Monday, October 4, 2010

Finding a Spiritual Father/Mother (Where are the Byzantine ones?)

     There is an insightful post by Father Maximos (Davies) concerning spiritual parenthood. This topic concerns one of the cornerstones of Byzantine Spirituality. In fact many Byzantine Fathers taught that finding a spiritual Father or Mother was essential. Consequently, in our day a question often presents itself: where are these spiritual leaders? To not have this kind of relationship that has its roots in our tradition often means that we are in some ways lacking. However, many of us do not know where to look since traditionally these types of relationships are in the context of monasticism. Also, in the time of our popular writings concerning spiritual parenthood we find that the context of these relationships are far from what many of us could achieve in our modern lives. If we wanted to truly have this version of spiritual parenthood in our day many of us would have to move to Mt. Athos. In contrast, our traditions are not as constricted as many of us make them out to be. For it is the spirituality of the monk that is the foundation for such relationships and not necessarily the vocation.
     The Eastern Christian spiritual tradition rests on the monastic. As John Paul II pointed out in Orientale Lumen “Monasticism has always been the very soul of the Eastern Churches”. As a result, there is no substitution for the bond between Byzantine Christians and the monastic tradition. For in many ways the monastic tradition becomes the spiritual foundation and nourishment for a Byzantine Christian. This is why we venerate our monastics for in them we see the heights of our spirituality being achieved. In the context of spiritual parenthood because of their vocation they have the possibility to provide the greatest riches of spiritual experience. We see dedication to such truth at many levels in Byzantine monasticism. This is often witnessed in the spiritual centers like Mt. Athos or the Optina Monastery where we find the monastics dedicating their whole lives to the riches of our traditions. This dedication also becomes open to pilgrims that come and seek spiritual guidance in these places. As a result, spiritual parenthood is extended beyond the walls of the monastery giving nourishment to the whole Church.
     Father Maximos brought attention to the fact that many of us who read the Eastern spiritual literature from these places mentioned above come to believe that this is the only way things are. In fact, people will sometimes read The Way of the Pilgrim for the first time and think this is the way things should be. Consequently, people sometimes will try to find an Eastern Church and hope that it has all the answers and will be just like the book. In my own journey I was someone who experienced this first hand and was left bewildered to why this kind of spirituality was no available in the Eastern churches I visited. For example, I once asked for guidance in the Athonite tradition of Hesychasm from a local Eastern Orthodox monastery. They told me to go to Mt. Athos. It was evident to me that they did not have what I was looking for and were probably used to these unrealistic ideals of traditional Byzantine spirituality. In my opinion, the spiritual traditions that we have preserved in places like Mt. Athos are the reasons why many people enter Eastern Christianity and to lose these elements means we lose who we are. However, this does not mean that the  spirituality of these places is restricted to the way it is experienced in those places.
     Seeing a need for such spirituality the Bishop John (Kudrick) of the Eparchy of Parma started laying the foundation for Eastern style monastic communities in the U.S., which he said are “based on the spirit of Orientale Lumen." He  mentioned that the monasteries will take the leadership to rediscover Eastern Spirituality, even the model of spiritual Fatherhood/Motherhood in the monastery. This is an important event in the history of the Byzantine Catholic churches in America because to some degree Byzantine monastic spirituality has not been fully realized. The Eparch in laying the foundation for these communities has shown his people that this is the direction we must go spirituality, which is to say that are churches are to be producing monks. This could also be summarized by the fact that there really is no healthy Byzantine church outside of a Byzantine monasticism. click to read the Eparch's full text
     Without understanding the true nature of our Byzantine tradition (monastic spirituality) we cannot grasp the ideals of spiritual parenthood. There is a reason why most of what we read in regards to spiritual parenthood  is always in the context of a monastic community. However, this does not mean that monastic spirituality only exists in the monastery or that it is the only place to experience spiritual parenthood. In fact, these kinds of relationships that we read about in the classical literature are very hard to come by for the sole reason that many do not have contact with monastic communities. In addition, there is nowhere in any of the classical Eastern spiritual literature that says the spiritual parenthood is done one way. The monastery might be the foundation of spiritual parenthood but it is by no means restricted to it.
     The monastery that I mentioned above might be right in telling me to go to Mt. Athos. What I was looking for was spiritual direction in our Byzantine spiritual traditions from a monk living them. A relationship that our heritage deems essential for those wanting to grow in their spiritual life. I believe many people are searching for these kinds of relationships. However, we have to take what God gives us. We need to take the ideal and become willing to accept new models of spiritual accountability that are based on our traditions .For there is nothing in our spiritual traditions that restricts spiritual parenthood to monks. The fact is that monastic spirituality is the soul of our tradition and not necessarily the monk. For every Byzantine is called to the ideals of monastic spirituality. Based on this it is possible for those outside of the monastic vocation to practice Byzantine spiritual parenthood.
     We may never have access to the relationships that we read about. On the other hand, we do have many Byzantine “Fathers and Mothers” teachings. St. Seraphim said, “When I am dead, come to me at my grave, and the more often the better. Whatever is in your soul, whatever may have happened to you, come to me as when I was alive and kneeling on the ground, cast all your bitterness upon my grave. Tell me everything and I shall listen to you, and all the bitterness will fly away from you. And as you spoke to me when I was alive, do so now. For I am living and I shall be forever." His invitation to us can be said of all our Byzantine saints. Even though they have been gone from the physical world they remain with us in the Spirit. Still interceding for us and still teachings us through their writings. It’s hard to go wrong when much of what they say is repent, fast, pray unceasingly, and love your neighbor. In my estimation these few instructions make up 90% of the Philokalia. In addition, there is nothing that they have left us that cannot be spoken and experienced through people living outside of the monastery.
     Most of the time I find myself living off the Philokalia and the words of spiritual Fathers long past. My own spiritual Father who was not a monk fell asleep in the Lord some time ago. However, before his rest he told me once that there are many wells of wisdom to draw from. I don't think there can be a replacement for him but since him I have met many holy and pious teachers of God’s love. You never know who God might bring into your life to be that special person. If you find a good teacher in either a lay person or parish priest you should be thankful. If by God's grace you find yourself under the mantle of one our monks be even more grateful.


  1. It's interesting how the Orthodox problem (apparently is worse for converts who are learning to navigate this stuff)seems to how to put up with the limitations of their own parish priests. It's kind of a reality check after reading the Philokalia and the Way of the Pilgrim to realize that these books don't provide much of a blue print for how things actually work.

    Thanks for reading my stuff! Quick correction, though, the blog isn't my personal blog. It's a collaborative effort by the monks of HRM. That's the idea, at least; I'm just the most chatty of the brotherhood. :-)

  2. Thanks Ric for your great posts. I hope that one day people will be able to find a source of spiritual motherhood in our monastery. God bless!