A young man crossed the desert and finally came to the monastery of Scete. There, he asked to hear one of the abbot’s lectures and was granted permission.
That afternoon, the abbot’s discourse was about the importance of work in the field.
After the lecture, the young man said to one of the monks, “That was amazing. I thought I would hear a fine sermon about virtues and sins, and the abbot spoke only of tomatoes, irrigation and so forth. Where I come from, all believe that God is merciful: all one must do is pray.”
The monk smiled and replied, “Here we believe that God has already done God’s part; now it is up to us to continue the process.”
Israel Galina of, Stories of the Desert Fathers (Translated): Ancient Wit and Wisdom for Today’s Bewildering Times.
A King Needs A Palace
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you know that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of-throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself!
George MacDonald in C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Walker and Co., 1987), 205.
The Soul of the Eater is Not Satisfied
All, over which men labour in this world, is consumed in the mouth, and, munched by the teeth, it passes down to the stomach to be digested. For the little while that it delights the appetite, it seems to give pleasure while it is held in the mouth. When it has passed to the belly, there ceases to be any difference between sorts of food.
After all this, the soul of the eater is not satisfied; either because it again longs for what it has eaten, and both the wise man and fool cannot live without food, and the poor man seeks for nothing except how he can keep the organism of his pitiful body alive and not die of hunger, or because the soul gains no advantage from the refreshment of the body and food is the same to the wise man and the fool alike and the poor man goes where he can see wealth.
St Jerome “Commentary on Ecclesiastes”
Jerome’s words are a commentary on a passage in the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes: “All the labor of man is for his mouth, and yet the soul is not satisfied. For what more has the wise man than the fool? What does the poor man have, who knows how to walk before the living?” (6:7-8, NKJV)
Especially when I’ve presented ideas like this to Evangelical Christians, my listeners will say that I’m denying the goodness of creation. While I understand why they say this, St Jerome isn’t denying the goodness of creation. He (and I) is rather delineating the limits of creation. Good though it is, there is no life in food. Life comes to us not from what we eat or drink but from God.
Again, this doesn’t mean food (or any part of creation) is evil. It only means that we can’t ask from creation what creation itself can’t provide. This is what St Maximus the Confessor is getting at when he writes that “Nothing created by God is evil. It is not food that is evil but gluttony, not the begetting of children but unchastity, not material things but avarice, not esteem but self-esteem. It is only the misuse of things that is evil, not the things themselves.”
We can summarize the whole of our Christian life as nothing more or less than the struggle to learn to use creation as God intended it to be used. When I misuse the creation then I don’t only dishonor God and the creation, I cause my life to be nothing but a series of frustrations as again and again I become disappointed.
As these disappointments add up I become increasingly prone to cynicism and hardness of heart. I lose, in other words, the ability to feel joy because having lost any sense of nature of creation, I have become incapable of gratitude.
This I think is the situation of all of us at one time or another. But for some, maybe even many, people today this sense of growing dissatisfaction is the norm.
Appreciating Our Past
Jihadists and Progressives Together:
That Christianity is “the root of the West, the West’s living source” is at best unremembered. It is more accurate to say that it is remembered, but also hated and rejected. The West — Europe and North America — knows its roots perfectly well and that Christianity is still undeniably a source of life. The West knows and is doing its very best to live it down.
Read the rest here.
Love is the Vocation, Friendship the Key
The call of the husband is not to fit into a preconceived role of husband, but to enter deeply into a relationship with his wife. We find our fulfillment as husbands (and wives) as we are united with Christ and perfected in Christ, in relation relationship with our spouse. If a man tries to act like a good husband, head, or leader, he will find that his wife, with her faults, will only get in the way. This is a subtly self-centered approach to marriage. If, however, he tries to love his wife with perfect love, he will find that his wife provides plenty of opportunities for him to be an become a true husband, head, and leader.
Philip Mamalakis, “The High and Holy Calling of Being a Husband,” in David C. Ford, Mary S. Ford and Alfred Kentigern Siewers Eds.), Glory and Honor: Orthodox Christian Resources on Marriage, (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2016), p. 100.
Vocations are always personal. God calls this or that person to love Him and to love others in a concrete–and so necessarily, personal–way. And just as no one is called to be a husband (or wife!) in general but to be the husband of this woman, no one is called to be a priest in general. The priest is called by God to love a particular community.
