The above warning was given to me when I first met Orthodoxy in 1986. Today [2009] it is even more perilous, even more difficult to find the Royal Path. For one thing there is a far greater abundance of misinformation. And many materials are missing, and other materials are being rapidly rewritten. For another thing there are fewer than ever guides remaining on the Royal Path, especially who speak English. Hopefully this website will be a place where Newcomers to the Faith can keep at least one foot on solid ground, while they are "exploring."

blog owner: Joanna Higginbotham


jurisdiction: ROCA under Vladyka Agafangel

who did not submit to the RocorMP union in 2007


20 December 2014

Prelest and Elders

two chapters from the book:

Chapter 6

THE MAIN DANGER in the way of ascetic endeavors lies in the possibility of prelest.

Bishop Ignatius writes that “men of prayer are subjected to all kinds of delusion if repentance does not form the foundation of their prayer, if it has not become the soul and the aim of prayer.  Anyone trying to join the wedding feast of the Son of God without the clean and bright wedding garment1 prepared by repentance, but simply in rags, in a state of self-delusion and sin, will be thrown out into pitch darkness - into demonic delusion."2

Humility always accompanies sanctity.  Sanctity is unthinkable without it.  Professor Archimandrite Cyprian says: “The humility with which St. Simeon the New Theologian acknowledges his imperfection, and contritely confesses his past sins and falls, serves as a guarantee that his mystical experience is completely free of the element of prelest and spiritual pride.  Ascetic literature abounds in warnings to novices not to yield to false visions and delusions, not to take an angel of darkness for an Angel of Light.  St. Simeon warns against believing in all kinds of knocking noises, voices, intimidations. visions of sensory light, fragrances. etc.. which tempt the awareness of an ascetic at the time of prayer. . . . Along with humility, the mysterious bond with the Church protects mystics from fall- ing into any false mysticism."3 

1. In ancient times. a king would send a special festive garment to those who were invi- ted to his feast. In one of the Savior's parables, the wedding garment symbolizes the grace of the Holy Spirit which God grants to a true ascetic. 
2. Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, Works, Vol. I, p. 135.
3. Archimandriee Cyprian, "Spiritual Predecessors of Gregory Palamas " p. 113. 

All varieties of self-delusion or prelest are of two kinds.  They are caused, firstly, by improper activity of the mind and, secondly, by improper activity of the heart (feeling).  “The desire and aspiration to perceive spiritual visions by a mind unpurified of passions and unrenewed by the Holy Spirit is filled with pride and lack of discernment; the same pride and lack of discernment make the heart desire and aspire to delight in holy and divine experiences while still being incapable and unworthy of receiving them."4

4. Bilhop Ignatius Brianehaninov, Works, Vol. I, p. 144.  

The first kind of delusion, caused by the heating of the mind and imagination, frequently ends in mental derangement and suicide.  The second kind is called “opinion," and it leads to such a tragic end less frequently because it deludes the mind but does not drive one to a frenzy.  Nevertheless, it is just as ruinous: an ascetic who tries to awaken love for God in his heart and compels himself to experience delight and rapture while disregarding repentance, achieves just the opposite: "he enters into communion with Satan and begins to hate the Holy Spirit."  "Opinion," in various degrees, is very widespread.  "Anyone who does not have a contrite spirit and considers himself a person of virtue and merit. anyone who does not strictly adhere to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, but thinks freely according to his own opinion or a foreign teaching, is actually in this kind of prelest.  The degree of deviation and the persistence in this deviation determine the degree of prelest. . . . "5  In our fallen state, only one kind of feeling is admissible in the unseen worship of God: the feeling of sorrow for one’s sins and sinfulness, one‘s fall and ruin, which is also called lamentation. repentance, contrition of spirit. . . .”  A sacrifice unto God is a broken spirit. a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise (Ps. 50:17).6

