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Earlier, I alluded to the importance in my own ministry of holy confession as a means of evangelizing the faithful. In this and later posts I would like to develop this theme somewhat.
After I finished my doctorate, I want back to work as a therapist and from there to ordination and assignment as a priest. Thinking back on this time, I realize that there were two very different “models” in the back of my mind about priestly ministry: didactic and therapeutic. Certainly both of these methods are found within the tradition of the Church. There are pastors such as St John Chrysostom or St Augustine, both extraordinary preachers who excelled in the didactic form of ministry.
But we have also had those who embodied a more therapeutic approach to ministry. I’m thinking here for example of St Silouan the Anthonite and his disciple and biographer Archimandrite Sophrony (pictured above at left). These monastics were extraordinary spiritual fathers who were able to heal others of deep spiritual pathologies.
The didactic and therapeutic are not mutually exclusive. Much less are they opposed to each other (There is an interesting look at this issue from the point of view of mental health counseling by Evan Hadkins, “Is Counselling Learning?” The post is short and worth a quick read.) For me at least, the struggle of those first years as a priest was finding the right balance between these two approaches to ministry.
What I had to do was learn two things. First, how to teach and preach in a manner that fostered in people a desire to lay aside their sins and be healed. Second, how to counsel in a way that fostered in people not only a rightly formed spiritual life but also a desire to learn about the faith in a humble, non-polemical manner.
At first I tended to lean toward a more educational method of evangelism. This certain was not a waste of time or effort on my part. Too many people want to live the Christian life but neglect the content of the faith. In a letter to Fr David Balfour, (a Catholic who converted to Orthodoxy), Fr Sophrony writes that “There are three things I cannot take in: nondogmatic faith, nonecclesiological Christianity and nonascetic Christianity. These three – the church, dogma, and asceticism – constitute one single life for me.”
All of these three elements require from the spiritual father that he fulfill the role of teacher. But what kind of teacher should he be?
Especially in the beginning stages of the spiritual life Church, dogma and asceticism are more objects of intellectual inquiry than epiphanies of divine grace. Whether a person is raised in the Church or comes later as an adult, the faith, even if intellectually compelling, remain largely external to the person’s own experience. Education for evangelism must present what I think of as the anthropological beauty of the faith, and especially of the Church, of dogma and of asceticism.
This requires a rather different style of teaching than what is typically done in graduate school. It requires that the teacher understand, from within his or her own experience, how the truth of the faith is inscribed in the human heart. Education for evangelism, even when done in a sermon or an adult education class, is not for the intellect alone. It is also for the heart and so information must be placed at the service of the heart. In a word, whatever the its content and style, education that is ordered toward evangelism must be evocative of the heart’s longing and desire for God and in God for neighbor and the created order.
Because we are sinners, however, evocative teaching will also necessarily be provocative. Teaching that successfully shows how the Gospel is already written in the human heart will necessarily precipitate a crisis in at least some of those who listen to what is taught. Typically this crisis will take one of three forms.
First, and ideally, the person will respond positively to the crisis and desire to reform his or her life according to the Gospel. Second, and less frequently, the person will respond in a negative fashion. Unwilling to reform his or her life the student will instead blame the spiritual father accusing him of lacking in humility, of being arrogant or judgmental. Whether true or not such charges, especially when delivered in an angry or hostile tone, can undermine the spiritual father’s confidence in his own ministry (this certainly was the effect that such encounters had one me at least). Third, and most typically, the person will try and minimize or ignore the call to change his or her life.
Whatever the immediate response, however, the material presented didactically becomes in time grist for confession. While this is clear in the case of a positive response, it is also is the case for those who respond in a negative or minimizing fashion. Of these two remaining responses, the negative is certainly more stressful for all involved, but it lends itself best to fostering repentance. It is the minimizing response which I have found most challenging to respond to evangelically.
In my next post I want to reflect with you on how I respond pastorally as a confessor to the three basic responses I outlined above. To anticipate questions and concerns, my response will not involve what people have told me in confession. Nor do I think that the information I will offer is only for priests. In my experience I have found that people are often able to approach confession with a more open heart and less anxiety if they have some sense of what is, and is not, expected of them. Especially when people first come to me for confession I will tell them what is going to happen and the “ground rules.” Chief among these ground rules is that they are free not to answer any question I ask them—I respect the freedom of the penitent to reveal as much, or a little, of his or her struggle as they wish. But I address the character of the confessor in a later post.
For now, and as always, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome, but actively sought.