Unless it is Given from Heaven
It seemed like a dream. I was standing at the altar of God, stretching out my hand and saying, “This is my body . . . This is my blood.” I had just been inserted into the unfathomable mystery of the perpetual sacrifice of the “King of Kings and Great High Priest,” as the inscription reads in some Byzantine icons of Christ.
As the Divine Liturgy progressed, I still found it difficult believe what had happened to me. Was it really I who had said those words? Was it really I who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, had just transformed bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ? Then I remembered the text I had chosen for my ordination cards: “No one can receive anything unless it is given from heaven . . . my joy is now complete” (John 3:27-29). Heaven had granted me this incredible gift, and the fullness of joy accompanied it.
My personal history doesn’t read anything like traditional hagiography, although I was born and raised in a good Ukrainian Catholic family in central New York State. I received my religious and moral formation at home and in a Catholic elementary school. Before the age of twenty-two, I think I had one thought about becoming a priest. When I was about ten years old, I reasoned to myself that if I wanted to guarantee that I would go to heaven, I would only have to become a priest. After all, they serve God every day and don’t do anything wrong! That was a naïve thought, yet I would still say that if a priest faithfully served God every day—despite his limitations and failures—he can have confidence about his salvation.
The education I received in my early years was a solid foundation without which I may not have been able to choose the priesthood later in life. But I did not have mentors or role models who attracted me to the priesthood. My vocation was not a serene process of growth in faith and wisdom, culminating in the choice of the priesthood of Christ. Rather, with the psalmist I can say, “He reached down from heaven and saved me” (Ps. 18:17). My role models were rock stars and rebels of every stripe, and I eagerly followed the crowd on the broad road to perdition.
My graduating class in Catholic elementary school numbered sixteen; my public high school class numbered seven hundred fifty. It was like entering an exciting new world of which I had previously known nothing. My one childhood thought of becoming a priest was effectively silenced and forgotten. It was time to have fun. For me, fun meant drinking, smoking marijuana, going out with girls, attending rock concerts, and eventually joining a rock band myself. (All this debauchery was not, however, a total loss. My mother has told me on several occasions that when mothers of teenagers would despair over their sons going that same way, she would give them hope by saying, “My son used to do all those things, too, but now he’s a priest!”)
Though men are free to reject God’s call to the priesthood, I believe that a priest, like the prophet Jeremiah, is marked by his calling from his mother’s womb. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5). My early formation never left me, though I buried it under the pursuit of pleasure. There came a moment, when I was about twenty-two, that grace momentarily cracked my sinful outer crust. I was driving on a lonely road in central Florida, weeping over the break-up of a relationship with my steady girlfriend. I hadn’t prayed for a long time, but these words leapt out of me without any conscious preparation: “OK, God, you want me to be a priest? Is that it? All right, all right!” That surprised me, because I hadn’t had a single thought of the priesthood for a dozen years. Though I forgot about that moment of grace as soon as I reunited with my girlfriend, it wouldn’t be long now: the Hound of Heaven was hot on my trail.
After breaking up with her for the last time, I began to examine my life. I had my “freedom” and was able to establish myself in the world with a decent job and some friends. Though I didn’t have a lot of money, I could usually do as I pleased. But it wasn’t enough. Something began to gnaw at the roots of my self-centered life. The meaninglessness of it all began to haunt me. Was that all there was to life? I had developed a rather arrogant and self-serving mentality. If I found myself in any job or life situation not to my liking, I would simply leave it. It wasn’t worth putting up with the hassle. Yet the thought persisted: isn’t anything worth it? Can there be something worth giving yourself to without reserve?
God surprised me by speaking to my heart once again. I began to realize that people can let you down, life can let you down, but God is always there. He does not betray, hurt, or lead people astray—and you have to deal with Him sooner or later, anyway—so why not give God a try? This approach is, of course, inadequate to sustain a vocation, but in my case it was enough to get me to open the Bible, to start paying attention at church, and to entertain the thought of serving God.
