157: The Spiritual Guide in Eastern Orthodoxy
Kevin Allen · November 19, 2010
Host Kevin Allen speaks with Father Steven Tschlis about the role of the spiritual guide - father or mother - in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and how such a guide may differ from one's parish priest or sacramental confessor. Should we look for a "spiritual father or mother" in a monastery? What role does the parish priest play? These and other questions will be addressed in this conversation.
Kevin Allen: You know, one of the prominent threads running throughout Orthodox Christianity and our tradition is the spiritual guide; either the spiritual father or the spiritual mother. And you’ll see this theme frequently in our patristic and spiritual literature. In Russian the guide is called the starets and in Greek the geron or the geronta. And in today’s program my guest and I will be discussing both the classic role of the spiritual guide, director, father or mother in the Eastern Orthodox tradition as well as what the term ‘spiritual guide’ and ‘spiritual fatherhood’ means in our world in contemporary Orthodoxy today.
And my guest is Father Steven P. Tsichlis. Father Steven has written about the subject; he is the editor of The Presbyter, a journal published by the Archdiocesan Presbyters Council of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, and he’s also the president of the Presbyters Council and he is currently the pastor of St. Paul Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, California. And we’re recording today at St. Paul’s in their recording studio and our engineer is Jacob Lee.
Father Steven, welcome to The Illumined Heart.
Father Steven Tsichlis: Thank you, thank you, Kevin. It’s good to be here again.
Kevin: It’s great to have you again. Always a pleasure. Father, you’ve written and thought and spoken a great deal about this subject of spiritual fatherhood. Let’s begin, please, with kind of the classic criteria, as you see it and understand it, for spiritual fatherhood?
Fr. Tsichlis: Well, I think the classic criteria probably can be reduced to three. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has written an article about the spiritual guide in Orthodox Christianity and there he lists three. One is just simply discernment or diakrisis. Actually, Bishop Ware translates that word diakrisis in The Philokalia by the term ‘discretion’, but actually I like ‘discernment’ better. He talks also about the ability to love one’s spiritual children. And then he talks, thirdly, about the ability of the spiritual father, by his love and by his insight, to be able to transform the human environment around him.
Kevin: Which, of course, is a very high standard. Especially that last one.
Fr. Tsichlis: A very high standard! A very high standard. I think for that we need to understand that discernment in the spiritual literature is really spoken of as really the queen of virtues. There’s a passage in The Philokalia with regards to St. John Cassian, and he talks there about St. Anthony the Great. St. Anthony says that even though these monks have performed many, many ascetic feats, nonetheless, he says here, that they “have fallen away miserably from virtue and slipped into vice.” And he goes on to ask: “What was it then that made them stray from the straight path? In my opinion,” he says, “it was simply that they did not possess the grace of discernment; for it is this virtue that teaches a man to walk along the royal road; swerving neither to the right through immoderate self-control, nor to the left through indifference and laxity” It’s the power of discernment that “sets aside everything that is base and not pleasing to God and keeps us free from delusion.”
Fr. Tsichlis: So that’s the first thing. The second thing is the ability to love one’s spiritual children and to love others, but to love them really very deeply. Not even simply to love your neighbour as yourself, as the Lord Jesus commands, but also, in the Gospel of John, the new commandment: “To love one another as I have loved you.” Which means that your spiritual father is willing to sacrifice himself for you, just as the Lord Jesus sacrificed himself for us. St. Barsanuphius once said to one of his spiritual children, “I care for you more than you care for yourself.”
And then the third thing that Bishop Ware talks about is transforming the human environment; in other words really, the spiritual father, the spiritual guide, the spiritual mother, transforms other people. Makes them disciples of Christ, truly disciples of Christ, and makes them a living embodiment of the tradition. And, in doing that, they pass on that tradition from one person to the next and from one generation to the next, and have a huge impact on the life of the Church.
Kevin: Mmm. Father Steven Tsichlis, where and how is one classically trained or prepared for spiritual fatherhood or motherhood?
