It is good to know how properly to practice asceticism in spiritual life: asceticism to be practiced in knowledge; spiritual ascent and transformation to be in knowledge; repentance in knowledge, obedience in knowledge, prayer in knowledge, deeds in knowledge -, as the Holy Fathers say.
Awareness of where we stand at all times. To know what we strive after and in which direction we move every single moment. Christ to be our touchstone.
Many times, in different contexts and studying the process of spiritual maturation from various aspects, we point out that there are three stages (levels) in the spiritual development of a person. The ascetical-hesychastic living Tradition names them as:
- First stage - purification of the heart from passions
- Second stage - illumination of the mind
- Third stage - deification of man's person.
Why is it necessary to repeat already said and even adopted things? Because we forget! Knowledge is preceded by ignorance, which is the greatest sin, as the Holy Fathers say. And, it is followed by forgetfulness! Knowledge is not a mental category in the Church. Knowledge is grace! It is a gift of the Holy Spirit by the prayers of the spiritual father. We acquire knowledge, it is given to us only through practice, through the graceful experience in the practice of obedience during which at first the energy of the mind is purified and then the mind is illumined and deified to its very essence. f orgetfulness happens in the instance of repeated fall, falling away, losing grace, when we return to the life and deeds according to the passions of the old man.
Thus, to each of the above-mentioned stages there is a certain corresponding process of purification, of prayer, of temptations. To each of these three stages there is a corresponding priestly rank, when it comes to canonical ordination. To each of these stages there is also a corresponding mode of organisation of monastic life: Community (cenobium), Skete, Desert. At each of these three stages also occurs certain, specific and different for each level, spiritual relationship of the spiritual child with the spiritual father, which depends, among other things, on the stage in which each of them is. This relationship is dynamic. It passes from one level to another. It transforms.
The spiritual father gives birth (spiritually, by grace) to his spiritual child. And he has to raise him, to educate and bring him up, to set him free. This development is inevitable and takes place only in the Holy Mystery of the personal relationship between them, in the Church. Such a relationship can be unique, deep, sincere, loving. When the spiritual child is in the first stage of spiritual growth, the quality of this relationship depends, first of all, on the openness and the unreserved trust and obedience of the spiritual child to his father, and not as much on the holiness of the spiritual guide. Starting point of this relationship is the degree of darkness of ignorance and captivity by passions of the spiritual child, especially by the main one - vainglory. It is necessary to reach the level at which the spiritual child experiences purification and opening of the heart (as a spiritual centre of our being) and gushing forth of the mind-and-heart prayer. Then their relationship most frequently becomes communion and exchange, in humility, of the graceful experience between brother and brother, brother and sister, in Christ. St. John the Baptist says: He must become greater; I must become less. So it is in the spiritual relationship of the spiritual father with his spiritual child: his supervision and guidance are diminishing more and more, in proportion of Christ's revelation and growth in the heart of the spiritual child.
Hence, the meaning of guidance in spiritual life through the personal relationship spiritual father - spiritual child is a new quality of relationships, growing in Christ, in the image and likeness of God: the Holy Trinity. And it is not a relationship as some understand it and which is most frequently found in the philosophic-religious systems of the Far East, in the form of once for all given idolatrous relationships: guru (master) - disciple.
What is the starting position?
- Diagnosis of our disease.
Within us, with various intensity, depending on the circumstances and the degree of inner spiritual maturity, three main passions are operating: self-indulgence, avarice, and vainglory. The main passion that closes our heart and severely obstructs the process of purification and spiritual growth is vainglory - pride, vanity.
Your heart is closed?! Examine yourself! A closed heart is a captured heart; captured by passions. But how do we know that most often because of high self-opinion (conceit), and not because of some other passion, our heart is closed? We recognise this by the form of the attack.
Here is how the process develops from the moment the demonic thought appears till we consent to it in our heart. At first, a thought is offered to us in the form of:
1. a suggestion - so the mind can indulge itself in
2. conversation with it - after which usually follows
3. consent to the thought and bringing it down into the heart - from which a desire for it to be realised is born.
4. carrying it out - if there is an opportunity for that.
How are you tempted by the passion of self-indulgence? A pleasure-indulgent thought assaults you. Depending on the spiritual stage you are in, you recognise the thought and you do not consent to it or - you struggle against it, then you rebut it or consent to it. If you consent to it, you can confess it, while you have not yet carried it out. Are you by any chance attacked by the passion of avarice? A thought assaults you. Then you rebut it. It assaults you again - you enter into dialogue with it. You have enough time and ways to defeat it, or else to confess it before sinning in deed. So, the usual process of development of a thought - from suggestion to deed - takes place.
Still, let us consider what happens when self-love is in question? If someone only for a moment just slightly steps on our pride, our vanity, high opinion about ourselves - we immediately experience spiritual darkness. In this case there is no thought to defend ourselves from or agree with, as in the previous cases. There is no standard attack! There is no standard defence. For we are captured by pride and the enemy of our salvation, the slanderer, the evil one, has no need to conquer our heart from the outside, by suggestions in form of thoughts.
