Fr. Meletios Webber on Priesthood and Spiritual Fathers, Part Three
Steve Robinson · October 9, 2010
Steve finishes his interview with Fr. Meletios and discusses spiritual directors, accountability groups and obedience.
Steve: And welcome to this edition of Steve the Builder. It’s the third and final installment of my interview with Fr. Meletios Webber of St. John’s Monastery in Manton, California, and we’re going to continue our discussion of everything you wanted to know about the priesthood and spiritual fathers that you were afraid to ask or didn’t know to ask. So without any further ado, the interview with Fr. Meletios:
Steve: Now, a little bit of a tangent from this. A confessor is usually understood to be an ordained clergyperson or a spiritual director or spiritual advisor. And I know in some Christian traditions right now being a “trained” spiritual director is now the “hot” thing to do. So now we have schools and monasteries giving training courses on how to be a spiritual director to lay people—not in the Orthodox tradition yet. Is it the Orthodox tradition that a confessor/spiritual director be a clergyperson necessarily?
Fr. Meletios: No, the person does not have to be a clergyman, but we have, obviously in convents, in monasteries of women, the abbess, or someone appointed by the abbess within the community fulfills that function, and I would be loathe to see the Orthodox Church go in the direction of thinking a spiritual director is some sort of “knowledgable” person. We learn spiritual direction by being spiritually directed, and that’s the training.
Steve: So, Father, a tangent to this question is the notion that a spiritual
father/confessor/spiritual director should necessarily be an ordained priest. I know, looking on the internet and seeing some of the traditions right now being a “licensed” or “certified” spiritual director is somehow kind of a hot ticket. There’s colleges and communities that are offering certifications in spiritual direction and so on. It’s kind of the Christian equivalent of a “life coach.” Is it the Orthodox tradition that a spiritual director be ordained? Something that somebody has to have a specific vocation for? You know, how does this work in the Orthodox tradition?
Fr. Meletios: Certainly there is nothing in our tradition which says that to give spiritual support to someone you have to be ordained. That’s not the case, obviously it’s not the case in monasteries of women where the abbess, or somebody appointed by her, very often fulfills that function. You used the word “charism,” and I think that leads into the second part of that question, which is whether people can be trained to be spiritual directors or not. I would have to say that in the broadest terms, that is not possible. “Getting certified” is an unthinkable thing in the life of the Orthodox Church, because spiritual fatherhood or motherhood, spiritual friendship, whatever you want to call it does have a charismatic quality, that it is something that a person is granted as a charism, as a grace, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be appointed by the Church, but it does need to be accepted at some level by the hierarchical structure of the Church for it to have any sense of fullness. So, for example, it may be possible to go a monk who is a layman, a lay monk who isn’t a priest at all, for spiritual guidance. Fr. Paisios of the Holy Mountain was such a person, who affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. He wasn’t a priest, but that had to be accepted by the whole Church, the local church at least, in terms of the fact that the priests would give absolution, the prayer of reconciliation or forgiveness to the people that had seen Fr. Paisios. That needs to happen.
Steve: I’ve heard of that phenomenon, of a priest who confesses to a nun and then receives absolution from another priest. So I heard of that and of course I: “Is this orthodox?”
Fr. Meletios: This is orthodox. Pretty much anything like that becomes orthodox the moment the bishop says it is. If, of course, then you’re dependent on the bishop, but then we are dependent on the bishop for— as the arbiter of what is orthodox life in a particular diocese. He is the one who defines that and if you have trouble with that then, as I say, go up the ladder to the next stage, but most times the voice of the bishop will be fairly authoritative in defining what is and what is not allowed in that particular diocese.
Steve: So in a situation, say, where somebody is—especially in rural America—where somebody does not have access regularly to a confessor, or somebody’s in a situation where the confessor that is available, for some reason, just isn’t working, and there’s not a monastery within a three-hour plane flight—what does a person in a situation like that do for spiritual help, spiritual direction, spiritual advice?
Fr. Meletios: The Church has always acknowledged the fact that sometimes people are going to be isolated, and isolation in the Middle Ages meant something very different from isolation today. When the monks left Valaam to go to Alaska, they not only did not expect to return, but they also knew that the communication with their mother house would be, at best, sporadic. So the use of technology in order to overcome these notions of isolation are perfectly in order. I know of many cases in the later parts of Russian history where people have written letters to their spiritual fathers who may live hundreds of miles away, and, indeed, collections of such letters have entered the corpus of Orthodox tradition. Taking that a little further—here again it’s something that I choose to consult the bishop on—but, taking it a little further, the use of the phone or e-mail is certainly not out
of the question, because what’s important is the communication, not the mode of communicating. So if you could do it with two tin cans on the ends of a piece of string, you know, over 600 miles, then you can do it by telephone, then you can do it by e-mail, therefore you can do it by texting.
