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Spiritual Fatherhood - Path to Humility

1 Timothy 1:1-2

Timothy Copple

The epistles to Timothy and Titus are of a special nature in the New Testament because they are the only epistles written from a spiritual father to a disciple in the faith. Thus, they take on a different character than St. Paul's epistles written to the general churches. Here we see the fatherly instructions given to a son on how to lead and a snap shot of the Early Church's structure.

It is also helpful to know that St. Paul was writing these epistles to St. Timothy late in his own ministry, while in Rome under arrest. His instructions then are not as one who is young and inexperienced, but one who has been through many trials, sufferings and reflects a deep spiritual quality. Thus, while this epistle was written to the Apostle Timothy in the first century, we may find some helpful direction from one of the earliest spiritual fathers for our own lives. May we be open to that guidance.

(1 Tim 1:1-2 NKJV) Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the commandment of God our Savior and the Lord Jesus Christ, our hope, {2} To Timothy, a true son in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.

St. Paul addresses St. Timothy in the standard way, as in many of his letters. Certainly there is no need to remind St. Timothy of his apostleship. Yet, there very well may be a reason. For in the following verses we find St. Paul giving advice to St. Timothy on how to lead others. This is a reminder of where all true ministers derive their authority to fulfill a calling "…by commandment of God." As it is for St. Paul, so it is for St. Timothy. As it is for St. Timothy, so it is for each of us. For if we have truly denied ourselves, taken up our crosses and followed Christ, then nothing should be done of our own will but of the will of Him whom we follow.

The Elder Ambrose of Optina Monastery spoke with a monk concerning this. The monk had wanted to go and visit his family. The Superior of the monastery gave him a blessing to go upon the condition that Elder Ambrose also gave him a blessing as well. However, it was a couple of weeks before the monk could find an opportunity to get some time with the Elder because of the crowds that always were seeking him. During that time, feeling secure that the Elder would give his blessing, he told several of the other monks that he was heading out soon to visit his family. When he finally got in to see Elder Ambrose, the Elder cautioned against going. After a little thought, the monk relates:

I said: "Batiushka, I have decided to stay—I won’t go." "And it will be good for you," said the Elder; "your home won’t go anywhere; maybe next year you can visit, if we will be alive and well." I said to him: "Forgive me, Batiushka, for my frankness; it will be awkward for me before the brothers. I am ashamed that I prepared myself for so long, went to the Abbot to say goodby, and now I’m staying." To this Batiushka said seriously, "So what? Shame is not smoke, it doesn’t get in your eyes. It is shameful, brother, for a monk to do his own will; it is better to be the disciple of a disciple than to live by one’s own will. The writings of the Holy Fathers speak about this. One should be ashamed not before others, but before God and one’s conscience, which is an uncorruptible and impartial judge. To be obedient to the counsel of one’s spiritual father is not shameful, but soul-saving and necessary; and he who is not obedient to good counsel is punished."

"But we are not monks, or in the position of St. Timothy either," you might think. This is true, and unlike a monk, we are not in strict obedience to a single person. Yet, the underlying principle still applies. As Elder Ambrose states, "It is better to be the disciple of a disciple than to live by one’s own will." In the end, to live by one’s own will as society has taught us to do, will end in misery and loss of our salvation. In such a state, the Holy Fathers indicate, that we become a prime target of the enemy to be lead away from the faith. But even in the most basic of circumstances, it is better to put our will under another’s in order to not let the enemy get a foothold in our soul through pride.

The Scriptures are rich with how we are to go about doing this. With the layman, it is not so much that we put ourselves under the total obedience to one person, but that we make each of our relationship an opportunity to place ourselves under obedience. St. Paul tells us:

For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1 Cor. 6:20)

So first of all, we are God’s, not our own. Our ultimate obedience goes to God. All needs to be done according to His will. Nothing should be done without His blessing.

One lady we knew in the Rio Grande Valley would constantly add onto any sentence "…if God wills." It became annoying, sort of like Chinese water torture. While I would not recommend adding that onto every sentence we say, it is true that this spirit should be in our hearts with all our plans and actions. Not just saying the words in our heads, but sensing them in our hearts. Not expecting God’s blessing after we have decided to do something, but seeking that blessing before proceeding.

This "blessing" we are able to gain through our conscience which both Father Ambrose and the Scriptures speak. If we have not seared it with willful sins, it will act under the Holy Spirit’s influence as an internal check of the heart; an inner sense of when one should hold back or when one should proceed with something. Our problem is that society has basically taught us that this conscience is not to be relied upon. We are taught that it is highly conditioned by our upbringing and that a guilty conscience is to be ignored as a psychological problem rather than a spiritual warning light going off in our soul.

Due to this, we no longer know how to even listen to our conscience. We are so blinded in our passions that we cannot distinguish the inner prompting of God in our conscience from our own will’s desires. This is the effects of sin, and why those who are pure in heart shall see God. All the signals of the passions are added to those of God’s and what we end up with is static. The signal of the flesh overrides the signal from God. To the degree that we are able to obtain stillness of the heart and block out the multiple channels of signals being sent to us by the flesh, we are able to obtain more and more of the signal of God within our heart. We are able to hear more, understand more and see more. The "dark glass" we are looking through needs cleaning so that we can hear again the voice of God within our conscience, directing us.

