Priesthood is Dangerous for the Unprepared

Here are some more quotes comments concerning On the Priesthood by St. John Chrysostom.

If anyone in charge of a full-sized merchant ship, full of rowers, and laden with a costly freight, were to station me at the helm and bid me cross the Aegean or the Tyrrhene sea, I should recoil from the proposal at once: and if anyone asked me why I should say, “Lest I should sink the ship.”  Well, where the loss concerns material wealth, and the danger extends only to bodily death, no one will blame those who exercise great prudence; but where the shipwrecked are destined to fall, not into the ocean, but into the abyss of fire, and the death which awaits them is not that which severs the soul from the body, but one which together with this dismisses it to eternal punishment, shall I incur your wrath and hate because I did not plunge headlong into so great an evil?

Time for a little backstory.  This little book opens with a brief story of young John Chrysostom and a friend who have both been chosen to be ordained to the priesthood. John evades his ‘capture,’ leaving his friend to be ordained without him.  The rest of the book, then, is John Chrysostom’s explanation of how great the priesthood is and how unready he was, personally, to receive it.

In this quote, Chrysostom makes an analogy between a priest and a ship’s steersman. Nobody would put an inexperienced person at the wheel to pilot a ship through rocky waters, so why should anyone put an inexperienced person into ordained ministry?  The unprepared pilot could, at worse, sink the ship and kill everyone on board.  The unprepared priest, however, could sink the spiritual lives of his flock, leading to a spiritual death far worse than physical death.  He acknowledges his unworthiness for such an office, as he continues:

Do not thus, I pray and beseech you.  I know my own soul, how feeble and puny it is: I know the magnitude of this ministry, and the great difficulty of the work; for more stormy billows vex the soul of the priest than the gales which disturb the sea.

This is such a sobering reminder to me.  When I was in the (thankfully lengthy) discernment process towards ordained ministry, there were times when I was driven by a sense of entitlement.  I’d gone to seminary, I was being educated for this role, I wanted to serve in this way, and most of the people whom I most admired were priests.  There were times that I approached priesthood with a sense of arrogance.  Even some of my friends, who underestimated the gravity of the office, told me that I deserved to be ordained. Praise God I didn’t listen to them too closely!  The sins of pride and arrogance could have done a great deal of damage had they been allowed to run amok more than they did.

Chrysostom seemed to have a similar struggle.

And first of all it is that most terrible rock of vainglory, more dangerous than that of the Sirens, of which the fable-mongers tell such marvellous tales: for many were able to sail past that and escape unscathed; but this is to me so dangerous that even now, when no necessity of any kind impels me into that abyss, I am unable to keep clear of the snare: but if anyone were to commit this charge to me, it would be the same as if he tied my hands behind my back, and delivered me to the beasts dwelling on that rock to rend me to pieces day by day.  Do you ask what those wild beasts are?  They are wrath, despondency, envy, strife, slander, accusations, falsehood, hypocrisy, intrigues, anger against those who have done no harm, pleasure at the indecorous acts of fellow ministers, sorrow at their prosperity, love of praise, desire of honor (which indeed most of all drives the human soul headlong to perdition), doctrine devised to please, servile flatteries, ignoble honors, favors attended with danger both to those who offer and those who accept them, sordid fear suited only to the basest of slaves, the abolition of plain speaking, a great affectation of humility, but banishment of truth, the suppression of convictions and reproofs, or rather the excessive use of them against the poor, while against those who are invested with power no one dare open his lips.

Yikes!  Some things never change, huh?  This long list of dangers that priests face could have been written yesterday by a Protestant Pastor!  In fact, if you poke through the news long enough, I bet you could find examples of pastors and priests whose ministry collapsed because of each of these issues.  Jeepers, just think about all the priests and pastors you’ve ever met… think about the thing about them that bugged you the most, and it’s probably on this list here.

Ordained ministry indeed puts a man “on the spot,” open to all sorts of temptations and criticisms, and the front line of the Enemy’s spiritual attacks in order to get to the rest of the flock.  Unless one is thoroughly prepared for such fierce combat, there will be collateral damage.  There are times when I am aware of this in my own life, and times when I need to be reminded.  It helps, both for people pursuing ordained ministry and for people not pursuing ordained ministry, to be aware of these challenges and difficulties and dangers. As it says in Hebrews, “ Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (13:17).  Indeed, we could do with all the help we can get, from every side, in every way.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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