Priest as Mediator between God and Man (continuation)

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)

Priest as Mediator between God and Man

Priest as mediator between God and man

This was originally given as a talk at a deanery meeting of a small number of clergy. As interest has been shown to have it published. This is now being accomplished.

Priest as Mediator between God and Man

I want to begin by quoting a Greek-American priest who serves in the United States and had studied in Thessalonika in the early to mid 1980’s. While giving a talk he stated, “Here in America there is a lot of emphasis on various Church programs and external charitable works while in Greece there is stress on doing services especially the forty day liturgies that are requested.”

The programs for the edification of the faithful and charitable works certainly are needed and very good. We cannot deny that, but it is sad to see that the value of the intercessory aspect of the Church seems to be somewhat underestimated and neglected in America. This function of the Church is perhaps even thought to be non-essential, probably because most people like to see something palpable. This should not be. The Church is the Body of Christ and there are different members, with varying functions, we are all important and all are essential. All the members are needed and support one another and should respect each another.

And I believe this negligence of the intercessory aspect of the Church, points to a difference between Christianity East and West. Please bear with me as I illustrate and explain this comment: For 11 years I assisted in servicing a Greek parish 90 miles north from St. Arsenius Hermitage. There is a Western rite parish in the Antiochian Church whose property borders the Greek parish. I once went to a Vespers there and I have borrowed a service book. I look over the Liturgy which they serve and other sources of the Western rite Liturgy. One sorrowful thing is that there were no litanies either in Vespers or Liturgy and no proskomedia—this especially has great intercessory power; where we make remembrance of the living and the dead by name.
The Liturgy seemed to be an extended Eucharistic Canon with Scripture readings. The intercessory function of the priest and the whole Church at large is minimized and almost absent. Based on this, I once commented to someone: “I would feel like less than half a priest if I were to be in Western rite.” Why did I say this? Again, because the intercessory aspect of the priesthood is greatly minimized. In the Orthodox Church a priest is an intercessor and a mediator between God and the laity—specifically his parish. But here is something to think about: are we affected by the thought of the atmosphere we find ourselves in?

We can see how the intercessory function of the priesthood begins in the Old Testament with the Levitical priesthood. We read in the book of Exodus of the Lord instructing to Moses: “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty (Exo 28:2) ….And you shall take two onyx stones, and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel, six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth. As a jeweler engraves signets, so shall you engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel; you shall enclose them in settings of gold filigree. And you shall set the two stones upon the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel; and Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD upon his two shoulders for remembrance.” (Exo. 28:9-13)

And the Lord again commands or maybe we should say establishes the same intercessory function of the Levitical priesthood in a slightly different manner as Moses records:

“And you shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work; like the work of the ephod you shall make it; of gold, blue and purple and scarlet stuff, and fine twined linen shall you make it. It shall be square and double, a span its length and a span its breadth. And you shall set in it four rows of stones.” (Exo. 28:15-17)…”There shall be twelve stones with their names according to the names of the sons of Israel; they shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes.” (Exo. 28:21)… “So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment upon his heart, when he goes into the holy place, to bring them to continual remembrance before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the people of Israel upon his heart before the LORD continually.” (Exo. 28:29-30)

The apostle Paul points out the intercessory function of the high priests who inherit the position of Aaron in his epistle to the Hebrews: “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” (Heb. 5:1) It should be evident that it is not only Aaron, but all those of the Levitical priesthood had a calling to be intercessors for the people of Israel. We see this is the Gospel of Luke with Zachariah the father of St. John the Baptist “while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.” (Luke 1:9)

Now for us, the priesthood in the Church, is much more in that position. A few recent elders who were spiritual children of St. Joseph the Hesychast speak about this. In the book on St. Ephraim of Katounakia there is a section “About Priesthood” and this is what he says:

“When you celebrate the Liturgy you must keep in mind that you are a mediator. You remove pain, tears, illness and you lead to the throne of deity, the petitions from the congregation. You also bring consolation, cure or whatever each one has need of. God has rendered you a great office, my child. You should cultivate it. Always remember that God’s ear is the mouth of the priest.

The stole has great power. It intercedes between fallen man and his Father, his Creator. Therefore you ought to commemorate as many names as you can. As many as possible.

During the years of Turkish domination there were many priests going around from place to place. Yet there was a priest who collected names and commemorated them during Liturgy. When the Kaymakam, the Turkish officer, heard about this he said: ‘This priest is trying to incite people to mutiny.’ So he arrested the priest.

However, that very night the Turkish officer dreamed of all those people whose names the priest commemorated and they told the officer: ‘Listen to us, either you release the priest, because he prays for us and gives us comfort, or we take your first child’. This scared the Turk. Despite being the conqueror he said, ‘Go, priest go. I don’t want to lose my child’ and he set the priest free.
Great is the power the stole has my child. Great power indeed. Thus try to commemorate as many names as you can.

Fr. Arsenius, Elder Joseph’s spiritual brother, has given me some names from the time he was an immigrant from Russia and came to Greece. I commemorated them for many years. Later he said to me, ‘Elder, do you know what I dreamed? I dreamed about visiting one of the people whose name I gave you and I asked him how he was doing. “Not bad” he said, “but fortunately Father Ephraim comes and consoles us.” It was because I commemorated their names.

After this someone else said, ‘How are you doing?’

‘So-so, sometimes it rains for a while and I get cold but luckily Father Ephraim comes and comforts us’.

Then I said, ‘My brother, it is because I commemorate their names’.

Why do you think Priest Nicholas Planas became a saint? He used to commemorate lists of names. I once remembered some names; I scribbled them down and put the paper on the wall at the Proskomidi Table. After some time I dreamed of some elders of previous eras wearing old clothes. They said to me: ‘My child you wrote our names at the Proskomidi Table but the Elder does not commemorate us.’

‘Elder why don’t you commemorate these names?’ I asked him.

‘I could not see them clearly’, he replied.

‘Elder I dreamed of this: they complained to me that you didn’t commemorate their names’, I told him.

Ever since then I have always been willing to commemorate as many names as possible. The more names you commemorate the greater the reward from God. For this is the greatest charity of all: to unify man with God. It’s the greatest charity, indeed. And you can do that.” (Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, Holy Hesychasterion “Saint Ephraim” Katounakia – Mount Athos, pp. 243-5)

(to be continued…)