The 20th Biennial Clergy Symposium for the Antiochian Archdiocese was convened by His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph July 16-20, 2018 at the beautiful Antiochian Village in Bolivar, PA. The theme was The Holy Priesthood - Our Life and Calling. Plenary talks were given by each of the bishops on the following topics:
Metropolitan Joseph - The priest as administrator: Let all things be done decently and in order. St. Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 14:40) and The priest as a husband and a father to his family.
Bishop Basil - The High Calling of the Priesthood.
Bishop Anthony (for Bishop Alexander) - The Integrity of the Priesthood.
Bishop Thomas - What It Means to Call the Priest Father.
Bishop Anthony - Priesthood and the The Meaning of the Apostolic Succession.
Bishop Nicholas - The Priest as the Servant of Christ and His Church.
Bishop John - The Priest As Minister of the Sacraments, the Holy Mysteries.
The Right Reverend Bishop Thomas: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. Your Eminence, Your Graces, brother clergy, Christ is in our midst! [He is and ever shall be.] Hear this prayer.
O Lord Jesus Christ, enkindle the hearts of all thy priests with the fire of zealous love for thee, that they may ever seek thy glory. Give them strength, that they may labor unceasingly in thine earthly vineyard for the salvation of souls and the glory of thine all-honorable majestic name, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Some weeks ago His Eminence met with us, the hierarchs of this Archdiocese, and gave us some choice as to how we would address the priesthood. I opted to address the priesthood as we call the priest “father.” I’ve been blessed during my lifetime, especially my first 29 years that the father in Christ that I had was a magnificent priest. Bishop Basil yesterday spoke of him briefly: Fr. Michael Simon. Fr. Michael was married to my great-aunt. Most people do not have the privilege, the benefit, of living one block from their church and their priest, and having their priest as their best friend. I have had difficulty replacing him over the years, and in fact when he passed on I was terrified, because I did not know who would replace my father, my spiritual father, and my friend.
That’s what I want to begin by saying with you. I will read the presentation, but it has come to my attention during my time as a bishop, and even when I was a priest, that most people that I had to deal with, especially the laity, did not experience or have the opportunity to experience the priest as a spiritual father and a best friend. What was it about this pastor and those that I have now encountered in the Diocese of Oakland and Charleston that exemplify the priest as a father?
The first thing that I want to be able to say to you is that I never saw my uncle, my great-uncle, my priest, at a desk other than this one over here. I thought about that the last few days. I’m trying to remember one time when I saw him sitting at a desk. I can’t remember that. I remember him serving at the altar, during my time. If there were air conditioning existent, it never got to my neighborhood in Paterson, New Jersey. Our windows were open; the church windows were open. The doors of our houses—we had big, long porches, because people sat on the porch at night, and they visited with one another. But I remember purposely walking down to see my uncle, my priest, and the windows of the church being open on a Tuesday or a Wednesday afternoon when there was no school, summertime, and hearing him chanting. Hearing him chanting: no one was in the church. I would walk upstairs into the church and there would be books. That was before we had Fr. Tom Zain put things up on the internet. We had to chant in those days with five or six books. I’d walk in, and he’d say, “I’m getting ready for Sunday,” and it was Tuesday.
I remember that if there was someone that was in the hospital or someone that was sick at home, he did not hesitate. My favorite story deals with an emergency that he had when he first became the priest in Paterson. He was called in the middle of a snowstorm to go to Newark. Going to Newark is difficult enough without a snowstorm, but he was called, and he did not have any idea of where this hospital was. The only GPS that existed in those days was when you rolled down the window and said, “Hey, buddy, how do I get here or there?” But this person was dying, and he knew that he had to get there, because he was charged with the salvation of the soul, and that was his spiritual child.
So he got in the car, and he drove, only knowing what direction Newark was in, and it was a blizzard. There are very few people here that didn’t know Fr. Michael, that are here now, but he had three speeds in a car: fast, faster, fastest! He really drove on the freeway at 85, 90 miles an hour. He’s heading to Newark and he immediately gets an escort—an unwelcome escort. And he’s not stopping. No, he’s not stopping, until the policeman gets closer and closer and closer. Finally, he pulls over. At that time, Fr. Michael was a young man, and he was a very strong man. He worked many years in factories, so he’s a very, very strong man. He gets out of the car, and he grabs the policeman by the collar. He says, “You think I’m playing a game here? I’m a priest. I have someone dying in the hospital. I have to see them. I have things to do with their soul before they pass away. Do you know where this hospital is?” The policeman says, “Yes, Father.” “Then take me there. Then you can lock me up.”
There were two policemen in that car. They put the lights on, the sirens, and they escorted him to a hospital he had no idea where it was. They led him to the hospital on each side of the door as his guards when he went into the hospital. He got into the hospital, and the person that he was about to pray for grabbed his cross. As he prayed, that person passed away. He let go of the cross, and he said, “Now it’s time to pay the price.” He got downstairs, and the policemen were gone. To the day he died, he told me, “I believe to this day that those were angels of the Lord.”
I don’t know, but I know this. I know this: that in everything that my father, my spiritual father, and my friend did, his first priority was the salvation of souls, and he loved—loved as a father—tenaciously. There was none of this. He wasn’t worried necessarily about the parish council—in those days we called them the board of trustees—what they thought in regard to his way of performing his ministry. What he did worry about is what God wanted him to do. And he did everything that he could, as a father, to present himself in the most dignified manners, because he knew that if he showed or indicated that the Church had great dignity, and as a priest and a father he had dignity, then those people that were looking for the glory of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit would gravitate.
