Monday, October 27, 2014

Finding A Spiritual Father

Elder Porphyrios
I received an e-mail yesterday from someone asking advice on how to find a spiritual father.  I had to tell him that finding a spiritual father, in one sense, is very difficult and may take a lifetime.  In fact, if by finding a spiritual father he means that he is looking for a relationship with a spiritual mentor that is like what one reads about in the Philokalia or the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, or in the Ladder of Divine Ascent, then I would have to say that it is almost impossible to find a spiritual father. On the other hand, and in another sense, it is very easy to find a spiritual father or mother.  Finding a spiritual mentor in this sense has mostly to do with the seeker’s humility and willingness to be taught, and much less to do with the qualifications of the potential mentor.   Let me explain:

In the writings of the Holy Fathers, especially the ancient Fathers, we are given as examples to be emulated the many stories of absolute and unquestioning obedience of novices to their spiritual fathers.  We are told stories of holy men who submitted unquestioningly and with profound humility to spiritual fathers and who themselves became saints because of that humble submission.  We are told of clairvoyant elders, full of love for their spiritual children, who unerringly guided their spiritual children on the path to godlikeness, and we are told of spiritual children suffering harsh consequences as a result of disobeying their spiritual mentors.  This tradition of discipleship under a wise and experienced spiritual guide (father or mother as the case may be) is an essential part of our Orthodox Christian tradition and a necessary aspect of our growth and transformation into godliness.

However, this way of spiritual fatherhood is much misunderstood these days and consequently--even if unintentionally--sometimes results in unhealthy relationships and even spiritual abuse.  In such cases, instead of helping one grow in Christ, a inappropriate or misunderstood relationship with someone whom you consider to be a spiritual father or mother (or with someone who presents themselves as a spiritual father or mother) can result in prolonged spiritual infancy, years of confusion or anger, and even in one turning away from Christ completely.  

The fruit of this misunderstood or misapplied teaching about spiritual fatherhood began to be most clearly seen for the first time in eighteenth and nineteenth century Russia.  And it was in response to the abuse and suffering that he both experienced and saw that St. Ignatius Bianchaniov published in St. Petersburg in 1867 his Offering to Contemporary Monasticism.  The English translation of this text, first published in 1970, is called The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual and Monastic Life.  It has been reprinted several times in English, the latest being 2012 by Holy Trinity Publications.  

Anyone who is serious about finding a spiritual father or mother must—and I really mean must—read this book.  What I am about to say about finding a spiritual father or mother has been influenced largely by this book, although I do not follow his exact presentation.  Some of what I am about to say is also influenced by my own experience and the wisdom I have picked up here and there from people much smarter than I.

First, when we are seeking a spiritual father or mother, we must realize that we live in a very different world from the world that produced the holy Fathers and Mothers we read about in the ancient spiritual writings of our Church.  St. Ignatius goes so far as to say (and I’m paraphrasing here) that there are no spiritual fathers any more—at least not like those that we read of in, for example, the Ladder of Divine Ascent or the Sayings of the Desert Fathers or the Rule of St. Benedict.  I don’t know if I can agree completely with St. Ignatius here.  There may indeed be one or two or three holy men or women hidden throughout the world—men and women who shine with the Divine Energies of God, who pray without ceasing and who are permeated by the love of God.  I still believe (or at leas hope) that there are a few such very holy people in the world today.  However, that is just the point in this paragraph: if there are any such very holy men or women worthy of complete obedience, if there are any in the world today, they are very few and they are hidden, devoting their life to prayer.

Such holy people are very hard to find.  They hide on purpose.  And what if you or I were to find one such holy person.  Would we at all understand him or her?  Would this saint at all understand us?  Really, It seems rather foolish to me—and perhaps it will to you once you think about it for a minute—to think that I as a busy person living in the world could indeed be helped much by a man or woman who has lived in constant prayer for the past forty years.  And if we were to meet such a person and were to confess our struggle, lets say, with watching too much TV or not always saying our morning prayers, gossiping about a fellow employee, what would you expect this holy monk to give you as advice other than the words of Jesus: “Well, if you want to be perfect, sell all you have and give the money to the poor and come and live in the cave just around the corner from me for the rest of your life and you will cure your problem with gossip.”

The reality is that this indeed would cure your problem with gossip, but unless you are yourself called to the eremitical life (the life of a hermit), it is a medicine much too strong for you.   And if you tried to follow this advice as a person not called to the eremitical life, you would indeed experience a great deal of spiritual harm.  But what other advice could this holy hermit give you?  It is indeed the pathway that he or she has found to salvation.  It is what he or she knows works.  And it is the perfect advice for someone who is called to be a hermit.  

And this we often forget when we read the Philokalia or some other holy writings of our Church.  These were written mostly by monks for monks or sometimes even by hermits for hermits.  Sure there is much people in the world can learn from these writings, but great humility and discernment is needed.  Advice designed for monks living in the desert of Scetes (for example) in fifth century Egypt has to be adjusted and modified to apply in a healthy way to someone living in the world today.  

