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Spiritual Parents

Miguel Ángel Fiorito, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Tue, Jan 11th 2022


The term “spiritual” is one of those words which, although it had a profoundly rich meaning in the early days of Christianity and in all the great epochs of the history of the Church, every now and then it becomes weakened  by more superficial meanings, or is transformed into a synonym of largely negative terms – such as “incorporeal, immaterial” – and becomes just one of many edifying words, a synonym of “religious” or “supernatural.”[1]

For Origen, the spiritual person is a practical person, because the Spirit is acquired through action and the Spirit becomes manifest through actions. A spiritual person, according to the Alexandrian theologian, is one in whom theory and practice are united, involving care for one’s neighbor and a spiritual charism for the good of one’s neighbor.  Between these two charisms, he emphasizes above all what he calls diakrisis, that is, the gift of discerning the diversity of  spirits.

Spiritual Parents

What is needed. 1) To be a “spiritual parent” it is not necessary to be male. A woman can also be one; obviously in this case she will not be called a “father,” but rather a spiritual “mother.”

Many women’s religious congregations have a beautiful custom: that of calling the superior “mother,” while the others are “sisters.” This custom is rooted in a long religious tradition. It was born in the East, among the monks and nuns of the desert. In such a place there was no anti-feminism because any Christian, man or woman, could be a “monk.” In the same way any Christian, man or woman, could be the “spiritual parent” of another.

If, in the spiritual life there is no fundamental difference between men and women, why should there be one when it comes to “spiritual parenthood,” that is, in the help that some of us give to others? García M. Colombás affirms: “The spiritual parent was one who, full of the Holy Spirit, communicated the life of the Spirit, generated children according to the Spirit. Evidently, like monks, nuns could also possess the Spirit. She who possessed the Spirit received the title ‘amma’ or ‘mother,’ which corresponds to the masculine title of ‘abba.’ […] Amma does not necessarily imply the exercise of spiritual motherhood, but rather the ability to exercise it; hence it would be wrong to always translate this term as ‘abbess’ or ‘superior’ of a female community. Many holy women, undoubtedly more numerous than the holy men, have perhaps kept hidden their high spiritual qualities  which would have allowed them, if there had been the opportunity, to guide other souls on the paths of God.”[2]

The series of apophthegmata, or “sayings” of the desert fathers, also included the sayings of those called  “amma.” One of them tells us, for example, that “once two elderly great anchorites went to the region of Pelusia to visit her [Amma Sarra]. As they went, they planned to humble the old woman, and when they were with her, they said to her, ‘Try not to be confused in your thinking [or spirit] by saying, “Behold, two anchorites come to me, who am a woman.”’ And Amma Sarra answered them: ‘I am woman by nature, not by thought [or spirit.]’”[3]

2) To be called a spiritual parent it is not even required to be a priest. Holy Orders are indispensable for celebrating Mass, for ministering forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation…, but it is not necessary for a “spiritual parent” to do these two things.

Moreover, most of the spiritual parents in the context of ancient monasticism were not priests, but rather, as we would say today, “consecrated laypersons  or religious.” They had only the priests necessary for liturgical and sacramental functions; and they were very often ordained priests against their will, not out of contempt for the ministerial priesthood, but out of humility.[4]

Colombás explains: “The elder was a ‘spiritual parent,’ or at least had the potential to be so. This does not necessarily imply that he had received priestly ordination […]; indeed, on the contrary, he was not usually a priest […]. Nothing more was required of the spiritual parent than to be an authentically spiritual person […]. Only the ‘bearer of the Spirit’ (pneumatóforos) could share the Spirit with their disciples, and by this act generate spiritual children. To the ‘elders,’ therefore, was also given the name of ‘parents’ or, more exactly, of ‘abba,’ a Semitic term that, more or less modified, has passed into Greek […] and, in general, into all the ancient and modern languages of the Christian world. […] The ‘brothers’ called ‘fathers’ the ‘elders,’ because they considered them true ‘spiritual fathers,’ people who exercised divine paternity, and were not just advisors and directors of conscience. […] In the ancient monastic texts the term  ‘father,’ applied to an ‘elder,’ should be taken in its proper and real sense: it is a matter of true parenthood, and not of a merely formal and metaphorical parenthood. […].And that spiritual parenthood had nothing to do with the priesthood is proved, among other things, by the fact that women were also considered ‘spiritual mothers’.”[5]

3) Nor is it necessary to hold the office of superior in a community of spiritual men or women.

