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The American Benedictine review.

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Michael Von Parys, O.S.B.


The following text was given to a Russian Orthodox audience

of laymen, priests and their wives, monks and nuns. The venue
was unusual: the “House of Culture” in the city of Kirovsk in the
far north of European Russia, on the Kola Peninsula. The name
of the city is from [a certain] Kirov, a Soviet political figure who
died in 1934. The production of phosphate made this city for
decades a place of internal exile and forced labor.
The Diocese of Murmansk was erected in 1995. It includes the
Kola Peninsula, and so it lies geographically within the Arctic
Circle. This territory is rich in rare minerals, and it is militarily
significant. One thinks of the sinking of the atomic submarine at
Kursk in 2000. The diocese is three times the size of Belgium, but
it is losing its people. Twenty years ago Murmansk had 600,000
people, but now barely half that.
People seek a milder climate and healthier working conditions
elsewhere in Russia. Ten years ago there were ten parishes (1884:
two!) but now there are 51. There is care of souls in the hospitals,
jails and military bases. Everything must be built fi'om scratch.
For a year now there is a separate faculty of religious studies at
the University of Murmansk; religion teachers for the schools
must be formed.
In Orthodoxy a local church without monastic life is inconceiv
able. So the Bishop sought to revive the Monastery of Petchenga
(currently it has five monks) and to found a convent of nuns of
Kirovsk, a place marked by the sorrows of the gulag. From this
perspective, the Bishop organized a Diocesan Day on the theme
“Monastic Life in Today’s World.”

Fr. Michael Von Parys is the former abbot of the ecumenical monastery of
Chevetogne in Belguim (address: Monastere Bénédictine, Chevetogne, BE
5590, Belgium). He is the editor of Irenikon, which is one of the world’s
great ecumenical journals. This talk was given in Murmansk, Russia, Au
gust, 2005. It was first printed in Vies Consecrées, 78 (2006:1) 5-17. The
translator is Terrence G. Kardong.

The revival of monastic life in the Russian Orthodox Church is
highly impressive. In 1988 (millennium of St. Vladimir’s bap
tism), there were twenty monasteries; today there are more than
600. The number of monks and nuns has increased twenty— or
thirtyfold in twenty years. So it is not surprising to find a big con
cern about human and spiritual formation. The question is ur
gent because of the bad effects of Soviet education on many
young, and less than young, people. The subject of spiritual fa
therhood should be understood in this context.
The following conference handles the theme in a way that
takes into account the religious sensibilities of its audience. But it
also speaks to all places and churches.

It is an honor for me to be able to participate in today’s meeting
devoted to the theme “Monastic Life in Today’s World.” I whole
heartedly thank His Excellency Archbishop Simon of Murmansk
and Monchegorsk for the invitation to visit his diocese on the
tenth anniversary of its founding. It is my joy to greet Archbishop
Alexei, President of the Synodal Commission for Monastic Ques
tions. I also salute the civil and religious authorities who are pre
Every visiting and well-wishing observer of the Russian Ortho
dox Church must be amazed that, after seventy years of dreadful
persecution and suffering, the monastic life has risen again and
developed in truly wonderful fashion. We can only be struck by
the vitality and zeal of numerous monastic communities. We
thank God for this and beg him to strengthen this beautiful spiri
tual flourishing for the good of the church and nation.
Such an extraordinary expansion of monasticism also has its
problems. This should not surprise or irritate us. Much better to
understand the reasons of the emerging difficulties and to take
the appropriate remedies in the spirit of the great monastic tradi
tion and in wise discernment.
His Holiness Patriarch Alexei himself has ofien referred to
some causes of these difficulties: the lack of religious formation
and education during the time of communism; a serious lack of
leadership; a hazy or even erroneous idea of the monastic life by

54 ABR 59:1 - MARCH 2008

some candidates; the number of authentic and experienced spiri
tual fathers.1
Actually these difficulties are signs of a general worldwide cri
sis of authority. One notices them in all of the negative conse
quences of the globalization of traumatized cultures. How can
people today pass on basic moral values from one generation to
another? How to solidify the continuity of one’s culture on the
communal and individual levels after this terrible twentieth cen
tury that shook the Christian heritage of Europe to its founda
How can we confront the breaks in the traditions of our civi
lization, and what religious and human ideals can we suggest to
youth to inspire them to build a more just and humane commu
nity, and also to lead them to eternal life with God? What role will
the monasteries play in the regrounding of society? What place
does spiritual fatherhood have in this monastic renewal?
I wish to briefly discuss this last question with you. We will
first try to listen to the teaching of the great monastic tradition
concerning the charism of spiritual fatherhood. Then we will
treat of the specific charism of spiritual fatherhood, i.e. discern
ment. Finally, we will try to work out the task of spiritual father
hood today.


