The Spiritual Guide in Orthodox Christianity

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The spiritual guide as a "charismatic" figure

What entitles someone to act as spiritual guide? How and by whom is he or she appointed?

To this there is a simple answer. The elder or starets is essentially a "charismatic" and prophetic figure, accredited for her or his task by the direct action of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual guides are ordained, not by human hands, but by the hand of God. They are an expression of the Church as "event" or "happening," rather than of the Church as institution.6 There is, however, no sharp line of demarcation between the prophetic and the institutional elements in the life of the Church; each grows out of the other and is intertwined with it. The ministry of the starets, itself charismatic, is related to a clearlydefined function within the institutional framework of the Church, the office of priestconfessor. In the Orthodox tradition, the right to hear confessions is not granted automatically at ordination. Before acting as confessor, a priest requires authorization from his bishop; and in the Greek Church, at any rate, only a minority of the clergy are so authorized. Yet, although the sacrament of confession is certainly an appropriate occasion for spiritual direction, the ministry of the starets is by no means identical with that of a confessor. The starets gives advice, not only at confession, but on many other occasions. Moreover, while the confessor must always be a priest, the starets may be a simple monk, not in holy orders, or even a layman; the ministry of eldership may also be exercised by a nun or a laywoman, for in the Orthodox tradition there are spiritual mothers as well as spiritual fathers.7 The starets, whether ordained or lay, frequently speaks with an insight and authority that only a very few confessor-priests possess.

If, however, spiritual fathers or mothers are not appointed by an official act of the hierarchy, how then do they come to embark on their ministry? Sometimes an existing starets will designate his own successor. In this way, at certain monastic centers such as Optino in nineteenth-century Russia there was established an "apostolic succession" of spiritual masters. In other cases, the starets emerges spontaneously, without any act of external authorization. As Father Alexander Elchaninov says, they are "recognized as such by the people." Within the continuing life of the Christian community, it becomes plain to the believing people of God-which is the true guardian of Holy Tradition — that this or that person has the gift of spiritual fatherhood or motherhood. Then, in a free and informal fashion, others begin to come to him or her for advice and direction.

It will be noted that the initiative comes, as a rule, not from the master but from the disciples. It would be perilously presumptuous for someone to say in his own heart or to others, "Come and submit yourselves to me; I am a starets, I have the grace of the Spirit." What happens, rather, is that — without any claims being made by the person himself — others approach him, seeking his advice or asking to live permanently under his care. At first, he will probably send them away, telling them to consult someone else. Eventually the moment comes when he no longer sends them away but accepts their coming to him as a disclosure of the will of God. Thus it is his spiritual children who reveal the elder to himself.

The figure of the geronta or starets illustrates the two interpenetrating levels on which the earthly Church exists and functions. On the one hand, there is the external, official and hierarchical level, with its geographical organization into dioceses and parishes, its great centers — Rome, Constantinople, Moscow, and Canterbury — and its "apostolic succession" of bishops. On the other hand, there is the inner, spiritual and "charismatic" level, to which the startsi primarily belong. Here the chief centers are, for the most part, not the great primatial and metropolitan sees but certain remote hermitages, in which there shine forth a few personalities richly endowed with spiritual gifts. Most startsi have possessed no exalted status in the formal hierarchy of the Church; yet the influence of a simple priest-monk such as St Seraphim of Sarov exceeded that of any patriarch or bishop in nineteenth-century Orthodoxy. In this fashion, alongside the apostolic succession of the episcopate, there exists also the apostolic succession of the saints and Spirit-bearers. Both types of succession are essential for the true functioning of the Body of Christ, and it is through their interaction that the life of the Church on earth is accomplished.

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