I don't know about any of you, but I for one often look back on certain periods in Church history and marvel at the fact that there were so many great mystics and spiritual guides at pretty much every given moment in Church history except for ours. But this was not the view of those spiritual fathers and mothers in their own day. Many of the Church Fathers and spiritual writers of the East bemoan the lack of experienced spiritual guides in their day. They speak at length about the lapse among Christians in their times, and how few and far between are any real guides for those seeking their way in the spiritual life. The happy news is that these same spiritual fathers and writers then give us instructions for what to do when we cannot find such guides.
I hinted at this in my last post about books and the importance of reading the writings of the fathers, particularly important is the Philokalia, but there are a great many other writings from the Christian East that can serve to strengthen, renew, guide, and encourage each of us on our spiritual journey. One problem with books, however, is that they provide the same advice for everyone. A spiritual father/mother will taylor his advice according to the unique situation of every person that comes to him/her for guidance. But books give the same advice for all. The reader then needs to sift through the volumes upon volumes of advice and is left to determine on their own what advice is applicable to their situation. This can be tricky, not to mention very time-consuming.
Sometimes, however, we have to rethink what we understand the role of the spiritual father/mother to be. Some think that the spiritual father/mother will be a permanent fixture in the life of those seeking to grow spiritually. But this is not always the case. According to Met. Kallistos Ware in his lovely book The Inner Kingdom for some people, particularly monastics, the spiritual father/mother will be someone to with whom they meet every day, sometimes every hour. In some monastic communities it has so happened that the one seeking to grow will actually live with his/her spiritual father/mother for a greater or lesser amount of time before striking out on their own. Obviously for us living in the world this is far from being possible.
For those of us who are lucky enough to have a spiritual guide, we may find ourselves meeting with him/her once a week, once a month, or perhaps once a year. But what about those who do not have a fixed guide? What sort of options do we have if we cannot find someone who will be our guide either permanently or at least over an extended period of time?
Again Met. Kallistos mentions that for some people just meeting with a spiritual guide once in their lifetime and receiving a "word" from them is sufficient to set them firmly on the path to Christ. Such, I'd imagine, would be the case with many of the blessed people who were able to visit the likes of St. Seraphim of Sarov or St. Theophan the Recluse for a "word." One could also imagine that the folks who filmed The Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer would be pretty much set for life as far as spiritual guidance is concerned, having spoken at length with some of the remarkable spiritual elders of our own times. I myself have been blessed to speak briefly on occasion with some of the Roman Catholic spiritual elders currently living among us here in the U.S. One meeting in particular, a private conversation with Fr. Benedict Groeschell, pretty much changed everything for me at set me on a path that I have continued to follow since then. So we must not underestimate the power of one simple conversation, no matter how short or how long that conversation might be.
Also, we have our parish priests. They are, after all, our spiritual fathers in the parish. Perhaps they may not be able to guide us individually through weekly meetings the way we'd like, but we must not overlook the role that they play in our spiritual lives. They hear our confessions and see us (hopefully) on a weekly basis at the Divine Liturgy (or Mass, or Qurbono). They not only interact with us, but they interact with our fellow parishioners, with whom we also interact. They get many perspectives on us and can often offer little gems of spiritual guidance to us whether through the homily, or through private conversations, or through advice given during confession. In the absence of a spiritual guide, it is to our parish priests that we ought to be looking.
Finally Met. Kallistos, again, mentions spiritual brotherhood or sisterhood - what I've heard others refer to as spiritual friendships. We need to be sure and cultivate friendships with other like-minded people who are actively seeking their way in the spiritual life. Often times these friends may have advanced further than us in certain areas, and can offer us little tidbits of advice that will help us along the way. Perhaps listening to their struggles and how they overcame them can inspire us or give us fresh perspective on our own struggles. I've had a number of such friends, such spiritual brothers and sisters, who's words have remained with me for some years as a source of encouragement and inspiration in my own times of struggle. One of the beautiful things I encountered within the Catholic Charismatic Renewal was the idea of having an "accountability group." These groups met weekly and were a place for members to come and open up to each other, sharing the struggles and triumphs, asking for any advice, and requesting the prayers of the others in the group. Most often these groups were divided according to gender - men just understand the struggles peculiar to men better than women do, and women those peculiar to women better than men do. My own time among such groups was wonderful, and I wish I had that available to me at the moment. It is encouraging to see that there are others struggling through the same problems that you have struggled through or are currently struggling through. Accountability groups, therefore, can become a great source of strength for the journey.
So, we may be lacking today in experienced spiritual guides to lead us along the path to Christ, but we are certainly not lacking in other resources so long as we are willing to seek out such resources. I hope and pray that all of you will take advantage of all the resources available to you, books, friends, the fatherhood of our parish priests, etc., etc., etc. We are not alone in our spiritual struggles, but are surrounded by an army of co-strugglers. May we fight the good fight together.