Orthodox America

From the Bookshelf - Paternal Counsels

Paternal Counsels, Volume I, by the elder Philotheos Zervakos; translated by Fr. Nicholas Palis; St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite Publication Society, 1991; 63 pps., illus.;

Spiritual fathers of the stature of an authentic Elder (in Russian, starets; in Greek, gerontas) are so rare today as to be almost non-existent-at least in the West. Nonetheless, we can read about real elders of the past and be edified not only by their lives but by their writings. One such true Greek Elder was Archimandrite Philotheos Zervakos (1884-1980), who was himself the spiritual son of St. Nectarios the Wonderworker.

The biographical note in Paternal Counsels tells us that for nearly seventy years the Elder Philotheos was "spiritual father and guide for thousands of souls of every class, age and level of education"-including many outside Greece. His long life, sweetness of character and soul, and love for the traditions of the Church, make this small volume of his writings (mostly excerpted from letters and sermons) a little treasure.

As with any sober and watchful Orthodox Christian, this Elder saw that the time of the "end of the ages" was already at hand. "All have gone astray," he lamented, "rulers and hierarchs, ministers and generals, priests and monks, officers and soldiers, learned and unlearned, rich and poor, adults and children, men and women. From such a generation and such people let us not expect progress and improvement, but rather the coming sword and the last great wrath....There are a few exceptions...but the elect are so few that I fear they will not be able to restrain the just wrath and indignation of God against sinners....The end of the present age is at hand."

While the Elder wrote about the real (as opposed to political) causes of wars, advised students and teachers, and spoke about true repentance, immodest dress, and heresy, his instructions to priests, confessors, and deacons are of particular interest and are based on St. John Chrysostom's statement that the clergy have "the rank of the heavenly hosts." He observed soberly that "The majority of hierarchs and priests see to it that their golden altars, vestments and cassocks shine, but not their works." And he exhorted clergy: "Do NOT pay attention to the majority, but to the few and the elect. Do not walk the wide and spacious road which leads to perdition, but the narrow and sorrowful one, which few walk and which leads to life."

Such instruction is particularly meaningful because, although the Elder revered and followed the Old Calendar and was by no means a modernist, yet he cautioned against the excesses of certain Old Calendarists, seeing that the Church is a mystery much broader and deeper than we can ourselves grasp:

"I do not agree...that the sacraments of the New Calendarists are invalid because they lack the Old Calendar....It is a great delusion and heresy for one to think that without the Old Calendar a sacrament cannot be performed....The Calendar is not God, in case we should think that only the Old Calendar will save us....When Christ came into the world, He did not teach old and new calendars. He taught love, humility, meekness, patience, righteousness, abstinence and modesty."

Much of the Elder's writing is imbued with the sober tone and principles of both Scripture and the Fathers, particularly the Desert Fathers. As befits an Orthodox teacher, there is nothing "innovative" or "original" here-but rather a faithful handing down, albeit in new circumstances, of the ancient wisdom of the Church. Thus, when a student asked him for some "elder'like" instructions, he replied simply:

"I am sending you the will which the Lord left to His disciples, to us and to all people of all generations." He then proceeded to quote from the Gospels about love for God and neighbor, concluding: "Do not despise the commandment of love, for by it you will become God; if you despise it, you will end up a son of Gehenna"!

As his exceptionally long life began to draw to an end, Elder Philotheos rejoiced that he had been given so many spiritual children, although he felt sad that he was "not able to nourish them spiritually as I ought." Evidently, however, he had at least a moment of concern about what would happen to them after his death. He resolved this with great-hearted trust in God: "I leave them," he wrote, "to God, Who nourishes everything that has breath. The Heavenly Father, the All-good, the Lord of mankind, the Merciful One...to such a Father I leave the defense and protection of my spiritual children."

Without doubt, the Paternal Counsels of Elder Philotheos Zervakos can nurture those of us who never knew him, yet who long for a wise and loving spiritual father. Fr. Alexey Young

The Paternal Counsels  may be ordered from the publisher: 627 Wyncroft Lane, Apt. 11, Lancaster, PA 17603