Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Familiarity and the Priesthood

To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven.
(Ecclesiastes 3:1)

From Kevin Edgecomb's most excellent blog biblicalia comes this story from the desert fathers:

Abba Petros of Abba Lot said that "Once when we were in the cell of Abba Agathon, a brother came to him, saying, 'I want to dwell with the brothers. Tell me how I shall dwell with them.' The elder said to him, 'As in your first day of entering in among them, so guard your solitude, so that you will not become familiar with them. ' Abba Makarios said to him, 'For what does familiarity do?' The elder said to him, 'Familiarity is like a great burning wind, which when it happens, all flee from before it, and it destroys the fruits of the trees.' Abba Makarios said to him, 'Is familiarity so grievous?' And Abba Agathon said, 'There is no passion worse than familiarity, for it is the mother of all the passions. It is proper for the worker not to be familiar, even if he is alone in the cell. For I know a brother who spent time dwelling in the cell, possessing a small bed, who said that, I would have moved on from the cell, not knowing about the little bed, if others had not told me (about it). A worker such as this is also a warrior.'"
The longer I am a priest, the more I appreciate how a priest needs to be a man apart, but not necessarily in the sense of being aloof, distant, cold or even very formal. Rather the priest, I think, needs to avoid what the fathers above refer to as "familiarity," or attachment.

At its core cultivating a lack of familiarity means cultivating a spirit of hospitality and respect for the freedom of others--and really all creation. We can God perfect because He never changes. Creation too is perfect--or at least can be perfect--but the perfection of creation is its dynamism. I think it is St Gregory Nyssa, or maybe Nazianus (I always mix them up!) tells us that we are most like the God Who changes not only when we change.

Human beings, from the first moments of our life, are dynamic, growing, developing creatures. It is this dynamism that most clearly expresses the unchanging perfection of God. Like facets of a jewel, the dynamism of the human reflects continually the Divine Glory.

But familiarity works against the dynamism of creation.

Because of sin, there is something in us that wants today to look like yesterday and tomorrow to look like today. In the service of this static continuity we are willing to commit any injustice or act of violence. I do not want people, creation, myself, to change. Because sin is rebellion against God, sin in me causes me to hate that which in me, in my neighbor, and in creation is most like God: our shared dynamism.

When I cultivate a lack of familiarity, I cultivate a willingness to let be the dynamic impulse of creation. Overtime this passive allowing to be becomes an active cooperation on my part with the dynamism of creation. It is worth noting at this point that in the Divine Liturgy we pray of a life "of peace and repentance." We ask God to bring us to a sense of acceptance and gratitude for our need to always be starting again, to always transcend the limits of our life, to dive every deeper into the mystery of creation, redemption and deification of creation and our own lives.

On Sunday (8 July), I had the great joy of serving Clement and Sara's wedding, two lovely young people who I got to watch met and fall in love. If change was fundamentally a bad thing, if creation was not dynamic, if human perfection was not found in growth and development, well, then Clement and Sara's meeting, courting, falling in love and wedding would have represented a most unspeakable evil. After all whatever else might be true about them is that, thanks to coming to know each other, they have changed; they are not the persons "today" that they were "yesterday," and whoever they will be "tomorrow," well, that too will be a markedly different.

Unlike the ancient Greeks, Christians do not see the dynamism of creation as decay, but as a share in divine life. If at times change is painful, if at times I experience change as decay, this is a consequence both of the inheritance of Adam's sin and my willingness to ratify in my own life his rebellion.

But if I lay aside this rebellion, if I lay aside my desire to say to God, "I know how You ought to have made this or that person or thing," then I can embrace change. But again, this is only possible if I refuse familiarity, if I refuse the impulse to demand and enforce a static form on creation.

Back to the priesthood...

Because creation is dynamic, because human life is more a matter of becoming then being, as a priest I need to serve that process of unfolding and change in the lives of the people God has entrusted to my care. One of my greatest joys as a priest is watching someone reach a point where they no longer need me--where they become able to strike out on their own because they have discovered what it is that God would have for them. My vocation as a priest is in this sense is to be always willing to say good bye. Familiarity, as the desert fathers use that term, works against saying good bye.

The cost of this of course is a bit of loneliness, a wistful nostalgia, of missing people and places. That's alright though, since of course these people and places were never mine to begin with--and they only way I can keep them from changing, from being different, is if I kill them, and that's just wrong.

St Clement of Alexandria writes some where: "The Lord has turned all our sunsets into sunrise." To which G. K Chesterton adds in his delightful book Orthodoxy:
Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical ENCORE. Heaven may ENCORE the bird who laid an egg. If the human being conceives and brings forth a human child instead of bringing forth a fish, or a bat, or a griffin, the reason may not be that we are fixed in an animal fate without life or purpose. It may be that our little tragedy has touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries, and that at the end of every human drama man is called again and again before the curtain. Repetition may go on for millions of years, by mere choice, and at any instant it may stop. Man may stand on the earth generation after generation, and yet each birth be his positively last appearance.

So the paradox, it is only our dynamism, only our vitality, that can give us the certitude and security we crave. We can only come to rest, to a life of peace, by embracing that life, it is our constant changing that, in the end, makes us changeless like the God in Whose image and likeness we are created.

And it is this grace paradox in the life of all that, as I priest, I realize I am called to serve.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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