Spiritual direction in the Orthodox Christian tradition.
Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right. For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong" (Theophan the Recluse, trans. 1966, p. 51).
The center of the Orthodox Christian life is communion with God, and the essential characteristic of a life lived with God is prayer. But how do we learn to pray? Jesus' disciples came to him asking that question and received instruction in the form of what is now called the Lord's Prayer. Through the centuries Christians have sought God. And they have learned to find Him by turning to those who themselves had drawn near to the "consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29). In this essay we will look at the practice of spiritual direction, the leading of a disciple to God, in the Orthodox Christian tradition. The history, theology, and practice of Orthodox spiritual direction will be examined in detail. In addition, we will briefly consider the relationship of modern psychotherapeutic methods and the traditional conception of spiritual direction in the Orthodox tradition, noting especially circumstances under which the Orthodox spiritual director would consider referring a seeker to a mental health professional. Finally, we will recommend two books for further study.
WHAT IS SPIRITUAL DIRECTION IN THE ORTHODOX TRADITION?
The spirituality of the Orthodox Church centers on the healing of the soul, the restoration and fulfillment of the image and likeness of God in the human person who, in the process, grows into a relationship with God, which is ultimately so intimate that it can only be described as union. Spiritual direction in the Orthodox tradition, then, involves leading a person through the process of healing the heart and into an ever-deepening relationship with God. This process occurs in a sacramental and corporate context as well as in a personal one-on-one relationship with a spiritual guide.
In the modern world it is easy to think of spirituality as purely an individual concern. A practice is said to be spiritual if it brings one into some consciousness of a transcendent reality, a higher level of ethical awareness and practice, or even some kind of new age mystical experience expanding the boundaries of love and brotherhood. It is even defined in terms of an individual's psychological adjustment, whether to the traumas of one's own background or to the environment in which one lives.
In the Orthodox tradition, the individual experience of God, which is certainly to be sought, is grounded in the sacramental and corporate life of the church. Orthodoxy takes seriously the mystical union of Christians in the body of Christ, and sees the sacraments as the fundamental foundation of the spiritual life. Thus, in the Orthodox tradition the spiritual development of a person begins with baptism, continues in the experience of Eucharistic communion, is advanced and renewed by the sacrament of confession, and then further developed by specific guidance from an experienced spiritual director. It is fostered and nurtured by the corporate liturgical experience, shaped by the seasons of fasting and feasting in the liturgical calendar, and built by the common ascetical disciplines of traditional Orthodox piety. The first spiritual director is the priest who brings the realities of the sacraments and the teaching of the church into the experience of the Orthodox Christian.
The priest also is the first personal director for the Orthodox Christian, most notably in the sacrament of confession. Confession is seen as an indispensable means for making new the grace of forgiveness, providing an opportunity for the penitent to find direction in order to overcome the passions and sins, which so easily beset the believer. The emphasis is not on the legal aspects of sin, but on the healing of the heart that has been damaged by sin. St. James says, "Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed" Games 5:16a). The priest who hears confession aids in the healing of the soul.
Spiritual direction, however, goes beyond the confines of the sacrament and may be given by laity. The key is that the director be among those who have been illumined by the Spirit of God. The one who has come to know God, who has wrestled with the passions and put on virtue, is the one from whom direction may be profitably received.
In the Orthodox tradition, the director has been seen as father, one who gives birth to the life of the Spirit in his spiritual child. For the monk or the nun, this means obedience and submission to one who has traveled the road on which one wants to journey. It means revealing to someone what is transpiring in the depths of one's heart, and accepting correction and discipline from him for the sake of the salvation of one's soul. For the layperson, the principle is the same. All are called to prayer and to transformation into the likeness of Christ, to "acquire the Holy Spirit" in the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov (Fedotov, 1948, p. 267). So, the Orthodox Christian is encouraged to find a confessor, to find an experienced teacher to show her the path. The relationship is personal and will be characterized by the uniqueness of the two individuals involved and the stage of the spiritual development of each.
Unlike the approaches of some other Christian traditions, there is not really an egalitarian quality to traditional Orthodox spiritual direction. While the spiritual father may indeed be a "friend," most of the time it involves an elder giving counsel, advice, correction, and teaching to a spiritual disciple. The exception would be in a situation in which there was no experienced guide available. In that case, brothers (or sisters) may submit themselves to each other, cutting off self-will, give themselves to prayer, steep themselves in the scriptures, enter fully into the liturgical tradition of the church, and study diligently the spiritual writings of the fathers of the church. In that case, God Himself becomes their director.
One final note, the use of the term "father" does not exclude women from being spiritual directors. There are several notable "ammas" (mothers) among the Desert Fathers. The primary qualification to be a spiritual director is simply the knowledge of God.
HISTORY OF THE PRACTICE OF SPIRITUAL DIRECTION IN THE ORTHODOX TRADITION
The early history of the practice of spiritual direction is evidenced in the New Testament. St. John the Baptist is often considered the model for those who would later enter the monastic life. His withdrawal to the desert, his ascetic discipline, his call to repentance, his instruction about how to live a godly life, his humility, and his pointing to Christ as the one who brings the presence of God to the world, all show elements of Christian spiritual direction. The one who would give spiritual direction must first be the one who has experienced the path down which he is leading others.
John the Baptist spent years in prayer and ascetic self-discipline, giving an authenticity to the message he proclaimed. His humility, recognizing that he is simply the servant of God who points the way, willing to fade into the background when the true Master comes, is the same virtue needed by the spiritual guide whose goal is to lead those who come to him to God. Those who came to John the Baptist confessed their sins, being baptized to demonstrate the repentance of their hearts (Matthew 3:6, Mark 1:5). In Luke's account, when those who came to John asked for specific instruction as to how they could live in accordance with the repentance they were professing, he gave specific instructions to each depending upon their personal station in life, whether soldiers, tax collectors, or ordinary people (Luke 3:10-14).
