What is an Elder?
Taken, with grateful
acknowledgment, from Bishop Kallistos Ware's book "The Orthodox Way". Rev.
ed. SI. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995, pp. 95-99.
The elder or "old man", known in Greek as geron and in Russian as starets,
need not necessarily be old in years, but he is wise m his experience of
divine truth, and blessed with the grace of "fatherhood in the spirit", with
the charisma of guiding others on the Way. What he offers to his spiritual
children is not primarily moral instruction or a rule of life, but a
personal relationship. "A starets," says Dostoevsky, "is one who takes your
soul, your will, into his soul and his will." Fr. Zachariah's disciples used
to say about him, "It is as though he bore our hearts in his hands."
The starets is the man of inward peace, at whose side thousands can find
salvation. The Holy Spirit has given him as the fruit of his prayer and self-denial,
the gift of discernment or discrimination, enabling him to read the secrets
of men's hearts; and so he answers, not only the questions that others put
to him, but often the questions often much more fundamental - which they
have not even thought of asking. Combined with the gift of discernment he
possesses the gift of spiritual healing-the power to restore men's souls,
and sometimes also their bodies. This spiritual healing he provides not only
through his words of counsel but through his silence and his very presence.
Important though the advice may be, far more important is his intercessory
prayer. He makes his children whole by praying constantly for them, by
identifying himself with them, by accepting their joys and sorrows as his
own, by taking on his shoulders the burden of their guilt or anxiety. No one
can be a starets if he does not pray insistently for others.
If the starets is a priest, usually his ministry of spiritual direction is
closely linked with the sacrament of confession. But a starets in the full
sense, as described by Dostoevsky or exemplified by Fr. Zachariah, is more
than just a priest confessor. A starets in the full sense of the word cannot
be appointed such by any superior authority. What happens is that the Holy
Spirit speaking directly to the hearts of the Christian people, makes it
plain that this or that person has been blessed by God with the grace to
guide and heal others. The true starets is in this sense a prophetic figure,
not an institutional official. While most commonly a priest-monk, he may
also be a married parish priest, or else a lay monk not ordained to the
priesthood, or even-but this is less frequent-a nun, or a lay man or woman
living in the outside world. If the starets is not himself a priest, after
listening to people's problems and offering counsel, he will frequently send
them to a priest for sacramental confession and absolution.
The relation between child and spiritual father varies widely. Some visit a
starets perhaps only once or twice in a lifetime, at a moment of special
crisis, while others are in regular contact with their starets, seeing him
monthly or even daily. No rules can be laid down in advance; the association
grows of itself under the immediate guidance of the Spirit.
Always the relationship is personal. The starets does not apply abstract
rules learnt from a book- as in the "casuistry" of Counter-Reformation
Catholicism-but he sees on each particular occasion this man or woman who is
before him; and illumined by the Spirit, he seeks to transmit the unique
will of God specifically for this one person. Because of this the true
starets understands and respects the distinctive character of each one, he
does not suppress their inward freedom but reinforces it. He does not aim at
eliciting mechanical obedience, but leads his children to the point of
spiritual maturity where they can decide for themselves. To each one he
shows his or her true face, which before was largely hidden from that person;
and his word is creative and life-giving, enabling the other to accomplish
tasks which previously seemed impossible. But all this the starets can
achieve only because he IO\les each one personally. Moreover, the
relationship is mutual; the starets cannot help another unless the other
seriously desires to change his way of life and opens his heart in loving
trust to the starets. He who goes to see a starets in a spirit of spiritual
curiosity is likely to return with empty hands, unimpressed.
Because the relationship is always personal, a particular starets cannot
help everyone equally. He can help only those who are specifically sent to
him by the Spirit. Likewise the disciple should not say, "My starets is
better than all the others." He should say only, "My starets is the best for
In guiding others, the spiritual father waits upon the will and the voice of
the Holy Spirit. "I will give only what God tells me to give," said St.
Seraphim. "I believe the first word that comes to me inspired by the Holy
Spirit." Obviously no-one has the right to act in this manner unless,
through ascetic effort and prayer, he has attained an exceptionally intense
awareness of God's presence. For anyone who has not reached this level, such
behavior would be presumptuous and irresponsible.
Fr. Zachariah speaks in the same terms as St. Seraphim:
Sometimes a man does not know himself what he will say. The Lord himself
speaks through his lips. One must pray like this: " 0 Lord. May you live in
me. may you speak through me. may you act through me."
When the lord speaks through a man's lips. then all the words of that man
are effective and all that is spoken by him is fulfilled. The man who is
speaking is himself surprised at this...Only one must not rely on wisdom.
The relationship between spiritual father and child extends beyond death to
the Last Judgment. Fr. Zachariah reassured his followers, "After death I
shall be much more alive than I am now, so don't grieve when I die...On the
day of judgment the elder will say: Here am I and my chjldren."
St. Seraphim asked for these remarkable words to be inscribed on his
When I am dead. come to me at my grave. and the more often the better.
Whatever is in your soul. whatever may have happened to you come. to me as
when I was alive. and kneeling on the ground. cast all your
bitterness upon my grave. Tell me everything and I shall listen to you. and
all the bitterness will flyaway from you. And as you spoke to me when I was
alive. do so now. For I am living and I shall be for ever.
By no means all Orthodox have a spiritual father of their own. What are we
to do if we search for a guide and cannot find one? It is of course possible
to learn from books; whether or not we have a starets, we look to the Bible
for constant guidance. But the difficulty with books is to know precisely
what is applicable to me personally, at this specific point on my journey.
As well as books, as well as spiritual fatherhood, there is also spiritual
brotherhood or sisterhood the help given us that is , not by teachers in God,
but by our fellow disciples. We are not to neglect the opportunities offered
us in this form. But those who seriously commit themselves to the Way should
in addition make every effort to find a father in the Holy Spirit. If they
seek humbly they will undoubtedly be given the guidance that they require.
Not that they will often find a starets such as St. Seraphim or Fr.
Zachariah. We should take care lest, in our expectation of something
outwardly more spectacular, we overlook the help which God is actually
offering us. Someone who in others' eyes is unremarkable will perhaps turn
out to be the one spiritual father who is able to speak to me, personally,
the words of fire that I above all else need to hear.
Taken from the book
ELDER PORFYRIOS Testimonies and Experiences