What do we Expect from our Pastors?
The three most important large-scale works on Orthodox pastoral theology must be the insightful and deeply compassionate work of Metr Antony Khrapovitsky, followed by the thorough and practical, psychological work of Fr Kyprian Kern and finally that written by Fr Constantine Zaitsev, which is interesting, though very intellectual and ideological. However, although written almost three generations ago, we have never read anything on pastoral theology as relevant or as succinct as this article translated for the first time and published below. Its value is only reinforced by the fact that it was written by a layman, the famous Orthodox religious thinker, Ivan Ilyin, and by its prophetic nature, as is the case with so much else written by this visionary.
Forgiveness Sunday 2011
A great battle for religious purification and renewal has begun in Russia. We can expect this battle to be very intense and long-lasting. Russians must recover the wholeness of their faith, in which the heart and the reason, the contemplation and the will must merge into a single stream of such force that we will instinctively respond to it; then new creative ideas will appear and a new Christian culture will come into being. We await advice and help in this from our Christian pastors. And the Orthodox clergy will find in itself the spiritual strength, wisdom and sincerity to achieve this feat.
What do we, Orthodox Christians, want from our pastors? What are the spiritual needs that we come to them with? How can they deserve our love and our trust?
I will not speak of theological education and the preparation to be pastors of the spirit, those who are insightful and careful in personal relations. Of course, clergy should know the Holy Scriptures, the Tradition and the whole teaching of the Church better than us and should have a deeper understanding of all this than us, so that they can help us in times of doubt and when we seek understanding. They must have pastoral skills, both of the soul and of the spirit, have the depth of feeling and lucidity of the spiritual father, penetrating into and understanding the individual human soul, and be able to show us the correct course of action in difficult moments in life. This knowledge is indispensable, this skill is precious; there are no two ways about it. But it seems to me that we expect more of them than this; what is most important of all for us is the true and living, Gospel spirit, the spirit which witnesses the grace of Christ to us. I mean: strength of prayer, a loving heart and a free and living, Christian conscience.
What can theological instruction, the result of dry, abstract, logically reflecting reason, give a man, who does not contemplate the Christ the Saviour in his heart and does not help us to see Him? What meaning can abstract ‘exegesis’ or deductive argument have in the realms of contemplation and prayer, in the realms of living religiosity? Can they give religious immediacy to the soul that seeks Divine light and fire, that awaits the living God? How often, living outside Russia, we have heard heterodox clergy preaching and speaking and we have thought how rich they are in booklore and how poor they are in the gifts of heart and spirit! How alien this is to the Russian Orthodox soul!
In truth, there is no better religious instruction, no more effective preaching, than the strength and sincerity of personal prayer. For faith strengthens and spreads not from logical arguments, not from the efforts of a will that has been coerced, not from the repetition of words and phrases, but from the living awareness of God, from the fire of prayer, from purification, from the uplifting and enlightening of hearts, from living contemplation, from the real reception of grace. I suppose that much depends on the ability of the priest to pray with the heart selflessly and sincerely, for if he is able to do this and if he prays in this way on his own, then his public prayer will set on fire, purify and enlighten the hearts of his parishioners. This flame of private prayer will burn both in his Church services and in his sermons and in his everyday life. And we, his parishioners, will at once feel in our hearts that the Spirit Itself prays in him with groanings which cannot be uttered (Rom 8, 26) and that these groanings will also be conveyed to us in ways which cannot be expressed.
The pastor for whom this sincerity and power of prayer are inherent is like a ‘burning bush’ in his parish: his parishioners, themselves sometimes not even noticing and understanding it, become partakers of his prayer together with him; the warmth of his prayer is conveyed to them; they partake of his spiritual ascension. His sermons are received in a special way: not only with the mind, but also with the heart, the living conscience and an honest will. His talks bear the stamp of creative spiritual experience, they are penetrated by living Christian contemplation, they come from the heart and are received by the whole soul. And even a simple meeting with him is an experience of consolation and unspoken encouragement.
And behind this there is a certain religious law, according to which deep faith grows and is strengthened in prayer, for prayer is the grace-filled ascent of the soul to God, which illumines, cleanses and confirms. This is why the pastor must be a living wellspring and living school of prayer.
