Archive for the ‘Orthodox Theology’ Category

Excerpt from St. Gregory Palamas’ Homily on the Annunciation from Mary the Mother of God, pp. 56 & 58-59

Continuing as you are now with your virginity inviolate, you shall conceive a child and bear the Son of the Highest. Isaiah foresaw this many years before and prophesied, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son”, and, “I went unto the prophetess”. In what way did the Prophet go to the Prophetess? In the same way the Archangel now came to her. What the Archangel now saw, the Prophet foresaw and foretold. That the Virgin was a prophetess with the gift of prophecy, is proved to all by her hymn to God in the Gospel (Luke 1:46-55).

…Surely it is obvious to anyone that the Virgin Mother is both the burning bush and the tongs. She conceived the divine fire within her and was not burnt, and an Archangel ministered at the conception, and through her the Bearer of the sins of the world was united with the human race, purifying us thoroughly by means of this indescribable bond. The Virgin Mother, and she alone, is the frontier between created and uncreated nature. All who know God will recognize her as the one who contained Him Who cannot be contained. All who sing hymns to God will praise her next after Him. She is the cause of the benefits which preceded her, the protectress of those which came after and through her those good things which are eternal shall be received. She is the theme of the prophets, the first of the Apostles, the support of martyrs, the dais of the teachers. She is the glory of those on earth, the delight of those in heaven, the adornment of the whole Creation. She is the beginning, fount and root of the hope store up for us in heaven.

To which may we all obtain her prayers for us, to the glory of Him Who was begotten of the Father before all ages, and, in these last times, became incarnate of her, even Jesus Christ Our Lord. To Whom belong all glory, honour and worship, now and for ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

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“God, I thank you that I am not like other people!” Lk. 18:11

When I was in Ontario giving talks at a few different venues back in November, I received a variety of questions, good questions. In fact, I was quite impressed with the questions I was asked. I think good questions demonstrate the audience’s seriousness, their desire to learn and be instructed. I tried my best to offer good answers to those good questions. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I tried.

Among all these questions there was one scribbled on a piece of paper that stood out to me because I believe it revealed an opinion many of us have our ourselves – an opinion, I would venture to say, which is misinformed and misguided.

The question went something like this: “How can we deal with the low spiritual level of others?”

I was a little taken aback by this and without a lot of thought I immediately responded: “By saying: Gee, I wish I was as spiritual as that person!” But truth be told the person asking the question was verbalizing the silent and unspoken thoughts many of us have from time to time, or at least have had in the past: that is, that we are more spiritual than others and that it is toilsome to have to “deal” with what we perceive (rightly or wrongly) as the “low” spiritual state of others.

I went on to explain that if we think we are more spiritual than anyone else then we know, right off the bat, that we aren’t spiritual because a true spiritual person doesn’t think themselves spiritual. A true spiritual person knows how carnal, how flawed, how fumbling, and how sinful he or she is, because true spirituality – and by “true” I mean Orthodox spirituality – gradually opens the eyes of the heart to see one’s sinfulness, one’s mistakes, shortcomings, and more than anything one’s attachment to this world, this body, and the passions associated with the body, the “lesser pleasures” as they’re called: food, sleep, etc. revealing us to be far more carnal, in fact, than spiritual.

A spiritual person follows the rules of fasting set down by the Church; he prays a consistent amount everyday; he bridles his tongue, has humble thoughts; thinks he hasn’t yet made a beginning; feels, sees and understands his own worth, that he is nothing without Christ. A spiritual person looks at everyone beside himself as more spiritual, more holy, more worthy of Christ’s love and mercy.

(Source) St. Anthony the Great once prayed: “Lord, reveal to me how the faithful person in the city among the noise can reach the spiritual level of the ascetic who dwells in the deep desert.”

He had not even finished this request to the All-good God when he heard a voice tell him:

“The Gospel is the same for all men, Anthony. And if you want to confirm this, how one who does the will of God is saved and sanctified wherever he is, go to Alexandria to the small cobbler’s store, which is simple and poor. It is there below the last road of the city.”