5. Ibid.. p. 14:. 
6. lbid., p. 145.

Bishop Ignatius Brianehaninov tells of a characteristic case of prelest caused by the heated mind and imagination.  An Athonite monk paid him a visit and said: “Pray for me. Father, I sleep a lot and I eat a lot."  As he was saying this, Bishop Ignatius felt heat exuding from the monk.  In order to learn about the spiritual state of the Athonite, Bishop Ignatius asked the monk to instruct him in prayer.  "Oh horrors!”  This monk began teaching him a method of “ecstatic prayer, utilizing the imagination."  Later it turned out that the Athonite was completely unfamiliar with the teaching of the Holy Fathers on prayer.  Bishop Ignatius continues: ‘‘In the course of our conversation I said to him:  ‘Look. Elder, when staying in Petersburg, under no circumstances take lodgings in an upper story; be sure you stay on the ground floor.’  ‘Why so?’ objected the monk.  ‘Well,’ I answered, ‘if angels should suddenly decide to take you up and transport you from Petersburg to Mt. Athos, and if they would take you from the upper floor, they could drop you down and you would die on impact; if however, they would take you from the ground floor and drop you, you would only be bruised.’  ‘Believe me,’ answered the Athonite, ‘many times when I stood praying, a vivid thought would come to me that angels would take me up and carry me to Mt. Athos.’  It turned out that the hieroschemamonk was wearing chains on his body, was hardly sleeping, was eating very little, and that he was feeling warmth in his body and had no need of warm clothes in the wintertime.  Towards the end of our conversation I decided to suggest to the monk that, being an ascetic and faster, he should try the method taught by the Holy Fathers.  They advise to keep the mind free of any dream-like fantasies and wholly and at tentively immersed in the words of prayer, ‘to enclose the thought within the words of prayer‘ (St. John of the Ladder, Step 28:17).  The heart then usually sympathizes with the mind, feeling salutary sorrow for the sins committed, as St. Mark the Ascetic said: ‘When the mind prays without distraction it afflicts the heart: a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise‘ (Ch. 34, Philokalia, Part 1).  ‘After you have tried this method,’ I said to the Athonite, ‘let me know about the fruit of your experiment; it is inconvenient for me to undertake such an experiment, considering my distracted way of life.’  The Athonite agreed.  A few days later he came and said: ‘What have you done to me?!‘  ‘What happened?‘  ‘Well. as soon as I tried to pray enclosing my mind in the words of prayer, all my visions disappeared, and I can no longer return to them.‘  During our further conversation, I did not detect the kind of impudence and self-reliance which I noticed in him during our first meeting and which are usually noticeable in persons given to self-deceptions and imagining themselves to be holy or spiritually successful.  The monk expressed his wish to hear my humble advice.  When I advised him not to differ from others externally, for this leads to haughtiness, he took off his chains and handed them to me.  A month later he came again and told me that he no longer suffered from heat in his body, that he was now in need of warm clothes and that he slept more.  He told me that many monks on Mt. Athos, renowned for their holiness, use the method of prayer which he had previously practiced and instructed others in that method as well."7

7. lbi'd.. pp. 140-142.

Chapter 7


Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy. . . . But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edIfication, and exhortation, and comfort. (1 Cor. 14:1, 3)

THE APOSTLE PAUL enumerates three ministries in the Church, independent of the church hierarchy: apostles, prophets, teachers.

Immediately after the apostles stand prophets (Eph. 4:11, I Cor. 12:28).  Their ministry consists primarily of “edification, exhortation, and comfort" (I Cor. 14:3).  With this aim, and also for pointing out or warning, prophets also predict future events.

Through the prophet, the will of God is immediately revealed; and therefore his authority is limitless. 

The prophetic ministry is a special gift of grace, a gift of the Holy Spirit (charisma).  The prophet possesses a special spiritual vision – clairvoyance.  For him the boundaries of space and time are, as it were, set aside; with his spiritual gaze he sees not only events that are occurring now, but also future events.  He sees their spiritual meaning; he sees the soul of man, his past and future.

Such a high calling cannot but be bound up with a high moral level, with purity of heart, with personal sanctity.  Sanctity of life, indeed, was required of the prophet from the first period of Christianity: “He must have the manner of the Lord. From his manner may be distinguished the false prophet and the (true) prophet,” says one of the oldest works of Christian literature, the Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles)1

1. K. Popov, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Kiev, 1884). pp_ 21, 35.  Professor K. Popov, who wrote a special study on this document,  attributes it to the end of the 1st century.  Consequently, Apostle John the Theologian was still alive then, and perhaps other Apostles as wel|.'   Thanks to this document. we have found out much about the life of the Church of the first Christians.  Personally. I have been searching for five years to form the concept of eldership, since in our contemporary theological literature there is no such thing.  And finally I found the answer too my quest — although under a different name, not under the name of eldership – in the most ancient Christian document, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.

The ministries enumerated by the Apostle Paul have been preserved in the Church in all ages.  The ministries of apostle, prophet, and teacher, being independent, may be combined with the rank of bishop or priest.

The prophetic ministry, bound up with personal sanctity, has flourished when spiritual life in the Church was high, and has declined in decadent periods.  Most brightly of all is it manifested in monastic eldership.

