In reading the writings of the great mystics, both those of the East and those of the West, it is not uncommon to find the saints morning the lack of experienced spiritual elders and guides in their times. The temptation is to believe that since such guides were lacking in the days of the saints - the supposed "golden age" of the Church (whatever age we define that as being) - then they must be absolutely non-existent in our own day and age, marked as it is by such rampant sinfulness. There are a number of problems with this viewpoint that ought to be addressed.
The first issue is the presumption that there is a "golden age" of the Church at some point in the past, and that everything in the Church since then has been in a state of decay and corruption. An honest look at Church history quickly disproves this presumption. There were sinners in the Church in the past, just as there are sinners (of whom I am the first) in the Church today. There were saints in the Church in the past, just as there are saints in the Church today. This notion of a "golden age" in the Church often completely ignores the holy people in the Church today; not only the great luminaries that we often hear about in the news, but those holy and humble men and women that we encounter in our parishes Sunday after Sunday. If we truly wish to find a guide for our spiritual life, then we can't ignore the fact that holy men and women exist among us today, just as they existed within the Church in the past.
The second issue that we find here is ignorance over what constitutes a qualified spiritual elder or guide. So often what we are looking for is a wise and aged monk or hermit who sits alone in his cell and prays the Jesus Prayer all day long, doling out pithy spiritual gems to pilgrims who come to him for "a word" as though he is a spiritual Pez dispenser. We seek a St. Seraphim of Sarov, an Optina elder, a Padre Pio, or a St. John Vianney, when often times the very person we ought to be talking to is the housewife who goes about her daily tasks for the love of God, or the gentleman sitting in the cubicle next to ours faithfully fulfilling his daily tasks. Dan Burke, in his wonderful little book on spiritual direction Navigating the Interior Life, has this to say:
"The committed Catholic or seasoned Christian warrior may be seeking the wise old priest-sage who prays four hours a day and has the gift of seeing souls, when they may need a holy layperson who may not have a doctorate in dogmatic theology, but who clearly understands the path of humility and what it means to have a vibrant relationship with Christ." (pg. 20)
Here too we see a misunderstanding of the word "elder." In Greek "geron" (staretz in Russian, or elder in English) does not necessarily refer to a person who is older in years, but to a person who's soul has gained a certain maturity through spiritual experience. The soul could be one of any number of people. They could be older than us, younger than us, or around our same age. The could be a monk or nun, a parish priest, or simply a humble lay person. Really, anyone who has more experience than ourselves in the spiritual life could be considered our spiritual elder. The question becomes, do we have the necessary humility to seek guidance from the day-to-day elders around us whom we may take for granted?
The final issue here is often the presumption that we can make absolutely no progress in the spiritual life without an elder of some sort. Such a presumption flies in the face of the writings of the great mystics. Universally they proclaim to us that it is indeed possible to make progress without an elder, although it is much more difficult. In the absence of an elder, we are told that what is needed above everything else is a spirit of humility. This spirit is brought up again and again in the writings of St. John Climacus, St. Isaac of Nineveh, St. Theophan the Recluse, and St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, to name but a few.
St. John Climacus gives us the following advice for maintaining a sense of humility in our prayer life:
"In your prayers there is no need for high-flown words, for it is the simple and unsophisticated babblings of children that has more often won the heart of the Father in heaven." (Ladder of Divine Ascent, pg. 275)
St. Ignatius Brianchaninov tells us that even without a spiritual guide it is still possible to be given the prayer of the heart, so long as we cling to humility and child-like simplicity. In the absence of a spiritual elder, these ought to be our guides.
What are the characteristics of child-like simplicity? Openness, honesty. a lack of subtleties. This is where we find the genius of the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner. One could lengthen this slightly to read: "As man I have sinned, Lord Jesus as God have mercy on me."
This simplicity in prayer must be accompanied by a certain simplicity in the way we live our lives. Nil Sorsky tells us that in the absence of a spiritual guide, we ought to simply dedicate ourselves to the work of God as found in our particular vocations. If you are a monastic, then live your vocation whole-heartedly. If you are a parish priest, strive to ever more fully live your unique calling. If you are a married person, be dedicated to living your vocation in joy and love, not looking for greener pastures elsewhere. By living our vocations, according to Nil, God Himself will guide us into purity of heart and pure prayer.
"We must always in all our activities seek to do all in soul and body, in word or deed and thought as far as our strength allows, to do all godly activities with God and in God... The mind must always be focused positively on God with deep reverence, devotion, and trust in order to do all unto God's good pleasure and not out of vainglory or to please other human beings." (Nil Sorsky: The Complete Writings, pg. 68)
Of course, none of what has been said above means that we ought not to seek a spiritual guide. We ought to seek a guide because such guidance makes progress in the spiritual life much quicker and easier. All of this is just to say that when seeking a spiritual guide we must first acknowledge that such people exist even in our own times: second, we must be humble in our search and be willing to look for a guide in places we hadn't even considered previously: and third, while looking for a spiritual guide we must continue to strive in humility for progress in the spiritual life and not put off such striving. God, our loving Father, will reward our efforts. May heaven consume us!