The spiritual father (gerontas), the hegumen, or abbot, of the monastery, is thus, in some sense, an image of God; he represents Christ, and the rest of the monks form the communion of saints, both the living and the dead.

A monastery is a mystery, a sacrament, and its spiritual father is part of the visible element of this mystery, behind which is hidden the invisible: God and all that is not seen and can only be perceived by the intellect.

The important position of the spiritual father, lying as it does at the very heart of the mystery, means also that he guides these men, that he fashions them with his own hands so as to incorporate them bodily into the life of the Church and of Christ.

The monastic superior, then, is not concerned only with everyday life, with the food and material needs of the community: above all, he is a guide of souls, initiating them into the mysteries, showing them the path to perfect mystical union with God.

It must be understood that the monastery is a very special kind of community. It belongs, in fact, to Paradise, to the kingdom of heaven. It is a communion of saints, in which each believer, in this case each monk, enjoys unlimited right to the life of Christ, and where Christ Himself has the same right to the life of each person. The monastery constitutes, therefore, a very important aspect of reality, since it preserves the rights which man possessed before the Fall, that is, the possibility of possessing God wholly as his own. It is this reality that the abbot must realise and demonstrate daily to his monks, that is, to the disciples of the Lord Himself.

He is a master, then, who passes on to them what he knows, but who must above all show them, through his own life, a knowledge of the true God – through the fire that he kindles in their hearts and the understanding that he gives them, so that they are aware of Christ as everywhere present and as the Promised One. For, whatever may be his daily activities, the monk’s life is nothing other than a zealous and impatient expectation of God. 

Gradually, the spiritual father will take the monk and raise him to higher things, so that he is given divine grace. For in the mystical life it is grace which accomplishes everything, and Christ is not only the Promised One, but also a Person to whom one can speak. In this way the monk learns to dedicate himself to his Master, the Lord Jesus Christ, and to have just the same intimacy and friendship with Him as did the circle of the Apostles. And finally, thanks to his daily efforts, and to the attentive care of the Holy Trinity, the abbot will be able to achieve another result: the monks will perceive God as a living Being, coexisting with them, and accompanying them in everything they do, from the time they awaken, as they walk about the monastery, and in the smallest glance. Then there will be full communion between God and man.

Thus, it is the spiritual father who takes his disciple, the monk, by the hand and presents him to the Lord. It is he who makes Christ come down, who reunites that which was separated – the realms of heaven and of earth – so as to transform them into a single true and unique dance.

Such is the true role of the spiritual father, and this is how the monks see him. And this is why there is this discipline and obedience, this love, this gift of self, this trust, all of which are not directed to the superior as man, but to Christ whom he represents.

All the monks share this sense of the mystery and the mystical reality of which is manifest among them, for the Elder is not a new phenomenon in the monastery: he comes forth from the broad stream of Orthodox Tradition, he springs from the flow of the Holy Spirit.

Although he is only a man, within the framework of the monastic life the perception of his humanity tends to disappear. To be sure, he lives quite like everyone else; but he is also someone who has been taken and set apart by God, and as a result he no longer lives like someone who belongs to this world. For although he walks on the earth, he feels, in a way, that his head is in heaven, that he sees heaven, that he sees God. This is the most important thing that a monastery can offer. What society and modern man most lack is made so perceptible, so powerful, so alive, so intense, and so authentic by the spiritual father.

Therefore, the monastic community around its spiritual father is in this way an image of the universal Church in its entirety. Everyday life is very simple in the monastery, but in the silence and tranquillity which are brought into being by harmony and mutual love, men stand on tip toe, hoping to discern the gentle sound of Christ’s approaching steps.

Elder Aimilianos of Simonos Petra