Priest as Mediator between God and Man (continuation)
We see some similar accounts in the life of Elder Haralampos the Abbot of Dionysiou Monastery on the Holy Mountain. He speaks of the benefit of the services of the Church and again especially the proskomedia in the Liturgy. A section of the book on his life is entitled: “The Elder as a spiritual father to clergy and to monks”. Here, it states:
“To married and unmarried clergy he imposed on them the performance of the set daily services of the Church, that is, Vespers, Compline, Matins and as far as possible more Divine Liturgies (during the week). To the excuse that people don’t go to church during the week, he answered, ‘The priest is a mediator, his work is to offer prayer and worship daily, for the flock.’” (Abbot Haralambos Dionysiatis by Monnk Joseph Dionysiatis, Athens 2004, p. 139)
Another section is headed, “The vision of the nourishment of the living—departed”. The following is related:
“Once a certain brother who was at New Skete fell into doubt, ‘We pray, keep vigil, this is well and good. But do we help others in this way, or only ourselves?’ Although he was preparing to confess this thought to the Elder, the Elder got in first and with a face that seemed deeply moved, said to the brother:
“Tonight, my child, God showed me the following frightful sight: As I was praying, it seemed for a moment that I was in a large refectory. I was standing in front of a door that looked similar to the Royal Gate of the Church. Inside, a never-ending line of people queued for food. I was like a food provedore. I could see you in that place; you were near me. You were cutting something like prosphora and bringing them to me. The other people came by in two lines, in one line were the living, in the other, the departed. I gave a piece of blessing to all and they left happy. I could see many people who were familiar to me, those who I had written both the living and the departed, on the paper for commemoration in the Divine Liturgy.”
The brother said:
“Elder, that was for me. You solved my query. Now I understand what benefit prayer has and the commemoration of names for all the people during prokomidi.”
“Since you are interested, my child, I will tell you something even more amazing about the prayer rope and my Elder’s life. My Elder had a cousin in the world. Even though she didn’t lead such a good life, the Elder loved her dearly. One day he was informed that his cousin had died and actually, not such a spiritually good death. She was pulling faces, swearing, and so on, and she was in such a state when she took her last breath. As soon as the Elder found out he started weeping. I found that strange, to have such a sensitivity and to be weeping so much. However, he understood my thought and pulled me up, ‘I am not weeping my child, because she has died, I am weeping because she has been damned.’ Nevertheless, from that day, the Elder gave himself to fasting and praying for his cousin. After quite a few days, I saw the Elder very happy and I asked him why. ‘I will tell you, my child. Having not rested all these days from praying and keeping vigil with fasting and tears for my cousin today I saw a happy and wondrous vision. As I was praying, I saw my cousin alive in front of me. She called to me with great joy, today is the day of my salvation. Today I have been saved from hell. Today I am going to heaven.’”
“Elder Joseph continued, ‘Suddenly I also saw the late Fr. George in front of me. He is a contemporary saint. I managed to meet him because he was still alive when I was in the world. He had put it in his mind, if possible to take out all the sinners from hell. Every day, he liturgized and commemorated thousands of names. Then he would go to the tombs and all day, read Trisagion prayers and memorial services for the departed. Now, I saw him in a vision and heard him saying to me with great amazement, “Well, well, until today, I thought that the dead were only saved with Liturgies and memorial services. But today, I saw and realized the damned are also saved with prayer ropes.” And again with amazement, “The people are also saved through prayer-ropes.” That vision informed me that my cousin had been saved. But God also showed me the power of the prayer-rope—that it can even take souls out from hell.’
“Elder Haralambos was deeply moved when relating this to the brother, gave the brother his blessing. Go with my blessing. See to it that you exert yourself, as much as you can, in obedience and the prayer, if you want to help yourself and others.” (ibid. pp. 136-8)
So a priest should be an intercessor for his people and really the whole race of Adam both in the services of the Church and in his private prayer. Now here is a good question to ponder: Do we automatically have this or is something we must develop? It is innate in all mankind because, as St. Sophrony recognizes, we, that is mankind, is an ontological community of being. In other words our manner of existence is communal. And it is because of this, on this basis that the more we develop love so much the more do we become intercessors.
St. Sophrony wanted his spiritual children to write on a number of subjects. One was “Development of personhood in Christ as a calling to pray for the world.” So then, we could conclude that love in a reason endowed creature in a fallen world takes the form of intercession. But we must acquire this, it becomes more manifest in us as the natural result of repentance and a strong life of prayer. So let’s first talk about repentance and then prayer. I want to start with what St. Joseph the Hesychast writes about 3 stages of grace. He writes in one of his letters:
“The spiritual life is divided into three stages, and grace acts in a person accordingly. The first stage is called purification, during which a person is cleansed. What you now have is called the grace of purification. This form of grace leads one to repentance. All eagerness that you have for spiritual things is due to grace alone. Nothing is your own. It secretly acts upon everything. So when you exert yourself this grace remains with you for a certain period of time. If a person progresses with noetic prayer, he receives another form of grace which is entirely different.”
“The second form of grace is called the grace of illumination. During this stage, one receives the light of knowledge and is raised to vision of God. This does not mean seeing lights, fantasies, and images, but it means clarity of the nous, clearness of thoughts, and depth of cognition. For this to occur the person praying must have much stillness and an unerring guide.”
“The third stage—when grace overshadows—is the grace of perfection, truly a great gift. I shall not write to you about this now, since it is unnecessary.” (Monastic Wisdom, 1998, St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, Arizona, pp. 44-5)
So we should see that ongoing repentance is central to Christian life. We really have to admire those monastic saints who repent thoroughly and completely as described by St. Jospeh the Hesychast. And repentance in our Orthodox Church has various shades of meanings. The Greek word “metanoia” literally means a change of mind, implying what the holy Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans: “be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). The equivalent word in Slavonic – “pokaianie” – implies to be wretched, to mourn and lament – to be filled with tears.
In conjunction with the disposition of one’s heart, and effort of free will, this “spirit of repentance” acts in varying degrees. In some people it acts temporarily according to the sins they have committed. There is confession, the resolve to change, remorse, and maybe some act of penance. However, in others this “spirit of repentance” acts systematically, remaining upon one, leading him from one degree of purification to another. Then, continuing on, this “spirit” – which is an action of the grace of God – leads one from one degree of enlightenment to another. So repentance really has no end when we consider that through it we do not merely draw near to God but we become like Him, for God is infinite.
Those who are being thus transformed become intercessors for the world. When I first came to St. Tikhon’s a young monk there made a very profound statement which could sum this up: “A monk is one who becomes like Christ so that he may become an intercessor for the world.”
(to be continued)