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An evaluation of spiritual direction in the Eastern Orthodox Church with particular reference to Orthodoxy in Great Britain

Interview 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.

LB: 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 lives.

LB: 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.

LB: 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'.

LB: 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.

LB: 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.

LB: What do you think of the ministry of bishops and priests regarding spiritual guidance?
Spiritual direction is an essential part of their activity.

LB: 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 may be.

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 the same.

LB: 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.

LB: Would you describe the relationship you have with your spiritual children?
Fr AP: Guiding and supporting them in their difficulties, showing them love.

LB: 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 give up.

LB: 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.

LB: 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.

LB: 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 before communion.

LB: 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.

LB: Would you say that the Orthodox Church has a common tradition of spiritual direction?
Fr AP: Yes, absolutely.

LB: 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.

LB: 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.

Their 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.

LB: 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.

LB: 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.

LB: 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.

As 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 them.

1. 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.


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