St. Paul also points to the unique relationship between a spiritual guide (father) and his spiritual children. "For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me' (1 Corinthians 4:15-16). Here the relationship involves more than just the actual teaching of the gospel. It includes the imitation of the life and character of the spiritual father.
St. Paul further amplifies this: "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you" (1 Corinthians 11:1-2). The spiritual father is to know Christ and follow him; the disciple (or spiritual child) can know Christ by following the example and teaching of the spiritual father. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews echoes this theme, calling on the believer to remember the conduct of their leaders and obey them, knowing they will give an account to God for their souls (Hebrews 13:7, 17). St. Peter exhorts the spiritual elders to lead by being a willing example to the flock, knowing that they are accountable to the "Chief Shepherd" (1 Peter 5:2-4).
In the post-Apostolic era, spiritual direction most frequently came in the context of confession or penance. Often this was formal, done in a public context. Sin was seen to separate the individual from communion with the church; restoration was a readmission to the Eucharistic community, a reconciliation with God and with the church. Some early teachers, including the Shepherd of Hermas and Tertullian, indicate that this formal reconciliation is like a second baptism, which cannot be repeated (Jurgens, 1970; Sparks, 1978). Presumably, such a public confession and the restriction to a single repentance was applied to serious sins, those for which excommunication was an appropriate response. Tertullian indicates that the public contrition included prostrations, fasting, prayer, tears, sackcloth and ashes, confession and asking forgiveness in public. In time, the act of confession was made to a priest who represented the community and not to the community as a whole. The priest would prescribe suitable penance and the formal reconciliation with the church would be done publicly by the bishop.
In the first three centuries of Christianity, the serious possibility of martyrdom and persecution, along with the potential severity of the discipline of the church, kept the moral standards of the community at a relatively high level. Following the Edict of Toleration issued by Constantine in 313, the church experienced an influx of members and a position in the empire that resulted in a perceived laxity of standards. The desire to make the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom now led to the "giving of one's blood" in asceticism and self-discipline. Many serious Christian seekers withdrew to the desert to seek God and to endeavor to become holy. It is in this monastic context that the flowering of the methodology of Orthodox spiritual direction and the deepening of the Orthodox understanding of the nature of the process of spiritual growth and development took place.
Spiritual direction in the desert was charismatic. One who was seeking holiness would go into the desert to find an experienced spiritual guide to lead one on the path to God. One established a personal relationship with an "abba" or an "amma" (i.e., a spiritual father or mother) and would submit to their instruction and direction. The paragon of the eremitic (solitary) monastic director is St. Anthony the Great (d. 356 AD). In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Anonymous, trans. 1984), Anthony describes the essentiality of spiritual direction for the health of the soul:
He also said, "Nine monks fell away after many labors and were obsessed with spiritual pride, for they put their trust in their own works and being deceived they did not give due heed to the commandment that says, Ask your father and he will tell you" (Deut. 32:7). And he said this, "If he is able to, a monk ought to tell his elders confidently how many steps he rakes and how many drops of water he drinks in his cell, in case he is in error about it." (Anonymous, trans. 1984, pp. 8-9)
Obedience to a spiritual father keeps the monk from pride and self-will, keeping his steps (almost literally) ordered to the Lord.
Often the spiritual disciple would initiate the direction by asking for a word of guidance. These words would be sparing, incisive, and to be applied personally. The monks believed these words to be life-giving, directions that would be seen as coming from God. They were not dialogues or opportunities for debate. Should they be heeded they would bring about the desired result of holiness of life and communion with God. The topics focused upon the cultivation of virtue, the defeat of the passions, the building of a life of prayer. There was a variance in the pattern depending on the relationship of the spiritual father and disciple. Sometimes the exchanges would be frequent, sometimes infrequent, even scattered across many years. The goal always, though, was the transformation of the monk, to enable him to participate in the energies of God.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, "Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?" Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, "If you will, you can become all flame." (Anonymous, trans. 1984, p. 103)
Another type of monastic experience was cenobitic. This was for monks who were called to live the ascetic life, but who lived it in a community setting with other monks. The belief was that the challenge of daily life with others helps to cut off the self-will of the monk and teach them to love others, not to judge others, and to gain control of the passions. The head of the monastery, the abbot or hegumen, would act as spiritual director for the monks. In some monasteries the abbot would set aside time each day, sometimes during the services, when the monks would approach him and reveal their thoughts, temptations, and struggles. He would then give them direction according to their spiritual need.
In the context of cenobitic monasticism, the classic work on spiritual direction is St. John of the Ladder's essay To the Shepherd, sometimes published as Step 31 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent (Climacus, trans. 1991). John of the Ladder (known in the West as John Climacus) lived in the monastery on Mt. Sinai during the seventh century. Sr. John notes that the spiritual guide must be one who has experienced the reality of God and has been transformed himself by the Holy Spirit. "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. It is as unseemly for teachers to give instruction from notes taken from other men's writings, as it is for painters to take inspiration from other men's compositions" (Climacus, trans. 1991, p. 231).
The experienced guide, secondly, must know the ability, state of advancement, and need of each of his charges. One medicine does not work for all. St. John portrays the good abbot in the midst of the church directing his flock according to their individual needs.
After the completion of the evening prayers, one could behold that great man sitting upon his throne (fashioned outwardly of woven boughs and inwardly of spiritual gifts) like some king whom his good synodia and company encircled like wise bees, attending to his words and commands as though they were God's. One man he would order to recite fifty psalms by heart before sleep, another thirty, another one hundred, and another man he would have make so many prostrations. He would order one to sleep in a sitting position, another to read a certain period of time, and yet another to stand for a given period of prayer. ... Moreover, the great one also assigned to each a particular rule of eating, for the diet was not the same, or similar for all. With a view to the state of each, he selected what was suitable. ... And the wonder was that his command was carried out without murmuring, as though it came from the mouth of God. (Climacus, trans. 1991, pp. 245-246)
Thus far we have been looking at spiritual direction in the monastic context. One should note, however, that spiritual growth and experience was not limited to that state of life, though it was believed that as a monk one could transcend the limitations and temptations created by living in the world. The goal is the same as in the monastic context, to bring the people to virtue and to the knowledge of God. The priest functions as did the spiritual father in the monastery, but without the intensity of the relationship. The layman was not asked to make vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, nor to devote all of his time and effort to prayer and ascetic labor. But the expectation was that every Christian should make progress according to his ability and station in life. The role of the priest was to facilitate that healing process.