Unlike marriage, a priest might–and often is–asked in the course of his priesthood to love different communities. Some he loves for longer, other shorter, time. But whether his time with a community is long or short, easy or hard, the priest is called to love the community in all it’s concreteness.
And so, to borrow from the epigraph, the call of the priest is not to fit into a preconceived role of the priesthood, but to enter deeply into a relationship with his family, his parish, his fellow clergy and his diocese. This is only possible, if the priest is first “united with Christ and perfected in Christ.” It is only in this way that the priest can be “in relation relationship with” those around him.
If, on the other hand, a man tries merely to act like a good priest, head, or leader, he will find that his parish, with its “faults, will only get in the way.” The priest who doesn’t draw close to Christ will, of necessity, limits his ministry to appearance. He may sing well, he may preach well and even be of comfort to his parishioners. But for all he has the appearance of success, he will slowly die inside.
His inner life will wither away not because divine grace is absent but because he is relying simply on himself, on his own abilities, and not on Christ. Often this “subtly self-centered approach” to ministry is overlooked by the parish, the bishop and even the priest’s family until the priest stumbles in some way or other.
If, on the other hand, the priest “tries to love his [parish] with perfect love, he will find that [the community] provides plenty of opportunities for him to be an become a true husband, head, and leader.” But perfect love is only possible in Christ and this requires that the priest cultivate a deep, personal and prayerful relationship with his Lord.
Like marriage, the priesthood is a kind of friendship. And, in both cases, the friendship whether between priest and parishioner, or between husband and wife, is the fruit of a friendship with Jesus Christ.
Magic, Liturgy & the Priest
When Ronald Grimes refers to magic, he’s not making “a pejorative” judgment but discussing “rites that aim to effect.” Magic is functional and so refers to any ritual, or “any element of ritual,” that we undertake “as means to an end.” Insofar as a rite not only has meaning but also works, it is magical. Insofar as it is a deed having transcendent reference and accomplishing some desired empirical result, a rite is magical” (Beginnings in Ritual Studies, pp. 42-43).
This kind of analysis is likely to make Christians in liturgical traditions nervous. “After all,” so their thinking might go, “isn’t something accomplished in the Liturgy and the sacraments of the Church?”
Grimes seems to anticipate this objection. He writes:
Liturgy speaks in an interrogative voice, then a declarative one: “Can this be?” then “This is the case.” By contrast, magic depends on the declarative to reach the imperative: “This is how things work; therefore, let this be the case!” Magic has in common with ceremony a propensity for performative utterances, but the frame of reference of the former is political, while that of the latter is transcendent. Magic uses a transcendent frame of reference to effect change in the ordinary reality of social and ecological interaction (p. 43).
The distinction he draws here is subtle.
It might help us if we think of the Church’s liturgical and sacramental tradition as the anthropological fruit of awe. I have in mind here the response of St Elizabeth, the mother of St John the Baptist, to the Virgin Mary. “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43) The questioning inherent in liturgy isn’t skepticism but wonder. Seen in this way, there is a developmental continuity (both psychologically and spiritually) between our appreciation of the beauty of creation, the mystery of the Eucharist and our own dignity as Christians.
The middle step here—the Eucharist—is critical. Without it, our wonder is rooted simply in ourselves and our own finitude in the response to a largely but ultimately equally finite creation. Yes, there is a grandeur to a sunset, a mountain, the birth of a child. But apart from the Eucharist (and the rest of the sacramental economy), these experiences remain locked into the finite and ever-shifting character of creation and of our own experience of creation. Without the Eucharist, I remain a prisoner of my own, internal, psychological processes.
It is the Eucharist, the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, that liberates the normal, universal, human experience awe in response to transitory beauty into a foretaste of the Eternal. “Grant them in return for earthly things, heavenly gifts; for temporal, eternal; for corruptible, incorruptible.”
Magic doesn’t begin in the experience of wonder but in an act of the will; not awe but assertion. Yes, magic seeks to change things but change them according to my own desires, my own ideas of what is fitting. “The force of magic,” Grimes writes, “lies in its use of desire as a major contributing factor in causing hoped-for results” (p. 43, emphasis added).
