Tag Archives: formation

The Blessings of Liberty: the Challenge of Success

Sunday, June 18, 2017: 2nd Sunday of Matthew; Leontius, Hypatius, & Theodulus the Martyrs of Syria, Leontios the Myrrh-Streamer of Argos

Epistle: Romans 2:10-16
Gospel: Matthew 4:18-23

For some Orthodox Christians, today–the second Sunday after Pentecost–is a day set aside in the liturgical calendar to commemorate the saints of their local Church. Having last week commemorated all the saints, especially those known only to God, today we commemorate all the saints, again known and unknown, of America, Russia, Mount Athos, Palestine, Romania, & the Iberian Peninsula.

We do this as a reminder that just as “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NKJV), God freely bestows “glory and honor and peace” on all those who “do by nature what the law requires” as we just heard.

This obedience to the divine will. St Paul points out, is possible because God has written the demands of the law on our hearts. If I still myself, if I cultivate a sense of external and internal quiet, in the secret of my heart, I can hear the Word of God.

Another way to say this is that to grow in holiness, to become a saint, I must listen to my conscience. Again as St Paul reminds us, though we are all sinners, God has not abandoned any of us.

Rather, and now we turn to the Gospel, God calls each of us. Even as He called Peter and Andrew, James and John, He calls each and every single human being to follow Him as His disciple and apostle.

And He doesn’t simply call us as individuals–though we each of us must respond personally or else love isn’t love–but as a people, as a nation.

For Americans, this might at first seem to be a problem. We are after all not a nation established by blood or soil. We are rather a people united by an ideal, a conviction, as we read in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This is not the time or place to examine the particulars of what these unalienable rights. Nor is it the time to examine the many ways in which we have as a nation we have failed to live up to the ideals that Jefferson outlines.

For now, let me simply point out that in many ways America has been a blessing for the Church. For the first time since the Edict of Toleration, the Church is not only free politically to live her life as she sees fit, she has the economic and social resources to do so.

In America, not only are we not persecuted, we are also not established. We are not a department of State and we are not a despised minority. Moreover, we are well-educated and, frankly, wealthy personally if not always institutionally.

We are wholly and truly free. This means that there are, if I may say it this way, no external constraints on our growth in holiness either personally or as a community.

All though isn’t necessarily well with us.

It seems sometimes that the sheer breadth of our freedoms and the extent of our wealth undermines our pursuit of holiness. We are free and wealthy beyond what any of the fathers could have imagined. And yet, how do we respond, how do I respond, to the “blessings of liberty” that God has given the Church in America?

As we reflect on the saints who God raised up in other lands, we need to ask ourselves, I need to ask myself, what return are we–am I–making on what God has freely given?

Orthodox Christians have remained faithful in obscurity, poverty, and persecution. We have found a modus vivendi, a way of life, conducive to holiness in many different cultures, economic circumstances and under even the cruelest and most repressive political regimes.

Now, though, we face the challenge of success! There are times, in what I hope are my lesser moments, when I worry that America will do what the Romans, the Ottomans, and the Communists, could never do. In these moments I worry that a Church that raised saints under persecution will collapse under liberty.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has called each us to follow Him as His disciples and apostles. And He has called us to do so here, in America, in a land of unparalleled wealth and freedom.

Let us exploit with gratitude the liberty we have been given!

Let us follow Christ as His disciples and apostles “doers of the law.”

Let us with our time, talent and treasure teach and preach the gospel of the kingdom God so that through us God can heal “every disease and every infirmity among the people” of this place.

To do this we need only respond affirmatively to God call.

To do this we need only say “Yes!” to the God Who has this day said “Yes!” to us and called us to be His disciples and apostles in America.

To do this, to say yes, we need only to prayer as we can, read the Scriptures as God’s word to us and do good when the possibility presents itself.

Above all though, we need to come to God in Holy Communion and Holy Confession. It is here, in these two sacraments above all else, that we are transformed and so are able to make a worthy returning to God for the blessings of liberty He has granted the Church in America.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory