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(July 2015)

The Orthodox Therapist

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos.


Rekindling the Spiritual Gift

The priesthood is a great gift given to those who have been healed of passions and are placed in the position of physicians to cure the passions of the people. Any physician, however, needs continual renewal. Otherwise he cannot cure menís diseases with new methods. The same applies to some degree in the case of priests. It requires vigilant attention and a great struggle to maintain this gift of the priesthood at all times. The priest bears within him the priesthood of Christ and must keep it undefiled. This has a deep meaning.

There are priests who have not been dethroned (deposed) and consequently can celebrate the Liturgy and perform the sacraments by the grace of God. Outwardly their priesthood is unhindered, because they have not been condemned by the Church. But their priesthood has no power because they defile it by their lives. They can consecrate the gifts, but they themselves cannot be sanctified by them, as Nicholas Cavasilas says.

Where does this spiritual powerlessness appear? It appears mainly in the fact that they cannot heal and do not know how to heal. To perform the sacraments is of Godís grace which is given in the sacrament of the priesthood. But to cure peopleís sicknesses is of Godís grace which is given to that person who makes [synergistically] productive the gift of [his] baptism, who puts to use the kingly gift of grace. This explains why many priests do not know how to heal menís passions and are unable to do it. They simply do not know what method to apply. They have no idea of what the heart and nous are, how the nous is taken captive or how the heart dies. They often regard these teachings as "referring only to monks." Thus they divide the teachings of Christ and the Fathers into monastic and secular. But no such distinction exists in the teaching of our Orthodox Church.

In what follows we would like to set forth the teaching of the Church, through the Holy Apostles and Fathers, on the necessity for the priest to nurture the gift of priesthood, to rekindle the grace received at the sacrament of ordination, for otherwise he cannot heal menís spiritual illnesses.

Basic Qualities of Priest-Therapists

St. Paul advised his disciple Timothy: Do not neglect the gift that is in you. (1 Tim 4:14). This exhortation is analogous to the exhortation to the Christians: As a fellow-worker we urge you not to let the grace you received come to nothing. (2 Cor 6:1). And the same apostleís words: The grace he has shown me has not been without fruit. (1 Cor 15:10). He also instructs the Apostle Timothy: That is why I would remind you to fan the flame of that special grace which God kindled in you when my hands were laid upon you. (2 Tim 1:6).

In the Pastoral Epistles the Holy Apostle Paul often refers to this subject. The bishop and the clergy in general must, through their struggle to preserve the gift of the priesthood, serve God and men in a worthy manner and guard the sacred heritage.

We would like to cite a few of the many characteristic passages: Train yourself for godliness. (1 Tim 4:7). You will be a good minister of Jesus Christ nourished in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine which you have carefully followed. (1 Tim 4:6). Be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. (1 Tim 4:12). He requests Timothy to fulfill his charge without spot, blameless until our Lord Jesus Christís appearing. (1 Tim 6:14). He exhorts him to keep the tradition: That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. (2 Tim 1:14). This keeping of the tradition must be done through the Holy Spirit who dwells within Timothy. He exhorts him to have watchfulness, attentiveness, vigilant care to live up to the great calling of God: Be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Tim 4:5).

The patristic teachings refer to all the essential qualities which should adorn the priest in order for him to be able to live up to his great task and high calling. In what follows we shall try to make a selection from those teachings, mainly from St. John Chrysostom and St. Theognostos. The teaching of these two Fathers expresses that of the holy Orthodox Church.

According to St. Theognostos (The Philokalia, vol. 2), the priest must not only be filled with the human traditions but have the grace of God mystically hidden in him. Make sure that you do not rely only on human traditions in celebrating the divine mysteries, but let Godís grace inwardly and invisibly fill you with the knowledge of higher things. And, the priestly dignity, like the priestly vestments, is full of splendor, but only so long as it is illumined from within by purity of soul. Therefore the priest must guard this divine gift as he would the pupil of his eye and keep its honor unsullied.

These things show that great watchfulness is required on the part of the priest. And this requires much suffering. The priest should celebrate the Divine Liturgy first of all on his own behalf watchfully and diligently.

St. John Chrysostomos ("On the Priesthood") insists on this constant attention to guarding the priestly grace. He says that a priest must be sober and clear-sighted and possess a thousand eyes looking in every direction. He should resemble the many-eyed Cherubim in order to worship the Lord of hosts in purity. He should be encircled with walls all round, and have intense zeal and constant sobriety of life in order not to be harmed. According to St. John Chrysostom, just as fire requires fuel, so grace requires our alacrity that it may be ever fervent. This grace is in our power to quench or kindle. The grace for presiding over the Church is quenched by sloth and carelessness but is kept alive by watchfulness and diligence.

