Father Nikon from the New Skete, Holy Mountain, visited Panagia in September 2016. He answered questions after his lecture on "What is monastic life?". Mostly people were interested in the relationship between the elder (i.e. staretz) and a father confessor, as the first question already reveals...
Question / Comment: I think that when one lives in the world (and most of us live in the world), then participation in the activies of the congregation, taking part in the Holy Mysteries, is the most important thing. Here there was a lot of talk about the elders. I think the elder is my father confessor. If I find myself a good father confessor then I can always turn to him and ask – I can be in contact with him. We rarely have anyone else besides the father confessor, and his role in this is important. If we have a good father confessor, we can always – after repentance – to receive Holy Communion... What then is the relationship between an elder and father confessor?
Father Nikon's answer: They have nothing in common. One thing is a father confessor and another thing is an elder. Therefore also the father confessor might have his own elder. A priest is a person, who carries out the Mysteries of the Church and who has the power to absolve the sins of the people in the mystery of the confession. And we are saved because we receive absolution from our sins under the epitrachelion of our father confessor and take part in the divine grace through this sacrament. Our father confessor does not save us as a person but rather as a ”function” given to the Church.
Some ordinary believer might know more about things than a father confessor. He might have studied more than a father confessor. This does not, however, mean that he could – because of his greater knowledge – afford to distance himself from the life of the Church, which this priest carries out. Even though we would be baptized by a priest, who would have very little knowledge about the tradition of the Church, we would still be baptized. And similarly, even though this priest would have carried out the sacrament of marriage, we would still be married. And in similar manner, if he receives from us confession, we will receive absolution from our sins.
An elder is something totally different. Let us not confuse things with one another. Tomorrow I will speak about how a man can be saved in the world by following certain practices taken from the monastic life. We all fight against the same enemy – first of all, we fight against our own egotism and secondly, against the devil.
One must use certain kinds of strategies when fighting against the enemies coming from the mountains and another kinds of strategies when they approach from the sea. And different strategies when they are drawing near on the ground. It's useless to try to harpoon those coming from the mountains. And similarly it is useless to try to use a rifle against those enemies which approach from under water. How can we, living in the world, fight against our enemies – that is our topic tomorrow.
Question: How do I know if I am humble?
Father Nikon's answer: When you go to confession often... when we approach the sacrament of confession and if we think that we have some virtues that we, in fact, do not have, then God will enlighten the father confessor. Christ does not allow for a humble person to perish. God will draw him up.
We do what we can, and God does what we cannot do. We know that the devil can take false forms. If (this previously mentioned) ascetic was not saved even though he had all those virtues, then we cannot be certain of our own virtues. Do I really have that virtue that I imagine I have? And if I have it, is it pure or is it tainted by pride? How can I avoid the traps of the devil – he knows so much more than me?
Do not worry about these things. God's grace will save us. It covers every humble struggler. We are not saved because of our virtues but because Christ loves us.
Question: In the monastery everyone has one elder and to him one can show obedience. But in the world there are many opinions and thoughts... and if one is, for example, obedient towards one's parent, one might not be obedient towards a teacher or in work place. Even inside the Church there are different kinds of opinions. It is unavoidable that if one follows one opinion, one does against another. How can we know who is the one we should show obedience towards?
Father Nikon's answer: Everyone should show obedience towards their own spiritual father. Because we do not know if he is right in theological matters... we are saved because we go humbly to confession. The divine grace coming to us through the Mystery of Confession will save us.
The theological views of the father confessor do not save us. If we, however, have some theological understanding and we can see and be convinced of the fact that our father confessor is on the wrong path, that he is on a slippery slope, then we can go to another father confessor. It is the Mystery of the Confession that saves us. A father confessor is not an Elder. One can – in certain circumstances – change a father confessor, but one cannot change one's Elder.
When a person is being ordained as a monk, he kneels before a priest, altar and the royal doors, and gives fearful promises to show obedience in all towards his Elder. These are promises that nobody living in the world makes to his father confessor. A father confessor and Elder, then, are two different things. We must not in a distorted way to bring in to the world things from the Holy Mountain. You can leave your father confessor and go to another. You are not joined to your father confessor with the ties of any mystery.
As I said earlier: father confessors might have their own elders. For example Father Ephraim from Arizona was a father confessor to many people but at the same time Joseph the Hesychast was his elder. And the Igumen (i.e. abbot) of the Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi, Ephraim, had as his elder another Joseph, who was the disciple of Joseph the Hesychast. Neither one of the Josephs, who were elders to these hieromonks, were priests but they were just monks.
Question: How can one, who lives in the world, find an elder? Can the father confessor and the elder be one and the same person?
Father Nikon's answer: One cannot find an elder while living in the world. In the world one must show obedience to the father confessor. In the world we must live in connection to the sacraments of the Church and then Christ is the Elder, Who – through the Mysteries of the Church – acts in our lives. If we want to know more about salvation than our father confessor can give us answers then we can resort to books. There are many books nowadays. Even the Internet can be used to find answers. And in this way we can fill this void.
A man can reach a high spiritual level, even though he does not have great spiritual leaders – like fathers Porphyrios and Paisios. Who, in fact, were their spiritual elders? We do not know that for sure. We have no excuses in our age that we would not know things. There are so many ways to find out the will of God.
We will be saved by those spiritual feats that we do in the light of humility. We will not be saved by the knowledge of our spiritual father nor by his goodness. If I do not struggle myself, I cannot be saved, even though my spiritual father would be a saint. Can we find a holier father confessor than Christ Himself? And yet one of his disciples went and hung himself.
We have nothing to use as an excuse if we say that our father confessor was not learned or he was not holy. However illumined he is, if we do not struggle ourself, we cannot be saved. Holiness is not something one can catch. When we go near to a holy person, the holiness does not transform to us.
In our times, you are God's ”favourite children”. When I, Father Nikon, was young and I had spiritual questions, the only thing that the spiritual fathers would ask me was if I visited girls. It was as if virtue had to do with only something beneath the belly. And I had questions about Christ, and about the Panagia – different questions and I was looking for answers. However, I was asked only of my relationships with girls. Such were the father confessors of that period. I wanted to know spiritual things and I have learned them from the movies of Ingmar Bergman. Then we did not have television... We had nothing... Now we have cds, Internet, ecclesiastical radio stations – you name it. You are being fed on every chanel. There is no excuse. Next time I, Father Nikon, come to visit, I expect you to perform miracles...
Comment: We must have will for good and show this in practice.
Father Nikon's answer: So it is. Just the attempt to do good is not enough. We must proceed in to the right direction. In practice we can do this by going to confession.
Go to church. Get married there. Take part of the Holy Communion. Try to say all the time: ”Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” It is not enough that we want, we must also show in practise this desire. So simple is spiritual life.