One of the chief means for applying the principles of spiritual growth for the layman was in the context of the sacrament of confession. Sometimes the penitent would go to the monasteries to make confession to a spiritual father, sometimes to the parish priest. By the tenth century, the text of an order of confession to be used in the churches was published. Included in this order were prayers of preparation, the reading of Psalm 51, an examination of conscience, and the opportunity for the priest to ask specific questions of the penitent. The questions were personal and specific, according to the leading of the Spirit and the knowledge and experience of the priest. The emphasis in the sacrament was not on the legal aspect, the forgiveness of sins alone or on the merits of a penance, but on the healing of the soul through the prayers of the priest and the grace of the Holy Spirit. By going inward, and seeing his sins, the penitent is lead upward to God. The priest is not a judge, but a fellow sinner, coming t o God in solidarity with his spiritual child.
Throughout the next few centuries, the monasteries remained a fruitful source of spiritual wisdom.
The spiritual literature developed with the writings of St. Gregory Palamas (14th century) which focused on the doctrine of deification and the hesychastic method of prayer (i.e., the tradition surrounding the use of the Jesus Prayer). Palamas's teaching forms the foundation of modern Orthodox spirituality. During the Byzantine period there are also some records of correspondence between lay persons and monks, but not any that are greatly detailed.
One of the most important literary events in the history of Orthodox spirituality was the publication in 1782 of The Philokalia, a five volume collection of writings from patristic sources on the spiritual life. Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth and published originally in Greek, they were translated into Slavonic and then into Russian by St. Paisius Velichkovsky (four volumes of these works are now available in English; Nikodimos & Makarios, trans. 1995). These books became a fruitful source of for spiritual enrichment both for lay persons and for monks in the Orthodox world. They are mentioned specifically in The Way of a Pilgrim (Anonymous, 1965), an anonymous book describing the spiritual journey of a Russian peasant in the mid-nineteenth century.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw a flowering of Russian Orthodox monastic spirituality. St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (1724-1783) was the first great Russian staretz (elder), and his legacy was influential for centuries through the elders of Optina monastery. The office of staretz is not an official one. Rather, it has a spiritual authority that arises from the experience of the elder himself. It can be recognized, it cannot be given. Those who come to him believe that they will see God through the elder. One great staretz, St. Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), spent thirty years praying in solitude in the Russian forest, then returned to the monastery to make himself available for spiritual direction to all who would come. In a conversation with Nicholas Motovilov, Seraphim explained the goal of Christian life. "Prayer, fasting, watching, and all other Christian acts, however good they may be, do not alone constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this aim. The true aim of our Christian life, is to acquire the Holy Spirit of God" (Fedotov, 1948, p. 267). Toward the end of the conversation, as Motovilov was struggling to understand fully what Seraphim means by acquiring the Holy Spirit, he found himself unable to look at Seraphim. Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: "We are both together, son, in the Spirit of God! Why do you not look on me?" I replied: "I cannot look, father, because lightning flashes from your eyes. Your face is brighter than the sun and my eyes ache in pain!" Father Seraphim said: "Fear not, my son; you too have become as bright as I. You too are now in the fullness of God's Spirit; otherwise you would not be able to look on me as I am." (Fedotov, 1948, p. 274)
The great hermit and ascetic was illumined, and so was the spiritual son, the layman.
Seeking this Spirit, over the past two centuries, many Orthodox believers have sought a spiritual guide. There are extant some important and inspiring letters of direction from St. Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) to spiritual seekers, lilustrating this search (Theophan the Recluse, trans. 1995). Some have entered the monasteries, but many more have looked for someone like St. Seraphim to teach them the way to a transfigured life. Perhaps the expectation cannot be fulfilled; there are not many like him. But the Spirit of God still rests on his people, His voice still speaks though his humble servants, and God Himself leads them.
THE PROCESS OF SPIRITUAL TRANSFORMATION IN ORTHODOX THEOLOGY
One of the most striking differences between Orthodoxy and most of Western Christianity concerns their respective views of salvation. At the risk of oversimplification, Protestants generally define salvation in legal, juridical, or forensic terms. Christ's death pays the just penalty for man's sin. We receive salvation (forgiveness of sins) by virtue of our faith in His meritorious sacrifice on our behalf. While not denying the sacrificial aspect of salvation, Orthodoxy sees salvation as transformation, as the fulfillment of the image of God in humankind. The word used by the Fathers of the Church to describe this process was theosis, or deification.
The scriptures affirm that in the beginning man was made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27). With the fall of Adam and Eve, the original communion between God and man was broken. For Orthodox, the fall resulted not merely in a legal penalty of death for breaking a law or rule, but in true spiritual death because the union of man with the Source of Life was broken. The "nous" or "heart" of man was darkened. By "nous" is meant more than simply "mind." It is the central organizing faculty of the human personality, that which is beyond both the discursive reason and the affective nature. The central core of man's being was separated from its original union with God, thus made unable to fulfill the purpose for which it was created.
If humankind is to be what God intended in the creation, there must be a restoration of communion between God and man and the transformation of fallen humanity again into fullness of the image and likeness of God. The incarnation of the Word of God was the supreme act of restoration of the image of God in man. St. Irenaeus of Lyons encourages his readers to "follow the only true and reliable Teacher, the Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, who, on account of His great love, became what we are, so that He might bring us to be what He Himself is" (Jurgens, 1970, p. 248). St. Athanasius boldly puts it like this: "He became man so that we might be made God" (Jurgens, 1970, p. 342). In Christ we see God as He is (John 14:9; Colossians 1:15), and we see humanity as it was intended to be. Christ's death and resurrection bring further restoration to human nature, overcoming the final enemy, death itself. In Christ, human nature is restored to permanent communion with God.