Make a distinction!
When we are captured by the passion of vainglory it rules over us, our heart, our thoughts, words, reactions and we have no control whatsoever over ourselves, over what happens in our heart and over how we react in certain situations when our pride is wounded. In other words, sinful feelings and thoughts occasioned by our wounded pride, and due to the captivity, freely invade our heart, without us having an opportunity immediately to check and recognise them. Instantly, without brakes, our feelings about the one that hurt us become negative and we fall with obvious consequences on our spiritual life. So, the thoughts that assault at such temptations do not move in the usual way, but starting from the position of the conquered space in the hearts, tend to lead us into even greater evil. When at the very moment, after the damage is done, you condemn someone and your love for him turns cold, they lead you to start hating him. If you already hate him, they give you suggestions how to do him evil. The fall, in a moment of slackening off and consent, can be disastrous from the perspective of the soul's salvation. This is what happens when the passion of vainglory is in question. Whereas, as we have noticed, if the demon wants to activate our passion of self-indulgence or avarice, the usual process from a suggestion to consent and realisation of the thought has to take place.
The diagnosis of the disease is: pride. Pride is the most powerful, most imperceptible and subtle of all passions - disease of the fallen mind. There is a remedy. It is given to us when we truly want to be healed. The healing begins with the appearance of the spiritual father to whom, by the choice of our free will, with love and humility, we put ourselves under obedience, we open the wounds of our soul so that they may be appropriately treated.
Characteristics of the fallen mind are: pride, distraction, and darkness. Traits of the mind restored in the likeness of Christ are: humility, concentration in the prayer, illumination. The way of healing, therefore, is to put our fallen mind under obedience to a spiritual father. Since in the state of fall and darkness we cannot make a distinction what is good indeed, what might do us good, and what might do us harm. God arranges our salvation in ways much unfathomable for us. To the ones that sincerely wish to be saved - He fulfils their wish, inspires them, supports them, creating conditions, fortifies them in the good. Still, He does this in a way that He never violates the freedom given to them.
In the first stage of spiritual development, in the stage of purification, we voluntarily and freely enter into obedience. At this level we strive with our will-power to keep at distance every desire, feeling, or thought until they are checked with our spiritual father. And we accept or reject them, following his advice. We check everything with him. That is how the process of healing begins. The spiritual father is the one that thinks and decides on our behalf - carrying all the weight and responsibility for that. This is his voluntary sacrifice out of love, a risk that serves our salvation. Obedience provides the spiritual child with a carefree state of mind, which, for its part, is a precondition for prayerful stillness. This process lasts until our heart opens.
Thus, in the first stage the ascetical struggle consists of:
- Not identifying with thoughts, desires, and feelings and their checking with the spiritual father;
- Proper confession at which we reveal the reactions of our heart when falling into temptation, and we do not judge the others;
- Bodily effort (abstinence from food and all kinds of bodily comfort; fasting, prostrations, regular attendance at the church services, etc.) through which we likewise trample on our self-love and habit of self-indulgence of the fallen nature in us and we set the framework, the foundation, the atmosphere for mourning, by which the gift of tears of repentance, that will lead us to the mind-and-heart prayer, is opened to us.
If we hold to such endeavour persistently, to the last detail - because it is the small things that we stumble on, fall and get darkened - little by little we are healed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is given to us through obedience to the spiritual father. On small things we stumble and fall! Even if the spiritual father is not illumined, he certainly will not lead us into sin, although he can make mistakes in giving some usual, daily commandment (Go!, Come!, Do it this way or the other!... This is alright - that is not! , etc.). Here lies our wisdom to obey, even though we may not agree with some of his commandments or some of them may not make sense for us. This is why we say that when we are in the first stage it does not matter if our spiritual guide is holy, if he is in the stage of deification or not. What matters is to oppose pride with humility and contrition, in a real personal relationship with our spiritual father.
This healing process is not subject to the logic of this world. It is interpenetration and life in Christ and a living tradition, which is passed on only from a father to a child, directly and personally.
There is no other way! It is a process where in force is the law of love beyond reason - ascetical in the beginning and subsequently graceful love. Here the spiritual father risks being hurt, as he "hurts", heals his spiritual child, while cutting off the passion of his mind. The spiritual father usually keeps silent when trifles are in question. Yet, if there happened to occur identification with a desire, feeling, or thought that is disastrous for the spiritual growth and salvation of his child, the spiritual father must react on time and cut it off. At the same time there is a risk this to be understood as rejection of the person, which is due to the identification. Then the spiritual child, being captured by that thought, desire, or feeling, automatically returns the blow with non-love.
What is the risk of the spiritual father?
