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Introduction to Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit

The Lives & Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece


The Ancient Christian Ministry of Spiritual Eldership

It is not uncommon, among both non-Orthodox as well as Orthodox, in the west (and increasingly even among Orthodox in traditionally "Orthodox" countries), for the ancient tradition of spiritual eldership to be either completely unknown or misunderstood. The central role, however, that the relation of elder to spiritual child has played in the life of the Church throughout Christian history attests to its legitimacy. Similarly, the existence of living links to this Christian tradition, inherited from one generation to the next, even to the present day, attests to its vitality.

Although an academic exposition of the historical roots of eldership falls outside the scope of the present work, we do feel it necessary to look at these roots in general outline so as to place the present work in its proper context.[1] This outline necessarily begins with the New Testament witness, which may then be traced historically to the present day, and to the Greek monastic elders in this book.

Spiritual eldership, preserved by the Holy Spirit from apostolic times, descends to us in much the same way as does apostolic succession (understood as the historical succession of bishops from apostolic times until the present). As Bishop Kallistos Ware explains:

Alongside this [apostolic succession], largely hidden, existing on a 'charismatic' rather than an official level, there is secondly the apostolic succession of the spiritual fathers and mothers in each generation of the Church—the succession of the saints, stretching from the apostolic age to our own day, which Saint Symeon the New Theologian termed the "golden chain."... Both types of succession are essential for the true functioning of the Body of Christ, and it is through their interaction that the life of the Church on earth is accomplished. [2]

The foundation on which the spiritual tradition of eldership is based is found in Holy Scripture. In particular, Christ's Incarnation, Death and Resurrection, reveal His kenotic [3] Fatherly love for His children and for the world. This love has as its goal the ontological rebirth of man from within, not the ethical improvement of man (although this is an inevitable fruit of true spiritual rebirth) from without. [4] Faithfully following Christ's example, St. Paul gives us a clear picture of what the relationship of elder to spiritual child means in practical terms. His relationship to the churches he founded is not simply the relationship of teacher to disciple, "For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me." (I Corinthians 4:15-16). St. Paul's birth imagery is significant here, as the relationship of mother to child is transposed onto the spiritual plane. His words also indicate the completely free nature of this relationship: full of love for his spiritual children, and selflessly interested in their spiritual well being, he beseeches them to follow his example. [5] In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul uses similar imagery, "My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you." (Galatians 4:19). As becomes clear from these passages, St. Paul does not see his role as that of a simple teacher who teaches people and then leaves them to their own devices, nor as a psychologist, who tries to provide psychological answers to spiritual questions. He accepts responsibility for his children, identifying himself with them, "Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is offended, and my heart is not ablaze with indignation?" (2 Corinthians 11:29). Bishop Kallistos develops this point a bit further, "He helps his children in Christ precisely because he is willing to share himself with them, identifying his own life with theirs. All this is true also of the spiritual father at a later date. Dostoevsky's description of the starets may be applied exactly to the ministry of Saint Paul: like the elder, the apostle is one who 'takes your soul and your will into his soul and will.'" [6] It is significant here, furthermore, that the elder does not assert his own will upon the spiritual child. On the contrary, he accepts the spiritual child as he is, receiving the child's soul into his own soul. This most basic aspect of this spiritual relationship points to one of the reasons that this ancient ministry is so uncommon, especially today.

The ability the elder has to, "take your soul and your will into his soul and will," is a fruit of his own willingness to empty himself (according to the kenosis Christ teaches by His example on the Cross) and thus make room for others. This self-emptying is not at all superficial, but very much ontological, such that there is a real identification of the elder with the life of his spiritual child. [7] Such a total commitment to other people requires complete self-sacrifice, as well as advancement along the spiritual path. Without experiential knowledge of the spiritual path the elder is practically unable to help others. [8]

When experiential knowledge of the spiritual path is absent, humanity seeks other ways to deal with its spiritual woes. The solution of modern man has been to provide materialistic answers to spiritual problis. Psychology, modern medicine, and so on attempt to heal man; however, detached as they are from genuine Orthodox Christian spiritual life, their attempts to answer the very deep existential problis of contemporary man remain hopelessly ineffectual. The Holy Spirit, abiding in the Church, and guiding Her into all truth (John 16:13) since Pentecost, has taught the Church the ways of spiritual healing, establishing Her as a "spiritual hospital." The elder acts both as this hospital's finest surgeon as well as its chief medical school instructor. [9]

The Wisdom of the Gospel: Key to the Lives and Counsels

Perhaps the most important interpretive key for approaching the lives and counsels presented herein is the realization that they may only be understood according to their own "logic," which is not the logic of this world. This logic, of course, is none other than the wisdom of Christ's life and Gospel teaching. For contemporary man, however, Christ's wisdom is truly difficult to grasp, it is a "hard" saying, and so the lives and teachings of those who have followed, experientially and existentially, the narrow path of Christ will similarly seem difficult to grasp and a "hard" saying. Early on St. Paul understood this opposition between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of Christ,

For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:19-25).

Accepting Christ's message (and the incarnation of this message in the lives of the elders gathered here) is particularly difficult for contemporary people, even faithful Christians, for many of us live most of our lives according to the wisdom of this world and not according to the "foolishness" of the Cross. If one is able at least to understand that a chasm lies between worldly wisdom, and the wisdom of the Gospel, it will make the comprehension of the following lives more realizable. When this shift in vision is realized, it reveals one's poverty of faith, as well as the distance between where one is, and the absolute demands of the Gospel commandments.

For the person who is seeking God the realization of the absolute difference between the wisdom of this world and the wisdom of the Gospel begets repentance. It is significant that the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, means, literally, a "change of mind." This change of mind is a prerequisite for the comprehension of the Gospel, and so it is not surprising that St. John the Baptist began his public ministry with the injunction, "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 3:2). Likewise, Christ began His ministry with the same message, "From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 4:17) That the lives and counsels of the Greek monastic elders contained in this book force the reader to shift to the wisdom of the Gospel testifies to their spiritual ministry as prophets, a ministry that monasticism has always fulfilled. [10]

In the context of the wisdom of the Gospel, those aspects of these lives that surpass human understanding should not shock or scandalize. Christ told His disciples that, "He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do." (John 14:12). The Church in Her wisdom and strength has preserved the witness of those who, in the two thousand years since Christ's coming, have followed faithfully in His steps. The lives of the Saints and the writings of ancient and contemporary Fathers of the Church [11] give unquestionable witness to the riches of God's mercy, and the experience of the action of the Holy Spirit. The lives and sayings contained herein are contemporary witnesses to the truth that the Holy Spirit continues to act and to inspire Christians to live lives fully dedicated to Christ.

It is to witness to this truth that the present book has been compiled. It is this witness that is the most precious aspect of these lives (and not their miraculous aspect, impressive though this may be). One may legitimately object, of course, after reading the lives, that the culture in which these men were raised is significantly different from that in which we live. The testimony we have from the Fathers of the Church, however, is that it is not the place that we live that is most significant, but rather the way that we live. They tell us, furthermore, that there are no circumstances that could prevent us from keeping Christ's commandments, from following the way Christ has shown us. [12] This is also the witness of the Scriptures wherein we understand that the Scriptural injunctions are not dependent on time or place, but are always pertinent and binding on man. [13]

To many, the absolute character of Christ's commandments may seem a heavy burden. Again, however, the wisdom of the Gospel surprises us, as Christ says, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30). [14]

Perhaps more than anything else the lives of the Saints (and of the Greek monastic elders in this book) provide an "interpretation" of Christ's Gospel, "written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshly tables of the heart." (2 Corinthians 3:3). That which is of greatest importance in these lives are not so much the details of each life, but rather the spirit that breathes in them, which shaped them into precious vessels of the Holy Spirit. These lives bear witness to the transformation of man that is possible, when the Christian gives himself wholly over to the will of God. As Elder Sophrony of Essex has written, it is not arbitrary asceticism or the possession of supernatural gifts that constitute genuine Christian spiritual life, but rather obedience to the will of God. Each person has his own capabilities and his own path to tread; the keeping of Christ's commandments, however, remains a constant. Fr. Sophrony also repeatedly insists, following the teaching of his elder, St. Silouan the Athonite, that the truth or falsity of one's path may be measured, not by one's asceticism or spiritual gifts, but by love for one's enemies, by which St. Silouan did not mean a "scornful pity; for him the compassion of a loving heart was an indication of the trueness of the Divine path." [15] In another place Fr. Sophrony develops this point more fully,

There are known instances when Blessed Staretz Silouan in prayer beheld something remote as though it were happening close by; when he saw into someone's future, or when profound secrets of the human soul were revealed to him. There are many people still alive who can bear witness to this in their own case but he himself never aspired to it and never accorded much significance to it. His soul was totally engulfed in compassion for the world. He concentrated himself utterly on prayer for the world, and in his spiritual life prized this love above all else. [16]

Fr. Sophrony's words reveal to us a mystery of the ways of Christian monasticism and eldership: according to the wisdom of this world, the monastic elder's departure from the world seems like an escape from humanity. The reality, however, is that according to the wisdom of the gospel, separation from the world enables those who love God to love the world more than those who live in the world do. It is this paradox that the monastic elder lives, and an explication of which Dr. Georgios Mantzaridis provides in his Foreword. [17]

