The Orthodox Pages

email: pater@christopherklitou.com 

TALK ON BECOMING

A PRIEST OR MONK
3rd Feb 2011

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I was asked to talk about what it entails to become a priest, monk or nun. I wrote the question down and just stared at it wondering what to say. From the question it was obvious that people consider the priesthood as something similar to the monastic order yet in theory the two are so vastly different that apart from the services and the similarity of the black garments they have nothing in common. The work of the priesthood does not need the monastic order whereas the monastic order, as we know it today, clearly needs the priesthood for the sacramental life of the monastery. The requirements needed to become a priest are also very different that those needed to become a monk. In theory anyone can become a monk, but special requirements are imposed for those qualifying to be accepted into the priesthood. To understand the differences we need to look at the priesthood and monasticism separately.

The priesthood is a sacrament which takes place during the celebration of the Mystery of the Divine Liturgy. There are three ranks or degrees to the priesthood in ascending order: the deacon, the priest or presbyter and the bishop. In the New Testament the priesthood originally had just the two ranks of Apostle and deacon and as the church grew it was found necessary to ordain bishops who are the successors to the Apostles and a middle rank called the presbyter. During the Liturgy the Bishop lays his hands on the candidate and through the invocation of divine grace the sacrament is accomplished.
But as I said not anyone can enter the priesthood: it is a special fellowship to which the church allows no economia. There are canons which determine who and who cannot join the priesthood and even though in other matters the church has shown a great laxity in the implementation of the canons, when it comes to the priesthood she remains rigid and inflexible.
About three years ago I was sent an email, probably by someone who had not been accepted as a candidate, asking why the church is so rigid when it comes to the priesthood. His question was: “According to our faith the sins that are confessed to a priest are considered as non-existent and the person that has committed them is fully forgiven. Despite that, certain sins prevent someone from becoming a priest. Why does this happen even after absolution?”
I answered him with the following:
“Firstly I think you have misunderstood the Sacrament of Holy Confession. Yes, all sins confessed are forgiven and one is given a clean slate, but it does not make the sin “non-existent”: it happened at some time in history and probably involved another person who was affected by it in some way. When hearing confessions, a Priest today largely ignores the sacred canons in favour of the use of “Economia”, but when it comes to the Priesthood they are strictly adhered to. In our day and age, where it is becoming more and more difficult to find men eligible for the priesthood, the Church would love to be lenient with many men who would make excellent Priests, but because of something in their past, they are barred from this exclusive office. The reason is not because the person is unworthy, but because the Church must at all times protect the image of the Priesthood: it must protect the Church from every possible scandal that may appear at a later date from someone’s past. If, for example the man in his youth fornicated with a woman even only once, and then broke off the relationship, this under normal circumstances is forgotten and life goes on. But what if the same man is ordained a Priest and the girl comes along later saying he was not worthy to be a Priest because he had slept with her, or worse still, that their one time “roll in the hay” left her pregnant and she bore a child with that priest, would not the media have a field day and cause a scandal for the Church? Thus to avoid any possible scandal everyone who has a ‘past’ or a police record is barred from entering the Priesthood. But because as I said before there is a great need for young men to enter the Priesthood, some bishops take a lenient view when sex before marriage involved the fiancé that actually became the wife as long as there wasn’t also a pregnancy before marriage.

