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evaluation of spiritual direction in the Eastern Orthodox Church with
particular reference to Orthodoxy in Great Britain
with Fr Andrew Phillips (St John the Wonderworker Orthodox Church –
Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia) by Liviu Barbu (PhD student, King’s
College London). Interview conducted via email (August 2006). Reply to
LB: Are you a spiritual father?
Fr AP: I am not a spiritual father, I am a confessor.
What does it mean for you to be a priest-confessor?
Fr AP: For me this is very important, because it is an essential preparation
to confess before communion. Our aim is self-improvement, the cleansing
of our souls, so that the grace of God can enter us and transfigure our
What do you understand by spiritual guidance?
Fr AP: Helping the faithful towards the salvation of their souls, by advising
them how to struggle against temptations, weaknesses, sins and passions,
especially, but not only, with the help of the sacrament of confession.
Do you think that Orthodox Christians need to have spiritual fathers?
Fr AP: Yes, we need someone to help us in spiritual warfare, but personally,
I avoid the use of the term 'spiritual father'. In its pure sense as a
clairvoyant elder, I do not know of a single spiritual father living in
Western Europe today. Already in the time of St Paisius of Niamets in
the eighteenth century, there were hardly any spiritual fathers, so what
can we say of today's situation? I prefer the word 'confessor'.
Are there any consequences for not having a spiritual father or confessor?
Fr AP: We need confessors to help us on our path. The consequences of
not having a confessor are despondency, indifference and finally falling
away from the practice of the Orthodox Faith.
In your view, who can be a spiritual father?
Fr AP: As I say, in our times, I do not believe that there are any in
Western Europe. In Eastern Europe, there are still some elderly priests
or monks, but even there they are few. Today there are confessors, priests
who pray, serve the services, reflect and have some experience of life,
who are trying to do their best. I believe that we are coming to the end
times, when if we can simply keep our faith, then God will protect us.
What do you think of the ministry of bishops and priests regarding spiritual
Spiritual direction is an essential part of their activity.
Is spiritual guidance offered by priests and bishops different from spiritual
guidance offered by non-ordained Orthodox Christians (i.e. by monastics
or lay Christians 1)?
Fr AP: Sometimes it is the same, except that the priest can give absolution
in the sacrament of confession. At other times, it is different, because
clergy have an ecclesial and sacramental understanding of the world which
can be absent from that of laypeople, however pious and spiritual they
LB: Do you think that spiritual direction of lay Christians is similar
or different from that of monastics?
Fr AP: Very similar. St John Chrysostom says that the only difference
between monastics and laypeople is marriage. In other ways, the struggle
should be identical. What is family for, if it is not a miniature monastery?
When we marry, we wear the crowns of martyrs; this is the same struggle
as in the monastery, not so deep, not so intense perhaps, but still essentially
Would you describe your activity as a father-confessor?
Fr AP: I am a confessor and I confess those who come to me. I check on
their progress, I speak to them, I phone them, I email them, I advise
them as best I can and I also ask them to pray for me so that I can help
them. We are all sinners.
Would you describe the relationship you have with your spiritual children?
Fr AP: Guiding and supporting them in their difficulties, showing them
How do you understand the practice of obedience to the spiritual father?
Fr AP: If you do not obey the suggestions of the confessor, you will fall
spiritually and so lose grace.
LB: Is there anything particular you stress upon in spiritual direction?
Regularity of confession and perseverance in struggle, for repentance
is our permanent need. We must continually try again, 7 times 70. The
only difference between us and the saints is that they repented continually
and never gave up, but we do not do this, because we lack faith and therefore
Which are the sources of inspiration for you in spiritual direction?
Fr AP: Without doubt, the Gospel, the Fathers, the Lives of the Saints
and the lives of contemporary spiritual fathers and saints, such as Fr
Cleopa, Fr Ilarion (Argatu), Fr Dionysius (Ignat), Fr Paisie (Olaru),
Fr Arsenie (Boca) and Fr Arsenie (Papacioc) of Romania, Metropolitan Zinovy
(Mazhuga) of the Georgian Church, St John of Shanghai, Elder Seraphim
of Belgorod, Fr Vitaly (Sidorenko), Fr Seraphim (Romantsov), Elder Sabbas
of the Pskov Caves, Fr Zosima (Sokur), Fr John (Krestiankin) in the Russian
Church, the Elders Porphyrios, Paisios and Amphilochios in the Greek Church,
St Nikolai (Velimirovich), Abba Justin (Popovich) and Fr Vojislav (Dosenovich)
in the Serbian Church.