“To the cobbler’s store, Lord? And who there can help shine some light on my thought?” replied the puzzled Saint.

“The cobbler will explain to you,” replied the same voice.

“The cobbler? What does this man know about struggles and temptations? What does the poor toiler know of the heights of faith and of the truth?” He wondered.

His objections however could not be straightened [out] by the divine explanation. Because of this, at dawn he traveled to the city. As God had shown him, he stopped at the small cobbler store that he found.

Happily and reverently the simple man welcomed him in and asked him: “In what way could I be of use to you, Abba? I’m an illiterate and uncouth villager, but for the stranger, whoever he is, I will try to help, whatever the need.”

“The Lord sent me for you to teach me,” replied the ascetic humbly.

The poor worker jumped up in wonder. “Me? What could I, the illiterate one, teach your holiness? I don’t know if I have done anything good or noteworthy in my life, something which could stand unadulterated before the eyes of God.”

“Tell me what you do, how you pass your day. God knows; He weighs and judges things differently,” replied St. Anthony.

“I, Abba, have never done anything good, I only struggle to keep the holy teachings of the Gospel. And further, I try to never forget to never overlook my shortcomings and my spiritual fruitlessness. Therefore, as I work during the day I think and say to myself: O wretched man, all will be saved and only you will remain fruitless. Because of your sin, you will never be worthy to see His Holy Face.

“Thank you, O Lord,” the ascetic said raising his weeping eyes towards heaven. And as the cobbler remained puzzled at this, the ascetic embraced him with love and bid him farewell saying: “And thank you, O holy man. Thank you, for you taught me how easy it is with only a humble mind, for someone to live in the grace of Paradise.”

And as the poor cobbler continued to stare uneasily, without at all understanding this, St. Anthony took his staff and departed for the deep desert.

He walked, his only companion being the sound of his staff. He walked and his prayer burned like the the sands of the desert, rising towards heaven.

He traveled all day and prayerfully reflected on the lesson that he received that day from the poor cobbler.

“Humility! This therefore is the quickest path to the gate of Paradise,” he said in his thoughts. “Humility is the robe which God clothed himself with and came to earth as man,” the Saint said, and he struggled to perceive the greatness of this holy virtue.

He walked, praying in his nous, and he brought to mind whatever God had taught him, until immediately before him he saw thrown underfoot a countless number of traps. Traps of every sort, terrible notions, machinations never before seen.

“My God,” he exclaimed and turned the frightened eyes of his soul towards heaven. “Who could ever flee, O Lord, from such traps and ruses?

“Humility, Anthony. This can singularly deliver [one] from all of these [traps],” [the Saint] again heard the sweet, beloved voice [say] deep within his heart. And this was the response which instilled light within him and gave him courage for the new battles which he experienced within the deep desert with the eternal enemy of man. 

So, I guess the simple answer I could have given to that question back in November would have been: Humility. Humility is how we deal with the “low spiritual state” of our neighbour.

May we make an effort, as Great Lent approaches, to struggle for such God-pleasing thoughts and opinions as the holy cobbler had, both regarding our own spiritual state and that of others!

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st. theodora monastery


By their nature, angels are active spirits endowed with reason, will and knowledge; they serve God, fulfill the will of His Providence and praise Him. They are incorporeal spirits, and because they belong to the invisible world, cannot be seen by our bodily eyes. St. John of Damascus writes: “When it is the will of God that angels should appear to those who are worthy, they do not appear as they are in their essence, but, transformed, take on such an appearance as to be visible to physical eyes.” In the book of Tobit, the angel accompanying Tobit and his son says of himself: “All these days I was visible to you, but I neither ate nor drank, this only appeared to your eyes” (Tobit 12:19).