Rooted as they are in awe and wonder, the dominate mood of liturgy is thanksgiving. Yes, liturgy is a transcendent and transforming, event. But the liturgically mediated change is predicated not only on divine grace but my ability to accept with gratitude the fact of my absolute dependence on God and my relative dependence on others. Implicit within the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and the rest of the Church’s sacramental economy, is my grateful acceptance of my own finitude.
The affective mood of magic is quite different. Typically, magic reflects human anxiety and a desire to control reality. Again Grimes: “magic restores, or takes, control by employing symbols more for their consequence than for their meaning. Thus magical anxiety is likely to be coupled with its opposite: confidence. Magic frequently conjures confidence as a step toward producing the desired results” (p. 43).
But the confidence of magic, is not the fruit of trust but fear and so reflects a lack of appreciation for my status as a creature. Yes, as Grimes points out, magic can lead to “awe or thankfulness.” When it does, we are “one step closer to liturgy or celebration.” Usually, though, magic is a way of explaining reality; it “is how we account for causes and consequences.” This search for an explanation often involves “trickery” and again, while this can grow into something else—the “playfulness of celebration” (p. 44)—it doesn’t necessarily do so. For magic to become liturgy requires gratitude; for it to become celebration, it requires that “surrender idiosyncrasies and independence” (p. 41).
In both cases, for magic to become something more requires that I surrender control and the pursuit of my own desires as mine.
Contrary to what we tell ourselves, magic isn’t absent from contemporary societies “although it is probably adumbrated in them.” Specifically, as Grimes says, “modern therapy and sexuality are as laden with magical thinking as healing and fertility rites ever were.” Likewise, “advertising is full of it. People deny that they believe in magic but ingest this pill and use that shampoo, expecting ‘somehow’ (the cue for magical transcendence) to become what they desire” (p. 44).
And the priest? What has this to do with him?
People often come to the Church, come to the worship of the Church, anxious and weary. Jesus tells us as much. “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30, NKJV).
In those moments when we come to liturgy anxious, weary and weak, there is a temptation to see the Liturgy and the sacraments as magical and the priest as a magician. The priest needs to be on guard for this attitude among his parishioners. It is important that he be viglant in this matter not only for their sake but his own as well.
The temptation for me as priest is that to see me—and not Christ—as the source of healing and transformation.
Responding to this temptation, and guarding against it, is the subject of our next conversation about Liturgy and the spirituality of the priest.
Decorum, Liturgy & the Priest’s Spiritual Life
Let’s return to our earlier discussion of liturgy and the spirituality of the priest (see here). To recap briefly what I said, the idiosyncratic liturgist seeks to shape the liturgy according to either his own personality or the ethos of the community. Doing so, in either case, means constricting human freedom to what is given. Here the insights of the social scientist can be helpful.
When a social system becomes closed in on itself, it tends to concentrate dysfunction and pathology. This is Gresham’s Law (bad money drives out good) applied to a social group.To understand this, think about how a pond, cut off from free flowing water, will eventually become stagnant. This usually doesn’t mean nothing grows in the pond—that there is no life—but that only a very few things grow. And what does grow, grows at the expense of other forms of life that would naturally be in the pond.
Another way to understand this, think about a pond. Now imagine that the pond is cut off from free flowing water, will eventually become stagnant. This usually doesn’t mean nothing grows in the pond—that there is no life—but that only a very few things grow. And what does grow, grows at the expense of other forms of life that would naturally be in the pond.
So if idiosyncratic forms of liturgy lead to spiritual stagnation, what is the priest to do? After all, as we said earlier, the fact that we are embodied creatures mean that a certain amount of idiosyncrasy is unavoidable. I will, in other words, only mostly “Say the Black” and only mostly “Do the Red.”
The spiritual life of the priest-celebrant doesn’t just go awry when he tries to shape liturgy according to his own personality or the community’s ethos. His spiritual life is also deformed when he uses liturgy as a means of denying the fact of human embodiment. Yes, in the words of the Cherubic Hymn, the celebrant, like the congregation, “mystically represent the cherubim.” But neither the congregation, and more importantly for our concerns here, nor the priest are actually angels.
There needs to be a gentle, peaceful and appreciative acceptance of the unavoidable missteps and variations that emerge whenever we gather together as the Church. It’s worth repeating Grimes when he says that given the nature of liturgy, “it is easy to overstep oneself, and as a result there is always something inherently clumsy about the liturgical stride.” This why, as he concludes, we humble ourselves “and apologize by confessions of sin, cleansings, sweats, baptisms, and incensations” (Beginning in Ritual Studies p. 45).