The influence of eldership extended far beyond the boundaries of 2. monastery’s walls.  Elders spiritually guided not only monks, but also laymen.  Possessing the gift of clairvoyance, they edified, exhorted, and comforted everyone (I Cor. 14:3); they healed illnesses of soul and body, warned against dangers, indicated the path of life, revealed the will of God.

Being a direct continuation of the prophetic ministry, eldership appeared under this name and in this form only in the 4th century, together with the arising of monasticism, as its guiding principle.


As a ship which bas a good helmsman comes safely into the harbor with God's help, so the soul which has a good shepherd, even though it has done much evil, easily ascends to heaven. (Ladder of Divine Ascent)

The hardships of inner ascetic struggle, which aims at acquiring purity and dispassion, reveal the great signicance of the counselling activity of elders.  St. John of the Ladder says: “Those who rely on themselves and think that they have no need of any guide are deceiving themselves."2

2. St. John Climacus, The Ladder, Step 1:7. 

“Without a guide one easily wanders from the road, however prudent one
may be; and so, he who willfully walks the monastic path easily perishes, even though he may have all wisdom.”3  The same idea is expressed by St. Mark the Ascetic (4th century): “For the man who goes his monastic way willfully and without any guidance often stumbles and falls into many pits and snares of the devil; he frequently exposes himself to many dangers, not knowing what awaits him at the end.  For many have endured great ascetic labors, much hardship and toil for God's sake. but because they relied on their own judgment, lacked discernment, and failed to accept help from their neighbor, their many efforts proved useless and vain."4 

3. lbid. Step 26:237. 
4. “Letter to Nicholas the Solitary," in the book of St. Mark the Ascetic (Optina edition). 

The erroneous ways of self-willed monks are caused, among other things, by the fact that the demons always try to present light as darkness and darkness as light, as the Apostle says: For Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light (II Cor. 11:14).

The monks Ignatius and Callistus instruct: “Most importantly, in everything you do, ask to be advised by your spiritual father in Jesus Christ; for in this manner, by the grace of Christ, the unbearable and the arduous become easy, and it will seem to you that you are rapidly moving along a gently sloping field."5  In this instruction we find five signs of a sincere spiritual attitude of spiritual children to their elder and guide: “1) complete faith in him, 2) truthfulness: being truthful before him in word and deed. 3) not following one’s own will in anything. but instead trying to cut it off (i.e., doing nothing according to one’s own wish and understanding, but always asking for the elder’s advice in everything), 4) never objecting or arguing, since arguments are caused by one’s pride and unbelief, and 5) complete and sincere confession of one’s sins and the secrets of the heart" (revelation of thoughts).6

5. The Pbilohalia (Dobrorohabie). Vol. V. p. 355. 
6. Ibi'd.. p. 319.


The revelation or confession of thoughts, according to Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, “was in all probability instituted by the Apostles themselves" (James 5:16) and was generally practiced in ancient monasticism, as is clearly evident in the writings of Sts. Cassian, John of the Ladder, Barsanuphius the Great, Abba Dorotheus, and, in a word, in all patristic writings on monasticism.  However, an indispensable condition for practicing confession of thoughts is a monk who has been brought up in this practice and has attained a certain degree of spiritual perfection.

St. Cassian the Roman says: “It is beneficial to reveal one's thoughts to the fathers, not just to any father, but to spiritual elders esteemed not because of their venerable age and gray hair, but because of their discernment.  Many men, carried away by the obviously old age of an elder, confessed their thoughts to him, but instead of being healed they suffered harm caused by the incompetence of their confessor,"7  “for not everyone by any means can take upon himself the ‘thoughts confessed to him" (Sts. Barsanuphius and ]ohn).8  St. Ephraim the Syrian forewarns: “If you are not yet in a great measure inflamed by the Holy Spirit, do not aspire to hear other men’s thoughts.”9  “A confessor must be burning with the fire of grace, so that this fire may scorch the wickedness of other men's thoughts and passions, and that grace and confession may not break but rather bind even more the chain of moral relations between him and the men making a confession.  An elder called upon to hear confessions ‘judges in accordance with the Spirit of God abiding within him.’ "10  “Father, tell me what the grace of the All-Holy Spirit will reveal to you, and heal my soul" (Palestinian Pa- tericon)11 — these are the words with which a repentant monk addresses the ascetic.  The grace of the Holy Spirit was, namely, the power which imparted to an elder his inner authority to hear the confession of thoughts and to cure them. 

7. Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, Works, Vol. I, p. 545.
8. Smirnov, "Confession and Repentance in Ancient Monasteries of the East.“ in Theological Messenger (Bogoslovskii Vestnik) (April, 1905), pp. 755-763
9. lbid.
10. Ibid.

This practice, according to Bishop Ignatius, “is of unusual benefit for the soul: no other single ascetic effort mortifies passions with such ease and power as this one.  Passions retreat from the one who mercilessly confesses them.“12

12. Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, Works, Vol. I, p. 545.

“Anyone concealing his thoughts is incurable” (Sts. Barsanuphius and John).  “Do not hide your thoughts, confusions and suspicions. . . . It is over such a man who hides his bad or good thoughts that the demons rejoice" (St. Isaiah).  "Having rejected shame, we should always reveal to our elders everything that takes place in our heart” (St. John Cassian).  “A wicked thought will weaken immediately after it is confessed. And even before the penance is imposed, the abominable dragon flees. as if dragged out into the daylight from his dark underground cave by the courage of confession and now displayed in his disgrace" (St. John Cassian).  “Base thought is the beginning and the root of transgressions; when it is concealed it turns into an act of darkness” (St. Theodore the Studite).13

13. Smirnov, “Confession and Repentance in Ancient Monasteries of the East." in Theological Messenger (March-April. 1905), pp. 459-470. 

The revelation of thoughts is the most powerful weapon in the hands of a spiritual father and elder.  The author of these lines frequently witnessed the Elder of Optina Monastery, Hieroschemamonk Anatole (Potapov) receive confessions of thoughts from the monks.  This scene created a very strong impression.  Filled with concentrated attention and reverence, the monks would one after another walk up to the Elder.  They kneeled when receiving his blessing, and exchanged a few short phrases with him.  Some passed through quickly, others lingered a few moments longer.  One could feel that the Elder treated them with fatherly love and authority.  Occasionally he would resort to an external mode of treatment, like gently slapping the penitent monk on the forehead, probably to fight off obtrusive thoughts.  All the monks left the Elder at peace and consoled.  This would take place twice a day, mornings and evenings.  Truly, life in Optina was unmarred by troubles, and all the monks had a kind, even tender disposition; some were cheerful, others deeply concentrated.  One has to see with one’s own eyes the result of the revelation of thoughts in order to understand its meaning fully.  An ancient monk described in the following words the state of holy joy experienced by a man after he confessed his thoughts: “I was full of ineffable joy, feeling my mind purified of any sinful desires.  I delighted in a purity which I cannot describe. The truth itself is the witness of this; I was fortified by firm faith in God and by great love. . . . I became dispassionate and bodiless, enveloped in God's enlightenment, having been created by His will" (Palestinian Pater- icon. II, pp. 95-96).”14

14. ibid. p. 472.

St. Abba Dorotheus (†620), when teaching about the fear of God, told of the blessed state he attained when revealing his thoughts to his Elder: “I was free of any sorrows, of any anxieties.  If some disquieting thought occurred to me, I would write it down on a tablet (because I was used to writing down my questions before attending to the Elder); and no sooner would I finish writing than I would feel benefit and relief, so great was the carefreeness and peace in me.  Not understanding the power of virtue and having heard that we must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God, I was worried that I had no sorrows.  I revealed this thought to my Elder, and he said: ‘Do not grieve, you have nothing to worry about. Whoever is in obedience to the fathers enjoys freedom from cares, and peace.‘ ”15 

15. “Instruction on Fear in Christian Reading." 1829. in the Patrology of Archbishop Philaret of Chernigov (St. Petersburg. 1882), no. 244.

Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov says that those monks who live by the rules of St. Nilus of Sora. who submit to the guidance of the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Holy Fathers, and are in the habit of confessing their thoughts, may be likened to men who see and live, while those who disregard such a way of life are like blind men, like corpses.”16

16. Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, Works, Vol. I. p. 545.


In ascetic literature, when choosing a spiritual guide one is advised not to look for great endowments in him, for an ability to perform miracles. or a gift of prophecy. etc.. but to choose one who is experienced in spiritual activity. who has personally attained purification of passions: for even a man of passions may possess spiritual gifts. . . . St. Macarius of Egypt said: ‘‘It happens that one may have grace, although his heart is not yet pure.  That is why some men could not but fall: they did not believe that smoke and sin were abiding in them along with grace.'’17 

17. St. Macarius of Egypt, Homilies, Homily 26:25. p. 205.

Only a man who has successfully traversed the path of spiritual labor himself can lead others along this path.

