“The legacy of our culture’s image-smashing (a powerful part of the Puritan world) is secularization—though now replete with its own images. If we fail to give a proper account of the role that images play in Christianity, the result will not be a Christianity with no images, but simply the dominance of cultural images and a subtle conformity to the world.”
Fr. Stephen Freeman, Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Story Universe
As a layman, I have fallen victim to idealizing clergy. Orthodox folk culture is full of such images, with lots of memes and Internet lore of priests doing extreme things, like lifting massive kettle bells in a cassock, throwing massive amounts of bay leaves in church during Holy Week, and baptizing people in freezing cold, icy lakes. This is not an unrecognized phenomenon, but one that has been frequently commented on in the Orthodox world; in her article “Why Orthodox Men Love Church,” Frederica Mathews-Green points out that men actively seek out the faith for its active process of being challenged:
“The term most commonly cited by these men was “challenging.” Orthodoxy is “active and not passive.” “It’s the only church where you are required to adapt to it, rather than it adapting to you.” “The longer you are in it, the more you realize it demands of you.” The “sheer physicality of Orthodox worship” is part of the appeal. Regular days of fasting from meat and dairy, “standing for hours on end, performing prostrations, going without food and water [before communion]…When you get to the end you feel that you’ve faced down a challenge.” For some, the pursuit of seminary, and the priesthood, becomes part of that challenge. It becomes a goal like marathon training, or scaling the Seven Summits. It’s something to take on.
However, I would like to argue that it’s not so much a frequent challenge as it is an emerging trope in Orthodox culture, one that can be misleading for those who are exploring the faith, or for those who have been recently welcomed into the faith and are trying to niche themselves into a sense of belonging. Secularization of our culture has taken such challenges and quantified them into something that would look at home on a bucket list of “Things to Do Before You Fall Asleep in the Lord.”
That would also apply to a desire to go to seminary, or to become ordained. During my catechesis period, our spiritual father, Fr. Alexander Atty, flat out said to us: “You have to be Orthodox at least 5 years.” Even then, many people wait even longer for that, if they go at all.
Even in a time of clergy shortages, growing mission parishes, and a constant need for ordination, I would like to argue that there should be a stronger push for people to also embrace the lay roles within a faith community, and also embrace their present world as part of their journey in the Church.
Why do I say this, as a person who themselves has had a lot of dreams, thoughts and frustrations about not being able to go to seminary, or to become ordained? When I first joined the Church at 24, it was hard not to think about it. Meeting all of these new priests, fresh out of seminary, serving our little mission parish and having such wisdom: what a joy! What a beautiful thing to be able to be a part of! What a chance to take this thirst of knowledge and bring it out into the world. As a young adult convert, it’s tempting to jump into everything head-first, like Scrooge McDuck diving into his money bin on DuckTales. Doing so makes it hard not to see the world of our “past” as deficient, especially because a common sentiment for Orthodox is “Why did I not see this sooner?” And we want to radically transform ourselves just like that.
But, yet, at the same time, it is easy to make it about our path. Our plan. Or even our idea of God’s plan. At that point, we’re confusing ourselves, and probably everyone else around us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his theological classic The Cost of Discipleship, discusses this pull as, in many ways, cheapening the power of God’s true calling. Bonhoeffer states that a man “wants to follow, but feels obliged to insist on his own terms. Discipleship to him is a possibility which can only be realized when certain conditions have been fulfilled. This is to reduce discipleship to the ·level of the human understanding. First you must do this and then you must do that. There is a right time for everything. The disciple places himself at the Master’s disposal, but at the same time retains the right to dictate his own terms. But then discipleship is no longer discipleship, but a programme of our own to be arranged to suit ourselves, and to be judged in accordance with the standards of a rational ethic.”
Those discussions, however, are not just for the seminary coffeehouse session, or the Facebook discussion page.
We need that fervor, and that level of passion, in the rest of the Church.