Orthodox Christians believe this transformation of human nature is something in which the believer in Christ participates, beginning in baptism. Those who have been baptized into Christ have "put on Christ" (Galatians 2:27), have been united with Him in the likeness of His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-6), and have been "born again" in the water and the Spirit (John 3:5). Through baptism, we are brought sacramentally into an ontological union with Christ. As the incarnate Son of God draws life from the Father, so those in union with him participate in his life-giving energies (John 15:1-8).
This union is especially nourished through the sacrament of the Eucharist. Jesus says that "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him" (John 6:56). Orthodox Christians believe that in the Eucharist we are feeding in a mystery on the glorified human nature of Christ. Thus, we who eat are also transfigured and transformed.
This transformation, however, is not immediate in its effects, nor does it occur without continuing effort on our part. We must be renewed day by day, putting off the sins that so easily beset us and putting on virtues befitting the calling to which we have been called. Most importantly, we must drink of that Holy Spirit, allowing ourselves to be "transformed by the renewing of [our] mind," being made to conform to the image of God (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18).
Orthodox teachers have identified three stages in the process of transformation. Different theologians use different names for the three stages, but there is a general consistency of understanding as to what happens in each of these stages of spiritual development (Vlachos, 1994b). For this essay we will use the terms purification, illumination, and union for these stages.
Two things should be noted here. First, even though we use the term stages, they are not to be thought of as chronological in the sense where we complete one and move to another, never to repeat it. One goes through these stages and back again, accomplishing a level of virtue and communion with God, then falling again into sin or forgetfulness, then advancing further in virtue. The wrestling goes on even to our last breath. The process might be imagined as an ascending spiral, generally moving one "from glory to glory," going over the same ground at a higher level (2 Corinthians 3:18). Second, none of this is accomplished by human effort alone. Everything is done by the grace of God. Indeed the goal of the whole process is to be utterly transformed by the grace of God, to become, in Gregory Palamas's memorable phrase, by grace what He is by nature (Meyendorff, 1974, p. 175). As Longinus, one of the desert fathers said, "Give blood, and receive the Holy Spirit" (Anonymous, trans. 1984, p. 123).
The first stage, purification, begins with metanoia (repentance). Repentance is much more than remorse for one's sins. It is a "change of mind," a radical reorientation of the whole life toward God. The seeker battles, with the grace of God, against the passions, the habit patterns of sin within the human body and soul that corrupt human nature. Some writers, notably Evagrius and most Greeks, consider the passions as a "disease" in the soul, a disordered impulse, such as anger, jealousy, or lust. Others, such as John of the Ladder, and Gregory Palamas, consider the passions as impulses or instincts originally created by God that have been misused. For the former, the passions are to be mortified, combated until the believer has reached a state of dispassion (apatheia, in the phrase of Evagnus). For the latter, the passions are to be transformed, to be focused into the service of God. The seeker is to use ascetic discipline to cooperate with the grace of God in gaining control of the passions. These ascetic di sciplines include fasting, prayer, obedience to a spiritual guide, and almsgiving. Dispassion is not thought of as a mere negative state, the absence of feeling. It is "the replacing of our sinful desires by a new and better energy from God. It is a state of reintegration and spiritual freedom" (Ware, 1989, P. 398). Being freed from passions, such as lust, we are free to love, to express the fullness of the energies of God.
Another aspect of the purification of the heart is the struggle against the thoughts (logismoi) that ultimately develop into passions. This struggle should begin when the thoughts first emerge in the consciousness, before they issue forth into outward actions and take root as passions. The pattern of which to be aware is as follows: sinful thought (i.e., a momentary disturbance of the intellect), "coupling" with the thought (i.e., considering acting on it), assent, action, and the development of a sinful passion. The earlier in the process one is able to gain control of the thought, the better. Evagrius noted eight basic evil thoughts: gluttony, lust, avarice, dejection, anger, despondency or listlessness, vainglory, and pride. By keeping watch over one's heart one acquires watchfulness and discernment. One is able to detect the thoughts, to discriminate between good thoughts and evil thoughts, and to guard the heart by rejecting evil thoughts. This wrestling should be accompanied by grief, sorrow for one's s ins, and the gift of tears (Climacus, trans. 1991; Ware, 1989).
Purification also has a positive aspect to it, the putting on of virtues and the development of communion with God. The cardinal virtues to develop are faith, hope, love, and humility. By faith one draws near to God, endures hardships and tribulation, and obeys the commandments of Christ and of one's spiritual guide. Hope looks toward the completion of the whole process of salvation, and does not disappoint (Romans 5:5). For some of the Fathers (e.g., Maximos the Confessor and St. Simeon the New Theologian) love is the highest virtue and the expression of union with God. "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him" (1 John 4:16b). Purifying the heart will lead to an abundance of love for God, for His creation, and for one's brethren. Humility is also seen as a fountain of other virtues. "The remedy for all the passions ... is humility. Those who possess that virtue have won the whole battle" (Climacus, trans. 1982, p. 236). Without humility, one is unable to see one's sin, unable to repent and, therefore, unable to be purified, illumined, and deified. Humility is built by denying one's own will and submitting to the direction of one's spiritual father. "Humility can come only when you have learned to practice obedience. When a man has a self-taught skill, he may start having high notions of himself" (p. 239).