An ascetic who has without a particular effort received the gift of grace because of the purity of his soul. which he has preserved since childhood, may not have the ability to guide others.  Because he is not familiar with the ways of evil from his own experience, he does not know of the warfare against passions, and therefore he does not perceive evil in others.  There were cases when such elders, being holy themselves, harmed their disciples and even “drove them into delusion.” 

In order to direct others, one needs the gift of discernment: “This art is half-way to sanctity" said the Optina Elder Fr. Leonid.  A true elder must have the gift of discernment.

Bishop Ignatius speaks of this gift as follows: “St. Cassian the Roman says that the Egyptian Fathers, among whom monasticism especially flourished and produced astonishing fruits, affirm that ‘it is good to give spiritual direction and to be directed by those who are really wise,’ and they state that ‘this is a very great gift and grace of the Holy Spirit.’  An indispensable condition of such submission is a spirit-bearing guide who by the will of the Spirit can mortify the fallen will of the person subject to him in the Lord, and can mortify all the passions caused by the fallen will as well.  Man's fall and corrupt will imply a tendency to all passions.  It is obvious that the mortification of a fallen will, which is effected so sublimely and victoriously by the will of the Spirit of God, cannot be accomplished by a director’s fallen will when the director himself is still enslaved to the passions.  ‘If you wish to renounce the world and learn the evangelical life,’ said St. Simeon the New Theologian to the monks of his time, ‘do not entrust yourself to an inexperienced or passionate master, lest instead of the evangelical life you learn a diabolical life.  For the teaching of good teachers is good, while the teaching of bad teachers is bad.  Bad seeds invariably produce bad fruits.  Every blind man who undertakes to guide others is a deceiver. and those who follow him are cast into the pit of destruction according to the word of the Lord: if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a hole (Matt. 15:14). . . .'  Those elders who take upon themselves the role of the ancient holy elders without having their spiritual gifts should know that their very intention, their very thoughts and ideas concerning the great monastic work of obedience, are false; let them know that their very outlook or way of thinking, their reason and their knowledge are self-delusion and diabolical prelest which cannot fail to give birth to a corresponding fruit in the person guided by them.

“If there is no good director available," continues Bishop Ignatius. “it is better for an ascetic to be without one altogether than to submit himself to an inexperienced one. . . . It is a terrible business to take upon oneself duties (of eldership) which can be carried out only by order of the Holy Spirit and by the action of the Spirit.  It is a terrible thing to pretend to be a vessel of the Holy Spirit when all the while relations with Satan have not been broken, and the vessel is still being defiled by the action of Satan (i.e., dispassion has not yet been achieved)!  Such hypocrisy is terrible.  It is disastrous both for oneself and one's neighbor; it is criminal in God’s sight, blasphemous. . . . ‘St. Poemen the Great ordered that a penitent should immediately break with an elder if living with him proved to be harmful to the soul’ (Alphabetical Patrology).  Evidently this meant that the elder in question was breaking the moral tradition of the Church.  It is another matter when no harm is done to the soul, and one is only disturbed by thoughts, which are obviously diabolical.  We must not yield to them.  They operate just where we receive spiritual prot, which is what the demons want to snatch from us.”18 

18. Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, Works, Vol. IV. pp. 92-96.

An elder who has gained personal experience in the school of sobriety and mental prayer of the heart, who has thus mastered spiritual-psychological laws, and who has already personally attained dispassion, becomes capable of guiding a novice in his “unseen warfare" on the way to dispassion.  He must be able to penetrate the very depths of the human soul, to see the very inception of evil within it, along with the causes of this inception, to diagnose a disease and find the precise method of healing it.  An elder is a skillful spiritual physician.  He must clearly see the “inner make-up" of his disciple, i.e., the character of his soul and the degree of his spiritual development; he must possess the gift of discrimination and “discernment of spirits," because at all times he has to be dealing with evil which tries to transform itself into an angel of light.  As a man who has attained dispassion, an elder usually has other spiritual gifts as well: those of clairvoyance, of miracle-working, of prophecy. . . . 

In the highest degree of proficiency, as exemplified in St. Seraphim of Sarov, an elder attains complete and unrestricted freedom to manifest his activity, for not he, but Christ lives in him (Gal. 2:20); all his activity is in the Holy Spirit, and therefore always in harmony with the Church and its institutions. 