Other instances, where someone’s past is ignored, is when the person at first belonged to another church and was then received through Baptism into the Orthodox Church. In such cases, of which there are many, the person is accepted into the Priesthood because his history is indeed wiped clean: his old life is buried and he is reborn with a new life in Christ: only the sins committed after Baptism are valid.
Another reason why the Church remains steadfast to the canons when it concerns the Priesthood is because the source of the Priesthood is the God-man, our Redeemer and Saviour himself, who alone is in reality the High Priest of the Church. Bishops and Priests do not have a priesthood of their own, but receive the one and only eternal Priesthood of Christ. They bear this Priesthood of Christ throughout their entire life and perform the divine Sacraments of the Church. But at all times they perform these Sacraments in the Priesthood of Christ and not their own. Thus those who are to receive this grace must be blameless. And it is not only the canons of the Church that tell us who may become a Priest: the New Testament is very clear on the matter. When the Apostles were to choose the Seven Deacons what did the Apostles say? “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom”. (Acts 6:3) Of honest report, e.g. of good repute and reputation, faithful, modest, holy, worthy of this grace and ministry.
But probably the strongest rules for the Priesthood were laid down by St. Paul in his Epistle to Timothy. He says: “This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not a lover of money; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for gain; Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 3:1-13)
From what has been said so far it is clear that no one should enter the Priesthood lightly but should contemplate it with great fear. There are many who enter it with humility and love, but there are also a few that enter it because they desire the honour and glory which they assume comes with it or because they want to wear the bright vestments and large golden crosses which they again identify with glory. This is definitely the wrong approach and they would do better to first read St. John Chrysostom’s “Six Books on the Priesthood” and then rethink and wait until God calls them to it. St. Paul says: “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work”, (1 Timothy 3:1) but he also says: “And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.” (Heb. 5:4-5)
While still a layman, St. John Chrysostom was called by the people to become their bishop yet he was reluctant to accept this honour. In his books on the Priesthood there is a dialogue between himself and his good friend St. Basil. Basil tells him that by not accepting the priesthood he does not love Christ and John replies that he will never stop loving him but he fears that by accepting the priesthood he would provoke Christ whom he loves. Basil sees his answer as a riddle or paradox and says “Christ has commanded him who loves Him to tend His sheep, and yet you say that you decline to tend them because you love Him who gave this command?” To this Chrysostom replies: “My saying is no riddle, but very intelligible and simple, for if I were well qualified to administer this office, as Christ desired it, and then shunned it, my remark might be open to doubt, but since the infirmity of my spirit renders me useless for this ministry, why does my saying deserve to be called in question? For I fear lest if I took the flock in hand when it was in good condition and well nourished, and then wasted it through my unskilfulness, I should provoke against myself the God who so loved the flock as to give Himself up for their salvation and ransom.”
Of course Chrysostom was more than qualified for the priesthood, but he sincerely thought of himself as unworthy and unskillful to be a shepherd of the church. He understood the great responsibility that comes with the position and feared that he did not have the skill to lead the flock of God to the heavenly fold. When describing the glory of the priesthood he says: “The work of the priesthood is done on earth, but it ranks amongst heavenly ordinances; and very naturally so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete Himself, instituted this vocation, and persuaded men while still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. The Priest therefore must be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers.”
I’m not sure if this answers the question of what it entails to become a priest. If the question was supposed to be more with what makes someone become a priest then this is considerably more difficult to answer. Each person has different experiences in life and this is especially true in one’s relationship to God. Although there are many common elements that appear when someone leads a spiritual life, I think these are not enough to allow us to generalize on what leads someone to the priesthood or the monastic life. There are those who from a young age were close to the church serving as altar boys and remained with the church into adulthood and others who were born into priestly families. Of these, entering the priesthood was the most natural thing to do. Others, as already mentioned, enter the priesthood for wrong reasons like honour and glory and others because it guarantees them a secure monthly income. Whatever the reason, it is not for us to judge or question, because God has accepted them to serve him as shepherds of his flock.
Entering a monastery again is not something people do because they want an easy life, or because they are running away to hide from the world after a disappointing and heartbreaking relationship. This seems to be a popular understanding with people who believe that those entering a monastery are throwing their life away. Another popular understanding is that the only thing monks do is pray and eat at certain intervals, but for most monks life is very difficult involving a lot of hard work with very little time left for reading and private prayer. If someone enters a monastery without having the calling then he will not survive and choose to leave shortly afterwards. Neither can someone be brainwashed to leave the world and enter a monastery. It will seem like a prison and he or she will wait for the opportunity to escape. Our bishop has been accused many times by parents whose children have entered a monastery that he brainwashes them into becoming monks. This is so ridiculous and hard to believe. They maybe someone’s child, but we are talking about grown intelligent adults who have gained a university degree. If anything the bishop tries to make them change their mind and even suggests finding them a partner to marry.
Why then do some people decide on this kind of life? For the majority there was a turning point in their life where through God’s grace they were enlightened to realize that this world is temporal and the only true life is the one near to God. In their pursuit to be with God they discover that they cannot do this in a world where people live only for a material life. They do not fit in with society and think on a very different wavelength than everyone else. If the world is the human race then they have become something very different and don’t belong to the human race any more. The only solution is to find a place to live among people who think the same as they do. Only there will they find peace and feel that they belong. A monastery is therefore a haven for people who share the same wavelength and help each other in their struggles to gain spiritual knowledge.
To truly understand why some people become monks or priests you would need to be on the same wavelength or at least to be tuned in even with some static interference. How each person finds God is different, but whatever life we choose to live, this life should have one and the same aim which is salvation. I’m not sure what else to say that will help you understand why a small minority of people decide to separate themselves from the mainstream of society other than to tell you about my own life and experiences. I began as a monk and ended up as a priest so I know both worlds. Usually I would be reluctant to speak about myself especially when it involves my personal and spiritual experiences, but if it would help you understand then it would serve as a good cause. My life story is a good example of how God’s grace can lead us to spiritual knowledge, but I have a problem because I don’t rightly know where and how to begin this story? Psychiatrists always like to begin with one’s childhood and when I look back I indeed see things that happened during my childhood which paved the way for what would happen to me later as an adult. To get a better picture you need to understand what my relationship with God was before I became an adult.
As you know I was born in London at a time when the Orthodox Church was almost unknown in the west. In London there were only two Orthodox churches which were in central London. As an infant I must have attended church regularly because up to the age of two we lived just around the corner from the church. After two we moved to the north of London and as there was no local church I grew up without any memory of ever attending church. We didn’t have a car and traveling by London transport on Sundays was no easy task. At that time England still held on to certain Christian values and Sunday was a day of rest. It was forbidden to open shops on Sundays and the trains and underground services were closed. The only transport that was available was a skeleton bus service which only covered the main routes so to get to church from our house you had to change three buses and hope that the journey didn’t take you three hours. My father always took the long journey but my mother with four young children found it a little daunting and easier to stay at home. Thus as a family we were assigned to a life without the influence of the church, but we still retained our Christian identity at home. Mum always had a home iconostasis with various icons of saints where she ritually and reverently lit the vigil lamp on Saturday evenings and on the Great feasts. For us the children, this place was sacred and equivalent to a church. Anyway I mentioned all this to paint a picture of how I grew up without the church, but also to show how God was still very much alive in the family home.