But St. John of Damascus also writes: “An angel can only be called incorporeal and non-material in comparison with us. For in comparison with God, Who alone is beyond compare, everything seems coarse and material, only the divinity is totally non-material -and incorporeal.”

mikos aggelos

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Christ Lives and Reigns[1]

Metropolitan Avgoustinos (Kantiotes) of Florina

Translated by Fr John Palmer, PhD

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

             The Word has existed from the beginning and thus there was never a moment that the Son and Word of God – that Christ – was not.  Christ has always existed.  He is, together with the Father, without beginning; he is, together with the Father, eternal and everlasting.  This is a difficult saying to accept you will say.  It is a mystery, and a great mystery at that!  We will not deny it, however.  No! Rather we accept it in faith.

             Mysteries, for that matter, are not hidden solely in the supernatural, but we also find them in the natural order.  The world is full of mysteries.  Every branch of science has its unsolved problems.  Science simply describes: it cannot offer full explanations, nor can it penetrate the most fundamental causes of phenomena.  What, for example, is electricity?  What is magnetism? What is gravity?  Science describes these things, but it cannot claim to know precisely what they are.  Mysteries are scattered all across the natural order, even in the smallest of things.  The most basic unit of matter – the atom – is itself a microcosm of the created universe.  I will give you an example: the top scientists working on that accursed disease which plagues humanity – Cancer – gathered in Rome for an international medical conference.  Much was said and when it was over, the chair offered the following synopsis:  ‘We know,’ he said, ‘what Cancer looks like, how it develops, and what its symptoms are.  However, there is yet one thing we do not know; why it begins, why one of the millions of cells in the human body suddenly goes crazy – for this is cancer: everything else is functioning harmoniously and then this one cell ‘leaves its orbit’ – marking the diseases’ beginning. 

             There is mystery everywhere.  And thus, since scientists are left to wonder about things in the material world, how can we expect to explain the persons of the Holy Trinity?  Let them first solve those mysteries hidden in the natural world and then we will seek to solve those of the supernatural realm.  The human intellect is but a small cup; it cannot hold the ocean.

             “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.  In the language of the scriptures, the Son of God is called the ‘Word’ because he is begotten of God the Father who is absolute Mind.  The Mind begets the Word, the Father begets the Son.

             In order to grasp this truth to some degree we say the following:  man is made, “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27) and thus he is called the “image of God” (1 Cor 11:7, Col 3:10).  How is man an image of God?  With regard to his body?  Certainly not!  There is nothing material in God – he has no body, no hands, no feet, no ears, as our ancient ancestors imagined that he had.  Occasionally the Holy Scriptures speak of God anthropomorphically, but only out of condescension to our weakness.  God is spirit.  Consequently, the claim that man is an image of God cannot refer to his body, but rather to his soul; it is in his soul that man is made according to God’s image.  Man is not principally that which is visible to the eyes, but rather that which is invisible.  What is seen is material, what is unseen is the soul.

            There is, then, some level of correspondence here.  As God is Trinity, so is man’s soul Trinitarian.  God the Father is absolute Mind, who begets his Son and Word, and from whom precedes the Holy Spirit.  Man by comparison has a mind, he has word – or thought, and he has spirit.

            Thought is the greatest of God’s gifts.  This is man’s glory.  It is encountered solely in man; we find it neither in the animals, nor indeed anywhere else.  O, thought!  O, the mind!  At one moment you are found here and then, as if by a rocket, you are flown to America or anywhere else.  Have you considered how man thinks, how thoughts are born?  Thought is the foundation of knowledge:  it is how we study the earth, how we touch the stars, how we feel the heavens; it is how we discover and how we create.

            First, though is something intimate – permit me to put you through a bit of a trial!  What does it mean to be ‘intimate’?  This means it is something hidden deep within man, something inconceivable.  No one is able to know what we are thinking save God alone.  May God have mercy on us if they find a way to police thought!

