The following correspondence is between an unknown monk and Abba John the Prophet (Feb. 6), who lived in asceticism in Gaza of Palestine in the sixth century, regarding the difference between receiving spiritual advice and a spiritual command from holy elders and spiritual fathers.
How should one behave in approaching the fathers with a question? Should one perhaps carry out all of the responses without the least transgression?
No, one is not obliged to carry out all of them, but only the ones given in the form of a command. For simple, godly advice is one thing, and a command is another. Advice is counsel without compulsion, revealing to a person the straight way of life; a command, on the other hand, is an inviolable bond.
Father, you showed me the difference between a command and godly advice. Give me also the signs of each: how are they recognized and what is the power of each?
If you approach a spiritual father in order to ask about something not so much because you wish to receive a command but only in order to hear a godly response, and you are told what you should do, then you should still keep to this [word] by all means. If, in so doing, you are tempted as a result of this affliction, then do not be troubled; for this is happening for your benefit. Now, if you do not want to do [what you have been told], you should not think that you have transgressed a command; for you did not receive it as a command. It seems, however, that you are overlooking what is beneficial to you, and so you should blame yourself for this.
Indeed, you should consider everything that comes out of the mouth of the saints as being for the benefit of those who hear them. The same applies even if you did not ask anything, but the elder's thought was inspired by God to speak to you of his own accord, something which actually happened once. For one of the elders once sought to visit a city. Another elder said to him of his own accord: "If you visit the city, you shall fall into fornication." Nevertheless, he disobeyed, visited the city, and as a result fell [into sin].
If you inquire about a specific matter, wanting to receive some command, then you should perform a prostration and ask for a command to be given to you. When the command is received, you should again perform a prostration, so that the one who gave you the command may bless you. Say to him: "Bless me, father, even as I receive the command; and pray that I may keep it." Learn this too, brother, that the command is not given without reason, and so the one who gave the command will assist you in supplication and prayers, in order that you might be able to keep it. Now, if you are distracted and do not perform a prostration in order to receive a blessing, nevertheless do not think that the command is given without any reason. For it even holds if you happened to receive it without cause or consequence. So, if you can, labor [in this], and do not hesitate to go and perform your prostration in order to receive the blessing. If, however, you are unable to do so, then consider that you have received the command with negligence.
If I ask to receive a command, but the elder does not intend to give me one - or perhaps the opposite even occurs, and I did not ask to receive one, and yet he still gives me one - is this reckoned as a command, and should I keep it by all means? Since there are ecclesiastical canons and certain sayings of the fathers, which are written documents, are we also obliged to observe these as strictly and in the same way as the command?
If the person asked did not intend to offer a command, then this is not actually reckoned as a command for you, even if in fact you asked for a command. If, however, he thought it was wise to offer you a command, even if you did not happen to request one, then this is in fact a command and you are obliged to keep it.
One should also accept as a command whatever the dogmatic canons have prescribed and the responses of the fathers expressed in the form of a statement. Nevertheless, give assurance to your thought in regard to these matters by asking the fathers; for you are not always able to understand the proper meaning of their words. Therefore, you should be convinced by their response and by that alone, which you should keep without transgression, with the assistance of the kind and loving God and through the prayers of the saints. Amen.
If I am tempted and happen to transgress the command, what should I do?
If you receive a command from the saints and happen to transgress it, then do not be disturbed or despair to the point of invalidating it. Remember what is said of the righteous, that "though they fall seven times a day, yet they will rise again" (Prov. 24:16), and also the words of the Lord to Peter: "Forgive your brother seventy times" (Matt. 18:22). Therefore, if He commanded mortals to forgive so many times, how many more times would He forgive everything, when He is rich in mercy and compassion? He cries out each day through the prophet: "Return to Me and I shall return to you; for I am merciful" (Jl. 2:13; Zech. 1:3), and again: "Now, O Israel" (Deut. 10:12). Watch out that, upon hearing that the command has not actually been invalidated, you do not become indifferent and come to the point of neglect; for this is indeed a grave sin. Furthermore, do not despise the command for the sake of what appears to be small details; even if you happen to be neglectful in these details, you should still strive to correct yourself. For through indifference in such small details, one is led to greater sins.
My thought suggests that I should not ask the saints in case I learn something and then happen to despise this on account of my weakness, and then I sin.
Such a thought is really terrible. So do not tolerate it at all. For if one learns something and then sins, one will surely incur condemnation. If one has not learned anything and still sins, then one will never incur condemnation (cf. Rom. 2:1); in this way, one's passions will continue to be unhealed. This is precisely why the devil suggests this to us, in order that our passions remain unhealed. When your thought suggests this, namely, that you are unable to fulfill the command on account of your weakness, then pose the following question: "Since I want to practice this, tell me, father, what is beneficial for me. Nevertheless, I know that whatever you tell me to do, I am unable to fulfill it and keep your words. Yet I still want to learn, for this reason alone, so that I might incur condemnation for overlooking what is beneficial for me." This, too, is a sign of humility on your part. May the Lord enlighten your heart and adhere to this through the prayers of the saints. Amen.
From The Fathers of the Church: Barsanuphios and John, Letters, Volume 2.