No one in our neighborhood—no one in the neighborhood I grew up in—looked at him in any way except awe. He went to the barber, which was a half a block from his house: he dressed as a priest. The barber was not Orthodox, but the barber knew Fr. Michael. My friends knew of Fr. Michael when I was a boy. They would come to our house because they knew of our close relationship, and they’d say, “Can you go down and get Fr. Michael?” The first or second time, I said, “Why do you want my uncle?” They said, “We want him to come out and play with us.” And he would laugh, and he would play football with them, and he would invite them into the house. The church house was right next to the church. And they would say to me, “You really do have a father in your priest.” The neighbors knew that this was a pious man, so this might be a pious church.
All the pan-handlers, beggars, in the neighborhood knew the first stop they should make when they needed money. It was for that reason my aunt only left him with a couple dollars in his pocket. One time, someone came to the house, and my aunt used to leave him with about three or four dollars, because he’d give it all away. They came to the door, and they said, “Father, I’m cold; I’m hungry.” The woman said, “Do you have anything you can give me?” He said, “My wife only left me with three dollars. Here’s the three dollars.” He says, “We have food.” He gave them half of what was in the refrigerator: all the lady could hold. He says, “You know, wait a minute. My wife has an old coat she doesn’t need. I’ll give you the old coat.”
So he went and he got what he thought was my aunt’s old coat… Some of you that have been around the Archdiocese for a long time know Mr. George Nassr. His wife was Elsie, and they often held elegant affairs at their house, to which my uncle was always invited, and my aunt. That evening, they had to go to George and Elsie’s house. My aunt got ready, and she said, “Michael, I can’t find my new coat.” My uncle was not afraid of anyone except my Aunt Sarah. Rather than tell her that he’d given the coat away, he began to help her look for it! After about 20 minutes he said, “Sarah, I thought it was your old coat. I didn’t know it was your new coat.” She said, “Now I have to start locking up my clothes.”
But he did that, not because he wanted to be known, but he knew that God expected if he did it to the least of the brethren, he would do it to him. In that way, he not only made himself a father—a father that connected us to the sacraments of the Church, that connected us to the kingdom of God—but he offered the possibility to those that were not of the Church to hear and feel just a small bit, a small appetizer, of the kingdom of God. I’m telling you this, and I’m especially saying this to the priests that His Eminence blesses me to work with, that it’s come to my attention that this is somehow being taken from us, the evil one is blinding us, and that, in many cases we’ve become or are being tempted to become the complete opposite of what I just described.
We spend too much time at the altar during the week, and we’re not at a desk; we’re called religious fanatics. If we spend two hours at the altar on Sunday as opposed to an hour and a half or an hour and fifteen minutes, we’re imposing ourselves on the parishioners. We come to the church in a lazy, shameful manner. When I say that we come with no regard to our dress, no regard as to who it is who presides over the Divine Liturgy, and we are somehow admonished. Then the priest has a heck of a lot of nerve to tell us to tell us how to dress and how to behave. I would not dare to enter the sanctuary when I was a young man without a shirt and a tie and a jacket, because we knew this had something to do with this and this. He had two words if we didn’t have a tie: Get out. Go home and get dressed and get yourself right.
So as unpopular as it might seem, I want to say that being a father, a father in Christ, is the keeper of the altar, a defender of the local Church, a tenacious agent for the salvation of souls, and someone who loves his parishioners the way Christ loves the Church and has given himself up for her. If we don’t have that sort of tenacious love, that tenacious zealousness for our parishioners, whom God has given us, then I think probably we need to have an attitude adjustment, that we need to change, that we need to repent, and, more importantly, I don’t know that it’s the brotherhood here that needs to change, but at the very least equally, we need to change the people that we’re ministering to, because their expectation of us is not what I just spoke of.
Their expectation of us is what I put in a short paragraph to you earlier today: that we be secular administrators; that we be gifted speakers that don’t speak more than seven to ten minutes; that we chant well; that we make sure that the garbage is taken out; that if the ladies are cooking, that we help them; that we make sure that we balance the budget; and a whole number of other things, which are all well and good, provided that they’re sanctified. That the garbage, that the air conditioning, that the electricity all are in good order so that we’re not disturbed to give glory to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If it has nothing to do with that, then it has nothing to do with our fatherhood and priesthood.
And I think it’s about time—I’m only speaking for myself now—that as a bishop, I have the backbone to be able to say that to parishioners and to say it to you, and I am speaking now to the clergy that His Eminence has blessed me to work with, because it not only applies to our relationship with our parishioners, but it applies to our relationship with one another. We are, as Bishop Basil described yesterday, in a ministry that the angels are amazed with. If that’s the case, and we have been blessed and sealed in that ministry, we have to have that sort of awe and respect for one another, as we call each other “father.” If we don’t, if somehow we critique one another, either face-to-face or on the phone, whatever way you use the phone, we critique and we don’t remember that our brother has been placed at the altar by our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, then our laity can never learn that the priesthood, that the father they refer to is not just a nice title, that he has been sent by God to be a tenacious lover of the kingdom, the altar, a tenacious agent in the salvation of souls.
