The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Some Thoughts on Finding a Spiritual Father

During the time we have been publishing this newsletter, we received many letters from readers with questions on the spiritual life, asceticism, and related topics. It was clear from the questions and the letters that many people thought this newsletter was produced by monks or other clergy; but that is not the case. Instead, it is produced by a simple layman who merely wants to share the riches of the ancient Desert Fathers with the widest possible audience and to help people see that today's problems and issues can be addressed with the ancient wisdom of the Early Desert Christians and those who have followed their way since. By making the writings of the Desert Fathers available on the Internet, in a searchable, accessible format, it is our hope that this ancient wisdom will touch the lives of more people in today's world. In that, I believe we have succeeded as our readership now numbers over 1700 each week.

One question that has come up time and time again is the most important one -- "How do I find a spiritual father in today's world?" It is this question I would like to address today as it is one that applies to a great number of people and it is one I personally have struggled with over the years. In answering this question, reference will be made to the writings of spiritual fathers through the centuries, but I will also take the liberty of sharing some personal experiences with you.

Two primary points have been made repeatedly in my own consultations with monks and priests and in the writings I have consulted: 1) a sincere spiritual child will ALWAYS be led to a spiritual father if the seeker is sincere; and 2) in the absence of a spiritual father, one can always turn to the writings of the Desert Fathers.

I remember once asking a Russian monk, "Why are there no spiritual fathers today like St. Seraphim or the ancient saints who can guide and advise us?" His answer: because there are no spiritual children as in the past. In other words, because modern people are not as serious and humble in their quest for spiritual maturity, are not as willing to endure the hardship, submission, asceticism, material renunciation, and time spent in prayer as people did in earlier times, God does not reward us with the spiritual fathers we think we want. The monk told me, however, that any person who is truly desirous, truly sincere, whose heart truly seeks complete submission to God, will always be led to a spiritual father or mother who can help lead that seeker to salvation.

On the other hand, most of us do not fit that category of truly sincere and truly submissive seekers. For us, a "mediocre" spiritual guide may be found, but the safest and most reliable guide will always be found in the writings of the ancient Desert Fathers. In this respect, you might wish to reread a newsletter from 1998 which discusses the issue of "Why Should We Read the Desert Fathers?" .

What about the earliest saints? Did St. Anthony the Great or St. Paul of Thebes have spiritual fathers or libraries of books to read? Of course not. So how did they learn? How did they acquire their vast troves of spiritual knowledge and understanding? I asked a monk on Mount Athos about this once and his answer was simple. The early Fathers had the greatest spiritual library imaginable -- the Holy Bible.

If you read the lives of the Desert Fathers, one common fact about their lives comes up repeatedly; quite often, the ONLY book they had in their cells was a copy of the Bible, as often as not personally and painstakingly hand-copied from a Bible owned by another hermit. This Bible was their most valuable possession, but they were without exception ready to give it up to a thief, a buyer, or a pilgrim in order to avoid material attachment to the object itself. Because of their profound humility and simplicity, and their great desire to submit to God, the Almighty One taught them through the pages of the Bible and led them to learn and write down the vast wisdom we now know as the teachings of the Desert Fathers.

St. Anthony the Great, when asked how he could live in the desert without books to teach him, replied that the hills around him were his books. In other words, living in solitude in nature in submission to God's Will taught him the spiritual life. The implication is clear -- the serious seeker, who shuns the material world (even if he or she continues to live IN the world, material attachment can still be avoided), will always be led to the Truth by God if the effort and desire are there.

One should also not make the mistake of thinking that only those will be saved who leave families and the world behind to live the ascetic life in solitude. On this, the teachings of the Desert Fathers are clear. A man who lived in the city and wanted to go to the desert to be a monk once consulted St. Niphon. St. Niphon could tell this man had no real inclination toward monasticism so he told him, "My son, a man is neither saved nor lost by the place he is in, but is saved or lost by his deeds. Neither a holy place nor a holy state is of use to him who does not fulfill the commandments of the Lord. Saul lived in regal luxury and perished. David lived in luxury and received the wreath (of salvation). Lot lived among the lawless Sodomites and was saved. Judas was among the apostles and went to Hell. Whoever says that it is impossible to be saved with a wife and children is a deceiver. Abraham had a wife and children and three hundred and eighteen servants, and also much gold and silver, and he was called the friend of God! Many servants of the Church have been saved, and many lovers of the desert; many aristocrats, and many soldiers; many craftsmen, and many farm laborers. Be devout towards God and loving towards men, and you will be saved."

St. Theophan the Recluse wrote a nice piece about the need for a spiritual father in one's life. Read his words carefully:

"St. Anthony the Great, when he began to wonder whether his rule was true, immediately began to cry out: 'Tell me the way, Lord,' and was only at peace when he received assurance. Anyone who has embarked upon the spiritual life is just as one who has embarked upon an ordinary journey. Since we do not know the way, we need someone to lead us. It would be too self-reliant to think: 'I can do it myself. . . . .' No, neither rank nor learnedness, nor any other thing can help. It is no less self- reliant if someone who is not subject to extraordinary circumstances but who has the opportunity to seek out a guide, yet does not choose one, assuming that God will guide him without an intermediary. It is true that it is God Who has received us and leads us to perfection, but under the guidance of a father. The father does not lift us onto the steps, but facilitates our being lifted by God. Nevertheless, in the usual order of things, God leads us, makes us understand, purifies us, and tells us his will through others. Anyone left alone with himself is in extreme danger, never mind that he will be thrashing and floundering in one place, producing very little fruit. Knowing neither ascetic feats, nor spiritual exercises, nor their order, he will do them and re-do them, like someone who has taken up a task he does not know how to do. Often for this reason many people get stuck, grow cold and lose their zeal. But the chief danger is inner disorder and satanic delusion."

Clearly, the spiritual seeker should seek a spiritual father, but one should not despair when one does not find such a guide immediately. Each Christian needs a spiritual father if they are truly seeking to do God's Will and grow in the Faith. However, we do not need to go to Mount Athos or the Holy Land to find a "spiritual guru." We do not even need to wander from monastery to monastery or parish to parish within our own land to seek a spiritual father. If you truly seek the wisdom of the Desert, you will find it if you seek with your heart and soul and your real desire is to submit to God, as opposed to being "spiritual." If you are a sincere student of the spiritual life, a true seeker of holy wisdom, then God will lead you to it and, in the process, may even lead you to a true spiritual father who will direct your daily life in the tradition of the Desert Fathers. Should that happen, consider yourself blessed to the highest degree. If it does not happen, however, do not despair because everything you need for spiritual growth is there if your heart is truly seeking submission to God's Will.

I hope these thoughts are of some help to you if you feel the need to find a spiritual father in these times of spiritual deadness. The search is not an easy one, but God DOES reward the sincere seeker and the guidance we need is out there, whether in the Bible, the Desert Fathers, or from that rare spiritual father who can truly lead the dedicated student who submits to his will. It is a difficult search, but the payoff is eternal life and salvation.