            In the language of the Church, thought is often referred to as ‘word’ – logic in other words.  But pay attention!  The mind begets word.  How does it beget?  Not as animals give birth.  There is another kind of birth, another begetting.  What is this?  The mind, the theologians say, begets an interior word, a thought.  And when this thought is expressed by means of the mouth, this interior word becomes spoken.  Another mystery – and I doubt there are any who question this one!  How do we speak?  Go ahead, think.  How?  Science offers no answer: it just tries to pin-point the location in the brain from which the spoken word issues.  Our mind begets the interior ‘word’ and then begets the spoken word, before finally begetting the written word.

            Here in the Gospel, however, ‘Word’ is written with a capital ‘W’.  This is because the Word is God.  “[A]nd the Word was God”.  God – the Mind – begets the Divine Word, the Father begets the Son.  In the face of this Word, man’s thought, this great thing as we called it, is small and insignificant.  Can we possible comprehend the Divine Word? 

            Christ is the Divine Word which has existed from eternity.  It is on basis of this that the Church opposed Arius and the other heretics, such as the Chilianists of today. 

            Let us approach him, beloved brothers!  At midday we will sit down and eat, we will partake of his goods.  How many of us have God in our minds?  Many of us don’t even make our cross, or make mention Christ’s name before we eat. 

             Let us give thanks to God for all his gifts and above all for the fact that we have the only true faith.  The founders of other religions (Mohammed, Confucius and others) are mortals; they lived for a span and then died.  Christ lives even today and will continue to live tomorrow, even unto the ages of ages.  There never was a time when Christ was not and through his Resurrection he has proved that he lives and reigns unto the ages of ages.

             This is what we celebrate today, beloved brothers, to the glory of the Holy Trinity.  Amen.

[1]               From the book Εμπνευσμένα Κηρύγματα Ορθοδόξου Ομολογίας και Αγιοπατερικής Πνοής (Orthodoxos Kypseli:  Thessaloniki, 2011), 17-21.

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Despite the minor technical difficulties during the Q and A at the end, this is a great presentation on Christ’s Presentation.

For those who can’t access the above link go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRo3xldYq_o


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The world that lives far away from God hates you. It hates light and truth. The disbelieving, corrupt world never forgives you, because you say “no” to the nameless desires of this generation. You raise a lash, smite their evils, and brand their sins. If it were possible, they would crucify you in the town square! Lies, intrigue, and slander are the rewards with which Satan fills your world. And what will you do? Will you seek revenge? Rather than sacrifice one iota of Gospel law, make sharp rebukes against error and evil, but be sympathetic and forgiving to people who hate you, raise you on  a cross, and subject you to the most fearful martyrdom. Pray the Lord to give you forbearance to forgive them, so that you can repeat the words of the First-Martyr Stephen, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:60). This will be the loftiest sermon of your life, and it cannot possibly leave souls unmoved. There are aromatic trees which when cut bathe the ax with fragrance. Faithful servants of the Lord, aromatic trees in Christ’s Church, you also should bathe with the aroma of heavenly forgiveness the world which strikes you and crucifies you.

(An excerpt from Blessed Augoustinos Kantiotes’ Follow Me, translated by Asterios Gerosterigios, pp. 184-185)

Can you read these words and possibly doubt that they proceeded from the heart and mind of a great saint? Blessed Augustinos Kantiotes was a bishop in Florina, in Northern Greece. He reposed in 2009 and left us his life and many books as everlasting examples of a true shepherd, an apostle to this corrupt generation. May we have his blessing!

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Abbess Thaisia, Letters to a Beginner, p. 47

Commit yourself, I repeat, without defence to the will of your [spiritual] guides – give way to them, like clay to the potter, like iron to a smith; let them mold and hammer on the forge of obedience (as was expressed by St. John, author of the Ladder) your unruly and proud will, until it will be ground into the soft wax of humility, so that with understanding and discernment you may repeat the words of the Psalmist: “In our humiliation the Lord remembered us” (Ps. 135:23), or, “It is good for me that Thou hast humbled me, that I might learn Thy statutes (Ps. 118:71). You see, then, the statutes of the Lord, ie. the things pleasing to the Lord, are not learned without humility and self-abasement. Ten virgins at midnight awaited the arrival of the heavenly Bridegroom, but only half of them were received into His chamber; and the others, who had no oil in their lamps, to their shame and grief were not only not admitted into the chamber; and the others, who had no oil in their lamps, to their shame and grief were not only not admitted into the chamber, but also heard the terrible words of the Bridegroom: “Verily I say unto you, I know you not” (Mt. 25”12). Beware less this lack of oil be found also in you as a lack of humility and obedience, without which your lamp of faith and supposed zeal will die out.