It is just like medicine.  The same dose of medicine that would cure a 200 pound healthy adult might kill a infant.  We must be very aware of our immature and weakened spiritual state and the calling of our lives in the world when we seek to apply spiritual medicine that has been prescribed for mature spiritual men and women called to monastic life.

And this is the second problem we run into when we are looking for a spiritual father or mother:  We tend to have a much too high view of ourselves and of our needs as spiritual children.  This pride (or in the best case scenario, just plain ignorance) leads us to think that we need someone like St. Seraphim of Sarov or St. Herman of Alaska or (from the lofty heights of my own imaginings at one time) St. Pacomius the Great or his holy disciple St. Theodore to be our spiritual father.  We wrongly think that only such a holy person could ever guide us on the path to Christlikeness.  But the reality is that if we cannot be guided by people God has already put in our life, then we are fooling ourselves to think that a more holy spiritual father or mother would make all of the difference for us.  

Remember, Jesus did say, “he who is faithful in little will be found faithful in much.”  If we can’t be faithful in the little spiritual guidance God has already put in our life, how can we expect not to be singed by the white-hot holiness of a truly holy saint?  Humility is called for: humility and discernment.

And this I think is the third matter that has to be addressed in looking for a spiritual father or mother: humble discernment.  My bishop once wisely said that it is the responsibility of each of us to listen carefully and respectfully to those God has placed in our lives as teachers, priests, parents and mentors.  However, it is also our responsibility to separate, or discern, what is useful to us in what they say and in the example of their life, keeping and emulating those things which we find helpful; and then, to politely ignore the rest.  

Our problem, or at least my problem, is that what I think I want is a relationship with a spiritual father or mother that is fool proof, infallible, that does not require any engagement on my part other than mere mechanical obedience.  But such a relationships does not exist: at least not as a life-giving relationship between a spiritual father and son.  Such a mechanical relationship can lead to nothing but death. We are not machines.

The element missing in our misconceived understanding of a longed-for relationship with a very holy spiritual father or mother is love.  The reason why absolute obedience was possible and healthy among the holy Fathers we read about is that they loved absolutely.  In addition to holiness and humility, love permeated every aspect of the relationship of the spiritual father with his son.  And in the rare cases when the spiritual father was deranged, it was the holiness, humility and love of the spiritual son that drew the Grace of God to that relationship.  Holiness, humility and love: that’s what makes all of the difference.  

But the problem is that I am not very holy, humble or loving; and that’s the reason why I have to start small.  We all have to start where we are and with those God has already put in our life.  If we can humble ourselves and listen for what is life-giving and helpful in the advice given by those already in our lives, we might come to be able to hear what is life-giving from those God may bring into our lives in the future.  

I am a big believer in pilgrimages and monastery visits.  I think everyone should have a monastery that they consider their own, a place they visit often and support financially and pray for daily.  And who knows, maybe in such a monastery one might even find a spiritual father or mother who can effectively guide them in the spiritual life.  However, one thing is certain: if you cannot already submit to and gain good advice and help from the people God has already put in your life—sorting out what is life-giving for you and politely ignoring what isn’t—then you will certainly not find good spiritual guidance in a monastery or even on the Holy Mountain or even from a genuine God-bearing elder (were you to find one).  You will not find good spiritual advice not because it is not there, but because you have not trained yourself to hear it.  You have not begun by hearing the small wisdom God has given to those who are already in your life so that you can slowly grown to hear wisdom from those who are more spiritually advanced. 

I have personally known several people who have gone for confession and spiritual counsel to people who have the reputation of being spiritual elders.  Some have come back from this experience helped, encouraged and strengthened.  Others, going to the very same spiritual fathers, have had their lives torn apart and spent years in confusion and frustration.  This matter of spiritual fatherhood is a very dangerous business.  

You know, we all want a short cut, a failsafe way to heaven.  And I think many of us have imagined that finding a truly holy spiritual father or mother would provide that way.  But there are no short cuts in the spiritual life.  We all, each of us, must humble ourselves and both submit to others and take responsibility for our own life.  It is the tension, or better the breathing of our spiritual life: inhale, exhale; inhale, exhale; inhale (submit humbly), exhale (discern humbly); inhale (submit humbly), exhale (discern humbly).  This is the spiritual life.  Only to inhale or only to exhale is death.  But to grow in Christ, we must breathe.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

On Rowing Boats And Farming Our Souls

“The Word of God…judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4: 12)

“There are good thoughts, and good volitions; there are evil thoughts and an evil heart” (St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 6).

One of the themes in St. Isaac’s homilies is the changeableness of our experience.  Even the greatest and holiest monk experiences change against his or her will.  We live in a dying body, a body constantly changing, a body that influences our mood, our thoughts and feelings.  And although we can discipline the body and train it to a certain extent to be our servant, still we cannot completely conform our bodies to our wills.  For example, one cannot will not to get sick; and once sick, one cannot will oneself to have the energy to do what you would like to do (what you will to do) if your body does not have the energy to to it.  Similarly, you cannot attend to God in prayer with a migraine headache, when pain fills your entire consciousness and you can’t even think to will anything.  