That was all the Lord needed to begin filling my life. As it dawned on me that all this God stuff might be true after all, new worlds opened up. This time it was not the world of immorality and rebellion, but the world of peace and beauty, and the rediscovery of a profound mystery that was at last becoming real to me. I walked the streets of Orlando, thinking and praying. The city’s frenzied activity continued unabated, but I hardly noticed it. I felt like a lover in springtime. My life was beginning to acquire meaning, and it was quite exhilarating. But when I watched the priests at the parish I was attending, I still thought: I could never do that. Yet if God is calling me, I told myself, I guess it will happen somehow.
My sister was living with me at the time, and she did not understand what was happening to me. (At this writing she understands it well, having recovered her faith as I did, only a few years later. The grace of my budding vocation was already spreading.) My parents were elated when I stammered my intentions to them: the black sheep of the family was returning to the fold! I decided to move back to New York, figuring that if I lived near home, parental support for my seminary education might be more readily forthcoming. There I could finish college in preparation for the seminary. But there was one more new world to discover.
I read Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton, and my heart resonated to that strange and wholly consecrated way of life: monasticism. A monk is a man who gives his life to God through the solemn profession of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In the Eastern tradition, monks are not what may be termed “active religious” in the West. Monks live a life of prayer and manual or intellectual labor, often in silence, solitude, and fasting. The goal of the monastic life is nothing less than union with God, in the most direct and focused way possible in this world. The usual diversions and amusements of modern society have little or no place in a monastery.
In retrospect, I see that I often thought in pragmatic ways about the works of God in my life. After I made a retreat at a Trappist monastery—and became thoroughly convinced that I was on the wrong side of the cloister gate—I reasoned that if I entered a monastery I wouldn’t have to endure those long years of seminary education! At that moment it was a good selling point.
By this time, I began in earnest to try to discern God’s will for my life. I had felt a call to the priesthood, but now I was feeling a stronger call to monastic life. My parents, who supported my priestly vocation, seemed uneasy about the monastery. They thought that if I entered a strictly cloistered order, they would see me less than they did when I moved a thousand miles away to Florida. And I wouldn’t be baptizing their grandchildren or coming over for Christmas dinner! I experienced the growing conviction, however, that it was going to be the monastery or nothing.
How I ended up in a Byzantine Catholic monastery in California and not in a Trappist one in New York (after having been accepted there) is a long story. I can only summarize it here. I was under the impression that I would need to obtain a formal change of rite if I were to enter the Roman-rite Trappist monastery. So I petitioned for the change, neglecting to mention that it was for the sake of a monastic vocation. When my local Ukrainian pastor got wind of this through an innocent remark of my parents, he immediately called the bishop and told him not to process my request, since it would mean the loss of a vocation for the Ukrainian Church. So he didn’t. (To make it clear for the reader, the Ukrainian Church is one of several Byzantine-rite Catholic Churches. The terms “Byzantine” and “Ukrainian” are sometimes used interchangeably for our church.)
Having thus denied me access to the Trappists, the bishop suggested I find a place in the Ukrainian Church, giving me the impression that if I couldn’t find my vocation there, he would allow me to go elsewhere. When I met with the Ukrainian vocation director, he said, “Our church needs priests.” I replied, “But I want to be a monk.” He countered with, “Our church needs monks.” I began to think that if I said I wanted to be a chimney sweep, he would have said our church needs them, too. So I asked him what the Ukrainian church had to offer. “Well,” he said, “there’s a monastery in Rome, but they don’t speak English” (strike one). “There are a few old monks in a house in Canada, but they don’t speak English either” (strike two). “Then there’s this community in California called Mt. Tabor; they live in huts” (I’m out of here!). He finally convinced me to visit the monastery in California. My plan was to go there for a couple weeks, come back saying I hated it, and then get on with my true vocation.
