The Spiritual Guide in Orthodox Christianity

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The Spiritual Guide in Orthodox Christianity

by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia

More important than all possible books

If we are climbing a mountain for the first time, we need to follow a known route; and we also need to have with us, as companion and guide, someone who has been up before and s familiar with the way. To serve as such a companion and guide is precisely the role of he "abba" or spiritual father — of the one whom the Greeks call geron or geronta and he Russians starets, a title which in both languages means "old man" or "elder."1

The importance of obedience to a geron is underlined from the very first beginnings of astern Christian monasticism. It is clearly evident, for example, in the sayings attributed o St Antony of Egypt:

I know of monks who fell after much toil and lapsed into madness, because they trusted in their own works and did not give due heed to the commandment of him who says, "Ask your father, and he will tell you" (Dent 32:7). If possible, for every step that a monk takes, for every drop of water that he drinks in his cell, he should entrust the decision to the old men, to avoid making some mistake in what he does.2

The need for spiritual guidance is a master-theme throughout the Apophthegmata or Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

The old men used to say: "If you see a young monk climbing up to heaven by his own will, grasp him by the feet and throw him down, for this is to his profit... If a person places his faith in someone else and surrenders himself to the other in full submission, he has no need to attend to the commandment of God, but he needs only to entrust his entire will into the hands of his father. Then he will be blameless before God, for God requires nothing from beginners so much as self-stripping through obedience."3

This figure of the starets, so prominent in the first generations of Egyptian monasticism, has retained its full significance up to the present day in Orthodox Christendom. "There is one thing more important than all possible books and ideas," states a Russian layman of the nineteenth century, the Slavophil Ivan Kireyevsky, "and that is the example of an Orthodox starets, before whom you can lay each of your thoughts and from whom you can hear, not a more or less valuable private opinion, but the judgment of the Holy Fathers. God be praised, such startsi have not yet disappeared from our Russia."4 And a priest of the Russian emigration in the twentieth century, Father Alexander Elchaninov, writes: "Their field of action is unlimited... they are undoubtedly saints, recognized as such by the people. I feel that in our tragic days it is precisely through this means that faith will survive and be strengthened in our country."5

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