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Today marks the two year anniversary of this blog. In some ways it’s hard to believe it’s only been two years: so many posts, so many connections and relationships with readers. Thank you for your support and prayers. May the Most Holy Lady, the Ever Virgin Mary be with us all!

To those who foolishly believe and teach, on account of Biblical criticism and other equally ridiculous theories, that the Theotokos did not enter the temple at three years of age and dwell in the Holy of Holies because the Jews never would have permitted a woman to enter the Holy of Holies, St. Gregory Palamas says:

It was because Moses foresaw that she would be the living Tabernacle who would hold God, that he erected that other Tabernacle, prepared that inmost sanctuary [the Holy of Holies] for her sake and, learning from God what would befall her, dignified it with sublimely exalted names, indicating to all in advance, by word and deed, the extraordinary, all-surpassing worthiness that would be hers from infancy… In this way she made it clear, and declared in advance to as many as have understanding, that she was to be the true shrine and resting-place of God, an incomparably better mercy-seat for Him, and the divinely beautiful treasure-house of the highest pinnacle of the Spirit’s mysteries.

(St. Gregory Palamas, “Entry into the Holy of Holies II”, Mary the Mother of God: Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas, p. 26-27)

When the Prophet Zacharias saw the Virgin approach the Temple he aptly proclaimed: “Hearken O daughter and consider and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house; so shall the king greatly desire thy beauty,” and that is exactly what she did.

May we have her as our constant mediator and intercessor, the Most Holy Mother of God!

Also, here is a beautiful depiction of the Presentation of the Theotokos from the Holy Monastery Hamatoura in Lebanon someone reminded me of; you can watch it here.

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Three Gifts of the Spiritual Father
by Bishop Kallistos Ware
Three gifts in particular distinguish the spiritual father. The first is insight and discernment (diakrisis), the ability to perceive intuitively the secrets of another’s heart, to understand the hidden depths of which the other is unaware. The spiritual father penetrates beneath the conventional gestures and attitudes whereby we conceal our true personality from others and from ourselves; and beyond all these trivialities, he comes to grips with the unique person made in the image and likeness of God. This power is spiritual rather than psychic; it is not simply a kind of extra-sensory perception or a sanctified clairvoyance but the fruit of grace, presupposing concentrated prayer and an unremitting ascetic struggle.With this gift of insight there goes the ability to use words with power. As each person comes before him, the starets knows—immediately and specifically—what it is that the individual needs to hear. Today, we are inundated with words, but for the most part these are conspicuously not words uttered with power. [12] The starets uses few words, and sometimes none at all; but by these few words or by his silence, he is able to alter the whole direction of a man’s life. At Bethany, Christ used three words only: “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43) and these three words, spoken with power, were sufficient to bring the dead back to life. In an age when language has been disgracefully trivialized, it is vital to rediscover the power of the word; and this means rediscovering the nature of silence, not just as a pause between words but as one of the primary realities of existence. Most teachers and preachers talk far too much; the starets is distinguished by an austere economy of language.But for a word to possess power, it is necessary that there should be not only one who speaks with the genuine authority of personal experience, but also one who listens with attention and eagerness. If someone questions a starets out of idle curiosity, it is likely that he will receive little benefit; but if he approaches the starets with ardent faith and deep hunger, the word that he hears may transfigure his being. The words of the startsi are for the most part simple in verbal expression and devoid of literary artifice; to those who read them in a superficial way, they will seem jejune and banal.