Eldership is not a hierarchical rank within the Church; it is a special kind of sanctity, and therefore it may inhere in anyone.  A monk without any clerical rank could be an elder, as, for instance, was the case with Fr. Barnabas of Gethsemane Hermitage at the beginning of his activity in spiritual guidance.  A bishop. too, may be an elder: for instance, lgnatius Brianchaninov, or Anthony of Voronezh, the great contemporary of St. Seraphim.  There were elders among priests as well: St. John of Kronstadt and Fr. George [the New Martyr] of Chekriak village.  Finally, eldership can also be taken on by a woman, as for example the clairvoyant Blessed Parasceva lvanovna, a fool-for-Christ of the Diveyevo Convent, without whose advice nothing was ever undertaken in that monastic community.  Also, abbesses and righteous laywomen can function as eldresses.]

Thus, to sum up, eldership is a special gift of grace. a charisma exercised under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, a special kind of sanctity.  While all members of the Church are bound to submit themselves to the Church authority, no one is bound to submit to the authority of an elder.  An elder never imposes himself on anyone; one always submits to him voluntarily.  However, having once found a true, grace-inspired elder and having surrendered to him, the disciple should unreservedly obey him in everything and his advice must be followed, because through the elder God's will is being directly revealed to him.  And such "monastic obedience" — in the form that was practiced in ancient monasticism - is called by Bishop Ignatius “a lofty spiritual mystery.”19  Also to “inquire of an elder" is not required of anyone, but once one has asked for advice, one must follow it for the above reason.

19. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 540.


If a contemporary ascetic can no longer find an experienced spiritual director, through no fault of his own but by reason of a complete absence of the latter, he nevertheless should not lose heart and leave his ascetic endeavor.  According to the advice of St. Nilus of Sora, a monk of today must turn to the Scriptures and the writings of the Holy Fathers; he must not be alone in this, but seek the "counsel of the more proficient brethren, though at the same time comparing their counsel with Scripture."20  To encourage ascetics in their difficult situation, Bishop Ignatius refers them to the advice of St. Isaac the Syrian: “A monk should not doubt that he will receive the gift of Divine grace, just as a son does not doubt that he will receive inheritance from his father.  This inheritance is his by the law of nature."  The aim of monasticism is renewal by the Holy Spirit, but St. Isaac names repentance and humility as the means towards this aim, and advises monks to acquire the ability to weep over themselves and use the prayer of the publican.  He suggests that we uncover in ourselves enough of sinfulness to make our conscience remind us that we are but unworthy servants and in need of mercy.  “Divine mercy,” says the Saint, “comes to us by itself and at the time when one is not thinking about it.  Indeed it is so — but only if the ground is pure and undefiled.”21

20. Ibid.
21. lbI'd., p. 163 (St. Isaac the Syrian, Homilies 55 and 2).

We should repeat here that proper ascetic endeavor is impossible without the Jesus Prayer.  Speaking of those who are afraid to begin practicing the Jesus Prayer, the Elder Basil Polyanomerulsky (the teacher of St. Paisius Velichkovsky) says: “Some who are unfamiliar with this prayer from their own experience think that they have the gift of discernment, and they justify themselves, or. you might say, are disinclined to learn this holy activity for three reasons or considerations.  Firstly, they dismiss it as an exclusive feature of holy and dispassionate men.  The second reason given is the scarcity of experienced guides and teachers, and the third reason — the danger of delusion.  However, these reasons are ungrounded: the first — because the initial stage of spiritual progress for novices consists of the weakening of passions by sobriety of the mind and watchfulness of the heart, i.e., mental prayer, as it befits an active soul.  The second argument is unreasonable and ungrounded because in the case of a lack of proper guides and teachers, Holy Scripture is our teacher. The third argument entails self-deception: instead of learning about delusion and the cautions against it from Holy Scripture. these cautions themselves are misinterpreted and presented as a basis for reluctance to practice mental prayer. If you fear to practice this prayer out of reverence and simplicity of heart, know that I, too, fear it for this reason —- but not because of some senseless fables, according to which ‘if you fear the wolf, don't go into the forest.’ One should fear God, but not run away from Him or renounce Him on account of this fear."22

22. lbid.. p. 128.

The contemporary position of spiritual guidance (dukhovnichestvo), as we will soon see, goes back to ancient monastic eldership (starchestvo) and is its secondary form.  Because of the kinship of these two phenomena (spiritual guidance and eldership) many less experienced priests, only theoretically familiar with ascetic literature, may always be tempted to “exceed their authority," to overstep the boundaries of their position as spiritual guides, in order to assume the role of an elder, while in actual fact they do not understand what true spiritual counselling by elders is all about.  This circumstance is fraught with the danger of causing irrevocable harm to the souls of their spiritual wards.  It is well known that there have even been cases of suicide as a result of such harm being inflicted.

