Despite Jesus’ instruction to call no person rabbi or father, very early in the development of Christianity, in the Egyptian and Palestinian monasteries spiritual elders were referred to as abba (father) or amma (mother). These “fathers” and “mothers” were spiritual parents in the sense that they shared “both the loving kindness of God the Father and the charismatic gift of the Spirit to engender others in the spiritual life.”Donald Corcoran, “Spiritual Guidance,” in Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, Bernard McGinn, John Meyendorff, and Jean Leclerq, eds. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997) 447. These early “spiritual directors” fostered the spiritual development of their disciples through instruction and modeling. As Cassian said, “A saintly life is more educative than a sermon.”Corcoran, 446.
Over the centuries, as monastic life became more institutionalized, a rule of life for individual and community formation gradually replaced the charismatic interaction of abbas and ammas with their disciples. In this very brief review of ancient Christian writers on spiritual guidance, we will examine four important aspects of spiritual guidance: nature of the relationship, sharing one’s inner dialogue (disclosure of thoughts), discernment (diakrisis), and the qualities and responsibilities of a spiritual director.
01. Nature of the Relationship
One of the most important sources for studying the practice of spiritual direction may be found in the collection of sayings known as the Apophthegmata Partum (The Sayings of the Fathers).See The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. with foreword by Benedicta Ward, SLG. (Kalamazoo: Cistern Publications, 1975). These sayings illustrate the personal nature of the interaction between elder and disciple. These interactions were typically short and to the point. The answer supplied sought to shake up the seeker and represented a personal knowledge that applied directly to the situation at hand. These personal words were not just advice; they were meant to clear away some blindness that produced some block in the seeker’s desire to progress in prayer.Progress in prayer was the goal of the monastic life. As an example,
Abba Zeno said, “If a man wants God to hear his prayer quickly, then before he prays for anything else, even his own soul, when he stands and stretches out his hands towards God, he must pray with all his heart for his enemies. Through this action God will hear everything he asks.”The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 67.
Or consider this:
A brother questioned Abba Poeman, saying, “What does it mean to be angry with your brother without cause?” He said, “If your brother hurts you by his arrogance and you are angry with him because of it, that is getting angry without cause. If he plucks out your right eye and cuts off your right hand, and you get angry with him, you are angry without cause. But if he separates you from God, then be angry with him.”The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 87.
These responses were neither given nor received lightly in the desert. It was assumed that if a question was answered or a word was given, the word would be put into action. Similarly, a word was not given apart from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.See Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) 76–103.
02. Sharing One’s Inner Dialogue (Disclosure of Thoughts)
The disclosure of thoughts is one of the least understood practices of the early desert communities. The disclosure of thoughts—the sharing of one’s interior dialogue, thoughts, and life experiences, insignificant or not, to a spiritual elder—was not for the purpose of absolution from sin and guilt but for the discernment of internal motives and deeper movements of one’s personality.
The disciple benefits from these disclosures in two ways: first, any dangerous or evil thought arising from the heart loses its power to deceive and distort. As John Cassian relates,
Not only will [the disclosing of thoughts] teach the young monk to march directly along the true road of discernment, but it will actually keep him safe from all the deceits and snares of the enemy. Someone who lives not by his own decisions but by the example of the ancients will never be deceived. The skill of the enemy will not be able to delude the ignorance of a man who does not, out of dangerous shame, conceal the thoughts arising in his heart and who rejects or accepts them following upon their quick examination by older men. An evil thought sheds its danger when it is brought out into the open, and even before the verdict of discernment is preferred the most foul serpent which, so to speak, has been dragged out of its dark subterranean lair into the light.John Cassian, Conferences, Colm Luibheid, trans. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985) 68.