Father Maximos on the Role of an Elder
After a few seconds, a young seminarian took the microphone and spoke in accented Greek. He was clearly born and raised in America.
“Last year we had a debate at the seminary in regard to the role of an elder. We wondered whether each one of us must have a spiritual guide and whether we should obey unconditionally the instructions of such an elder. This is a real problem for us when friends pose such questions and we have no satisfactory answers. Obedience is a controversial theme for modern people. I wonder whether you can clarify this issue for us.”
“Do you understand the question that Michael raised?” Fr. Maximos asked. He apparently had already met that seminarian during lunch and knew him by name. Michael’s question dramatized the clash between two seemingly incompatible values: a modern, pluralistic American culture, which nurtures individualism and self-reliance as the highest of values (partly an outgrowth of the Protestant work ethic), and the Athonite prescription of obedience to an elder as a means of attaining deification in Christ. Obedience in this case means the complete abandonment of your wishes, opinions, and desires.
Fr. Maximos leaned back. “We need,” he began, “discernment in order to understand the difference between obedience in the context of monasticism and obedience in the context of an ordinary life in the world. In monasticism, there is an absolute relationship between the elder and his disciple. We consider it a mystery, a sacred bond based on the promise of the monk to absolutely obey God ‘unto death’ through the guidance of an elder. This is very important to understand, “Fr. Maximos emphasized. “We do not obey the elder for the sake of the elder. This relationship is not an end in itself. The goal is to establish an eternal union with Christ through Grace.
“Obviously, this form of monastic obedience cannot be part of ordinary life in the world. Unlike the monks, who are totally free from social obligations, ordinary people are also subjected to a great variety of duties and obligations: to families, to husbands, to wives, to children, to employers, and so on.
“A spiritual father who ministers to ordinary people must have great discernment if he is to function as a doctor of their souls. He must know up to what point he should expect obedience. The disciple must also be aware of the limits of obedience.”
“But isn’t obedience antidemocratic? Isn’t it contrary to the modern spirit of individual freedom?” a young woman objected.
“Again, when we talk about obedience, we really mean obedience to the commandments of God, not to the whims of a particular individual. The spiritual guide must not be the object of obedience and worship; it must be Christ Himself. The spiritual guide is simply a servant of Christ. The elder is like a medical doctor, in this case a doctor of the soul. When we obey the prescriptions of a medical doctor, we do so because we believe that he or she has the knowledge to restore our health. We are free to ignore the doctor’s advice. Similarly, we are free to ignore the spiritual prescriptions of an elder.”
“Isn’t there a possibility of abuse and corruption in the elder disciple relationship?” Michael asked. “These are problems and concerns we face when we talk to our friends about the role of the spiritual elder.”
“Of course there is the possibility of corruption,” Fr. Maximos confirmed. “That is why I emphasize the need for discernment, which can guard against such abuses. We need to realize that we must be obedient to the commandments of God, as they are revealed through the gospels, not to the whims of any particular person. The proper role of the Ecclesia and the spiritual guide is to help interpret for laypeople God’s divine laws and not to exercise power over them. As I mentioned before, it is similar to obeying a doctor who tells you that you must get this or that medicine if you wish to get well. Nobody is forcing you to get well.
“So our personal freedom is not and must not be compromised by obedience to an elder. This is particularly important for people who live in the world. There are many things that concern our lives beyond the role and scope of the spiritual guide. Purchasing a house, for example, is not something about which we should seek advice from our spiritual guide. Spiritually speaking, it presupposes, of course, that what I plan to do will address my needs rather than satisfy my vanity and egotism. That is, when we make such personal choices and we wish to be in alignment with spiritual laws, we must act within the boundaries of need and not within the bottomless pit of unbridled desires.”
“That is not what happens with monks and nuns,” I interjected.
“That’s right. If I am a monk or a nun, I will need to get the blessing of my elder even if I wish to buy a single pencil. This is different. So, again, we need discernment here. I hasten to add that more discernment is needed on the part of the spiritual guide than by the disciple.”
~Adapted from Kyriacos C. Markides, Inner River: A Pilgrimage to the Heart of Christian Spirituality