Why I Can’t Be Your Spiritual Father: A Localist Lament

Do you really know this man?

As I think probably happens to just about every clergyman who has some sort of media presence (even one so minor as mine), I get requests every so often from folks essentially to do the job that their local pastor should be doing.

Now, it may be that they don’t have a local pastor, perhaps because there is no Orthodox church near them, because they’re not Orthodox yet, or because they’re not committed to a particular parish. It may also be that their priest doesn’t have the time to help them, perhaps because he has a secular job, because he has health problems, because he’s lazy, because he doesn’t like them, or because the bishop has given him other responsibilities. It may also be because they don’t like their priest, because they want more from him than he has to give, because they don’t like their parish, or because they don’t want to commit to someone standing in front of them. It may also be that their priest is uneducated, that he’s overwhelmed, or even that he’s simply unaware of their problem. Maybe they’ve never even approached him.

There are probably many more reasons why people contact clergy they don’t know to try to get from them something that they aren’t getting locally.

If I already have a relationship with such a person, I may offer some advice, but ultimately, I always try to steer them toward the local church. If I don’t have a relationship with them, I may offer brief comments but typically will shy away from them. Here are some reasons why I almost always have to turn down such requests. I list them here not to talk about me, but rather as some things to think about when people are navigating the intersection of their spiritual lives in three dimensions with their virtual lives on the Internet.

  1. I don’t have the time. This is the biggest reason. I have a family and a parish I have to care for, and they require my time. If I began admitting people into my care who are not local to me, I would quickly become overwhelmed with email, phone calls, etc., that would soon destroy my ability to take care of my family and my parish. Most everyone who emails a priest out of the blue probably thinks he’s the only one to do so, but he’s usually not.
  2. I don’t know you. It’s really easy to lie over the Internet, whether intentionally or out of one’s own self-delusion. It’s also very easy to get the wrong impression about someone, because online we only present part of ourselves to our readers. It’s much harder to be fake and distorted with someone standing in front of you. Therefore, I am not qualified to give you spiritual direction over the Internet. I don’t have enough data to give informed advice.
  3. It’s draining for me. If you and I had a real spiritual relationship in person, then it could be sustainable for us both, but long-distance spiritual direction almost always is a one-way affair, and the clergyman can find himself giving and giving, and there is none of the renewal that comes of incarnate relationship. And, just to put it in stark, “earthly” terms, when you call on a clergyman outside your community to do work for you (and it is work), then you are practicing a sort of “spiritual socialism.” He is being supported spiritually and financially by another community, and you’re asking him to serve you without participating in giving to that community.
  4. I am not special. Just because someone writes a weblog or has a nice podcast or a book you liked does not make him an expert in theology, spiritual direction, etc. It also certainly does not mean that he’s holy. I’ve been given the responsibility by God for my family and by the bishop for my parish, and I try to do right by them. But I am no one special. Really. Don’t think that the clergy you see online are elite in any way. We’re not. In fact, you may want to question why a clergyman you see online all the time seems to have time for that kind of thing. Some of us are more “plugged in” than others, but that doesn’t mean we’re supermen. Some are online all the time because they have a lot of time on their hands. Others have just integrated Internet use into their work to a high degree. (See #6 below.)
  5. I do not want control of your life. I know that some people think of spiritual fatherhood in this way, and I think that’s a mistake. Even your local priest should not be treated as some sort of holy elder whose every command must be obeyed. That’s why I don’t like to use the term spiritual father to refer to myself, even for those who really are committed to my care. Confessor or simply father-confessor (or good old pastor) delineates the job more clearly. You are fundamentally responsible for your own spiritual life. The clergy are here to guide you, but they are not here to command you such that all you have to give is obedience. You’re a “rational sheep.” Use the brain God gave you. I can’t accept total responsibility for your salvation. I have a tough enough time with my own.
  6. I am not here for you. Yes, I have time to produce things that you’re seeing online, but almost all of them are simply a part of my parish ministry—I’m just doing my local job, and I happen to have a microphone and a weblog to go with it. I have them so that I can reach my own people even more effectively. If someone else can get something out of them, that’s a wonderful bonus, but that’s all it is. Now, if God puts you in my town or puts me in your town, then I will be there for you.
  7. I will not cheat your local community. If there is a genuine lacking in your local community, then instead of seeking out faraway surrogates, work to establish better community where you are. Talk to your priest, talk to your bishop, evangelize your neighbors, serve those in need—in short, do the job of bringing Christ to your place. If you instead rely on people far away and use them as stand-ins for what should be local, then you are cutting short the local hunger that makes the banquet possible. That is, if you think you’re getting via email what you should be getting locally, then you aren’t working to make it present to you locally. Don’t short-circuit the development of the Church in your community by bypassing the community. If you do not have it in you to do that sort of work where you are, then it might be a good idea to move some place where you can plug in to a healthy parish community.
  8. The priesthood is local. This is my most fundamental point. Almost everything a priest does in his priesthood requires physical presence. The sacraments, preaching, etc., are all fundamentally local acts, and even if some elements of the priest’s work can be published or broadcast, they always lose something in the transmission.

Now, there are of course many legitimate reasons why someone might be engaged in long-distance spiritual direction. The best one is probably the case of the person who physically moves away from their confessor after years of his spiritual direction. But even in that case, it’s a good idea to transition to someone local.

Most clergy are the kind of people who like to help, who may even feel a need to be helpful. And it can be flattering to have someone approach you because of your “fame” online. But, like Admiral Ackbar said, it’s a trap! (Especially if the person contacting you is an apparently attractive female. Or at least her profile pic looks that way. Remember that, on the Internet, no one is quite who they claim to be.)