Endnotes

  1. For a more complete exposition, the reader may want to consult Bishop Kallistos Ware's "The Spiritual Father in Saint John Climacus and Saint Symeon the New Theologian," published in Studia Patristica XV111/2. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications-Leuven: Peeters, 1990. This article may also be found as the Foreword of Irenee Hausherr's Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1990, p. vii-xxxiii, from which we quote. Also, by the same author, "The Spiritual Guide in Orthodox Christianity," published in The Inner Kingdom: Volume One of the Collected Works. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Press, 2000, p. 127-151.
  2. Bishop Kallistos Ware, "The Spiritual Father in Saint John Climacus and Saint Symeon the New Theologian," p. vii.
  3. Kenosis/kenotic : Greek word meaning "self-emptying."
  4. We are not aware of a sufficient study in English that addresses the crucial difference between an ethical and an ontological understanding of Christianity, although it is touched upon in Eugene Rose's (the future Fr. Seraphim Rose) "Christian Love," in Heavenly Realm. Platina, CA: St. Herman Brotherhood, 1984, p. 27-29.
  5. As St. John Chrysostom assures us, "He [St. Paul] is not setting forth his dignity herein, but the excess of his love." [Homily 13, PG 61:111 (col. 109). Translation: Homilies. Found in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. First Series. Edited by Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Vol. XII, 1969 (reprint).]
  6. Bishop Kallistos Ware, ibid., p. viii-ix.
  7. This is the deeper meaning of Christ's second commandment, "Thou shalt love... thy neighbor as thyself." (Luke 10:27). St. Silouan the Athonite taught that this love is not quantitative (i.e., "as much as you love yourself," but qualitative (i.e., "in the same way as you love yourself,") thus emphasizing that the perfection of love for others is realized in one's complete identification with them. Dr. Mantzaridis, in his Foreword, which follows, develops precisely this point. It is only in humanity's identification with Christ and with its neighbor that the true union of mankind is possible.
  8. St. John Climacus explains this necessary aspect of the elder: "A genuine teacher is he who has received from God the tablet of spiritual knowledge, inscribed by His Divine finger, that is, by the in-working of illumination, and who has no need of other books." [Ad Pastorem. PG 88: 1165B. Translation: Archimandrite Lazarus Moore, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Brookline, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1991, p. 231.
  9. It should be noted that this charismatic ministry is not at odds with the ministry of the priest-confessor. On the contrary, both have as their goal the reconciliation of man with God. Although the priest-confessor's ministry of guidance may be hindered by the absence of experiential knowledge of the ways of spiritual growth and healing, he still bears the responsibility and blessing to hear confession, to forgive man his sins, and to reconcile man to God. For more on the Orthodox understanding of the Church as spiritual hospital, see Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos' Orthodox Psychotherapy. Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994.
  10. "And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers...." (1 Corinthians 12:28). This prophetic ministry was central to both the Old and New Testaments. The roots of monasticism lie in this ancient ministry, which is not so much concerned with telling the future (although this aspect of its ministry continues up to the present day), as calling the world to a change of heart, to repentance, so that the world might more easily accept the gospel message.
  11. Fathers of the Church: This term is used in the Orthodox Church to refer to Saints of all times whose teaching has been accepted by the Church as an authentic expression of Her life and faith. Roman Catholics tend to define this term more narrowly, limiting the Fathers to those Saints of the Church who lived during the "golden age" of theology, in the first millennium of Christianity, whose writings played a significant role in the development of the dogmatic expression of the faith.
  12. St. Symeon the New Theologian goes so far as to say that to believe otherwise is heresy, "But the men of whom I speak and whom I call heretics are those who say that there is no one in our times and in our midst who is able to keep the Gospel commandments and become like the holy Fathers." The Discourses. (Translation by C.J. deCatanzaro), Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980, p. 312. See also, Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov, St. Silouan the Athonite. Essex, England: Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, 1991, p. 242-243.
  13. See, Matthew 5:18, 24:35, Mark 13:31, Luke 21:33, etc.
  14. St. John Chrysostom interprets this passage precisely within the framework we have discussed, in relation to man's attempt to be faithful to Christ's commandments, "But if virtue seems a difficult thing, consider that vice is more difficult.... Sin too has labor, and a burden that is heavy and hard to bear.... For nothing so weighs upon the soul, and presses it down, as consciousness of sin; nothing so gives it wings, and raises it on high, as the attainment of righteousness and virtue.... If we pursue such a philosophy, all these things are light, easy, and pleasurable.... Virtue's yoke is sweet and light." [Homily 38, PG 57: 428-431 (cols. 431-434). Translation: Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew. Found in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. First Series. Translated by Rev. Sir George Prevost, Barontet, M.A., Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D. Edited and revised, with notes by Rev. M. B. Riddle, D.D. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Vol. X, 1975].
  15. Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov, St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 228.
  16. Ibid., p.130.
  17. One final note on the application of the spiritual principles found in this book to one's own life; as with all aspects of the spiritual life, spiritual guidance is a necessary prerequisite for spiritual growth.

Order from Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit (Protecting Veil Press, 2003).