Fr. Tsichlis: Well, actually there’s no single pattern. Again, I think Metropolitan Ware in his article on the spiritual guide talks about, really, St Anthony the Great and St. Seraphim of Sarov and he talks about their withdrawal for many years into solitude and silence and their struggle with their own demons. And that is true; that has happened. But then you have other spiritual guides who actually begin somewhat more actively in life. For example, St. Theophan the Recluse begins as a bishop and ultimately retires as a bishop and then goes into solitude and it’s from the solitude that he has, and after having served as a bishop for a brief period of time, that he becomes well known as a spiritual father and spiritual director to many, many, many people.
So there’s no single pattern. Each person is different. But again, coming back to Bishop Ware, there has to be a certain amount of silence and solitude and very deep prayer in one’s life in order for one to emerge as a spiritual father.
Kevin: Quoting Metropolitan Kallistos in the article in The Inner Kingdom that you’re referring to, he writes: “The elder or starets is essentially a ‘charismatic’ and prophetic figure accredited for her or his task by the direct action of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual guides are ordained, not by human hands, but by the hand of God.” And I mentioned previously that these are very high spiritual standards. Does every priest have this charism by virtue of his ordination, Father Steve? Or is this something that only some priests have?
Fr. Tsichlis: Well, first of all, to be a spiritual father in that sense, is very, very rare. And no, it is not a gift given to every priest at ordination, even if there are priests who wish that were the case! It’s just simply not so; they are in fact quite rare as individuals.
Actually, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom writing about this same question, compares being a spiritual father, being a true spiritual father, a true elder, an authentic elder, with being a genius. In other words, this is something that’s a pure gift that’s given to someone. It isn’t something that you, sort of, take upon yourself in that sense. He says that whatever else one might say about Mozart, it’s there, sort of, in him. His genius is there; it’s given. And he kind of says that this is really what we need to think of in terms of a true spiritual elder; say of the quality of St Anthony the Great or St. Seraphim of Sarov, or any of these other great elders that our tradition speaks of.
And I think there’s a difference between a father confessor and a spiritual father. I think that’s an important distinction that needs to be made.
Kevin: Please, make it!
Fr. Tsichlis: Well, it’s just simply that, again, in some parts of the Orthodox world, simply by being ordained one is given the authority to celebrate the sacrament of confession; to hear people’s confessions. In the Greek tradition, actually, traditionally only certain priests are allowed to hear confession. And they are designated as such by their bishop and they are prayed over very specifically for that gift, and usually they are priests who are distinguished by their, I guess I’d say, supposedly their maturity, their experience, their education and their love for other people.
Kevin: In the article to which we’ve been referring, Metropolitan Kallistos, he says however that there is no sharp distinction between the prophetic and the institutional; that is that they each grow out of the other.
Fr. Tsichlis: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean ordination to the priesthood is a charismatic gift for the life of the Church. The whole structure of the Church is Spirit-filled. I mean there’s just no doubt about that. In fact, to be honest, some people do question Bishop Ware, sort of, having the startsy on one side, with the kind of apostolic succession of the Spirit, and the bishops and clergy on the other side.
Fr. Tsichlis: So it’s good for him to say that those two things are really, sort of, interconnected with one another in the life of the Church. And that you can’t really separate them, because in fact you cannot. The whole structure of the Church [from] top to bottom is charismatic in that sense.
Kevin: And the spiritual guide or director in the Orthodox Church, Father Steven Tsichlis, is not always a priest, right?
Fr. Tsichlis: Absolutely. In fact there have been many, many, many spiritual fathers, spiritual mothers, elders, obviously, who have not been ordained at all. Obviously St. Anthony the Great is a good example; St. Herman of Alaska would be a good example of that. I think that in more recent times St. Silouan of Mt. Athos would be a good example of that.
Kevin: Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos.
Fr. Tsichlis: Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos.
Kevin: He would be a good example of that.
Fr. Tsichlis: Yes. I mean, so, again there are men and women in the Church—obviously women are not ordained as priests—who have served as spiritual guides to many, many people, but they’re not ordained. They’re not ordained. And that’s why you do and can draw a distinction between ordination and the gift of being an elder.
Kevin: Since spiritual fatherhood or motherhood is not necessarily then an institutional role, not necessarily an institutional role, how are they then, spiritual fathers and mothers, how are they then recognised, if they are not ordained?
