Spiritual Paternity24 June 2020
These days, when we talk about a spiritual father, we usually mean a priest who’s a confessor. But in Church tradition, the sense of spiritual paternity is much broader. Only God is the Father . Christ, Who is the Son of God, is revealed also as our father, by manifesting the love of the Father to the world. Christ in His paternal capacity is even clearer at the Ascension. His disciples have a premonition of their spiritual orphanhood and are overwhelmed by indescribable pain. The Lord doesn’t abandon them as orphans, however. He sends the Holy Spirit, Who guides them to ‘all the truth’ .
Through the Holy Spirit, the Apostles begat spiritual children and transferred their gifts to bishops, who in turn passed them on to their successors. Many of these were recognized as Fathers. The Orthodox Church is Apostolic, but is also the Church of the Fathers . In recent times, the term ‘spiritual father’ has not been used so much in the sense of someone enlightened by the Holy Spirit, who contributes to the cultivation of grace and founds the spiritual life of Christians in the person of Christ. Usually, a spiritual father is thought of as a guide for external behavior, a counsellor, a ‘religious psychologist’, a guardian of the laws and canons, or simply a confessor who grants remission of sins.
2. Spiritual Paternity
But let’s look into the deeper meaning of spiritual paternity, in Biblical and Church tradition. Saint Paul writes: ‘You might have thousands of instructors, but not many fathers. For I begot you in Christ Jesus, through the Gospel’ . At another point he stresses: ‘ My children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you’ . Saint Paul, then, begets children through the Gospel and is in pain to see Christ formed in the human being.
The Apostolic Constitutions (4th c.) declare that God grants divine adoption through the bishops. This is why, as our spiritual parents we should ‘love them as your benefactors and ambassadors with God, who have regenerated you by water [baptism], and imbued you with the fullness of the Holy Spirit [chrismation and the laying on of hands], who have fed you with the word as with milk, who have nourished you with doctrine [preaching], who have confirmed you by their admonitions [personal teaching], who have imparted to you the saving body and precious blood of Christ, who have loosed you from your sins [repentance and remission], who have made you partakers of the holy and sacred Eucharist [communion]’ .
We find similar positions in the texts of Ignatios of Antioch. So both the Apostolic and post-Apostolic texts attribute an ecclesiological character to spiritual paternity. The bishop is a ‘representation of the Father’. He’s not responsible only for the ‘binding and loosing’ of sins, but he regenerates, through baptism; he nourishes with his teaching and exhortations; and he offers the sacrament of the Eucharist. In those years, repentance was, for the most part, pre-baptismal.
When monasticism began to flourish, we can see a commensurate development of spiritual paternity. The word ‘abba’, which derives from Sanskrit and expresses the new relationship between Christians and God, was used in conjunction with the term ‘elder’, particularly for charismatic ascetics and monastics. In the monastic tradition, a ‘father’ is a discerning monk, taught by God, an elder, an abba, a starets. Someone who, through purification, has been granted divine illumination and glorification. This paternity doesn’t derive from any hieratic function. It’s charismatic and usually of a personal nature. The gift develops, however, within the Church. It’s not uncommon for bishops to turn to such monks to ask for their assistance and advice. The same was true of women who were mothers in the wilderness, distinguished for their spiritual gifts. They [the desert-dwellers] helped others to lead a life in Christ and were known as ‘amma/abba’.
In the 4th c. there were some people who thought that a bishop and a priest were equal, as regards spiritual paternity. In answering and condemning this delusion, Epifanios of Cyprus writes that the ‘rank’ of bishop is ‘a begetting order of fathers’. The bishop is consecrated, ‘for he begets in the Church’, whereas the order of priest, since it cannot beget fathers, ‘begets children for the Church through the rebirth of the font’ . In other words, priests baptize Christians and make them children of God. In exceptional circumstances, such as during the persecution of Decius, bishops introduced the institution of ‘repentance to a priest’ [for doctrinal sins, such as apostasy, which would normally have been referred to a bishop] though this fell out of use thereafter.
Symeon the New Theologian (956-1036) says that the spiritual authority to bind or loose was given first by the holy apostles to the hierarchs. As time went by, it was transmitted from hierarchs to priests who were distinguished for the sanctity of their life and, thereafter, to monks. There were two important factors which contributed to the devolvement of the grace to monks: first, the rapid spread of Christianity and the increased number of Christians; and secondly, the decline and laxity in the lives of hierarchs and priests. But according to Symeon, the same sickness afflicted the monks and they became ‘monks altogether unmonastic’ . The harsh criticism on the part of Saint Symeon the New Theologian and his circles of disciples does not mean any challenge to or derogation of the institutional dimension of the Church. It was aimed at the regeneration of monastic life and that of the Church in general, and the cultivation of spiritual paternity, as bestowed by the Holy Spirit.
These positions of Symeon the New Theologian on the ability of monks to exercise the office of spiritual fatherhood were roundly criticized, especially as regards ‘binding and loosing’. Thus, a century later, Valsamon [Theodoros Valsamon, Patriarch of Antioch and the foremost Byzantine expert on canon law] made a clear distinction between, on the one hand, monks listening to the thoughts of others and giving advice and, on the other, the authority to ‘remit sins’, which is given by bishops only to properly authorized priests . Symeon of Thessaloniki (1429) is more categorical. ‘Moreover the office of spiritual paternity should not be granted to ordinary monks who are not ordained. This is because it is so sacred that the canons declare that it is a task reserved for bishops, not priests. Priests exercise this office only of necessity and when the bishop is not present but absent. In fact, the greatest of crimes, that is denial of faith, murder and transgressions on the part of the clergy, must be referred to the bishop, as must everything that is outside the knowledge of the confessor. Everything must be done with the consent of the bishop, because repentance falls within his own sphere, that of the bishop. This is clear from the publication of an exhortatory letter’. .
Despite this, nomocanonical collections from the time of Turkish rule urge bishops to issue letters of authorization for monks to perform the office of spiritual father. Saint Nikodimos the Athonite disagrees with the above view. Invoking earlier ecclesiastical tradition, he writes that: ‘Laymen and monks should not confess, neither should nuns, since this is contrary to the canons’ . Besides, the Exomologitarion [by Saint Nikodimos] refers exhaustively to the task of the spiritual father, with respect to compliance with and application to the sacred canons. Spiritual paternity should be undertaken and exercised only by those who have achieved dispassion through ascetic efforts. This is the strict policy of the Church. At the same time, however, because he recognizes the needs and deficiencies of his era, he recommends that bishops at least appoint the most experienced and elderly priests ‘and make them spiritual fathers, since, because of age, they are more experienced in knowledge and have somehow tamed the passions’ . He doesn’t exclude younger priests if they’re virtuous and have the mind of an elder. He even holds the view that ‘apart from celibate and unmarried hieromonks those in marriage who are otherwise worthy’ should become spiritual fathers .