And when we try, either individually or corporately, to block out the need to confess our myriad missteps and lack of attention, what happens?
In this situation, even when celebrated according to the rubrics, liturgy becomes something else. It becomes what Grimes calls “decorum” or a pattern of “indirection and repetition” (p. 39) that doesn’t so much serve transcendence as it does to reinforce “roles, statutes, and interpersonal intentions” (p. 40).
The irony here is that reducing our celebration of liturgy to decorum (what Schmemann Introduction to Liturgical Theology, p. 97, called “liturgical formalism”) we are is just as self-enclosed, and so just as prone to stagnation, as in the idiosyncratic form of liturgy. What makes this confusion so deadly spiritually is that like liturgy, decorum is also a relatively conservative way of ritualizing our social interactions. From the outside, decorum and liturgy can look very much the same. It is where they diverge, however, that it is important for our concern here.
As I said, liturgy assumes that I will always fall short of what is celebrated. This is why repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation are built into the Church’s worship. For this reason, liturgy always challenges me to ask if I am who my actions claim I am. And if I am open to the question, I realize that I’m not. “Liturgy,” in other words, “is how a people becomes attuned to the way things are— the way they really are, not the way they appear to be” (p. 45).
Decorum moves in the opposite direction. When I violate “the decorum of an occasion” I’m saying that even though I’m physically present, I am psychologically or spiritually not “participat[ing] in … the occasion” (p. 40). And when I break the “rules of decorum”? Then “I am ignored, snubbed, gossiped about, or frowned at” (pp. 40-41; in light of this, the offense of the wedding guest in the Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22:1-14 is evidently a more serious matter than his merely being rude).
While the consequences are relatively light, return for the offending party requires a great deal of effort. Return means that the offender conformity to group’s “lightweight cultural ‘ought'” and so ratify, affirm and accept the group’s power structures. In other words, restoration comes not through forgiveness but hazing.
When a priest (or a parish) habitually defaults to snubbing or gossiping or shunning this is a sign that—however faithful he is to the rubrics—decorum and not liturgy is the wellspring of his spiritual life.
What the priest has lost, or maybe never found, is the ability of the Church’s liturgical tradition not simply to challenge him but to transform him. Transformation is always personal and so requires that the priest not only see how his life and ministry fits within the broad sweep of the tradition of the Church but also how that same tradition is, as it were, being played out in his own life and ministry. “Death in general is transformed by a funeral into the events of a person’s dying. By means of ritual, a natural demise is made for family and friends a concrete occurrence. This is the kind of work that liturgical rites do best: transforming the inevitable” into the personal and communal (Grimes, pp. 46-47).
Liturgy & the Idiosyncratic
Because we have bodies, there is an inescapable idiosyncratic element to the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. No matter how faithfully I strive to “Say the Black” and “Do the Red,” my saying and doing will reflect something of my own, physical and temperamental, individuality.
Yes, with time, I can minimize how much of my individuality “leaks” through. But “as long as I am in this tent” (2 Peter 1:13, NKJV), there will be small variations in how I celebrate Liturgy that reflect something of my own personality, character, biography, and physiology.
Being at peace with a degree of inescapable variation in how the Liturgy is celebrated, however, is different from the attempt to shape Liturgy according to the personality of the priest or the ethos of the community in which it is celebrated. This latter situation is more than just a concern for a formal integrity of the rubrics. It runs contrary to the deeper, anthropological, meaning of liturgy. It is a problem, in other words, that effects our spiritual formation.
Ronald Grimes in his work Beginning in Ritual Studies offers us a view of liturgy drawn not from Christian theology but from the human science of anthropology. He would the word liturgy for “any ritual action with an ultimate frame of reference and the doing of which is understood to be of cosmic necessity” (p. 45). While this definition is not in itself theologically sufficient, it certainly captures something of the Orthodox understanding of the Divine Liturgy.
So too does Grimes’s observation that liturgy’s power is “not the force of labor” or as “a way of achieving results.” No the power of liturgy (and of the Divine Liturgy) is that it is “a mode of tapping the way (tao) things flow or [of] connecting with the order and reason (logos) that things manifest.” Above all, it is in and through liturgy, that we can come “to rest in the heart of the cosmos. Liturgy is how a people becomes attuned to the way things are— the way they really are, not the way they appear to be” (p. 45).
