I recently received this email from a concerned follower on my blog. It was in response to my post A Religion of My Own | Waking Up – Again. Since he chose to send me this in a private email rather than as a comment on my blog, he will remain anonymous. I do very much appreciate him taking the time to offer his comments and concerns on this important topic.
In your thoughts of a religion of one’s own, you bring to mind a warning given to seekers who define their own journey. Please find the first two paragraphs below. The whole article may be found at http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/spiritualfather.aspx
The Spiritual Father in Orthodox Christianity
by Bishop Kallistos Ware
One who climbs a mountain for the first time needs to follow a known route; and he needs to have with him, as companion and guide, someone who has been up before and is familiar with the way. To serve as such a companion and guide is precisely the role of the “Abba” or spiritual father—whom the Greeks call “Geron” and the Russians “Starets”, a title which in both languages means “old man” or “elder”.
The importance of obedience to a Geron is underlined from the first emergence of monasticism in the Christian East. St. Antony of Egypt said: “I know of monks who fell after much toil and lapsed into madness, because they trusted in their own work … So far as possible, for every step that a monk takes, for every drop of water that he drinks in his cell, he should entrust the decision to the Old Men, to avoid making some mistake in what he does.”
I had also received two other much shorter emails from two minister friends expressing similar concerns so I want to answer that question here.
On the light side, I have a seven year old granddaughter who is fond of calling me “Old Man”. It has become a kind of family joke. I am not at all sure if she sees me as an “elder” in the deeper sense or not, but it is clearly a term of endearment on her part. It seems clearly better than my wife who she likes to call “that crazy old woman”. What is that old saying, “I don’t care what she calls me, just so she calls me”?
That said this points to something deeper. I think our society has mostly lost the concept of the “Old Man” or the “Elder”, even in our religious traditions. At least in the many protestant churches I have attended when I have talked about Spiritual Direction, most people either did not know what I was talking about, or if they did, they did not see the need. As indicated in the email the concept is retained mostly in the Christian monastic tradition, and apparently in the Christian Orthodox tradition.
So what is one to do? I have been on this journey for a bunch of years, and there have been a number of guides that have shown up and stayed for a time. Maybe the first was a Religious Studies Professor when I was in undergraduate school some thirty or more years ago. There have been a couple of ministers, spiritual directors, coaches, and friends who have served in that role on some level. Each has come and met a need for a time, and then, for various reasons, transitioned out of my life, or at least out of that role. Maybe one of the most long lasting of those guides is my friend and Catholic priest, Fr. J. Patrick Foley, who I have known for some 27 years. Interestingly each of the ministers who have served as a guide did so in essence outside of the church setting. Maybe the most powerful and consistent guide of all is my wife, Winnie, who consistently holds me back when I start to stray too far off of the path, supports me, and challenges me when I hide and resist taking the next step.
Photo by Winnie Southworth
While all of these guides have played an important part in my journey, none of them have served as a true “Geron” or “Starets” as mentioned in the above referenced article. None of them have served as my “abbot” as the monastics speak of it. The truth is that none of them seem to have seen themselves even potentially in that role, including the Spiritual Directors I have had over the years. Each of them journeyed with me for a time, offered me guidance and correction in their own way, and in one way or another, encouraged me to find my own way. In essence each of them encouraged me to find “a religion of my own”. It took me years to heed that advice.
Maybe some of the most consistent guidance I have received over the years has come from my reading. Authors such as Jacob Needleman, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Keating, and yes, Thomas Moore the author of A Religion of One’s Own. These and many other authors have appeared and reappeared in my life at just the right times to serve as my guides, and on some level even my “Geron” or my “Starets”.
My wife also pointed out that I love to talk about the spiritual journey, pretty much with anyone that will listen, including in some small groups. In those conversations I listen to other people’s reactions to what I share, and to what they share about their own journeys. In the process that sharing serves as guidance for my own journey.
All of that said, maybe the only real “Geron” or “Starets” on my journey is ultimately that Mysterious Other I call God. Maybe that guidance can only come from that Still Small Voice that speaks to me in moments of deep contemplation—in moments of deep prayer.
I am aware of the concern here, and I take it very seriously. Yes, in all of this careful discernment is critical. People sometimes provide bad advice, or at least advice that does not speak to my unique journey. That still small voice that I listen to at times may not be God at all, but my own ego. I need to be careful that my choices and decisions are consonant—that they are congenial to my own sacred inner being, that they are compatible with the reality in which I live my life, and compassionate toward myself and others. That will have to be enough. Anyway no person has shown up in my life who I would begin to trust at that level. Maybe that is as it should be.
As always I encourage you to add your thoughts and comments to this and any other post.