The spiritual father’s gift of insight is exercised primarily through the practice known as “disclosure of thoughts” (logismoi). In early Eastern monasticism the young monk used to go daily to his father and lay before him all the thoughts which had come to him during the day. This disclosure of thoughts includes far more than a confession of sins, since the novice also speaks of those ideas and impulses which may seem innocent to him, but in which the spiritual father may discern secret dangers or significant signs. Confession is retrospective, dealing with sins that have already occurred; the disclosure of thoughts, on the other hand, is prophylactic, for it lays bare our logismoi before they have led to sin and so deprives them of their power to harm. The purpose of the disclosure is not juridical, to secure absolution from guilt, but self-knowledge, that each may see himself as he truly is. [13]

Endowed with discernment, the spiritual father does not merely wait for a person to reveal himself, but shows to the other thoughts hidden from him. When people came to St. Seraphim of Sarov, he often answered their difficulties before they had time to put their thoughts before him. On many occasions the answer at first seemed quite irrelevant, and even absurd and irresponsible; for what St. Seraphim answered was not, the question his visitor had consciously in mind, but the one he ought to have been asking. In all this St. Seraphim relied on the inward light of the Holy Spirit. He found it important, he explained, not to work out in advance that he was going to say; in that case, his words would represent merely his own human judgment which might well be in error, and not the judgment of God.

St. Arsenios the Cappadocian with his spiritual child Elder Paisios the Athonite

In St. Seraphim’s eyes, the relationship between starets and spiritual child is stronger than death, and he therefore urged his children to continue their disclosure of thoughts to him even after his departure to the next life. These are the words which, by his own command, were written on his tomb: “When I am dead, come to me at my grave, and the more often, the better. Whatever is on your soul, whatever may have happened to you, come to me as when I was alive and, kneeling on the ground, cast all your bitterness upon my grave. Tell me everything and I shall listen to you, and all the bitterness will fly away from you. And as you spoke to me when I was alive, do so now. For I am living, and I shall be forever.”

The second gift of the spiritual father is the ability to love others and to make others’ sufferings his own. Of Abba Poemen, one of the greatest of the Egyptian gerontes, it is briefly and simply recorded: “He possessed love, and many came to him.” [14] He possessed love—this is indispensable in all spiritual fatherhood. Unlimited insight into the secrets of men’s hearts, if devoid of loving compassion, would not be creative but destructive; he who cannot love others will have little power to heal them.Loving others involves suffering with and for them; such is the literal sense of compassion. “Bear one anothers burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). The spiritual father is ‘the one who par excellence bears the burdens of others. “A starets”, writes Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, “is one who takes your soul, your will, unto his soul and his will…. ” It is not enough for him to offer advice. He is also required to take up the soul of his spiritual children into his own soul, their life into his life. It is his task to pray for them, and his constant intercession on their behalf is more important to them than any words of counsel. [15] It is his task likewise to assume their sorrows and their sins, to take their guilt upon himself, and to answer for them at the Last Judgment.

All this is manifest in a primary document of Eastern spiritual direction, the Books of Varsanuphius and John, embodying some 850 questions addressed to two elders of 6th-century Palestine, together with their written answers. “As God Himself knows,” Varsanuphius insists to his spiritual children, “there is not a second or an hour when I do not have you in my mind and in my prayers … I care for you more than you care for yourself … I would gladly lay down my life for you.” This is his prayer to God: “O Master, either bring my children with me into Your Kingdom, or else wipe me also out of Your book.” Taking up the theme of bearing others’ burdens, Varsanuphius affirms: “I am bearing your burdens and your offences … You have become like a man sitting under a shady tree … I take upon myself the sentence of condemnation against you, and by the grace of Christ, I will not abandon you, either in this age or in the Age to Come.” [16]

Readers of Charles Williams will be reminded of the principle of ‘substituted love,’ which plays a central part in Descent into Hell. The same line of thought is expressed by Dostoevsky’s starets Zosima: “There is only one way of salvation, and that is to make yourself responsible for all men’s sins… To make yourself responsible in all sincerity for everything and for everyone.” The ability of the starets to support and strengthen others is measured by his willingness to adopt this way of salvation.