Steve: I was going to say twittering your confession… That just sounds bad.
Fr. Meletios: That would be really nice, because I believe that twitter, it’s very short, and that would probably be quite a good idea, actually.
Steve: There was a phrase or a term which you used earlier in the discussion: “spiritual friend.” Expand on that a little bit.
Fr. Meletios: People sometimes ask me if I can be a spiritual father to them, and I say, “No, I can’t. I’m just not capable, but I will be a spiritual friend.” And I think that’s something that any one of us can offer. If someone needs support, is asking you for help, then to say, “No, I’m not going to help you,” is not particularly good. But the term “spiritual father” is so loaded that I intend to go throughout life simply not using it.
Steve: Is there room, then, in a person’s life for a spiritual father and spiritual friends. Is the spiritual father the fulfillment of “all in all” for the spiritual life of somebody?
Fr. Meletios: You need to— the expression of “spiritual father” needs to be defined then, at some point, and generally we use it for two basic, different things. And one is: a priest who is allowed to hear confession. Now in this country, in the United States, as far as I know, every priest in the country is allowed to hear confessions. This is not the case in Greece at all, and in the Greek-speaking world. It does tend to be the case in Russia. But then, the sacrament, the mystery of confession tends to be used more often in the Russian tradition than it is in the Greek tradition, so there’s a good reason for this. And I would not want to dissuade people from participating in the Mystery of Confession, simply because there were not enough confessors to go round. It’s something— I’m not sure that we need to go to confession every time we approach the chalice. The two mysteries are, in fact, quite separate and don’t depend one on the other, although in practice we tend to use confession as a preparation for the Eucharist, but that’s something that we sort of tolerate, it’s not something which is there. In the Roman Catholic system in the past, it was iron-clad, but for us that’s never been the case.
Steve: I know in the Russian tradition it’s more expected.
Fr. Meletios: Well, they’ve gone through a number of periods where the Roman Catholic influences actually changed the practice of the Church, although that’s not something we talk about very often, for obvious reasons. But, yes, if a spiritual father is simply a priest that could hear confessions, then it’s a priest who has a blessing from the bishop to hear confessions, and that’s the beginning and the ending of it. If it’s someone whose advice is going to shape your life in some marked way, then you’re using the term to mean something rather different.
Steve: And I think those two lines are very blurred in the convert experience.
Fr. Meletios: They’re very blurred. They’re very blurred in the life of the Church. There is, really, no line and there is no distinction, it’s simply that both things exist, and both of them tend to be called by the same name. The latter comes, I think, from the monastic model, but then a monk vows obedience. Now, this is something that I’m learning very— well, actually, it’s something that I’m learning very quickly, but very late in life—is that, if I give a monk an obedience, it’s not merely me getting to tell somebody what to do. In fact, that hardly exists. What it involves is that, first of all, I need to know that the monk is capable of doing what I ask him to do, and that it must be somehow spiritually helpful, for him or for the community, to do it. It’s not just lashing out authority—it’s very much within the structure—giving a monk something to do which he can do and which is beneficial. And if I fail to do that, then I fail as an abbot. And, quite rightly, I can be—not, I was going to say “punished,” but that’s not quite the right word—but I can be criticized for the misuse of obedience. But laypeople don’t take a vow of obedience. Indeed, parish priests don’t take a vow of obedience. There are certain documents they sign at the time of ordination that may look a bit like it, but it’s nothing like— it has nothing like the stature of the vow of obedience that a monk takes. So if we’re going to be legalist about this, we’ve got to be very clear where our starting point is. Laypeople do not have to obey a priest. They might be highly encouraged to do so, for all sorts of good reasons, but in the end, as I said before, there’s a sort of— there’s a let-out clause, that is, basically, conscience.
Steve: Comes through a relationship of trust.
Fr. Meletios: Yes. Everything in the Orthodox Church has to do with relationship. We don’t—I’m picking on the Roman Catholics a lot today, which is a pity, because they do some very good things, but—we don’t enter a little box and talk through a hole in the wall to somebody we can’t see and tell him our deepest, darkest secrets. That is very far removed from the Orthodox practice. (I don’t think the Roman Catholics do it all that much any more, but that’s another matter; they certainly used to.) For us, the Mystery of Confession takes place in terms of the relationship, not in spite of the relationship. And it’s through the relationship itself that the healing begins to take place, not through some magic words pronounced by the priest.
