His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH’s Remarks to the St. Tikhon's Seminary Community
March 1, 2007
South Canaan, Pennsylvania
Your Grace, Fr. Michael, Very Reverend and Reverend Clergy, Beloved Monastics, Esteemed Professors, Seminarians and the families, and guests:
“And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first. And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God: And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.” (Genesis 28:10-22)
Before I begin my remarks, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Fr. Michael Dahulich for his excellent presentations to the clergy of the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West several weeks ago. In my life, I have met many famous men, and I have also met a few great men. Fr. Michael is truly a great man, and I pray that God grants him many more years of service to the Church. His rich knowledge is valuable to us all because it comes from a heart purified by repentance and humility.
As we now plunge into the spiritual depths of Great and Holy Lent, let us all consider the hardships of the fast as an opportunity for purification. Those of you here today seeking ordination ought to consider the example of your dean not as a man of letters, but as a man who walks with the Lord. He is your Moses, who brings you the word of God so that you also may encounter the glory of God.
Too often, the seminary experience is boiled down to an educational program. Education is necessary, but only in as much as it provides a means by which we more forward to experience God. Many of my own priests who are successful pastors are not so because they are neither phenomenally intellectual, nor talented in singing, nor accomplished liturgists, nor inspirational homilists. Successful pastors are men who walk with the Lord Jesus Christ and experience His love and mercy first-hand, then share that experience with their people. They live out the Gospel in every moment of this brief life.
Seminary is a desert experience. It is a time where you must choose whether you will focus on the minor inconveniences or the goal. As one raised in a monastery, I know what this life is like. It is difficult, even more so as a tonsured monastic who forsakes many of the pleasures you all may still enjoy. Yet, the difficulties and privations of monastic life have given me all of the good things I now enjoy, especially my own relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. By giving up so many worldly distractions, I came to experience God. Though my sins are many, I still know the path, one that I must continue to struggle along until the end.
The seminary and the monastery are both difficulties that challenge us. You say that you love God, but do you really? You say you are faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, but will this commitment to Him endure minor difficulties? If you cannot endure the challenges of seminary, how will you last in a parish?
We clergy receive two diplomas: one when we graduate from seminary, and the second when the Bishop lays the aer over our faces at our funeral. This second diploma, the aer which was draped over the Holy Gifts, is the real graduation. It is the accomplishment of our earthly ministry. It is the good end we seek.
In your time in seminary, you will be assailed with many temptations. You will be tempted to become an intellectual bigot, or a nitpicker, or a materialist, or countless other distortions that a clergyman may become. Instead of falling into these traps and losing your salvation, I urge you to look to the examples of the Three Hierarchs. Though they were men of letters and of authority, they never let such things come in between them and God. Though they were educated, they knew that knowledge about God was nothing compared to knowing God. They sought to walk with God, and for that we honor them.
St Anthony the Great surrendered wealth and privilege for the depravations of the desert. Though he had no conveniences, and barely existed by our standards, he lived a noble life. Not because he endured suffering, but because his suffering helped him abandon those things that drive humans from God, and he was able to receive God within himself and bore much fruit.
Learn from the gentle spirit of Fr. Michael. He does not rage, nor is he callous. He bears his burdens without grumbling. If any of you can become half the man he is, then the Church will be richly blessed. When you are ordained and sent to a parish, be kind and loving, not a dictator. Inspire your people, don’t browbeat them with knowledge. Treat your people the way you would like your Bishop to treat you. With a little patience, you will be pleasantly surprised at how well this works.
Take this time, this Great Lent in the hardship of seminary, and make it your means by which you can grow closer to God. I urge you to repent, so that you can discover the joy of God’s forgiveness. If you have unforgiveness in your hearts, then let this poison be drained from you through Confession. If you have committed wrongs, then repent without fear, for God is merciful beyond our ability to comprehend. Release these burdens, so that you can be filled with the Holy Spirit. Do not flee from your suffering, but endure it so that you can more fully enjoy the mercy that awaits you on the other side of your cross.
Yes, it is the Cross that leads to the Resurrection, and so you must endure your own crucifixion in order to receive life anew. You must endure the indignities of seminary to receive the dignity of the priesthood. Do not whine and complain about little things, because years from now you will look back on these days and laugh at every harsh word or thought you had here, once you encounter the struggles that lie ahead.
Yes, the priesthood is a struggle, but it leads to salvation. For each hardship in ministry, there lies behind it only greater glory as we experience the grace and mercy of God.
While you are in seminary, you will learn theology in the classroom, but the rest of the time you should spend learning about yourself. You will not encounter God in a book or a lecture, but in your heart purified of guilt and resentment through humble prayers to God and fasting from worldly cares. You cannot be a priest and serve your ill feelings towards any other person at the same time. Every hard thought you have against another person is evidence of how far you are from the Lord, who loves all of us to the point of death on the Cross.
This love is what we aspire to. As a priest, you are called, above all things, to love your flock. Though you may have many imperfections, a loving priest can be forgiven many failings. His love for God, and through this love his love of his family and his community will preserve him from temptations and sin. If he loves his Bishop, then he will be truly blessed!
A purified heart, filled with the love of God, is the absolute and irreplaceable center of the Holy Priesthood. Let this purification be at the center of your seminary struggles. Learn theology so you can repent and be raised up by God’s mercy, and thus live out the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in every moment of your life, for your own salvation and the salvation of your family and parish flock.
May God bless you all.