Fr. Tsichlis: They’re recognised by the people. I think that’s really the key. Anyone who hangs out a shingle that says ‘Spiritual Guide’, then you know: stay a million miles away from that person. In St. Anthony the Great’s case, people actually broke down the door of the fortress that he was staying in solitude for, at that point, perhaps twenty years, and brought him out, basically. And it says that he emerged and became a physician to all of Egypt. But notice, it was the people knowing about him, wanting him, desiring his guidance. Knowing that there’s something real in this person, that somehow St. Anthony was the real deal, so to speak. But that’s not something that he himself stood up and proclaimed. In fact, again, that’s more a sign of delusion than it is anything else.
Kevin: You know, that brings up an interesting question that I have, Father Steven, that is this: as average Orthodox Christians should we be looking intentionally for some authentic starets or geronta? And what happens when we can’t find one?
Fr. Tsichlis: Well, I think a couple of things; one is that, yes, if we can we should be looking for a geronta. On the other hand, it may not be possible for us to find one. Already St. Nil Sorsky, writing in the fifteenth century in Russia, says that spiritual guides, spiritual fathers are rare. So if they were rare in those days I’m sure they’re even rarer today. We may not be able to find anyone. St. Nil though, says that if we cannot find a spiritual father the first thing that we need to do is to turn to the Scriptures and to read the Scriptures, to read the Gospels. To recognise that the Gospels are addressed to us and that we are to live in accordance in all things with the Gospel.
I think we might also want to add that there’s a whole tradition of patristic literature that contains the kind of wisdom that we need to draw from. Now, the drawback to some of this is that if you’re picking up The Philokalia, for example, there might be a whole line of thought that you may not even be able to understand or follow. And The Philokalia, in that sense, is not a book for beginners, and that’s why I think it’s wise that St. Nil of Sorsky—I think it’s wise—St. Nil of Sorsky says that it is in fact the proper place to begin in the Scriptures.
I think also, a lot of times, people are looking for a, kind of a charismatic elder that glows in the dark with the uncreated light, and they expect to find him in the neighbourhood just around the corner. And they spend their whole life sort of looking for this person, when in fact there may be other people that they have direct contact with, sometimes a priest, sometimes a layman or a laywoman, who is actually the person sent to them by God to offer them direction. But they’re not willing to listen, because they’re off, too busy, looking for, again, this elder glowing with the uncreated light.
Kevin: I think especially we converts have a romanticized expectation maybe . . .
Fr. Tsichlis: Mmm.
Kevin:. . . of what the priest/confessor/spiritual elder is to be. Maybe you could comment on that a bit?
Fr. Tsichlis: Well, I think we come from a culture where everybody wants to have a guru, or a life-coach or something of that kind of nature and to be honest, that’s not really what Orthodoxy is all about. A number of times I’ve encountered people who want me to tell them what to do in their life, but basically, my understanding is, that they really don’t want to take responsibility for their life themselves. A spiritual father is not interested in making his own disciples; he’s interested in bringing another person close to Christ in freedom. Orthodoxy is freedom. And you’ll find over and over again in the lives of the Desert Fathers this whole idea that we’re not to be law-givers to other people; rather, we’re to be examples to other people. And if they look at us and they see our example and they’re inspired by it, that’s really the way to go.
Kevin: Which brings a big question in terms of the relationship between the priest and the spiritual father—it’s Father Steve Tsichlis we’re speaking to—and that is, how does a priest who himself may never have had a true or authentic spiritual father, or who may, on the other hand, be relatively new to Orthodoxy or have come in as a convert or out of the seminary, how can he or she become a spiritual father? I think you’ve spoken a bit about it, in terms of its charismatic and prayerful nature, but …
Fr. Tsichlis: Yeah, yeah. I guess what I’d say is that, and probably this will be controversial, I honestly don’t think that a man who’s never had a spiritual father can serve as a spiritual father to other people. I don’t think that spiritual fatherhood is something that can be learned except at the feet of another person. And, so, if you are, I don’t know, a recent convert to the Orthodox Church, you’ve been in the Church two or three years or ten as a priest already and you’re serving a community, I don’t think you set yourself up as a spiritual father, as an elder. It’s just an inappropriate thing to do.