Our generation, yes, will need to have priests, deacons and the like. However, we are also the next generation of ushers, bell-ringers, prosphora bakers, camp counselors, church hall janitors and candle wax scrapers. Most of us will need to be involved in counting the offering, licking bake sale envelopes for mailing out, bringing food to sick parishioners, and making sure everyday tasks, like changing out filters and light bulbs, get done. These roles are frequently done by aging populations of the parish, and often with no succession plan in sight.
In his book Everywhere Present, Fr. Stephen discusses how modern society sees things “…as though the universe were a two-story house: We live here on earth, the first floor, where things are simply things and everything operates according to normal, natural laws, while God lives in heaven, upstairs, and is largely removed from the story in which we live. To affect anything here, God must interrupt the laws of nature and perform a miracle.”
With this in mind, we want to place God, and the pursuit of a holy vocation like the priesthood, upstairs, and place our everyday jobs and tasks at the bottom. But this causes a lot of issues, as Fr. Stephen points out:
In this divided universe, prayer is problematic. Why do we pray, and are our prayers heard? To pray about things in the secular world–the world of the first floor–is to ask God to intervene in the nature of things, to set aside the very laws of the universe. It is sometimes said on a popular level that a prayer ‘didn’t get beyond the ceiling.’ That may indeed be a legitimate concern in a universe constructed with two stories.
A lot of us will have jobs outside of being clergy. We need more accountants, line cooks and welders who are as on fire for God as a first-year M.Div. at St. Tikhon’s. And what we have to remember is that all of these roles are incredibly important; our ways of making a living are all on the same story. We all have a place with God, and when we enter into the Orthodox Church, that does not mean that we have to relinquish everything that we once were. Because, as Fr. Stephen notes in his writing, “there is no place where God is not,” the journey to Orthodoxy always remains part of the destination story, because God has been a part of that journey from the beginning.
Of course we will always need people to go to seminary, in hopes of being ordained. That will never go away. And for some, that calling is strong, ever present and worth the sacrifice. However, not being called to do so does not relegate a person to a second-rate life as a lay person. Friends of mine have brought people to the church through their jobs, including farming, auto repair and optometry. Doing what they do best, and with a Christlike heart, has been their form of ministry. Very few of them, if any, have any formal theological training. Instead, they have demonstrated lived theology through a commitment to their faith community. That sort of role not only builds connections between everyday people, but it also breaks down the notion that a full devotion to Orthodox life is not just for the clergy, but is a call to all of us to pursue.
So if you’re wondering what to do, remember that you don’t have to walk away from everything. You don’t have to quit your job because it’s a “secular job.” You don’t have to go to seminary. You don’t have to jump into extensive marathon readings of the Church Fathers. As Bonhoeffer points out, doing so can be very contradictory to what we are called to do: “Obedience to the call of Jesus never lies within our own power. If, for instance, we give away all our possessions, that act is not in itself the obedience he demands. In fact such a step might be the precise opposite of obedience to Jesus, for we might then be choosing a way of life for ourselves, some Christian ideal, or some ideal of Franciscan poverty. Indeed in the very act of giving away his goods a man can give allegiance to himself and to an ideal and not to the command of Jesus. He is not set free from his own self but still more enslaved to himself.”
Keep going as you are. Go slow. But don’t stop going. We have our concept of time, but God has his, and His sense of time and knowledge will always surpass ours. The only way to know is not to think it out, and to not have it all ready like a course enrollment plan at a college. According to The Cost of Discipleship, “…there is only one answer. You can only know and think about it by actually doing it. You can only learn what obedience is by obeying. It is no use asking questions; for it is only through obedience that you come to learn the truth.”
In Orthodoxy, the truth exists through crossing out that which is not part of the picture. Like our theology, our vocation is apophatic- we do what we do by shelving that which we don’t.
With that in mind, we can work to reshape the narrative for people who join the church, feel the spirit and love of God, and want to serve to the best of their ability.