by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos
From a study of the sources, chiefly patristic literature, it seems clear that the degrees of priesthood (deacon, priest, bishop) are closely connected with the three basic degrees of the spiritual life. This means that as a man progressed in healing he ascended the spiritual ladder of priestly grace and blessing.
At least this is the teaching of the Fathers. We must develop further this fundamental point of patristic teaching by speaking about the healing grace of the priesthood.
In the preceding chapter we emphasised that the spiritual life is divided into three stages, purification, illumination and deification.
We find this division in many of the Fathers, even though they give it different names. For example, St. Nicetas Stethatos writes that there are three stages of advancement towards perfection:
- the initial purifying stage,
- the intermediate illuminating stage, and finally
- the mystical perfecting stage.
As the Christian advances through these stages, he grows in Christ.
The purifying work is to subdue the flesh and avoid any sin that excites passion; it gives rise to repentance, tears, and so on.
The illuminating stage sees the beginning of dispassion, which is characterised by insight,
“contemplation of the inner principles of creation” and “communion of the Holy Spirit”.
Its task is
“purification of the intellect…uncovering the eyes of the heart…and revelation of the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven”.
And the mystical and perfecting stage enables the person to
“search the hidden mysteries of God”,
fills him with
“the fellowship of the Spirit”,
and shows him to be a
“wise theologian in the midst of the great Church”,
and so on.
Thus a person living in the Church and aided by divine grace purifies the passible part of his soul, then his nous is illuminated and he ascends to mystical theology, blessed deification.
In the theology of St. Maximus the Confessor these three stages are expressed as
- practical philosophy (negative and positive purification),
- natural theoria (illumination of the nous) and
- mystical theology (deification).
The Fathers of the Church, having withdrawn from all creatures, ascend to the vision of God, and this vision reaches its highest degree in “theological science” or “theological mystagogy” or “mystical theology”, which is also called “unforgettable spiritual knowledge”.
So the Fathers living in theoria (vision of God) are the real theologians or even the real theology, since theology fills their whole existence.
Moses, according to St. Maximus, was a theologian, because he pitched his tent outside the camp,
“that is, when he established his will and mind outside the world of visible things he began to worship God”.
The three chosen disciples were also proven to be theologians on Mount Tabor when they were granted to see the light of the trisolar divinity. St. Paul too, who was caught up to the third heaven, was a theologian. St. Maximus explains that the three heavens correspond to the three degrees of man’s mystical ascent, namely,
- practical philosophy,
- natural theoria, and
- mystical theology.
We have presented this patristic teaching in order to go on to correlate it with the subject which concerns us in this chapter. St. Maximus links the three stages of the spiritual life with the three degrees of the priesthood. He writes:
“He who anoints his nous for spiritual contest and drives all impassioned thoughts out of it has the quality of a deacon. He who illuminates his nous with the knowledge of created beings and utterly destroys false knowledge has the quality of a priest. And he who perfects his nous with the holy myrrh of the knowledge and worship of the Holy Trinity has the quality of a bishop”.
I would now like to compare with what we have just read another interpretation, namely that of St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, since it is basic to the practice of the Church that one saint interprets another saint, and thus through its saints the Church finds expression for its common experience. St. Nicodemus writes:
“The god- inspired Maximus sees it as the deacon’s task to cleanse others of their passions and evil thoughts through moral effort, that of the priest to illuminate others through natural theoria of the inner principles of things, and finally that of the bishop to perfect others in the light of the inner principles of theology… thus the chief priest does not have to be only a moral and natural or contemplative philosopher, but also a theologian, as those roles belong to the deacon and the priest”.
It should be noted that the connection of the three degrees of the priesthood with the three stages of the spiritual life is mentioned in the writings of St. Dionysios the Areopagite, which contain the tradition of the Church. And if these writings are taken to represent the norm of the Church in the first centuries, it seems clear that the three stages of the spiritual life must correspond to the three degrees of the priesthood. I should like to take this up in order to show this connection.
It is well known that in his work “The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy” St. Dionysios the Areopagite describes the three stages of the spiritual life –
- illumination, and
Perfection is equivalent to deification.
