by Fr. Aris Metrakos
Even after two thousand years of Christian history, the ordained priesthood remains a “mystery” in every sense of the term. Why do some men who are called to this role fail miserably while others succeed? Can seminarians be prepared for the presbytery in a way that is neither hyper-spiritualized (“just send them all to a monastery for a few years”) nor McDonaldized (“we need to produce a consistent and dependable product to serve our parishes”)? Can older priests learn to mentor young clergy without becoming their tormentors?
What criteria do veteran priests use to evaluate themselves and and avoid stagnation in their ministries?
Four different ways of looking at the priesthood work together to sharpen our vision about the work of the parish priest. We can’t see the entire picture without comprehending what each perspective reveals. They are:
- The Priesthood as Science;
- The Priesthood as Craft;
- The Priesthood as Art; and
- The Priesthood as a Gift of the Spirit.
Every person possesses a unique set of intellectual gifts, but the fact that most people don’t earn a Ph.D. doesn’t mean that seminarians and priests can be intellectually lazy. Reading exposes us to new ideas. Not reading relegates us to a life of pettiness and parochialism.
Writing teaches us how to think clearly and share those thoughts with others. Priests and seminarians who study aren’t “modernists.” Rather, they’re pragmatists who understand that learning makes us better confessors, teachers, counselors, and preachers.
In fact, seminarians who complain that Professor Book Smart is too rigorous should write that man a thank you note. Young clergy need to worry less about being liked and more about having a book in their briefcase and on their bedside table. Journeymen who proclaim that “I learn by serving my people” better figure out sooner than later that intellectual atrophy weakens our ministry as well.
Orthodox priests must possess a certain set of skills. Some come easily while others are mastered after years of struggle. Nothing new here; life teaches us that the things of highest value usually require the most sacrifice. Below is a list of the tasks that most priests can master with adequate proficiency if, like all craftsmen, he invests the time to learn it. The sooner he pours his heart and soul into learnig his craft, the sooner he will master it.
Liturgical rubrics and movements are not rocket science, but doing them correctly and prayerfully requires study and practice. A table didn’t drop out of the sky. Rather, men and women who devoted their lives to the craft of woodworking made it. In the same way, the young priest must haul out his service books and study them, to transfrom that table into something holy.
He must practice, and then practice again — enough so that the worship becomes second nature. Remember the coach’s line: “Practice doesn’t make perfect, correct practice makes perfect”? The same is true for the liturgist. In his book The Science of Hitting, Ted Williams advised batters to sit around and discuss the ins and outs of hitting with other players. Priests need to do the same thing. The best celebrants learn from one another, correct one another, and ask one another questions.
At first liturgical klutziness might be due to inexperience. After a few years however, show me a klutzy liturgist and I’ll show you a lazy priest.
The more we pray, the better we preach. Why? Because it frees the Holy Spirit to guide the thoughts and words of the homilist. At the same time, preparing and delivering sermons is a skill that requires attention, perspiration, and revision. There are very few natural born preachers. Most good preachers just make it look effortless because they work hard preparing their sermons.
There are a variety of approaches to sermon preparation and delivery. Write it out and read it. Write it out and memorize it. Write it out and reduce it to an outline and use the outline when preaching. Write it out, reduce it to outline and memorize the outline. Write an outline and refer to the outline and notes as necessary in delivering the sermon. Write only an outline and commit it to memory.
It is never acceptable to show up and just start talking. This is especially true when preaching in a language that is not our mother tongue — no matter how well we think we speak that second language. Stream of consciousness worked for Hunter S. Thompson. For the rest of us, it only creates fear and loathing in the hearts of our listeners.
Preachers should record their sermons and listen to them. This helps us spot the linguistic quirks (rushing, not letting a period be a cadence, filler words such as “you know,” etc.) that keep our message from reaching the congregation.
Why all this attention to preaching? Is it to keep from being embarrassed? To look good? To gain favor? To justify a pay raise?
No. In the words of an older, much wiser priest,
“When we preach, we are telling a group of people we love something that will save their lives.”
That’s why the craft of homiletics deserves so much attention.
A foreign-born priest living and serving in America needs to speak English as perfectly as possible. Get a tutor. Go to community college. Do whatever it takes to master the vernacular. A little bit of an accent is charming and gets us off the hook when we misspeak (Americans who teach abroad regularly exploit this), but consistent bad grammar and a limited vocabulary distracts listeners from the life-saving message that we are trying to convey.
American born priests who misuse, and even abuse, English have no excuse. They illustrate why the priesthood is first a science and then a craft: people who don’t read and write — regularly and attentively — will never master a true command of language.
Orthodox priests have to know how to sing. For some this comes naturally, for others it is work — often hard work. Only a handful of priests need to know the subtleties of Byzantine chant, but all need to be able to ennuciate and hold a pitch. I have never met a seminarian or priest who struggled with music that wasn’t helped by a voice coach. (Note: a voice coach is not the same thing as an abusive and intimidating music professor.) As with preaching, the quickest avenue to fine tuning our singing is to record ourselves; this includes those clergy who already “know it all” musically.
All parish priests are thrown into the role of counselor, whether they like it our not. Not all cases can or should be referred to professionals. Many people just want to be heard and pointed in the right direction. Most people already know what to do about their problem before they come to see the priest. They just want him to give them “permission” to do the right thing.
