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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

Spiritual Fatherhood and Spiritual Motherhood

Christian formation requires above all formation in truth. We are formed in truth when our judgements conform to the way things actually are and we act in harmony with what we know. No one can arrive at such judgments or action by himself. To judge rightly, one must be formed.

Only when one is gratuitously loved does such formation take place. Natural fathers and mothers help their children live in such a way concerning the natural good things of the world. In the spiritual life, only spiritual fathers and spiritual mothers can provide formation for the supernatural life.


A spiritual mother and a spiritual father know that a well-lived life needs an orientation point, firm footing, a sure center. Formation in the truth guides the heart to such a sacred place. This journey requires the courage and humility to see things as they are, especially oneself and God. Firm footing for life cannot be found by oneself. The difficult ambiguities to which this world below is subject do not allow the truth to be a private, individual pursuit even if it requires solitude and silence. God sends us living icons of Himself so that we might find signposts to His Heart.

We are blind until Someone opens our eyes to see, and this Someone has chosen to work through His Mystical Body, the Church. Spiritual Fathers and Mothers help us open the eyes of our souls. This eye-opening is faith and no one receives the gift of faith unless there is someone else who loves them enough to share this gift with them. This is what a spiritual mother and a spiritual father do in the life of another.


This eye opening gift is called an awakening—the realization that one has not yet begun to live, on the one hand, and, at the same time, the certitude that life is filled with meaning. Through the listening ear of a spiritual mother, a new beginning is born in the heart. Through the attentive presence of a spiritual father, a hope emerges. Through these icons, a new possibility to give oneself in love appears before the threshold precisely because one feels heard and understood.

Spiritual paternity and maternity is a source of life in the Church. There is a new awareness of the very gift of life and a sense of urgency to do something beautiful with it in thanksgiving. An awakened soul sees the world through eyes no longer subject to death—through the eyes of Christ.


Even then, our seeing is only partial, so we need others to accompany us on the way. So the Lord sends them to us. They help us see that Jesus Christ is the orientation point and under the shadow of His Cross, we find firm footing. They reassure us that the prayer of faith knows this sure center around which the world turns. Spiritual fathers and mothers lead souls to this deepest center.


Christ is the Life, the Truth and the Way—and every true spiritual father and mother witnesses to this great mystery. Truth confronts disharmony in the things of this world and in ourselves. If we have truly found moments of joy, there also also many secret sorrows that we must learn bear—and He is ready to teach us. So He sends us these icons of his wisdom.


Through the words of a good shepherd, He who is Truth unveils confusion casting its shadows over the many good things that we enjoy and discloses a certain gnawing emptiness that we might wish to put off or walk away from. Through the prayers of spiritual mothers, the Truth Himself makes us deal with the fact that there is something more for which the heart aches and healing for this is not grasped, but received only as a gift. An all this is the loving glance of an elder, a soul that has journeyed a little farther down the road, whose look back encourages us forward.

Here, in prayer before the Risen Lord, we discover feelings that cannot bear the weight of our existence. They often betray us. If this life is too short for all that lives in the heart, it can also feel too long for all the evils that must be endured. The faith that comes from the Lamb of God purifies our feelings. Christ crucified stands ready to give this freely to whoever asks in humble perseverance. Since this gift comes from the Cross, faith knows that frustrated desire, sin and death do not exhaust the way things are. Faith sees that the love of God is also hidden in the shadows of life and and this love is the pathway of the Truth.


Spiritual fathers and mothers give souls real food when they train them in prayer and fasting. These are as it were labor pains in the spiritual life. When a soul is hungry, learning the prayer of faith in fasting gives real food, true sustenance.


If prayer and fasting go together, it is because part of dealing with the truth is allowing ourselves to "feel" our hunger for love to the point that it leads us to pray. Such faith is no escape from reality. The discipline of faith requires us to experience life for what it is: the hunger, the thirst that lead us to seek real food, true drink.


When we pray and fast, what we eat and drink by the truth of faith frees us to love when love seems impossible. It is to this love that spiritual fathers and mothers feed those whom they train to fast. By praying and fasting for those entrusted to them, and by teaching them to pray and fast, they prepare them for this real food.


Wherever we find any hungry absence of love among His children, faith fed by the food fasting knows sustains us in choosing to love anyway. We have this capacity because God in whose image we are made also loves in this way. HIs Will is the food that fasting feasts on and this Will is Love Eternal.


God who is Love also hungers and thirsts. Christ reveals this thirst to the woman at the well and on the Cross—it is among the very last things He tells us. In His image and likeness man is made to thirst like God. God's mercy aches to relieve our misery and so too should our love ache over the plight of another. And where there is no love, if we put love, we will find love say St. John of the Cross.

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