The Word Magazine, January, 1978, Page 6-8
HIS WORK, HIS LIFE
by Father John Goolsby
A priest of the Church. The name, the title, the station, can set the philosopher to pondering, the skeptic to raging, the agnostic to smirking behind his sleeve, the king to questioning his own authority. And the priest himself may exult in his high position and yet shrink in humility when he thinks of the responsibility the office thrusts upon him.
This is the man who, when the grace of God visits him, can dance in his dooryard like Zorba the Greek and his people will understand. Yet, when confronted by the dead, he can chant the solaces of God and his people will know that this is the solemnity of the Church and its sorrow when one of God’s children leaves our world. And, with the paradox that only the Church can manage without being ridiculous, the child of God, after giving himself to Christ, is not dead but steps into the glory of the Resurrection.
And the priest, this apostolic overseer in locum tenens, what should he be doing; what is his work?
His work is to strive to live as Christ, bearing witness and being an example for his people.
But that could be said of anyone and is the labor of any Christian, so where does the difference lie? What can his day be like? Consider the following traits!
A priest is a man of prayer, not so much the obvious on-the-knees variety, although that is essential, but living his life prayerfully with a kind of constant question to his God: Is this the way you want this, Lord? He is a servant in continuing conversation with his Master, asking for orders and then beseeching help in carrying them out.
The formal petitions and litanies of the Church come easily to his lips because they are articulated in his heart and when he prays for his people it is still his private conversation with God on behalf of his brothers and sisters who are his flock. Here, another paradox of the Church stands him in good stead because he is addressing both his Father and his Brother, with the Mother of the Church lending her smiling assent to his loving words, helping him make them more graceful and pleading that they will be heard.
His prayers must come spontaneously, so that they are not so much petitions for himself as a plea to know the mind of Christ and the will of the Father. During the Liturgy and other offices, he is spared the responsibility of framing words that will speak for his people because the Church has formulated them for him, lent them the power of the Eucharist, the Mother of God, the saints, the tradition, and the revelation. So that, if in his human weakness his mind wanders, the words are as efficacious as if he had spoken them with the fervor he should have exerted in the first place.
His prayers, then, are words, thoughts, and actions suited to the economy of the Creation, words that echo the Word, speculations that lead to the Holy Spirit, actions that sometimes must even physically wrench sections of man’s off-centered world back into a pattern giving evolution its true purpose, a return to the Garden of Eden.
In most cases, there isn’t much to administrate, or shouldn’t be. Almost always there is a church building. The priest should be able to inform himself of the rudiments of engineering, architecture, heating plants, electrical power, and so on, so that in a few days with the proper books he may converse intelligently with the experts in those fields. In the Orthodox Church, being most likely a married man, he should know the essentials of simple bookkeeping and making a check book balance.
In no case should he become the victim of an “edifice complex.” The church building, while an ark for its people, must not become a source of worldly pride, an object that can be compared with the building of the Methodists or the Roman Catholics and come out ahead. If his parish is a rich one and his people wish to shower their beneficence on rich gold plating and rare ikons, they and the priest should submit themselves to rigorous prayer and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Should He not choose to make His wishes known at once because the wall of worldliness is too impenetrable or simple because He does not wish to speak then, it were better that the priest and people wait, invest their funds or bank them. God will soon make His will known whether the money is to be kept, spent on the poor, used by each parishioner his own way in his own good works or — whether it is time simply to wait in silence.
God may even demand all of it for something other than a building and direct that some of the existing ikons be sold to carry out His will! And, of course, the life of the parish, depending on the work of the parish, the priest will seek out those of his people skilled in accounting, building maintenance, and other mundane matters.
The priest is the pastor of the flock, its shepherd. He must have acquaintance with the basics of medicine and psychology. Naturally, he is not a physician nor a psychiatrist. But God help him if, when asked for help by one of his people, he does not sense that the person is ill in body or mind and that God would have that soul’s health restored through the ministrations of a specialist who may even, for the mandatory brief moment in time, not even acknowledge the presence of a guiding Spirit!