It is for these reasons that the monastics were cautioned about heading out into solitary seclusion too quickly. With the glass still very dark, you would not even have the blind leading the blind but a blind person leading himself. With passions yet unconquered, a person would only end up getting thrown around by the tricks of the Devil and easily deceived. Those who were able to do this were usually in a state of great repentance, St. Mary of Egypt being a prime example. If one goes out by pride in one’s spiritual condition and advancement rather than repentance and humility, they will not be able to hear God but the Devil will make them think they are.

Yet, for most of us, we are not in that stage where we can hear our conscience clearly. This is why within the Protestant world, I once heard a speaker say that the question he gets asked most often, especially by college and high school age, is how to know the will of God. The answer lies in reducing the incoming signals of our flesh, the world and our pride. This comes through fasting, prayer and the giving of ourselves in love. It comes above all in the gift of humility and obedience as the Holy Fathers teach us. This is why Elder Ambrose follows up the teaching on obedience to God and one’s conscience with being obedient to a spiritual father. Doing this takes pride out of the picture of what we do so that the Devil will have no opportunity to destroy us by the guilt of our own willful decisions and acts.

So who are we under submission to? What and who is a spiritual father? A spiritual father is one who has the responsibility to look out after your soul. For a monk, this requires exclusive and complete obedience, short of heresy. For the lay person, this means placing yourself under one who is to care for your spiritual welfare even if he is not involved with every aspect of your life. Yet, on important matters you will seek their blessing, especially where it involves the direction of your life.

Is this the priest? A good chance it will be, but not necessarily. Fr. Sergius Chetverikov, writing in his book about Elder Ambrose, talks about the difference between a father-confessor and an elder (i.e., spiritual father).

A father-confessor hears the confessions of a penitent Christian and absolves his sins according to the authority given to pastors of the Church by the Lord Jesus Christ. Eldership is not bound up with the Sacrament of Confession, rather it consists in revealing the condition of one’s soul to another more experienced in spiritual life, and the receiving of profitable counsel and guidance not at all connected to the remission of his sins. The father-confessor may only be a priest, while an elder may even be a layman of no priestly rank. A woman can also be an eldress. Of course, eldership can be a part of the father-confessor’s part, but it is not essential.

In monasteries, father-confessors are appointed by the higher authorities from among those individuals who have earned such an appointment by their experience, and, finally, by their age. Elders are not appointed. The choice of an elder is a voluntary matter. The elder is such unofficially. (pp. 135-136)

As we can see, only a priest or higher in rank can perform the sacramental rite of absolution. And one’s father-confessor can also be one’s spiritual father as well, but not necessarily so. This all depends upon whom you feel free to entrust your spiritual life to. But once you do that, there is a commitment to follow through on the counsel given. To not follow it opens one up to spiritual pride.

It should also be noted that if one does have a spiritual father other than the priest of the parish, it does not mean that the person does not need to obtain the blessing of the priest in matters related to the church before proceeding. Even on other matters, it is wise to get the priest’s blessing in such circumstances as a confirmation. If one is contemplating putting themselves under the obedience of another as their spiritual father, one should also obtain the priest’s blessing for this as well. For the priest by the position he holds already has to give an account to God for your soul even if he is not one’s spiritual father in the church.

For many of us, however, it may take time to even get to this point. Rather, our obedience follows from a "multitude of counselors" in seeking advice. But, there is also another level of obedience to which we must place ourselves under, even if we have no official "spiritual father."

First, for those married and the children, there is the family structure itself. St. Paul lays it out how this works very well in Ephesians. He instructs wives to "obey" their husbands as "unto the Lord." (Eph. 5:22-24) Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, giving Himself for her. (Eph. 5:25-33). This is a mutual obedience to each other, and not the dictatorship that some tend to interpret it as. Submit is explicitly said of the wife, because the man should be the final one to make decisions in the house. Someone has to be the one to make the final decision, and that responsibility falls to the husband. But in the same way, he is to give an account to God for the wife, as to whether he made decisions from love or other selfish motives. In this way he is also in obedience to his wife, basing his decisions on what is best for her and the family. This is further illustrated when St. Paul tells the wife and husband alike that they are each the other’s "property" so to speak. (1 Cor. 7:3-4)

Also, the children are to obey their parents as it lists in the Ten Commandments. (Eph. 6:1-3) It is at this point that children are either trained or not trained in humility through obedience. Without it, pride and selfishness are not quenched. Self-discipline is never mastered and true saving humility comes harder and harder to acquire. So it becomes important for children to stay in obedience to parents even when it seems unfair to them and to trample on their rights. This is important because we need to first learn humility and obedience before we can gain the true rights and privileges found in a heart attuned to God in repentance.