First, receiving blows all the time, being hurt by his child: with a thought, gesture, word, deed, on the level of human relationships. It is natural for him to be hurt: the spiritual child will return with non-love and will hurt the spiritual father in proportion to the captivity by and identification with the passion. Second, on spiritual level, at the same time the demon attacks him as well, because he is trying to save one more soul, disentangling it from the nets of the sin. Third, the spiritual father remits sins in the Holy Mystery of Confession. When he, lovingly, covers his spiritual child – lessening his canonical penance ( epitimion ) or releasing him completely from it - he takes a great risk as well. He takes upon himself the responsibility and the whole weight of the demonic attack falls on him, in the measure of the sin he remitted from. And fourth, when the spiritual father invests with schema and ordains to priesthood - without canonical backing and with real obstacles for it - he again takes all the responsibility upon himself and risks, covering in everything his spiritual child. The father always faces a demonic attack equivalent to the shortcomings or the sins he covers. Errors can be made: if the spiritual child, when tempted, imprudently falls away from his spiritual parent. Yet, can the parent stop caring even if the child abandons him completely?!
There is a spiritual rule here that few are aware of. In a state of darkness man must not undertake anything; he must not act. It takes a little patience; he must wait. When enlightened, then to make a decision. And yet, on the contrary, it is exactly in this passionate gloom that people most often make vital decisions - and fall - sealing, making impossible, temporarily or for good, the process of healing and spiritual growth.
In the first stage, the stage of purification, the spiritual child cannot come to know Christ, except through his spiritual father. Although intellectually imagines to know something under the delusion of conceit. The mind is captured by pride and vanity and vainglory. The heart is closed for the mind-and-heart prayer. The inner areas within the heart and the graceful fount, in which the mind transforms, are inaccessible for the mind and it needs guidance and purification. Without a spiritual father this first level cannot be passed!
Therefore, those that are still in the stage of purification, and say they have a spiritual father who lives somewhere far away from them - for instance on the Holy Mountain or in Jerusalem, whom they rarely see, and they live day to day as they wish, guided by their own desires, feelings, and thoughts - cannot overcome the first stage of spiritual ascent. They are under misapprehension. They are not getting anywhere. Who guides them?!
In the first stage it is necessary to eat your daily bread with your spiritual father and live together with him every single day. Him to keep an eye on you, to suppress you - you to feel pain; and return the blow, hurt him - him to be patient with you; you to humble yourself before him. This is inevitable! Without this there is no cure, no spiritual life, and no growth. There is no opening of the heart. There is no illumination.
Now, in the second stage - the stage of illumination, when the heart opens and the mind prayerfully descends in it - it is important that we have a spiritual father with illumined mind and gift of the mind-and-heart prayer. Because, he will know how to provide his spiritual child with conditions for prayerful stillness. Unless the needs of the Church demand something else. Then once the heart is opened, the necessity of this is crucial.
Where does the relationship 'spiritual father-spiritual child' stand here?
If the spiritual father is in the third stage - the stage of deification, then he can guide the spiritual life of his child who is in the second stage - of illumination, and the spiritual child has to obey him. The vows are still binding. If not, if the spiritual father is in the second stage, their personal relationship is in essence a relationship of brothers in Christ, who mutually advise and supervise each other so as not to leave, by any chance, room for the demon, since the perfection of deification has not yet been reached. A meeting, seeing each other - from time to time. Exchange of experience. Then I can freely say that my by honour spiritual father is on the Holy Mountain, on Sinai or in America; that I meet him once a year, and we occasionally write to each other or, when necessary, consult on the telephone.
Spiritual father of a diocese should be its diocesan, and not somebody else. If the episcope has too many priests to supervise, then he may transfer the spiritual guidance to one or more experienced fathers, who, in any case, will confess to him. All else is not in concord with Orthodox Tradition.
A characteristic for those who reckon to be spiritual fathers, and are still at the first level of spiritual development, is never to discuss the mind-and-heart prayer, since they have no experience in it. Yet, something must be a subject for discussion. Those that are less educated discuss in a judgmental tone on zealot matters, on the calendar, on ecumenism, on the last times and the apocalypse. w hereas, the highly educated ones tend to publish ethical-philosophical treatises disguised under a theological mask, burdened with many vague words and complex expressions that reach neither the mind nor the heart of the people. And they dare not speak on purely dogmatic issues.
Genuine spiritual life and struggle start from the moment of descent of the mind in the heart. Then responsibility becomes much greater, along with repentance. It encompasses the dimensions of Adam's lament for all mankind. Then it is necessary to persist in the feat of bringing and keeping the mind in the heart. Then, as the Fathers put it, the demon will raise temptations even from the end of the earth to prevent the ascetical unceasing mind-and-heart prayer.
But we, still fallen and too proud, are marking time for years, entrapped, remaining in the initial steps of the first level of spiritual development, often even going backwards. And, with obedience and humility we could have run across the beginning swiftly, in the attempt to fulfil the commandments - on the narrow road to unceasing prayer.
(An essay from the book Homily from Eleusa)