First of all, that model is, in many ways, a monastic model, and monasteries are small places. Here at St. Paul’s where you have maybe four hundred and fifty families with people living in the world and struggling to live in the world, you can’t apply that model to someone living in a parish. It just doesn’t work in quite the same way.
The other thing I guess I’d say is that you kind of have to distinguish between what in Greek is called exagoreusis, it is the manifestations of one’s thoughts to a spiritual father in, say, the sacrament of confession. Confession is something where someone is coming to a priest and confessing sins they’ve already committed. And in a monastery, especially in a small monastery, the spiritual father or an abbess, a gerontissa, she has the ability to see, if she has ten or fifteen or twenty nuns, virtually all of those women every day. And they can sit down and take time very specifically for the manifestation of one’s thoughts; in other words, dealing with all the crazy thinking that we do all day long. All of the fantasy life that we have …
Kevin: Logismoi, and all that.
Fr. Tsichlis: All the logismoi that we have, yes. And that’s something very different than can be practiced, usually, in any kind of parish setting.
Kevin: You know, again, speaking of the convert community—of which I’m a part—one sometimes sees in this area a kind of a, almost the hyper-monastic interest. Not to be critical, but the long beards and the hat and the robes; that obviously not in itself makes one a spiritual father.
Fr. Tsichlis: Mm-hmm. But there’s nothing wrong with being interested in monasticism, I think, you didn’t mean to say that …
Fr. Tsichlis: The monastic life is part and parcel of the life of the Church. And for centuries people have gone to monasteries for spiritual guidance. So there again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think we’ve maybe reached a point in America where there are people who set themselves up as spiritual guides. I mean, again, I won’t mention any names, but I’m thinking of one particular gentleman that I knew of who started a monastery under another jurisdiction. He had never been to seminary, he’d never lived in an Orthodox monastery, he had never had a spiritual father and yet, because he had the long hair and the beard, people were kind of flocking to him to be a spiritual father. And it created huge, huge problems.
Kevin: Which brings us to almost the central question of our conversation; and that is, what then do you think it means to be a spiritual father and mother today? Especially, Father Steven, in light of the fact that some of our churches—yours is one—:where you’ve got hundreds of people showing up on a Sunday for Divine Liturgy, how does a priest become a spiritual father to so many people?
Fr. Tsichlis: Well, I think a priest in a parish, I think he becomes a spiritual father first of all by praying for his people. That’s really the key. Even for a spiritual father in a monastery; he prays for those people who are his charges. But also I think by constantly preaching and teaching, by encouraging people to fast and to pray [and to] read the Scriptures. By visiting the people in the parish who are sick and praying over them. And, to be honest, just by loving your own people. Loving them to the end; that’s really the key. Always seeking to do what’s best for them as individuals and what’s best for the community as a whole. I think that’s how you be a spiritual father, in a parish setting, anyway.
Kevin: And you’ve been speaking some about the monastic setting where our view of, or the classic paradigm, if you will, for spiritual fatherhood emerges. How does spiritual fatherhood—and you’ve spoken some about this, maybe you could speak a little bit more—how does spiritual fatherhood differ in a monastic setting from our own parish setting?
Fr. Tsichlis: Well, I think one is just simply that monasteries typically are very small settings. Within a Studite tradition, for example, that was exemplified by St. Theodore the Studite and St. Symeon the Studite, the spiritual father of the monastery often sees his spiritual charges daily, precisely for exagoreusis; for that revelation of thoughts that we spoke of earlier. And, again, that’s something that really can’t take place in a parish on a regular basis.
Kevin: Do you think it’s wise, for example, for, again, the average Orthodox Christian to seek a spiritual father or mother outside of their parish? Or to seek them in the monastery?
Fr. Tsichlis: I think it can be wise. Again, not every priest is equipped, spiritually, to be a spiritual father, to be a spiritual mother; to be someone who can authentically guide someone in the Christian life in that very specific sense. So I think it is okay.
