In the Absence of a Spiritual Father

This saying is sure, “Spiritual Fathers do not grow on trees.” Even if, back in the day, Spiritual Fathers were supposedly hanging around on every Russian street corner they are not as easy to find as they once were. What are we to do if we cannot find a spiritual father?

He may turn, in the first place, to books. Writing in 15th-century Russia, St. Nil Sorsky laments the extreme scarcity of qualified spiritual directors; yet how much more frequent they must have been in his day than in ours! Search diligently, he urges, for a sure and trustworthy guide. “However, if such a teacher cannot be found, then the Holy Fathers order us to turn to the Scriptures and listen to Our Lord Himself speaking.” Since the testimony of Scripture should not be isolated from the continuing witness of the Spirit in the life of the Church, the inquirer will also read the works of the Fathers, and above all the Philokalia. But there is an evident danger here. The starets adapts his guidance to the inward state of each; books offer the same advice to everyone. How is the beginner to discern whether or not a particular text is applicable to his own situation? Even if he cannot find a spiritual father in the full sense, he should at least try to find someone more experienced than himself, able to guide him in his reading. – Bishop Kallistos Ware.

We need Spiritual Fathers. On the one hand, we have grown accustomed to making all of our own decisions without guidance. But the opposite is also be true. We are everywhere asking advice of everyone, reading every book and watching every episode of the self-help talk show circuit. What we need are Spiritual Fathers who have walked, are walking and will continue to walk the long road of dispassion, perfection and enlightenment. We must ask the Lord to send us Spiritual Fathers. And when they come we must listen to them. We must turn to the ones the Lord has seen fit to give us in our pastors and parish priests. AND we need to start reading the saints. Take heed: although we have grown accustomed to reading scripture and other good books alone and relying on ourselves for discernment, our reading must not be done alone. It has to take place within the Church.  I do not recall who said it but it is profoundly true, “He who has himself as a guide has a fool and a liar.”


“Many people imagine that they cannot find a spiritual father, because they expect him to be of a particular type: they want a St. Seraphim, and so they close their eyes to the guides whom God is actually sending to them. Often their supposed problems are not so very complicated, and in reality they already know in their own heart what the answer is. But they do not like the answer, because it involves patient and sustained effort on their part: and so they look for a deus ex machina who, by a single miraculous word, will suddenly make everything easy. Such people need to be helped to an understanding of the true nature of spiritual direction.” – Bishop Kallistos Ware.

What do you think is the true nature of spiritual direction?



Filed under Contemplative Prayer, Orthodox Christianity

6 responses to “In the Absence of a Spiritual Father

  1. I generally liked the blog posting but the question in the end is too vague for me.

    As a sidenote, st. Nil lived (mostly) in 15th century, not 5th.

  2. Fr. James Coles

    Thank you Alexander for correcting the St. Nilus date.

  3. Hi Father,

    The true nature of a spiritual director is someone who is called by God, gifted to help others grow in their relationship with God. A spiritual director is a person of deep faith, compassion, and prayer. A spiritual director is a good listener, and develops gifts in listening and responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

    Spiritual direction helps a person to grow deeper in his/her relationship with God. The real depth comes in on going spiritual direction. The person grows in trust that God is leading and prompting the spiritual director to help him/her to grow in holiness. And the spiritual director grows in relationship with God through the guidance of another.

    How blessed I am that God has given me such a wonderful gift…

    God’s blessings and peace,
    Annette L. Sherwood
    Spiritual Director

  4. I have been extraordinarily blessed in the spiritual directors God has given me over the years, but I’m sure that this has only been possible because at times I have been able to be somewhat obedient and patient. Being a member of the Third Order of St. Francis (or of any other such body) makes this kind of thing so much easier. I think that is part of the trouble: we are so used to “relying on ourselves for discernment” these days that we miss the benefits of community and obedience, without ever noticing what we’ve missed!

  5. s-p

    Good posts, Father. I interviewed Fr. Meletios Weber at St. John’s on this topic (it will eventually become a podcast), and he said “Spiritual Fathers” of the “clairvoyant elder” type are almost non-existent. But “spiritual directors” are given to us at different times in our lives and we may have several throughout our life. They are essentially people that are mature and can guide us through a particular issue or stage of our spiritual development. It might be a priest or monk, but most often a trustworthy layperson. He said its more like they are “spiritual friends” for a season and if we engage the relationship the can help us progress spiritually. (It should go without saying, but should probably say it anyway, that this relationship does not take the place of sacramental confession/absolution.)

  6. Reader John Herman

    The true nature of spiritual direction? When I seek the way to God, a spiritual elder is there to point; when I come to know them, I am already in the presence of the divine.

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