Robert Klesko is an EWTN Theology Advisor, married to Aundrea with five boys, and is in diaconate formation for the Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic Church. He writes from Irondale, Alabama.
I was reminded recently in an article by my colleague Laura Dittus (“Praying for Priests with Saint John Paul II”), how important it is to pray for our priests. Her article shares Pope St. John Paul II’s devotion to praying that priests might be delivered from faults and sins associated with the clerical state. Dwelling on this point, in my own unique Eastern Catholic experience, I became increasingly frustrated.
As a layman in the world, I do want my priests to be holy and to avoid sin. I do want them to be liturgically and doctrinally orthodox. Yet sadly, I think many well-intentioned Catholics stop here, as if good liturgy, sound preaching and a scandal-free priest is the be-all and end-all of authentic spiritual fatherhood. I know many good priests who are liturgically and doctrinally orthodox but they have not yet reached the maturity and spiritual sanctity of the Startsi.
The term “staret” is relatively unknown in the West. It is a Russian term that means “Elder” — one (such as Blessed Solanus Casey) who is advanced in spiritual maturity to the point of being able to counsel others. In the East, the Startsi are the treasured spiritual masters who are able to guide pilgrims on the path of theosis (see 2 Peter 1:4). They are sought out to introduce people to prayer and repentance. They are sought as gardeners of souls, helping people to identify the roots of their sinfulness and give them the tools to uproot their passions. They are visionaries who can see the work of demons in the world and crush them with countless tears, vigils and fasts.
Rarely is a Starets (who can be male or female, priest, nun or layperson) sought out for his/her theological teaching or liturgical catechesis. The Startsi were sought out because it was clear to all that they had reached a deep level of spiritual union with God. They had met the Lord and kept the vision of him before their eyes by constantly calling on his Name (see Joel 2:32).
The amazing thing about the Startsi is that, for those who were looking for them, they could be found. Russian and Greek pilgrims knew the holy sites and monasteries that they could go to for guidance. In our contemporary American situation, who do we go to? Where are the men and women who have met the Lord and keep Him always before their eyes? I can think of several candidates, many of whom we feature on EWTN — but do they have the time to meet with us pilgrims? I hope so. I really hope so. More than that hope, I think we need to pray that the Lord sends “more laborers into the harvest” (Matthew 9:38) to become Startsi. We need spiritual fathers and mothers who know the Lord and can share him with us who are seeking Him. We need guides who have moved the knowledge that they have received from the head to the heart, which the Desert Fathers indicated is the throne of God in the soul. To meet such a person is life-changing.
I recently was blessed to spend several hours with a Byzantine Catholic abbess and we sat and spoke freely of spiritual things. During those hours, the Presence of the Lord was evident. I can’t yet claim that I have the Lord as my own, I am certainly working on it. But, when you encounter those who have tasted union with Christ, you want to seek them out, sit and listen to them, and let the wave of their encounter of the Lord be the wake for your own soul. It is such an awesome experience. “Pray the Lord to send more” Startsi into His harvest.