The Role of a Spiritual Father in an Orthodox Monastery by the Abbot of Simonos Petras, Mount Athos

Elder Aimilianos, with Archimandrite Ephraim, then abbot of the monastery of Philotheou (1973).
Elder Aimilianos, with Archimandrite Ephraim, then abbot of the monastery of Philotheou (1973).

Taken from  ‘The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain’

01 ) A monastery is not a human society, rather it is the continuous assembly of the fraternity of the Church: in the refectory, and throughout the day. It is an assembly that identifies itself with the path of the Church herself throughout the course of her history, one that reproduces the model of that fraternity consituted by Christ and His Apostles. Such a gathering is not composed only of its visible members, but as well as those who, in their turn, come to her to comprise the Church of the past and of the future. A monastery is thus a type of the Church in her entirety. It is the gathering of the Church herself, concentrated in a particular space. Consequently the spiritual father ( gerontas ), the abbot, is an image of God: he stands in the place of Christ while the other monks constitute the choir of the saints, living and dead.

02 ) The monastery is a mystery, a sacrament, and the spiritual father is the visible element of this mystery, behind whom hides the invisible: God, and everything that escapes the senses, which can only be sensed by the spirit.

03 ) This place, so important, of the spiritual father situated at the very heart of the mystery signifies thus that he is the guide, the one who takes and shapes men in order to gather them and incorporate them into the life of the Church, and of Christ. The superior thus does not concern himself only with food, with the daily life and material needs of the community. Before all, he is the guide of souls, the one who initiates them into the mysteries, who reveals to them the way to perfect mystical union with God.

04 ) One must understand that the monastery is a special kind of society. It is in fact the society of Paradise, the society of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the society of all the saints in which each believer – in this cae, each monk – possesses an absolute right to the life of Christ, but where as well Christ Himself possesses the same rights over the life of each. The monastery comprises thus a most important reality because it preserves the rights man had before the Fall – the possibility of possessing God wholly as one’s own. It is this reality that the abbot must, each day, make present and manifest to his monks, which is to say, to the disciples of the Lord Himself.

05 ) He is therefore the master who transmitts to them his own knowledge, and who, in particular, must reveal to them by his own life the knowledge of the true God, by the fire that he kindles in their hearts, by the awareness that he gives them in order that they themselves become sensitive to Christ as present, and also Christ as One Whom they await. Because, whatever his daily obedience, the monk’s life is nothing other than the burning and impatient attendance upon God.

06 ) And, little by little, the father takes the monk in order to raise him up to the heights, to give him the grace of God. In the mystical life, it is grace that accomplishes all in such manner that Christ becomes not only the One to come, but the One with Whom we hold converse now. Thus the monk learns to devote himself to his master, the Lord, to have with Christ exactly the same intimacy as has the choir of the Apostles. And, finally, by grace of his daily effort and careful attention to the Holy Trinity, the abbot will be able to achieve another result: the monks will perceive God as living, as a contemporary, accompanying them on arising from sleep, at their regular tasks, and in the least detail. At that point the communion between God and man is complete.

07 ) The spiritual father is therefore, in fact, the same who takes his disciple, the monk, by the hand in order to introduce him to the Lord. He is the same who brings Christ down, who reunites that which was seperated – the realities of heaven and of earth – in order to transform them into the one, unique, and genuine dance.

08 ) Such is the real role of the spiritual father and such is the manner in which the monks perceive him. This is why this discipline exists, this obedience, this charity, this gift of self and this confidence that addresses itself not so much to the superior – who is only a man – but to Christ Whom he represents.

09 ) All the monks partake of this sense of the mystery and of the mystical reality that manifests itself among them: because the Elder is not merely someone who has appeared today for the sake of the monastery, rather he proceeds from the stream of the Orthodox tradition, he springs from the living current of the Holy Spirit.

10 ) Of course he [the Elder] is a man, but the sense of his humanity gives way within the community of the monastery. Certainly he lives as a normal man, just as any other living man, but he is as well the one whom God has taken and set apart, and who in consequence no longer lives quite the life of the present world. While indeed he walks the earth, he senses in some manner that his head is in the sky, that he sees Heaven, that he sees God. This, here, is the most important thing a monastery can offer. This, indeed, is what contemporary man and his society most lack: the spiritual father who makes God so tangible, so powerful, so living, so intense, and so true.

11 ) The monastic community gathered around its spiritual father is thus the type of … the universal Church. Daily life is very simple there. But in the silence, the quiet, by grace of the unity and mutual charity, one is put on the lookout to listen for the rustling of the steps of Christ Who draws nigh. [The End]