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His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH’s
2011 Diocesan Clergy Seminar Opening Remarks
June 27, 2011
Irvine, California

“Be mindful, O Lord, of the priesthood, the diaconate, and every priestly rank”

Your Eminence, Metropolitan Ephraim, and Very Reverend and Reverend fathers and deacons, and you faithful who have been blessed to join us here:

Today we begin a seminar of our clergy brotherhood to build ourselves up in our most holy Faith. Joining us in this endeavor is our brother in Christ, his Eminence, Metropolitan Ephraim, the newest member of the Holy Synod of the Great Church of Antioch and the shepherd of the Archdiocese of Tripoli in Lebanon.  I now introduce his Eminence with a few comments on our theme: “BE MINDFUL, O LORD, OF THE PRIESTHOOD, THE DIACONATE, AND EVERY PRIESTLY RANK”.  

You who have celebrated the holy and Divine Liturgy will immediately be familiar with these holy words of that great liturgist, Saint Basil the Great.  We have drawn the theme from the commemorations which are uttered by the protos in the Basilian Eucharistic anaphora—at the spot directly after the holy Epiklesis. There is the priest, with the holy community around about him, standing in awe before the sanctified Holy Gifts. There, using St. Basil’s elegant language, he gives expression to all of the heart-felt prayers of the whole people of God!  Just after the first of such commemorations, “among the first…,” where the ruling hierarch is commemorated, and after the general commemoration of all Orthodox bishops, “for the whole Orthodox episcopate” (Μνήσθητι... πάσης Ἐπισκοπῆς Ὀρθοδόξων), the priest prays in a more extended fashion in behalf of his own unworthiness (τῆς ἐμῆς ἀναξιότητος…), and then he commemorates all the priestly ranks throughout the whole Church.  This last is our theme: “Be mindful, O Lord, of the priesthood, the diaconate, and every priestly rank.”  

So, what is the importance of such a theme?  Why do we reach deeply within the anaphora of St. Basil the Great, heard only ten times a year, by even the most faithful participants in the Church services?  It is because the Saint shows us so clearly the order of holiness!  First, we invoke the Holy Spirit, then we make commemoration in proper order: our ruling hierarchs in order, then all the hierarchs—since our holy Church is truly Apostolic—then, the necessary ordering of the disposition of the priest himself as he stands before the Holy Gifts, and thereafter, all mankind in proper order.  So, our brother-priests, the deacons, “and every priestly rank”—literally, “and every sacred rank.”  The word, “priestly,” refers not only to the presbyter, but to all men upon whom the bishop has made sacred by the laying on of hands, either by ordination proper (χειροτονία) or by the act of setting apart men, outside of the holy altar, as subdeacons or readers (χειροθεσία).  We are dealing here with a prayer for those set apart for sacred ministry by the bishop: “every priestly rank.”  And what is the impetus of this commemoration?  The words immediately following our theme must be cited here, in order to grasp the trajectory of the commemoration: “that no one of us may be put to shame who go round about Thy holy Altar.”  So, for what purpose does the celebrant implore the Lord God to remember those of sacred rank?  That none of them fall prey to condemnation.  Our Liturgikon says “not be put to confusion”; however, this may be difficult to grasp.  It means that the sacred ranks may not fall into condemnation, because of shame brought on by straying away from holiness of heart and life.  To be sacred is to be holy.  They are identical.  That which is sacrosanct becomes holy unto the Lord.  Remember the words inscribed upon the ancient priestly vestments of the Israelites: “Holiness unto the Lord.”  

I have spoken often in the past about holiness.  Our theme today continues to lay stress upon this teaching in your behalf.  You know how dear this basic truth is to me and to you: true, Godly, divine, pure, unwavering holiness.  “Without holiness, no man will see the Lord” (Ep. to the Hebrews).  To be holy is to be set apart to, and for, the Lord God.  If all things are from God, then to be set apart to and for Him means that what is holy has been returned to its true Owner.  Holy things have been restored to their rightful place and this promises an efficacious cure for a world in disorder.  In essence, the holy becomes what it is truly meant to be in the economy of salvation.