So it begins with us. I’ve said this to the clergy I work with many times. You have each other’s backs. If one priest leaves and the other one goes, it’s not a new administration. If you think it’s a new administration, there’s only one word to describe that thinking. It’s my favorite word: shtupid! If you have your own agenda, your own administration, and it’s somehow different from the previous administration, the only thing you can be described as is Protestant. You’re protesting the one and only Administration and the one and only Administrator, and you enter into sin. So we respect one another, we make metanoia to one another, knowing that we’ve been blessed to be ministers at the altar and tenaciously do everything we can to save our own souls and the souls of our families in our homes and the rest of the souls that we’ve been charged with by our Metropolitan and our bishops.
That was the introduction. I will present to you that which I offered to you online, and make some comments in between as the Spirit moves. Once again—in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
As a way of life rather than religion, Orthodoxy presumes and presupposes a particular worldview that is unique and Christ-centered. It is a way of being in the world, a way of interacting with our brothers and sisters as well as the entire cosmos. It is in this context I would like to share a few thoughts about the priest’s spiritual fatherhood and the mode of its expression in the Church. The notion of spiritual fatherhood has a long and venerable tradition in the holy Orthodox Church. We find St. Paul reminding the people of Corinth of his spiritual fatherhood and spiritual care for the people of Corinth when he says:
I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers. For in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the Gospel. Therefore, I urge you, imitate me.
In reminding the Corinthians of his spiritual fatherhood, St. Paul affirms the nature of the role of the priesthood. The fruit of their paternal guidance is healthy Christians who are freed from passions and illnesses of sin. The tradition reflected in this passage is still one we practice today. Our tradition—some of our tradition, at least—of calling our deacons “father deacon,” our priests “father,” and even, as we’ve discussed here, our father bishops, and referring to our Orthodox Christian spiritual elders through the centuries as the Fathers of the Church.
This concept is under attack from all sides today. On one hand, we are witnessing a period of profound gender confusion. Our young people are being taught that gender is not significant, that male and female, father and mother, are interchangeable. We are being bombarded on television and social media with the confusing and dangerous message that we can choose or change our gender to accommodate our whims and feelings. Obviously, this does significant harm to the notion of spiritual fatherhood, and it’s entirely incompatible with the Gospel and the Orthodox way of life.
On the other hand, some who study the Bible point to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospel where he says, “Do not call anyone on earth your father, for One is your Father, who is in heaven.” Taken out of context, this leads some to believe that calling a priest “father” is contrary to the words of Christ himself. Yet, in all things, context is the key. These words are found in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 23, verse 9. In this “call no man father” passage, our Lord is making a particular point for a very particular audience. He is contrasting his own living truth with the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees who are convinced that only they understood God’s law and were fit to interpret it. Christ is accusing the rabbis opposed to him of deliberately twisting God’s word to suit their own desires. Christ stood in opposition to those who seek to elevate themselves and place themselves before God.
Brothers, I tell you, we have our own scribes and Pharisees in this manner, some of whom, unfortunately, are in the confines of our Church buildings. Some even have titles in the Church. Beware. Beware of this sort of harm that they cause, and be aware they wish to elevate themselves and not to help us elevate the Gifts. Our Lord wants two teachers. He wants two spiritual fathers who can take on the mantle of spiritual leadership, but he only wants teachers and fathers who understand that they themselves are not the source of the tradition which they are passing on, but are instead conduits for the tradition of God.
Before we examine the qualities of priestly spiritual fatherhood, we must inquire as to the nature of the priesthood. The priest is not a functionary ordained to dispense the holy mysteries of the Triune God. Orthodoxy is a therapeutic science which seeks the healing of every person who approaches the Church. The right practice of medicine requires a good physician, a professional physician, and this applies to the spiritual healing as well. I might also add it requires people that want to be healed and not people that want to be entertained. The priest is properly and foundationally a spiritual physician who cures.
In his book, Orthodox Psychotherapy, Vlachos notes that the priest has two roles: (1) to perform the holy mysteries and (2) to heal the people. For the priest to save his own soul and heal the others, the spiritual priesthood must be the foundation of the sacramental priesthood. What is this priesthood, this spiritual priesthood? According to His Eminence, those who possess spiritual priesthood have attained noetic prayer, which is to say that their nous has been cleansed of passions and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the nous makes healing possible.
The priesthood helps man to go from the image of God to the likeness God. It can guide him to deification which is the healing of man, or rather which manifests as healing. The spiritual priesthood is characterized by the ability to free people from their passions, to cleanse the nous, and to acquire the Holy Spirit. This is such an awesome enterprise that St. John Chrysostom wrote to St. Basil, attempting to justify his refusal to be made a bishop. St. Gregory the Theologian writes:
It is necessary to be purified first, then to purify; to be made wise, then to make wise; to become light, then to enlighten; to approach God, then to bring others to him; to be sanctified, then to sanctify.
This is a prerequisite for the spiritual priesthood and an undeniable quality of the spiritual father. Thus, before the spiritual father can guide and assist others in the Christian life, he first needs to live it himself. He must be a prime example to the believers. And what I want to add here is that, somehow, some way, especially for those who don’t read well or are too lazy to read well, you and I must be the beings that jump out of the Scripture. As we read the Scripture and the iconography of the Church, people must be able to read the Scripture in you and me, if in fact they cannot read the word itself.
Once again, he must be a prime example to the believers and fully living the Gospel. According to St. Basil the Great, his very life must reflect a prime example by following every commandment of the Lord. His example must speak louder than his words. He must inspire with a virtuous lifestyle. He needs to build people up with his love and fatherly affection, since according to St. John of the Ladder, “A true shepherd shows forth or is proven through his love, because the Great Shepherd was crucified out of love.”
The holy Fathers are quite insistent on this point. Priests are to be spiritual fathers, and the qualities necessary for them to perform the singularly important task of healing presume their freedom from the passions. Indeed, St. John Chrysostom writes that a priest has to have more attentiveness and spiritual strength even than the hermits themselves. For if the hermits, who is freed from the city, the marketplace, and its people, are not secure in the Spirit, how much more strength and vigor needs to be exercised by the priest in order to be able to snatch a soul away from all infection and keep its spiritual beauty inviolate? This is why the clergy who live in the world need even more purity than the monks. The next time you hear or you are accused of trying to make your household or your church similar to the monastic life, and a person is angered by that, remind them—remind the accuser—that as a matter of fact, you need more even than that which the monks need.
Once again, Metropolitan Vlachos cites Symeon the New Theologian in emphasizing this point. His Eminence writes:
Anyone who has not abandoned the world and been counted worthy to receive the Holy Spirit as were the holy apostles, who has not undergone purification and illumination and been found worth to ‘contemplate the unapproachable light,’—such a man would not dare to accept the priesthood and the authority over souls, or to push himself to accept such!
You know, if we’re priests for some other reason than to serve at the altar or to have our own soul saved and the others’ saved, I think we should consider another vocation, maybe in electronics. [...]
St. Dionysios the Areopagite emphasizes this point by comparing the three degrees of the spiritual life—purification, illumination, and deification—to the three degrees of the priesthood—deacon, priest, and bishop. According to St. Dionysios, ordination to any of these degrees of priesthood presupposes acquisition of the corresponding spiritual state. Once again, Metropolitan Hierotheos comments on writing of Dionysios:
Since the task of the deacon is to purify others of passions, he should himself, prior to ordination, have reached a stage of purification so that he is himself a living exponent of the practical philosophy. Since according to the patristic teachings it is the priest’s task to illuminate others, his ordination presupposes that he has an illuminated nous, which, as we have seen, is a degree of theoria. Thus the priest must remember God unceasingly in prayer, must know spiritual work, be fluent in holy Scripture, and be able to contemplate the inner principles of all created things. As for the bishop, since his primary task is to perfect the people of God by the inner principles of theology, he must experience the mystical theology, and live in communion with God. This close relationship with God makes him a prophet, a divine initiate capable of mystically imparting the word of truth to the people of God (most especially, to his priests). The form which the ordination of deacons, priests, and bishops takes is equally indicative of the spiritual condition which they are assumed to have reached in order to fulfill these essential tasks. For how can people be helped if the helpers have no personal experience of the task which they are to carry out?
This is daunting, I know. If we were not trembling and filled with fear at the thought of our awesome responsibility before God and his people, nothing can move us! Yet, I have just begun. This is merely an introduction to the spiritual fatherhood.
Before describing the qualities of a spiritual father, it is necessary to discuss the indispensable role of asceticism and hesychasm in the life of the Church and of the spiritual father himself. These are not particular to the life of a monastic but are essential tools for all Christians striving to live the life of faith. As Elder Ephraim of Vatopedi wrote:
Hesychasm is not lived by monastics only and those who have forsworn the world. Hesychasm is an inner condition; it is a continuous dwelling in God and purity of the nous. Hesychasm is the way in which the realm of the heart is revealed, the center of our existence, that which we may term our person. This is the only way in which people can be reborn spiritually and have their personal state emerge. Without this ascetic training, there is no point to the sacramental life of the Church, which can act towards perdition as well as salvation.
The Elder Ephraim writes, “It is the only way in which people can be reborn spiritually.” If we desire to be spiritual fathers, we ourselves must live a life of asceticism. I’m going to repeat that. If we need to be serving as spiritual fathers, we have to live a life of asceticism. When I began, I talked about a very, very meaningful way of asceticism that I witnessed, and I say to you that if you’re going to be a spiritual father, the asceticism that you practice must not only be practiced on Sundays at the altar, but it must be practiced at your barber; it must be practiced at the table of your parishioners; it must be practiced when you encounter anyone and everyone: as you shop, at the mall, on the streets of your neighborhood.
The Hieromonk Alexios (Trader), a monk on Mount Athos and a former teacher at Saint Tikhon’s Seminary, points out the following.
Hesychasm is the spirit of the Law that enlivens the Law. It is the incense of sweet spiritual fragrance that makes asceticism more than self-denial and the divine services more than rites following detailed rubrics. Through it, asceticism and the divine services take on an angelic radiance and the freshness of paradise. Above all, its asceticism strengthens the mode of faith and purifies the nous, so that one looks at all the world, at all one’s problems, all of creation from a new vantage point: the vantage point of the mind of Christ, which in the Greek is the nous of Christ, the highest, most noble, and most piercing vision of reality that the saint can hope to gain. In this way, asceticism offers the struggler a way of coping with the thoughts that transform the suffering into union with our suffering Savior who through suffering opens unto us the gates of paradise.
