Here is a simple question (so don’t overthink it!): Who was your toughest teacher, professor, or coach? Got it? For me it was my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Lewis; a tough as nails, no-nonsense educator who knew that beneath my class clown exterior lurked a serious student in need of discipline. I actually thanked her years later for her tireless efforts in straightening me out.
Students and athletes understand the need for dedicated teachers and coaches willing to invest the time in our academic, athletic, and personal development and this principle is no less true in the spiritual life though it is frequently overlooked. Recent studies indicate that a key determinant in retaining our faith into adulthood is the influence of a non-family member who is serious about eternity.
In the Holy Orthodox Church, we are encouraged to place ourselves under the tutelage of a Spiritual Father or Mother; someone willing to establish a vested interest in our spiritual growth and to walk the path of salvation beside us. In the same way that we cannot effectively teach ourselves astrophysics or the nuances of a quality golf swing we cannot effectively be our own guide in the spiritual life.
So how do we go about finding a Spiritual Father or Mother? Can almighty Google help us out here? Not so much; and there are a handful of basic points to consider as we begin our search. The first is that having a spiritual director is of limited value if we aren’t regularly engaging the divine worship of the Church. Just as students won’t learn very well if they skip class and athletes won’t improve if they bail out on practice, Orthodox Christians are hard-pressed to make spiritual progress estranged from Church.
Next, we must disabuse ourselves of our consumer mentality in searching out a guide. We are conditioned from our earliest memories to view everything through the prism of our likes and opinions, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. But as with teachers and coaches, the spiritual guide best for us is likely not one we would “select” for ourselves.
Nine times out of ten, (or more) the perfect spiritual father for each of us is simply our parish priest and particularly so if he has known you since your early childhood. Think about it, he will have baptized you, blessed you, communed you frequently, and anointed you when you were ill, heard your first confession, and encouraged you when you were low.
There is, in my observation, a very unhealthy “guru cultism” in our approach to this topic today that reminds me very much of the herd mentality of the 1960’s when young folk ran after one exotic guru after the next (and bonus points were awarded if the Beatles liked him!) And this is sad because in succumbing to this temptation we risk supplanting a healthy teacher/student relationship with a potentially idolatrous one; guided as much by conceit and a need to feel special than by the Holy Spirit.
Finally, proximity and access are really important considerations in finding a spiritual director. It makes very little sense to place oneself under the care of someone so distant from us that we cannot go frequently to him or her for advice and guidance. The most saintly father in Kiev or Kalavrita does me very little good if I live in Milwaukee.
But I am convinced enough in the immutable fact of God’s love for His children that He will bring into our lives the perfect Spiritual Father or Mother in that creative and often unexpected way that only God can do! Whenever I am able to visit with my geronda I run to him for confession and blurt out all my “stuff” because I trust him, I know that he loves me, he never judges me though he does push me, he is given insight into my soul by the Holy Spirit, and I absolutely know that he prays for me every day!
So please reconnect with your parish priest or spiritual father! They (that is to say “we”) reaaaally like hearing from you and knowing how better to pray for you in your journey to the Kingdom!
Love and blessings,
Fr. Apostolos Hill
About the Author
This is a guest post from Fr. Apostolos Hill at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, AZ. Fr. Apostolos has been active in OCF in a variety of areas; hosting regional retreats, leading OCF Real Break trips to Greece, Guatemala, and Skid Row, and in the College Conference West.