Do you take into consideration the canons of the Church and of the Fathers
in spiritual direction?
Fr AP: Yes, of course, but they must be applied with great discernment.
Discernment is the most important quality of the confessor. A confessor
who has no discernment can lead souls to spiritual shipwreck.
In your view, what role has the sacrament of confession in spiritual direction?
Fr AP: The sacrament is the final part, or culmination, of spiritual direction
Do you offer spiritual direction through the sacrament of confession mainly?
Fr AP: The confessor must offer spiritual direction everywhere and at
all times, in his way of life, in his children's lives (if he is a married
priest), in his sermons, in talks, in writings. At all times.
Would you say that the Orthodox Church has a common tradition of spiritual
Fr AP: Yes, absolutely.
Is there anything specific about spiritual direction in your own tradition?
Fr AP: In the Russian Church all priests are allowed to confess, though
of course they often confess very little in the first years of their priesthood,
until they gain some experience under the direction of older priests.
LB: Do you feel that Western converts to Orthodoxy understand and
practice spiritual direction differently from Eastern Orthodox Christians?
Provided that they are integrated into the Church and have left all heterodox
customs behind them, there is no difference at all.
What do you consider to be wrong practice, if any, in today’s spiritual
direction in the Orthodox Church?
Fr AP: I am very worried because, sadly, there has been a very small number
of clergy (I have known of three cases, personally - two are now deceased)
who fell into prelest (in Greek plani), that is, spiritual delusion, and
imagined that they are holy Elders (Startsi). They then began to imagine
that they were clairvoyant, demanding absolute obedience and 'hero worship'
and so on. They in fact suffer from a terrible sin themselves, wanting
to be able to have power over the souls of others, to manipulate the souls
of the weak and so create a personality cult of themselves.
sin can be seen very quickly, because they suffer from false modesty and
false humility. Test them for pride, and you will see immediately their
weakness, they will lose their temper and be angry and seek revenge for
their exposure as frauds through slander. These people are very dangerous,
because they attract people who are weak and naive, especially women of
a certain age, and destroy their lives with wrong advice which can have
catastrophic consequences. This is a great temptation and evil and gives
the Church (and confession) a bad name.
What is needed that practice be improved?
Fr AP: That priests share their experience with each other in general.
Also we need better training in the seminaries in pastoral theology. I
also believe that men should not be ordained to the priesthood before
the canonical age of 30. There are too many ordained under that age. That
canon exists for a good reason. We should not ignore the canons. I have
seen too many disastrous mistakes through ignoring this canon.
What is your model of spiritual direction?
Fr AP: Old priests, who have been priests for thirty and more years, and
have experience of confession.
Do you consider that spiritual direction should be carried out in a specific
way in British society?
Fr AP: No, but confessors must have an understanding of the cultural background
and cultural references of the person they are confessing. Just as confessing
a woman is different from confessing a man, and confessing a child is
different from confessing a grandfather, it is also very different to
confess an Englishman from a Russian, or a Romanian from a Frenchman.
A different approach is needed each time.
regards the English, there is a specific problem that traditional English
culture is very reserved, puritanical, uptight and often hypocritical,
especially as regards sexual sins, and English people need to be relaxed
before they can confess. They do not like opening their souls; and yet
if they do not open them, how can we help them to heal their secret passions?
Here there is a cultural barrier which can be overcome, if the priest
is gentle and understanding and reassures them. This is quite unlike Russians,
some of whom will confess the most secret things in public. I prefer confessing
Russians for that reason. Their openness makes it much easier to help
In the Orthodox Church non-ordained monastics are part of the laity. The
terms ‘monastics’ and ‘lay Christians’ are used
here solely for the purpose of distinguishing between monastics and non-monastics.