This last point—of becoming “attuned to the way things are”—is important when considering the spirituality of the priest as the celebrant of the Eucharist and for the spiritual formation of all members of the Church.
As I said above, as a bodily creature there will always be something unique in how as a priest I celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The timbre of my voice, how I move, the pace I set, all of these will necessarily reflect my individuality. While I may over time become better able to gracefully submerge my own personality and allow it to become the servant of the Liturgy in much the same way as the music serves the text of the service, there will always be limits.
There will always be something idiosyncratic to how the priest celebrates Liturgy for another reason. IWhen we “gather as the Church” (compare, 1 Corinthians 14:26) we are striving to do something which is always beyond us. Again, Grimes is helpful here.
In liturgical rites people try to learn to walk on the ground of their being, to walk, as Lakotas say, “in a sacred manner.” In such an effort it is easy to overstep oneself, and as a result there is always something inherently clumsy about the liturgical stride. For this reason, ritualists humble themselves and apologize by confessions of sin, cleansings, sweats, baptisms, and incensations (p. 45).
Even with the greatest care and attention, I will inevitably fall short of the mystery at the heart of the Divine Liturgy. And so, as Grimes points out, my celebration—from the perspective of the angels if you will—will always be clumsy. This requires from me not only humility and repentance but also a radical acceptance of the limits imposed upon me by my body and my ontological status as a creature.
Whether we are talking about it from the perspective of secular anthropology or Christian theology, liturgy is “a symbolic action in which a deep receptivity … is cultivated.” Holy Communion, after all, is received not taken. This means that in liturgy what we do is “actively await what gives itself and what is beyond [our] command.” Ultimately, “liturgy is a structured waiting upon an influx of whole-making (holy) power, it is inescapably a spiritual exercise” (p. 45). In this process of active waiting and gracious sanctification of bread and wine, men and women, and the Christian community, what is unique to each of us becomes the means by which divine grace is communicated.
Or to put it slightly differently, in the Divine Liturgy what is merely individual becomes a unique express of what is universal; the temporal communicates the Eternal and the created becomes the sacrament of the Uncreated.
This transformation requires from me a “deep receptivity” (p. 46) that is really contrary to any even well-meaning attempt to shape the Liturgy according to my own personality or the character of the community.
Such shaping, again even if well meant, runs contrary to what Grimes calls the “‘interrogative'” mood” intrinsic to the liturgy. The interrogative nature of liturgy requires that the celebrant “waits ‘in passive voice,'” as the servant of liturgy’s revelation “of the way things ultimately are” (p. 45). Yes, the personality of the priest, the ethos of the community does have a role to play in this process. But liturgy challenges the priest and the community to self-reflection. Are we who our liturgical actions say we are?
And, as we saw above, that answer is always “no.” I always fall short of who my liturgical actions say that I am.
The spiritual problem of intentionally shaping the celebration of the liturgy to be more personally or communally meaningful is that, in doing so, I subvert liturgy’s power to challenge me to engage in a deep form of self-reflection. It trades the thankful reception of what its ultimate and lasting for what is merely immediate and transitory.
The betray of the ultimate, however, is not limited to the intentionally idiosyncratic celebration of the Liturgy. It can also take the form of a rigid adherence to the form at the expense of substance. Put another way, saying the red and doing the black can also be a way of undermining the formative potential of the liturgy.
We’ll look at this in the next post.
Curing Our Self-Aggrandizing Tendencies
While the evidence offered is more anecdotal than empirical, the analysis of After Asceticism: Sex, Prayer and Deviant Priests is true. We read in the introduction (here) that “in its early stages at least,” there wasn’t any fundamental difference in the “personality features of [between pre- and post- Vatican II] seminarians or priests … that would account for the nature and the magnitude of the [clergy sexual misconduct] crisis”. The difference was rather that “ascetical discipline was practiced better in the first half of the twentieth century” and almost wholly abandoned by the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council.
Taking this as our jumping off point, I suspect that the rise of liturgical narcissism among (Catholic) clergy that Vitz and Vitz (here) criticize reflects not just the rise of a secular psychotherapeutic model of the Christian life but a general neglect of ascetical struggle as foundational to our life in Christ. Again, in After Asceticism:
In its purpose, theory, and practice, the therapeutic mentality stands in stark opposition to religious devotion and personal repentance for sin. Allegiance to the therapeutic mentality has dislodged ascetical habits and manners, and it now holds sway over the attitudes of clergy, just as it strengthened its materialist grip on western societies for nearly a century. … Predictably, when the storm surge in pagan sexuality began to overwhelm the natural defenses of the clergy in the 1950s and 1960s, those without the spiritual anchor of ascetical discipline were set adrift– perpetrators as well as their managers. As the initial storm surge receded, a spawn of the therapeutic mentality remained in the tidal pools.
If this analysis is correct (and I’m afraid it is) our (Orthodox) first line of defense against narcissism–what I would call our self-aggrandizing tendencies–is fidelity to our own ascetical tradition. This, however, raises another issue.
Ascetical discipline is often lax, and even absent, among both the clergy and the laity (I count myself among the lax I’m afraid). But even among those who do a better job, the absence of sound moral and human formation can deform the personality and character of the priest or the layperson.
The ascetical disciplines of the Church arose within the context of what today we’d call virtue ethics (Alexis Trader, Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds). Stoic moral philosophy and anthropology figured prominently in how the fathers understood both morality and asceticism. Today, unfortunately, most of us are more beholding to Nietzsche’s will to power or a popular express of existentialism then to virtue ethics.
What I mean is that we don’t understand moral analysis as objective. Nor do we think of virtue as the mean between extremes. When I read what people write on social media it amazes me the ease with which Orthodox Christians don’t just discuss the Fast or the length of our services but actually boast about these things. Comments like this miss the point. Ascetical struggle isn’t about how much I can do (or not do as it were) but helping me find balance in my life. The goal is a life of consonance, of synergy, with God and neighbor. In a word, love.
Deficiencies in moral and human formation also touch on the tension between institutional and charismatic authority in the Church. Metropolitan John (Zizizoulas) has argued that in the early Church (Eucharist, Bishop, Church: The Unity of the Church in the Divine Eucharist and the Bishop During the First Three Centuries) the ideal was that only men who demonstrated the charismatic dimension of authority we ordained. This means that institutional authority was entrusted to men who had the natural talents and spiritual gifts commensurate with diaconal, priestly or episcopal leadership.
Balancing institutional and charismatic authority is not restricted to the office of bishop. The same problem can exists with deacons and priests. This happens if entrust leadership to men who, whatever else can be said of them, haven’t necessarily demonstrated their ability to teach, to offer wise counsel, or to govern—or what Zizioulas identifies as the three-fold office of the presbyterate. Likewise, if we don’t seek out candidates for the diaconate from among those men who have a demonstrable gift and commitment for philanthropic ministry. The practical result of this is a style pastoral leadership that defaults to the exercise of merely institutional authority.
And all of this, I would suggest, is the fruit of not helping the laity discern and foster the gifts that they have been given personally in Baptism and Chrismation. It is in Baptism and Chrismation that we take on evangelical, philanthropic and deifying work of the Gospel. And this work is ALWAYS personal, it is ALWAYS the fruit of the specific gifts that each of us has been given for the building up of the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12).
Are our parishes houses of formation for the laity our parishes or something else? Religious theaters? Museums? Schools of (popular) theology? Rarely do we come to the parish with the expectation that we will go out again better equipped to shape the world of persons, events and things according to the Gospel.
Indifference to the spiritual formation of the laity is spiritually harmful to the laity, it has a negative effect on the ministry of future clergy. This is why I think the pastoral question lurking in the problem of narcissism among the clergy is the nature of the vocation of the laity. To the degree they neglect what they are given in Baptism and Chrismation men will, as clergy, be less able to bear up under the demands of ordination.
Taking to heart the analysis of the struggles in the Catholic Church and among Protestant clergy (here), it seems to me that what is called for is a more systematic, intentional approach to the spiritual formation of the laity. Help the laity live as disciples of Christ who are confident and competent in their ability to shape the world of persons, events and things according to the Gospel and you have gone a long way toward fostering the spiritual and emotional health of the clergy.
