The ancient Christian tradition of spiritual eldership is either unknown or little understood in the modern world. In the Orthodox tradition, an Elder (in Greek ‘Geronda’ and in Slavic languages and Romanian ‘Starets’) is often, but by no means always, a monk. Sometimes it may be a nun, an ‘Eldress’ or ‘Gerondissa’ or ‘Staritsa’. Sometimes an Elder may be a married priest or a bishop. Elders who are monks may be a priest or may not. However, he is one who is able to give perceptive advice to people living in the world. This advice is based on revelations and even prophetic foreknowledge, disclosed only to the Elder because he has attained spiritual purity. This is indeed how we distinguish between the charlatan and the true Elder. ‘By their fruit ye shall know them’.
Whatever the country concerned, whatever the conditions, persecution or no persecution, Eldership has flourished in Orthodox societies. It can be said that the situation of Eldership is a spiritual barometer which tells you how healthy or unhealthy any given Orthodox society is. In recent years we have seen remarkable Elders all over the Orthodox world, like Fr Cleopa, Fr Paisy (Olaru), Fr Justin (Parvu) and Fr Arsenie (Boca) in Romania, Fr Paisios, Fr Amphilochios, Fr Philotheos and Fr Parthenios in Greece, and a host of Elders in different parts of contemporary Russia and even in the United States.
When knowledge of the spiritual path to Christ is absent, humanity seeks other ways to deal with the illnesses of the spirit. Modern science seeks to heal the body but falls short of effectively dealing with the deep existential problems plaguing us. Spiritual healing can only take place within the Church which is truly a hospital for the spiritually sick and the Elder acts as the hospital's finest surgeon as well as its chief medical school instructor. These Elders are the spiritual fathers and mothers in each generation, the succession of saints, stretching throughout the entire history of the Church.
I hope the reader will excuse my humble efforts to explain the complexities involved. I urge you to learn more. First, by reading about the life and teachings of Elder Paisios the Athonite who was born in Asia Minor and grew up in Epirus. Secondly, I recommend an essay entitled "The Spiritual Father in Orthodox Christianity" by Bishop Kalllsitos Ware, one of the truly great prelates and theologians of the Orthodox Church, and lastly, read the introduction from a great book on the subject, "Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives and Counsels of the Contemporary Elders of Greece."