Contrary to the original bleak presentation, the monks didn’t live in huts. But the life was quite primitive and wild, in the sense of living in pristine forested hills without attempting to evict the original non-human inhabitants. The silent splendor of nature and the awe-inspiring beauty of the worship in church communicated something to my soul that I couldn’t articulate, but that was effecting an inner change. Experiencing a kind of divine corrective to my earlier predetermined intention, I began to realize that something felt “right” about this place, despite the material poverty and lack of ordinary amenities. After spending about a month on the holy mountain, I became convinced, like St. Peter, that it was good to be on Mt. Tabor. So I made a phone call: “Mom, I’m moving to California!”
With the idealism and energy of youth—I was twenty-four when I entered the monastery—I embraced the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I had the feeling that I was coming in at the eleventh hour anyway, believing that I had already wasted my whole life! Chastity would be the easiest one, I assumed, since I had “been there, done that,” and now that I was living on holy ground I was invulnerable to such indecorous energies. I must have retained a bit of my ten-year-old naïveté. That was also the case when, at about age thirty-five, I opined that no monk should ever descend to the point of having a mid-life crisis. It seemed to me that the conditions of his life are so different than those of people in the world, and he knows who he is and where he’s going. If you talked to me at forty, you would have heard quite a different opinion. At forty-nine, I say that faith, prayer, the sacraments, and the support and guidance of trusted friends will get you through any crisis. Don’t expect them, however, to relieve you of struggle or of the responsibility of making hard decisions to maintain your commitment to Christ and the priesthood.
To be faithful to the vows is not primarily a matter of sheer determination (though that helps), but of the grace of God. Pope John Paul II recently said that priests who embrace celibacy “show the world that Christ and the mission can fulfill a life.” Those lives, he said, are “a testimony of the absoluteness of God and a particularly fruitful participation in the building of the Church. Chastity in celibacy has an inestimable value. It constitutes an important key for the spiritual life of priests,” who are required “to be vigilant in the face of the seductions of the world.” The Holy Father concluded: “Every attitude that goes against this teaching constitutes an anti-testimony for the Christian community and for all men” (from an address by Pope John Paul II on January 26, 2004, reported by Zenit News Agency). I find it an important vindication of the gospel to experience that Christ is enough, that doing his will “can fulfill a life.” Our sex-saturated world needs to know that this is true. Priests and other consecrated men and women are the ones called to manifest this truth by the witness of their joyful and productive lives.
Let us go now to the monastery kitchen. One morning the novice Joseph was cutting radishes, in all peace and contentment. Fr Boniface, the abbot at the time, walked in and said: “We’re sending you away to school.” Then he walked out. We almost ended up with some fingers in the salad along with the radishes. Wait a minute! When I became a monk I thought I had successfully avoided higher education altogether. Now I was on my way to untold years of seminary training! Calm down. Vow of obedience. OK.
When a man enters a monastery like Mt. Tabor, which is not an order of priests, he does not come with the expectation of priestly ordination. He comes to be a monk. A sufficient number of priests are ordained to serve the needs of the community and the retreatants, but a monk can—and usually does—live his whole life without becoming a priest. The monastic life is a vocation in itself. It is not a “training ground” for something else, as a seminary is for the priesthood. (But perhaps one could say that monasticism is training for eternal life!) In my case, I had originally felt called to the priesthood, but after I discovered my monastic vocation, I let go of the desire for ordination, believing that to be God’s will. When the call to the priesthood came again, from “outside,” through the abbot of the monastery, the original inner call was rekindled. To my great joy, I was soon to become a priest-monk.
After seriously altering my neuronal pathways with an overdose of philosophy (I was given one year to accomplish two years’ worth of it), I was actually grateful to begin studying theology. I entered Mount Angel Seminary near Salem, Oregon, and I was still more grateful that this was a Benedictine seminary, at which I could live and pray with the monks while attending classes at the seminary. At that time I was thirty years old and had already been a monk six years, so I didn’t think I would function too well in the seminary environment. I wanted only to go to class and then sequester myself in the library or in my monastic cell.