However, sometimes what I find is that there are some people who want to go to a monastery to seek out spiritual guidance because they don’t want to be accountable to their parish priest. And that’s an issue. I think that the life of the Church and certainly any sense of spiritual fatherhood, any sense of confession, is about accountability for how we live. All of us are, whether we like to admit it or not, just crummy stinking lousy no-good miserable sinners, desperately in need of a saviour and we need accountability. There have been people who have come to me for confession and confessed certain things, and I’ve said, “You know, you need to knock that off,” and what I find is that when I say that they immediately go to another parish. And I, of course, can’t say anything because this is in the context of the sacrament of confession. But I know what’s going on and I know whether that person is avoiding accountability. And sometimes people go to monasteries, I’ve discovered, for the same reason, basically. And so that can be an issue. That can be an issue. Again, everything in the life of the Church is about accountability for how we live and how we practice our faith.
Kevin: I think you’ve answered my next question, but let me ask it anyway, and that is; I’ve had people say to me or write to me, whatever, that they don’t ‘connect’ with their priest and that therefore they wonder what to do in terms of finding a spiritual father. How much does this ‘connecting’ matter in terms of both fatherhood and being a confessor?
Fr. Tsichlis: Well, I think it does matter in some ways. I think that we are to choose an appropriate spiritual father or spiritual mother for ourselves. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we connect with them in the way that we want to. In other words, when you choose a spiritual father you’re not choosing someone who will, I guess, just go along with what your weaknesses are, go along with what your sins are. You do want someone who will call a spade a spade and really holds you to be accountable for how you’re living, for what you’re doing, for what you’re saying. I think that we as Christians need to be very, very aware of that need in ourselves; that we do need to be accountable for how we live. Because in the end we will all be accountable before the dread judgment seat of Christ. I actually had a priest say to me one time, “We have to go to confession now and get all the sins out that we have now, so that when we come and stand before Christ we won’t have to bring those things up again.” And I think that’s a nice way of looking at things.
Kevin: And going back to what you previously said too, it’s wonderful to find someone who agrees with you, but that’s not necessarily what the role of the confessor or the spiritual father is.
Fr. Tsichlis: No. It’s not at all. And I think sometimes people expect spiritual fathers to give long discourses about the spiritual life and that may not be the case at all. Sometimes people have gone to well known spiritual elders on Mt. Athos and they’ve asked very bluntly, just very specifically: “Tell me your sins,” and not really gone into how to pray, how to fast, different disciplines and so forth and so on. But maybe that was the kind of spiritual fatherhood that particular person needed at that particular moment of his life.
Kevin: Obviously, in any human relationship, whether it’s institutional or not, a position can be abused, there can be abuses. And I don’t simply mean the scandalous abuses. When would you say, Father Steven Tsichlis, that such lines are crossed? I mean, what is the proper balance, you brought this up before, between obedience and freedom in a relationship between a spiritual elder and his son or daughter?
Fr. Tsichlis: Well, I think first of all, no spiritual father will ever tell you to do something immoral. No spiritual father will ever tell you to steal, to lie. I think that a spiritual father who in any way, shape or form encourages some kind of deceit in the relationship that you have, that’s a huge issue. That should send off all kinds of warning signals, all kind of warning bells.
Again, a lot of times, I guess I’d say ‘false’ spiritual guides will do things that really are not within the tradition of the Church. That don’t jive with the Scriptures, that don’t jive with the Fathers and the saints and you really need to be aware that every human being living today is judged by the Scriptures, is judged by the saints and if you have found something that he is saying or teaching or commanding you to do that doesn’t jive with that, you need to question that and that’s an okay thing to do. Obedience is not the negation of freedom. In fact, we would say, in the end that obedience is freedom.
Kevin: So the spiritual child must also practice discernment and use his own or her own conscience in that relationship as well.
Fr. Tsichlis: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Kevin: And, again I think you’ve spoken some about this, but maybe we could get into it a little bit more, and that is, what do you make of these academic degrees that you see conferred in certain Catholic and Evangelical universities on spiritual direction and counselling? And as a follow-up to that—maybe you can address both—do you think there’s a feasible way in which spiritual direction could or should be taught in our seminaries?