In pseudo-eldership, the will of one person is enslaved by the will of another, contrary to the point made by the Apostle Paul: Ye are bought with a price, be not ye the servants of men (I Cor. 7:23). and this situation entails a feeling of oppression, despondency or an unhealthy partial attitude to the “elder."  A true grace-filled attitude to an elder, although based on unconditional obedience, does not deprive a person of the feeling of joy and freedom in God, because he is not in submission to the will of man, but through it to the will of God.  He knows from his experience that the elder shows him the best way out of any given external difficulty, or offers him the best cure of his spiritual illness.

While the grace-filled elder is the bearer of God's will. the pseudo-elder overshadows God.

One should not confuse the counselling activity of elders with monastic discipline and the authority of superiors, or with the special kind of ascetic endeavor in which a monk submits to complete external obedience to a frequently severe and passionate “elder," thus consciously embracing martyrdom, as it were.  Not every monk is strong enough to go through this kind of mortication of his will, and it may cause great anguish and indifference in the spiritual life.  It is not an example to be imitated, but rather an exception worthy of astonishment.

Bishop Ignatius tells novices to obey the superior and other monastic authorities, as well as to obey “all fathers and brethren in matters that do not conflict with the Law of God, or with the rule and order of the monastery, or with the directives of the monastic authorities.  But on no account obey what is evil. . . . Seek the advice of virtuous and sensible fathers and brethren. but accept their advice with extreme caution and discretion. . . do not be carried away by advice which impresses you greatly at the start," for it may appeal to you because of your inexperience or because it gratifies some hidden passion within you.23

23. Ibid., Vol. IV. pp. 98-104 

The relationship of an adviser to a learner entirely differs from that of an elder to a novice, a slave in the Lord, for whom the elder assumes complete responsibility.  An adviser is not responsible for his advice if he has given it with the fear of God and with humility, not of his own accord but because he was asked and required to give it.  And compliance with the advice received is not compulsory: it may be carried out or not carried out.  "Let us not hide the word of God. but let us make it known,” says St. Nilus of Sora.  “The Divine Scriptures and the words of the Holy Fathers are as numerous as the sands of the sea.  Diligently searching them out, we teach them to those who come to us and who are in need of them (who require them, ask for them).  More correctly. it is not we who teach, because we are unworthy to do so, but it is the blessed and holy Fathers who teach from Divine Scripture.”  “There you have a superb model for our guidance today!” concludes Bishop Ignatius.

A certain experienced priest, speaking of spiritual guidance and pointing to the difference between the counselling activity of elders and that of spiritual guides, expressed himself as follows: “A spiritual guide directs one to the path of salvation, while an elder leads one along this path.”


The elements of eldership (starchestvo) can be found already in the charismatic phenomena of early Christianity.  These charismatic phenomena, says Professor Smirnov, reappeared in ancient monasticism, and the elders were the bearers of the charisma – the special gift of the Holy Spirit, received by man directly from God for his personal achievement.  The right to bind and to absolve, or the “power of the keys," was interpreted then as the highest and most perfect gift.24

24. In ancient times, sacramental confession was not regarded as the only, exclusive and
inevitable means for remission of sins committed after baptism. Confession and repentance were regarded as only one of many methods of purifying the soul from sins. St. John Chrysostom, for example. points out five such methods: 1) public confession, 2) weeping over sins. 3) humility. 4) charity — the queen of virtues, and 5) prayer.

Let us examine: What is this monastic practice?  A spiritual father (πνευματικος πατηρ)25 does not mean a priest who follows a bishop‘s instructions; he is an "ordinary monastic elder, an indispensable guide of monks, independently appointed at a monastery and freely chosen by the pupil.  For the most part, he does not have a clerical rank."  “He would take his pupils’ souls upon his own soul and. step by step, he would guide their spiritual lives, and, therefore, upon receiving their confession of thoughts and deeds, he would encourage and punish them.”

25. This term appeared already in the 4th century and existed until the first half of the 9th century.

The customary and moral relations between the elder and his pupil — spiritual father and spiritual son — both outwardly and inwardly, soon formed a solid and harmonious system which established itself as a monastic custom.  The elder (as, subsequently, the spiritual father) would hear the confession and repentance, usually going over all sins, starting with a fleeting sinful thought slightly disturbing the monastic conscience, and ending with a mortal sin.  “This confession and repentance before the elder used to replace the Church confession and repentance."

The influence of the elders amongst the laity began spreading very early, probably during the first years of monasticism.  Laymen would seek out the elders, bypassing their pastors.