“The order of bishops is that which fully possesses the power of consecration… Its task is not only to consecrate but to perfect. The priestly order is illuminative, bringing light, while the task of the deacons is to purify and to discern the imperfect”.
The work of the clergy is liturgical, and sanctifying and perfecting, since it is through the sacraments that the spiritual life of man develops. In other words, the sacred rites of the Church are not forms, but they purify, illuminate and raise man to a state of perfection.
Thus the work of the deacons, priests and bishops is connected with the spiritual growth of the Christians. According to the baptismal service as presented by St. Dionysios – and we believe that he is reflecting the usage in the first centuries of the Church -when a person is brought for baptism:
The deacons divest him of his garments; this shows their role in the Church as purifying.
The priests anoint the candidate’s whole body; this shows their role in the Church as illuminators. The bishops bring the candidate to perfection by baptising him; this shows their perfecting role.
The order of bishops
“performs every hierarchic consecration. It clearly teaches others to understand, explaining the sacred things, proportionate characteristics, and their holy powers.”
The priestly order
“guides the initiates to the divine visions of the sacraments”
but sends to the bishop
“those longing for a full understanding of the divine rites which are being contemplated”.
Thus the priest illuminates Christians, under the authority of the bishop, but sends on to him those who desire perfection, since the divine order of bishops is the first to behold God. The order of deacons, before leading the candidates to the priest,
“purifies all who approach by drawing them away from any dalliance with what is evil. It makes them receptive to the ritual vision and communion”.
It is very significant that, according to St. Dionysios, bishops are not solely occupied with perfection, but they illumine and purify as well. Similarly the priests have the understanding both to illuminate and to purify, while the deacons only know how to purify.
“Inferiors may not trespass on the functions of their superiors”.
So the duties of each degree of the Church’s ministry is strictly regulated in that each order possesses its own science and knowledge of the spiritual life. I think we must place here a characteristic passage in which Dionysios sums up this whole teaching about the work of the three orders:
“The rank of the sacred ministers is divided in the following manner. Their first power consists in purifying the uninitiated by way of the sacraments. Their middle power is to bring illumination to those whom they have purified. Finally, they have the most marvellous power of all, one which embraces all who commune in God’s light, the power to perfect these by way of the perfected understanding they have of that to which they have been initiated”.
As we study the teachings of St. Dionysios we come to see that each of the three degrees of the priesthood corresponds to a stage of the spiritual life.
Since the task of the deacon is to purify others of passions, he should himself, prior to ordination, have reached a stage of purification so that he is himself a living exponent of the practical philosophy.
Since according to the patristic teachings it is the priest’s task to illuminate others, his ordination presupposes that he has an illuminated nous, which, as we have seen, is a degree of theoria. Thus the priest must remember God unceasingly in prayer, must know spiritual work, be fluent in Holy Scripture and be able to contemplate the inner principles of all created things.
As for the bishop, since his primary task is to perfect the people by the inner principles of theology, he must experience the mystical theology, live in communion with God. This close relationship with God makes him a prophet, a divine initiate capable of mystically imparting the word of truth to the people of God.
The form which the ordination of deacons, priests and bishops takes is equally indicative of the spiritual condition which they are assumed to have reached in order to fulfil these essential tasks. For how can people be helped if the helpers have no personal experience of the task which they are to carry out?
This applies more especially to the bishop, who is an instrument of grace par excellence and “in every act of episcopal consecration should be directly inspired by God Himself” (38). Moses did not
“confer a clerical consecration”
on his brother Aaron until God commanded him to do so. He was submissive to God as chief consecrator, merely completing the divine consecration by a hieratic rite.
Therefore according to St. Dionysios, who expresses the tradition of the Church, the bishop is the supreme scientist of the spiritual life. He is the one who sees God and has personal experience of deification.
“Therefore the divine order of the bishops is the first of those who behold God, yet it is the first and also the last”.
The bishop is a fruit of deification, and, having himself been deified, by grace he helps his fellow Christian along his own journey towards deification.
