A Catholic Monthly Magazine

A School for Prayer (23)

Spiritual Guidance (2 of 5)

The ancient tradition of the spiritual life

By Fr Craig  Larkin SM, 1943 - 2015

The ‘Abba’ in the Desert Tradition

From the beginning, the ministry of spiritual accompaniment or guidance belonged not to the hierarchic organization of the Church, but to the prophetic or “charismatic” part of the Church.

A spiritual director could be a man or a woman, a lay person, a priest, a bishop or a consecrated religious.

The ministry of spiritual fatherhood was not something that one could “claim” through ordination or through courses of training.

It was a gift that was given by God to a person. Other people recognised this gift in the person and asked to share in the benefits of the gift.

Qualities of the Abba in the Desert Tradition

The desert tradition puts a lot of emphasis on the ‘spiritual fatherhood’ or ‘motherhood’ of the director.

A spiritual father/mother is one who generates in the Spirit. His/her role is to bring to life the Spirit in another person.The role of the spiritual father is to awaken the baptismal energies hidden in the heart of the disciple. Placide Deseille

Being a spiritual father does not depend on age. Some ‘elders’ were young in years, but had spiritual experience.

This is a very difficult task. It requires these qualities:

1.  The experience of dealing with one’s own ‘demons’ -- the true abba is one who has taken up, and continues to take up each day, his personal struggle with his own demons, along with his constantly renewed desire to ‘see the face of God’. 

For someone who has not undertaken the life of asceticism, it is a dangerous thing to begin teaching. Indeed, just as anyone who has a house which is tumbling down would bring destruction to his guests by receiving them, so would those destroy the persons coming to them if they had not strengthened themselves earlier.
Amma Synclectica

To master any art requires time and much instruction; can the ‘art of arts’ be mastered without being learnt?

No one without experience would go in for farming; nor would someone who has never been taught medicine try to practice as a doctor. How is it that the uninstructed dare to practice the spiritual way? …

The role of the spiritual father is to awaken the baptismal energies hidden in the heart of the disciple.

Placide Deseille

First let him examine himself carefully, to see whether he can teach others through his actions rather than through his words, setting his own life before them as a model of holiness.
Mark the Ascetic, Philokalia Vol. I. p.158

No one should take up the task of guiding others unless he is guided himself in his own journey.

2.  The gift of discernment – diakrisis

Because he has made his own spiritual journey, the spiritual father has insight into the inner life of another. This is the gift of discernment diakrisis.


Diakrisis enables him to perceive intuitively what is happening in the heart of another – even to ‘read’ the heart of another (kardiognosia) - and to understand things that the disciple doesn’t speak of and is usually unaware of.

Through this gift, the spiritual father is able to help the disciple to discover, among all the voices that speak inside his head, which ones are ‘authentic voices’ and which ones are ‘voices of deception’.

“The true joy of the Church lies in leaders who possess spiritual insight, who walk ahead of their flocks so that the flocks can follow a sure path. It is not possible to obtain spiritual insight by action or study; spiritual insight is attained by silence, retreat and prayer”.

Matta el Meskin (1919-2006) 

Diakrisis is a charism or gift of the Spirit. This gift is spiritual rather than psychic or psychological.

It is not simply the happy coincidence of ‘hitting the nail on the head’; nor is it some type of clairvoyance. It is a fruit of grace, presupposing concentrated prayer and the ascetic struggle.

It requires the capacity to be silent, and the ability to listen at a deep level.

The most famous of the spiritual fathers owe their reputation not to their studies, but to their lives, and to the gifts the Lord had given them.

3.  The ability to love his disciple and to take on his/her suffering

It was said of one Father of the Desert: “He possessed love, and many came to him”.

“He possessed love” – an indispensable quality for a spiritual Father or Mother. Insight into other people’s hearts would be destructive if it were not accompanied by loving compassion. If we cannot love others, we will have little ability to heal them.

The capacity to love one’s disciple is shown in a number of ways:

*  Interceding for the disciple in prayer

I care for you more than you care for yourself. I am bearing your burdens and your offences. You are like someone sitting under a shady tree. I would gladly lay down my life for you.
Barsanuphius the Elder

*  Encouraging the disciple

A brother asked Abba Sisoes, saying, “What shall I do, Abba, for I have fallen?” The old man answered, “Get up again.” The brother said, “I got up and I fell again. ”The old man continued, “Get up again and again”. The brother asked, “Till when?” The old man answered, “Until you have been overcome either by virtue or by sin”.
Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Sisoes, 38

“I tell you that there are many who have tormented their flesh, and because they did this without discernment, they came away devoid of profit. Our mouth smells of fasting; we know all the Scriptures by heart; we have devoured the psalms that come from the heart of David; but we do not know what God required of us”.

Lives of the Desert Fathers V, X,

*  Leaving the disciple free and not attached to the Abba

Do not force people’s free will, but sow in hope; for our Lord did not compel anyone, but He preached the good news, and those who wished listened to Him.
Barsanuphius the Elder

*  ‘Sponsoring’ the disciple.

The spiritual father sometimes took up the role of a sponsor (anadochus), or scapegoat for the disciple, taking responsibility for the other’s past sins and present struggles. Barsanuphius did this for Dorotheus of Gaza who was struggling with unresolved sexual difficulties.

The Icon of St John and his disciple Prochorus portrays some of these features of spiritual fatherhood. The two are sitting outside a dark cave, a symbol of ignorance. The conversation of these two will lead the disciple out of darkness into illumination. Prochorus is attentive, waiting to hear a word from John. John’s hand points to Prochorus, indicating that he is passing on ‘a word’. “The word who is life – this is our subject” (1 John 1:1).

But John’s head is turned towards the Spirit who speaks in his ear. The word that John passes on is not his word, but a word he has heard from the Lord.   

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