The second stage of spiritual development is illumination. One begins to experience dispassion, and grows through contemplation of the mysteries of God revealed in this world. One begins "to see God in all things and all things in God--to discern, in and through each created reality, the divine presence that is within it and at the same time beyond" (Ware, 1989, p. 398). So, one contemplates the glory of God in nature, meditates upon the meaning of the scriptures, and nurtures prayer in the heart. In the Orthodox tradition, the key practice of this stage is the development of constant, unceasing prayer in the heart. The usual method is to practice the Jesus Prayer. This is a brief prayer, which is repeated over and over throughout the course of the day. The prayer in its usual form is "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." Sometimes the phrase "the sinner" is added to the end of the prayer. This may be said according to one of two patterns. One may concentrate one's heart and attention and say the prayer thoughtfully to the exclusion of any other activity. For those in the monastic life this is possible for extended periods of time. For those, however, who have to carry out the responsibilities of everyday life this may be impractical. So the prayer would then be said as frequently as possible, leading ideally to a state of unceasing inner prayer.
The final stage of spiritual development is union with God. Ultimately, this state will be the experience of all believers in heaven (1 John 3:2). This is a state of mystical union, one where consciousness of the act of prayer and even the words themselves have fallen away. All that remains is a union of love between God and the deified human soul. St. Isaac the Syrian said, "When we have reached love we have reached God and our journey is at an end" (Ware, 1989, p. 402). The light of transfiguration that was seen in Christ on the mountain is now shared with us. St. Nikitas Stithatos, a disciple of St. Simeon the New Theologian, describes this well:
Deification in this present life is the spiritual and truly sacred rite in which the Logos of unutterable wisdom makes Himself a sacred offering and gives Himself, so far as is possible, to those who have prepared themselves... In this way all of them, joined together in the union of love, are unceasingly united with the one God; and God. ... abides in the midst of gods (cf. Ps. 82:1, LXX), God by nature among gods by adoption. (Stithatos, 1995, p. 148)
This experience will never end, though it may last only a time on the earth.
Orthodox spirituality knows no fundamental distinction between the monk and the lay person, at least in terms of the nature of the process of salvation. All are called to purification, illumination, and ultimate union with God. All are called to be transformed, to acquire the Holy Spirit, to become partakers of the divine nature. All are called to pray. The station of life may be different, the challenges may be different, but the goal is the same: the healing of the human soul and the restoration and fulfillment of the image of God in man.
THE ROLE OF THE SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR IN THE ORTHODOX TRADITION
In the monastic context, there are few roles more important than that of the spiritual father. St. Theodore the Studite asks, "What is more to be desired than a true father--a father-in-God?" (Ware, 1990, p. vii). St. Simeon the New Theologian urges his hearers: "Brother, constantly call on God, that he may show you a man who is able to direct you well, one whom you ought to obey as though he were God Himself, whose instruction you must carry out without hesitation, even if what he enjoins on you appears to you to be repugnant and harmful" (Symeon the New Theologian, trans. 1980, p. 232).
What role did the spiritual father (or mother) play in the life of his/her spiritual children? Bishop Kallistos Ware (1990) notes five basic roles of the spiritual father: doctor, counselor, intercessor, mediator, and sponsor.
First, the spiritual father was a doctor, one who is to bring healing to the soul that has been sickened and injured by its sinful separation from God. St. John of the Ladder says that the shepherd is to acquire spiritual medicines and instruments to use in healing the souls of his charges. "A plaster is a cure for visible, that is, bodily passions. A potion is a cure for inner passion and a draining of invisible uncleanness.... An eye salve is a caustic chastisement which speedily brings healing" (Climacus, trans. 1991, p. 232). The spiritual guide, therefore, must be able to accurately diagnose the spiritual ills of his disciples and to effectively prescribe remedies that will bring about their cure. One of the chief ways to be healed is to confess one's sins to one's spiritual guide, and frequently, for "a fresh, warm wound is easier to heal than those that are old, neglected, festering, and in need of extensive treatment, surgery, bandaging, and cauterization. Long neglect can render many of them incurabl e. However, all things are possible with God" (Climacus, trans. 1982, p. 130). Confession is not a legalistic recital of sins, nor a simple seeking of absolution, but an appeal to God for transformation and renewal. In the Orthodox tradition, confession is both sacramental (made before a priest who by virtue of the grace of ordination prays for and restores the penitent) and personal. One's confessor could be a layman, according to St. Simeon the New Theologian, provided that he had experienced directly the grace of the Holy Spirit in his life. Generally, the non-priestly confessor would also point the penitent to the priest for the sacrament as well.
The spiritual father is also a counselor. By this we should not understand the modern sense of counseling as listening in a non-judgmental fashion and non-directively to the one who comes to the guide. The spiritual guide was to teach and advise, to answer specific questions and give specific directions as to how one was to live one's life. The teaching may be verbal ("Speak a word to me, father"), or it may be in silence, or simply in the example of the conduct of one's life. Another aspect of this counsel had to do with the disclosure of thoughts. As we noted earlier, the mastery of the passions and the purification of the nous require that the thoughts, whether good or evil, be recognized and controlled. To further this process the monk was encouraged to reveal to his spiritual father everything that happened in his mind. "Indeed, you should also confess the thoughts of your heart to your spiritual father every hour, if possible. But if not, do not put if off till evening, but after the morning office exam ine yourself and confess all that has befallen you" (Simeon the New Theologian, 1980, p. 283). In this way the young ascetic learned to know himself, to discern the nature of his thoughts, the process of controlling them, and developed the quietness of spirit requisite for true prayer. This was never done under constraint, but in an atmosphere of mutual trust and faith.