“The being and proportion and order of the Church’s hierarchy are in him (the bishop) divinely perfected and deified, and are then imparted to those below him according to their merit, whereas the sacred deification occurs in him directly from God”.
“Talk of `bishop’ and one is referring to a holy and inspired man, someone who understands all sacred knowledge, someone in whom an entire hierarchy is completely perfected and known”.
In all sustained effort to reach the One, by the complete death and dissolution of what is opposite to divine union the bishop is granted the immutable capacity to mould himself completely on the form of the divine.
Thus the bishop, as the fruit of purification and illumination, is the God-inspired man who has reached perfection and so is directed by God personally. He is the
“mouthpiece of truth”
and the one who sits
“in the form and place” of Christ.
We cannot resist referring to a characteristic passage in St. Dionysios which says that divine rays are granted to those who are most godlike, most suitable for spreading and sharing the Light. It is the task of those who see God to reveal to the priests
“in proportion to their capacity”
the divine visions which they have beheld. Likewise it is their task
“to reveal all that has to do with their hierarchy, since they have received power to give this instruction”.
This means that it is only after personal perfecting that one can rise to a higher position; and the higher position is occupied by a God-inspired person, one who knows God through experience.
These were the actual qualifications for Christians to enter the priesthood. They had to go through these three stages for it to be confirmed and certified that they had been cured and were able to cure the Lord’s people. These things show precisely that the bishop, priest and deacon are not only liturgical persons ordained to perform the sacraments, but they are spiritual physicians who help the people to be purified, to be sanctified and to advance to communion with God. St. Symeon the New Theologian wrote that a man can proceed to celebrate the Liturgy when he celebrates
“with the conscience of a pure heart, in honour of the pure, holy and immaculate Trinity”,
if he has seen Christ, if he has received the Spirit and has
“been brought to the Father through these two”.
Entry into the priesthood is thus a pure calling of God. And this calling is not simply an abstract feeling of being called by God to serve the Lord’s people but is the certitude through one’s own transformation that one is able to shepherd the people. And shepherding the people is primarily healing the people. Therefore without healing, a man cannot reach God, cannot see God, and this vision cannot become a light which will illuminate him, rather than a fire that will consume him. St. Theognostos refers to the
“supramundane grace of the priesthood”.
If one does not sense this calling from above, that is if one has not been healed, then
“the burden is heavy indeed; for it is borne by someone unworthy, whose power it exceeds”.
People often speak of the apostolic tradition and the apostolic succession, implying that this was a succession of laying on of hands. Indeed no one can deny this reality, but at the same time it is an incontestable fact that the apostolic succession was not simply a series of layings on of hands but a tradition of the entire life of the Church. The Apostles and then the Fathers did not simply transmit the grace of the priesthood, but they transmitted Christ and the whole life of Christ. They engendered. For this reason the bishop bore and bears the grace of truth. Prof. John Romanides observes:
“The basis of the apostolic tradition and succession was not this laying on of hands, but what accompanied it from generation to generation, the transmission of the tradition of healing, illumination and deification. The parish Council and the provincial Council were organised to unite the true therapists, to exclude from the clergy the false prophets who pretended to have charismatic gifts, and to protect the flock from the heretics. The most important part of ordination was the selection and examination of the candidate”.
This was the basis of the Church. Especially for selecting a bishop it was a fundamental principle that he should be chosen from the monks, because monasticism is the medical school from which the skilful physicians capable of healing men’s sicknesses could come.
Kallistos Ware, Bishop of Diocleia, writes:
“One of the twenty `principle’ monasteries (probably referring to the Great Lavra of the Holy Mountain) alone has nurtured twenty-six patriarchs and 144 bishops. This gives some idea of the importance of Athos to the Orthodox Church”.
St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, explaining this holy custom of the Church, writes in the introduction to his “Handbook of Council”:
“Oh what happy and golden times were those when the excellent custom prevailed of selecting from the modest order of monks all (excepting a few laymen chosen because of their surpassing virtue) who were to ascend to an episcopal throne, and entrusting the guardianship of souls to them.”
