by Fr. Gregory Jensen
This is the final installment of Fr. Gregory’s series of reflections on the Priesthood.
With much thanks to Chrys, I recently read Donald Sheehan lovely and thoughtful essay, “Dostoevksy and Memory Eternal:An Eastern Orthodox Approach to the Brothers Karamazov.” Sheehan offers the reader a concise treatment of Orthodox theological anthropology as it has been articulated systematically by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) and artistically by Dostoevksy in his “great, final novel, The Brothers Karamazov.” Summarizing Zizioulas’s essay’s “The Contribution of Cappadocia to Christian Thought,” Sheehan writes that there are
“three conditions of personhood – foundational freedom, self-emptying love, and absolute uniqueness.”
Reflecting, meditating really, on The Brothers Karamazov, he lists what he calls
“the three defining aspects of personhood.”
“the resurrected self; the relational self; and the joyful self.”
He concludes his essay with a recollection on his own life growing up with an alcoholic and violent father. Some years after his father’s death, Sheehan comes to forgive his father. And from forgiveness Sheenhan comes to a truly insightful understanding of what it means to be a person. He writes
As the Orthodox Fathers long ago said, we are persons because we are wholly unique, entirely unrepeatable, and forever irreplaceable. As a member of a biological species, or as a socioeconomic entity, or even as an Orthodox parishioner and subdeacon, I am entirely repeatable, and, in every conceivable way, replaceable. But as a person to whom these things happened and these consequences followed, I can only echo Dmitri [Karamazov]‘s ontological song: I am!
Central though personhoodhood is to, well, the whole of the Gospel, it is curious that (especially for a particular type of convert to Orthodoxy) we often seem suspicious–and even at times hostile–to that which makes the person a person. Taking the Tradition at its word, the mature person–to say nothing of the deified Christians–ought to make manifest his own uniqueness, her own unreaptability. And, needless to say, we ought to always hold as central the absolute irreplacablity of each and ever single human being.
All of this is to say that it is much easier to preach freedom than it is to be free.
Turning our attention to the priest, we must ask ourselves do we really want our priests (and not just our priests, but ourselves) to be free according to the Christian understanding of the term? While I might say that I want free men as priests, I’m not sure that I truly value freedom as much as my words might suggest. It is frankly easier for me to pay lip service to freedom and live a life of mere conformity. While I might say I want my priest to be holy and prayerful men, my actions suggest that what I really want is someone who does not disturb the parish and, more importantly, my quiet life.
What I am calling here “freedom” is the fruit of what, in an earlier post (here), I called “human formation.” As training in freedom, human formation is an essential part of the ascetical life. Its goal is to help the future priest become evermore “perfectly conformed to the perfect humanity of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.” Central to this process are three elements: “self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-gift—and all of this in faith.” Human formation “aims to prepare” future priests “to be apt instruments of Christ’s grace…. by fostering the growth of a man” in a holistic fashion (see Program of Priestly Formation (after, PPF), p. 33).
To say that the priest must be holy, is to say that the priest is called by God to embody in his words word an understanding of freedom that is in stark “contrast to the popular culture.” For our popular culture, freedom is “conceive[d] or pursue[d] … as the expansion of options or as individual autonomy detached from others.” But freedom in the Christian sense, presupposes that the person is “of solid moral character with a finely developed moral conscience.” Such a man is “open to and capable of conversion” and whose’s life “demonstrates the human virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice, humility, constancy, sincerity, patience, good manners,truthfulness, and keeping his word.” But just as human life is dynamic, so to is the life of virtue. For this reason, it is not enough for a man must grow and deepen his “practice of these virtues” (PPF, p. 36).
Presupposed here is that the candidate for holy orders, has a demonstrated
potential to move from self-preoccupation to an openness to transcendent values and a concern for the welfare of others; a history of sound and rewarding peer relationships; an ability to be honest with themselves and with others; and an ability to trust the Church (PPF, p. 36).
For the priest, all of this most usually takes the form of an ability to trust the members of his parish to live their own lives in Christ. In other words, the faithful priest is not simply the man who goes about the form duties of his office but the one who incarnate a fundamental trust in divine grace AND respects the freedom of his parishioners as they struggle to respond faithfully to God in their lives.
None of this, however, is possible in priests “who manifest extreme inflexibility, narcissism, antisocial behavior or any other serious pathology.” Likewise men who “a lack of sexual integration” or whose lives are marked by “a deep and unresolved anger (especially against authority),” or who have “a deep attachment to a materialist lifestyle, or compulsive behaviors or addictions” is psychologically or spiritual capable of the degree of trust and respect for persons (human and divine) that the priesthood requires (see., PPF, p. 37). What is a struggle, even a laudable struggle, for a layperson is, for the priest a source of grave risk both for his parish and for him personally.
At the heart of the priest’s ministry is a respect and appreciation for what Sheehan calls “wholly unique, entirely unrepeatable, and forever irreplaceable” of each person. This must be more than a purely formal matter; the priest must be at the service of each person coming to see him or herself as a unique person in Christ. In this work both Holy Tradition and a prayer are essential tools. Charged as he is with the cure of souls, the priest must not only be a man of the Tradition and of daily personal and regular liturgical prayer, he must also be a man who both knows and accepts himself so that he can give himself over to the work to which he has been called.
“[P]astoral leadership with Jesus as the model shepherd” requires much more than merely a theological education, an understanding of how to celebrate the services of the Church or to keep the fasts. It requires that the priest really and truly be “a man of communion, that is, someone who makes a gift of himself and is able to receive the gift of others.” But I cannot be a man of communion apart from a deep sense of personal “integrity and self-possession” (PPF, p., 36).