The Spiritual Guide in Orthodox Christianity

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In the absence of a starets

And what are we to do, if we cannot find a spiritual guide? For, as we have noted, guides such as St Antony or St Seraphim are few and far between.

We may turn, in the first place, to books. Writing in fifteenth-century Russia St Nil Sorsky laments the extreme scarcity of qualified spiritual directors; yet how much more frequent they must have been in his day than in ours! Search diligently, he urges, for a sure and trustworthy guide. Then he continues: "However, if such a teacher cannot be found, then the Holy Fathers order us to turn to the Scriptures and listen to our Lord Himself speaking."45 Since the testimony of Scripture should never be isolated from the continuing witness of the Spirit in the life of the Church, we may add that the inquirer will also want to read the works of the Fathers, and above all the Philokalia. But there is an evident danger here. The starets adapts his guidance to the inner state of each; books offer the same advice to everyone. How are we to discern whether or not a particular text is applicable to our own situation? Even if we cannot find a spiritual father in the full sense, we should at least try to find someone more experienced than ourselves, able to guide us in our reading.

It is possible to learn also from visiting places where divine grace has been exceptionally manifest and where, in T S. Eliot's phrase, "prayer has been valid." Before making a major decision, and in the absence of other guidance, many Orthodox Christians will go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mount Athos, to some monastery or the shrine of a saint, where they will pray for illumination. This is the way in which I myself have reached certain of the more difficult decisions in my life.

Thirdly, we can learn from religious communities with an established tradition of the spiritual life. In the absence of a personal teacher, the monastic environment can itself serve as abba; we can receive our formation from the ordered sequence of the daily program, with its periods of liturgical and silent prayer, with its balance of manual labor, study and recreation. This seems to have been the chief way in which St Seraphim of Sarov gained his spiritual training. A well-organized monastery embodies, in an accessible and living form, the inherited wisdom of many startsi. Not only monks but those who come as visitors, remaining for a longer or shorter period, can be formed and guided by the experience of community life.

It is indeed no coincidence that, when the kind of "charismatic" spiritual fatherhood that we have been describing first emerged in fourth century Egypt, this was not within the fully organized communities under St Pachomius, but among the hermits and in the semieremitic milieu of Nitria and Scetis. In the Pachomian koinonia, spiritual direction was provided by Pachomius himself, by the superiors of each monastery, and by the heads of individual "houses" within the monastery. The Rule of St Benedict also envisages the abbot as spiritual father, and there is virtually no provision for further direction of a more "charismatic" type.46 In time, it is true, the cenobitic communities incorporated many of the traditions of spiritual fatherhood as developed among the hermits, but the need for those traditions has always been less intensely felt in the cenobia, precisely because direction is provided by the corporate life pursued under the guidance of the monastic rule.

Finally, before leaving this question of the absence of a starets, it is important for us to emphasize the extreme flexibility in the relationship between spiritual guide and disciple. Some may see their spiritual guide daily or even hourly, praying, eating and working with him, perhaps sharing the same cell, as often happened in the Egyptian desert. Others may see him only once a month or once a year; others, again, may visit an abba on but a single occasion in their entire life, yet this will be sufficient to set them on the right path. There are, furthermore, many different types of spiritual father or mother; few will be wonderworkers like St Seraphim of Sarov. There are numerous priests and laypeople who, while lacking the more spectacular endowments of the famous startsi, are certainly able to provide others with the guidance that they require. Furthermore, let us never forget that, alongside spiritual fatherhood and motherhood, there is also spiritual brotherhood and sisterhood. At school or university we often learn more from our fellow students than from our teachers; and the same may happen also in our life of prayer and inner exploration.

When people imagine that they have failed in their search for a guide, often this is because they expect him or her to be of a particular type; they want a St Seraphim, and so they close their eyes to the guides whom God is actually sending to them. Often their supposed problems are not so very complicated, and in reality they already know in their own heart what the answer is. But they do not like the answer, because it involves patient and sustained effort on their part; and so they look for a deus ex machina who, by a single miraculous word, will suddenly make everything easy. Such people need to be helped to an understanding of the true nature of spiritual direction.

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