The minutes of a council in St. Sophia reflect just such a custom: representatives of the Church in Caesarea and Chalcedonia told Pope John’s deputy:
“In the East if no monk has been produced, there is no bishop, nor patriarch”.
To be sure, in all the history of the Church things have not been so “rosy”. There have been situations when this truth was lost, and then the people were in the darkness of ignorance. They did not know that there was such a thing as spiritual healing or how healing took place, because there were not men to teach the way of healing. As early as the fourth century Isidor of Pelusium was showing how the early pastors differed from those of his time.
At that time, he said, pastors died for their sheep, while today they themselves slay the sheep. He goes on to write characteristically:
“In the old days lovers of virtue entered the priesthood; now it is lovers of money. Once they fled from the office because of its magnitude; now they run after it with pleasure. Then they were willing to take pride in their poverty; now they gladly and greedily hoard up money. Once the divine court of justice was before their eyes, but now it is a thing of indifference. Once men were subject to blows; now they inflict them. Need I continue? The priestly office seems to have changed into a mode of tyranny: humility has been transformed into arrogance, fasting into luxury, economy into despotism; for as economists they are not fit to administrate, but as despots they embezzle…”.
Prof. John Romanides, who has dwelt particularly on this subject, writes about the loss of this Orthodox tradition:
“With the passage of time, however, there could not always and everywhere be found deified or even illuminated men for selection and ordination as bishops and priests. And even if there were such men, the electors would not want them. Many times men who were simply moral and good but without having the traditional therapeutic education of illumination and deification have been preferred. Bishops are emerging who in a former period would have been simply laymen, since they do not have the Holy Spirit praying unceasingly in their hearts. This is the way St. Symeon the New Theologian explains matters.
“St. Symeon instigated a rebellion against the situation which he described, with the result that the healing mission of the Church was restored to a central position in Orthodoxy and the hesychasm of the Fathers took hold of the hierarchy once more, as St. Dionysios the Areopagite anticipated. Under the leadership of the hesychasm of the Fathers, the Church and the nation survived after the dissolution of the empire, because the patristic therapeutic training which we have described gave the Church the power to blossom in the hard times of Arab, Frankish and Turkish rule…
“That is to say, the prophets as deified persons and therapists, were like a team of hospital doctors, one of whom, without implying any inequality, was chosen as chairman. The same thing happened among the apostles: Peter had first place, although it was James, as Bishop of the local Church, who presided at the gathering of apostles in Jerusalem.
“When parishes began to multiply and no prophet or prophets in the apostle Paul’s sense were to be found, the Church had to resolve the problem of whether it was right to ordain as bishops men who were undeified but were illuminated. In the face of this dilemma the Church chose to ordain priests to preside at the parochial meetings. Thus the bishops gradually acquired supervisory responsibility over the presiding parish priests, like doctors at medical centres with attendants at the head. Because the Synod did not find enough doctors to supervise all the hospital centres, it appointed attendants as priests. To call the attendant a doctor, that is to call a person who is not deified a bishop is unrealistic and leads to the dissolution of the therapeutic work of the Church.
“With the passage of time, however, there appeared bishops and priests neither of whom had even reached the stage of illumination. It was this state of affairs which provoked the revolution brought about by St. Symeon the New Theologian and the taking over of the hierarchy by the hesychasts, which was not fully achieved until the time of St. Gregory Palamas.
“Apostolic therapeutic treatment was preserved in the post-apostolic period up to the appearance of Frankish and imperial and Neo-Hellenic Orthodoxy, by the concentration of this apostolic tradition in monasticism. That is, therapeutic training for illumination and deification was transferred from the secular parish, which had become weak, to the monastic parish. At the same time the metropolitan sees and the bishoprics became monasteries. That is why St. Sophia was called the Great Monastery even in the lay tradition. Monasticism became a kind of medical school where the candidates for bishop studied apostolic therapeutics. Parallel with this it was the task of every secular parish to imitate the monastic parish as best it could – because illumination and deification are indispensable for the healing of all people, since all have a darkened nous. From the doctrinal point of view there is no difference between secular and monastic parishes with regard to the sacraments offered and the need for healing. The difference lies in the quantity and quality of success in healing”.