One of the most important roles of the spiritual father is that of an intercessor. To lead one's charges to God, one must pray for them. St. John of the Ladder says, "A shepherd is preeminently he that is able to seek out and set aright his lost, rational sheep by means of guilelessness, zeal, and prayer [italics added]" (Climacus, trans. 1991, p. 231). This, of course, grows out of the general obligation that Christians have to pray for one another. But the spiritual father is especially interested in bringing the grace of God to bear upon the life of his spiritual children. Intercessory prayer is the direct invocation of the power of God upon them. The disciple would often ask the guide, when asking for advice, to also pray for him. The prayers of the fathers follow the disciples everywhere and protect them from harm and temptation. The prayers of the spiritual guide are powerful. St. Simeon attributes all of his spiritual accomplishment to the prayers of his spiritual father (St. Simeon the New Theologian , 1980, pp. 245246). But this does not excuse the seeker from praying on his own behalf. Negligence on behalf of the disciple can interfere with the efficacy of the prayers of the spiritual guide. And, because of the communion of the saints, the prayer of the spiritual father on one's behalf can continue even after death.
The spiritual guide is also a mediator between God and the seeker. Of course, in the ultimate sense there is one mediator between God and man, the incarnate Word of God, Christ Himself. But if we are to learn how to draw near to God, the fathers believed that we need the aid of one who knows God to show us the way. The Ladder of Divine Ascent is instructive in this regard:
Those of us who wish to get away from Egypt, to escape from Pharaoh, need some Moses to be our intermediary with God, to stand between action and contemplation, and stretch out his arms to God, that those led by him may cross the sea of sin and put to flight the Amalek of the passions. Those who have given themselves up to God but imagine that they can go forward without a leader are surely deceiving themselves. (Climacus, cus, trans. 1982, p. 75)
To be a mediator first means that the spiritual guide knows and has experienced God himself. This points to the single most important qualification of the spiritual guide: the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. St. Simeon says, "Do not seek to be mediators on behalf of others until you have yourselves been filled with the Holy Spirit, and until you have come to know the King of all through the conscious experience of your soul" (Ware, 1990, pp. xix-xx). The spiritual guide must have practiced the ascetic disciplines, brought the passions under control, and advanced to the vision of God. Thus he is able to lead his spiritual children to that exalted relationship.
The spiritual guide is also to be a sponsor for his spiritual children. The word sponsor is reminiscent in Orthodox practice of those who present a person for baptism. The sponsor takes responsibility for the newly illumined before God, committing himself or herself to make sure that progress is made in the spiritual life. As sponsor, the spiritual guide takes responsibility for his spiritual children. The spiritual guide, further, is to help the seeker carry part of his spiritual burden. This can take several forms. The spiritual guide can patiently listen to the struggles of his disciple, giving counsel, support, and correction, even when it becomes burdensome. The spiritual guide can even take to himself a portion of the penance for sin. According to St. Gregory the Theologian, "The norm of all spiritual direction is to always neglect one's own interest for the profit of others" (Hausherr, 1990, p. 142). The spiritual guide is called upon to manifest the sacrificial love of Christ for his disciples, to bea r their burdens with them, and "lay down one's life for his friends" (John 14:13).
What we have said in this section has been focused upon the practice of spiritual direction in the monastic context. Is there a difference between that arena of life and that of the ordinary lay person, living in the world and trying to find salvation? At root, in the Orthodox understanding there is only one spiritual life, one that is to lead to the healing of the soul through the stages of purification, illumination, and union. If spiritual direction is essential in the monastic calling, it would make sense that it would be necessary at some level for all. In the modern Orthodox context, the lay person will often have recourse to the monasteries to find spiritual direction appropriate for their lives. That, of course, presumes that there is a lively and genuine monastic life available, one that has indeed transformed the lives of those who would give direction. The first level of spiritual direction is still the priest, the confessor and provider of the sacraments. Ideally, he will be able to instruct the p enitent in the way of salvation. By faith and the grace of God, all can find someone to point the way to heaven. Though it is far from ideal, we can even learn from those who are just a step or two ahead of us on the path, drinking from the well of the Fathers of the church, and trusting the Holy Spirit to guide us.
INDICATORS OF MATURE SPIRITUALITY
What is spiritual maturity? St. Paul sets the goal very high, perfection, the "measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13). To become by grace what He is by nature. St. Nikitas Stithatos says that the "sign of perfection" is "the unerring knowledge of God," from which flows superior wisdom, foresight, visions, and knowledge. From knowledge of God comes ecstasy of mind and longing for the vision of God (Hausherr, 1990, p. 43). The process of growth in Christ is unending. It will take us until our last breath, indeed, even into eternity to become fully what He wants us to be. Still, there are certain indicators that will appear in one s heart and life as one grows from glory to glory.
One of the key indicators of spiritual maturity in the Orthodox tradition is dispassion. Dispassion, according to St. John of the Ladder is "the health of the soul." When one is dispassionate one has overcome the passions, transforming them into instruments of the love and power of God. "Impassability does not consist is mortifying the passionate part of the soul, but in removing it from evil to good, and directing its energies towards divine things ... and the impassable man is one who no longer possesses any evil dispositions, but is rich in good ones, who is marked by the virtues, as men of passion are marked by evil pleasures" (Palamas, trans. 1983, P. 54). Dispassion is to unite the mind (nous) to God through contemplation and prayer, and to place the illumined mind as a ruler over the soul, with the appetitive part (desire) embracing love, with the incensive part (the emotions) practicing patience. The person close to dispassion is freed from attachment to the material things of this world "and is wholl y absorbed in the spiritual things of God" (Vlachos, 1994a, p. 302).
Growth in virtue is also an indicator of mature spirituality. We have earlier noted humility, faith, hope, and love as characteristics of the illumined heart. The flowering of these virtues is an indication of spiritual maturation. Of course, the greatest of these virtues is love. The closer one gets to God, who is love, the more one's heart will be filled with love for God and for one's neighbor. The one who truly loves will not judge his brother, will love the righteous and the sinner with the same divine love, and will have compassion on the weak. He will harbor no rancor toward the one who has injured him, he suffers and prays for his neighbor. He will provide materially as he is able for the poor and needy, and will sacrifice his own benefit for that of others.
