Saturday, October 20, 2007

Thoughts on the Priesthood

S-P, faithful fan of this blog (also a good man and a friend from when I lived in California), has a very insightful comment in "Parish Life Redux." The whole of what he, wrongly I think, describes as a rant is certainly worth reading and I reproduce it here:

Forgive my upcoming rant here, but my 36 years of experience with clergy of all Christian expressions has been that, while they view themselves as "leaders", they are well defended emotionally and psychologically for all manner of reasons, and all of which amounts to they seek intimacy based on the illusion of connection to parishoners based on intellectual discussion and being perceived as a "guru" purely on the basis of the "grace of the collar" (translate that: authority , strength and honor) and not a true personal transparency and openness which they expect from their constituents in the confessional.
He continues:

It is a rare pastor who truly leads through humility, vulnerability, struggle and a persona of compunction and repentance. This is not ONLY a clerical issue, but a human one. Unfortunately many men enter the priesthood to work out personal issues of "manhood", acceptance, codependence, authority and control issues and these common male issues are magnified through the office of the priesthood. I know this sounds cynical, but it is the reality I've encountered (I must say here, even in myself as a protestant minister when I was a younger man). I do not despise the priests or the priesthood; I truly have a great deal of compassion and sadness for men who are trapped in themselves and for whom the priesthood ends up reinforcing their dysfunctions rather than being an arena for their healing and maturity. A priest who is perceived as vulnerable and humble will have a parish that will struggle WITH [him] as they struggle [together] to mature. If [priests] are merely sacramental dispensers, theological reference manuals, professional homilists, and confessional advisors they will have little compassion from their flock when they show any signs of weakness or failure. End of rant. I now return you to your regularly scheduled blogospherical programming.

Thank you for your observations, these are powerful, and true words. You are in the main correct I think.

Where I might have a slightly different thought is this: Even when men enter the priesthood from an authentic sense of vocation (and this is itself a problematic assumption), there remains the underlying psychological dynamics that you articulate. An indifference or ignorance of these darker, but very real, motivations is irresponsible. It is, I fear, very much the norm for the reasons you offer; we draw our seminary faculty from a group of men in which a fleeing from the self is common, if not the norm.

And you are correct, this is not simply a struggle for priests or clergy of other ranks and traditions. It is rather the common human struggle. "No tree," Jung says, "reaches up to heaven, unless its roots first reach down to hell." Too many people come to the Orthodox Church, and other religious traditions or political movements, to avoid the painful truth of their own lives. And if the priest himself is also so inclined, if he desire to submerge himself in the office of priest, well, he will like not only attract those who wish to do the same, he will actively promote this agenda.

This is certainly something I have seen in a number of parishes. It is so much easier to be "Greek," or "Russian," or "a convert," then to be myself. Looking at the broad expanse of Orthodoxy in America, I can help but see those hyper-ethnic Orthodox Christians and super-correct Orthodox Christians, as simply two sides of the same coin.

We have turned Holy Tradition, and all those small "t" traditions, into ends in themselves.

And S-P you have diagnosed one major reason why we do so: We are fleeing from self-knowledge, and therefore repentance. In place of self-knowledge, we favor a purely formal attachment to Tradition (or traditions).

At the risk of showing my own psychoanalytic leanings, this attachment to externals is where people get all the energy the expend in defending "Holy Orthodoxy" or "How we've always done things." Energy that should go to self-knowledge instead is channeled in defending the self from, well, the self. Puncture this feedback loop, which is often older than the person and represents generations of stagnation, and you risk an explosion.

S-P is correct, the priest must lead by the example of his own "humility, vulnerability, struggle and a persona of compunction and repentance." Doing this will mean a crucifixion for the priest as it would for anyone who takes seriously Christ's command to take up the Cross and follow Him.

For myself, I am troubled by how easy it is to write these words, or say them in a sermon, and how hard it is to actually live them day to day. And I am tempted to say that the crucifixion that these words announce should only be internal or come from the world and not be public and from other Christians.

But this of course is to perpetrate my own fraud.

Christ dies publicly and at the hands of His Own People. There was, and is, simply no one else to make His Cross, or mine, then the People of God. This being the case, I think the priest is called to be not only a man of prayer, but of courage, prudence and discernment. There will be times when the cross he is called to carry, the cross on which he is called to hang, is not one that he must passive acceptance, but rather is one he makes for himself as the result his active confrontation of human sinfulness.

In this confrontation the priest, must be mindful of his own sins and yet not paralyzed by this knowledge. He cannot hold back, he must identify the sins of others knowing full well that he has now joined a battle above all with his own sinfulness. And as he fights dethrone sin in the lives of those he is called to serve, he will find himself tempted to inaction by the memory of his own sinfulness. This is his real cross.

And here, S-P, is the heart of the matter, in the Church (ike the world in which we live and to which we have acquiesced) is held in the grip of false humility. Following from this is a falsification, or maybe more accurately, distortion, of the Christian virtues that ought to flow from humility.

The priest, and the whole Church, would do well to listen to on this issue to G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy:
But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt -- the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.
We have neglected the Truth of the Gospel, we have reduced its proclamation to a mere formality. And so, necessarily, we neglect to love each other in anything other than words. We have become so falsely humble that we can't go forward.

And this leaves all of us, and especially priests, as you say, "trapped in themselves . . . the priesthood [merely] reinforcing their dysfunctions rather than being an arena for their healing and maturity." But it doesn't need to be this way.

Again thank you S-P and everyone who offers comments here.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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