I think the next story is what probably influenced me the most. When I was about seven, Dad took us to a large department store to buy us Christmas presents. I remember it well because it was the first and only time. We each had to choose a present, but we were to share the presents amongst ourselves. My sister chose the Monopoly game, my elder brother chose a chess set, my younger brother chose a compendium box with a selection of various table games and I chose the Children’s picture Bible. In the following months we would fight as to whose turn it was to read it, but eventually it became solely mine and over the next few years I would read and read the stories over and over again. My favourite was the story of Joseph which always made me cry and even today when I read it, I get all emotional inside and can’t stop the waterworks. The children’s picture Bible may be simply written but it gave me knowledge of the basic stories in both the Old and New Testaments.

When I was about eleven I overheard my parents talking about a holy mountain where people go to become saints. They must have been talking about monks and Mount Athos, but because I knew the story of Moses and how he went up to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments I immediately pictured in my youthful mind a special mountain where if you go to the top and stay there for forty days you automatically become a saint. Then I had a thought – When I grow up that is what I will do, I will go to this mountain and stay for forty days and talk with God and then I will become a saint. This might be just a childish fantasy but the memory remained with me into adulthood which you will understand a little later on.
I grew up just like any other teenager in London and although I believed in God I grew up in an age where science was rapidly taking over people’s belief in God. Society didn’t allow teenage boys to openly admit that they believed in God otherwise you would be classed as a sissy. I remember an occasion when I was 12 just outside the school gates. Our last lesson of the day was R.E. (Religious Education) and with a group of friends we were discussing who believed in God. When it came to my turn I said that I believed that there was some ultimate power that governed the universe but declined to call that power God. As I started the 20 minute walk home. I was overcome with guilt. I remembered that Christ said “whosoever denies me before men, him will I deny before my heavenly father.” My guilt led to uncontrollable tears and I started talking to God justifying my action. I said things like “I had no choice, if I admitted my belief in you they would have made fun of me and I would have been humiliated. Are we not supposed to hold our head up high and be proud?” As an adult I confessed this denial, and even though I know the sin has been forgiven, I still consider it as my greatest sin.
Nothing else of interest happened to me until I reached the age of 17. I won’t tell you exactly what I experienced, but one night I heard a heavenly voice which was so overwhelming and convincing that for me it was proof beyond any doubt that there was a spiritual world. This was a turning point in my life. I hungered to learn anything and everything about the spiritual world. I suppose I should have visited a church and spoken with a priest, but as I had no contact with the church I felt they wouldn’t have been able to answer all my questions. I felt that they would give me the brush off with the saying my mother and others of her age would use: “belief and don’t search”. In other words have blind faith and don’t search for answers. This was something I couldn’t do: My logic told me that we must search for the truth. I had certain beliefs and I needed to find reassurance that what I believed was the truth.

