Prayer in the middle of the night and the early morning hours has a long and venerable place in the Christian tradition. Not only is this a common practice in monastic life, it is a practice that the fathers of the Church recommend for all Christians.
Like a number of priests I know, I will often find myself waking up in the middle of the night. More often then not we wake up less out of an ascetical commitment to prayer and more out of stress and anxiety. There are the concerns we have about our parishes spiritual and financial health, the struggles that are spiritual children are going through, concern for our family, concern for ourselves.
When I first became a priest I never imagined the anxiety and stress that goes with the office. It has lessened for me over the years, but only because through a convergence of life circumstances and personal decisions my wife and I have made, I have step back from much of the typical day to day work of parish ministry.
But still I am still in the habit of waking up in the early morning hours–the anxiety of my first parish remains with me even now almost five years after I left California.
Thinking more broadly about the health of the Church, I can’t help but wonder if at least some of the challenges we face are not do to the damage done to clergy in the parish. Often I have heard someone praise this or that bishop as having a great deal of experience as a parish priest. When I hear this I can’t help but wonder if really parish clergy is the best place to draw our bishops. The tradition of the Church is that bishops should have been formed in a monastic community so that they can have the spiritual formation necessary for episcopal service.
At least as we have structured things here in America, parish life does not typically lend itself to the kind of spiritual discipline and ascetical effort that, ironically enough, parish ministry requires. Rarely is the parish priest a true spiritual father to the parish.
An administrator? Yes.
A liturgist? Yes.
A fund raisers? Yes.
A social worker?Yes.
An activities director, sometimes a teacher or a paraprofessional counselor? Yes to all of these.
But rarely a father.
Early on as a mission priest I thought my job was to grow the parish.
By this rather inelegant turn of phrase I suppose I meant to add people to the parish roles.
Though it took me some time to realize it about myself, I have come to realize that I hated doing this. Growing the parish turned every conversation I had into a sales call and caused me to look at parishioners as possessions that I was always in danger of losing since, after all, I was trying to grow the parish.
It didn’t help that, as the parish grew, I was reward (poorly I admit, but then this part of the problem with the mindset), typically with more work that, ironically, took me away from the parish I was trying to grow (oh, that phrase again).
And with growing the parish came stress and anxiety. Finding more people, raising money, keeping people attached to the parish, running programs became the goals.
And then, one day I realized, people were coming to confession and asking me about their spiritual lives.
And not just Orthodox Christians, would come to me and talk about their lives. And as often as not they would come to the realization that their life could be better. Sometimes this would mean a moral change. Other times they would find the courage to go back to school, try for a new job, or move to another city. But whatever the change they would find hope and the courage to restructure their lives.
This all changed for the better my understanding of being a priest. Or maybe more accurately, it taught me what it means to actually be a priest.
In these conversations, I became (and am still becoming) a father. This means that my task is to help people discover real freedom in Christ, to help them discover themselves in Christ and then to grow in that realization.
Thinking about my life, I now realize, and these occasional bouts of sleeplessness serve to remind me that my vocation as a priest is not to grow the parish, but to form the The real joy of the priesthood, I have discovered, is bring to bear the Tradition of the Church, the sacraments and my own abilities to help the people discover who they are in Christ.
There will be some stress and anxiety that goes along with that for sure. St Paul talks about his concern for those to whom he ministers. But the debilitating stress and anxiety that many priests experience, that I experience–this comes from my attempts to be something other than a father in Christ. This failure to be father in Christ, and its attendant symptoms, reflect the poisonous intrusion of the standards of this world into the life of the Church.
The work of helping people discover who they are in Christ isn’t central to the life of the Church, it is the life of the Church. For this reason we (ideally anyway) draw our bishops from the monastic life–from those men who are practiced in work of knowing themselves, and helping others come to know themselves, in Christ.
To discover who we are in Christ, we need each other; laity, clergy and hiearchs together must be committed to helping each other become who we are in Christ. This means above all changing how we think of the parish. But for this change to happen in the parish, we must all of us change personally. The change we need is a change of heart, it is only this heartfelt change that can renew the Church.
In the middle of the night, in the early morning hours, I wake up. Thinking about what I have written I realize that, finally, I understand why. My anxiety, my stress, my fear, are not mine alone–they are the common lot of what it means to have the name of Christian, but not understand what it means to be in Christ. This is, I know from the inside, a horrible way to live, not least because often people in their ignorance of themselves in Christ, rewarded for my own like ignorance.
But it does not have to be this way. God has give us the ability, the gift, to change. Not simply to do things differently, but ourselves to be different.