St. Paul writes to the Christians of Ephesus: “Therefore, I gen
uflect before the Father in whose name every family on heaven
and earth is named. And I pray that he might grant you because
of the richness of his glory that you might grow inwardly in power
and strength by his Spirit, through faith dwelling in your hearts,
rooted and grounded in love” (Eph 3:14-17). The Apostle recalls
that we have but one father, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
We can invoke him with and in Christ since we are his adopted
children by the grace of baptism.
Every kind of earthly fatherhood is only a weak reflection of
the fatherhood of God. As baptized persons, we are first children,
sons and daughters of God. All fatherhood and motherhood,
which transmits natural life, has the call to generate life, to let it
grow and promote its natural and spiritual development. For life
comes from God. The same reality has an analogue in the priest

1S.VI. Cyrin, Istorija Russkol Cerkbi 1917-1997 (Moscow, 1997) 541.


hood, which begets eternal life in us through the sacraments and
word of God. They are the servants of our joy.
This also applies in the charismatic order of spiritual father
and motherhood: it stands in the service of life and grace, which
God alone can give. This enlightenment by faith must remain de
terminative in the exercise of spiritual fatherhood. The Holy
Spirit grants a Christian, who is himself is a sinner and child of
God, but sufficiently cleansed of his passions, that he can lead a
brother or sister in faith to perfect love. This is a terrifying privi
lege, for which one must give a reckoning on Judgment Day.
For an expansion of what we have said, we must quote another
text of St. Paul: “Though you have countless guides in Christ, you
do not have many fathers. For through the Gospel I have become
your father in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 4: 15). The Apostle is defending
his fatherhood against certain usurpers. But he insists that his
fatherhood is owed entirely to the fatherhood of Jesus Christ and
the healing power of the Gospel.
This needs clarification. We were baptized into the death and
resurrection of Jesus. He has begotten us for eternal life (his life
with the Father and the Holy Spirit). Therefore he can call his
disciples, the Apostles, and all who believe in the witness “my
children” (Jn 13:33). He did this at the Last Discourse before his
passion. Thus a very old patristic tradition gives Christ the title
“Abba, Father.”2 Is he not really the perfect and unique model of
a father? “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can
you say: Show us the Father?” (J n 14:9).
So we are justified in saying that the Risen Christ is not only
our elder brother (see Jn 20: 17), but also our Abba. In this context
Paul speaks of the Gospel (1 Cor 4:15): Through the power of the
Gospel he has been born in Christ. And the power of the Gospel is
again the person of Jesus; since he is our father, he is also our
Saint Luke begins the Acts of the Apostles with the words: “In
my first book [he means the Gospel], dear Theophilus, I recounted
all that Jesus did and taught.” Jesus is the teacher (rabbuni; di
daskalos: Jn 20:16) who teaches the way that leads to life. He is
the only authentic spiritual teacher; for he taught nothing that he
did not first do himself. He is the living Gospel in perfection. To

2See RB 2.1-3.

