New spiritual fathers’ influence in Orthodoxy shifts from tradition to social networks

    Source: Pravmir.

Seeking advice from a spiritual father is nothing new in the Orthodox tradition, but these religious figures have come to present new characteristics in the modern context and often to be associated with “fundamentalist rigorism,” writes Efstathios Kessareas (University of Erfurt) in an article combining analysis and criticism in the journal Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West (November). Several bishops and other Orthodox leaders, including Metropolitan Elpidophoros of America (Ecumenical Patriarchate), have expressed concern in recent years about the tendency in some Orthodox circles to advocate the practice of absolute obedience to spiritual fathers, which may have its place in a monastery, but creates problems when practiced by lay people living in the world. In addition, some who present themselves as spiritual fathers try to gather their own faithful circles around themselves. While this phenomenon has been studied by several authors in the context of post-Soviet Russia, where there was a real demand for spiritual guides at the same time as a monastic renaissance, it is also happening in other Orthodox countries and within Orthodox communities in the West.

Kessareas points out that the Orthodox tradition is committed to the role of monasteries as a source of encouragement and spiritual renewal for the laity. Problems arise when monks or priests assume the role of spiritual fathers outside of a monastic setting and, moreover, propagate critical and rigorist views about what they see as compromises on the part of ecclesiastical institutions (which fits into the classic sociological perspective of a tension between functional authority and personal charisma, Kessareas notes in passing). The problem of rigorist reactions was clearly manifested during the Covid crisis, with some spiritual fathers criticizing the submission to health guidelines, encouraging their spiritual children to refuse vaccination, and interpreting the handling of the pandemic as a manifestation of the will to impose a new world order in society. According to Kessareas, the Internet has led to the emergence of a new type of spiritual father. Far from cultivating a silent retreat from the world while receiving spiritual children and lay visitors, these modern spiritual guides are active in social networks and comment on contemporary events, striving to expand their audience and spread their ideas.

(Religion und Gesellschaft in Ost und West, Institut G2W, Bederstrasse 76, 8002 Zürich, Switzerland –