Several men have asked me to be their spiritual father. Wow!—you might say—what an honor! Slow down—I would reply—I had to say no. I had to tell them that I do not have a blessing to serve as anyone’s spiritual father. I think in some cases this answer disappointed them.
Permit me a digression. Way back in days of yore, in that legendary golden age of magnificent low-budget film making, the 1950s, somebody made a movie in which a madman’s hands got chopped off somehow and then that pair of hands crawled around all by themselves and strangled people, usually beautiful women.
Several decades later, as I recall, another masterpiece hit the silver screen. It featured a huge eye that floated about, lurking around corners, zooming here and there and confronting people suddenly. Somehow it had the capacity to throw knives and various martial arts weapons at its victims.
In yet another triumph of cinematography—sorry, I lack the factual details on this one, too—a human brain, lying in a pan of nourishing chemicals, used its powers of telepathy to perpetrate a reign of terror from its place in the corner of an evil scientist’s laboratory. If any of these events had ever become the normal state of affairs in the real world, we could imagine signs posted in prominent public locations. Certainly some government agency would provide warnings such as these:
DANGER BODY PARTS AT LARGE
I ask your indulgence as I launch off on yet another tangent, this time a quotation from St. Paul with a short commentary. Don’t worry, I will tie all these things together. I promise. In any case, he offered the following counsel in his first epistle to the Corinthians:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as He chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. (1 Corinthians 12: 12-31)
We find the key to the deep mystical understanding of St. Paul’s words in the images of those classic old horror films. It’s almost as if the apostle had stayed up after midnight watching them on the tube. He points out that as members of the Church, the body of Christ, we are like parts of the human body. We carry out our functions and find our fulfillment only when we live in communion with other members. We must not try to operate in isolation.
Let’s get back to the original proposition. Men asked me to be their spiritual father and I said no because I have not been given a blessing to do so. What I can do—and I have a blessing to do it—is to counsel these men, primarily prisoners to whom I write, in certain situations when they ask me for guidance. That arrangement allows for occasions when a man asks me something and I have doubts about what to say. In those cases I take the question to my own spiritual father and discuss it with him. He then makes suggestions about what I should say to the other man. This situation represents the monastic tradition at its very best. The man to whom I serve as a mentor or spiritual friend benefits from more than merely my experience and my opinions. He also has the benefit of my relationship with my own spiritual father. What he receives from me, in other words, comes not just from me but from the Church, the body of Christ. By this process I am being trained, as other men have been trained before me, to become spiritual fathers when the time is right.
Suppose, though, that someone had asked me to be his spiritual father and I had told him yes in spite of the fact that I had no blessing for it. Then we would have found ourselves in a state of affairs where I was acting behind the back of my own spiritual father, casting aside my vow of obedience, and going freelance.
Would you trust a pair of maniac hands crawling about on their own, dominated by their own dark, incomprehensible, obsessional urges? Would you trust a flying homicidal eyeball? Would you trust a psychotic marinated brain?
Would you trust a monk to guide you when he did not have a blessing for it?