It seems obvious that one who governs such a community as superior has the same attitude that is required to be a spiritual father or spiritual mother. But there were instances of those termed abba or amma who were not superiors, even though they helped those who had such duties to perform them better.

We say that to be an abba or amma means to have come to have an attitude of inner or spiritual “government,” and one could also have had this attitude without exercising it as a superior.

4) Finally, it was not age that made one an  abba or amma. A young person, very young, could become one, in that case not because of age, but because of spiritual experience, useful for oneself and for others. Colombás again affirms: “It must be said […] that the name ‘elder’ did not necessarily mean that the person who bore it was of mature age, nor did it apply to all monks who had reached old age.” He quotes Cassian: “Just as the young are not all of equal fervor, wisdom and virtue, so also the old are not all in the same degree of perfection and proven holiness. The wisdom of the old is not measured by the whiteness of their hair, but by the fervor they put into acquiring merit in their youth. […] The old men with a white head, but rich only in years, are not those whose footsteps we must follow and whose teachings and advice impel us to listen. Our veneration should be directed only to those elders who led a life worthy of esteem when young and were formed not at the school of their own whim, but according to the traditions of their fathers (J. Cassian, Spiritual Conferences, II, 13).”[6]

The two charisms required

If this is the case, what is needed to be an abba or an amma? Two charisms are needed, to put it briefly: what was then called diakrisis and that of “speech,” that is the discernment of spirits, or discretion, and the ability to convey it in words in spiritual conversation with the spiritual son or daughter.

Let us break this down point by point.

1) The most precious attribute of the spiritual father or mother is called, in Greek, diakrisis. It is better not to translate it with a single word: two are needed; in fact, it is at the same time discretion and discernment of spirits.

Let us follow Colombás again: “Discretion, in the language of the fathers of monastic life, is equivalent to ‘a sense of the real.’ It is a virtue that moderates both the excesses of presumption and the defects of pusillanimity. […] In reality […] everything leads us to think that it was the sad lessons of experience that pushed the masters of ancient monasticism to deepen the virtue of discretion and to give it a place of singular prominence in their conception of the spiritual life. Cassian places it on the clouds and even consecrates to it the last eight chapters of his first Conference and the whole of his second. We must immediately add that by ‘discretion’ he means above all the ‘discernment of spirits,’ but he also considers it the mother of moderation and opposes it to the vice of excess. Taking it in both meanings, he gives it the title of ‘source and root of all the virtues’.”[7]

Spiritual paternity or maternity is the exercise – even outside government proper – of this charism, or grace, or gift, for the good of others, which is called at the same time discretion and discernment of spirits.

It is a gift that is given by God and cannot be obtained by our own effort alone; but God will not give it if no effort is made.

The main effort is to be found in humility: especially that which is exercised when one submits to the guidance of another who has the charism of discretion. Very few people have come to have this charism without receiving it from someone else, rather than directly from God. They are extraordinary exceptions: St. Anthony in the desert, St. Ignatius at Manresa.

In addition, discretion is a charism that is needed in order to move confidently along the paths of the Spirit; and for this reason, should you lack it, you must seek out those who possess it and allow yourself to be guided by them.

The words with which Cassian in one of the Conferences tells us through the mouth of Abba Moses of a pacoima [conversation] of the desert fathers, under the direction of Abba Anthony are well known: “A memory of childhood brings to my mind many elderly monks who came one day to visit Anthony in the Thebaid desert. The conversation of those men of God lasted from sunset to dawn of the following day, and I remember that the subject of discretion occupied almost the whole night. They investigated at length what is the virtue or observance which, besides keeping the monk immune from the snares and tricks of the devil, can also make him progress on the path of perfection.

Each one said what he thought according to his own way of seeing. Some said that it was the love of vigils and fasts that produced such wonderful effects […]. Others said it was total renunciation […]. Still others said that it was anachoresis, that is, abandonment of the world and withdrawal into the desert, where conversation with God becomes more familiar and union with God more intimate. There was also a group according to which the primary virtue of the monk was the practice of charity […].

Some gave to one virtue, others to another the merit of introducing the soul to union with God. Most of the night had already passed when Anthony began to speak: ‘All the practices you mentioned,’ he said, ‘are useful for the soul that thirsts for God and desires to reach God, but the sad experiences and the tearful falls of many hermits discourage us from assigning the palm to any of these virtues. We have seen many monks apply themselves to the most rigorous fasts and vigils, gain great admiration for their love of solitude, show such complete detachment that they do not keep for themselves either bread for a single day or a single coin. We have seen charitable monks exercise with supreme devotion the works of mercy, yet they have miserably deluded themselves! They did not know how to carry out the work they had undertaken, and they ended their admirable fervor, their most praiseworthy life with an abominable fall. Therefore we will be able to recognize the virtue most likely to lead us to God if we seek the cause of their illusions and their falls.

The works of those virtues which you have enumerated abounded in these monks, but the lack of discretion meant that these works did not last to the end. To explain their fall there can be found no other cause than this: they did not have the opportunity of training themselves in the school of the elders and did not acquire the virtue of discretion. It is discretion which, by keeping away from the two opposing excesses, teaches the monks to walk always on the royal road, and does not allow them to deviate to the right (toward a foolishly presumptuous virtue, or an exaggerated fervor that would pass the boundaries of good measure) nor to the left (toward relaxation and vice, or toward lukewarmness of spirit, which lurks behind the pretext of governing the body well). Jesus was thinking of discretion when in the Gospel he spoke of the eye that is the lamp of the body […]. Discretion, in fact, examines the acts and thoughts of a person, and wisely chooses those that are to be admitted. If this inner eye is bad, or – to put aside metaphor – if we are devoid of knowledge and sound judgment, if we let ourselves be carried away by error and presumption, our whole body will be dark, because the light of intelligence and our own activity will have been obscured. Vice – evidently – blinds, and passion is the mother of darkness” (J. Cassian, Spiritual Conferences, I, 2).

2) Although diakrisis is enough for oneself, it is not enough if it is a question of being the spiritual father or mother of others: one must know how to express the right ideas discreetly; otherwise one is not at the service of others.[8]

The charism of diakrisis would be useless, at least for others, if one did not also have the charism of the “word” or, as the ancient monks used to say, the charism of “prophecy,” meaning not the knowledge of the future, but the communication of a personal spiritual experience.

García Colombás writes: “An important quality of the spiritual father was knowing how to express himself, to communicate to others his own vision of things, his own inner dispositions of charity and indulgence, the lights that the gift of diakrisis gave him. It is clear that in this, as in everything, there were degrees. Not all the Fathers possessed the charisma of the right, adequate, opportune word, with the perfection [for example] of Saint Anthony. […] In fact it was a charism that not all the fathers possessed at all times, as explained by the well-founded affirmation of Diadochus of Photice: ‘It is necessary to wait unceasingly with faith, with an active charity, for the illumination that leads to speaking.’ The spiritual masters had to wait for the opportune time in which it was given them to speak of God usefully, according to God.”[9]

How to become an abba or amma

Only at this point can we say what being a spiritual father or mother consists of. “According to the flesh,” we already know what it means: to beget, to give birth to, to bring a son or daughter into the world. “According to the spirit,” it was “the person who, full of the Holy Spirit, shared the life of the Spirit, generated children according to the Spirit, to the point of forming in them […] perfect people who, in their turn, would come to be ‘parents’ and perpetuate on earth the lineage of the friends of God, spiritually generating other children.”[10]

The gift of being a spiritual father or mother is received, as we have said, through humility, by opening oneself interiorly to someone who is already a spiritual father or mother. Hence the importance of spiritual direction as a way to become a spiritual father or mother. Colombás explains: “In the judgment of our teachers [of the desert] it was normal that the monk faithful to his vocation should attain the gift of diakrisis. Those who did not yet possess it could do no more than consult, for their problems, with the spiritual elders who had already received it. That is to say, they needed spiritual direction.

It is well known how energetically the teachers of primitive monasticism insisted on the necessity of spiritual direction, of opening the conscience or, better, of opening the soul, much more than what was involved in the mere confession of sins.[11]

And in fact, in order to guide the spiritual parent and for their direction to be effective, not only failings and lapses must be manifested, but also – and above all – logismoi, that is, thoughts, inclinations, suggestions, inner impulses.[12] […] Woe to those who refused spiritual direction or were not completely honest with their elders! They exposed themselves to falling into illusions, exaggerations and fatal errors. […] In the hermitages and cenobia (where the monks lived) there were historical anecdotes or simple accounts that told of spiritual and even temporal disasters that had happened to monks who had neglected this precept, with the evident intention of instilling in souls a salutary fear. Spiritual discretion, which the ancient monks recommended so much, is based […] on the well proven fact that diakrisis is lacking in young people, in beginners and, often, in monks of mature age and even in the old. They are like blind men in the spiritual life and, if someone who sees well does not guide them, they usually go astray.”[13]

In the Spiritual Conferences Cassian puts these words into the mouth of Abbot Moses: “True discretion [that which makes a person first a disciple and then a teacher of others] is acquired by means of true humility. And the first sign of true humility will be that of leaving to the elders the judgment of all our actions and all our thoughts, to the point that one never relies on one’s own judgment […].

