The Spiritual Guide in Orthodox Christianity

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Flight and return: the preparation of the spiritual guide

Although spiritual guides are not ordained or appointed for their task, it is certainly necessary that they should be prepared. There is a classic pattern for this preparation, a movement of flight and return such as may be clearly discerned in the lives of St Antony the Great and St Seraphim of Sarov, to take but two examples separated from each other by fifteen centuries.

St Antony's life falls sharply into two halves, with his fiftyfifth year as the watershed. The years from early manhood to the age of fifty-five were his time of preparation, spent in an ever-increasing seclusion from the world as he withdrew further and further into the desert. According to his biographer, he eventually passed twenty years in an abandoned fort, meeting no one whatsoever. When he had reached the age of fifty-five, his friends could contain their curiosity no longer, and broke down the entrance. St Antony came out and, for the remaining half century of his long life, without abandoning the life of a hermit he made himself freely available to others, acting as "a physician given by God to Egypt," to use the phrase of his biographer, St Athanasius. "He was beloved by all," Athanasius states, "and all desired to have him as their father."' Observe that the transition from enclosed anchorite to spiritual father came about, not through any initiative on St Antony's part, but through the action of others. It should also be noted that Antony was a lay monk, never ordained to the priesthood.

St Seraphim followed a comparable path. After sixteen years spent in the ordinary life of the monastic community, as novice, professed monk, deacon, and priest, he withdrew for twenty years of solitude, first as a hermit in the forest and then for the last three years, after being ordered by the abbot to return to the monastery, as a recluse enclosed in his cell. During part of these twenty years he met occasional visitors, but at other times his isolation was almost total: at the start of his time in the forest he spent a thousand days on the stump of a tree and the thousand nights of those days on a rock, devoting himself to unceasing prayer; for the last three years in his forest hut he spoke to no one; and during his three years of enclosure in the monastery he did not go to church even to receive Holy Communion, but the sacrament was brought to him at the door of his cell. Then in 1813, at the age of fifty-three, he ended his seclusion, devoting the last two decades of his life to the ministry of starchestvo (eldership) and receiving all who came to him, whether monks or laypeople. He did nothing to advertise himself or to call others to him; it was the others who took the initiative in approaching him, but when they came — sometimes hundreds or even thousands in a single day — he did not send them empty away.9

Without this intense ascetic preparation, without this radical flight into solitude, would St Antony or St Seraphim have been able to guide and inspire their contemporaries to the same degree? Not that they withdrew with the specific and conscious purpose of becoming the teachers and guides of others. They fled, not in order to prepare themselves for any such task, but simply out of a consuming desire to be alone with God. God accepted their love, but then He sent them back as instruments of healing in the world from which they had withdrawn. Even had He never sent them back, their flight would still have been supremely creative and valuable to society; for nuns and monks help the world not primarily by anything that they do and say but by what they are, by the state of unceasing prayer which — for some at any rate among them — has become identical with their innermost being. Had St Antony and St Seraphim done nothing but pray in solitude they would still have been serving others to the highest degree. As things turned out, however, God ordained that they should also serve them in a more direct fashion. Yet this direct and visible service was not their original aim: it was a side-effect that they had not themselves intended or initially envisioned, an outward consequence of the inner and invisible service which they were already rendering through their prayer.

"Acquire a peaceful spirit," said St Seraphim, "and then thousands of others around you will be saved."10 Such is the pattern of spiritual fatherhood or motherhood. Establish yourself in God; then you can bring others to His presence. Each must learn to be alone, and so in the stillness of their own heart they will begin to hear the wordless speech of the Spirit, thus discovering the truth about themselves and about God. Then their word to others will be a word of power, because it is a word out of silence.

Shaped in this way by the encounter with God in solitude, the starets is able to heal by his very presence. He guides and forms others, not primarily by words of advice but by his companionship, by the living and specific example which he sets. He teaches as much by his stillness as by his speech, by his very presence as much as by any word of counsel that he utters. That is why Abba Pambo saw no reason to say anything to Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria: "If he isn't edified by my silence," observed the old man, "then he won't be edified by my words."11 A story with the same moral is told of St Antony. "It was the custom of three Fathers to visit the Blessed Antony once each year, and two of them used to ask him questions about their thoughts (logismoi) and the salvation of their soul; but the third remained completely silent, without putting any questions. After a long while, Abba Antony said to him, 'See, you have been in the habit of coming to me all this time, and yet you do not ask me any questions.' And the other replied, 'Father, it is enough for me just to look at you.'"12

The real journey of the starets, however, is not spatially into the desert, but spiritually into the heart. External solitude, however valuable, is not indispensable, and a person may learn to stand alone before God while yet continuing to pursue a life of active service in the midst of society. The story of the Alexandrian doctor who was the equal of St Antony, and who all day long sang the Thrice-Holy Hymn with the angels,13 shows us that the mystical and "angelic" life is possible in the city as well as the desert. Unceasing prayer of the heart is no monopoly of the eremitic solitary; for people such as the Alexandrian doctor have accomplished the inner journey without severing their outward links with the community.

This pattern of flight and return, then, is not to be understood in too literal and clear-cut a way. The two stages need not necessarily be expressed in external and spatial terms; and by the same token the flight and return are not always sharply distinguished in temporal sequence. Take, for example, the case of St Seraphim's younger contemporary, St Ignaty Brianchaninov. Trained originally as an army officer, he then withdrew to a monastery; but after only four years in monasticism he was appointed at the early age of twenty-six to take charge of a busy and influential community close to the heart of St Petersburg. After twenty-four years as abbot, he was consecrated bishop. Four years later he resigned, to spend the remaining six years of his life as a hermit. Thus in St Ignaty's case a long period of active pastoral work and spiritual fatherhood preceded the period of his eremitic seclusion. When he was originally made abbot, he must surely have felt ill-prepared. His secret withdrawal into the heart was undertaken continuously during the many years in which he administered a monastery and a diocese; but it did not receive an exterior expression until the very end of his life. The life of St Theophan the Recluse followed the same pattern: first an active pastorate, then the hermit's cell.14

St Ignaty's career may serve as a paradigm to many of us at the present time, even though we are conscious of falling far short of his level of spiritual achievement. Under the pressure of outward circumstances and probably without clearly realizing what is happening to us, we assume the responsibilities of teaching, preaching and pastoral counseling, while lacking any deep knowledge of the desert and its creative silence. But through instructing others we ourselves perhaps begin to learn. Slowly we recognize our powerlessness to heal the wounds of humanity solely through philanthropic programs, common sense and psychoanalysis. Our self-dependence is broken down, we appreciate our own inadequacy, and so we start to understand what Christ meant by the "one thing that is necessary" (Lk 10:42). That is the moment when a person may by the divine mercy start to advance along the path of the starets. Through our pastoral experience, through our anguish over the pain of others, we are brought to undertake the journey inwards and to seek the hidden treasure-house of the Kingdom, where alone a genuine solution to the world's problems can be found. No doubt few if any among us would venture to think of ourselves as a starets in the full sense, but provided we seek with humble sincerity to enter into the "secret chamber" of our heart, we can all share to some degree in the grace of spiritual fatherhood or motherhood. Perhaps we shall never outwardly lead the life of a monastic recluse or a hermit — that often rests with circumstances outside our own control — but what is supremely important is that each should see the need to be a hermit of the heart.

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