By the mercy of God, on the Second Sunday after Pascha this year I was ordained to the sacred priesthood. The magnitude of this event and the gravity of what it means spiritually and practically – both for me and the fledgling community of my parish – are things that I still have not fully grasped and I will not attempt to put them into words here.
However, two reactions that a number of people have expressed have been surprise and hurt: surprise that there had been no announcement of my upcoming ordination and hurt that they individually were not told. You see, I did not widely publicise that I was to be ordained on my recent trip to France. In fact, I didn’t tell many people that I had planned to travel at all, lest anybody guess. There are a number of reasons for this, all of them stemming from this very simple but sobering fact: the devil has ears. Orthodox Christians will be familiar with the prayer that we pray at every Divine Liturgy:
At your mystical supper, O Son of God,
receive me today as a communicant,
for I will not speak of the Mystery to your enemies,
neither will I give You a kiss as did Judas,
but like the thief I will confess You:
remember me, O Lord, when You come into your Kingdom.
This refers to the reception within ourselves of the Body and Blood of the Saviour in Holy Communion but it applies equally to many of the other Sacraments, to these encounters with God which are holy and intensely personal. In particular, upcoming ordinations are not something that should be spoken of too casually and freely. This is something I read in an article by another priest a number of years ago and over time and with a little more maturity in the Faith, I have come to understand it and agree with it.
By its very nature, priesthood is not and never can be self-serving. When a man is ordained and enters into the priesthood of Christ by God’s grace, it is only ever in service of God and the people of God – that is to say that it is always for others.
However, none of this negates the fact that it is a real human being to whom this happens – a person who has his own failings, his own worries, his own feelings of inadequacy and sense of his own unworthiness for this undertaking; his own temptations, doubts, and shortcomings; and his own journey of prayerful discovery and acceptance of the will of God to make before he reaches the point that finally he can kneel before the holy altar with the bishop’s hands upon his head.
This is already a time of great temptation, when the forces of evil try to sink their clutches into the candidate – as indeed they do whenever they see a faithful soul that is seeking to draw closer to God, planting seeds of doubt and fear. I have witnessed it at the baptism of people who have taken the decision to unite themselves to Christ and his Church, and I have experienced it first-hand as a candidate for ordination. This period of preparation for ordination is absolutely not the time for this inner conflict to be further complicated by the introduction of additional pressures from the objections, jealousies, judgments, and other emotions and expectations of other people. Rather, this is a time for the candidate to withdraw from the temptations of the world and enter as best he can into prayerful communion with God, perhaps asking the prayers of a few trusted intimates – a small selection of Christian friends and family – that he may find peace and clarity, and so ultimately answer the call of God, as did so many before him.
Yet, there is another reason that ordinations should be a quiet affair, and that is the danger of pride. Many years ago, before I was Orthodox, I was in the early stages of the path for ordination in another church. The process there was very different from what is customarily followed in the Orthodox Church. At every stage of this process, the driving force was the candidate. It was he who had to be sure himself that he had a real calling, because it is he whose job it was to do the convincing, who had to persuade others every step of the way that his vocation was genuine. As it was explained to me by somebody further along this process, ‘You need to have your vocation tested’.
Thankfully, this is not generally how we do things in the Orthodox Church, where we are taught that a call from God is something external to our own desires, and is not something that one “tests” but rather something that one humbly answers, keenly aware of one’s unworthiness. Very common within Orthodoxy is the approach that a man’s spiritual development is observed, the part he plays in the life of the parish is taken note of, and conversations about the possibility of his ordination happen, sometimes with but often without his knowledge. In one case I know of, a pious man from one parish – the father of a friend – simply received a telephone call from his bishop, instructing him to be at the cathedral the following day so that he could be ordained to the diaconate. He obeyed, and that was that. Today he is a priest.
None of this is to suggest that Orthodox Christians are immune to the sin of pride but just that our communal church life is ordered in such a way that it actively seeks to guard us against it. In keeping with this spirit, I believe that ordinations should not be widely publicised prior to the event for, as we approach ordination, even affirmation and encouragement from others can present its own set of temptations. Being told that we have worked hard and “earned” it, that “it’s about time” that our gifts were recognised, or how proud everybody is of us – these things carry the danger of leading us to feel that we are worthy and providing us with an additional temptation to ward off just when it is needed least. Social media merely serve to add a new element to this dynamic, and exacerbate the danger manifold.
Once the ordination has taken place and the deed is done, let that be the time that others give their Axios! if they are so moved.
When I was preparing to be ordained as a reader, back in 2009, I was instructed to read St John Chrysostom’s Six Books on the Priesthood. I think this was very good advice. This work takes the form of six dialogues between St John and his friend Basil (not St Basil the Great but another Basil who, apart from this writing, seems not to be recorded in history). They had heard rumours that there were plans to consecrate them as bishops and, agreeing that they were both unsuited to the task, made a pact that, should either of them receive confirmation of this, he would warn the other so they could both go into hiding.
In the end, St John did receive such confirmation, but decided to go into hiding alone, betraying Basil into the hands of his consecrators. The Six Books is his attempt at justifying his actions to Basil (by this point a bishop), extolling the high office of this calling and the character of those who are to fulfil it, as well as labouring his own unworthiness to do so.
Of course, we know that St John Chrysostom went on to become the Archbishop of Constantinople, and that, like Jonah and the whale, running from the voice of God when He calls to us is not going to thwart God’s ultimate purpose. Despite this and despite the fact that this is a discussion of the episcopate, I feel that this book would serve well to recalibrate the perspective of anybody who feels worthy or desirous of ordination, so that, having his heart cleansed of pride, he may hear with clarity the voice of God, and say like the Holy Prophet Samuel, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’.