By definition, an Orthodox Christian is one who strives to be obedient to the Commandments and, at the same time, obediently tries to fulfill the requirements of an Orthodox way of life, as revealed by Scripture and Tradition. Thus, obedient attendance at divine services, frequent reception of the Mysteries, observance of the seasonal fasts, the giving of alms, acquiring the spirit of charity, etc.—all of these, and more, constitute the bare minimum expected of those who follow Jesus Christ. This holy obedience is, however, only the beginning for anyone who wishes to call himself Christian; these are the first steps in spiritual life, in keeping with what the Lord has taught us: If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments. He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me. He that loveth me not, keepeth not my words (Saint John 14.15, 21, 24). This is why Saint Paisios Velichkovsky has written: “The keeping of God’s commandments and His words is nothing else than perfect obedience toward Christ the Lord.” From this the Orthodox Christian quickly learns how utterly lacking he is in the spirit of obedience and love.
So fundamental, so essential, are these obedient first steps, however, that they cannot be passed over lightly. Yet, because they represent the patient, hard work of actually beginning to walk the narrow path to the kingdom of Heaven, they are the least attractive to the new Orthodox Christian, and are often ignored. This is why a priest who works particularly with converts will first assign to his new spiritual charge the routine of piety as outlined above, a routine primarily intended not only to test obedience, but to touch the heart rather than the head. In the words of Saint John of Kronstadt: It is extremely dangerous to develop—to educate—only the understanding, the intellect, and to ignore the heart. We must, above all, attend to the heart, for the heart is life… , so that it may direct all the thoughts, desires, and inclinations of the man throughout his life.
Many converts never progress beyond this initial requirement to obey the principles of an Orthodox way of life; some actually spend their lives struggling against it altogether. But those to whom it is granted to go deeper, to go beyond the baby milk of spiritual life, there awaits the experience of the strong wine of Orthodox obedience. It is the purpose of this short essay to examine this kind of obedience—obedience to a spiritual Father—in the life of an Orthodox Christian layman.
There are three general principles that apply here. First, one must distinguish between an elderand a spiritual Father. An elder fills the prophetic ministry in the Church; as such, he must be obeyed as one who truly reveals the will of God to others. There are virtually no true elders left on the face of the earth today, and those who claim to be elders or allow their followers to call them by that title—especially here in America, where Orthodoxy is so immature—, do no service to the cause of Orthodoxy. There are far too many western converts to Orthodoxy who, lacking willpower and conviction are more than willing to abdicate their own common sense and judgment to another; the ensuing personality cult has nothing whatever to do with Orthodoxy. It is a fact that the average layman often confuses the functions of the elder and the spiritual Father.
Secondly, obedience to a spiritual Father is not so much a question of commanding and obeying as of leading and following. In other words, a spiritual Father must never see him self as one who issues edicts, but as one who leads the lay person given to his care by God; he leads by word and deed. So many examples of this abound in the lives of the Saints that it would be pointless to begin citing them here. It need only be said that the relationship between a layman and his spiritual Father is not a legalistic one; it is not based on a vow of obedience (although, by grace it could be very binding on a particular spiritual Father and child). Rather, it is a living bond between two living souls, one more experienced than the other, one capable of showing the way because he has already begun to travel it, the other willing to trust and follow. The late Schemamonk John, for many years the Father Confessor of Varlaam Monastery, who also had many non-monastic spiritual children, put it this way: “The wise spiritual life was explained with precision by the Holy Fathers in their writings, but what they wrote can be best understood by being lived. It is the spiritual Father who must live these principles, according to his strength and the grace given to him, in full view of his spiritual children. To those who turn to me, small-brained as I am, I will give my opinion and then always say: But consider the matter yourself.” The spiritual Father does not coerce, he does not give orders; rather, he takes the spiritual child by the hand and leads the way, gently but firmly.
Thirdly, those who can give spiritual guidance are now so rare that a layman must exercise great caution before placing himself under obedience. This is why the great nineteenth-century Elder Makarios of Optina Monastery wrote the following to a lay person: “It is certainly a great consolation, and a great help on the way, to find a director under whose wise guidance our will is cured of self-will, our mind of self-regard. But in these days, it is most difficult to find one.” If it was already difficult one hundred years ago, in the last days of grace-filled Russia, to find a spiritual Father, how much more difficult it is for us today! A contemporary of Elder Makarios, and himself a great spiritual guide, Bishop Ignatios Brianchaninov, cautioned those in his care: “Conceited and self-opinionated people love to teach and give directions. They are not concerned as to the value of their advice. It does not occur to them that they can cause irreparable damage to their neighbor by their misguided advice, which is taken by an inexperienced beginner with irresponsible confidence … . They want to make an impression on the beginner, and subject him morally to themselves. They want human praise. They want to be reputed saints, astute elders, teachers with spiritual insight. They want to nourish their insatiable vanity.”
How then is the layman, who is progressing beyond the day-to-day routine of pious living—fasting, vigil, prayer, etc.—to find the direction his soul needs for further growth? In most instances, a parish priest will direct this person to a wise monastic who can provide guidance. Failing this, as even Bishop Ignatios says, the layman must seek out the will of God in Scripture for himself, imploring God to send him help. It may happen that in time God will send a wise counsellor, a spiritual Father; but meanwhile the lay person must wait patiently, not being overly anxious to submit himself to another, lest he become a servant of men (1 Corinthians 7.23) rather than a servant of God. If, at last, God sends a spiritual Father, then, Bishop Ignatios writes, with weeping and heart felt groanings implore God not to allow you to turn aside from His all-holy will and follow a fallen human will, your own or that of your neighbor—your spiritual adviser (spiritual Father). In just the same vein, Elder Makarios wrote the following to a spiritual child: “I shall try to answer you as best I can, but you must pray. Pray that God may grant me the ability to say the right words which will bring you help.”
One of the signs by which a layman can recognize his spiritual Father is this: a spiritual guide is not longing to give anyone advice; on the contrary, he knows that of himself he is empty and incapable—as even Elder Makarios wrote: “I have told you nothing that is an invention of my own. All of what I say comes from the writings of the Fathers. Mine is only the humble work of choosing passages suitable to your particular case.” Similarly, Bishop Ignatios says that the Fathers forbid us to give advice to our neighbor of our own accord, without our neighbors asking us to do so. The voluntary giving of advice is a sign that we regard ourselves as possessed of spiritual knowledge and worth, which is a clear sign of pride and self-deception. How many spiritual Fathers today can withstand such a test? Yet, there may be a handful. Such true spiritual guides give advice with fear of God and only because it was asked of them; knowing their own grievous inadequacies, they do not expect instant obedience, but leave it to the judgment of their spiritual child. In this way they protect both themselves and their spiritual children. The spiritually mature layman, however, knows that if he obeys his spiritual Father in all things that do not conflict with the Law of God or his God-given common sense, God will not at all abandon him.
Anyone who has read much in the writings of the holy Fathers and lives of the Saints will realize that what has been said above about the layman and obedience is a very pale reflection of what was once in the Church. But the level of spirituality in church life is so low today that it is God’s will that lay people aspire for nothing more than voluntary obedience to a spiritual Father. To go beyond this is not only dangerous, but calls into question the providence of God. Spiritual growth for the layman is still possible, but it is now very, very slow and painstaking. Still, growth does take place. In the words of Bishop Ignatios: “It is a great mystery of God, a great blessing for us, that it is left to us to feed on the crumbs that fall from the spiritual table of the Fathers. These crumbs are not the most satisfying food, but they can prevent spiritual death.”