Every so often I encounter the idea that anyone who wants to be ordained a priest—or, especially, a bishop—never should be. Such a man is probably a control freak, vain, naive, etc. People like that should never be allowed anywhere near the priesthood. St. John Chrysostom’s famous flight from ordination may well be referenced with nods of knowing approval. And certainly, a young woman who encounters a man like that should definitely not marry him.
But does this actually make sense? For one thing, it flies in the face of the Scripture:
This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. (1 Timothy 3:1)
Paul goes on to give a detailed set of requirements for what the bishop should be like. They all would apply quite well to the priest.
So, biblically speaking, someone who desires to be ordained may actually have been given that desire by God. He desires a good work, as Paul says. But what if he has been subjected to this memetic idea, and so when he is aware of this desire to do good within himself, he is being told that this desire actually means he should never be ordained? His desire to serve the divine services, to preach and teach the word of truth, to counsel and offer healing to the broken, to stand athwart the world’s darkness—all these things are, it seems, just vanity.
I recall that, when I was in seminary, we had a professor who engaged in much hay-making should any seminarian say out loud that he had been “called.” (“Really? Did your phone ring? Did God call you on the phone and say, ‘John, go to seminary’?”) But that raises the question. Exactly how does one tell the difference between a true calling and what is just vanity? Will someone who is actually called have any desire for the priesthood at all? Will he “hear” anything at all? Will he actually desire a good work?
According to this idea no one should ever desire ordination, such desires are just a desire for control, to lord it over the spiritual lives of others.
To be sure, there are men who want the priesthood precisely for that reason. They think that they know better than others, that they are qualified to give commands, and so of course they ought to be put in charge of other people’s lives. It only makes meritocratic sense. And this sense of what the priesthood is about is exacerbated in some quarters of Orthodoxy which maintain a “blessing culture,” in which the priest’s permission is needed for everything from going to confession with another priest to whom one can date, what job one can take or which house one can buy. This functions at various levels of intensity, but the key virtue there is obedience in absolutely everything. Obedience is certainly a traditional Christian virtue, but the virtue is extended to make the priest one’s master. The Christian is ultimately not very responsible for his own salvation. He has only to obey, and all will be well.
Of course, once you define the priesthood this way, then it will become more attractive to those who desire power over others. And it will also be hard to see the desire for the priesthood as anything other than the pursuit of control.
When I became aware of my own desire to enter the priesthood, it was not out of any wish for control. I don’t really like trying to make people do what I want. It’s too exhausting, and they don’t respond very well, anyway. And I am grateful that the “blessing culture” was not really anywhere near my formative experiences. I recoiled when I came into contact with that sensibility. Of course I wanted to obey my father-confessor, and while he is certainly responsible for me in a sense, I am the one who is ultimately responsible for my own soul. I have to learn to make my own good choices.
No, my desire to enter the priesthood was actually all about beauty, which is what propelled me into the Orthodox Church in the first place. I ached for the beauty of the liturgy and all the services, and I wanted to be right there in the middle of it. I gradually became aware of how the priesthood is also about bringing that beauty to other people, as well, and I wanted to do that, too. I wanted to bring others into contact with the God Who is supremely beautiful. I desired a good work.
I did not myself suffer from the temptation that the priesthood was the only way for me to be a really good Christian, though I have known men who seemed to function that way. The priesthood was, for them, a kind of advanced state of spirituality. But it’s not. We want priests to be good examples, but as I have sometimes joked, ordination may well be an impediment to salvation! One good reason for running from the priesthood is that it can be very hard.
Now, of course my vanity, pride, etc., were all mixed in with my desire for a good work. But what good desires are not mixed with such things for any of us? We’re sinners. But does our sin really taint everything so much as to make it all useless? Is the desire for the priesthood really totally depraved?
You can see where I am going with this, I hope.
In the end, I think this “pious” idea that running from the priesthood is one of the surer signs of a priestly calling is actually a form of monergism, which is the heresy that teaches that salvation is entirely God’s doing and makes no reference to the will of the one being saved. Thus, with this monergistic view, ordination is something that has to be done to someone who may even be actively resisting it.
But consider how this model works if applied to all the sacraments. We would get forced marriages, for one thing, something that is explicitly rejected by the text of the marriage service. What about baptism? We don’t ask babies if they want to be baptized, but we certainly ask adults, and the babies have their godparents to apply their wills on the infants’ behalf. And forced confession creeps me out. One could go on.
It is probably also worth noting here that we actually do have a historical example of what a priesthood looks like that is largely made up of the unwilling. As detailed by Gregory L. Freeze in his Russian Levites: Parish Clergy in the Eighteenth Century, the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church in that period and on up to the Bolshevik Revolution was largely made up of men from designated families, usually younger sons who were sent off into the seminary and the priesthood as a matter of course. As a result, the clergy became a professional class who may have had no special spiritual desires or even an actual belief in God. It was this kind of clerical corruption that the saintly Fr. Arseny complains about as being responsible for the revolution in Father Arseny, 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father. There were actually many seminarians among the revolutionaries, including Stalin himself. Among other things, they were rebelling against this levitical system.
Of course, an unwilling priesthood doesn’t have to go quite that way, but do we really want a clergy made entirely up of men who don’t want to be there? Could we even create such a thing if we wanted to? In the Russian Empire, that was easily accomplished because the law created this new tribe of Levites. In our own day, though, I think we would see radically depopulated seminaries, if we emptied them of everyone who went there of his own accord, leading quickly not to a clergy of obedient, humble men who are just doing what their confessors and bishops told them to, but leading rather to a dangerous clergy shortage. What clergy remained would be a servile bunch who had bought wholly into the “blessing culture,” convinced that the word of their father-confessors was possibly the word of God Himself.
Now, none of this is to say that everyone who wants to be ordained ought to be. We have confessors, bishops and seminaries (and yes, ordination review boards) whose job, among other things, is to weed out problematic candidates. They should definitely try to spot men who really do not desire a good work but rather desire something else. This memetic idea that running from ordination is good does have some truth to it. But it aims its critique at the wrong thing. The problem is not the desire for ordination. The problem is a desire for ordination that is actually a desire for something else, a desire for something that is not a good work.
I have seen many men who have gone from that desire for the good work to ordination and have done good work with the grace that God gave them. I have also seen some who desired something other than that good work who were nevertheless ordained and later crashed and burned. I have seen some who desired the good work who also crashed and burned. And I have also seen some who went from vanity to ordination to conversion in desiring the good work. There are no easy rules here. The question of whether to ordain someone is to make the best estimation, with much prayer, as to whether this man will in fact do good work with the gift he is given. And of course, deposition is always an option for those who get too far out of line.
As for me, I hope to continue to serve with clergy who love what they do, who want to keep doing it, who desire that good work. Why should it be any surprise if they felt that way before ordination?