On our spiritual fathers and mothers

One thing that often sounds ‘different’ to Christians from some other traditions is the Orthodox practice of having a ‘spiritual father’ or indeed mother. This is a long-standing small-t tradition in Orthodoxy and part of it stems from our close connection to the monastic life. I found out very quickly that it was common for laity to visit monasteries (we use the same word for both male and female religious houses) regularly, particularly during or soon after Lent. This is tricky for those of us in Britain at the moment – not forever, I hope – as the main monastery is the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, down in Essex. Indeed, if someone says “I’m off to Essex” we know that they mean the Monastery! It is an unusual place, as it has both male and female monastics who share services and meal times, but it works well. Founded by Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) with only six monastics in 1958, it has become a focus for pilgrimage and produced several books on both Elder Sophrony, his spiritual father St Silouan the Athonite and the religious life of children by Sr Magdalen. It has a deep feeling of spiritual asceticism exemplified in its service during which the Jesus Prayer is repeated for several hours a day.

While the opportunity to visit the monastery is limited  for many in these islands, we have been granted several monastics who have become spiritual parents of many hundreds during the course of their long lives. In particular, I think of Archimandrite John Maitland Moir and Mother Thekla. Both are of a particular period in Orthodoxy, when the bridge from East to West was narrower than it seems now, and both were influential in the growth of the Orthodox community in Scotland and England. You can read more about Father John – or ‘Archi’ John as we called him – here, and more about Mother Thekla here

The reason I mention them is because I have just completed an icon of St Mary of Egypt, commemorated this fifth Sunday in Lent, for a lovely client in Yorkshire. The inspiration of the icon is the one owned by Mother Thekla – her spiritual mother – and is profoundly important both to her and indeed in the life of the Church. St Mary represents an example of the ultimate repentance – a life transformed by the Grace of God and whose life has been handed down to us by the tradition of the monastery where Fr Zosimas, who met her in the desert over the Jordan from his monastery, departed into the wilderness at the beginning of each Great Lent. The icon shows St Mary, clad in rags and with hair ‘white as wool’, in prayer to the Mother of God and Christ. I deliberately kept the icon simple apart from the addition of one, tiny, scorpion… The reason I added this desert dwelling creature is three-fold.

Firstly, they do live in hot, desert landscapes. I included one in the icon of Christ and the Rich Young Ruler last year, when I was thinking of the countryside in Colorado – this little animal connects them both.

Secondly, it reminded me of the passions which St Mary spent most of her years overcoming. She told Fr Zosimas that the first 17 years were a battle with wild animals, and whenever she ate, she was assailed by hunger for food, that she thirsted for fine Egyptian wine and worse. The scorpion is small, almost invisible and yet deadly; how like our passions they are, striking at us when we least see danger and fatal to our souls.

Thirdly, Father John read the life of St Mary of Egypt each year, after the Liturgy on Sunday. It took almost thirty minutes and I was able to record it two years before his final long illness. The sound quality is poor, but after the first few minutes it improves a little.

One year, Father John said “a scorpion approached” in his inimitable style, which any who listened to him will remember well. It has become something of a reminder of Fr now he has been gone almost four years. When I was asked to paint the icon (and yes, I paint icons…) it made me think of Fr John and his very distinctive delivery of that line in particular. 

It seemed fitting to add this small memory of him, who was also know to the commissioner, to this icon of both her patron Saint and based on the icon which had been a part of Mother Thekla’s life in her own Yorkshire desert. This is the way in which icons are both personal and still part of the tradition. 

As we approach the end of Great Lent, may we all re-read her life and listen to the words of Fr Zosimas about her great repentance.