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The Priest's Life: Between Gethsemane and Golgotha

Seek God and your soul shall live.

Psalm 68, 33

It is not for nothing that, in the Russian Orthodox Church, priests wear crosses. The priesthood is a cross. In fact, different crosses face priests in different phases of our life, which is why there also exist different types of priest's cross. What are the crosses faced by priests in daily life?

Firstly, there are those priests who may be tempted to think themselves above their parishioners. This clerical conceit can sometimes be avoided, if bishops insist that candidates for the priesthood first spend time as readers, subdeacons and deacons, or simply as second priests, before becoming parish priests. Such apprenticeships are usually sufficient to knock fantasies out of heads before parish priesthood is conferred. Unfortunately, when this temptation comes and lodges itself in the head of older priests, it is very difficult to dislodge. Only an elderly bishop can do something then.

We have seen some examples of priests, proud of imagined abilities, even voices or looks. Such priests often come to rely on themselves, imagining that they know better than everyone else, including more experienced priests and their own bishops. These parish dictators, 'terrorists in cassocks' as the phrase goes, forget that their main aim is their own salvation. And if they are not at least attempting to start on the path of their own salvation, then they are of little help to their flocks. Of course, sometimes isolation is such that priests may easily fall to this temptation: there is no-one to turn to for advice. However, in such cases, prayer and the buffeting of everyday family life may save them. In any case, fantasies of superiority are always enemies of humility and priests who suffer from them for any length of time will not last long. Sooner or later, they will go off the rails. We have seen it happen.

Secondly, it is also true that some priests may be weak or shy. Such passive and defenceless priests will become victims of their parish councils, victims of the worst laity and their unchurchly ways. Sometimes, as a defence mechanism in reaction to such unpleasant pressures, priests may become entirely reserved and closed, refusing to take any further part in parish life, outside the services.

This 'civil-servant' mentality is also sometimes to be seen among clergy from Eastern Europe, including those who have been priests for decades, never having been corrected by their bishops. Such priests avoid their own parishioners, clocking on at the beginning of services and clocking off immediately after them. Their confessions are often without prayer, comment or compassion (like their services), their sermons read dryly from old books, their altars dirty and untidy. Visits to parishioners' homes are never made.

Thirdly, there is another temptation - that of being overly familiar with parishioners. Such priests take off their cassocks and become 'one of the lads' - in other words, secular. Forgetting their priesthood, they may also be tempted to fall with women. Unfortunately, in any parish, priests will come into contact with a certain sort of frustrated woman, who may be a danger - especially if the priest's own marriage is not in order. It is best if the priest is never alone with such women.

Finally, there is the temptation to despair. Persecuted or slandered by demons who attack them through their clerical colleagues, without any support from above, these priests are on their own. They may be tempted to fall into renouncing everything, into giving up, seeing that nothing is possible. Only the grace of God and faith can save them, that is, faith in the Mercy and Warmth of the Love of Christ, Which is stronger than death. In human terms, in any case, salvation is impossible for any of us, but 'with God all things are possible'.

God may speak sense to these priests through their own parishes. How often priests find salvation through their own parishioners! Priests prone to despair should concentrate on the services, on the lives of the saints, for 'in princes and in the sons of men there is no hope'. They should recall that churches are only hospitals, consisting of sick people, whose hope is that they may slowly get better. And as for the priest, he must know that he too is sick and must seek healing. If he is not seeking healing, then he is not a good priest. After all, the only difference between the world and the Church is the consciousness in the Church that we are sick and need healing. The world does not even know that much.

Thus, the priest's life is fixed between Gethsemane and Golgotha. But, somewhere above all this, is the realization that through accepting the Cross in the Gethsemane of priestly life and the ensuing crucifixion on Golgotha, Victory awaits. And Victory means the never-ending Joy and Light of the Resurrection of Christ.

May God help us and forgive us all!

Fr Andrew

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