There is no shortage of counseling techniques and monographs that describe them. One basic approach to pastoral conversation uses the EAR (empathy, active listening, reflection) method. A straightforward approach to short-term counseling asks three “magic” questions: What do you want to see happen in your life? What are you doing about it? Is it working?
Remember, counseling is a craft; it requires study and practice. As with liturgics, priests benefit greatly when they share ideas and techniques with one another.
The artisan transforms craft into an object of beauty. A painter combines the well practiced use of colors and brush technique to produce a picture that is at once real and intangible. Jazz musicians spend hours committing scales to memory, only to apply these tonalities and modalities in a way that is beyond sublime. So too, must the priest create. His tool is prayer, and his object is changed lives.
Priest as man of prayer
Prayer starts out as a science. It is difficult to begin to pray without superficiality unless we open a prayer book. Prayer develops into a craft. Reading a simple treatise such as Fr. Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray will elevate anyone’s prayer life to new levels. Finally prayer is art. As with any creative endeavor, prayer moves from technique to transcendence.
Further, each of us knows God differently because none of us are the same. A biological father has a special relationship with each of his children. Our Heavenly Father’s relationship with us is no different.
The currently popular movie Ostrov captures the notion of prayer as art. In one scene the film captures the three monks who are the film’s central characters. Each monk is shown praying in cell, standing before the same icon, saying the same prayer. Yet, for each man the prayer is a distinct out pouring of the soul that reflects his own concerns and weaknesses.
Priest as Confessor
Confession is an art. Confessors counsel, but they are more than counselors. Confessors are teachers, but they do more than teach. Confessors are men of prayer, but they do more than pray.
We tell the faithful that the confessor does not judge the penitent because the confessor is himself a sinner. We explain that Confession brings us face to face with the living God. We assure persons coming for this sacrament that in our humility it is not only we who are speaking; rather, our time together is guided by the Divine Logos and filled with the Holy Spirit. These are things that must be seared into the heart of the priest.
The confessor is called to know God, and not only believe that God exists. He must not only recognize his sins, but weep over them. He must struggle to die to himself so that Christ might live in him. When these things happen a transformation occurs. The term “Confessor” ceases to be a priestly office and becomes an identity. How, when, and where this begins to happen for each of us is a mystery, but happen it must. Perhaps more than any other distinctive in the life of the priest, the role of Confessor exemplifies the notion of Priesthood as Art.
Both St. Paul and the latest management gurus agree that each person has different gifts. Moreover, these gifts have different sources. Some come only as the result of suffering. All play an indispensable role in forming a priest’s self-identity.
Internally generated characteristics
Some traits are so intrinsic that they seem to be part of our DNA. The world is made up of visual and tactile learners, strategic and linear thinkers, glad-handers and bookworms. The Church needs them all.
Knowing what built-in features make us tick leads to happiness and fulfillment. It explains why the priest who is uncomfortable at cocktail parties can spend hours talking with a penitent or leading a small group discussion, and why the person who plans a retreat might not be the best person to hear the confessions at that retreat.
Not knowing ourselves can lead to disaster. Don’t be a chancellor if you don’t like administrative work. Don’t apply for a Ph.D. program unless sitting in a library for hours on end doesn’t bother you. Don’t be a parish priest unless you know how to take a punch.
Characteristics resulting from childhood experiences
Why live in denial any longer? Many of the men called to the priesthood were raised in dysfunctional homes. If this doesn’t describe you, thank God! For the rest of us, the time has come to examine our need for approval, desire to rescue others, and our irrational insecurities.
If someone is in seminary or ordained as a response to external, pathological influences from childhood, does this make his calling false? Not at all! God called this man to the priesthood to save his soul, and in working out his own healing, the clergyman is able to help others step out of the darkness and into the light.
To ignore the pain of childhood is to miss one of the greatest opportunities to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling. More importantly, this denial is a disservice to every person to whom the priest ministers. If you are one of the seminarians or priests that grew up in a dysfunctional home, there’s only one thing to do: Thank God and get to work.
Characteristics resulting from painful priestly experiences
A sure path to encountering — and finally knowing — Christ is found when external forces beat us down to the point where we lose our self-reliance and are forced to throw our lives into His hands. Serving as a parish priest is one such path. The job of a parish priest might be the most uplifting job in the world because you see God at work every day. At the same time, few other jobs expose a person to such a great amount of unwarranted attacks, betrayal, and isolation.
The frequent abuse of priests at the hands of the irrational, the ignorant, and the down right mean is the 300 pound gorilla of American Orthodoxy. Why are our seminaries filled with converts? At least one priest’s young son knows the answer. When his father suggested that the 12 year-old would make a good priest, the boy responded without hesitation:
“I’ve thought a lot about it and it would be pretty cool. But I see the way people treat you. I couldn’t do that.”
Just like childhood pain, the priest must face and deal with the hurt that the pastorate brings, lest he fall victim to addictive or immoral behavior, burnout or despair. Years ago I saw a sign on a country church that read
“When all you have is Jesus, you realize that all you need is Jesus.”
A cynical seminarian might regard this as “too Protestant.” As I approach two decades of ordained service, the truth of the words could not ring clearer.
The priest is an artisan. And just as good art opens the soul to higher things, so the priest when practicing his craft as a good journeyman opens the minds and hearts of others to the good things of God. Meanwhile, this experience of life giving breath of God compels the priest to go back and learn even more, and so the cycle continues.
Fr. Aris is the priest of Holy Trinity Church in San Francisco, CA.