On this episode of “OCF All-Stars”, Dan interviews Fr. William George at County College of Morris on what it means to be a great OCF Spiritual Advisor. You won’t want to miss the advice he has to share.
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.
As Orthodox we always ask ourselves how much publicity and noise we should make on campus. We have left the home, the comfortable context where we feel our identity to be less challenged. Morality was also easier with someone else in charge: parents, priest, home parish community, etc. So here we are at college, learning to stand on our own feet (hopefully). Who are we? Do we shout “ORTHODOX HERE!?” Do we forsake Church with the first mistakes and signs of imperfection or impurity? We are learning to be ourselves but are told to be free of pride… How do we manage it all?
Sin and temptation that comes in a time of freedom and uncertainty is also a providential place of challenge that helps us grow and improve spiritually. There are some shocking sayings of St. Anthony in the Alphabetic Collection of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
Anthony said to Abba Poemen,
4. This is the great work of a man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.’ 5. He also said, “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.’ He even added, ‘Without temptations, no-one can be saved.’ 6. Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “What ought I to do?’ and the old man said to him, ‘do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.’ 7. Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”
The readings before Lent challenge us to not argue about things with people who have different opinions: “As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables.” (Romans 14:1-2) We control the “tongue and… stomach.” Notice: we are eating vegetables now! We do this to repent, or “re-think” and change, gain confidence in God’s ability to change us. This is humility—to know that God gives victory, not our righteousness, successes, intellect, or purity. Everything else is defeat; only Christ’s humility is perfect faith. We feel it by the Paschal vigil, when we are tired, weak and hungry…
We ask “Who are we and how do we define ourselves?” Be defined by going to Church, believing, self-restraint and the confidence that does not proclaim our righteousness, but rather the confidence of Christ’s silence, God’s silence at the Cross, the silence of the life-giving Tomb and the silence of Christ who is in the “hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison…”(Mathew 25:44). This silence is what teaches us to listen to and love others. This silence (of mouth, mind, internet) is what gets us through the “snares,” the mistakes we have to ‘make for ourselves.’ The prodigal son knows this. We will have temptations and fall; we can only learn humility this way—the confidence that God saves and raises us. This is the truly successful OCF chapter:
where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all. (Colossians 3:11, OSB)
My practical tip, the one which is best borne out by working with OCF chapters, is this: Learn restraint and silence together!
All the ideas and programs in the world don’t help without learning humility and restraint that guide us toward confidence in Christ.
About the Author
This is a guest post from Fr. Elijah Mueller. Fr. Elijah is the pastor of St. Makarios Mission, OCA, at the University of Chicago and the Director of the Diocese of the Midwest OCA Catechist and Diaconal Vocations Program. He is the Chapter Spiritual Advisor at the University of Chicago, and the Great Lakes Regional Spiritual Advisor for OCF. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Marquette University, which he will complete this Spring. You can email him at email@example.com.