The second thing that we wish to find in him is a living and loving heart. As we know, the best Christian witness and consolation comes from goodness and heartfelt understanding. As long as human feeling is dried up and dead in abstract and intellectual theological constructions, as long as the mind reasons coldly and reaches its cold decisions, makes war in disputes and grows stony-hard in hatred, the whole revelation of Christ the Lord will remain inaccessible to humanity. The heartless do not understand the principle thing in the Gospel, and if they have understood it, they do not live by it and carry it out. Hard-hearted greed makes people deaf and blind. Rivers of living water (Jn. 7, 38) flow only from those who have love, for love opens people’s eyes and ears to the revelation of Christ, to the life and sufferings of others.
If a priest has this love, then it can be felt in his prayer in Church, it can be heard in his sermons, it is revealed in his actions. He who talks to him or helps him has a particular sensation: he feels as though he has received something precious, important and encouraging from his spiritual father, that he has experienced the light and warmth of spiritual fire, that he has felt living goodness, that he has drawn near to him who has understood Christ, when He spoke about love. For the living heart has a reserve of goodness for everyone: comfort for those who grieve, help for those who are in need, advice for those who have no help, a kind word for everyone, a kindly smile for flowers and birds. Even simply being with such a person turns into an unnoticed living school of heartfelt sympathy, of loving tact, of Christian wisdom. And all this is beautiful and filled with grace, for the true spiritual father is a bearer of the Christian spirit, of the spirit of love and heartfelt contemplation.
And now for the third thing we seek and await from our pastors. This is a free and creative Christian conscience. This conscience must live in him as an original and independent force, as a yardstick of good and evil, by which we can check, correct and strengthen our own conscience. When, helpless, we sometimes doubt and waver, he, as a specialist of the conscience, must see clearly and deeply where we err and where we are mistaken, he must know and show us the right path; when we ask, he must have the answer. He must support us in times of trial and temptation, he must be our support when we hesitate and are exhausted. He must see through things at once, wherever there is dishonesty, insincerity, betrayal, but at the same time, he must keep his sense of justice in judging and judgement. For the conscientious Christian does not exaggerate – neither in affirming, nor in denying; his judgement must come from a purposeful humility, but must also be pronounced with courage and force, for it is not he who pronounces it, but the fire of purpose within him. We need sincere and frank confessors, in no way venal or greedy, who are fearless in the face of force and free from the love of power; we need a living fire of Christian conscience which burns with a clear flame and gentle light.
We ourselves must guarantee him an independent life with dignity: once and for all we must cut off the need for reward, in order to extinguish within ourselves and in our pastor the idea that prayer ‘can be bought’ and grace ‘is for sale’, so that the sacred does not become the object of trade, so that the pastor can pray freely, without having to think about a ‘profit’, and the parishioner can turn to him for help, without having to count his means or his expenses. Grace and money are alien to one another, it is unworthy to measure the work of God in coin; it is not possible to humiliate our pastors with poverty and need. Church matters are matters of the spirit, of love and conscience, matters of prayer and contemplation; and parishioners must remove from their pastors the care for earthly things, guaranteeing them what is vital and giving them dignity.
I think that everything that has been said here is relevant not only to Orthodox communities and their pastors, but also to the clergy of all Christian denominations and, at the deepest level of all, not only of Christian denominations. In any case wherever we breathe the true spirit of Christ, parishioners will be happy to have in their pastors a living source of prayer, love and Christian conscience, for these three fundamentals form the most precious and surest sign of authenticity of the Christian Church in general.
It does not seem to me that the above-mentioned expectations are too great or hard to carry out, for the task of priest, pastor and spiritual father is not an ordinary profession, like others, but demands a special calling and special gifts. These gifts are not given to all, but those to whom they are given must not renounce their calling. This is not so much about knowledge and ‘know-how’, but about inspiration; not so much about ritual literacy, but about the living fullness of feeling; not so much about performing ‘rites’, but about the spirit in which they are performed. How will the pastor who does not know about these needs and does not strengthen his heart in them affirm his faith and prayer, how will he lead his parishioners to God, how will he fill his church, how will he strengthen his parish?..I ask and I find no answer...
This is the main thing. This is the most essential thing in the matter of the future religious organisation of Russia.