This discipline [manifesting the conscience in all simplicity] will not only teach the young monks to walk straight on the path of true discretion, but will also give them security against all the deceptions and all the snares of the enemy. […]

The cunning of the devil will not be able to make use of the ignorance of a monk who does not yield to false modesty and does not hide any of those thoughts that arise in his heart, but shows all of them  to the prudent judgment [or discretion] of the elders, to know whether they should admit or reject them.[14]

An evil thought [in fact,] brought into the light of day, immediately loses its poison. Even before the discretion [of the elders, man or woman] has pronounced its sentence, the infernal serpent, which confession has brought out of its dark hiding place, flees in shame. Its suggestions have power over us as long as they remain hidden in the depths of our hearts” (Cassian, Spiritual Conferences, I, 10).

Our “thoughts” (passions or temptations), if they remain hidden, grow[15] and obscure our judgments; and we ourselves, who tolerate them, fail to realize this.

The spiritual life[16] is a path full of dangers and pitfalls. To get rid of them, it is best to seek and find someone who has more spiritual experience.

For the monks of the desert there was no “self-taught” monk or nun: no one becomes a monk or nun by themself, without the intervention of a spiritual father or mother.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no.11 art. 6, 1121: 10.32009/22072446.1121.6

[1] This article, which originally appeared in Boletín de espiritualidad 80, April 1983, 1-16, is now collected in M. Á. Fiorito, Escritos, V, Rome, La Civiltà Cattolica, 2019, 176-190. Here we present the first part. We will present the second part later under the title “Spiritual Discretion.”

[2] G. M. Colombás, El monacato primitivo, Madrid, BAC, 1975.

[3] Apotegmas de los padres del desierto, Buenos Aires, Lumen, 1979, 163.

[4] We recall that Saint Francis of Assisi, out of humility, did not want to be ordained beyond the rank of deacon. Saint Ignatius, on the other hand, felt from the beginning that God wanted him to be a priest, above all so that he could hear confessions (cf. A. Queralt, “Vocación al sacerdocio en el carisma ignaciano”, in Manresa 47 [1975] 153-170).

[5] G. M. Colombás, El monacato primitivo, op. cit., 98-100.

[6] Ibid., 97.

[7] Ibid., 269-270; cf. 100; 250-253.

[8] We recall that diakrisis, discretion and discernment of spirits, is a gift or charism. By this we mean that it is a personal grace for the benefit of others (cf. 1 Cor 12:8-10).

[9] G. M. Colombás, El monacato primitivo, op. cit., 103.

[10] Ibid., 100.

[11] The author understands conscience as the “moral” conscience, involving sins. A broader conception of the conscience itself as “spiritual” can be found in M. Á. Fiorito, Escritos, op. cit., IV, 337-368.

[12] St. Ignatius restricts the object of the “account of conscience” to logismoi or “thoughts,” excluding, during the Exercises, sins. He affirms that “it is very useful for the one who proposes the Exercises, without wishing to inquire into the personal thoughts and sins of the exercitant , to be informed with precision of the various agitations and thoughts that the different spirits arouse in that person” (Spiritual Exercises [ES], No. 17). For this reason he states in the Autograph Directory that “it is better, if possible, for the retreatant to be confess to another, and not to the one who gives the Exercises” (No. 4).

[13] Cf. G. M. Colombás, El monacato primitivo, op. cit., 253-255.

[14] St. Ignatius affirms that “when the enemy of human nature presents to a virtuous person his wiles and flatteries, he wants and desires that these be accepted and kept secret. But when he manifests them to a good confessor or other spiritual person who knows the wiles and mischiefs of the devil, the latter is very much displeased; for he understands that he will not be able to succeed in the mischief he has begun, since his obvious deceptions have been discovered” (ES 326).

[15] Remember, as we saw in the text, that “elder” is not called one who is such by age, but one who possesses diakrisis.

[16] All the texts that we quote from or about monks we understand as accounts of the spiritual life, not of monastic life in the desert.

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