56 ABR 59:1 - MARCH 2008

understand his teaching it is enough to consider his life and be
havior. Holiness of life confirms in him the truth of his teaching.
In sum, we can say that in a certain sense Jesus Christ is the
true and only spiritual father. He gives the Spirit of the Father,
the one who makes us live (zoopoios), that we might come alive;
and he is the teacher through his example and doctrine. He alone
leads us from death of sin to joy of life in the community of the
Holy Trinity. Jesus is much less a teacher of thinking than a
teacher of living. In my opinion, spiritual fatherhood in the
church can only be an instrument of the spiritual fatherhood of
Christ for the children of God. It must imitate the fatherhood of
Christ through example and teaching.
An apophthegrn of Antony the Great well illustrates this truth
which the monastic tradition has always held.
Three fathers had the custom of visiting Antony every year. Two of
them asked him about their thoughts and their salvation. The third
remained silent, asking no questions. After many years, Abba Antony
said to him: “You have been coming here so long, and yet you never
ask anything.” But he answered: “Father, it is enough for me to see

One of the great spiritual masters of our time, Father Matta

el-Maskine of the Macarius Monastery of Scetis, once gave me his
view of spiritual fatherhood:
You must imagine you are like John the Baptist, who points to Christ.
Jesus goes ahead and the young monk follows him. He must learn to
walk in Jesus’ footsteps, to not lose sight of him, to drink in his wis
dom. You yourself must walk behind the young man. When you see
that he no longer follows the path of Christ, you must warn him, ex
hort him, not to leave the path; show him where Jesus goes who pre
cedes him.

This advice enlightened and helped me very much. We are only

the instruments of God’s grace, servants of a mystery of life and
of the divinization that is not our work but the work of the Holy
Spirit. Like the forerunner John, the spiritual father knows that
Christ must increase in the disciple, and he himself must de
crease (Jn 3:30).
Such a conviction grounds spiritual fatherhood in humility.
The spiritual father is not impeccable. He must ask advice of oth

3Antonius 27, Alphabetical Collection.


ers and constantly seek nourishment from reading Holy Scrip
ture and the holy Fathers, to achieve discernment. Listen to an
other apophthegm of the monastic Fathers:

One day Abba Antony received a letter from Emperor Constantine

inviting him to Constantinople. He wondered what he should do. He

asked his disciple Abba Paul: Is it good for me to go?” Paul answered
him: “If you go, will call you Antony. If you don’t go, they will call
you Abba Antony."

St. Antony the Great did not hesitate to ask advice from his disci
ple. He could have prayed to God for a direct answer. But like all
the great saints, he knew that God normally speaks to us through
other people. In awareness of human weakness and the necessity
of discretion, the patristic tradition has left us also as a warning
many examples of spiritual fathers who because of arrogance
have plunged their disciples into error.5

John Cassian describes in his first Conference a great debate
among the first Egyptian monks concerning the question of the
most indispensable virtue leading to purity of heart and perfect
love. Finally, Antony the Great decided the issue by explaining
that it is discernment (discretion, diacrisis). For she is the
guardian of all the rest. Also, St. Benedict would call discretion
“the mother of virtues.”6 St. John Climacus devotes to discern
ment the longest step on his ladder (26th step) as the transition
from ascesis to contemplation.
It is very diflicult to define discernment. Yet one can approach
a definition by saying that it knows what a given person must do
in a given situation so as to break with sin or avoid it, and to grow
in the quest for God. Discernment is needed in a spiritual father,
who for his part should help the disciple to grow in the same
virtue. How can one discriminate between good and bad
thoughts, feelings, wishes?
It is clear that discretion is a gift of the Holy Spirit that is
sought in prayer, and it is a fruit of experience. The spiritual fa
ther must pray for enlightenment to guide the life of the disciple,

4Antonius, 31.
5Nilus of Ancyra, Ascetic Discourse; Cassian, Con/I 2.10, 12.
6RB 64.19.

58 ABR 59:1 - MARCH 2008

and the disciple must pray that the spiritual father receive this
enlightenment and speak a word to him that shows him God’s
will for him.
Discernment demands that the spiritual father listen long and
patiently to the disciple. This listening must be marked by re
spect and empathy. It must never be scornful or arrogant. The
spiritual father listens to what his disciple says, and also what he
does not say. He notes carefully his lifestyle.
Discernment is also the fruit of the experience of spiritual com
bat. The sign of true spiritual discretion is the awareness by the
spiritual father that he himself is a sinner forgiven by God, that
he is a convalescent.7 If the spiritual father is himself a convales
cent, still he must have attained a certain level of apatheia (free
dom from compulsion and delusion: translator). Thus he will not
project his own failings (anxieties, ambitions) on his spiritual
The practice of discernment requires patience. The Lord knows
how to wait for the right moment. God respects the slowness of
the sinner to change; he allows the delay of human maturity.
Many times good counsel arrives too early or too late. One must
sense the right time, the divine kairos. This demands cleverness
and prayer.

Discernment 7bday

We propose now to locate some of the characteristics of the

spiritual climate of our time that make candidates for monastic
life unstable. Put otherwise, to speak again with St. Paul: “What
spirit is in the air today?” (Eph 6:12).
European societies in both East and West are experiencing, in
different degrees, a break in their cultural and social traditions.
The transmission of values from one generation to the next is in
danger. This break is accentuated by the perverse spread of
worldwide globalization. This impacts families most of all. Fami
lies are split and they sometimes give up on the moral education
of their children. These latter find neither the physical nor the af
fective stability that would enable them to accept solid traditional
norms. If the image of the parent is damaged in the soul of the
young person, she flees.

7RB 46.5-6.


The flight of the unstable disciples can take two contrary
forms: they sink into alcohol or drugs; or they are driven into a
sect of fundamentalist religion by the need for security and iden
tity. In either case, they lose that which is most precious in a per
son made in the image of God: freedom. They are enslaved. The
basic question is freedom. Whoever has no more values to orient
his life to a transcendent goal is tempted to reject every prohibi
tion, to break every taboo.
How can we help the young to find freedom, to love freedom in
which to take responsibility for the neighbor and the self, except
by showing them, even without words, the happiness that lies in
being set free by Jesus Christ (see Jn 8:31-32)? It is clear that the
Church is called today to get involved in these difficult questions.
Monastic communities, and especially spiritual fathers, must
play a prominent role here.
First, the spiritual father must renew himself from the com
mon spiritual tradition of monasticism. St. Theophane the
Recluse and St. Ignatius Briantchaninov were shining nine
teenth-century examples of this effort at renewal stemming from
authentic tradition. These monastic Fathers were not only great
ascetic wonderworkers, they were extraordinarily good at under
standing the depths of the human heart. This awareness of hu
man suffering placed them in the service of spiritually healing
their neighbor. With God’s grace we must also do this today.
And then we must educate apprentice monks for the art of the
common life. Brotherly love offers the best defense against ego
centric spiritual illusions and gives us afi'ective support in hard
spiritual combat. The great success of monasteries, here in Rus
sia and in Western Europe, was the fruit of a fervent prayer life,
an earnest struggle against the passions and a superior brotherly
solidarity. Perhaps contemporary society needs more than ever
the witness of the monastic community in which brotherly love is
not just an empty word. By the daily offering of our service, we
can with God’s help give our life for the brothers and sisters.


We should still say something about the traditional and time
less commission of the spiritual father. Spiritual fatherhood
partly assumes different forms, depending whether one lives in a
cenobitic community or with other disciples with a spiritual fa

60 ABR 59:1 - MARCH 2008

ther. John Cassian describes for us the three essential compo
nents in the relation between the spiritual father and the disci
ples in Pachomian monasticism: conquest of self-will; opening of
hearts (i.e. the revelation of thoughts and feelings to an experi
enced man of God); perfect obedience to his direction.8 We take up
these three essential elements in the spiritual combat of the ju
nior monk.
First, he must overcome self-will (idion thelema, voluntas pro
pria). As Abba Ammonas says, this is the barrier between man
and God; it is the “all” that one must leave in order to follow Jesus
Christ.9 Self-will evidently means egotism stemming from sin,
that which Paul calls the Old Man, or the pride of the flesh: I my
self decide what is good and bad in life. But much more subtly,
self-will penetrates the works of the monk that are good in them
selves (prayer, fasting, charitable works): I abandon myself to my
own judgment, without asking the counsel and blessing of the ab
bot or abbess. Self-will then manifests our egotism, a sly and se
cret spiritual pride. “Therefore, they say that whoever has not
first learned to conquer his own self-will will never be able to
quell his anger, sadness and the spirit of lust, nor to remain
bound to his brothers in perduring, reliable harmony.”10
Second, the young monk must practice the opening of the
heart, to tell his spiritual father what is in his heart and soul:
wishes, plans, disappointments, the feeling of coming off badly,
ambition. The monastic tradition lumps these all together in the
expression “thoughts” (logismoi, cogitationes). The monk submits
his thoughts to the discernment of his abba, who has experience
of the spiritual battle and the trials. The trust of the young monk,
with which he reveals his sins and ideas, leads him further and
further into a deep understanding of his heart, his misery and the
gifts which God has entrusted to him. He becomes a sinner who
has repented (a penitent), filled with hope because he knows he is
loved by God. To the spiritual father who listens to him, it comes
down to making the fatherly, merciful and just goodness of God
his own.
Third, the disciple will practice the directives of his abba in all
obedience. The ultimate basis of monastic (and Christian) obedi

