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There is a difference between a “sign” and a “symbol.” A sign is merely a signifier, it stands in for something else— a stop light is a good example of a sign. A red light has no power to stop me, it merely serves to remind me of my social obligation to drive safely and of the consequences if I don’t. A sign has no power in and of itself. The sign’s power depends on something else and an absent something else at that.
A symbol (anthropologically and in Orthodox theology) is different from a sign. A symbol doesn’t point beyond itself to some other (absent) reality but draws and holds together many things. In this sense, we can say that the Eucharist is a symbol, it draws and holds together in Christ different men and women, from different time and cultures as One Body.
Symbols are also ALWAYS polyvalent. In any given symbol there are many different levels of meaning operating concurrently. Again the Eucharist is a good example. Though we are one in Christ our unity does not preclude our differences but presupposes them. Yes, the Eucharist is objectively one—there are not multiple “Eucharists” even if there are multiple celebrations. But in the Eucharist our unity does not come at the expense of our diversity; neither does our diversity dissolve our unity. The unity of the Eucharist is a convergence of a diversity of subjective meanings; unity and diversity are held together so that neither our unity nor diversity suffers. (And before any object, look at St Paul on the Church as the Body of Christ.)
But what does this have to do with the the human formation of the priesthood?
Returning to an earlier concern, clerical attire points beyond itself to a reality whose meaning is polyvalent, or (if you prefer) symbolic and Eucharistic. The value of clerical attire is only relative, its real power being as a reminder that the man I’ve encountered is an embodied and enacted symbol of the presence of Christ in human affairs. Both as a priest and for those who encounter me, holy orders (as with all the sacraments) is a provocation, an affront to my desire for control, for a life lived within the limits of my own ego. And how can it be otherwise? Sacraments transcend the merely human and draw together any number of subjective meanings not all of them positive or even mutually compatible.
The pastoral problem that I pointed to, however, still remains to be addressed. Whether the individual does nor does not wear traditional clerical attire, the question of clerical dress brings to the fore the clergyman’s emotional and spiritual maturity and can highlight the deficits of his personal formation.
On the one hand, the personal struggles of the priest are just that, his personal struggles. Negotiating the varies levels of meaning inherent in the office of priest is a complex tasks that requires a great deal of personal and spiritual maturity. It is the work of a life time to be sure.
When a priest, for example, I respond habitually with hostility to what are the to be expected questions about my attire, this signals a potentially serious and worrisome deficit in my personal formation. Left uncorrected it can develop into a serious, and potentially fatal, flaw in my ministry.
On the surface the flaw in my character maybe a garden variety narcissism. I want to not only present myself as special (in a positive sense) I also demand you acknowledge my specialness. (This type of narcissism, let me take pains to point out, is not the exclusive problem to those wear cassocks or clergy suits or even to clergy.)
But I need to be discerning. The more prone I am to behave in a manner that singles me out from my neighbor the more my well-being is in danger. This does not mean that Christians should not stand out, We should. But we should be known for our virtue not our clothing (see Mt 6:25-34).
My interest here is not in clothing as such, but clothing as an illustration. Clothing has the unique quality of being able to separate me from others. This separation isn’t necessarily bad or wrong, but neither is it a good thing. Yes how I dress can be a sign to others (and to me) that I am a priest, an ambassador of Christ and a man for others. But it can also be a means of imposing my own ego on the world of persons, events and things. In any particular priest it is probably some mixture of the two and it is precisely because of this that the personal human formation of clergy is so important. Unfortunately, I fear this formation is almost wholly absent in the current practice of the Church.
In my next two posts I want to address one aspect of a sound human formation for clergy, the virtue of obedience. Until then, and as always, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome, they are actively sought.