Another indicator of mature spirituality is how one endures suffering. Suffering will come, a guarantee of life in this world. St. Theophan the Recluse says, "There is but one road to the kingdom of God--a cross, voluntary or involuntary" (Igumen Chariton of Valaam, trans. 1966, p. 231). This cross trains our will, enables us to yield our hearts and lives into the hands of our loving God. The one who bears sufferings with patience, even with joy, as St. Paul indicates (Romans 5:3), is one who is being trained by the Holy Spirit. St. Theophan the Recluse believed that bearing suffering with faith can be as effective at building humility as having a spiritual guide. "For in such instances it is God Himself who acts as director, and He is certainly wiser than man" (p. 231).
The final indicator of spiritual maturity that we will mention is inner peace. A person who has vanquished the passions, who has faith in Christ, who rejoices in tribulation, who is filled with godly sorrow and repentance, yet knows the forgiveness of God, whose heart is lifted up continually in prayer to God will know peace, the "peace which passes all understanding." St. Seraphim of Sarov said, "Acquire the spirit of peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation" (Moore, 1994, p. 126). This peace is nor absence of turmoil around, iris calmness and quietness within. "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). The one who is still, who has quieted the raging of the passions, who has communion with God within, who is mature, knows peace.
CONTRAST TO TRADITIONAL PSYCHOTHERAPY
Orthodox spiritual direction is quite different than traditional psychotherapy. To begin with, Orthodox teaching rests on a different foundation than many of the perspectives used by modern psychologists. At the risk of over-simplification, psychology is anthropocentric; Orthodox spiritual direction is theocentric. The goals are different, the view of the fundamental problems are different, and the methods are different.
First, let us look at goals. Depending on the school of psychological thought and the problem presented by the patient, the goal of therapy could be to help one adjust to the circumstances of life, to find release from feelings of guilt, to obviate a psychological disturbance of the emotions or personality, to modify behavior, or to help the patient feel a sense of love, worth, and purpose.
Now, these may actually be worthy proximate goals, but they fall short of what Orthodox spiritual direction envisions as a successful conclusion to the therapeutic process. The goal of the Orthodox therapeutic process is deification, the transformation of the human person into the fullness of the image and likeness of God that is possible for created beings. In Orthodox thinking the soul is ill because it has been darkened through separation from God. Healing comes from purifying the soul of its corruption through repentance, ascetic discipline, and the grace of God. Some schools of psychological thought (e.g., Freudian and Skinnerian) would simply reject the idea of trying to come into relationship with God. "Excessive religious devotion" or a sense of guilt caused by an "over-developed superego" may in fact be seen as the root of the psychological problems faced by an individual.
This points to the difference between psychology and Orthodox theology in the understanding of the basic human problem. For Orthodox Christianity the problem is indeed sin, not merely guilt from breaking the "law" of God or the moral precepts of society, but the darkening or corruption of the soul because of separation from God. For some schools of psychology, guilt is a false feeling to be rejected. Rules are made by society, and may even be repressive of human freedom. There are no moral absolutes in these ideologies, just better or worse adjustments to the circumstances of life. For Orthodoxy, sin is real, and the cure is not to pretend that it does not exist, that guilt is a mere neurosis. The cure is repentance, the sorrow for one's actions and for one's separation from God that leads to a radical reorientation of the life from self-indulgence toward God.
Psychologists also see the problem in terms of response to the traumatic experiences of life. Healing, in this case, involves recognizing the source of the problems and coming to terms with what happened, adjusting, and building a life that is not controlled by the unresolved conflicts of the past. The therapist leads the patient to reflect upon these traumatic experiences to find the roots of conflicts in the present. By understanding the root of a problem, its hold over the emotions of an individual can be lessened, and one can become better adjusted to life in the world. This can be beneficial. What needs to be added, from the point of view of spiritual direction, is the healing grace of God, repentance, forgiveness, and spiritual strength. Further, spiritual direction can help the individual see the traumatic experiences in the context of the love of God and the development of godly character in imitation of Christ. For Christians, union with the God who has "borne our sorrows" and trust in the one who "c auses all things to work together for good to those who love Him" brings great healing. The wise spiritual director can point the seeker along this way.
The therapeutic method used by traditional psychologists also differs from that used by Orthodox spiritual directors. The psychotherapist questions and listens to the patient, pointing and prodding to make one aware of the problem, and suggesting ways that the patient can mature psychologically. In behaviotist therapy, rewards and punishments could be suggested as means of modifying behavior. Reality therapists would seek to help patients construct plans to responsibly meet their needs for love and self-worth. All of this could be valuable. It is excellent to be able to overcome destructive patterns of behavior and to build new ones. The Orthodox spiritual director locates the problem in the darkening of the nous, diagnoses the particular struggles of the seeker, and leads her through the process of purification (controlling the passions, guarding the thoughts, repentance, and building virtues), illumination (contemplation and prayer), and union with God. His methods will incorporate the appropriate spiritual disciplines and encourage participation in the sacramental mysteries of the church.
One final point of difference: the traditional psychotherapist sometimes denies the reality of the spiritual world, or at least finds it irrelevant to the process of healing. In Orthodox understanding, God is active in the life of people, and so is the devil. An experienced spiritual guide is able to recognize the work of both and to lead the seeker to resist the devil and yield to God.
CIRCUMSTANCES FOR REFERRAL TO A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL
As we noted in the last section, there are substantial differences between Orthodox spiritual direction and traditional psychotherapy. However, this is not to say that there are not times when a mental health professional might be better equipped to work with one who has come for spiritual direction. In fact, sometimes the achievement of some of the more limited proximate goals of psychotherapy may ultimately help the spiritual seeker to attain spiritual maturity. Under what circumstances should the Orthodox spiritual director consider referral? First, referral should be considered when the person coming for direction evidences serious psychological problems. These problems may have a root in some traumatic event (e.g., abuse, grief, injury, or the like) or may have a biochemical genesis. Persons with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or obsessive-compulsive behaviors, for example, need help simply getting back to the place where they can cope with the everyday challenges of life. First restore the ability to function, then point the way to God. Often these problems can be helped by a mental health professional, sometimes using the medications that are increasingly available.
