Before the role of the spiritual guide emerged among the Desert Fathers, the ministry of the spiritual father appears in the New Testament. Firstly we see this in respect of Jesus and his disciples, where He took on the role of a spiritual master asking that his disciples abandon all and follow him. Secondly, although Paul’s relationship with his fellow Christians was different he, nonetheless, displayed some of the qualities of a spiritual guide, caring for his several communities of Christians.
However, the idea of spiritual guidance took some inspiration from the classical tradition. According to the Greek philosophers, the fundamental quality for a spiritual master was the knowledge of himself, without which he would be unable to advise other people. Plato spoke of this in Phaedms and of the necessity for a young man to have an older man to train him in the way of beauty and truth, so that the disciple might develop a god-like persona. In effect they worshipped the God-self within each other.
Plato in the Symposium likewise wrote of the necessity for the youth to have a guide to wisdom and noble conduct, a guide to teach him about the love of the heavenly Aphrodite. It was fortunate if the guide or lover found his other ‘half for then a life-long partnership between guide and disciple could develop. Aristotle’s discussion was more down-to-earth, but he spoke for the need for a teacher, when he said that knowledge of the self could only be achieved through another person or teacher who was also a friend. In the Magia Moralia, he wrote of this guide as “a second self.”
Likewise, no Christian guide would find fault with the moral instruction given by the 1st century Stoic teacher Seneca in the Western Roman Empire. In the ‘Epistuiae Morales ad Lucdium’ the Stoic philosopher took the role of teacher of wisdom and spiritual guide. Uppermost in Seneca’s teaching was the concept of self-analysis — the recognition of one’s faults with a view to correction — that was the cornerstone of Christian spiritual guidance. Therefore, there was a need for openness with one’s teacher that took the form of a confession. Without the guidance, authority and friendship of the philosophic teacher, the disciple would make little progress in his endeavour to live the life of a wise man. Seneca emphasised the necessity to have a teacher so that nobody should condemn anyone who gained salvation through the assistance of another.
A similar teaching is found in Epictetus’ Lectures, as told by Arrianus. Here again, there was the necessity of self-examination and the unquestioning obedience to the teacher. Epictetus also taught that in everything we do, we should take the greatest care never to fall short of the highest standard of our moral purpose.
For those men like the 4th century Cappadocian Fathers who were heirs to both the classical and Christian traditions, it was natural for them to equate the study of philosophy, albeit Christianised, with the monastic life. Indeed, from the early years of Christianity, many of the Christians who had undergone a pagan education tried to equate the ideals of the compatible tenets of Greek philosophy to those of Christian teaching and the Christian way of life.
Greek-speaking Christians used Greek philosophical terms and vocabulary to explain Christian beliefs. Indeed, the beginnings of this can be seen in writers like Clement of Alexandria who believed that Greek philosophy could be a preparation for the greater philosophy, which he believed was Christianity. The Cappadocian Fathers continued in this vein. In fact, they and other 4th century Christians were left with the option of either living in the world in a virtuous manner, or withdrawing from it to live in a monastery.
Gregory Nazianzus envisaged the possibility of leading a meritorious Christian life in the world, which he called “euTspoq Pioq” but he reserved the term “philosophia” for the desire in a person for perfection beyond the average. He understood this perfect life of living closely to God, to be epitomised in the life of the hermits and ascetics. Indeed he identified the life of the monk with that of the philosopher.
In the Apophthegnata Patrum a body of literature that goes back to the 4th century CE, we see the development of the idea of the spiritual guide among the monks and hermits of the Egyptian desert. The spiritual father was not necessarily the hegemon of a monastic settlement, but well-defined qualities were required of him. The “Abba” had to belong to a historical tradition and religious group whose place could be clearly identified. Spiritual guides had to have been taught by holy men themselves. Thus both the authority and the religious experience was handed down. The master was well aware of the pitfalls and was in a position to guide his disciples.
One of the first known spiritual guides in the desert tradition was St. Anthony (221-356). Yet he too had a teacher. Athanasius informs us in his Life cf St Anthony that St. Anthony had an unnamed hermit as his spiritual guide. The saint lived the life of a hermit for 20 years, but then he decided to guide others in the way of salvation. This he did until his death. His disciples were free to ask his advice on any problem. He never pretended he was superior or beyond temptation. On the contrary, he taught that temptation should be expected “to the last breath” and that it was by overcoming temptation that made us worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Anthony’s teaching, in a nutshell, emphasised obedience, abstinence and the fear of God ever before one’s eyes. Most important was to avoid the sin of spiritual pride which came about by putting trust in one’s own works, which meant not having a spiritual guide. Monks fall away, he says, when they do not take notice of the commandment “Ask your father, and he will tell you.”
The spiritual guidance, therefore, given by the Desert Fathers involved interior vigilance or taking account of one’s thoughts because it was often that the thought was master of the deed. The Desert Fathers believed that evil thoughts were the work of demons and the Devil and that it was only through self-discipline and prayer that the Devil could be overcome. Therefore, vigilance, self-knowledge and discernment were the guides of the soul, according to Abba Poemen.
It was fundamental for beginners in the spiritual life to submit to the training given by a master. This point was also emphasised by Pachomius, the founder of the monastic settlement at Tabennesis near old Thebes, or present-day Luxor. Pachomius discouraged an over-emphasis on visions, which were rather prevalent in the desert, though he did believe God did reveal hidden mysteries. However it was important to whom a novice confided these visionary accounts, and normally such matters were only confided to one’s spiritual mentor.
Essentially the spiritual father was there to give advice about problems relating to the spiritual life that he had already encountered himself. He had once been a novice, so he knew what to say when a disciple complained of a feeling of boredom and aridity. He was there to help with all the problems a disciple was likely to meet. The problem of temptation seemed to be constant. Another common error found in a disciple was conceit about his progress, the illusion that he was a lot better than he was. This was why confession of thoughts was paramount. In fact, embarrassment about approaching one’s spiritual father concerning one’s thoughts was another wile of the devil.
On the other hand, it was always imperative that the spiritual father should make himself approachable. This was not the place for false vanity. The example of Zeno was the correct attitude, because he encouraged novices to pour out their hearts, with the rejoinder to tell him all for “I too am a man.”