Our invitations to “come and see” that we extend to non-Orthodox won’t be fruitful unless we gradually draw them into this way of being in the world. If we invite them without this, we will be doomed to failure. All too often our pastoral efforts are reduced to rational arguments such as “We are the original Christian Church.” We talk about papal infallibility or historical reasons for our rejection of papal claims. The rational mode doesn’t work because we are not providing our audience with a new way of seeing. Fr. Alexios writes:
Reason, unenlightened by the nous, continues to produce thoughts that are based on one’s own reason’s, self-preservation, and self-glorification. In order for our thoughts to be controlled and properly ordered, the nous enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit must be re-established as king of the human heart. The traditional path in which this takes place is known as hesychasm.
A good father shows his children the way. He teaches them through demonstration and example. Let me give you an example. When you first teach your child how to ride a bike, you don’t take out an owner’s manual and begin to read from it. No, you get on the bike and show the child how to ride a bike. The same is for us who are called to be spiritual fathers. We must be practicing asceticism so that the knowledge we pass on to our spiritual children is purified and enlightened.
Catechesis is surely necessary, but it must be Orthodox catechesis, and this means we begin with asceticism. When we explain to them fasting and standing for long services, we place those teachings in the context of these two great pillars (asceticism and hesychasm). This is our way of life, and it must be clear from the outset. Do not be tempted to think that they are only for the advanced. Last evening, someone asked me if the children were going to sit at the services. My reply was, “They’re not used to sitting during the services. This is the way they worship.” The answer to which was: “That’s very good.”
The process of purification, illumination, and deification are the only way to salvation. If we wait to introduce these subjects for fear of driving them away, we will surely lose them. They will walk away and see the Orthodox as a quaint, ethnic enclave of people stuck in the past. In a world filled with anxiety, chaos, and disorder, people are unknowingly clamoring for an alternative. At our Parish Life Conference, one of the priests that attended and participated stood up, in the same room we’re sitting in right now, and asked the question, “Why is it that in certain ministries of this Archdiocese, we see a dwindling? But when we look at our camping programs, especially this one here, we have waiting lists for three, four, and five months. We have a waiting list in a place where we stand and pray for a number hours with children that are as young as nine. Then after they finish, as Fr. Nicholas Belcher pointed out, we make them go clean their cabins, and if they don’t do a good job cleaning their cabins, we make them go clean something else, and they sing and they rejoice over it! The answer to the question is: they’ve been delivered to a new order. They’ve been delivered to normal. Not normal as the world sees it, but normal as the kingdom of God sees it.
Once again, in this world filled with anxiety, chaos, and disorder, people are unknowingly clamoring for an alternative. For those in the world who are mired in the passions and unable to control burdensome and fearful thoughts, we have a life of joy and a true hope to offer them. This is the task of the spiritual father who lives an ascetic life.
In this context, what are some of the qualities, apart from the awesome prerequisites which I have already mentioned, that make a spiritual father? First, the spiritual father must be a warrior. He must be trained in the art of spiritual warfare, capable of engaging in battle on his own behalf and that of his spiritual children. As I indicated earlier this morning, he must be a tenacious lover of the salvation of souls. This means he must be able to recognize and diagnose the passions and various illnesses that afflict the modern soul. He must know the corresponding virtues that root out these passions. This requires intimate and thorough knowledge of the Church Fathers. This should include such ascetics St. Barsanuphius and St. John; Abba Dorotheos, particularly in his work Practical Teaching on the Christian Life, and St. John Climacus’ The Ladder of Divine Ascent as a starting place.
The spiritual father as warrior must know the weapons at his disposal, as well as when to use them. A warrior has manly courage. Brothers, I indicated earlier that we need to have a backbone. If we don’t have a backbone and we don’t have the spiritual manly courage, we’re lost. The Psalmist exhorts us to “Be stouthearted and wait on the Lord” (Psalm 27). As a spiritual father, the warrior must have the strength to perform ascetical feats for himself and his children. He must be able to pray for them when they can’t pray and fast for them when they don’t have the strength to pray and fast for themselves. A warrior must always be a leader who exhorts, cajoles, guides, and corrects when necessary.
Now I’m going to make an apology to all the priests that I work with. Every day that I sent you an email—and you know you’ve gotten tons of them—and I’ve not asked you to send me the names of the people that need prayer in your parish, and I’ve asked you for some matter that’s of less consequence, that has absolutely nothing to do with the salvation of souls—I beg your forgiveness, and as I beg your forgiveness, I beg the forgiveness of God.
Dr. Constantine Cavarnos provides a wonderful illustration of some of the other qualities of a good spiritual father. He writes:
The Holy Elder Philotheos (Zervakos) points out the qualities of the good confessor or spiritual father using St. Arsenios of Paros as his exemplar. These qualities are particularly the following: humility, gentleness, patience, discernment, compassion, and love. These virtues, he says, Fr. Arsenios eminently possessed. Thus, he remarks:
St. Arsenios received all with love and paternal affection, and gave to all with understanding and discernment the necessary medicine for the therapy of their souls. Besides these other necessary medicines, he used to give to all two common ones: the medicine of repentance and the medicine of God’s compassion and love. He exhorted all to repent sincerely and not to despair on account of their many sins, but to have hope in God’s immeasurable compassion, realizing that God accepts sinners when they repent. As proof of God’s great compassion he cited the examples of the Prodigal Son, the Thief, the Harlot, the Publican, and many others. Through love and gentleness St. Arsenios led many to repentance and salvation.