At the same time, parents are to be concerned with bringing them up in the admonition of the Lord, and are thus under the obedience of God for that aspect of their lives. (Eph. 6:4) We are not to provoke them to wrath, which basically means we take their feelings and desires into consideration in what we do. It means we treat them like real people, and not just a responsibility or pest to put up with. Even one who has been given authority over another, we soon discover, is under obedience to them through the Lord. He may very well ask us why we did not give Him a visit, even through our own children.

Even apart from the family, however, we are to be in obedience to people. We are to be obedient to those over us in the work place. (Eph. 6:5-8) Bosses are also to be in the type of obedience to God towards those under them as we have already mentioned. (Eph. 6:9) We are told to be obedient to the governing authorities. (Rom. 13:1-7) In short, we are to be obedient to all around us in one way or another with the attitude St. Paul talks about:

Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. (Phil. 2:3-4)

In short, we are talking here of humble respect for each other as real persons made in God’s image. We are called to deny ourselves and seek after the welfare in others no matter what we do. This means that we are ultimately always in obedience to someone and if we find ourselves over someone in a position of any authority, we are still under obedience to that one as unto the Lord. The very essence of having any relationship is to put one’s self under obedience to that person to some degree. The more accountable we are to a person, the more intimate is the relationship we have with them. This tells us something of our relationship with God.

We should also touch upon something else lest due to ignorance we find someone becoming a spiritual father without considering the cost. For while there is a great amount of trust being placed in a person by one who wishes to be put under someone, there is also a great and fearful responsibility to the one who accepts the position of a spiritual father to others. There is a great temptation to pride in that position, which if we are not spiritually advanced enough in the virtue of humility, may find that the gains we have made are lost to pride.

On top of that, a spiritual father will have to give an account for how they led those under them. If they have really purified their hearts enough that they can hear from God or gain instructions about matters from the Theotokos, then they are not speaking their own opinions and mind but are also under the obedience of what they have heard. But if not, we should keep our mouths shut and only offer any advice as a friend and not a spiritual father. If one starts coming up with their own counsel and instructions apart from God and the Church, then they will be held responsible for any loss to the soul under their care.

Rather, for most of us, we will not want to be placed under that responsibility, nor are we spiritually advanced enough to be able to help others in that way. Yet, as Elder Ambrose said, it is better to be a disciple of a disciple than to go totally by one’s own will. Thus, there is another way that is recommended when there are no true experienced spiritual fathers available. Fr. Sergius Chetverikov relates the story of Elder Paisius Velichkovsky when he was first seeking a spiritual father, and finding none even on Mt. Athos proceeded to read the books of the Holy Fathers as his own guidance. (p. 76)

At this time, a young monk by the name of Bessarion found him and implored him to allow him to settle with him and be his disciple. Remarkable is the answer that Fr. Paisius gave to Bessarion:

"Brother! You compel me to say something sad…for I also, with much effort and sorrow, likewise sought an instructor and did not find one; and I endured many sorrows, and even now I bear them…. The salvation of the soul, concerning which you ask me, cannot be made easy except by a true spiritual instructor, one who forces himself first of all to fulfill all the commandments of the Lord…for how can one instruct another on a path which he himself has not walked? He himself first of all must withstand all the passions of soul and body even unto blood, and conquer, with the help of Christ, lust and anger, pride, sensuality, love of glory and love of money, so as to learn to heal others and instruct them in the commandments of God…. Such, O brother, is the instructor we should acquire, but alas! Such are our times! Foreseeing by the Spirit of God this woeful time, our God-bearing Father, out of pity for us, left us their holy writings, which we must with great solicitude and with many tears study day and night!"

Following this rule, attentively studying the works of the ascetic fathers, and implementing their instructions in very deed, Fr. Paisius by degrees attained to greater and greater experience, so that in a short time he was noticed by many seekers of Christian wisdom who, settling near him, persistently implored him to be their guide on the path to salvation. Fr. Paisius refused for a long time, but was finally forced to yield to their request and thus there sprang up near him a company of his disciples.

If we make diligent effort to read the Bible, study the writings of Holy Fathers with the mind to put these into effect in as much as it is proper for us to do so as lay people, then we too can gain some humility and move along the path of our salvation. In this framework, we must seek to become "spiritual fathers" to each other. Not as a clairvoyant elder who can give one instructions from God, but as one who is to be a check against self will in our decision making processes. It becomes a mutual obedience of love between two people who reveal everything to each other and do not do anything of importance without the other’s input and blessing. The Holy Spirit will take us where we are at and lead a sincere and humble heart into a fuller spiritual life, cleansing the conscience and helping us to hear God’s leading in our life.

Thus was St. Paul a spiritual father to St. Timothy. In the canon to St. Timothy, we find that he is known as the greatest of preachers in the Church, and came to such a passionless state that the Church has declared that he lived as an angle on earth. We would be unwise to not seriously consider what in the following verses St. Paul writes to St. Timothy is applicable to us. We need to allow the fatherly advice to his spiritual son in the faith to also become St. Paul’s advice to us who lack a spiritual father of that stature. May God truly grant us grace, mercy and peace through our Lord Jesus Christ, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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