Study Notes: Call No Man a Father…
…soul-killing theatrics and the saddest comedy–elders who take upon themselves the role of the ancient Holy Elders, possessing none of their spiritual gifts–may it be know to them that their very intent, their thoughts and ideas about <…> obedience are false, that their very way of thinking, their mind, their knowledge are self-deception and demonic delusion…–Saint Ignatii Brianchaninov, On the Life in Obedience to an Elder
If priests were chosen on the basis of their life experience, spiritual maturity, spiritual gifts, and wisdom, then they could make excellent fathers-confessors and spiritual fathers. But this is no longer the case. Many priests are chosen only because they have an interest in becoming clergy, have some specialized education, and do not have any canonical impediments. In other words, rather than choosing a candidate on the basis of the presence of positive qualities, one is chosen on the basis of the absence of negative ones. Virtues and spiritual gifts are not considered a prerequisite for ordination.
Every parish priest is forced to be a father-confessor. This is not ideal, but there is very little most priests can do about it. Much damage can be done to the soul of a parishioner if a young priest, lacking life experience, spiritual maturity, and the wisdom that comes with age, gives bad counsel during confessions. But in our current situation, most young priests cannot avoid playing the role of a father-confessor.
When it comes to a Spiritual Father, however, priests must be counselled to reject every notion that they have anything to do with that title. Of course, a priest is a spiritual father to many of his parishioners in the sense that he may have brought them to Christ, he may have baptized them and instructed them in the life in Christ. But the term “Spiritual Father” is very often (if not almost always) misunderstood to mean a very different concept. In monastic literature, in which all of our faithful are encouraged to immerse themselves, the Spiritual Father is the Holy Elder, and the relationship between the Father and his Child is the complete denial of self will on the part of the Child and the acceptance of full responsibility of the part of the Father–a model which is impossible among lay people for practical reasons. When this monastic concept is wrongfully applied to a parish priest and his parishioners, it creates an extremely dangerous spiritual delusion for all involved. Priests play a theatrical role of an “Elder” having none of the spiritual gifts necessary for this vocation. Parishioners play an equally-theatrical role of obedient spiritual children, blind to the fact that only true obedience and only to a true Holy Elder leads to a greater communion with God. Theatrical obedience to a theatrical “Elder” is nothing but “self-deception and demonic delusion.”
Playing the “Father/Child” game may be fun, but it is “playing with fire.” The unfortunate “Child” may have a false sense of safety under the theatrical obedience to a “Father,” but this relationship will be barren at best and bear ugly and bitter fruit at worst. To be a real Spiritual Father, one must be anointed by God with the spiritual gifts necessary for this vocation. To paraphrase Saint Seraphim of Sarov, one must first acquire the Spirit of peace within himself, before those around can be saved. The misuse of the term ‘Spiritual Father’ in parishes to refer to any priest, and the misunderstanding of the entire concept of spiritual fatherhood (and “spiritual childhood”) found in monastic literature is a substitution of of the real Spirit and the real life in Christ for a fake spirit and a fake life, a pretend-life, a theatrical performance, a game. And this is the real danger: we know that the real life in Christ leads to salvation, but the same cannot be said about playing the game of a life in Christ.