Curiously, many of the dangers of online, long-distance romantic relationships essentially apply to online, long-distance spiritual direction. It’s really the problem with any virtual relationship. Man was not made to live in a non-dimensional world. He was made to live in communion, in community.

All that said, if you happen to email me, I will try to answer your email. If I do not already know you, especially if your email requires thought, my response may well be quite delayed. It’s nothing personal. Really. But maybe it’s time to go ask your own priest. Don’t have one? Here’s a place to start.

15 comments:

  1. Father, bless! I always appreciate your posts that challenge the reader to invest more in their local community. What do you say about situations like the priest’s family members? Or about a parishioner having a relationship with another confessor in the general community (<1 hour travel distance) but worshiping and serving at a parish closer to their home?

    1. 1. The priest’s family is sometimes in a difficult situation. It’s really not appropriate for them (or him!) to have him as their confessor, so they may have to travel if there isn’t an appropriate confessor nearby. (In my case, our family’s confessor is another priest in our deanery—our dean, in fact.)

      2. I see no problem with a parishioner having a confessor who is not their local pastor. He is the “default,” to be sure, but there are good reasons to have another confessor within one’s community. The key is the in-person relationship.

  2. Bless Father! Well posted, I especially turn to #7 & #8. I have witnessed “Priest Shopping” to coin a phrase in the past and it certainly affects the relationship if you are not growing in sight of your Spiritual Father. My wife and I moved parishes a couple of years back and even though the priest was a family friend and well known to both of us, it took a while to build the relationship and get us used to each other – and I was serving in the altar so we saw each other all the time.

    Bravo on bringing Admiral Ackbar into the conversation, he gets far too little credit in Star Wars circles.

    Andrew

  3. Well, Father Andrew, I always appreciate your succinctness. 🙂 Seriously though, this whole idea of “Spiritual Fathers” is more or less romanticism. Not that there aren’t any out there, but more than likely few and far between. In reality, though I am an Orthodox Christian (even though a newbie which probably makes me second rate, he he), my Spiritual Father is and has been for much of my married life none other than my dear husband. He’s not Orthodox, therefore he doesn’t fit into the category of “Orthodox Spiritual Father.” However, he is a devout Christian, knows me quite well, and we have toughed it through life on more occasions than I can count.

    My starry-eyed enchantment with Orthodoxy has come to a grinding halt. I am no longer bedazzled by its One True Church spirituality. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I’m disappointed with Orthodoxy as it is on the ground, in Real Life. I’m sure Mt. Athos is quite a different matter altogether, but then I can’t go there, now can I? And I just bet that’s where the cream of the crop of Spiritual Fathers reside. (I really do mean that too) But what good is that if most folks can’t ever reach them?

    I knew the love affair had to come to an end, or should I say puppy love phase? Another version of this happened many years ago after experiencing that first high that comes with conversion to Christ. This is when one must take off the rose colored glasses and face the reality of the experience lived with real human beings and, as you would say, in community.

    And so it is that I have no illusions of Spiritual Fathers clothed in uncreated light piercing into the depths of my soul dispensing esoteric and profound insight. Don’t get me wrong, that would be quite nice. On the other hand, maybe it would be a bit uncomfortable. The point is, I don’t expect to be blessed with the advantage of an Orthodox Spiritual Father par excellence in this life. But miracles do happen, and God may yet allow me the privilege of stumbling across the path of such a one who is ready and able to instruct me with wise sayings, and help me to understand theosis in layman’s terms.

    Right now I’m in the Real World (not the MTV version), and Real World Orthodoxy in real time and place has local priests at local parishes who live lives pretty much the same as all of us non-clergy, except that they administer the sacraments. That’s no little deal, it’s a big deal…even much more than that! Still, Spiritual Fathers are a rare breed, much more like holy fools I would expect. Not many parishioners want their priests being holy fools and I daresay, few priests enter the priesthood with the intention to become holy fools. St. John of Kronstadt, blessed be his memory always, was one of those rare exceptions.

    So I leave you with one of my Orthodox stories, knowing how apropos stories can be in Orthodox spirituality. Once there was a pilgrim who traveled far and wide to seek out a True Spiritual Father. Over the course of several years he traversed hill and dale, mountain and valley, ghetto and province in the hope of apprehending that One True Guide who would refresh his soul with acute spiritual enlightenment. One day, while looking for lodging in a quaint hamlet he was directed to the only shopkeeper in those parts. Upon entering the shop, the pilgrim inquired of the merchant where he might find a True Spiritual Father. The shopkeeper directed him to a cottage, nestled in the mountains located a considerable distance from the hamlet. While he had never visited the old sage who lived there, many locals had, returning with awe-inspiring tales of spiritual transformation. Anticipating dusk in a few hours, he commenced his journey in with eagar expectation. As the sun began setting, the weary pilgrim beheld a cottage in the distance. Without hesitation, he hastened toward his destination. Upon arrival, his heart pounding wildly with excitement, he detected a note affixed to the front door. It read as follows, “The True Spiritual Father you are seeking does not live here. Truth be known, he discovered in time to the dismay of many who arrived here, that he is nothing more than a simple priest with foibles and failings. Give up your search for a True Spiritual Father. Instead, seek out a priest, confess your sins, receive the sacraments, and be content. And give that man wearing a cassock some slack.”

        1. Yes, the celebrity contacts are issued along with the ordination certificate.

          As for a pulpit, I’ll have to look into getting one for my church. It’s just so hard to get the lights to shine properly onto my glorious face without the elevation a true pulpit would provide.

Leave a Reply to Flatus Magnus Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *