There is a certain type of young man who generally pursues the priesthood. We dance around it, but in my mind it is unequivocally true. In Orthodoxy there are certain forms and postures that are, aesthetically speaking, humble, but which are easily practiced and replicated, and do not necessarily reveal the inner heart – soft, slightly effete voice, a way of walking in the cassock, a way of mentioning the contrary opinions of others and pleading one’s ignorance on matters even as it is quite clear you’ve got a strong opinion and you want it to be deemed the right one, a slightly affected, sentimentalish manner of being around icons, prayer ropes, the altar &nave, and so forth, a slightly affected manner of quoting sayings or hagiographic tidbits of the saints, etc. But beyond all that, you spend some time with the fellow and you realize that he loves and is naturally given to didacticism – here is a man who likes to be in a position of teaching others. It is also clear that he has a hunger to be in a position of spiritual authority over others. In my opinion, keeping in mind that opinions in Orthodoxy are worth as much as wax stains on nave carpets, a desire to teach in the Church and have spiritual authority over others is usually, but not always, instigated by demons.
Okay. We’re adults here; let’s not be coy and play dumb. We all know what he’s talking about, and we all know people who are more or less like this — assuming we ourselves don’t fit this description! I’m going to let Owen’s words speak for themselves, and I assume that he is savvy enough to know that he has just profiled a chunk of his readership (although I would be hard-pressed to say whether or not he would particularly care if he offended any of them).
So, neither adding nor subtracting nor commenting directly on the particulars Owen discusses, my question is, why are young men who tend to have these characteristics the ones who seem to be drawn to the priesthood like moths to flame? (Perhaps people can weigh in on whether or not the ordination-bound in other confessions/communions also behave this way.)
In the interest of full disclosure, the priesthood is something I feel reasonably certain to not be in God’s plan for me. This is not a conclusion I have reached lightly; in one form or another, the question of pastoral ministry was one that really troubled me, at least off and on, from my teenage years up to late twenties. During my time in Anglican circles, there were a couple of people who were really pushing me to consider seminary, and I think it was only the fact that I did not yet have an undergraduate degree that kept these individuals from forcibly sending me off to someplace like Trinity or Seabury (Nashotah House is not a place one hears about in the Pacific Northwest). Being an excitable young man, of course the question resurfaced for me as an Orthodox Christian, and immediately following my chrismation in February 2005 it seemed (as it does for so many of us) that surely seminary would be the logical next step for Somebody Like Me (particularly since that would make the matter of grad school much simpler). In the fall of 2005, I visited the St. Vladimir’s campus, fell in love… and then the whole issue just seemed to dissipate as a compelling force. It hasn’t resurfaced since. I sometimes wonder if the point was simply to bring me to a place where I would finally be willing to go that route, and then to redirect me elsewhere. At this stage of the game, I am no longer afraid of the priesthood (and haven’t been for awhile), but it seems more likely that, if I were to wind up at a place like St. Vlad’s, it would be as a member of the faculty (or potentially as a visiting student while I’m writing my dissertation) rather than as a candidate for priestly formation. As it is, I have a desire to teach, but not in the Church — at least not as a catechist. No, thank you. That’s not responsibility I care to have. Maybe I could help illuminate a couple of things here and there within my own area of expertise, maybe I could teach a chant lesson or two, but I’m not the person to entrust with forming the holiness of others.
Extending maximum charity to the type of gentleman Owen describes (particularly given that, for all I know, there could be people who read those words and think, “Yep, that’s Richard Barrett!”), what pushes this person onto the path of the priesthood and gives them such a desire for spiritual authority? I am not totally unwilling to discount the explanation of demons, but let us say I feel more at ease discussing what might be the concrete instruments of said demons than the demons themselves.
My favorite ’80s teenage rom-com is Say Anything… In a lot of ways, it’s really more properly considered a ’90s movie than an ’80s movie (it was released in 1989) — rather than somewhere in California, it takes place in a rather idealized and curiously rearranged Seattle four years before Meg Ryan would get from the 520 floating bridge to Sand Point in a matter of seconds (it takes twenty minutes to half an hour assuming no traffic, folks), it’s got Soundgarden and Joe Satriani on the soundtrack, it’s got John Mahoney as the problematic Seattleite father (prefiguring Frasier by about half a decade), and it’s got John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler, in what amounts to his first adult role. Young adult (the script goes out of its way to explain that Lloyd is graduating high school a year older than his classmates because of various familial matters), but he’s not fantasizing about dancing hamburgers at his fast food job anymore. One perhaps could argue that he starts the movie as a kid and finishes as an adult (cf. Lili Taylor telling him, “Don’t be a guy. The world is full of guys. Be a man“). More to the point, you can see Lloyd as potentially growing up to become Martin Blank (and I have occasionally wondered if Say Anything… wasn’t discussed, even if only in jest, as sort of a murky back story for Grosse Point Blank).
Anyway, Lloyd is a nice, if slightly off-center, guy. He wears a Fishbone t-shirt and a trenchoat. He’s a bit disconnected from his family, since his parents are in the military and stationed elsewhere, and he lives with his single-mom sister and her kid while he figures some things out. He’s not intelligent or obviously talented in conventional ways, he’s graduating high school a year late, he has no college plans, but what he does have are some very definite principles (“I don’t want to buy anything, sell anything, or process anything as a career”), and when he’s dedicated to something — like kickboxing, for example — he gives it his all. His guidance counselor buttonholes him at a party to try to persuade him to make some conventional decisions about his future, and he dismisses her advice, saying, “I’m looking for something bigger, you know? I’m looking for a dare-to-be-great situation.”
Let’s just imagine for a moment that Lloyd one day wandered into St. Nicholas Cathedral (ROCOR) in Seattle and found his dare-to-be-great situation there, giving it his all just like he did with kickboxing. I think he’d wind up a lot like the kind of young man Owen describes.
My point is this. I think there are a lot of smart guys with a genuine faith in and love for God, who want to give something the whole of their effort, who maybe just haven’t had the right — or at least the obvious — opportunity come their way and who at least know that there are some specific things they don’t want to do. Maybe they’ve had an interest in various aspects of the humanities and social sciences, enough to be broadly informed about a wide range of topics, but they’ve never had the discipline or the right setting to rise above being a dilettante, or at least an undergrad who shows some promise. Maybe they’ve had something of a taste of church service in another setting, enough so that they put on a cassock or some other kind of vestment and realize that they’re visibly part of something bigger when they do that. Maybe there are other circumstances in their life that make them determined to never do anything halfway, so that they never have to apologize for their own presence or participation.
And when these guys discover Orthodox Christianity, with all of history and all of its richness of faith and practice and all of its demands, with all of the ways it can order one’s life in the service of Christ, the various facets of their person which otherwise make it hard for them to fit in suddenly have a place, a context. They’ve discovered their dare-to-be-great situation. This is their life’s work, they just didn’t know it before. How can the priesthood, if not monasticism, not become a draw, the call that surely was always there if it could only have been perceived?
(By the way, unlike what I suppose about Owen, I care very much about offending people, so I really hope nobody thinks I’m saying this to mock or be critical. I have observed much of the above, yes, but much of it I have observed in myself. I cannot mock without mocking my own person first of all.)
I think what it often (perhaps not always) boils down to is that, for the young, male, zealous convert, it is not difficult to develop the desire to spend as much time in church as possible. Eventually, and naturally, this turns into the question — perhaps unconsciously — “If what I want to do is be in church all day, then wouldn’t a vocation just make sense?” Since there’s really only one way somebody can work for Orthodox Christianity in this country as one’s day-job, the direction becomes pretty clear from there.
Does it have to be this way? Maybe not, and I would hope that a seeming one-to-one ratio of zealot to cassock could be a reasonably short-lived phenomenon. (I say that as a cantor who wears a cassock.) The truth is, there is something that drives young men who behave as Owen outlines. If it might be healthier that not all of them get tonsured as readers the day after their chrismation and start teaching catechism after their second Divine Liturgy as a communicant, then there needs to be some active spiritual guidance about what to do with whatever it is that drives them. I have no doubt that for priests and bishops who have long lists of things to get done, young men with a lot of energy and desire to serve are hard to tell, “You need to sit back and chill for a while.” Still, it raises the question of whether or not the desire specifically to be the one serving in a visible, set-apart fashion can’t itself turn into a passion.
Ultimately, I think Owen is absolutely right from a descriptive standpoint. I’ve remarked before that there’s a certain self-consciousness of the American convert that we’re going to have to figure out how to deal with, and what Owen talks about is part and parcel of this self-consciousness. If there is a sort of contrived and constructed manner of holiness that has been assumed, then the answer is that we need more models of holiness that haven’t been contrived or constructed. Still, I think there are deeper reasons for why this occurs that we’re also going to have to figure out how to understand and deal with, and we will need to do so compassionately and productively.