In Homily 42, St. Isaac the Syrian makes an interesting statement about spiritual guidance. He says, “Do not seek advice from a man who does not lead a life similar to your own, even if he be very wise.” St. Isaac goes on, “Confide your thoughts to a man who, though he lack learning, has experience in things, rather than to a learned philosopher who speaks on the basis of speculations, having no actual experience.” For St. Isaac, and many Orthodox spiritual writers, both ancient and modern, it is very important to seek advice from those who have actually lived and experienced the things that you are seeking advice about.
Of course for St. Isaac, the specific context is the life of a hermit. If one wishes to gain advice on how to live life as a hermit in unceasing prayer, one needs to seek the advice of another hermit: someone who is actually striving to live in unceasing prayer as a hermit. The advice of a very wise and well-read person who has not lived as a hermit is not helpful and perhaps harmful. It can be harmful because what seems good to someone who has not actually done something can actually prove to be harmful to the person who is actually doing it. St. Isaac says, “For often a thing will seem harmful, yet within, it is found to be wholly full of profit, and likewise understand the converse of this also: I mean, a thing often appears to be profitable, whereas within, it is filled with much harm. So it is that many men are harmed by what seems very profitable…”
The life of a monastic hermit has, according to St. Isaac, many potential pitfalls. St. Isaac tells us that it is possible for a man or woman to devote his or her life to God as a monastic hermit, but through the delusion or even physical harm caused by following inappropriate advice, he or she can not only fail to draw near to God, but can even fall away from God. It is essential to the success of the spiritual life that one submit to the advice of a person who has actual experience, whose style of life is similar to the style of life you find yourself leading.
Now, I realize that no hermit is likely to read this blog post, so you might ask, “Why are you telling us this?” I’m writing about this today because this principle that St. Isaac is highlighting for monastic hermits applies to people living in the world too. Just as it would not be helpful, and might even be harmful, for a monastic hermit to seek advice on the hermetic life from a married person living in the world—regardless of how wise and learned he or she might be—so it is often not helpful and sometimes even harmful for a married person in the world to seek advice about life in the world from someone who lives a celibate life in a monastery.
“Fr. Michael!” I can hear some of you objecting, “how can you say that? The Orthodox tradition is full of examples of pious laity seeking and finding advice from holy monastics. Are you now saying that people who are not monastics should not seek the advice of monastics?”
Well, yes and no. I am saying that people who live in the world need to be careful what kind of advice they seek from those who do not also live in the world. Taking the lead of St. Isaac, let me explain from my own actual experience. I live in the world, yet my spiritual father is a hermit in the mountains. He has helped me tremendously to draw nearer to God and to understand my inner life. He has helped me understand the internal struggles and games and tricks the demons and my own sinful delusions play on me. I have been helped immeasurably by my hermit-spiritual father. However, there are some areas were I don’t count of my spiritual father for advice. For example, I don’t expect my spiritual father to advise me on the intimate areas of my relationship with my wife. Neither do I expect him to advise me on which is the best school to send my children, or which family vacations are better, or which car to buy, or on matters of financial planning. I don’t expect my spiritual father to advise me on areas where he has no personal experience.
Now of course the spiritual and the material aspects of our lives are not separate. So occasionally my spiritual father does give me excellent advice that has application in areas that he himself has never actually encountered. But most of the time, when our conversations slips into areas in which he has no personal experience, my spiritual father becomes quiet. He says nothing. Or he says that I will have to do what I think is right. Or he says, “that sounds like a good idea,” or some similar to that. He doesn’t try to advise me concerning matters in which he has no personal experience. This, by the way, was something I noticed early in our relationship, something by which I came to feel that I could trust him: here was a man who did not feel a need to go beyond himself, to speak beyond the knowledge God had given him through his own life experiences.
Furthermore, there are exceptions—as St. Theophan puts it, “Of course there are many inconsistencies.” Sometimes a spiritual father may be speaking with a special Grace from the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, he has a word given to him by the Grace of the Holy Spirit that has specific application in someone’s life, application in an area in which the spiritual father himself has no direct experience. This does happen. I can go so far as to say that—in God’s great mercy—this often happens. But I must warn you, this does not always happen, and that is where the problems occur.
As a pastor, I occasionally have to deal with the cleanup, the spiritual and psychological cleanup and repair of those who have run off to a famous spiritual father seeking a clairvoyant word. They seek advice from someone with a reputation as a spiritual guide, someone who may indeed be very holy, very wise, and very gifted in the guidance of souls. However, they are also going to someone whom they don’t know, and more importantly, to someone who does not know them, does not know their history, their lifestyle, their strengths and weakness. They are also going to someone who is human, who has good days and bad days, someone whom they will probably spend less than a hour with—often less than fifteen minutes speaking with. They are going full of expectation, expectations based on the lives of saints they have read, expectations based on the sometimes exaggerated good reports they have heard (interestingly, the disappointing reports never seem to get mentioned), they are going, looking for a saint, to a man or woman who may yet have a long way to go in his or her journey to sanctity.
Then it’s the job of the pastor to clean up the mess. Sometimes the mess looks like a really poor life decision, a life decision made base on the advice of a probably very holy man or woman, a holy elder, perhaps; but a holy elder who doesn’t know anything about how a university functions, or the intimate aspects of married life, or who has never raised children or who does not have to stay wide-awake for eight or nine hours a day while on the job and still make the hour-long commute home without falling asleep. Advice that would perhaps be profoundly salvific for a goat herder on the foothills of Mount Olympus in Greece at the beginning of the twentieth century. But that same advice, might in a 21st century North American urban context lead to divorce, bankruptcy, despair and even suicide. Yes. Such terrible things do happen. I know of what I speak.
And so did St. Isaac, and that’s why St. Isaac warns us to seek advice from someone who leads a life similar to our own.
Well, should we not visit monasteries at all then then? No, of course not. I think every Orthodox Christian should visit monasteries regularly. Then should we not seek spiritual guidance from holy monastics? No, seeking spiritual advice from spiritual people is exactly what St. Isaac is suggesting that we do. But be careful. Don’t assume that every word you hear from a monk or nun—even from one who has a reputation for holiness—do not assume every word they give you is necessarily 100% from the Holy Spirit, especially if that word has to do with aspects of your life that will have a direct effect on other people or it concerns an area of life that this person—even a very holy person—has no direct experience in. And you must again be especially careful if your relationship with this holy man or woman has not developed over many years and has not already proven to you in many small and large ways that God does indeed often speak to you through the words of this holy elder. In such cases, as with a new doctor who offers a prognosis that is new or dramatic, one should seek a second opinion. One should seek the advice of someone who actually knows you, someone who has shown his or her care for you over a long time (even if this person is manifestly less holy than the well-known elder at the monastery).
Even holy elders make mistakes, especially when they do not know the person they are speaking with and when that person is bringing a boat-load of expectations to the conversation that the holy elder her/himself may not share. We need to listen to St. Isaac and be careful. In the end, we are responsible for our own lives before God. Advice from a holy man or woman may be very helpful in many areas of our lives—I know personally that this is the case. However, there are no shortcuts to spiritual maturity. There is no avoidance of personal responsibility. There is no mistake-free path to spiritual growth. This is why we must be careful.