Once I saw the light at the end of the academic tunnel, the realization that I would soon be a priest became clearer, and a desire for this gift began to burn in my heart. I graduated on May 6, 1990. Five days later I was on a plane to Chicago, to be ordained a deacon at the Ukrainian Catholic cathedral. Sixteen months after that, the Most Reverend Innocent Lotocky, O.S.B.M., arrived at our monastery to lay hands on the trembling monk-deacon, in order to make him a priest of God in the holy Catholic Church. The date was September 14, 1991: the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. I was about to be sacramentally united and mystically reconfigured to the person of Christ the eternal High Priest, who made his perfect sacrifice on the altar of the cross. I was thirty-three years old.
A month after my ordination, I went back to New York—for my father’s ordination! He had been preparing for the permanent diaconate, and his big day arrived shortly after mine. Before I had entered the monastery, he had not even considered the diaconate. I believe that the grace of my monastic vocation was working in my family as, over the years, they all began to enter more fully into the spiritual and sacramental life. My father’s ordination, and my presence there, created quite a stir in my hometown of Auburn, NY. A father and son—deacon and priest—were celebrating the Divine Liturgy together at the altar of the church that they had both attended for years. The event even merited a story with pictures in the local secular newspaper.
In my estimation, the most precious gift of the priesthood is the ability to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. At one point in the Byzantine ordination rite the bishop presents the new priest with the chalice and diskos (paten), saying, “Receive the power to offer sacrifice in the Church of God.” That moment brought a profound realization to me. I had become, in the words of the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, a “servant of the New Covenant and minister of the Holy Mysteries.”
Part of this ministry of mysteries is reconciling sinners to God through sacramental confession. Since I live in a small monastery in an obscure corner of northern California, there is not a long stream of penitents at the monastery gate every weekend. But I obtained much valuable experience by going to various Catholic conferences and hearing confessions from morning till evening. It is one of the most rewarding experiences of the priestly ministry to reconcile a person who has been away from the sacraments for many years, or who has finally turned to God in repentance after living in grievous sins. One can see in their faces that peace has come to them, that God in his mercy has lifted a great burden from their shoulders.
A priest must be a man of prayer as well as a minister of the sacraments. It is a great blessing for me to live in a place where I am able to pray several hours a day. When a man becomes united to Christ the Priest, he must live, no longer himself, but Christ must live in him. The Lord is his life and strength, and he must continually drink from the wellspring of grace if he is to persevere in the demanding yet life-giving vocation of the priesthood. Activism cannot replace prayer. Even sacramental ministry cannot replace prayer. A priest must be engaged in an ongoing dialogue with God; he must allow the Holy Spirit to transform him by grace through prayer; he must enter into silence and listen to the voice of the Beloved. Having experienced a profound and personal communion with God, he must then testify to what he has seen and heard (see Acts 22:15). A person can consult the catechism to learn what the Church teaches. He should be able to learn from a priest what it is like to live in the presence of God.
Most people are probably aware that the demands and activities of a diocesan priest can present what seem to be insurmountable obstacles to maintaining a concentrated prayer life. People may not be aware that even monastic priests encounter this difficulty. The image of a monk as one who spends his entire day walking in a beautiful garden in contemplative bliss is a caricature. Monks can be very busy people, sometimes too busy for their own good! As abbot, I often find it difficult to balance my administrative responsibilities with my priestly ministry and prayer. My usual solution is to arise in the wee hours of the morning so that I will have time to pray and meditate on Scripture before the day’s affairs demand all my attention. I have come to this conclusion: if a priest earnestly desires to pray, he will find the time. God will provide it. But some sacrifices of leisure activities may be required. If one regards God as the “one thing necessary,” it will not be too difficult to order one’s priorities. Someone once said that love has its stratagems for finding ways to be with the beloved. If we love, we will find time for a fruitful prayer life.