And this changeability goes beyond the matter of sickness, it extends to matters of our chemical and hormonal makeup.  Depression is often triggered in us by imbalances in our chemistry.  Not enough sleep, too much or too little of certain foods, political or tragic events we hear about, all such things change our bodies and effect our minds in ways that change us and make it difficult for us to live, act and relate to God according to our volition.  Thoughts often come to us inspired by environmental triggers (things we hear, see, smell, etc.), triggers that we have no direct control over.  Memories of past sins—perpetrated by us or against us—appear in our minds without warning.  These memories rush upon us again suddenly and with all of the images, arguments and emotions that we thought we had dealt with long ago.  At the very moment of prayer, when you feel that you are finally praying or acting in some way in your relationship with God or with others according your good intentions, according to how you will to express your love and faithfulness to God, in that very moment of apparent success, suddenly thoughts and their attendant emotions overwhelm you.  In that moment, it seems, it feels like, all is lost.  You cannot fight off the thoughts—or your attempts to fight off the thoughts completely distract you from prayer or from whatever other good you had been attending to at that moment.

And then there are the concrete circumstances of our lives: who we live with, how much wealth or other resources we have at our disposal and our social standing (at work, in the church, in broader society) all play a part in limiting and influencing to what degree we can and cannot act on and fulfill the good volitions of our heart.  A job that demands long hours and is physically exhausting limits the amount of time one can spend in hidden prayer and meditation on Holy Scripture.  No matter how much one’s heart longs to rise early to pray, one may not be able to do so if he or she is caring for small children day and night.  Life is changeable.  It is a rough sea that we must row across, knowing that sometimes the wind or the waves will be against us and other times the sea will be calm, and sometimes, circumstances will work even in our favour.  What is important is that we row, that our intention stays fixed in repentance, in following Christ, in striving to bring every thought captive to obedience to Christ—even when the wind is blowing and the sea is raging and we cannot seem to capture any thought whatsoever, but rather we seem to be completely caught by unwanted and unruly thoughts.

It is good to know that even great saints like St. Isaac experienced changeability in their pursuit of God.  St. Isaac is writing his homilies for hermit monks, men and women who have completely devoted their lives to God in prayer in the desert—as far away from distraction as possible.  And yet St. Isaac says to these hermits, “The soul does not have rest from the movement of changing thoughts.”  Not until we shed this body of death and are clothed only with Christ will we be able to bring our thoughts fully under the control of our hearts.  And although a hermit may find some relief in “the still air of freedom which gathers the mind for a long span of time by forgetting all earthly things,”  those of us who are “newly come forth from the intricate bonds of the passions by repentance” are like young birds whose feathers have not yet formed, who cannot yet take flight, and who “hop upon the face of the earth where the serpent slithers.”  

For most of my readers, I am not telling you anything new.  If you have tried with any fervour and for any length of time to follow Christ with your whole heart then you know: try as you might, your thoughts and feelings, moods and emotions just do not follow your heart as well as you want, as you would will it, according to your volition.  So why am I telling you this?  Why does St. Isaac tell the hermits these things?  I believe St. Isaac says these things to us because we forget.  In seasons when things are easy, we forget.  When it is relatively easy to do the good that the good intention of our hearts is guiding us to do, then we can develop a kind of pride.  We can think that doing good is merely a matter of our willing to do good.  The test for whether or not this is a species of pride comes when things get hard again.  When I can’t keep my eyes open in prayer, when I find myself yelling in anger when I meant only to speak kindly, when I cannot give to God what I want to give Him, what is His due.  At that moment, do I feel that I have somehow lost God’s favour?  Do I think that God loves me less?  Am I afraid that God has rejected me?  Such thoughts often come from wounded pride. 

St. Isaac says that it’s “in proportion to the extent of [our good intention or volition]—and not according to the movement of the thoughts—the recompense for good and evil is meted out.”  God knows our circumstances. God knows the weakness of our bodies and the craziness of the world we live in and the web of relationships we are tied to.  God knows.  God knows our thoughts and God also knows our intentions, our volition.  And God rewards us according to that, according to what we are striving to do and be, not according to the mess we often actually turn out to be.  The test of the farmer is not that he labours in the field when the weather is agreeable, but that he labours in all weather.  Similarly, in our life in Christ we must labour to know Him, to love Him and to love those God has brought into our lives even when—especially when—it is hard to do so.  The results are in God’s hands.  The farmer cannot make the sun shine or the rain fall or the crops grow.  The farmer can only labour to prepare the soil, pull the weeds and plant the seed, getting things ready for when God is ready.  

God sees our hearts.  He knows our intentions.  And God’s love for us never changes.  When we appear to succeed in our spiritual life, God loves us.  When we appear to fail, God loves us.  “He knows our frame and considers that we are but dust,” as the psalmist says.  We may be a mess, but we are God’s mess.  And He loves us.