Fr. Zervakos goes on to give a very moving example of how St. Arsenios the New acted as a Confessor. It is as follows:
A certain girl from the island of Syros and went to the Convent of the Transfiguration of Christ to visit her sister, who was a nun there. The latter had previously been informed that her sister had deviated from the right path, and when she was notified that her sister was outside the gate of the convent and wanted to see her, she at once began to scream and say: “Go away, far away from the convent, because you are defiled and will defile the convent of the nuns.” And taking along with her as helpers some other nuns, she went outside the convent. When she saw her sister waiting outside the gate, instead of feeling compassion for her for having been wounded by the soul-destroying enemy, instead of sharing her pain, embracing and kissing her, and taking care to heal her wounds, and leading her to repentance and confession, thereby saving her, she dashed against her like a lioness. And, aided by other nuns, she struck her in the face, on the head, wounded her seriously, and with wild shouts and threats drove her away. “Go away,” she kept telling her, “you foul harlot, who came here to the convent, to this holy place to defile it also. Go away! I will kill you, to wash away the shame you have brought to our family.”
She replied: “I erred, forgive me, my sister. Don’t you share my pain?”
“No,” she replied, “you are not my sister, you are a harlot.”
“Where shall I go?” asked her sorrowful sister.
“Go and drown yourself, go and kill yourself,” replied the other.
The miserable girl fled from the convent, full of wounds and bloodstained. When she was about 800 yards away, she sat down by the road, weeping bitterly. Groaning painfully she said, “What shall become of me, a wretch? Where shall I go. Even my sister, to whom I hastened to seek help and consolation, drove me away, wounded me, and filled me with despair. There remains nothing for me now but to go and drown myself in the sea! O God, help me, the wretch.”
Through the dispensation of God, who does not want the death of the sinner but his repentance, it happened that St. Arsenios was going up to the convent. When he saw the girl crying and wounded, he felt compassion for her, he approached her and said, “What is the matter, my child? Why are you weeping? Who caused you such wounds?”
“My sister, Elder,” she replied, “together with nuns.”
“And why did they wound you?”
“Because, Elder, some corrupt men and women led me astray, and I became a harlot. But I realized I did not do well and I came to the convent for protection, help, from my sister. And behold, Father, what did they do to me? Is that the way nuns act, having fled from the world in order to save souls? What do you, Father, counsel me? Where and how shall I go? To go to the sea and drown myself, or to go and hurl myself into a lower place?”
“My child,” he said, “I do not give you such counsel. I love you as my child, and if you wish I will take you with me and heal the wounds of your soul and body.”
And she answered, “Where will you take me, Elder?”
“To the convent, my child.”
“I beg you not to take me to the convent, where my sister is together with those wicked nuns, because they will kill me. They declared this to me clearly, and if I insisted on remaining there, they would certainly have killed me. You, Elder, are a good father, but those nuns are criminals.”
“Come, my dear child, and be not afraid; they will not kill you, because I shall turn you over to Christ, and no one will be able to harm you.”
“In that case, Elder, since you are going to turn me over to Christ, I am not afraid of them, because Christ is much more powerful than they.”
Here I want to say if our spiritual children are afraid of us, if even less that we would kill them, that we would holler at them, that we would scream at them, that we will make a spectacle of them, we not only endanger our salvation, we endanger our own, because God does not deal with us this way.
After he encouraged and consoled her, St. Arsenios took her by the hand and led her up to the convent. And like another good Samaritan, by means of fatherly and affectionate words, he exhorted her to repentance and confession. When she had repented sincerely and confessed candidly, he cleaned and dressed the wounds of her body and soul. Having clothed her with clean garments, those of repentance, he introduced her into the spiritual fold of the convent and included her with his other rational sheep.
She made such progress in the monastic life—in fasting, self-control, vigils, prayer, temperance, and the rest of the virtues, and in the keeping of the commandments of God—that she surpassed all the other nuns. Thus there was fulfilled the saying of the divine herald, Paul the Apostle: “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”
Wishing to correct the nuns who had acted wrongly towards her, the saint called the nuns into the church of the convent and sharply rebuked those who wounded her, especially her sister, saying:
The good father of the parable, upon seeing from afar his prodigal son—who had spent his whole life living prodigally—returning to him, hastened to meet him, embraced him, kissed him, took him to his house, removed his old garments and clothed him with new ones and new shoes. He rejoiced greatly, because his son was dead, and was alive again; he was lost and was found. Christ came down from heaven not in order to save the righteous, who have no need, but sinners. He came to save the lost sheep. He mingled and conversed and ate with publicans, harlots, sinners, towards whom he showed great love and affection. In this manner, that is, through his love, he saved them—but you did the opposite.
