Saturday, November 27, 2010

Spiritual Father in Orthodox Christianity -1

This article was shared by Dr. Roy Cherian at ICON . May it be edifying
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The Spiritual Father in Orthodox Christianity-- by Bishop Kallistos Ware

One who climbs a mountain for the first time needs to follow a known route;and he needs to have with him, as companion and guide, someone who hasbeen up before and is familiar with the way. To serve as such a companion and guide is precisely the role of the "Abba" or spiritual father whom theGreeks call "Geron" and the Russians "Starets", a title which in both languages means "old man" or "elder". [1]

The importance of obedience to a Geron is underlined from the first emergence of monasticism in the Christian East. St. Antony of Egypt said: "I know of monks who fell after much toil and lapsed into madness, because they trusted in their own work . . . So far as possible, for every step that a monk takes, for every drop of water that he drinks in his cell, he should entrust the decision to the Old Men, to avoid making some mistake in what he does." [2]

This is a theme constantly emphasized in the Apophthegmata or Sayings ofthe Desert Fathers:"The old Men used to say: 'if you see a young monk climbing up to heaven by his own will, grasp him by the feet and throw him down, for this is to his profit . . . if a man has faith in another and renders himself up to him in full submission, he has no need to attend to the commandment of God, but he needs only to entrust his entire will into the hands of his father.Then he will be blameless before God, for God requires nothing from beginners so much as self-stripping through obedience.'" [3]

This figure of the Starets, so prominent in the first generations of Egyptian monasticism, has retained its full significance up to the present day in Orthodox Christendom. "There is one thing more important than all possible books and ideas", states a Russian layman of the 19th Century, the Slavophile Kireyevsky, "and that is the example of an Orthodox Starets, before whom you can lay each of your thoughts and from whom you can hear, not a more or less valuable private opinion, but the judgement of the Holy Fathers.God be praised, such Startsi have not yet disappeared from our Russia." And a Priest of the Russian emigration in our own century, Fr. Alexander Elchaninov (+ 1934), writes: "Their held of action is unlimited... they are undoubtedly saints, recognized as such by the people. I feel that in our tragic days it is precisely through this means that faith will survive and be strengthened in our country." [4]

The Spiritual Father as a 'Charismatic' Figure What entitles a man to act as a starets? How and by whom is he appointed?To this there is a simple answer. The spiritual father or starets isessentially a 'charismatic' and prophetic figure, accredited for his task by thedirect action of the Holy Spirit. He is ordained, not by the hand of man,but by the hand of God. He is an expression of the Church as "event" or"happening", rather than of the Church as institution. [5]

There is, of course, no sharp line of demarcation between the prophetic and the institutional 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 clearly-defined function within the institutional framework of the Church, the office of priest-confessor. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the right to hear confessions is not granted automatically at ordination. Before acting as confessor, a priest requires authorization from his bishop; in the Greek Church, only a minority of the clergy are so authorized.Although the sacrament of confession is certainly an appropriate occasion for spiritual direction, the ministry of the starets is not identical with that of a confessor. The starets gives advice, not only at confession, but on many other occasions; indeed, while the confessor must always be a priest, the starets may be a simple monk, not in holy orders, or a nun, a layman or laywoman. The ministry of the starets is deeper, because only a very few confessor priests would claim to speak with the former's insight and authority.But if the starets is not ordained or appointed by an act of the official hierarchy, how does he come to embark on his ministry? Sometimes an existing starets will designate his own successor. In this way, at certain monastic centers such as Optina in 19th-century Russia, there was established an"apostolic succession" of spiritual masters. In other cases, the starets simply emerges spontaneously, without any act of external authorization. As Elchaninov said, 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 (the true guardian of Holy Tradition) that this or that person has the gift of spiritual fatherhood. 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 starets 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. Finally 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 starets to himself.

The figure of the starets illustrates the two interpenetrating levels on which the earthly Church exists and functions. On the one hand, there is the external, official, and hierarchial level, with its geographicalorganization 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 inward, spiritual and "charismatic" level, to whichthe startsi primarily belong. Here the chief centrs 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 withspiritual 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 has exceeded that of any patriarch or bishop in 19th-century Orthodoxy. In this fashion, alongside the apostolic succession of the episcopate, there exists that of the saints and spiritual men. 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.

(To be continued...)

http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/54517.htm


1 comment:

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