Saturday, August 11, 2012

What is a spiritual father?

Orthodox Christians will often speak of their 'spiritual father.'  The concept of a spiritual father is a difficult one to explain outside of the Orthodox Christian context.  Basically, one's spiritual father is his confessor.  If you examine the writings of the desert fathers, the Optina fathers, and other monastics whose advice is sought, the letters they right are in response to requests that would or should normally occur in the course of the mystery of Confession.

Confession is ubiquitously misunderstood by the faithful and by those outside the fullness of the faith.  We in America are burdened by a severely Hollywood-inflected, legalistic view of confession.  How many of us have seen Hitchcock's classic film I Confess, starring Montgomery Clift as a conflicted Catholic priest who learns in the course of a confession that the penitent had committed a murder.  The confession becomes an overriding burden for the priest, who himself is charged with the very murder.

The point of that synopsis is that even without someone confessing to their spiritual father that they've committed a murder, the relationship between a spiritual father and his children is fraught with difficulty.  It is not a casual relationship, but one essential to spiritual growth.  Here is one priest's perspective on the difficult nature of spiritual fatherhood.

Elder Zosima from The Brothers Karamazov is probably the best known fictional spiritual father in literature. According to Dostoevsky, Elder Zosima's story is taken in part from the life of Elder Leonid of Optina Monastery, and his character is based in part on St. Tikhon of Zadonsk.  Throughout the novel, a subplot involves Elder Zosima, and the danger (which he recognizes) of a cult growing up around him.  The circumstances of his death and what happens immediately after provide a shocking counterpoint to the Elder's piety and saintliness throughout the novel.

I guess the point of this post is that growth in the fullness of the faith requires a healthy relationship with not only the Fathers of the Church, but a spiritual father.  Everyone could use some good advice.  The best place for an Orthodox Christian to get advice about the faith is from their spiritual father.

1 comment:

  1. "the writings of the desert fathers, the Optina fathers" Can you recommend publication(s)?

    Can you write about the logistics of confession (time/place/prep) and address any concerns regarding confidentiality or the priest's response?