Eldership consists of the sincere spiritual relationship of spiritual children to their spiritual father or elder.    

       Saints Callistus and Ignatius, in the Philokalia, set down five indications of such sincere, spiritual relationship:

     1. Complete faith in one’s guide and superior;
    2. Truthfulness - to be truthful before him in both word and deed;
    3. Not to do one’s own will in any way, but in every way to strive to cut off one’s own will - that is, not to do anything in keeping with one’s own wish and understanding, but always to ask about everything, and to act according to the advice and will of one’s guide and superior;
    4. In no way to contradict or be contentious as contradiction and contentiousness issue from thoughts             mixed with unbelief and conceit;
    5. Complete confession of sins and secrets of one’s heart
(Volume II of the Philokalia, Chapter 15).[1]    

        “They deceive themselves,” says St. John Climacus, “who, placing their hope in themselves, suppose that they have no need of a director” (Chapter 1, Step 7).[2]       

         “As a ship which has a good helmsman comes safely into harbour with God’s help, so the soul which has a good shepherd, even though it has done much evil, easily ascends to Heaven.  Without a guide it is easy to wander from the road, however prudent you may be; and so he who walks the monastic way under his own direction soon perishes, even though he may have all the wisdom of the world” (Step 26, Chapters 236 and 237).[3]    

        “For the man who goes (by way of the monastic path) his own way, travelling without understanding of the Gospels and without any guidance,” says St. Mark the Ascetic, “often stumbles and falls into many pits and snares of the devil; he frequently goes astray and exposes himself to many dangers, not knowing where he is going.  For many have endured great ascetic labours, much hardship and toil for God’s sake; but because they relied on their own judgement, lacked discrimination, and failed to accept help from their neighbor, their many efforts proved useless and vain” (Letter to Nicholas the Solitary).[4]   

        “It is impossible,” says St. Gregory the Sinaite, “for anyone to learn by himself the art of virtue, although some have used their own experience as a teacher.  For acting by one’s own inclination, instead of following  the advice of those who have succeeded, leads to a high opinion of oneself. For if the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise (john 5:19), and the Spirit shall not speak of himself (John 16:13), who can think that he has reached such heights of virtue that he has no need of someone’s guidance amid mysteries?  In his delusion such a man seems to be more mad than virtuous” (in Volume I of the Philokalia, Chapter 15 on Hesychasm).[5]   

        “One should not question everyone, but only him who has been entrusted with the guidance of others, whose life shines, and who is himself poor, yet making many rich, according to the Scripture (II Cor. 6:10).  Many inexperienced men have done harm to many unwise people, for which they will be judged after death.  For not everyone has the right to guide others, but only those who have been endowed with discernment of spirits, according to the Apostle (I Cor. 12:10), namely that discerning of spirits which separates good from evil by the sword of the word.  Each man has his own reason and his natural discernment, either practical or scientific, but not all have spiritual discernment.  Therefore the wise Sirach says: Be in peace with many: nevertheless have but one counsellor of a thousand (Eccles. 6:6).  It is hard to find a guide unerring either in deeds, words or understanding.  That a man is unerring can be recognized if he has testimony from the Scriptures both for practice and for understanding, and is humbly wise in the realms of wisdom” (Volume I of the Philokalia, Chapter 7 on prelest).[6]

        A spiritual relationship requires on the part of those being guided, not just the usual confession before Communion of the Holy Mysteries, but also frequent confession, whenever needed, to the elder and spiritual father, not only of one’s actions and deeds, but of all one’s passionate thoughts and movements, even the secrets of one’s heart; as Basil the Great (in the “Long Rules,” question 26),[7][8] and other Holy Fathers have spoken about this.  Symeon the New Theologian (in Volume I of the Philoklia, Chapter 122),

        “It is impossible,” says St. Cassian the Roman, “for anyone who orders his life on the basis of the judgement and knowledge of the spiritually mature to fall because of the wiles of the demons.  In fact, even before someone is granted the gift of discrimination, the act of revealing his base thoughts openly to the fathers weakens and withers them” (2nd Conference on Discrimination, Chapter 10[9]).[10]    

        The great importance and great significance of the spiritual relationship to one’s elder is demonstrated by the following two examples.    