Although you knew the incorporeal wolf, the devil, had seriously wounded her soul, instead of feeling sorry for her, and running to embrace and kiss her, to rejoice, to save her from the danger of further sin, you felt hatred for her and ran to kill her. And because you were unable to kill her, you incited her to go and kill herself, to drown herself in the sea. Now learn from me, your spiritual father, that you are not nuns, you are not Christians, you are not even human beings. If you had a sheep and saw that it was in danger of perishing, I think you would hasten to save it. Why? Because it is an animal. If you show so much concern for an animal, should you not show concern for your sister, who is not an animal, but a human being, has a soul, which is worth more than the whole world?
Again, a soul, which is worth more than the whole world.
She was on the road to perdition, and although she came to seek your help, you pushed her so that she might fall down faster. Therefore, you are devoid of compassion, devoid of affection, devoid of sympathy; you are a murderess. For this reason I impose upon you the penance of not receiving holy Communion for three years. If you do not recognize the great sin which you inconsiderately fell into; repent, confess your sin, sigh, weep bitterly, and ask forgiveness of God; from me, your spiritual father; and from those sisters who did not agree to your sinful act—then I shall lengthen the penalty.
Inasmuch as the nuns became aware of their sin, repented, and wept bitterly, St. Arsenios forgave them and moderated their penance. Upon the sister, he imposed the penalty of not receiving holy Communion for a year, because she provided the occasion and cause for the sin upon the others, while not partaking of Holy Communion for six months, because they shared in the responsibility.
In this story, we witness a true spiritual father demonstrate humility, meekness, discernment, and compassion. We also witness chastisement for the purposes of correction rather than punishment. St. Arsenios was a great father who possessed deep humility, much like St. Anthony the Great and St. Seraphim of Sarov, or many other saintly monastic elders. These never sought a name for themselves. Repeat: they never sought a name for themselves. In fact, they desired just the opposite. True humility recognizes that we are mere vessels through which the Holy Spirit is working, and any benefit is not of our own making. Any benefit is not of our own making. Humility also requires that we be careful and prudent when we offer direction and counsel, never placing too heavy a burden on a spiritual child lest they break and fall into despair.
Finally, the spiritual father must be prophetic. It is the duty of a spiritual father to speak the truth in love, in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2). As Nathan the prophet confronted King David and St. Basil the Holy Fool chastised Ivan the Terrible, a spiritual father must speak out against the false prophets and ravenous wolves that seek to harm to his spiritual children. The father as a prophet does not desire to be liked. Again: the father, spiritual father, does not desire to be liked. In fact, such a desire diminishes his ability to be prophetic. There will be times the spiritual father must speak hard truths and prescribe bitter medicine for the good of his children. In my experiences, they will probably say, “I hate you. I hate you.” But if God wills, that hate will be turned to Christian love. This can’t be done if the father seeks popularity rather than the health of the soul.
In order to do this, the lives of godly spiritual fathers must be blameless and above reproach. Our spiritual children must see in us a God-seeker and a God-pleaser, not a hypocrite. A spiritual father must be a man of noetic prayer. He must carve out time for this before any administrative duties that take his attention away from that essential spiritual work. Brothers, I want to comment here: I’m not against people taking care of administrative tasks provided they ask and can answer the question: What does this have to do with the salvation of my soul?
As spiritual fathers, we will have to account for our own lives as well as the lives of our spiritual children whom we have begotten in Christ. Yet, the thrice-holy God provides the grace in which we perform awesome tasks. Moses was “slow of speech.” Isaiah confessed he was “a man of unclean lips.” The king and prophet David succumbed to adultery and committed murder. Jonah fled from the God of Israel. None were perfect, but all were called to this duty of spiritual fatherhood. Almighty God performs the task through unworthy vessels of clay, such as myself. We need only pray, fast, struggle.
Consider the holy services to be your lifeline as I try to consider it to be my lifeline, and not just a Sunday or feast day obligation. Commune frequently, with frequent confession. Let us humble ourselves. Do not believe what the world tells you about self-worth, and pleasure and meaning. The world lies to you, and the world lies to you because there’s a little voice of the evil one that lies in the world’s ear. Look to the Church and the Scriptures and the saints for your role models and instructions for living.
When we enter upon the dread judgment seat of Christ, we will be asked the following: Were you purified in order to purify? Were you illumined so as to illumine? Were you perfected in order to perfect? The yoke of spiritual fatherhood demands no less than this. If our spiritual generation is to be fruitful, our fatherhood must reflect the life of Christ.
May the most-holy Theotokos protect us and may the thrice-holy God bless all of us and give us the strength to the second coming of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. [Amen.]
I clap in my heart for you, because the lesson I’ve had on how to be a good spiritual father and what a good spiritual father is has become to me increasingly evident by watching in great awe the lives that the priests that—it gives me humor to say—I’ve been given charge over. I watch them, and I learn from them, and from them I have the possibility of having my soul saved.
I’ve asked three priests, whom I consider my instructors, my mentors, who are charged with not only overseeing the spiritual life of a parish, but certain kinds of people within our diocese, to speak towards the ministry that they’ve been charged with in addition to their own parish. First is Fr. Noah Bushelli. Fr. Noah has been blessed by His Eminence to oversee the Department of Homeschooling. I am the overseer, and he is the director. That means that I’m in charge, and he gives me permission to say so. Fr. Noah is my teacher, and, Fr. Noah, if you could offer a few comments, please. By the way, he has lots of experience with children; he has nine. Are you hungry?
Fr. Noah Bushelli: I’m always hungry. I’m always tired.
“How to be a spiritual father to children”—that’s the topic, I think. I have three teenagers now among my nine children, and everything that I thought I knew about raising children has gone the way of the dodo. I think to see a child as a potential adult is very important. To see a child as one who is teaching us is very important. The joy of a child should be contagious; the simplicity of a child should simplify us. But children do need to be formed, children do need to be educated, they do need to be corrected—but to do so knowing that this person is going to be my equal, soon, and that’s been a difficult adjustment for me the last couple years with teenagers, realizing that my 18-year-old son is my brother. Well, he’s still my son; he’s my brother now, and I have to win him with affection than rule him with my parental authority.
One time when there was a child who came to confession to me, and I knew that she just got a scooter, she asked me what heaven would be like, and I said, “It’s going to be better than riding your scooter, infinitely more joyful than your scooter is to you right now.” I could go on and on, Sayidna, but I think I’ve said enough.
His Grace Bishop Thomas: You think you’ve said enough. I asked also Fr. Joshua Makoul to offer just a few words about being a spiritual father to a teenager.
Fr. Joshua Makoul: Just very short words. I know everyone is tired and would like to get to lunch. Certainly, at home, with our own kids, we’re always keeping a watchful eye on them, looking for signs of any trouble or a troubled heart, making sure we’re not missing something that our children are not verbalizing on the outside. Likewise, with our parishioners we do the same. We keep a watchful eye on them in order to detect any troubles they might be going through. Of course, our children and our parishioners know that we love them through doing this.
But, having been serving as the spiritual advisor for the teens, one observation just to pass on is that we’re detecting a new trend where for the teens, a lot of their suffering is going underground. It’s silent suffering that they are engaging in. In the past, perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, we would see a lot more red flags; there would be some acting out. Just some speculation very well might be that our teens are afraid of the embarrassment and the social isolation that comes from acting out or acting out at school or at home even. So now we’re starting to see that when teens are suffering, it’s going underground and they’re suffering silently. Of course, we’re seeing a rise in tragic, tragically teens making more decisions about their own life.
Just a final word. Please be on the lookout for the presence of shame in the teens. They’re learning it from comparing themselves to other kids. Sometimes they’re getting shamed at home. Perhaps they’ve had some events happen in their life where they engaged in self-blame, and then that manifests itself in shame, but if they are suffering from it we might detect it in confession; perhaps we’re doing a spiritual talk with them. We might see some tears in their eyes upon certain topics. So please, all, just keep in mind that with our young people, their suffering is starting to go underground, and they’re starting to suffer silently. Thank you.
His Grace Bishop Thomas: Fr. John Oliver. We have been charged to work very, very seriously with our young adults.
Fr. John Oliver: I have no experience that you do not; I have no wisdom that you do not. In my limited experience, there’s a difference between a searching that is really just apathy, and a searching that is an authentic yearning for truth and for beauty.
One story that I share with young adults is that one scholar noted that in the early Church, in the year 50 A.D., there were approximately 1400 Christians, representing about 0.0023% of the Empire. Just 300 years later, there were 36 million Christians, representing about 56% of the Empire. That’s a growth rate of about 40% per decade, and almost all of that growth happened outside the halls of power. Not only were we not in favor with the government, but the government was openly hostile to us. So all of that growth happened not by force—we couldn’t pass laws in our favor; we couldn’t elect politicians in our favor—it happened by persuasion. Pagans looked at the faith and said, “I want what you have: a love that is stronger than death.”
As our teenagers are growing into young adults, and as the old reasons for being Christian no longer apply—my parents were Christian; it’s what we’ve always done; I wasn’t given a choice—we can welcome those questions as the old reasons no longer apply, and our young adults have to find new reasons, personal reasons, for believing that this way of life is a superior way to live a life than all the alternatives. So we welcome that restlessness into the faith. We give them permission to question; we give them permission to yearn. By taking their questions seriously, as they find their own reasons to be Christian, to be in the Church, we walk alongside them.
His Grace Bishop Thomas: Fr. George Alberts. What do you do for people like me?
Fr. George Alberts: I shared a very similar experience with Bishop Thomas, because we both had the same spiritual father for a while, Fr. Michael Simon. Just two real quick experiences I had. Sayidna asked me to talk specifically about confession. Many of us don’t realize that many of our priests in the older parishes weren’t educated in seminaries. I know when I grew up, we never had confession. Our priest never gave us sermons either, until when he retired, we had a priest who made us all, as a teenager, stand behind him, and we had to say everything that we ever did from the time we were young, or else we were basically condemned. That’s a very difficult thing. So that’s something we have to be aware of.
The other thing is that many times people have bad experiences doing confession, and I’ve experienced that in parishes, too. Because of that, many of them are very nervous. I had someone who didn’t even want their children to come for confession, because they were worried about what would happen because of their bad experiences. So I think when we deal with that, especially with older people, what I try to do is do a very simple educational thing. As a general thing, maybe through offering talks and workshops and retreats to the whole parish, then break it down into organizations, like the teens, the young adults, the ladies, whatever. Have them take confessions: the youth during youth month, the ladies during ladies’ month. Finally, talk to people individually, because you never know what happened to them spiritually as they were growing up as well. You can’t just sort of generalize things.
His Grace Bishop Thomas: Thank you. God bless you.