Starec (стáрец), also known as elder or a spiritual father, is a holy man of Ortodox Christian monasticism whose wisdom comes from asceticism, wandering, seclusion and a mystical praying tradition of Hesychasm. Although prevalent in Russian Ortodox present day monasticism, the institution of elders can be found in early days of Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian and Romanian Eastern Christian tradition, as well as today.
Origins of this mysterious practice are believed to be in the 3rd and 4th century Oriental Ortodox Christianism in Egypt, especially among the first generation of monks. The first mention of elders among European Ortodox Christians is attributed to Greeks, who used the term Geronim.
Around 5th century, the institution of an elder appears in the Russian Ortodox tradition and is called Starets (derived from Old Church Slavonic, meaning an old man). Greek tradition of Geronims has given many reputable and significant elders since the 7th century, such as John Moschus and Sophronius of Jerusalem in the first generation and Symeon the New Theologian in the second. And while Greek tradition of Geronims has been consistent and unbroken throughout the history until the present day, Russian tradition of Startsy was quite different. Medieval Rus has an order of well known and distinguished Startsy of Old Muscovy, Nil Sorsky and Sergius. However, due to historically unclear reasons, the order of elders in Russia disappeared between the 16th and 18th century. Dostoyevsky has written about this in one of his most successful novels, ‘The Brothers Karamazov’:
‘I must digress to explain what an elder is in Russian monasteries. The institution of elders is of recent date in our monasteries, though in the Orthodox East, especially in Sinai and Athos it has existed over a thousand years. It is maintained that it existed in ancient times in Russia also, but through the calamities which overtook Russia- the Tartars, civil war, destruction of Constantinople -this institution fell into oblivion. It was revived among us towards the end of last century by one of the greats ‘ascetics’, as they called him, Paissy Velichkovsky, and his disciples. But to this day, it exists in few monasteries only, and has sometimes been almost persecuted as an innovation in Russia.’
The revival of Starets order in Russian monasteries started with, as Dostoevsky pointed out, Paisius Velichkovsky and his successors, such as Starets Silouan, today known as Saint Silouan the Athonite. As one of the central characters in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ appears a Starets Zosima, who is chosen by the youngest Karamazov, Alyosha, to be his spiritual teacher. This novel is a great source of information on the practice of Starets, as there aren’t many written sources which speak of them and their role in the Ortodox world. Novel is set in the area of Kozelsk, Kaluga Oblast, a part of Russia famous for its elders. Dostoevsky set his piece into this particular location for no other reason, but to talk about the Startsy and tradition of the order.
‘When and how Startsy were introduced into our monastery I cannot say. There had already been three such elders and Zossima was the last of them. But he was almost dying of weakness, and they had no one to take his place. Our monastery was an important one, for it had not been distinguished by anything in particular: no relics of saints, nor wonder working icons, nor glorious tradition, nor historical exploits. It had flourished and been glorious all over Russia through its elders, to see and hear whom pilgrims had flocked for thousands of miles from all parts.’
The institution still exists, with some of the most important contemporary Startsy and Geronimi being Archimandrite Ioann and Father Amphilochios of Patmos.
A Figure of an Elder
Elders usually spent a significant part of their lives as hermits or Desert Fathers, before settling down in monasteries in order to share the knowledge they’ve obtained with their disciples and common people. It is widely believed that the prayer and words of an elder have mystical powers and that they know secrets of all men, even those they’ve never met. Regarded as prophets, healers and ‘men of Spirit’, the ancient institution of an elder is, although scarce, still highly valued in Eastern Christianity.
‘What was such an elder? An elder was one who took your soul, your will, into his soul and his will. When you choose an elder, you renounce your own will and yield it to him in complete submission, complete self-abnegation. This novitiate, this terrible school of abnegation, is undertaken voluntarily in the hope of self-conquest, of self mastery, in order, after a life of obedience, to attain perfect freedom, that is, from self; to escape the lot of those who have lived their whole life without finding their true selves in themselves. This institution of elders is not founded on theory but was established in the East from the practice of a thousand years. The obligations due to an elder are not the ordinary ‘obedience’ which has always existed in our Russian monasteries. The obligation involves confession to the elder by all who have submitted themselves to him, and to the indissoluble bond between him and them.’ -The Brothers Karamazov, F.M.Dostoyevsky
Though usually teachers and guides to young monks, Startsy also communicated with pilgrims, took their confessions and prayed with them. Yet, their most important role remains one of wise teachers of monks, with whom they shared an unbreakable and sacred bond.
