Sunday, December 04, 2011


TeresaAngelina asked the following question:

Is there a danger, do you think, of our looking for confirmation in those whom we know will agree with us? And should this be a danger, how does one keep watch for it? From the examples given, it is not only from the clergy that we seek confirmation of our experiences (if we did, you'd all be a little exhausted) but from our trusted friends as well. Perhaps even a chance encounter with a stranger who loves God.

Dear TeresaAngelina,
Yes there is a danger that we might say that we are seeking confirmation when what we are really looking for is affirmation.  A reliable spiritual father or mother is someone who is willing to tell us the truth even if it will disappoint us.  And, of course, it is only experience that teaches us whether or not someone is reliable in this way.  

Yes, God can speak to us through anyone and anything--"The heavens declare the Glory of God."  But one must be very careful that he or she does not go "confirmation shopping."  The reason we need confirmation in the first place is that our own internal guidance system is broken.  If I have to rely on my own discernment to determine the reliability of a stranger's or friend's confirmation, then I have short-circuited the process.  It is still me doing all of the discerning.

Certainly clergy and monastics are not the only sources of reliable spiritual discernment--in fact, it is a mistake to trust the discernment of someone merely because he or she is clergy or monastic.  It is only in the context of a relationship over time that one can come to trust the reliability of someone's discernment.  

Having said that, I must also point out that sometimes the faith of the one seeking advice works in such a way that even an undiscerning priest or monastic or an apparently wise older person nonetheless speaks with great insight and truth.  However, a prerequisite to any confirmation of an inner experience or revelation at any time or from any one is that we hold it loosely and be ready to let it go.  

Unfortunately, we quickly become attached to our experiences; sometimes we even build an identity around them: "I have the gift of _________." or "God has told me _________." or "God is going to use me to ___________."  These are very dangerous thoughts.  Our salvation is in humility, not in building an identity.  Our only identity is to be hidden in Christ.  Our salvation is found in following the example of the Mother of God who, although she was Most Pure and had been ministered to by angels before, nevertheless went to her cousin for confirmation--who was much older than her and the wife of a high priest.

Sometimes we have to rely on writings because we seem to have no living person to turn to.  And it has been my experience that (1) God can indeed grant great consolation through the writings of the Fathers and Mothers of our faith, and (2) a word from a living, breathing father or mother is even more powerful.  But in every case, humility is called for.

Once I was speaking to my first spiritual "father" in the Orthodox Church--who was a spiritual mother, an abbess.  At one point she told me something that, on one level, I knew was true, but that on another level, I struggled with.  As soon as I brought up an objection, she said to me, "Well, I am probably wrong then."  She was not being facetious.  Her humility was such that she easily assumed that she was wrong. Immediately I had to tell her, "No, you are right.  I am just struggling."  

Humility is key.  


TeresaAngelina said...

Thank you, Fr. Michael. Two year old stamping it's foot is sometimes the best description for my will. I am grateful the relationship you speak of and the voice of experience that comes with it. I come from the very tradition that you wrote about and still have some tell me how God has told them to do such and such. What should one do if one knows that their friend (Orthodox or non Orthodox) is "confirmation shopping"? Mostly the person does not want to be told this (or likely they would not be in retail mode) so does one simply keep silent?

And isn't it a challenge to be in this tradition of ours which calls for humility and confirmation from a reliable teacher and at the same time, interact with secular society which calls for self reliance?

Fr. Michael said...

The Christian experience is full of irony. We have to die to live. In my experience, a good rule of thumb is to never give advice unless you are asked or required to do so by your relationship (mother to child, teacher to student, etc.). But even then, only the Holy Spirit can cause someone to hear. A time comes (sooner rather than later) that our words become nothing more than annoying sounds to those whom we think we are speaking to.

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Michael,

Can you write more about identity being 'hidden in Christ'? How do we come to know ourselves if we are hidden in Christ? How do others come to know us?

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Anonymous,
That, my friend, is a central question to the Christian life according to the desert fathers and mothers of the Church. It is only as we know ourself, that we know Christ. I am not saying self is Christ, far from it. What I am saying is that Christ comes to us as we are, not as we wish we were or imagine ourselves to be. A central part of on-going repentance is the shedding of our false selves as our real identity in Christ is revealed to us. The fathers and mothers of the Church tell us that both humility and attention are required--and for these obedience and disciple are needed.
Others can only know us by our works (words and actions).