I have spoken to you much on this theme and my pastoral work among you as clergy and among my parish-communities often underscores the foundational teaching on holiness.  Today, because of the vocation of our main speaker, we turn our attention to the role of monasticism in the pursuit of holiness.  But we must be careful here, since we do not speak of monasticism in a merely dry, conceptual manner, as just another “-ism,” since our Faith is not reducible to a philosophy or a school of thinking.  So by way of introduction, I comment here in this talk on the role of the monastic fathers and mothers in our pursuit of holiness.  Consider that we have here a holy hierarch, who is eminently competent to address us on this theme, since he is all at the same time, a Metropolitan who is commemorated in his metropolitanate as “among the first…,” and also a priest, a deacon, and even a monk!  He himself has embodied the struggle for holiness of life and sacredness of ministry in his experience.  So, he can impart something meaningful for us priests and members of “every priestly, that is, sacred, rank.”

We clergy know well how difficult it is to maintain a holy way of living in a distracting world.  We have our parish struggles, certain family problems, and the interior battle to fight.  This spiritual struggle can lead one to doubt his priestly vocation.  Certainly, many lay persons come to doubt their faith due to the corrosive effects of our common worldly environment and unholy surroundings, no matter where we live, in the city or in the countryside.  The monastery can become a refuge and a special “clinic” for all who desire spiritual renewal from the world.

Now some people hold the negative and unfortunate view that monks are lazy people who sit around, doing nothing.  However, this is a worldly approach which fails to grasp the unique and singular purpose of the monastic vocation.  In the words of St Benedict of Nursia (5th century), “Ora et labora”—“Pray and Work.”  All monastic typika call for monastic rigors in the daily cycle of prayers, both in the church and in the cell.  Since the times of Elias the Prophet and John the Forerunner, up through the New Testament desert solitaries and cenobites, Antony, Synkletike, Pachomios, Efthymios, Chariton, Sabbas, Mary of Egypt, and the urban monastics, Theodore of the Studion, and many others, the Church bears witness IN the world by those who LEAVE the world and devote themselves to prayer.  Indeed, the monastery provides within the Church truly a “blast furnace of prayer”—a lovely phrase employed in the recent 60 Minutes report on Mount Athos, which was broadcast all over this country in the evening on the Sunday of Pascha.  What a hunger for the spiritual life is abroad in our land!  So, we need to possess a right ordering of the relationship between parish and monastery, as more and more hungry and troubled souls seek the solace and peace which is present in the Holy Church.  They want to touch Christ’s robe, His Church, and be healed.

The monastics form a spiritual climate with singularity of purpose: to seek the Lord and to praise His name at all times, day and night, as they work with their hands, doing good.  When the parish and the monastery live in synergy one with the other, the holiness of the Church becomes more apparent.  The monks leave the world in order to save the world; the parish clergy and laity draw from this rich well of spiritual experience and bring the grace of holiness into the world where they both work and serve.  The laity are the missionaries; the monks are the missionaries—both have their service and their obedience in Christ for the salvation of all.

Now we can make a caricature of monks and fail to understand them: they live as we know, a celibate way of life without marriage, a life of poverty without possessions, and a life of obedience under authority of the abbot.  But what do we really know about all these vows and what monks have to do with our lives, since we live differently from them?  What benefit can we gain from our relationship with them and with monasticism as a whole?

Time here allows me only to state a few things regarding the monastic life, without going into depth.  We can only underscore a few basic truths which will support my emphasis on the pursuit of holiness and how the monastics help us achieve the fullness of Grace in our life in Christ.

The monk lives as a stranger in an unknown land who knowingly lives there, “as one speaking a foreign tongue among those who speak in other languages.”  The monk lives in willful exile in order to bring those in exile back to the Father!  The monk embraces “the abandonment of everything which would turn him back again to his fatherland—in the words of the Psalmist, ‘leave thy father’s house, and the King will greatly desire thy beauty’” (Ps 44).

