By Dr. Constantina Michalos
BOULDER, CO – Our priests are there to serve God and His people. They offer guidance and spiritual support through difficult times, explaining God’s plan for us and leading us toward reconciliation and salvation. To this end, they celebrate the Divine Liturgy, offer the sacraments, preach inspiring sermons, lead Bible studies, provide counseling, teach Sunday school, coach basketball, preside over parish council meetings, and represent Orthodoxy to the greater community. As long as this list is, I am certain that it is incomplete. But I do know that they are there for us all day, every day. However, who is there for them?
I must confess that I had not given this question much thought until I began researching this article. But after speaking with Rev. Dr. George Dokos, of Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Boulder, CO, I gained a new perspective on how priests sustain themselves and each other spiritually.
The Denver Metropolis is geographically the largest in the country, but demographically, it is the smallest. Because the parishes are so far flung, it is difficult for their representatives to assemble frequently. Nevertheless, Metropolitan Isaiah hosts an annual pre-Lenten Orthodox Clergy Syndesmos retreat at the Metropolis Center in Denver, CO. This year, 45 attendees braved the polar vortex in mid-February to participate in the gathering led by Reverend Hieromonk Maximos of Simonopetra Monastery, Mount Athos. American-born and educated, Fr. Maximos is a former professor at Holy Cross and Harvard.
The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil is celebrated during the first five Sundays of Great Lent, Holy Thursday morning, Holy Saturday morning, Christmas Eve, January 1st [St. Basil’s day] and Theophany Eve. In his presentation, Fr. Maximos focused on the anaphora prayers, in particular. By reiterating God’s plan for salvation, these lengthy prayers, which lead to the consecration of the Eucharist, are didactic: the creation, the fall and expulsion from Eden, the prophets and saints who remind humanity that God has not abandoned them, culminating in the promised restoration through the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the surface, these prayers appear no different from the myriad Sunday school lessons, Bible studies and prayers with which Orthodox Christians have grown up and grown old. But, given his intertextual analyses of scripture, locating New Testament promises in Old Testament prophecies while illuminating the nuances of scriptural language, Fr. Maximos provided a new kind of ineffable nourishment to sustain Orthodox clergy through the spiritual rigors of Great Lent. The clergy of the Denver Metropolis could not but come away from this Syndesmos retreat edified, strengthened and renewed.
Another presentation, a paper delivered by Fr. George Dokos, was also relevant to the pre-Lenten theme of the clerical gathering. “Saint Nikodemos on the Sacramental Mysteries” is an erudite and pastoral reading of the teachings of St. Nikodemos on the sacraments, baptism, confession and communion, in particular. The great charge and challenge to the Orthodox Christian and, by extension, to the parish priest is “the need for personal faith when encountering the Sacraments. It is clearly not enough, in the eyes of the Saint, for a Christian to ‘go to Church’ and mechanically, unconsciously undergo the religious routine. He will not tolerate such a minimalist Christianity reduced to ritualistic obligations, for no salvation lies in this.” This robotic religious obligation is never acceptable, but never more so than during Lent.
Years ago, before he delivered his homily during the Lamentations service on Great Friday, my priest wished everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. The church was silent. Everyone thought that Father was exhausted from the demands of Holy Week and had, for a moment, forgotten what he was doing. And then an uneasy laugh percolated through the crowd as everyone understood that he hadn’t forgotten a thing. The church had been so crowded on Palm Sunday that both liturgies had been SRO. Good Friday required a mini-sanctuary set up in the fellowship hall to accommodate everyone. Holy Saturday promised to be as crowded; and though many left after the Christos Anesti, many more stayed for Holy Communion. Where had they been during the other nights of Holy Week? Where had they been during the other Sundays of the year?
What should priests do about “once-a-year Christians”? What should they do about parishioners who receive Holy Communion every Sunday and then retire to the fellowship hall for coffee and gossip? Who go to church because if they didn’t, their Yiayia would be disappointed? Who recite the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer but fail to recognize the import of their words? Writing with “a pragmatic goal and pastoral aim in view,” St. Nikodemos provides a resolution toward which priest and parishioner can work together. The priest must “instill in his audience a sacramental consciousness that will make the Mysteries real for them.” At the same time, the parishioner must cultivate “a positive and personal response to God’s love made available to all in the Holy Mysteries so as to appropriate, through personal freedom and synergy, divine life into one’s own life.” Our connection to and with God is never more indivisible than when we consciously participate in the sacraments. We renew our commitment to Him long after our baptism. We consider, thoughtfully and prayerfully, not only what we are confessing but why we are confessing. We gratefully receive Communion, humbly participating in the great sacrifice of Christ.
A bishop of the church once told me that he was not a Christian – that he was becoming a Christian. This process that is Orthodoxy, that begins before we are born and continues after we die, underscores the Pre-Lenten retreats led by his Eminence Metropolitan Isaiah. No one, not priest, not parishioner, knows, feels and understands completely the Mysteries of the faith. We all need to be reminded and renewed.