I want to say something which is not a commentary on the Gospel. Time and again, not only I but every priest is asked by someone or other to become his spiritual father. And many are troubled by the fact that all of us say no; this we can not do. This is beyond our strength.
This is not a refusal to care; it is not a refusal to take upon our shoulders the lost sheep. No; it is an assertion that we can be your companions on the journey to the Kingdom of God but we ourselves are not mature enough to show you all the way.
Each of us can say to those of you who come, ‘I have walked part of the road. I will be your companion on the road. And then, when we come to a point which I have not yet myself trod, let us walk together, following the only One who can be our guide; indeed, the only One who is not only our guide but our Saviour, who is the road itself, and the truth, and life.’
And therefore, when you come to a priest in confession, open your hearts to him, or more truly to the Lord Jesus Christ in his presence, and he, according to the prayer which we read before confession will be the witness of your openness, sincerity, truth and repentance. He will listen to what you say to Christ. He will pray that Christ receives you as He receives every sinner — at the cost of His life and death. He will pray. And he will never forget either you or your confession. He will accept to be a martyr, not only a witness but carrying the pain, the horror, the suffering of the sins he can hear of. Everyone who comes to confession to a priest puts on his shoulders the burden of his own sins, and it is in compassion that the priest will for ever carry them before God.
Therefore be content with the love, with the compassion, with the honesty of the priest to whom you come. Don’t ask him to do the impossible. If we go into the mountains we ask a guide who has gone all the way already and come back alive. None of us can say that we have gone all the way to the Kingdom of God and entered into it. We can only say, ‘We are on the way and we shall walk with you, share with you all our knowledge, support you at moments of weakness, do all we can for you to reach the Kingdom of God.’
Who of us can say that he has? St Seraphim of Sarov refused to be the spiritual father of those who came. He promised to pray for them. He promised to hold them before God; and indeed his prayer was salvation. And in the Life of St Macarios of Egypt we hear that when he died a disciple of his, in a dream, saw the soul of St Macarios moving heavenwards; and the devils had set barriers on the way. And at each barrier they tested him on one or another sin. And he passed, free. And when he reached the gates of the Kingdom, the devils saw that at least one thing they can try to destroy him. At the very gate of the Kingdom they applauded him and shouted, ‘Macarios, you have conquered us.’ And Macarios turned round, smiled, so his Life says, and said, ‘Not yet.’ And only then did he enter into the Kingdom.
This is far beyond anything we priests can do. But what we can do is to walk step by step with you, be a light to hold you before the face of God, and ask Him who is the way, who is the truth, who is life, who is our salvation, to be your guide, your way and your salvation. Amen.