Steve: In terms of the healing process, the Scripture talks about the fact that we’re supposed to— it says: “confess your sins ‘one to another,’ ” and we were talking earlier about a “spiritual friend.” That doesn’t negate the role of the priest in this, but at the same time, it can be supplemented by the fact that we have relationships around us.
Fr. Meletios: With the proviso that when you go to a priest there are certain safety issues which are in place. When you do it with anybody else, or anybody the Church hasn’t particularly selected to do that particular task, then the safety is not there: I cannot be counted upon. I see it as mainly amongst Protestant groups who insist on almost public confession. I’m sometimes a little bit—if I can just carry that theme a little bit further—a little bit worried about a very major theme of accountability which seems to be growing in popularity in certain Orthodox groups, where you, particularly if you’re struggling with a particular passion, that you get somebody else involved and let the person know— that worries me, frankly, because it’s not really the way the Orthodox Church behaves, in most issues, and it also presupposes that everybody taking part knows what they’re doing.
Steve: It’s kind of the impartation of the Promise Keepers kind of thing…
Fr. Meletios: That sort of thing, which sounds great, but in practice simply is not our tradition, and there’s a reason why it’s not our tradition. And as for, I mean, Promise Keepers, where are they now? The Church has been around for two thousand years; Promise Keepers are, I think—
Steve: It lasted about 15, 20 years, maybe.
Fr. Meletios: As long as that? You don’t hear anything about them any more. They may be alive and well, and living in Scranton, Pennsylvania. If they are I don’t hear…
Steve: We don’t hear much about them any more.
Fr. Meletios: Luckily, the Orthodox Church is not faddy. It doesn’t go from phase to phase or fashion to fashion.
Steve: Thank God.
Fr. Meletios: Thank God, yes.
Steve: So was there anything else that we were…
Fr. Meletios: We’re done. We’ve said absolutely everything that needs to be said on this particular subject. Well, I don’t think I’ve ever done that before in my life. I didn’t know these sessions could go on until 3:30 in the morning.
Steve: It’s a good thing you had a long nap. Well, we really appreciate you talking with us for—it’s coming up on an hour and a half, so I’m probably going to have to divide this into two or three programs. It’s been incredibly helpful and clarifying for a lot of us who have trouble with a lot of these concepts that, as you said, are kind of fuzzy even with how the Church presents it to us, so I don’t feel as bad that I’ve seen it as fuzzy when it really is kind of fuzzy.
Fr. Meletios: And I would like to say to the people listening that if I’ve said anything which they find shocking or difficult, then I would beg them to see what I’ve said in the context of what I was saying. If you take things out of context then they can begin to look very different, and because some of these things are rather touchy, I’d rather people didn’t do that.
Steve: And I appreciate that, because we have touched on a lot of touchy issues, and these have been things that I’ve struggled with for twelve years, and, as I mentioned earlier, the more clergy you know and the more priests you know and the more you’ve been around the Church, the more you see that we do have some imperfect people who stand at the altar, and we do have people who I don’t know how exactly how to regard them when they see this phenomenon and if we have listeners out there who have never encountered an imperfect priest, thank God! But the reality is that somewhere, down the line, you will probably find one, and this has been very helpful in knowing how we deal with that, and what our responsibilities as a layperson are and what options we have. Good wisdom. Thank you very much. So, Fr. Meletios Webber of St. John of San Francisco Monastery in Manton, California. If you care to e-mail him or twitter—you’re not on twitter—but if there’s anything that he said in the broadcast, you can either e-mail me and I will pass it on to Father, or you can e-mail Father directly through the monastery website.
Fr. Meletios: I think if you Google “monastery” and “Manton”—M-A-N-T-O-N—Manton is so small that it doesn’t …
Steve: There’s not a lot of Google hits on “Manton.”
Fr. Meletios: No.
Steve: So “monastery Manton” will get you to the monastery website. Thank you, Father, for your time. It’s been a real blessing. Thank you for your kitchen, Allan. Good night.
Steve: Well, that session kind of ended with a little bit of a whimper, but Fr. Meletios had had a long weekend and it was a long interview. I really appreciate him taking the time to talk with us all about this important topic in the life of the Orthodox Christian. Well, thanks for joining me this week, and we’ll see you next time on Steve the Builder.