To say that a priest is a man of prayer, a sacramental minister, and a preacher is to say that he is a carrier of tradition. I speak here of Holy Tradition, as opposed to the changeable (and sometimes aberrant) traditions and customs which have come and gone in the history of the Church. A priest is inserted into a two thousand year lineage of witnesses and servants of Christ. There is an objective and unchangeable heritage of Christianity entrusted to those who are called to teach and preach the word of God. Precisely in these times when the word “tradition” is more often spat than pronounced by the proponents of rootless progressivism, a priest must be able to communicate the enduring value of apostolic tradition and its relevance to the concerns and aspirations of modern man. If priests are the vanguard of rebellion and dissent, or if they succumb to the attraction of a materialistic or worldly lifestyle, to whom can people go to hear the word of God? Who will unmask the errors hidden in the spiritual fads and theological novelties that fill contemporary books and magazines?
Pope John Paul II has given a marvelous example of how a priest can be not only a carrier but also an effective interpreter of tradition. A brilliant and creative man, the Pope is no parrot of hackneyed formulas. But he does respect the word of God and Holy Tradition, and he has stood courageously for truth and love in a world that distorts both almost beyond recognition. His writings on Christology, Mariology, the Holy Eucharist, priestly ministry, and Christian unity are precious expositions of Holy Tradition for the new millennium. His fidelity and untiring labors, despite deep sufferings of body and soul, show us what it means to take up our cross and follow Christ.
The Byzantine tradition manifests in a powerful manner the enduring value of our Christian heritage. For example, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom has remained virtually unchanged for a thousand years. It is the same Liturgy celebrated by countless Orthodox and Eastern Catholic believers for many centuries. In the Byzantine tradition there is no “new Mass” and hence no need for any arguments over its validity. Therefore one does not have to be a “traditionalist” to embrace the tradition. The Divine Liturgy is the same in its essentials as the Roman-rite Mass, but the celebration of it is enriched with more hymns, processions, rituals, and traditional music. Any Catholic can participate and receive Holy Communion in a Catholic Church of a different rite.
Interest in the Byzantine tradition has been increasing in recent decades, and books on Eastern Christian theology and spirituality have been selling in great numbers. As a priest is a carrier of tradition, the living tradition is the carrier of the grace of God. People embrace the traditional liturgy not because they are antique dealers or religious anthropologists, but because there they encounter God. I may be interested in cutting-edge computer technology, but when I come to worship God, I want to do so in the manner of my fathers in the faith. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Worship and prayer engage us in a personal dialogue of love with the God who is ever ancient, ever new.
After I was ordained, I did not read authors proposing new models or new interpretations of the priesthood, most of which minimize or deny the basic truth that the priesthood is a consecration of a man’s life, not a mere “service profession.” Rather, I devoured books on the priesthood by St John Chrysostom and St John of Kronstadt, so that I could enter the mystical stream of tradition that has produced numerous holy priests. Are there any saints who have regarded the priesthood as one profession among others?
I find it somewhat difficult to describe my own spirituality. It is firmly rooted in the Byzantine tradition, but when it comes to my personal prayer and meditation, I do not hesitate to draw from other Eastern or Western Christian traditions. I embrace truth, beauty, goodness, and God wherever I find them, but the tradition is always a guide and a safeguard from delusion. The Divine Liturgy and the Divine Office fill up the majority of my hours of prayer, but I still make sure to spend sufficient time in Scripture meditation and contemplative prayer. Liturgical prayer can sometimes become a mere formality or external practice if it is not rooted in the “prayer of the heart,” the interior communion with God that is the wellspring of spiritual life.
