The world only if shared exists
Philoxenia, the life-giving act of hospitality to strangers in our midst, (which includes the priest and his family) is at the core of sustaining a vital worshipping community. The reality that “Christ is in our midst” is evidenced more by the quality of relationships among the members of the community than it is in the beauty of the voices and tones in the Divine Liturgy.
Yet church and family are not primarily social entities. Both ‘share the world’ in and through Christ who has fully assumed this created world in Himself, while being fully beyond it. What honors the church honors marriage and family, and what honors marriage and family honors the church. This involves a deep and costly love, an ascetical sacrifice for the sake of fidelity in response to the invitation of the Only Lover of Humankind to unite us all in His life.
Just as the Divine Liturgy (which literally means work of the people) is an on-going dialogue of prayer chanted between priest and laity in the presence of God, Philoxenia is an on-going dialogue of love lived between the priest, his family and the parish members in the presence of God and the larger community of witnesses outside the church. It is in this sense also a kind of evangel testifying to whether Christ is segregated to Sunday Liturgy, or is a relationship of love entered into and received through one another in daily life.
In offering hospitality of a common meal to a guest, the simple breaking of bread becomes an occasion for a marvelous discovery. A reversal takes place. The guest becomes the host who is revealed as Christ. This welcoming encounter is the essential action of the Church at worship and the Church of our everyday lives together. Integrating Priest and Presvytera into the community is a continuation of the dialogue begun in the Divine Liturgy, which flows into daily life. “When I leave the altar I go to the altar of my brother,” observes St. John Chrysostom. Or as St. James, the brother of the Lord and first Bishop of Jerusalem emphasized, “What is pure religion undefiled? – visiting orphans and widows in their affliction.”
Yet the struggles of the Priest and his family often go unnoticed. Living in a fishbowl, clergy families often feel ‘on display’ and constantly judged against an inhuman standard. The priest’s home is expected to be a model ‘microchurch’ where members live exemplary Christian lives. But as in the Liturgy, when the priest turns to the parish and asks forgiveness, are laity actually welcoming and forgiving of the clergy and his family in daily life? Are they forgiven for being merely human? Can the clergy family be a means through which we receive the blessing of Christ while being ordinary?
A 1993 survey reported 94% clergy felt the need to have an ‘ideal’ family, while 80% said their ministries actually had a negative impact on their families. Studies reveal that the two most important factors in clergy well-being and longevity in the parish are the quality of the clergy’s spiritual resources and the well-being of the clergy’s marriage and family life. Neither body nor soul can be ignored without damage to the other. They dwell together as one.
How can laity become more welcoming? Recognize that the priesthood can be very lonely and unhealthy if Priest and Presvytera are not allowed personal friendships. One reason priest and family keep a distance in the parish is because if they are seen to be closer to one or two families there is a fear that others may begin to cry ‘favoritism.’ But let’s remember, love is not a feeling. Jesus was closer emotionally to some people than he was to others, though heloved all. Affections are different among people. Love is something much greater which includes even one’s enemies.
Jesus himself had to contend with friction arising among his disciples when they argued who was the greatest, who was closest, to him. Not all Apostles are described in the Gospels as the “one Jesus loved” who “leaned on his breast” at supper. Jesus often chose James, Peter and John to accompany him and do things the others did not participate in. He frequented Mary, Martha and Lazarus’s house in ways that he did not others. It is clear he had friends and he had feelings that he allowed his friends to know. “I have called you friends.” (John 15:15)
Another isolating factor results from treating the Priest as “an employee” who will be ‘moving on’ sooner or later and ‘may not work out’; therefore why bother developing a relationship with him? This attitude lends itself to creating a ‘professional’ priesthood rather than recognizing it as a real human, personal and grace-bearing vocation.
Jesus was not a ‘professional’ clergyman, but an authentic human being whose ministry was revealed in and through his daily life and relationships. His character as priest, as friend and as ordinary person was as seamless as the robe he wore. Grace was communicated even while being a fully human ordinary man. In many ways this is the thing that was most difficult to accept. Could such ordinariness also be the Son of God? Can God work through an ordinary human being?
Do we get trapped in the pious responses of Liturgy, like putting on and off the priest’s vestments? What allows us to really know one another while maintaining appropriate boundaries? Bowing to the priest in church as a representation of Christ while relegating him to the periphery in daily affairs suggests hypocrisy or at least compartmentalization in our lives. One Presvytera lamented “Our experience has been that people are cordial and usually friendly, but don't feel any kind of obligation to bring the priest into the ‘inner circle’ of the parish, amongst those who've been together for years. Instead he and his family are often kept at a comfortable distance—more as in an employer/employee relationship.” The church is personal and relational; a matter of heart, intimate, like prayer itself. How people treat the priest and his family is a measure of how they experience relationship with Christ. To paraphrase St. John, “If you say you love God and do not love and welcome your priest…”(I John 4:20)
It is good to remind ourselves that the priest cannot celebrate the Divine Liturgy alone. Liturgy is a trialogical response between clergy, laity and the Holy Trinity. Christ is present when the people are gathered with the priest and participating. Neither can the laity celebrate the Divine Liturgy without the priest. When the priest says, “Christ is in our midst,” and the laity respond, “He is now and ever shall be,” something beyond stylized ritual is occurring. The Divine Liturgy is a participation in an event that permeates the stuff of our daily lives welcoming us into a Greater Life together. Christ incarnated in order to redeem the world and infuse it with divine life. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” involves a paradox that is often misunderstood and misused. Intimacy with God and each other depends on being set apart. We learn to be alone together, intimately as in prayer in order to receive the world and one another worthily.
Does false piety or fear block us from being human with our priest and his family? This creates an artificial split between religious piety reserved for church situations while we live totally secular lives apart, in effect shielding ourselves from the leaven of the Gospel affecting our daily life in the world. The priest is frequently separated from his family at church events by putting him at the head table with the Presvytera and children off in a corner. Is this formality always necessary? Is your parish sensitive to your clergy family’s needs? “Let the little children come to me” said the Lord when the disciples tried to separate him from the informal spontaneity of family, “for to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Finally, the priest has a very real need for personal renewal and for time apart. As a community do we support our priest taking time for this on a regular basis? Do we expect him to take his full vacation annually and to have time for retreat and continuing education? Do we see the benefit of a short sabbatical after years of faithful service in the church in order to deepen his spiritual life or education? All these things come down to love. Jesus did not come to criticize and judge us, but to forgive and redeem us. One of my mentors told us, “Christ did not come to change the world but to embrace it.” Embracing the priest and his family is a response to Christ and from this comes the greatest potential for renewal in the parish community.
Fr. Dn. Stephen Muse, PhD, LMFT serves in the Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Columbus, GA. Set apart for ministry as a pastoral psychotherapist, he directs a national program for clergy and spouses at the Pastoral Institute in Columbus, Georgia and trains pastoral counselors. He is the author of Being Bread published by St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press (2015). This is an edited version of an article written in 2007, seven years prior to his ordination to the diaconate.