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Spiritual Elders


The spiritual elder (starets in Russian, geron in Greek) first appeared in the earliest days of monasticism in Asia Minor. Some elders had far-ranging reputations and attracted other monks who emulated their way of life, sought their counsel, and profited from their experience in acquiring the Holy Spirit. One of the signs of the Spirit is the gift of discernment (diorasis ), which means, first, knowledge of the mysteries of God, and, second, an understanding of the secrets of the heart. One who has the gift of discernment can undertake the spiritual direction of others. In the opinion of some Eastern writers, the same gift allows the Spirit to work miracles through the God-bearing practitioners of perfect prayer.

In fourteenth-century Byzantium the spiritual elder became central to the hesychast movement associated with Gregory Palamas (12961359). The hesychasts combined the practice of the so-called Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me") with the doctrine of theosis, or deification. Mount Athos became their chief center, and from there eldership spread to the Slavic world, producing Russia's most famous medieval spiritual elder, Nil (Maikov, 14331508).

After a long period of decline, eldership revived first in Ukraine and then in Russia through the efforts of several remarkable elders: Paisy (Velichkovsky, 17221794), translator of the Philokalia, a basic collection of texts on pure prayer; Serafim (Mashnin, 17581833) of Sarov, Russia's most important modern saint; and Amvrosy (Grenkov, 18121891), the hermit model for Elder Zosima in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov. The popular impact of eldership is recorded in a remarkable anonymous work, The Pilgrim's Tale. By 1900, the contemplative renaissance had reached its peak, although its creative power could still be seen in the lives of the parish priest John (Sergiev, 18291908) of Kronstadt and Mother Yekaterina (18501925) of Lesna, who worked among the poor.

See also: byzantium, influence of; monasticism; russian orthodox church


Nichols, Robert L. (1985). "The Orthodox Elders (Startsy ) of Imperial Russia." Modern Greek Studies Yearbook 1:130.

Pentkovsky, Aleksei, ed. (1999). The Pilgrim's Tale. New York: Paulist Press.

Robert L. Nichols

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