The priest, through knowledge mediated by love, will be there to help his people, to show them that all mental and perhaps physical illnesses have their source in spiritual ill-health. Through his help, aided by his preaching, his people will come to learn that either they have asked for their pain and suffering or it has come to them as God’s grace to help them grow spiritually, the only real growth. This does not mean that the priest is only the sum total of his knowledge, administered through the vehicle of his love. His studies, theological, sociological, political; whatever, are not the cause of his being a good or bad priest. Through prayer and love those pieces of his knowledge that apply to a person or situation will be selected by God and applied to the problem. It is not even directly necessary that he have knowledge. Without it for a given problem, he may be chosen by God as the ghostly catalyst of Grace and perform a miracle.
A parishioner is unhappy. The priest will be cheerful in his presence, encouraging. He will seek in his own heart for ways to help. Usually the way will be shown, for the way will come from following the Way.
What are the things, then, a priest ought to be? A man of common sense and uncommon faith, a man of humor who is never clever at the expense of a fellow man, a man of retrospect who does not live in the past, a prophet who does not try to foretell the future in its detail, a man of virtue who quails not in the presence of sin, a man of frugality who spares nothing when his help is sought, a man of wisdom who is never pedantic, a man whose hand may some time cure an illness but who is aware that the Devil, too, can heal bodily deformities; a man of peace who is not afraid to square off in the presence of evil, a man of contentment who never tolls in the feather bed of sloth, a man who ultimately may be loved and sought out by his people but never seeks their admiration.
CELEBRATING THE MYSTERIES, ADMINISTERING THE SACRAMENTS
What can one say about a mystery, a sacrament, things that were ordained by God to be of His world, a world that has disappeared with an appetite for an apple satiated, a world obscured by pride and living for self rather than for the selfhood of living? One can only say that this is the chief work of the priest, bringing the Holy Mysteries to the people, because he is a messenger and this is his Message. This is the word of God in the Supper of the Lord (we must eat or die), in the Drama of the Resurrection (we must die with Christ or we die forever).
The priest has nothing of his own to bring, no life of his own, no comfort to bestow that comes from him. He is the steward of his people, bringing the Food of Life, and the Messenger of the Word bringing the mysteries of Heaven into the world. He has no apologies to make for this Message or this Food as a diplomat may who does not have full confidence in the message entrusted to him by his king, as a chef may who was unable to stop his hand before the rancid oil went into the salad.
When he administers the Sacraments the priest is infallible. He cannot fail. He can fail in comforting the afflicted, be can fail in preaching well, he can fail in keeping his parish financially alive – in all of this he can be a worldly failure.
But when he gives Communion, when he hears a Confession (even though his counsel be faulty) he cannot fail to give the true Bread of Life or true pardon. They are built into his Faith, they are guaranteed.
The danger in tampering with the Divine Liturgy, introducing cowbells, headstands, rotating colored lights, is not in offending his parishioners, in diverting their attention, in acting sacrilegiously, in being frivolous. It is in altering with earthly hands that which has been ordained by God Himself. “If it were not true, I would have told you.” So, in his work as a sacramentalist, the priest has at his command a completely simple thing. There it is; there they are. He couldn’t change them if he wanted to. Woe be unto him if he wants to degrade them, to drag them in the mud. But it is woe unto him, never to the Church nor to the Sacraments themselves. And so it is here that he need not ask himself if he is doing the right thing, unlike choosing turkey for the parish dinner or appointing the right person parish treasurer — there need be no question, he cannot go wrong! In all of this he is the representative of Christ’s Church and again, he has no need to apologize.
So, is this day of the Priest? Praying? Getting the roof fixed? Balancing the parish checkbook? Ordering the chickens for the parish supper (praying they will be fresh!)? Looking for a chemical that will take the spots out of the ikon stained by rain because one of the altar boys left a window open? Holding an old woman’s hand because her husband is an hour late on the bus? Telling a young girl her young man is not bad just because she is jealous? Confronting an evil man? Shouting at a sinner? Preaching a sermon with a sore throat? Telling a youth group they are not stupid because they are young? Hearing sixteen confessions when he counted on only two? Getting a crick in the back just before he is to celebrate the Divine Liturgy? Not being able to locate cheap tires for the parish car and finding that is the beginning of a day that is as barren spiritually as Hitler’s whole life must have been? Yes, those things could make up the day of the priest. And in those things, all of them, singularly and collectively, he finds his being. In those things are the power and the glory.
Father John Goolsby is a missionary priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese and is presently serving as a Chaplain.