Tag Archives: priestly formation

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.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory