November 20, 2015

The Difference Between a Spiritual Father and an Elder

By Archimandrite Paul Papadopoulos

Many times while talking about Christ we lose Christ, while we talk about the Cross we avoid our own personal cross, refusing to lift it and walk behind Christ. While we go to a spiritual father to reconcile with God through the Mystery of Confession we rather connect with the person of our spiritual father and we put the person of Christ on the margins of this relationship. This is wrong.

The work of the spiritual father is to lead the penitent to Christ, to the restoration of their relationship and not to make them a follower of theirs, which is something that is unfortunately observed. And often the spiritual father doesn't do it deliberately, but it may happen unwittingly.

I think the following occurs: The spiritual father speaks beautifully, teaches, confesses, and people that have made known the pain of their sins have found consolation and peace in their hearts through his words. They begin to connect with him to such a degree that they depend on him, but this dependence is a sickness, a dependence that is not appropriate in regards to the relationship of a spiritual father with a penitent.

One who nourishes such respect and love for their spiritual father will reach the point that they ask what color should their car be that they are about to purchase, if it is alright to buy a car at all, how they should paint their house, or a child may ask what they should study in college.

If a spiritual father accepts such questions they should immediately understand that their connection with their spiritual child has gone too far. A spiritual father should understand that their spiritual child, while respecting them as a person, is asking things which they must understand only belongs to monastics in monasteries, who receive a blessing from their superior or elder to do something, but a layperson who lives in the world has obligations. They can't ask a spiritual father how to conduct their affairs in the workplace or do something without asking their spouse.

A spiritual father in the world is one thing and an elder or superior in a monastery is something else.

In a parish we deal with people who are living in the world, who have families, etc. Therefore, a spiritual father cannot ask for obedience to issues that will bring conflict with members of their family. A spiritual father advises the penitent on spiritual issues, and most importantly how and when they should come forward to commune of the Body and Blood of the Lord.

In a monastery, on the other hand, we are dealing with people who have freely subordinated to the will of their elders, that transform their will to the will of the elder. They have left themselves to - not as spineless beings, but with awareness - blessed obedience. Monks are called to be obedient to even the "smallest" thing their elders tell them, in order to not be disturbed by any cares so they have their minds undisturbed while in prayer.

Thus, confession and spiritual guidance in the world is one thing, while the obedience of a monastic in a monastery is another.

A spiritual father who sees that there is a tendency of a spiritual child to an absolute dependence on their words should explain with discernment that the relationship of a spiritual father and penitent is different from that of an elder and submissive.

Of course if such a person is inclined and has a spiritual thirst for obedience, they can go to a monastery and live there as a submissive.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.