One who climbs a mountain for the first time needs to follow a known route; and he needs to have with him, as companion and guide, someone who has been up before and is familiar with the way. To serve as such a companion and guide is precisely the role of the “Abba” or spiritual father—whom the Greeks call “Geron” and the Russians “Starets”, a title which in both languages means “old man” or “elder”.
Spiritual direction consists not only of learning ancient techniques of prayer, but it requires detailed instruction by the director, as well as guided reading and study and learning inner attention. But it also has an important dimension of asceticism -- that is, certain kinds of bodily practices that, in Orthodox spirituality, go hand in hand with prayer and learning. Such practices may include learning how to live a quieter lifestyle, adopting (with the permission of one's director) additional fasting and abstinence exercises, and more frequent attendance at Divine services -- all of which are calculated to slightly challenge and tax the body and its natural energies, putting it under additional discipline and control.
In most cases, a spiritual director will take his spiritual child "from strength to strength," beginning with the simplest and easiest "ABC's" of spiritual striving. He will first inquire to know at what level the student is in his spiritual life -- and it does not matter how basic or even primitive the student may be -- and the director will also want to know in some detail about his state in life -- married or single, with children or without, what kind of job, and what the student does for entertainment. Slowly but surely the director will introduce the student to certain hallowed principles and ideas. He will assign reading and will carefully discuss that reading with the student.
The director will expose his spiritual child to various methods of prayer which are time-honored in the Church (for spiritual life is in many ways as much a science as an art). He will also assign a Prayer Rule, very simple at first, and then gradually more complex, and he will carefully supervise the student's progress in prayer. He will also act as confessor to his spiritual son or daughter, for in this great Mystery of Repentance the director is most able to act as a spiritual physician. In this context, a spiritual father strives particularly to show his spiritual children the way to repentance, which means "a change of mind that is accompanied by deep regret over one's past life or over some particular act which one has committed," so that "there is a profound change of orientation, a sudden shift of the center of gravity of one's total being from the material to the spiritual, from the physical world to God, from concern for the body to concern for the soul.''
Not least, a spiritual father will be available as a sympathetic ear and a healthy and objective "sounding-board" when his spiritual sons and daughters are in need of this.
Priest Alexei Young