Theognostos once again focuses on the person of the priest, while creating a structure that can be applied to all of us.
Priesthood, he says, is a light yoke for those who have the right disposition and commitment and a heavy burden for those still engrossed in the material world.
Those for whom “the priesthood is light and its yoke easy,” have mended their “ways and expound the truth rightly, thus working out [their] salvation with fear and trembling.”
Theognostos does not ask for perfection but for a complete re-orientation from self to God. Those seeking inner peace in a union with God, especially priests, must commit to a life of continuous ascension through repentance, renewal, and forward progress.
One of the great temptations for priests, as well as for the rest of us, is to mistake the dignity and authority of their role or office for an opportunity for personal power and gain. When the grace of the Holy Spirit is viewed as a commodity “for sale,” or means for one’s own gratification, priesthood becomes a burden.
When what is beyond price is bartered in the name of human expedience and for perishable gifts, and when the call is not from above, the burden is heavy, indeed; or it is borne by someone unworthy, whose powers it exceeds. The yoke is then extremely harsh, chafing the neck of him who carries it and sapping his strength; and unless it is taken from him, it will exhaust and destroy him utterly.
Theognostos makes it clear that God’s wrath does not descend upon us from the outside-in but rather as a consequence of our own choices.
How often do we create our own “yoke” around our neck, for example, by allowing the quest for power and control to drive our personal or professional lives? Perhaps we measure workdays by our perceived increase or decrease of status and recognition; our effectiveness as parents by our children’s professional success and willingness to follow our script for them. Constantly preoccupied with our self and personal advantage, we miss opportunities for love and connection and widen the distances between us and God.
In my consulting work, I have observed countless of organizations decline because they forgot their original mission of providing value to their clients. Over time, the interests of the organization, including people’s positions and personal agendas, outweigh the welfare of clients. Eventually, organizations become so self-involved that their clients and communities are perceived as annoying distractions, rather than the very reason for their existence. As the distance between providers and those they serve grows, organizations lose the sense of shared purpose that inspired and united them. They become fragmented into silos, inward-oriented, and fraught with power and political conflicts.
The more we focus on our own glory rather than God’s, the greater our distance from Him.
“Salvation is attained through simplicity and virtue,” Theognostos says, “not through the glories of the priesthood.”
The wrath of God that the fallen priest, and the rest of us, may experience is not simply an act of revenge or punishment, Theognostos shows, but the result of our own lack of preparedness for the love of God.
As Vladimir Lossky puts it: “At the second coming of Christ … [t]he love of God will be an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.” (Quoted in Dylan Pahman’s blog post, Grace and Wrath in the Orthodox Tradition, (February 10, 2015).
Archimandrite George, Abbott of the Holy Monastery of Gregoriou on Mount Athos, gives another practical example from everyday life (in “Deification as the Purpose of Man’s Life.”)
Let us mention a somewhat relevant example from things human. If we grasp a bare electric wire, we will die. However, if we connect a lamp to that wire, we are illuminated. We see, enjoy, and are assisted by the energy of electric current, but we are not able to grasp its essence. Let us say that something similar happens with the uncreated energy of God.
In the same vein, Theognostos, tells us that “even though “our God is a consuming fire,” you can touch this fire without being burned if, like the three children in Babylon, if you “are as gold and silver.” However, “if you are like grass or reeds or some other easily combustible material as a result of your earthly thoughts, then tremble lest you should be reduced to ashes in the heavenly fire…”
We have the choice of adopting the attributes of gold or grass, braving the fire without harm, or being consumed by it.
Theognostos has, however, empathy for the priest who has lost his way, for whom priesthood has become a yoke that will eventually “exhaust and destroy him.” Even then, there is hope in the choices a priest can still make. Specifically, “…you escape God’s wrath by quitting the priesthood.”
Such choice requires a great deal of discernment and humility in recognizing the options before you, acknowledging your shortcomings and making the decision to leave:
Either then, you should become dispassionate like the angels, in thought and purpose superior to the world and the flesh, climbing the ladder to heaven in this way; or else, aware of your weakness, you should in fear avoid the high rank of the priesthood, terrified of the great fall should you prove unworthy of it.
Theognostos offers the choice of leaving the priesthood without judgment or shame:
“Choose the form of life followed by the laity,” he says, “for it brings one no less close to God than priesthood.”
Ultimately even the highest and most coveted positions in life can become burdens if we do not achieve reconciliation with God and have love in our hearts.
St. Maximos presents the state of mind of someone on the path of theosis which we should all aspire to as our most cherished destination:
When a man’s intellect is constantly with God, his desire grows beyond all measure into an intense longing for God and his incisiveness is completely transformed into divine love. For by continual participation in the divine radiance his intellect becomes totally filled with light; and when it has reintegrated its passable aspect, it redirects this aspect towards God, as we have said, filling it with an incomprehensible and intense longing for Him and with unceasing love, thus drawing it entirely away from worldly things to the divine. (Four Hundred Texts on Love).