The Qualities of a Spiritual ‘Father’

Posted on 01 April 2008

Evangel 23:1 (Spring 2005)

The Qualities of a Spiritual ‘Father’

Evangel 23:1 (Spring 2005)

During a recent visit to the Orthodox monastery of St John and Tolleshunt Knights, I came across a volume in the excellent series of titles published by Cistercian Publications in Kalamazoo. It was entitled Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East. It is a deeply challenging book; or, at least, I found it so.

Among other issues addressed by the volume, the characteristic ‘marks’ of a leader, competent to guide others, are listed. Ware, in the forward, suggests that five responsibilities need to be fulfilled. Fundamentally, the ability to act as a spiritual ‘doctor’ and provide prophylactic not merely reactive support is fore-grounded. Secondly, the ability to counsel is stressed: since healing is effected through words. Thirdly, such healing is achieved by the commitment of the spiritual guide to intercessory prayer as such, becoming, fourthly and as mediator, the channel through which on-going reconciliation to God takes place. Finally, such a person is expected to bear the burdens of those for whom he or she is responsible (Gal. 6:2 provides the biblical mandate).

In the main body of the book, Hausherr stresses that to effectively undertake this task (a role from which the early fathers drew back under a sense of its awesome responsibility) certain qualities were deemed essential. Under ‘moral qualities’ he stresses charity. This is demonstrated in ‘patience, clemency, or benevolent severity’ (60). In order to effectively demonstrate charity, humility is a sine qua non. In addition ‘intellectual qualities’ were demanded; such as gave discernment. Such learning was, of course, far more (even in contrast to) compendious secular knowledge. In particular, it was stressed that oniy purity of mind and heart gave access to the sort of knowledge that rendered a person capable of spiritual discernment. Such, Hausherr suggests, is witnessed in the profound spiritual and psychological insight that is reflected in the sayings of the fathers that have been handed down to us. In a nutshell, self-effacing humility and purity of life were the essential requisites for offering spiritual counsel and such, it was recognized, required a long and arduous path before it could be attained.

A cursory acquaintance with the writings of (especially) the desert fathers, as well as the literature that characterises eastern and western spiritual writings, confirms this analysis as both accurate and biblical. The challenge I experienced in the book is, firstly, that this appeared a far cry from both contemporary emphases in discussions on leadership and the content of training for Christian service. I know of few institutions that include stress upon personal spiritual growth and of one where, on the departure of a staff member who had provided such input, the students were told ‘that was one of his personal peccadilloes’. If those in leadership are blind to such a need, heaven help the churches!

More serious was the personal challenge. When people encounter me are self-effacing humility and sacrificial self-giving love the foundations upon which my work is undertaken? And, if not, what damage am I likely to inflict upon the lives and destinies of those who seek my counsel? Is personal purity (best effected in a context of accountability to others; for the fathers stress that the qualities of a spiritual person cannot be effected in a vacuum) a more fundamental concern to me than the current obsession for the acquiring of still more (paper) ‘competencies’?

Further, the extent to which both I (and the church) have departed from such radically biblical emphases is seen in the need (I find) to think myself into a different world (or, better, a different world-view). The difficulties I encounter in doing so reflect the measure of my personal departure from such demands and the serious apostacy of the contemporary church.

While there are some encouraging signs that evangelicalism is waking to the need,3 there is little evidence of a serious sea-change. Meanwhile emphasis on programmes and technical knowledge and skills predominates and humility and purity are scarcely the major preoccupations of leaders nor do they feature in the expectations of leaders.

Several years ago I wrote an editorial entitled ‘A Sickness unto Death’. I have little reason yet to be more hopeful of the British evangelical scene. Possibly it will be only through decline and decay that a new growth will appear to the glory of God. When it is, one suspects that the rediscovery of the fathers will be an important stepping-stone to renewal.

1 I. Hausherr, Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East (Kalamazoo, Cistercian Publications, 1990). Originally published in French in 1958, the translation includes an excellent forward by Bishop Kallistos Ware.
2 See, for example, George, T & McGrath, A, eds, For All the Saints (Louisville: John Knox, 2003).