I began searching for books that would help me understand the spiritual world. I visited libraries and bookshops and the only books I could find were books on the occult. I began reading these books but discarded them as untruths: they didn’t fit in with my logic of truth. Sadly, in all the bookshops and libraries that I visited I didn’t find any Orthodox books which would have drawn my attention and probably answered many of my questions. My search went on for almost ten years. During the Christmas of 83, we had for dinner a cousin from Cyprus and a friend of his who were studying together in London. The subject of religion came to the forefront and the friend, seeing that I was interested and had many questions suggested that in the New Year we visit a monastery in Essex where there would be a theologian who could answer all my questions. I jumped at the chance. I had long wanted to attend a service and the excuse that I would be going mainly to ask questions seemed like the opportune moment. We fixed the date for Sunday 6th January and I waited impatiently for the day to arrive.

On the morning of the 6th I received a phone call from the cousin saying we should cancel the trip because overnight it had snowed so heavily that driving 50 miles to the monastery would be very dangerous. I disagreed and luckily so did the friend so slowly we set off on our journey. When we reached the monastery we entered the church to discover that except for two more people, we were the only visitors that day. It was my first time at an Orthodox Liturgy and the solemnity and humility of the fathers made a big impression on me. After the service we were invited to have dinner with the monks and nuns and I sat opposite the theologian whom I bombarded with my various questions. Sure enough he answered my questions with answers that agreed with my logic. One of the monks also look me under his wing and for the next few hours I followed him around the monastery asking him other questions while he carried on with his work. The time came for us to leave and I asked him if I could come another day and continue our discussions, He said I could visit whenever I wanted, but I’m not sure he realized what he was letting himself in for. The next day at 9 in the morning I went back to the monastery and found him and he put up with me until 11 at night when he had to close the monastery gates.

At the monastery they also had a bookstore with Orthodox books in English and I had such an appetite to learn more that I would read about four books a week. From what I read I discovered that I had always been Orthodox. I had always lived by my convictions and never allowed my friends to influence me to do things that I felt uncomfortable with or that were against my ideas of what was moral and ethical. At times I wouldn’t join in with certain activities and I felt that I was a little strange or weird and didn’t totally fit in with the rest of society. I now knew the reason why – I wasn’t weird – I was Orthodox although I didn’t know it at the time. My relationship with the monastery grew and I became a regular visitor that within a couple of months I was considered a close friend. During Holy week I stayed at the monastery and attended all the services which are a lot more than what we do in parishes and on Holy Thursday I took Holy Communion for the very first time.

On Easter night something happened which I took as a personal message from Christ. The Easter service was performed in an Old church about half a mile down from the monastery. As I had a car I was asked to go back to the monastery before the actual Resurrection service was to begin and pick up the founder of the monastery blessed Fr. Sophrony. This I took as a great honour and it became my duty for the next couple of years. I returned to the church with Fr. Sophrony and because the church was so overcrowded I went through the sanctuary and took my place at the front of the church near the iconostasis. With fifteen minutes to midnight all the lights were put out and we were asked to remain in the darkness in silence praying until the priest would come out with the Easter light at exactly 12 midnight. As the lights went out an old woman who was standing a few feet away from me had a heart attack and died on the spot. There was a woman doctor there whom I had met and she tried to resuscitate her. I watched as she gave her mouth to mouth and saw that she was doing it completely wrong. I wanted to go and show her but I didn’t dare presume to know better than a doctor. The minutes clicked away and it was almost midnight. I finally plucked up the courage to take over from the doctor. I bent over and held the dead woman’s nose and breathed into her mouth. It was exactly midnight and the fathers opened the curtain to come out with the Resurrection light. At that moment the woman came back to life and took her first breath and I heard a voice inside me saying: “you see I am the life and Resurrection, I can take life and I can give it back.” It was as if what happened was for my benefit, that Christ used the woman to show me that he had the power to resurrect the dead. After the service during the Resurrection breakfast, the monk who had helped me during my first visit came and thanked me for helping his mother. I had no idea who she was, but I told him that it all happened as a message for me and he seemed to understand what I was trying to say. Needless to say I became close with the woman and called her mum while she called me her guardian angel.
My life had changed from my first visit to the monastery, but over the next few months I became very ascetical leading a very secluded spiritual life. If was as if I had become a completely different and new person and nothing of my old life had meaning any more. Christ took over and filled my every desire and all I wanted was peace and quiet to pray and come closer to God. After a couple of years I realized I couldn’t continue living in seclusion and it was time to think about entering a monastery. At that time the monastery in Essex didn’t have room for more monks and so I decided to look for a monastery abroad. I visited Mount Athos and although my visit was enlightening I didn’t feel that it was the place for me. Then one evening I heard my parents talking of the Troodidissa Monastery in Cyprus that was in the mountain range of their village. I decided there and then that that was where I would go. I made the arrangements and entered the monastery on the 21st May 1986.

