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The Spiritual Father’s Ultimate Task: To Enhance Repentance

September 19, 2012

In Ancient Christian Wisdom, someone who goes to the mystery of confession and repentance is characterized as “a figure with the underlying radiance of the Christian calling, darkened by the fall into sin, and brightened again by the hope of reconciliation.” I also note that “the spiritual father who sees these traits is called upon to enhance them.” It might be helpful to consider how one of the ancient spiritual masters, Abba Dorotheos, did so in training his disciple, Dositheos.

In the life of Dositheos, we learn that whenever he would sometimes get angry and speak out while serving the sick in the infirmary, he would immediately leave everything and go run into the storeroom crying inconsolably. Apparently, Abba Dorotheos would find him there and ask his disciple “What is the matter, Dositheos?  What’s wrong?  Why are you crying?”  In excellent monastic fashion, his reply always began with a “Forgive me, Father” followed by a pious and contrite admission of his sins. By our standards, we would say that Dositheos offered the perfect expression of repentance, being straightforward by beginning with those most simple words, “Forgive me,” being pious meaning with the fear of God, and being contrite, meaning that his heart was pierced by the thought of the sin. Abba Dorotheos could have immediately offered absolution as many spiritual fathers today would be tempted to do, but he didn’t.  Instead, he sought to enhance the repentance in the soul of his spiritual son. And so the illumined Saint replied to Dositheos: “Aren’t you ashamed of getting angry and speaking to your brother with irritation?  Don’t you realize that he is Christ, and that you have made Christ suffer?  For we are all made in the likeness of Christ.  We are called to love our brothers and be Christ-like.” In responding to Dositheos in this way, Saint Dorotheos pushed him to a new level of remorse and humility. To be ashamed is to be aware of our nakedness before God and our brethren, to feel smaller, and to realize our need for Him to shelter and cover our nakedness with His paternal love and goodness. Even further, Saint Dorotheos also made sure that Dositheos was not crying, because he made a mistake, because others might now think less highly of him, or because he had fallen in his own eyes. Tears for such things do not bring about a spiritual transformation. They are ultimately tears of pride and not tears of repentance. No, in order for our regrets to have the transfigurational power of repentance, we must be sorry, because something is now wrong with our relationship to Christ, because we have ultimately been unfaithful to Him. After letting Dositheos have a good cry that would now assuredly be for the right reason, the Saint said, “God forgive you… let’s start afresh.”

Was the intervention successful? Absolutely. In the short term, Dositheos returned to his duties with the joy of a child going out to play. And in the long term, he reached such sanctity that when his departure was near, his elder could tell him, “Go in peace, present yourself before the Holy Trinity, and pray for us.” This is what can happen when a spiritual father sees those blessed traits of the Christian life in his spiritual child and by the grace of God and with his spiritual child’s humble obedience, he is able to enhance them.

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