The monk seeks to acquire the Grace of the Holy Spirit which, present and active in the soul, is called VIRTUE.  What is virtue?  As with all in theology, it is hard to say exactly.  The monk seeks Grace, as expressed by Abba John of Sinai in his Ladder of Divine Ascent as “an uncontrovertible ethos, an unknown wisdom, an understanding incapable of explanation, a hidden way of life, a goal not possible to visualize, an ineffable logismos, an appetite for the very simple, a desire for hardship, the very substance of longing for the Divine, the fullness of divine eros, a denial of vain-glory, the sea-bed of silence.”

The monk finds the treasure hidden in the field and sells everything to possess it, so he lives a way of life marked by self-blame and weeping—always conscious of his need and mourning for his sins.  This secret path energizes pure prayer within him so that his very life becomes a healing balm to others who encounter him.

But does this signify that such a way of life belongs only to the monk?  Do we not also find an invitation to suffer silently?  To bear crosses?  To endure reproaches from others—family, parishioners, and those outside, all of whom fall within our parish area?  Do we not pray in the litany, that we may “complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance”?

The Master looks for the fruit of virtue: “and ye shall bear fruit and I have ordained that the fruit shall remain.”  This is the only harvest of value; all else shall not pass the ordeal of the separation of the soul from the body in that last Day.  So, then, what is virtue?  I pose this question yet again.  St Gregory of Nyssa states, “we have learned a perfect definition of ‘virtue’: not to have a definition of it!” and someone else has said, “there is a definition for ‘virtue’: that which cannot be defined.”

The monk and nun pursue this holy way of life, marked by the external criteria of chastity (παρθενία), poverty (ἀκτημοσύνη--literally, “dispossession”), and obedience (ὑπακοή).  These external components, often stated as celibacy, poverty, and obedience, are the objective picture of the inward spiritual traits which mark ALL Orthodox Christians.  They are the external symptoms of the pursuit of virtue.

Chastity of body is one thing; chastity of the mind is far more important!  The monk fights the first passion, love of sensuality (φιληδονία), by maintaining bodily chastity.  But all the fathers maintain the deeper significance of maintaining a pure thought life, in order to avoid grieving the all-Holy Spirit.

Poverty, or dispossession of material things, fights against the second passion, love of money (φιλαργυρία), which St Paul states as “the root of all evils.”  But are we controlling ourselves against consumerism and living a life of charity?  This is the inner meaning of the struggle: not merely to embrace poverty, but to willfully share of our substance.

Obedience fights against the third passion, love of glory (φιλοδοξία), by a “cutting off of the will” as the monastic phrase goes.  But is not this struggle the common fight for us all?  We priests have a double-pronged obedience: to our bishop and to our family.  This demands artful and careful self-examination regarding motives!  

So, the monastics—both monks and nuns—perform a huge ministry in our common behalf, in Christ.  Their complete dedication to the evangelical life serves to call us to our senses as we are scourged by the siren-call of worldly pleasures, possessions, and independent-minded self-seeking.  The whole of this struggle is a war against the mother of all these passions: inordinate self-love (φιλαυτία), as opposed to the love of God and neighbor, which is nothing else than the very life of the Kingdom of God.

Someone has said, “If you die before you die, then you will not die when you die.”  Perhaps this play on words will underscore the fundamental ethical and structural shape of our Orthodoxy and serve to inspire us to “be holy as the Lord is holy.”

With this blessed συμφονία of cathedral and monastery, we experience the fullness of our holy Church, strengthening us in the work of purification, as we “perfect holiness in the fear of God.”  Let us attend diligently to the good things we shall receive during this seminar and put them into practice in our own ministry and life.  If we sanctify ourselves, all our faithful will, in turn, become sanctified.
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