It’s Time to Tell a Story part XIV: The Spiritual Father

Author: Samuel Dank
Date Published: 07/16/2015
Publication: Caz & Little

“Abba” or spiritual father—whom the Greeks call “Geron” and the Russians “Starets”, a title which in both languages means “old man” or “elder”.

-Bishop. Kallistos Ware

I would like to share some quotes and thoughts on “spiritual fathers.” Specifically the spiritual father phenomenon in my experiences. I personally have had two confessors in my life that would fall under the category of “spiritual father.” Both relationships ended up being, well…unhealthy.

I’m writing this to provide a reference point for current threads in my story, but  also later revelations. I hope to show how the concept of the “spiritual father”, as we internalized it, was harmful. Of course this is only one component in the power dynamics of abuse, but for Orthodox (specifically fundamentalist Orthodox converts) an important one.

This is not going to be a commentary on the history of the starets or geronda. In fact I’m not even going to give much of an explanation of the practice – for more info, I like Kallistos Ware’s essay on the subject, from which I’ve excerpted quotes.

No. All I would like to do here is paint a picture of the attitudes I grew up imbibing about spiritual fathers, and how these ideas crippled growth, malformed minds and enabled abusers to hold power over me and others even after the relationships ended.

There are a number of reasons why I believe that the application of the “spiritual father” ideal has been so harmful to so many in my life. Here I would like to focus on three. They are all deeply rooted in the patriarchal systems of Judaism and Christianity and predicated on identifying the elder as “vicar of God”. They are more than guide or advisor. They are priest, prophet and patriarch.

First as priest (I use priest here in the broad anthropological sense, not the strict sacramental one.) :

Consider that the Holy Spirit lives in the spiritual father, and He will tell you what to do. But if you think that the spiritual father live negligently, and that the Holy Spirit can’t live in him, you will suffer mightily for such a thought, and the Lord will humble you, and you will straightway fall into delusion.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, II.1)

In the Athonite tradition this may be a perfectly valid and even necessary way to approach one’s relationship with one’s elder, but placed in the context of my American-fundamentalist-convert-Orthodox world it was one of the most powerful ways in which spiritual abuse was tolerated; actually, facilitated. Thoughts like: “If they are filled with the Spirit and I am not, I must be delusional if I disagree.” and “They have been made holy in the mystical office of eldership regardless of their sins.” are pretty typical. Don’t judge! If you judge your elder, you are judging God!

Second as prophet:

The Holy Spirit acts mystically through the spiritual father, and then when you go out from your spiritual father, the soul feels her renewal. But if you leave your spiritual father in a state of confusion, this means that you did not confess purely and did not forgive your brother all of his sins from your heart.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, XIII.11)

Many who have experienced the confusion of an abusive spiritual relationship will recognize this. Self doubt and neuroses follow. The feeling of “this is my fault I didn’t do it right.” This must be so, because it’s from the Holy Spirit through my prophet!

I like how Caz illustrated the effects of this in her statement about Fr. Paisius DeLucia: “I became almost neurotic regarding my sins, spending at least a half hour trying to get my supposed sins written down, trying to make sure that I confessed the “right” sins in the “right” way, and not get kicked out of confession.”

The Third, as patriarch:

The father, like “our Heavenly Father” must be obeyed. His will must be done. Obedience is key here.

[T]here is the story in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers about the monk who was told to plant a dry stick in the sand and to water it daily. So distant was the spring from his cell that he had to leave in the evening to fetch the water and he only returned in the following morning. For three years he patiently fulfilled his Abba’s command. At the end of this period, the stick suddenly put forth leaves and bore fruit. The Abba picked the fruit, took it to the church, and invited the monks to eat, saying, “Come and taste the fruit of obedience.”

… [The] Abba saw a small pig; testing Mark, he said, “Do you see that buffalo, my child?” “Yes, Father,” replied Mark. “And you see how powerful its horns are?” “Yes, Father”, he answered once more without demur. Abba Joseph of Panepho, following a similar policy, tested the obedience of his disciples by assigning ridiculous tasks to them, and only if they complied would he then give them sensible commands. Another geron instructed his disciple to steal things from the cells of the brethren; yet another told his disciple (who had not been entirely truthful with him) to throw his son into the furnace.