Inner communion with God is established and nourished primarily through the Holy Eucharist. I believe that the authenticity of a priest’s vocation stands or falls on the issue of his faith in the Eucharist. If we lose faith in the Holy Mysteries, then faith in everything else falls like a house of cards: the other sacraments, the words of Christ, the Church. There have been times when I have struggled with my faith in the Eucharist, but I have made the choice to cling to it like a drowning man to a life preserver. I know that if my faith in the Eucharist fails, I am finished. I would like to reproduce here my account of a recent experience at the altar, in which my priesthood and the reality of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist were brought into the clear light of divine truth.
When I lifted up the Holy Gifts during the anaphora (the Eucharistic prayers of offering and consecration) singing, “We offer to You Yours of Your own,” a silent prayer welled up within me. I could see both the tabernacle and the crucifix at that instant. The prayer must have come from deep within me, because it didn’t follow my conscious thought of the moment. It almost leapt out of me before my mind could formulate the words: “O God, I thank you for making me a priest!” As these words rose within me, tears began to flow. Suddenly everything I was saying and doing acquired a deeper significance, and my awareness of the great mystery before me was heightened. It was one of those “It’s all true!” revelatory moments. Grace was nearly tangible. It was almost like I had stepped into a dimension in which faith was no longer necessary, in which I didn’t have to think about the meaning of what I was doing. It was instantly self-evident; the mysteries were revealed. I did not have visions or receive locutions; I simply knew the truth. I was in the presence of God. Because of the gift of tears, I could hardly speak the sacred words: “And make this bread the precious body of Your Christ, amen. And that which is in this chalice the precious blood of Your Christ, amen. Changing them by Your Holy Spirit. Amen, amen, amen.”
The tears would come at various other moments, as when I prayed the petition concerning “the precious Gifts offered and consecrated.” I simply knew what it meant that they were consecrated, that they were the body and blood of Christ, and I was filled with awe and gratitude and love. I mostly could not even sing the prayers. I was glad that Fr Theodore was concelebrating, so I asked him to sing the litanies. When we came to the end of the Our Father, singing, “Deliver us from evil,” I began to realize what the Lord had done for me throughout my life. The tears came again just before Holy Communion as we bowed three times and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” It was almost too much. Who am I to be placed in the heart of this great and divine mystery? In one of the prayers after Communion, we say: “Give me tears of repentance and thanksgiving,” and that’s exactly what the Lord did. How grievous are our sins! How much greater are the mercy and love of God! At this point I can only pray: “I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart, and glorify your name forever. For your love to me has been great; you have saved me from the depths of the grave” (Ps. 86:12-13).
Sacramental life is essential for the fruitfulness of God’s holy Church. Jesus explicitly said, for example, that baptism in water and the Spirit is necessary for entrance into the kingdom of God (John 3:5), and that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood if we want his life in us (John 6:53). I grieve over the divisions in Christianity, because of which many do not receive the sacraments. They have lost the faith of the early Church and even firmly reject or blaspheme the awesome and precious gift of Christ’s presence in the Holy Mysteries. At least in the schism between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, both retained a valid priesthood and hence all the other sacraments. But in the Western Schism, those who broke away from the Church eventually lost a most precious and essential element of the heritage of Christ: the Mystical Supper, and almost the whole sacramental economy, not to mention several important articles of faith.
I can only pray that the Lord is working through his “faithful remnant” (see an example of this in Romans 9-11). Through those who keep the true faith, God can save those who have lost it. There are many who believe in Christ and love him with devotion, but who have not received the fullness of the abundant life he came to give us, often through no fault of their own. The mystery of God’s providence and mercy is far beyond my limited ability to comprehend, but I believe that my fidelity and love are what God asks from me to contribute to his plan for the salvation of mankind. Beyond that, I must leave everything to him.
The goal of my spiritual life is simple: to know and love God more deeply each day, and to grow in the depth of my experience of his presence. The focus of my devotion to God is both Christ-centered and Trinitarian. Depending upon my personal need or the inspiration of the moment, I may direct my prayer or meditation to the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit. All I want to do is to be in the presence of God, to see him everywhere, to give him to others in whatever way I can. In one sense, the mission of the priest is to bless the world, to bring the blessing and grace of God into the world in ways that it would not come without his ministry.
