Friday, March 18, 2016

Submission, Obedience and the Spiritual Elder

One of the defining characteristics of Eastern Christian spirituality is the need for/emphasis on having a spiritual father or mother; someone to guide us on the path of the spiritual life. For those of us who dive deeply into the mystical writings of the Christian East, I think it's only natural that we should desire to find such a spiritual guide to whom we can submit ourselves in obedience. I certainly appreciate this desire and absolutely agree with it for folks still living a single life, celibate parish priests, and above all for monastics. However, I question whether or not married couples should be seeking a "traditional" form of spiritual guide - and perhaps here even "traditional" isn't the right word because, as I think we'll find, there is another path that is just as ancient but less spoken of. Allow me to explain.

As I examine the writings of the great Eastern mystics, particularly the Desert Fathers, one of the primary reasons I've found that they encourage having a spiritual guide is that we all need someone to submit ourselves to in obedience. Why? Because we're all plagued by self-will. We want what we want and we want it now regardless of whether or not it's actually for our own good. Even when we have the best of intentions for our spiritual growth, often what we desire is not actually for our good, but an indulgence of our self-well. We often don't see things, especially ourselves, the way they really are. I may wish to pray for eight hours a day. That amount of time in prayer is obviously good... for those who have been given that vocation. But if I, as a husband and father, were to spend that much time a day in prayer, I'd be neglecting the calling that I've received from God to be a holy husband and father. I'd be neglecting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of my wife and children. Not good.

So we all need someone to help us break that self-will. We all need someone to whom we can submit in obedience. For monastics, many of whom spend a great deal of time alone, this "someone" comes primarily in the form of a spiritual father or mother. I say primarily because often, while having a spiritual father or mother, the Desert Fathers would often turn to other elders as well for a different perspective on issues than what their spiritual father would give them; and often the spiritual father himself would send his children to another elder who could provide more insight into certain issues than he himself was able to provide. We can see here the importance of community.

In truth, the vocation to marriage has this "someone" built in. St. Paul tells us in Ephesians, "Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ (other translations have "submit yourselves to one another..." the point is this is a free submission of the self to another, of the spouses to one another). Wives should be subordinate to your husbands as to the Lord... (notice here that St. Paul is just telling the wives again what he told both spouses to do in the last sentence!) Husbands, love your wives even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her..." (husbands, are you dying to your self-will the way Christ himself died for the love of his bride: "Father, not as I will, but as you will...") Ultimately this mutual submission of husbands and wives to one another, this obedience that they freely give to one another, is a crushing of our own self-will. The primary purpose of the spiritual father or mother is built directly into the vocation of marriage! That should take some pressure off for finding the venerated geron to guide you in obedience!

This being said, as witnessed by the Desert Fathers, it's still good to get other perspectives. It's good to have spiritual friends, and even a wise spiritual guide to walk the path with you. It's good to have someone to whom you can turn to get another perspective. My wife is always encouraging me to go and visit a priest-friend of mine whom I do consider my spiritual father. Why? Because she knows when I'm having difficulties in certain areas of life, he can give me a different perspective that will resonate more deeply in me than anything she could say. She also knows that he has greater experience in some areas of life than she does herself.

Is this path of obedience easy? Absolutely not. Whether you're submitting yourself to a spouse or a spiritual father or mother, the road of obedience is one of the most difficult you will ever walk. But then again, the road Christ tread from Jerusalem to Calvary was the most difficult road that anyone in history ever walked. In the end, that road leads to the joy of the Resurrection. May heaven consume us.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, I've been reading a book on this lately...and it is true that submission is part of marriage life, but this doesn't mean that guidance through someone who is led by the holy Spirit is not necessary, on the contrary, it is very usefull since everybody has it's weaknesses and having a spiritual guide helps us to grow personally and also in our relationships with wife and children and others. This book advices to find someone who both of you feel comfortable with and to start to find somebody while you are in love and have decided to engage in a serious relationship as fianc├ęs...this of course is a stage you personally passed through already long time ago, but maybe you have young adult children? Greetings and blessings.