BCassian, Inst. (De Institutis Coenobiorum) 4.8-10.

9Ammonas 11, Alphabetical Collection.
10Cassian, Inst. 4.8.


ence lies in the obedience of Christ himself: the entire saving
work of Jesus for human sin is loving obedience to the Father
(Phil 2:5-11). Obedience is the route of return to Paradise, the
way that leads to God. “The boon of obedience should be shown
not only to the abbot. The brothers must also obey one another;
they know that thus they attain to the way of obedience to God.” 11
We must not overlook two other essential components of spiri
tual (ongoing) formation of monks and nuns according to the old
monastic tradition: the abbot’s teaching on the word of God and
brotherly service.
The teaching of the abbot. We know that the first cenobitic
monks zealously meditated on the Holy Scriptures. They memo
rized it so they could ruminate it at manual labor, on a journey or
during the rest period. The abbot or the spiritual father had the
strict duty to clarify scriptural passages several times a week so
that the monks could direct their lives according to the command
ments of God and the teachings of the New Testament. The first
monastic generations were very aware that the word of God gath
ered them into a brotherly community.
Following the model of the first Christian community in
Jerusalem, they discovered, in hearing God’s word and keeping

program of monastic conversion and the treasures of contem

plation of the secrets of God, which ravished their minds and

hearts. The teaching of the abbot places Christ in the midst of a
community day by day: he encourages the weak, he improves the
failing, he stirs up longing for the Kingdom of God. Experience
has shown that the zealous monastic communities are often those
in which abbot or spiritual father daily gives an instruction on
the word of God in the light of the Fathers.
The service of the brothers. On the evening before his passion at
the hour when he instituted the Eucharist, Jesus washed the feet
of the Apostles. Thus he showed his perfect love for us (Jn 13:1).
He also gave us the example of humble fraternal love: “If your

lord and master, have washed your feet, then you must wash the
feet of one another. have given you an example that you should

also do as have done to you” (Jn 13:14-15). The monastic tradi


tion of St. Benedict calls the monastery a “school of the Lord’s ser
vice” (RB Prol 45). Obviously, we serve the Lord in the Divine Of
fice and in personal prayer. Lest this service of prayer become

11RB 71.1-2; see RB Prol 1-3.

62 ABR 59:1 - MARCH 2008

lusion and laziness, the monk or the nun must serve the brethren
in the various works of the common life.
Moreover, St. Benedict writes in his Rule in regard to the
brothers assigned to kitchen work: “The brothers shall serve one
another” (RB 35.1). And shortly after that he says: “They shall
serve one another in love” (RB 35.6). Precisely in the readiness to
serve can the abbot often discern the authenticity of a monastic

Let me close these incomplete thoughts with a wish that comes
from the heart. The monastic life, in the East as well as the West,
drinks from the same springs: from the word of God and the tra
dition of the Fathers. Today we must help each other. The Ortho
dox East can teach the Latin West a sharper sense of spiritual fa
therhood and its high place. The Catholic West can give the
Byzantine Orient a living understanding of common life as broth
erly community. It seems to me we need each other so as to be
obedient to our monastic call in a fuller manner, and to let the fa
therly and merciful face of God shine on our brothers and sisters.
I would like to leave the last word to a saint of East Syrian
Christianity, St. Isaac of Nineveh. He writes: “You are not there
to sit in judgment over the deeds they have committed. Rather,
you are there to call down mercy on the world, to watch over the
salvation of all, to share the sorrows of every person, the righ
teous and the evil-doer.”12

12First Syriac Collection 12.