Intercessory prayer is an important way of bringing God’s blessing into the world. A priest is called to stand before God, offering fervent prayer for the needs of the people. I do not exercise a “healing ministry,” but it belongs to the nature of the priesthood to help heal the wounds of mankind. A priest is anointed by God to bring his grace and mercy to others.
A special companion and intercessor for priests, the Mother of God has played a significant role in my life. Many priests have been moved to dedicate their lives and ministries to her, as I myself have at the time of my ordination. My devotion to her has gone through several phases, and at this moment I find myself waiting in readiness to enter a new depth of relationship with her.
At the beginning of my conscious life in Christ—that is, my early adulthood when I became interested in the things of God—I did not understand why so much honor and devotion were offered to her. As time went on, and as I entered more fully into my monastic vocation, my devotion to her increased rapidly. In retrospect, however, I see that it eventually had become somewhat exaggerated: too emotional and sentimental, perhaps even somewhat obsessive, almost crowding out my devotion to Jesus. So I backed away from it for some time, and I think that this time I exaggerated in the opposite direction: my devotion became quite minimal.
Now I am ready for a more mature relationship: one that is strong but not all-absorbing, personal but not so emotional. I want to rely upon her as intercessor, protector, and guide. I need to avoid both excess and defect, for I want my devotion to the Mother of God to be genuine and hence fruitful. Too many exaggerated expressions and theological errors have crept into the piety of some of her devotees. One should always understand and relate to her in the context of the larger mystery of Christ. For example, I have a little devotion I perform at the time of Communion. Most Byzantine chalices have small icons engraved on the cup of the chalice. They are images of Christ, the Mother of God, the holy cross, and John the Baptizer. Since the custom is to kiss the chalice after drinking from it, I kiss the image of Our Lady, proclaiming her blessed. I thank her for making the Incarnation, and therefore the Holy Eucharist, possible by her consent to God’s will. In such a devotion she is honored, but the focus is still upon Christ.
As the Mother of priests, Mary has a special solicitude for me, since I am so intimately involved with bringing the grace of her Son to others. For the same reason, priests have a special obligation to be faithful, pure, and surrendered to God’s will as she was. If I can love her as a mother and experience her maternal love and presence in my life, what more could I ask?
I have deep gratitude to God for making me a priest-monk in his Church—and for keeping me here, despite some wrongheaded ways of regarding my vocation and some serious temptations to make my exit. Our former abbot used to say that if there are loopholes to be found, people will take them. I thank the Lord for closing the few loopholes I had discovered over the years. Satan would like nothing better than to see a priest or monk throw away the precious gift of his vocation. Once we have broken that union with God, we are easy prey for any temptation or delusion that comes along. And come they will.
I have been in the monastery for twenty-five years, and I’ve been a priest for sixteen. Having gained much experience, I still realize that I am only a beginner. The mystery of God is endless, and it will take all eternity to explore it. But in order to enjoy this everlasting adventure, I must be faithful in the present moment. I have experienced many trials, but the blessings have outnumbered them. I have survived cancer and overcome depression. God has delivered me from severe temptations, granted me abundant mercy for my sins, and bestowed upon me unexpected graces. A close friend of mine calls me a “spoiled brat of God,” because the Lord blesses me so much despite my unworthiness, and his rebukes for my failures are usually mild.
The closer one comes to God, the more one wants to do two things: get still closer and get others close to him as well. This expresses the double thrust of the priest’s vocation: to enter into profound communion with God and to bring the gospel to the world. When Jesus called the twelve apostles, it was first to be with him, then to go out and preach (see Mark 3:14). As a priest in a monastery, I find that the order of life here is meant to facilitate the first element, that of being with Christ in prayer and sacrifice. Except for the mystical effect of all-embracing prayer, which radiates through the whole body of Christ—and this is no small exception—it is difficult to reach others on a large scale from within monastery walls.