Watchfulness is indispensable for keeping oneself pure and thus for the priestly grace and blessing to remain. According to St. Theognostos, the priesthood requires of us an angelic purification, and a degree of discretion and self-restraint greater than in our previous life. According to St. John Chrysostom, the priest must be as pure as if he were standing in Heaven itself, in the midst of the angelic powers. The priestís soul must be purer than the rays of the sun, in order that the Holy Spirit may never leave him desolate.

Repentance is another spiritual quality indispensable for a priest. "With streams of tears" let him become whiter than snow, and then, with a clear conscience, let him "in holiness touch holy things".

The purity of a priest should shine and beam on the Christians. A priest should be pure from passions, especially un-chastity and rancor, and should keep his imagination passion-free. Many Fathers emphasize that these two passions (unchastity and rancor) should not come near priests, because otherwise the grace of God does not work for the healing of his spiritual children. Then the priest is sick, as we have indicated. He must have committed himself sacrificially to die to the passions and to sensual pleasure. Besides, according to Abba Dorotheos, everything which is offered as a sacrifice to God, whether it be a sheep or a cow or something of the sort is a Victim. He must be wholly consecrated to God.

The Gospel, which describes the journey of the Christian struggling to reach communion with God should be applied first of all by his servant, the priest. The ascetic life of the Church which we describe in this book should be known to the pastors of the Church. And when we say "known," we do not mean that it should be known in the head through lectures or reading, but it should be their living experience. For what passes through the heart helps faithful Christians. One person offers his blood for another to be nourished. It is shared out and the people are filled.

However, in addition to his purification and repentance, sobriety and watchfulness, the priest must be filled with all the graces of the Spirit, all the virtues. The basic virtue is holy humility which, according to St. Isaac the Syrian, is the raiment of divinity, since Christ, in order to save man, humbled Himself, as the Apostle says. Besides, the Eucharist which the priest celebrates shows us this humility of Christ. Through the Eucharist we may enter into holy humility and acquire that sacrificial way of life.

Therefore in celebrating the Divine Liturgy we are not simply looking for the bread and wine to be transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ but seeking to acquire Christís way of life. And this is humility. We seek to clothe ourselves in the spirit of the Eucharist, which is self-emptying.

Within this perspective St. Theognostos advises: Humble yourself like a sheep for the slaughter, truly regarding all men as your superiors. Indeed the same Father exhorts characteristically: Regard yourself as dust and ashes, or as refuse, or as some cur-like creature... One should perform the priestly service with fear and trembling, and in this way rightly divide the word of truth and work out oneís salvation. However, the Fathers recognize the actual reality. They are not unaware of the existence of many unworthy priests who, without having these essential qualities, dare to minister the Holy Sacrament. According to St. John Chrysostom, the priesthood, far from covering over manís passions, exposes them, makes them manifest. As fire tests metals, so the touchstone of the ministry distinguishes menís souls. If a man is hot-tempered or conceited or boastful or anything like that, it soon uncovers all his shortcomings and lays them bare. Not only does it lay them bare, but it also makes them more tough and intractable.

On Unworthy Priests

St. John of the Ladder says that he has seen aged priests mocked by demons. (Step 14). Furthermore, the Fathers do not hesitate to expose the punishment of unworthy priests, those who practice this great office without the proper testing, preparation and life. This is because instead of healing the souls of the flock, they tempt them. 

St. Isidore of Pelusium writes (quoted by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain): Let us not trifle with divine things. St. John Chrysostom says: The priestly office might well accuse us of not handling it rightly. St. Theognostos addresses the incorrigible priest who does not renounce the sacred ministry: Expect to fall into the hands of the living God and experience his wrath. God will not spare you out of compassion. He informs us that many unworthy priests have been snatched away by sudden death and sent to the halls of judgment.

St. Theognostos has in mind two examples of unworthy priests with different consequences. There was one who seemed outwardly honorable among men but nevertheless within he was licentious and defiled, and so at the time of the cherubic hymn when he was reading no one is worthy..., he suddenly died. The other priest had fallen into the passion of unchastity. Therefore he became incurably sick and was near death. When he came to realize his unworthiness and took a vow that he would desist from celebrating the mysteries, he recovered at once so that not even a trace of his illness remained.


We emphasize again that the priesthood is a pastoral service to the people. The priest and bishop have this great honor of serving the people. Serving the people is healing first and foremost. The Church does not exist simply to do social work and to serve the social needs of the people, but to guide them to salvation, that is, to the healing of their souls. This work demands many qualities. The priest must be indwelt by the uncreated grace of God. He is not there simply to perform the sacraments, but also in order to be sanctified by them so that, being sanctified, he can sanctify men by his being. This work is very high, and therefore St. John Chrysostom declares: I do not think that there are many of the priests who are saved but many more that perish; this is because the matter requires a great soul.