Fr. Tsichlis: Well, let’s go to the first question: what do I think of receiving a degree in spiritual direction? I think that’s a huge problem. I don’t think that you can get a degree in spiritual direction and then set up a shingle that says ‘Spiritual Guide’, and I think that that’s a huge problem. I think that, again, anyone who does that, there are just huge issues there, in my opinion. But right now, having a spiritual guide is ‘in’. It’s ‘in’ in virtually every kind of religious landscape that we have in America and people are hungry for that. But, again, I don’t think that you can get a degree in spiritual guidance.
Now, on the other hand, it’s important that as Orthodox Christians—and certainly as clergy in seminaries, studying to be ordained—that we know about the history of spiritual direction. That we know the lives of these saints, that we know what their examples were, what their witness was and to take some wisdom from that. So we can certainly have a class, say, at seminary, that might be called ‘Spiritual Direction’, in which we read the life of St. Anthony the Great, in which we read the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov, in which we read Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s article on the spiritual guide and any one of dozens of other articles that have been written. But I guess what I’d say is that taking that class does not make you a spiritual father. Taking that class does not make you an elder. And until that’s understood we really don’t understand what Orthodoxy is about.
Kevin: So it’s really a gift from God.
Fr. Tsichlis: It is purely a gift from God and in fact, I would say that some of the saints have very clearly said the real, true, authentic guide for the spiritual life is the Holy Spirit.
Kevin: I wonder this: in both the confessor role, but since we’re really speaking about the spiritual fatherhood role, to what extent do issues that are of a psychological nature, that might be considered of a counselling nature, become confused within the role of and the relationship with a spiritual father or mother? When do you back off from entering into a dialogue with a spiritual child about something that should be maybe treated in a different setting or context?
Fr. Tsichlis: Well, I think that, I mean there are a number of things here. First of all I guess what I’d want to say is that ‘psychology’ is a Greek word. Psychologia means the study of the soul. And so, in that sense, I think that you can certainly take some of the insights from modern psychology and apply those, for example, in confession.
And I guess the other thing I need to say is that there are some things that are going on with people that can really only be treated by medication. For example, if someone is schizophrenic, for a priest to tell that person they don’t need to take medication, they can just simply be prayed over by them and they will be healed if it’s God’s will, doesn’t make any sense to me. Sometimes a person needs a certain amount of psychiatric treatment just to come to a level where they can begin to deal with spiritual issues. And that’s something that we need to recognise as clergy.
Kevin: So medication is not a forbidden thing, obviously, to recommend to someone who is experiencing severe depression?
Fr. Tsichlis: No, medication isn’t a no-no. I think that medication can be helpful to many people and even in the Scriptures it talks about the fact that we do have doctors and that they also are from God. And so we need to pay attention to that. We need to pay attention to that.
I think we need to know how to deal as confessors with all of the passions; anger and greed and lust and all of those things. We need to know the ascetic literature; we have to have dealt with those things, first of all in ourselves, before we deal with them with other people. But we can also use insights from psychology as well. We need to bring everything possible to the table to help our people.
Kevin: Well, Father Steve, as we’re coming to a close I’d like to end with kind of a general question, and that is: give us just a feel for, in a ideal setting, what a healthy relationship looks like between the spiritual father and the spiritual child, son or daughter?
Fr. Tsichlis: Well, that’s going to vary. It’s going to vary depending on a person’s need. I think that Bishop Ware will mention that some people see a spiritual father on a weekly basis, some on a daily basis, some only a few times a year. Some people see a spiritual father, who has changed their life forever, only once in their lifetime. And so each person is different; each relationship is different.
But I think the key to understand what’s healthy and what’s good and what’s right and what’s true is the fact that in that relationship it’s very clear to both people that the Holy Spirit is present, and that it is the Holy Spirit that is the basis, the atmosphere and the content of that relationship.
Kevin: My guest on the program today has been Father Steven Tsichlis; he is the pastor of St. Paul Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, California. Thank you very much Father Steven for being my guest, it’s been a great interview.
Fr. Tsichlis: Good to be here, thank you so much.