This discipline of monastic repentance in Church must have spread for reasons of its comparative ease, its superior quality and vitality, its “strictly pastoral character due to the presence of a superior and popular eldership, unavailable in the Church confessions."

For certain canonical sins, the ancient Church would first excommunicate the guilty person and then subject him to a public confession.  The elder, however, upon hearing the brother's confession, would immediately reconcile him to his conscience and impose upon him a much lighter form of penance than the church would — thus he “bound and loosed."

Gradually, in the East, the monastic discipline of confession supplanted the church confession performed by the white (non-monastic) clergy, and the elders turned into father-confessors.

How did this happen?  How did the monastic discipline become transformed into a general church discipline, while confession before an elder approached sacramental confession?

This phenomenon can be traced back to the Byzantine Church at the time of Leo the Armenian (1820) during the iconoclastic controversy, when the monastic elders were officially recognized by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nicephorus the Confessor, along with his bishops and priests.  This measure was caused by the needs of the time: Orthodoxy was in danger, and it relied on the cooperation of the most zealous defenders of the veneration of icons — mostly Studite monks.  As a local measure, this paved the way towards supplanting the white clergy in the practice of confession throughout the Orthodox East and for a long time to come — and this was realized after the age of the Ecumenical Councils.  In the course of the 10th to the 12th centuries, secret confession became predominant, having replaced public confession and canonical penances. 

Thus, the “institution" of a spiritual father first appeared in the form of monastic eldership.  The term “spiritual father" had for a long time denoted a monastic elder.  Later this church custom, almost in its entirety, reappeared in the practice of spiritual father-confessors.

The monastic form turned into a customary form of the Church in general, and thus existed in the East almost unchanged throughout several centuries.26

26. Smirnov. "Ancient Spiritual Guidance and Its Origin." in Theological Messenger (Bogoslomkii Vestnik), 1906. Vol. II. pp. 369-382.

When Christianity was adopted in Russia, the Greek and Bulgarian clergy brought their already-established discipline of repentance and the institution of spiritual father-confessors along with their customary features which had developed during the period of the Ecumenical Councils.  This discipline existed in Russia almost untouched until the 18th century, since the ancient Russian Church authorities, being faithful to old traditions, showed hardly any innovation in this sphere.

The discipline of penance in the Slavic Churches differed somewhat from that of the Greek Church.  Apparently, southern Slavs allowed the white clergy to be spiritual father-confessors, which was inadmissible in the Greek Church of that time.

It is possible that the remnants of the ancient Christian public discipline were not equally preserved everywhere.

Although Russia obtained the discipline of penance from Greece and Bulgaria, it deviated from their practice because of the great territorial expanse.  A separate class of spiritual father-confessors soon ceased to exist, and every white (non-monastic) priest, upon ordination, acquired the right to hear confessions.

Another peculiarity of the Russian Church was that consequently the spiritual father-confessor became also a bearer of the priestly rank.

Now let us examine: what was this discipline?  As was the custom of that time, everyone was free to choose his spiritual father-confessor, but once one had chosen him, one had no right to abandon him. 

One was bound to obey him unconditionally, implicitly, and be loyal to him until the end of one’s life.  The spiritual father-confessor, on his part, assumed all the responsibility for the sins of his spiritual son and took his sins upon his own soul.  Let us give an example of such taking on of sins: Having heard the confession and read the prayer over his bent-over repentant son, the spiritual father lifts him up from the earth and places his right hand on his own neck, saying, “Upon my neck are your sins, O child. and may Christ our God not punish you for them when He will come in His glory for His terrible judgment.”

A spiritual father is not only the witness of his spiritual son's repentance before God, but is responsible, as it were, for his sins.  The sin of a repentant son imparted to his spiritual father during confession became their common sin; they were accomplices in crime, as it were.

Being the surety of his flock the ancient Russian spiritual father-confessor (dukhovnik) thus became a man’s guide towards the New Jerusalem, who would open the Kingdom of God for him and lead him to God's throne, saying: “Here am I and the children which Thou hast given to me."

A spiritual father's power in guiding his spiritual children was to be unconditional and unlimited, like that of an abbot or the elder in a monastery, and the penance (epitimia) imposed by him had to be carried out as “the commandment of God"; and whatever he bound, he alone could absolve.“27

27. Smirnov, Ancient Russian Spiritual Father Confessors


Acquisition of Holy Spirit,  Kontsevich
out-of-print book
download 21.1 MB

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments will not be published. I need to know who you are.