        St. Theodore the Studite writes, “A certain elder on several occasions told his disciple to perform a certain task, but the latter kept putting it off,  The elder, disturbed over this, in his indignation laid a penance on the disciple, forbidding him to eat bread until he had finished the appointed task.  While the disciple went to perform his assignment, the elder died.  After his death, the disciple wanted to be released from the epitimia laid on him.  But there was no one he could find in that desert place who would take it on himself to resolve this problem.  Finally the disciple went with his petition to the Patriarch of Constantinople, Germanos, who gathered other bishops in order to examine the matter.  But neither the Patriarch, nor the synod which gathered, found it possible to lift the epitimia of the elder, concerning whom it is not known whether or not he had the rank of priest.  For this reason the disciple was forced to eat only vegetables.”[11]   

        In The Prologue for October 15 there is the following account “In Scetis there was a monk who for many  years was obedient to his father; in the end, however, due to the envy of the demons he fell from obedience, and without any good reason left his elder, disregarding his epitimia, for he had an epitimia from his elder for his disobedience.  He came to Alexandria, was arrested and forced by the governor there to deny Christ; but he remained unshaken in a firm confession of the faith, and for this he was tortured and put to death.  The Christians of the city took the body of the new martyr, put it in a casket and placed it in the holy Church.  But during each Liturgy when the deacon proclaimed: ‘All that are catechumens, departs,’ the casket with the body of the martyr, to the amazement of ll, was removed by an invisible force to the narthex; and after the completion of the Liturgy, on its own returned again to the church.  One of the noblemen of Alexandria prayed for an answer concerning this problem; and it was revealed to him in a vision that the martyred monk was the disciple of a certain elder, and that for his disobedience he had been bound by him.  As a martyr he had received the crown of martyrdom; but being bound by the epitimia of his elder, he could not remain present for the celebration of the Divine Service until the one who had bound him absolved him.  Then the elder was sought out; he came to Alexandria and absolved the monk bound by his epitimia.  After that time the casket no longer moved from its place.”

        At the present time, many, especially those who reject the path of spiritual guidance, in order to justify themselves point to the dearth and waning of spiritual guides.  But St Basil the Great says that if a person diligently seeks a good teacher, he will surely find him (Ascetic Homily).[12]  And St.[13]  He further says, “It is better to be called the disciple of a disciple than to live by one’s own devices and pluck the worthless fruits of self-will” (Volume I of the Philokalia, Chapter 33; Homily 12, p. 109)[14]     Symeon the New Theologian teaches: “With prayers and tears implore God to give you a man who could keep you free from passions.”

        However, if after diligent and fervent searching one cannot find a spiritual guide and instructor, in that case the Elder Paisius Velichkovsky, in his letter to the Priest Demetrius, offers the following advice:

        “But in the present cruel times, which are worthy of much weeping and lamentation, so few have such instructors; therefore if any zealots among the monks should desire to please God by means of such coenobitic life, their teacher and instructor must be God Himself and the divine writings of those Holy Fathers, the instructors of the common life, which have been preserved by God’s Providence even up to now.  And if these zealots pay careful heed to these writings as if they were to those Fathers themselves, by reading them with the fear of God and understanding, and with God’s help, they may be in part imitators of their God-pleasing life, being guided and helped to understand by their own father who has gathered them in the Name of Christ or who has been unanimously chosen by them - as long as he instructs his spiritual children not from himself, but from the Holy Scripture and from this same teaching of the Holy Fathers” (The Life and Writings of Paisius Velichkovsky, Moscow, 1847, p. 248).[15]

        The path of guidance by an elder has been recognized throughout all ages of Christianity by all the great desert dwellers, fathers and teachers of the Church as being the most reliable and surest of all that are known to the Church of Christ. Eldership blossomed in the ancient Egyptian and Palestinian communities; it was afterwards planted on Athos, and from the East it was brought to Russia.  But in the last centuries, in view of the general decline of faith and asceticism, it has gradually fallen into neglect, so that many have even begun to reject it.  In the times of St. Nilus of Sora, the way of eldership was already scorned by many; and by the end of the past century [that is, the 18th] it had become almost entirely unknown.  For the restoration of this form of monastic life, which is founded upon the teaching of the Holy Fathers, much was done by the famous and great Elder, and Archimandrite of the Moldavian monasteries, Paisius Velichkovsky.  With great labour he gathered together on Athos and translated from Greek into Slavonic the works of the ascetic writers, which set forth the patristic teaching on monastic life in general and the spiritual relationship to an elder in particular.  At the same time in Niamets and in other Moldavian monasteries under his rule, he exhibited in practice the application of this teaching.  One of the disciples of Archimandrite Paisius, Schemamonk Theodore, who lived in Moldavia almost 20 years, transmitted this teaching to Hiero-schema monk Father Leonid; and through him and his disciple, the Elder Hiero-schema monk Macarius, it was planted in the Optina Monastery.