Yet the relation between the spiritual father and his children is not one-sided. Though he takes the burden of their guilt upon himself and answers for them before God, he cannot do this effectively unless they themselves are struggling wholeheartedly for their own salvation. Once a brother came to St. Antony of Egypt and said: “Pray for me.” But the Old Man replied: “Neither will I take pity on you nor will God, unless you make some effort of your own.” [17]

St. John of Kronstadt with his spiritual daughter.

When considering the love of a starets for those under his care, it is important to give full meaning to the word “father” in the title “spiritual father”. As father and offspring in an ordinary family should be joined in mutual love, so it must also be within the “charismatic” family of the starets. It is primarily a relationship in the Holy Spirit, and while the wellspring of human affection is not to be unfeelingly suppressed, it must be contained within bounds. It is recounted how a young monk looked after his elder, who was gravely ill, for twelve years without interruption. Never once in that period did his elder thank him or so much as speak one word of kindness to him. Only on his death-bed did the Old Man remark to the assembled brethren, “He is an angel and not a man.” [18] The story is valuable as an indication of the need for spiritual detachment, but such an uncompromising suppression of all outward tokens of affection is not typical of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, still less of Varsanuphius and John.

A third gift of the spiritual father is the power to transform the human environment, both the material and the non-material. The gift of healing, possessed by so many of the startsi, is one aspect of this power: More generally, the starets helps his disciples to perceive the world as God created it and as God desires it once more to be. “Can you take too much joy in your Father’s works?” asks Thomas Traherne. “He is Himself in everything.” The true starets is one who discerns this universal presence of the Creator throughout creation, and assists others to discern it. In the words of William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything will appear to man as it is, infinite.” For the man who dwells in God, there is nothing mean and trivial: he sees everything in the light of Mount Tabor. “What is a merciful heart?” inquires St. Isaac the Syrian. “It is a heart that burns with love for ‘the whole of creation—for men, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for every, creature. When a man with such a heart as this thinks of the creatures or looks at them, his eyes are filled with tears; An overwhelming compassion makes his heart grow! small and weak, and he cannot endure to hear or see any suffering, even the smallest pain, inflicted upon any creature. Therefore he never ceases to pray, with tears even for the irrational animals, for the enemies of truth, and for those who do him evil, asking that they may be guarded and receive God’s mercy. And for the reptiles also he prays with a great compassion, which rises up endlessly in his heart until he shines again and is glorious like God.”’ [19]

An all-embracing love, like that of Dostoevsky’s starets Zosima, transfigures its object, making the human environment transparent, so that the uncreated energies of God shine through it. A momentary glimpse of what this transfiguration involves is provided by the celebrated conversation between St. Seraphim of Sarov and Nicholas Motovilov, his spiritual child. They were walking in the forest one winter’s day and St. Seraphim spoke of the need to acquire the Holy Spirit. This led Motovilov to ask how a man can know with certainty that he is “in the Spirit of God’:

Then Fr. Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “My son, we are both, at this moment in the Spirit of God. Why don’t you look at me?”

“I cannot look, Father,” I replied, “because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and it hurts my eyes to look, at you.”

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “At this very moment you have yourself become as bright as I am. You are yourself in the fullness of the Spirit of God at this moment; otherwise you would not be able to see me as you do… but why, my son, do you not look me iii the eyes? Just look, and don’t be afraid; the Lord is with us.”

After these words I glanced at his face, and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its mid-day rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes and you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders, yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his body, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and lighting up with its brilliance the snow-blanket which covers the forest glade and the snowflakes which continue to fall unceasingly [20].

St. Seraphim of Sarov with spiritual son Nikolay Motovilov.

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