‘The story is told for instance that in the early days of Christianity one such novice, failing to fulfill some command laid upon him by his elder left his monastery in Syria and went to Egypt. There, after great exploits, he was found worthy at last to suffer torture and a martyr’s death for the faith. When the Church, regarding him as a saint, was burying him, suddenly, at the deacon’s exhortation ‘Depart all ye unbaptized!’, the coffin containing the martyr’s body left its place and was cast forth from the church, and this took place three times. And only at last they learnt that this holy man had broken his vow of obedience and left his elder, and, therefore, could not be forgiven without the elder’s absolution in spite of his great deeds. Only after this could the funeral take place. This, of course, is only an old legend. But here is a recent instance. A monk was suddenly commanded by his elder to quit Athos, which he loved as a sacred place and a haven of refuge, and to go first to Jerusalem to do homage to the Holy Places and then to go to the north to Siberia: ‘There is the place for thee and it is not here.’ The monk, overwhelmed with sorrow, went to the Oecumenical Patriarch at Constantinople and besought him to release him from his obedience. But the Patriarch replied that not only was he unable to release him, but there was not and could not be on earth a power which could release him except the elder who had himself laid that duty upon him. In this way the elders were endowed in certain cases with unbounded and inexplicable authority. That is why in many of our monasteries the institution was at first resisted almost to persecution.’ -The Brothers Karamazov, F.M.Dostoyevsky
The role of Starets is found in his authority which no other monk or priest could claim. This influence was, and still is undeniable due to their experience and direct relationship with spirituality they have established during their years of wandering and solitude.
‘Acquire inward peace and a multitude of men around you will find their salvation. Such is the role of spiritual fatherhood. Establish yourself in God; then you can bring others to His presence. A man must learn to be alone, he must listen in the stillness of his own heart to the wordless speech of the Spirit, and so discover the truth about himself and God. Then his work to others will be a word of power, because it is a word out of silence.’ -Saint Seraphim
The tradition of ascetic life in recluse is the basis of monastic practice in the Eastern Christianity. Due to this, no authority can be considered greater than one of a devoted ascetic. Along with solitude, practice of the ancient monastic tradition of Hesychasm is believed to grant Startsy with spiritual insights beyond those of ordinary men.
‘Masses of the ignorant people as well as of distinction flocked, for instance, to the elders of our monastery to confess their doubts, their sins and their sufferings, and ask for counsel and admonition. Seeing this, the opponents of the elders declared that the sacrament of confession was being arbitrarily and frivolously degraded, through the continual opening of the heart to the elder by the monk or the layman had nothing of the character of the sacrament. In the end, however, the institution of elders had been retained and is becoming established in Russian monasteries. It is true, perhaps, that this instrument, which has stood the test of a thousand years for the moral regeneration of a man from slavery to freedom and to moral perfectibility, may be a two-edged weapon and it may lead some not to humility and complete self- control but to the most Satanic pride, that is, to bondage and not to freedom.’ -The Brothers Karamazov, F.M.Dostoyevsky
Some monk or ordinary person can communicate on a day to day basis with his or her elder, while others may only see him onlyonce in a lifetime and get sufficient guidance on what to do with their life. Many distinguished people of modern times such as Lev Tolstoy and Nikolai Gogol have been known to ask Startsy for counsel and joint prayer, while Mount Athos, center of Eastern monastic life and home to thousands of monks and elders was visited by the likes of Vladimir Putin and Prince Charles. Modern day interest in the ancient tradition and practice only goes to show that, no matter how mystical and abstract it may be, the institution of elders is not forgotten or any less meaningful and intriguing than it was many centuries ago.