[1] Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, “Directions to Hesychasts,” Chapter 15, pp 176-7. Faber and Faber Ltd., Fifth Impression, 1967. 

[2]St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Revised Edition, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Brookline, Massachusetts, 1978, p.5. 

[3] Ibid., Summary of Step 26, Chapters 52-53, p. 195.

[4] St Mark the Ascetic, “Letter to Nicholas the Solitary,” The Philokalia, Faber and Faber Ltd., 1979, Volume I, pp. 151-2.

[5] St. Gregory of Sinai, “Instructions to Hesychasts,” Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, Faber and Faber Ltd., Fifth Impression, 1967, Chapter 15, p. 93.

[6] Ibid., Chapter 7, “Of Prelest and Other Subjects,” pp. 81-2.

[7] St. Basil the Great, “The Long Rules,” Ascetical Works, Catholic University of America Press, Inc., 1962, question 26, pp. 288-9.

[8] St. Symeon the New Theologian, “Active and Theological Chapters,” Philokalia (Slavonic) Volume I, Synodal Press, Moscow, 1840.  Chapter 122, folio 72, reverse.

[9] St. John Cassian, “On the Holy Fathers of Scetis and on Discrimination,” The Philokalia, op. cit., pp. 288-9, 327-30.

[10] Note: Those who wish to have a more detailed understanding of the way of eldership should read:
    St Basil the Great, “An Ascetical Discourse and Exhortation on the Renunciation of the World and Spiritual Perfection,” op. cit., pp.19-22, and “The Long Rules,”  op. cit., pp. 288-9, 327-30;
    St John Climacus, op. cit., “On Blessed and Ever-memorable Obedience,” Step 4, pp. 20-54 and “To the Shepherd,” pp. 231-50;
    St Dorotheos of Gaza, Discourse 5, “On the Need for Consultation,” Dorotheos of Gaza - Discourses and Sayings - Cistercian Publications, 1977, Chapter 5, pp. 122-30;
    St Theodore the Studite, Catechetical Homilies, especially 2,4,8,9,10,12,17,26,29,46,47, and 95;
    St. Symeon the New Theologian, “Practical and Theological Precepts,” Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, Chapters 15-19, pp. 100-1, Chapters 38-44, pp. 104-6. [Also Chapter 37, p. 104, and 45, p. 106 on the same subject. -Trans.];
    Sts. Callistus and Ignatius, op. cit., pp.94-108; 
    St Theodore (of Edessa) the Great Ascetic, “A Century of Spiritual Texts,” The Philokalia, op. cit., Volume II, 1981, Chapters 40-46, pp. 21-2. 
    Also read the collected letters of Hiero-schema monk Macarius (of Optina), especially part 4, to nuns.

[11] St. Theodore the Studite, Cathetical Homilies (in Russian), Moscow, 1872, p. 133.

[12] St. Basil the Great, An Ascetical Discourse and Exhortation on the Renunciation of the World and Spiritual Perfection,” op. cit., p. 20.

[13] St. Symeon the New Theologian, op. cit., Chapter 33, p. 103.

[14] Homily 12 of St. Symeon refers to the numbering in the Russian edition of Optina Monastery from the work of St. Paisius - Twelve Homilies of St. Symeon, Moscow, 1869; St. Symeon the New Theologian: The Discourses, Paulist Press, New York, 1980, Discourse XX, “The Ideal Spiritual Guide.” p. 232.

[15] St. Paisius Velichkovsky, letter “To the Priest Demetrius,” Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky, St. Herman of Alsaka Brotherhood, 1976, pp. 147-8.



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