say: "This — is true — because the Church says so, and I know from the church depths more, than I know from my own experience… And, finally, there are things, which we can say only because the Lord revealed them to us.

Missionary Leaflet # E50c
Copyright © 2002 Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission
466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, Ca 91011
Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)

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