There has been much discussion in recent years about whether medications are appropriate for treating Christian believers, particularly with regard to depression. Some argue these illnesses are signs of spiritual weaknesses and should be dealt with through counseling and prayer alone. This writer takes a different view. If a mental illness is caused by a biochemical defect and can be treated by drug therapy, it is appropriate to do so. There is little intrinsic difference between treating a biological illness of one part of the body (e.g., a cancer or an infection) with drugs and treating a biological condition of the brain with medication. Sometimes drug therapies are overused and prescribed when not necessary. But for those with serious mental illnesses, a course of drug therapy may be effective in reestablishing their ability to be rational and function on a day-to-day level.
A second reason for referral would be the situation where the spiritual director does not have the strength and knowledge necessary to help the individual. This may occur on a couple of levels. First, the time constraints and energy needed to work with a very involved case may be more than the director can give. A referral to a mental health professional could allow the person to deal with some of the basic human struggles that he or she has without inordinately taxing the director. When those issues are resolved, the director could help the seeker deepen her relationship with God. Secondly, there are some situations that are simply beyond the director's knowledge, experience, and ability. For some directors, these situations may include serious mental illnesses, situations such as child abuse, sexual molestation, or alcohol and drug rehabilitation. To be sure, each of these situations needs the healing touch of God, with which the spiritual guide can help. But for full healing an experienced professional is invaluable.
The third reason for referral would be if the seeker was not willing or desirous of embracing the Orthodox faith and membership in the sacramental community of the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox spiritual director, to be effective, has to build from a common theological and spiritual foundation.
To be sure, for the Orthodox spiritual director, no referral to a mental health professional will be fully effective for the healing of the soul of the seeker. From the Orthodox perspective, without communion with God, no matter how balanced, functional, or adjusted one is, there is still an emptiness inside, a nostalgic longing for Eden, our heart's true home. The Orthodox spiritual director seeks not only psychological balance, but fullness of life--a fullness found only in God.
TWO HELPFUL BOOKS ON SPIRITUAL DIRECTION FROM THE ORTHODOX TRADITION
There are a great many books that are helpful in gaining an understanding of the Orthodox Christian conception of spiritual direction. The two most useful, from this writer's perspective, deal with the history of the practice of spiritual direction in Orthodoxy and an examination of the process of spiritual transformation itself.
From a historical perspective, the best book on Orthodox spiritual direction is Irenee Hausherr's (1990) Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East. Hausherr examines in great detail the practice of spiritual direction in the Orthodox world, particularly in the monastic context of the early Christian centuries. The early chapters define what a "spiritual father" is and the requisite qualities needed to be a spiritual father or mother. Also examined are the duties of the spiritual father toward his disciples and the role of the disciple vis a vis his spiritual father. Further, Hausherr examines the common practice of the disclosure of thoughts to the spiritual father, and the efficacy of spiritual direction in the lives of seekers. Two special categories of spiritual direction are examined, the direction of nuns in the monastic context and spiritual direction as applied to laity. The book is filled with extensive excerpts from the writings of the fathers of the church and treats the subject with impressiv e scholarship.
Of recent Orthodox writings on the process of spiritual growth and development, the most complete is Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers by Archimandrite (now Bishop) Hierotheos Vlachos (1994a). Vlachos, a Greek monk and theologian, analyzes in great detail the process of the cure of the soul in the Orthodox tradition. He begins with an engaging argument about the nature of theology as a therapeutic science and defines the goal of Christianity as the healing of the soul. The priest's office is examined as it relates to spiritual healing. The priest is not merely a liturgical functionary, but should be one who has himself experienced the healing of the nous and illumination, thereby being able to give what he already has to the seeker. Vlachos then does an extensive analysis of the human psyche, noting the distinctions in patristic thought between the nous, the heart, and the intelligence. The sickness of the soul can be seen to have different consequences in each of these faculties, and Vlachos describes this in detail, along with the patristic method of cure. The pathology of the soul, particularly the development and cure of the passions, is next examined. The discussion of dispassion points to levels of maturity and spiritual attainment. The traditional hesychastic ("quiet") method of prayer focusing on the use of the Jesus Prayer is presented as a method of healing of the soul.
These books, along with reading the patristic sources themselves, will give the reader a good overview of spiritual direction in the Orthodox tradition.
Table 1 Dimension Spiritual Direction Presenting Problem sin: passions (anger, despair, lust, pride, avarice, etc.); desire to know God; desire to develop in virtue Goals Overcome specific passions: attain dispassion; overcome sin; build virtue (faith, hope, love, humility); learn to know God Procedure listen to seeker; hear confession; diagnose specific needs; prescribe appropriate disciplines (fasting, rule of prayer, etc.); give direction as needed Resources spiritual writings (scriptures, lives of saints, inspirational books; prayer books); liturgical/sacramental life of Church; monasteries; retreats; etc. Dimension Psychotherapy Presenting Problem trauma; emotional needs; mental illness; problem behaviors; guilt; depression: alcohol/drug dependency; etc. Goals adjust to circumstances; change of behavior; take responsibility overcoming illness Procedure listen develop joint plan of action; behavior modification; etc. Resources books & literature; medical professionals; seminars; support groups; etc.
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ROGERS, F. GREGORY. Address: 1085 Brookhaven Drive, Aiken, South Carolina, 29803. Title: Priest at Sr. Catherine's Orthodox Church in Aiken, South Carolina; Instructor of Sociology and Comparative Religion at Aiken Technical College, Aiken, South Carolina. Degrees: Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. Specialization: Orthodox Church in America.
Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Gregory Rogers, St. Catherine's Orthodox Church, 1085 Brookhaven Drive, Aiken, South Carolina 29803. E-mail at email@example.com.
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|Author:||Rogers, F. Gregory|
|Publication:||Journal of Psychology and Theology|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2002|
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