Monasticism agreed with me very well and I was an excellent novice, but something was missing, I didn’t feel at home. After a few months I was out walking with another monk and as we were looking at the wonderful view of the valley below us, I told him about the story when I was eleven and that as a young child I had decided to go to a mountain and speak with God and become a saint. He said: “there you see, God has led you to your mountain.” I looked at the view and said: “No, this is not my mountain”. I stayed on at the monastery and just after Christmas made my final decision and left.

I returned to England and people began to tell me that I should become a priest. I had never thought of myself as a priest, but only as a humble monk. The two were completely different vocations. A priest is involved with responsibility and taking care of the spiritual needs of a flock. A monk on the other hand doesn’t enter a monastery to tend to other, but solely for the purpose of living together with a group of people who have the same desire and aim of devoting themselves to a life of prayer. I told my spiritual father what people were saying and he agreed that I should think seriously about becoming a priest. I thought on what my spiritual father had said, but didn’t rush to make a decision. At heart I was still a monk and wanted to remain celibate. My spiritual father was against this. He felt that priests in parish churches should be married and even though there were many celibate priests serving in town parishes, he felt that it was easy for a celibate priest to fall into temptation or even be a victim of a scandal not of his own doing. But he suggested that I go to various churches in London and ask the priests for their opinion. They weren’t much help. The celibate priests praised the celibate life and the married priests praised the married life. I left things as they were leaving it to God to show me what he wanted me to do. In the meantime I took up lessons to learn Iconography.

After three years the question of becoming a priest again came to the foreground and I took this as a sign that it was God’s calling. I spoke with the Archbishop and his only concern was that my Greek was not very good and that I should come to Cyprus for a year to attend the Seminary School for priests. I was reluctant to go but we agreed on just one year. Even though the lessons were in Greek I passed the first year with excellence and returned to London. The Archbishop then said that I must go back for another year. This I was not going to accept because living conditions at the school were terrible and most weekends when all the other students went to their homes, I stayed in the school by myself without heating in the cold winter and without the use of the kitchen to make a tea or coffee. The Archbishop then said that he would arrange for me to go to Patmos where they had an excellent school. In the meantime I was told of his plans for me. I was the first British born Cypriot who had decided to become a priest. As I also was to be a celibate priest, plans were being made to prepare me for the Episcopate. This was something I had never imagined: it was hard enough to think of myself as a monk now preparing to become a priest, but I definitely didn’t have the qualifications or ability to hold the office of a bishop.

The time came for the schools to reopen and the Archbishop told me that he didn’t arrange for me to go to Patmos and that I must return to Cyprus. I refused and he gave me an ultimatum: either I go back or he will not ordain me. I refused and accepted that it was not God’s will. Soon I was being told by other priests to go to Cyprus and be ordained. This set me thinking if I could be a priest in Cyprus. Certainly in England I could have devoted myself to helping three generations of Orthodox whom the church had failed because the priests stubbornly insisted on their Greek heritage and offered nothing spiritual for the thousands of British born Orthodox who no longer spoke Greek. They were people that I understood because I was one of them. The church felt it more important to hold on to a national identity and because the churches were still full with first generation Greeks they were blind to see the spiritual needs of the newer generations.

If I had become a priest in London then I think my decision to remain celibate would have been justified because I would have had little time for a wife and family. But now with the question of coming to Cyprus, what could I offer other than the Sunday Liturgy? It was time to rethink. If I was to become a priest in Cyprus I had to marry otherwise my free time would become a temptation. Thus in 1992 I came to Cyprus to find a wife and then be ordained a priest. During my stay I came across many obstacles and some that followed me from England. By December things did not turn out as I had hoped and returned to England for the Christmas holidays with the intention of returning in January to box all my belongings and return to England for good. I had finally accepted that it was not God’s will for me to be a priest. With this in mind I returned to Cyprus to sort out my belongings and then things started to change. I met my wife and the doors which I previously found closed began to open. Within three months I was married and the next Sunday I was ordained a deacon. Everything just happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to change my mind. I was ordained a priest after six weeks and I can honestly say that I have never regretted my decision to come to Cyprus.
This then is my life story and I like to believe that I became a Priest because God called me to the priesthood and not because I had any aspirations or ambitions or desire for honour and glory. I didn’t make any rush decisions: from the first mention of the priesthood, 6 years passed before it actually came to be realized. I certainly didn’t enter the priesthood for the monthly income. As a lay person I had my own business which guaranteed me an income of three thousand pounds a week which I gave up for a priestly income of 270 pounds a month.