Enter modern technology. Despite its proven potential for disseminating evil, the internet can be used to preach the gospel. Over the past two years, many thousands of “unique visitors” have viewed our monastery website. (You can too: http://www.byzantines.net/monastery.) Now that I publish the majority of my homilies on the site, and publish frequently on this blog as well, my “congregation” has increased dramatically! I may preach to relatively few on any given Sunday, but I now have the potential to preach to the world. Our monastery also publishes a quarterly newsletter (on paper as well as in cyberspace) through which we offer articles on spiritual life for the benefit of anyone who wishes to learn more about his place in the mystery of God.
Though all the forces of hell may be unleashed against it, the Gospel will not be stopped. It is a challenging and rewarding task to be involved in God’s work for the salvation of the world. The priest has an indispensable role to play in this plan, but it seems that not all priests have sufficient awareness of the nobility of their consecration and mission. Only grace can bring this enlightenment, so we should often invoke the Holy Spirit. When a priest knows who he is in Christ, he can carry out God’s will with zeal and devotion.
The noise of the world is intensifying and its seductions are increasing. Therefore today’s men have serious obstacles to overcome if they are to hear God’s call to the priesthood or religious life. From early childhood, many are conditioned to have short attention spans, a need for constant stimulation, and a world-view that idolizes pleasure and possessions while minimizing or excluding true spiritual values. Even parents who are aware of the need for vocations often discourage their own sons from pursuing one. All of this works against the likelihood of one hearing God’s invitation to serve him, but God still calls and makes it possible to respond.
I would encourage men discerning a vocation to persevere in what they know is true, even if they begin to lose heart over what they see in some seminaries or religious orders. He who seeks God will find him. If God calls, he also provides the means for accomplishing his will. The vocation of a priest is all the more precious today because it is becoming rare. The demands will be great, but the grace will be overflowing. A priest can make a positive and even dramatic difference in the lives of many people, and he should maintain the awesome awareness that he can be instrumental in their eternal salvation.
To those who are already priests, and who are perhaps struggling at this time, I would say, paraphrasing the famous Christmas homily of St. Leo the Great: Priest, remember your dignity! Remember that you have been set apart by God for a sacred mission, and that Christ is relying on you to bring—to be—his presence among his people. God loves you with a special love, for you alone can make present in the world the saving sacrifice of his beloved Son. You alone can forgive sins in his name. The Lord will be your joy and your peace, if you say yes with the Virgin’s yes, if you love God with your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. The Church needs you to “set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1Tim. 4:12). The world needs your testimony that Jesus Christ alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, that the will of God is sufficient for human fulfillment and leads infallibly to eternal joy. And you need the grace of Christ who has chosen and blessed you, who lovingly sustains you in your loneliness and pain. Without Jesus you can do nothing, but you can do all things in him who strengthens you.
I feel unworthy to write this testimony, for I know that in many ways I have not fully responded to the marvelous and abundant graces that God has granted me through my vocation. One of these gifts, however, is divine mercy, and that is my salvation. The mercy of God, which is his love for sinners, always gives me encouragement, hope, and joy as I labor to be ever more faithful to him who has called me out of darkness into his marvelous light (see 1Pet. 2:9).
Ordination does not make a priest some sort of superman. If that is what he thinks he is, it will not be long before the weakness of his human nature will visit him with a rude awakening. But a priest is, like David, a man after God’s own heart, called and anointed to be an alter Christus in a world that is in desperate need of salvation.
The priesthood is a divine mystery; one cannot receive it unless it is given from heaven. As a priest, I am sometimes a mystery to myself, but the love of God urges me to persevere to the end. In the final analysis, I discover that all I can do is give thanks, “for I know him in whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me” (2Tim. 1:12).