Vitz & Vitz On Liturgy and Clerical Narcissism
Psychologist Paul Vitz and his son Br. Daniel Vitz (“Messing with the Mass: The problem of priestly narcissism today“), offer an analysis of narcissism among Roman Catholic clergy. Their argument about narcissistic clergy is offered in a liturgical key. Vitz and Vitz contend that “the primary motivation behind many of” liturgical “irregularities” seen in the celebration of the Roman Mass are derive “from underlying narcissistic motives — that is, extreme self-love — found in many people in contemporary culture.” They have in mind here not so much major abuses but rather “the relatively small changes introduced in an idiosyncratic way into the Mass.” Such small changes, they argue, are “especially” indicative of an unwholesome form of self-love.
After tracing the various social factors that lead to “this country’s increasingly narcissistic—this is, self-preoccupied—character” and a brief summary of the “psychological definition of narcissism,” they get to their main concern: the “Catholic expressions of clerical narcissism.”
Looking at how narcissism is manifest liturgically is provocative. Given the importance of liturgy to the life of the Church, and to the self-image (and wholesome self-worth) of the priest, I think their approach has merit. The temptation for a priest to place his “‘personal stamp’ on the liturgy” is one faced by all clergy—including Orthodox clergy.
Like Schmemann (for example, his 1966 essay “The Task of Orthodox Theology in America Today“) Vitz and Vitz are critical of the “common contemporary focus on being ‘relevant'” because doing so “is a straightforward articulation of making the Mass focus on the ‘now’ with a serious neglect of where the Mass came from and where it is leading us.” The pursuit of liturgical relevance, in the pejorative sense, causes us to become forgetful of the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist. As in the East, so in the West the Eucharist is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God which is to come.
The underlying psychological point here is what matters most for Vitz and Vitz:
To be relevant is to be involved in the present, commonly at the expense of the past as well as the future. In fact, most of the innovators would argue that a “relevant” liturgy is one that speaks to the people “now”, rather than serving as a fixed reference point in a confused and changing world. The “now” is also an expression of narcissistic preoccupations. Indeed, it is difficult to disentangle the connection between narcissism and “relevant” liturgy: focusing on the “now” breeds narcissism, and narcissism creates a preoccupation with “relevance” and the “now.”
While it is easy (too easy to be good for our own salvation) to focus on dramatic liturgical abuses, it is those small “changes and additions to the Mass” that aren’t “obvious to the man in the pew” that can do the most damage to the spiritual life of the faithful. Liturgical personalization by the priest, they contend, communicates to the laity that the celebration of the Eucharist is less an encounter with Jesus Christ and more an opportunity to meet “their own narcissistic needs” through the Liturgy.
The authors conclude that “Since the narcissistic or vain needs of many priests lie behind their peculiar and idiosyncratic changes in the liturgy, it is time for these unprepossessing and non-theological factors to be more widely recognized in Catholic seminaries and in the Catholic community at large.”
Avoiding the temptation to engage in liturgical “self-aggrandizement” requires making priests and seminarians “aware of the danger of inserting one’s personality into the liturgy.” Successfully struggling against using the liturgy for his own “ego renewal” requires that the priest cultivate “a sense of the sacred” (awe) as well as a wholesome form of humility. The latter is harder than we might at first think.
Those suffering from narcissistic traits require “excessive admiration” from others; “with this comes extreme sensitivity to criticism. Such criticism often leads to social withdrawal or an appearance of humility.” So while “Imitating Christ’s self-forgetfulness and humble heart are the antidotes for these tendencies” those in the grip of narcissism can be, and often are, experts at feigning humility as a way of seeking attention.
While Vitz and Vitz are concerned with Roman Catholic clergy, their observations are relevant for Orthodox Christians. American culture, as the authors point out, can and does fosters narcissism. Even if Orthodox Christians are able to avoid the culture’s “preoccupation with the present,” “its obsession with consumption,” “its encouragement to incur debt” and “glorification of transient sexual gratification and sensory pleasures,” living in such a cultural environment still has a harmful effect. We can be clear what we reject without, necessarily, knowing what we believe. Recognizing what is unwholesome, dysfunctional and sinful is not the same as knowing what is wholesome, functional and virtuous. And knowing is itself different from doing and being.
In the next post, I want to look again at a Catholic source to help flesh out what it might mean not simply to reject vice but embrace virtue as an inoculation against narcissism.