Bishop Kallistos Ware *

One can see how emulation and application of these stories could be a bit dangerous.

In the world that I grew up in, this attitude towards spiritual fathers and leaders in general was coupled with a sense of loyalty – unquestioning loyalty to both the spiritual father and brotherhood/community. This combination not only protected predators and abusers like Fr. Herman and Fr. Paisius, but facilitated, and in Fr. Paisius’ case even promoted these behaviors**.

Some would say (like one of our anonymous commenters) something like: “but this type of situation is common to the human experience, so what’s your point?”

Why am I harping on this?

The potential, if not propensity for abuse becomes magnified when, in the Orthodox world, this all too human problem of abuse of power is reinforced by the misappropriation or misapplication of Church and cultural traditions like the “sayings of the fathers” without any respect for historical and cultural context and without discernment. It can be likened to the way the Westboro Baptists would be characterized as misrepresenting the Gospel of Christ.

Yes, I know I am dancing around the “No true Scotsman” fallacy, but then, that begs the question: Is there something inherently unhealthy about the patriarchal system found within Christianity? Specifically Orthodox Christianity? Is the image of “kingdom” too easily a dictatorship?

Perhaps these are questions best left for a later blog post. All I will say is that, with the benefit of hind site, my experiences have lead me to question. Question. Question. Question.

But let’s finish on a less conflicting note. I found this essay “Priests, Pastors, Confessors and Spiritual Fathers: Thoughts on Confession and the Pastoral Relationship” to be quite balanced and helpful. Here is an excerpt:

A true “spiritual father” is another matter all together. “Spiritual fathers” … are quite advanced in spiritual life and wisdom, and capable of extremely fine discernment. When one submits to such as a spiritual father, then one is expressly committing to obey him in all matters. Typically, this kind of relationship takes place in a monastery, although non-monastics do enter it from time to time. A hallmark of this relationship is the daily “disclosure of thoughts” given by a monk to his spiritual father. In such a case, the monk attempts to disclose his every pattern of thought to his spiritual father for discernment and training in spiritual warfare.

As mentioned above, in this relationship, the obedience is total. This is why extreme care is necessary, and one should NEVER enter into such a relationship with anyone who does not have an outstanding reputation for this kind of ministry. Of course, the blessing of one’s pastor is mandatory, and indeed, it may be wise to receive the blessing of one’s bishop as well. False “elders” and spiritual fathers do exist, and the potential for abuse is enormous when one offers total obedience to such a person. It is critical to recognize, however, that not only must the spiritual father be of impeccable reputation, a person must be spiritually prepared to enter such a relationship. For most of us living in the world, it is entirely unnecessary. In fact, the desire for a “spiritual father” may be an indication of “prelest,” (spiritual lust) – that a person imagines himself to be far more “spiritual” than he actually is.

We hear much in the Orthodox world today about the necessity for “spiritual fathers,” confessors, and the like. It is important to have a basic understanding of what these relationships are all about. Whether one confesses simply to a priest, to one’s pastor, has a confessor, or a true spiritual father, one must [be] knowledgeable about the sacrament of confession, the relationship he is entering into, and the person to whom he confesses. Only then will the potential for abuse and misunderstanding be counteracted, and the grace of the sacrament flourish to the spiritual profit of the penitent. [emphasis added]

-Anonymous

I don’t think this council would have helped me or others in the culture I’m from, but perhaps, just perhaps, others don’t have to experience these things.

*I want to point out that in his essay Bishop Kallistos goes on to say that, “such stories are likely to make a somewhat ambivalent impression on the modern reader. They seem to reduce the disciple to an infantile or sub-human level, depriving him of all power of judgment and moral choice. With indignation we ask: “Is this the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God’?” (Rom. 8:21)”, and follows this with an excellent three point clarification and contextualization of these stories.

**Also to be noted is that Met. Joseph of the Bulgarian Archdiocese of the U.S.A, while visiting St. Innocents Academy referred to Fr. Paisius DeLucia as an “elder”. My point being that this kind of asshattery doesn’t just happen in vagante jurisdictions and “old calendarist” sects. Source: Former student Ray Richards