The soul ascends to spiritual perfection along a treacherous road. The icon of The Ladder of Divine Ascent perfectly illustrates the danger.
Monks with outstretched hands climb up the ladder of virtues, hoping to take the hand offered to them by Our Lord in heaven at the top, while angels and a cloud of witnesses encourage the monks as they ascend.
Some monks, however, never make it to Our Lord and heaven. Along the way some fall to the arrows and snares of demons, whose goal is to pull them down into hell.
The icon pays homage to St. John Climacus (ca. 579 – 649), the author of one of Christianity’s most important and influential spiritual works: His The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a seventh-century treatise on the thirty steps a monk, and every Christian, must take to ascend to heaven and not fall to the wiles of Satan.
The metaphor of the ladder used by Climacus is a familiar one since it is derived from the ladder in Jacob’s dream in Genesis.
The book remains so influential in the Byzantine-Slavonic tradition that it is read daily as part of the hours during the six weeks of the Great Fast or Lent.
Because the road to God demands choosing the narrow way, ascetics of the Eastern Christians, following the model of Our Lord and his disciples, seek a relationship with an experienced guide called a spiritual father.
Gabriel Bunge, a Russian Orthodox priest and schemamonk, explores what it means to be a spiritual father in the traditional sense in Spiritual Fatherhood: Evagrius Ponticus and the Role of the Spiritual Father (St. Vladimir Seminary Press), the third book he has published on the teachings of the fourth-century monk.
Evagrius teaches with first-hand experience of spiritual fatherhood as a spiritual son of three great spiritual fathers – Gregory the Theologian, Macarius the Great, and Macarius the Alexandrian – and then later as a renowned spiritual father himself.
In the early Church, spiritual fathers were not formed like spiritual directors today in seminary or in programs. They received the gift of spiritual fatherhood directly from the Holy Spirit, which, Bunge tells us, is unattainable in any other way.
Spiritual fatherhood, therefore, is not an institution and it is “bound neither to the office nor to the sex and age of the one gifted.” And because the gift is a charism of the Holy Spirit, it only can be received by those within the Church.
In addition, one receives the gift of spiritual fatherhood after spending some time being guided by another. Bunge writes: “No one can be someone else’s spiritual father before he himself has been a spiritual son.”
The relationship of spiritual father and spiritual son, therefore, is far deeper than the typical relationship between a spiritual director and, as a director often calls him, a “directee.” All spiritual directors are guides, but few are spiritual fathers.
Spiritual fatherhood, Bunge writes, has a place in God’s saving plan because “it participates in the Father’s effecting of salvation in the Son through the Holy Spirit.” Through spiritual fatherhood, a gift given only to some, “divine self-emptying can be experienced in a human way.”
A spiritual father, therefore, must be an ascetic, because it is through long years of ascetical practice that one experiences this self-emptying and becomes a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit. Bunge writes: “We cannot teach others what we have not lived out.”
A spiritual father also must be spiritual as defined by the Church. While to Evagrius the term spiritual refers to the Holy Spirit, it also refers to the Holy Trinity since the Holy Spirit is one of the persons of the Trinity and consubstantial with the Father and Son.
A spiritual person, then, is one who has “a personal relationship with God in the Holy Spirit.” And because the Holy Spirit dwells in the spiritual father, an immoral person cannot be a spiritual father. An immoral person, Bunge tells us, cannot even be spiritual.
Above all else, the spiritual father imitates the fatherhood of Christ, who is the true and actual teacher. Evagrius writes:
“It is the father’s place to educate the sons with regard to virtue and the knowledge of God; to give the children wisdom, however, is the Lord’s place.”
With this gift of wisdom, a human being becomes a true person. In educating his spiritual sons in virtue and the knowledge of God, the spiritual father, therefore, participates in the Lord’s “salvific work.” Bunge writes:
“The heavenly fatherhood of Christ manifests itself among us men in the angel-like service of the spiritual father, through whom Christ operates.”
It is especially important to return to the sources of foundational knowledge in times of confusion such as our own when even our basic understanding of fatherhood is under attack.
In returning to the traditional Christian understanding of the spiritual father in the early Church, Bunge strips away the scales from our eyes so that we can see once again the true meaning of being spiritual, knowledge and wisdom, and diakonia.