I am the father of five children, four who are living and one who has gone to his rest. The oldest of my children is now 27, soon to be 28, and, by God’s grace, soon to give birth to my first grandchild. God is truly gracious.
Closely related to this is the notion of spiritual fatherhood – the unique relationship a priest has to those who have been given to him for their spiritual care. Like natural fatherhood – there are no easy formulas. It is never a simple case of obedience (it certainly wasn’t and isn’t for my natural children). Nor is it the case of “father knows best,” because father does not always know best. I am not a Staretz (elder), just a parish priest.
This weekend I am serving in one of the neighboring parishes of the Deanery (St. Tikhon in Chattanooga) while their priest is on vacation. It is a parish that I assisted in its founding, having chrismated many of its members. It is also a parish that has given a larger portion of its membership to service in the priesthood and as wives of priests, than almost any that I know. It is small but vital.
Spiritual Fatherhood, like natural fatherhood, is a recognition both that you have had some role in the birth of something (even if far removed) and bear a unique responsibility in comparison to other relationships. For me, this is most true of my local parish. I am confessor to almost all of my parishioners, and bear the responsibility before God for the soul of each. On the great day of Judgment, I will have to give an account for the stewardship I have exercised or failed to exercise.
But like natural children, we cannot snap our fingers and make something happen. In both cases we have a responsibility towards other free persons – indeed their growth in Christ is absolutely dependent upon that freedom. “For where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.”
And thus like natural fatherhood, one finds oneself largely powerless over something that has been given to your charge. I have always wanted, above all, for my children to love God and to serve Him above all things. To date, two of my daughters are married to priests, which does not mean that I can “bask in success” but rather that two of my children require an extraordinary amount of parental prayer for they have accepted a very difficult life for the sake of Christ. May God keep them!
By the same token, we are largely powerless over the lives of our “spiritual children.” We can pray, exhort, confess, do all that we know to do, but their lives are a small sovereignty lived before the face of God. Mostly, spiritual fatherhood means a life of prayer in which you agree to hold someone in your heart before God and suffer with them as well as rejoice with them.
I am frequently reminded as I enter the altar, of the fringe on my epitrahelion (stole). It is a common tradition within Orthodoxy, that the fringe upon the stole of a priest represents the laity for which he is responsible. And so as I enter the altar, I take them with me, and that is likely the most important thing about the event. They are with me, and I am to pray for them and intercede before the all-merciful God of heaven for their well-being and salvation.
I think today (as I sit in a motel room in Chattanooga) of priests everywhere who bear the responsibility of fatherhood and of the burden they carry. May God make their burden light, by making them aware that it is Christ who is the true priest and the Father of us all. That, at most, we stand at the altar as His icon, and that as much as we fail to be proper spiritual fathers, He never fails. May we all learn to cry out to Him to help us who are so utterly inadequate to the task for which we were ordained. May God save the faithful and have mercy on all, for Christ stands as the great High Priest before the throne of the Father and makes intercession for the whole world. May God’s children everywhere pray for those who have responsibilities for them before God. May we wish no judgment upon them that we do not wish upon ourselves. Glory to God.