Probing Russian Orthodox Spirituality
May 1993By Alphonse Vinh
Alphonse Vinh, who was born in Vietnam, is a research librarian at Yale University, a teaching Fellow at Yale's Berkeley College, and a Catholic layman.
A key figure in the Russian Orthodox spiritual experience is the staretz, a grace-filled individual, usually a monk, who possesses the special charism of starchestvo, or spiritual direction. The staretz acquires this charism through heroic ascetical labors which culminate in a total dying to self followed by a rebirth in Christ. For his disciples, the staretz is like a dear mirror in which each disciple can see his true face. And as a living icon, as it were, of Christ, the staretz radiates divine grace and wisdom.
Sincere Orthodox men and women have yearned to live lives more fully touched by fellowship with God. Whenever they began their first feeble steps on the path to God, the Fathers of the Orthodox Church advised them, "Find the Map." This "Map" is the precious accumulated Tradition of spirituality left behind by the Fathers of the Orthodox Church through their writings, oral teachings, and living disciples. The staretz, as someone with extraordinary insight into the human heart, helps inexperienced pilgrims correctly interpret the Map, in order for them to journey in the direction God has individually planned for them.
The startsii assiduously stuck to the Map in their own spiritual teachings. When staretz Amvrosii of Optino (Dostoevskii's spiritual teacher) began his starchestvo, he always limited his advice to the opinions of the Fathers. It was not until much later, when Amvrosii had traveled all the regions of the Map, had personally acquired the Mind of the Fathers, that he was genuinely free to act on his own spontaneous, patristically molded intuition. Nonetheless, Amvrosii constantly referred to the Map of the Fathers.
When Amvrosii was a young monk, he was carefully groomed to become a staretz by his predecessor and master in starchestvo, staretz Makarii. One day the latter joyfully perceived his future successor's progress in attaining the Mind of the Fathers. Makarii chuckled and remarked, "Look, look, Amvrosii is taking away my bread, taking away my bread!" This story illustrates another facet of the character of a true staretz: a complete absence of proprietorship in being a spiritual master. Above all, this is supremely important: True spiritual guidance is devoid of self-interest. A staretz cannot be anything but an impostor and is in fact a spiritual murderer if he desires his spiritual children to remain dependent on him for life.
You have two options:
- Online subscription: Subscribe now to New Oxford Review for access to all web content at newoxfordreview.org AND the monthly print edition for as low as $38 per year.
- Single article purchase: Purchase this article for $1.95, for viewing and printing for 48 hours.
If you're already a subscriber log-in here.