You know, I’m not a huge fan of mosts priests. I pray for them. I show reverence to their person. But I find that most of them are entirely unhelpful, primarily because of the tendency to substitute religion for life. I don’t mean that they offer faith but don’t into account some need I have to be generally dishonest as a corporate minion, to murder that unwanted child in the womb or euthanize granddad at the pound (er… hospital). That’s not life – that’s just being a complete religious fraud. No, I mean the substitution of religion – the principles of the world dressed up as faith – in place of living experience. I’ll explain. First let me say, my lack of fondness for most priests extends to “pastors”, if your religion was invented in the last few centuries. “Religious leader” or “band director”, if you’re one of those mega-churches whose domain name ends with “.TV”. So this is a survey of how priests (or parochial religious leaders) sometimes fail us:
The neo-gnostic: You know that person that always presents an exception to everything, because he doesn’t really believe that anything is true? The closet nihilist? It could be the anthropology instructor who, when you say “homosexuality is demonstrably unnatural, because it does nothing to extend the survival of the species, and no species survives without procreation” (a demonstrably Darwinist principle), pops off with “well, there’s an obscure tribe in a remote corner of an island in New Guinea, consisting of 40 people, among whom…” You see, the remoteness of the exception demonstrates the genuineness of the rule. If you have to resort to something almost non-existent, you’re demonstrating the opposite point. The religious version of this creature, using the same gnostic technique, will respond to a statement about the Fast with “one monastic instructed another…” (different context) “that he should specifically refrain from the fast” (a rare exception) – or, for example, to “according to our tradition, women may not serve in this capacity…” with “1700 years ago, in a cave Church, in a remote village of what is now Romania…”. You get the point. This priest just doesn’t like Aristotles law of identity: a=a or the law of excluded middle: a or not a – he doesn’t believe a thing can be so or not so at all – for him, the thing religion is a tool to eliminate is the false belief in any certainties. His role is the reinterpretation of the certainties of the faith, the world, and human experience as a series of “yeah buts” on a program of “nothing can be known for sure” and “nothing really is really, really real”. He’s so committed to his nihilism and gnosticism that all he knows for sure is that you don’t know anything for certain. If you detect groundless, circular reasoning there, it’s because yeah, it’s religion – it has nothing whatever to do with the Faith. I find these priests inhabiting large parishes in the established jurisdictions. They’re loads of fun.
The perpetual seminarian: Ever get the feeling that you’re being “handled”? The neo-gnostic is handling you, too, and this is no less a form of religious manipulation. But I’m talking about something seemingly more benign, if every bit as sophomoric. It’s as if there is a class somewhere on what things to say to people to make the bundle up their concerns, their hurting, and their fear, and take it away with them, so the religious offices are not burdened. There are a gazillion things a priest can say to that end: “Maybe this is a trial, so you’ll learn humility” is one of the best. After all, when you say to someone, “you need more humility”, they can’t argue, can they? Not if they’re honest, and not in any case w/o seeming to prove you right. But it’s a non sequitur. In any other venue that religion, it’s understood that your issue is being blown off, and a kind of ad hominem is being used in its place. Only in robes, or with parents to their children, or husband to wife, or from employer to employee is this tolerated. In other words, it’s only gotten away with when one is in a position to emotionally manipulate another. The perpetual seminarian has a complete compendium of these can pop off with. It makes you think there’s a big book of them somewhere. Much to my disappointment, some years back I went to see, and such books actually do exist. It makes one considering buying the biggest one and carrying it around with a highlighter but, of course, religion is so all-consuming that that would just be more fodder for religion’s usual response to too critical an eye.
The guru: Similar to the perpetual seminarian, the guru is rife not with the helpful and practical words of the fathers, not with the ascetic demands they place on us, so that our deification is possible. But instead, they give us the swami response. “Sometimes, all you need is a love.” or “Wherever you go, God is there.” I mean, that latter is pretty good, and sometimes they get it right. But precisely because they don’t seem to see a difference between the words of the Beatles and the wisdom of the Fathers, you really don’t know what you’re getting, whether it’s consistent, and whether ultimately it’s even helpful. It all blends together in a self-help, personal psychology – a religion of personal improvement and the acquisition of self-fulfillment. I figure you can get this anywhere. There’s no need to dress it up in religious garb – just go down to your local coffee shop, breathe the incense, and smoke the ganga. Ganga is actually a form of organic coffee, you know. 🙂 I’m kidding – I like organic coffee – and ganga smoking is for dumbasses. But you see what I mean – is the Faith about deification or is it about personal enhancement. If the latter, religion becomes just a different flavor of something on sale in the CD section at Starbucks. “The question may be more important than the answer.” Really? Then what do I need you for? “The journey is…” You get the picture.
The top of the pyramid: This could be the quasi-rogue priest who keeps dossiers on everyone and leads his followers into the true, truth, of the true, one, only true, trueness, but strangely manages to stay within the lines well enough to avoid defrocking, all the while making it clear that his own brand of the brand is what’s really important. It could be the priest who sees himself as indispensible – without him, his public would just be the sheep w/o the shepherd (it is the Bishop who is the shepherd, not the priest, and the Bishop is a monastic who cannot but see himself as servant of all, if he is rightly dividing the word of truth). This kind of bandleader priest gets annoyed easily, talks in terms of the burden things pose to him, the emotional distress it provides him when he ‘has to deal’ with people who aren’t inherently propping up his view of things. It really is all about him. This gets helped along by those parishioners who apologize to visitors whenever the priest is sick or on leave or out of town, as though someone how the prayers will be less effective, or little of meaning or interest can possibly be conveyed in his absence. The two forces condition each other – the indispensible priest and the sacramentally gluttonous, dependent congregation. In the Church of our Fathers, a liturgy cannot even occur without the presence of at least one layperson. The laity are just as necessary. Does the priesthood of personality ever ask what emotional burdens it is placing upon the congregation?
The cool guy: This priest is the one who focuses on the 80%, and the 20% can either stray or get lost. 🙂 The focus and emphasis is always about what the majority want, or are thinking about, and he takes great care to remain popular – which isn’t wrong in itself – except that he also tends to frame things in terms of how you are pleasing others, fitting in, and making it all go smoothly. The parish is a machine, and you’re either oil or you’re sand – he encourages you not to be sand. Everyone likes this priest, except those who don’t, of course, but it’s all about fitting into the “family”. I always get creeped out when visiting some place and they pop off with, “we’re all like a big family”. It sounds like a small, white town to me, except that it’s about religious homogeneity rather than racial. It’s a cultural uniformity, and your role is supposed to be to ensure its continued existence as what it is – not extend it to embody more diversity. The rock star priest is fun, if you like that kind of music. If not, you’re on the sidelines like a nerd at a high school dance. You can hang on for the liturgy, but the picnics are going to suck – again, at least if you’re the other 20%,
Now I’m not picking on priests in general. I’m not interested in the anti-clerical cultural impulses that can prevail on the fringes of religion, any more than I am the anti-monastic ones that can prevail in parochial environments, or the anti-episcopal ones that typify fanatical manipulators who like to start their own missions across the street from the congregation. There are great priests. If priests had reviews, all of the above would get 5 stars from a ton of their fans. Fans are like that. Microsoft has made a ton of people its bitches, who are ready to sell their soul and everything else for a different color toolbar. The reviews don’t mean much – after all, do people really know what they want and need – if you’ve asked that question about me, ask it about yourself, too. It’s a fair one. So neither should you mind my reviews. I haven’t even named names. But obviously I’d give more of my stars to priests who don’t seem to want the above roles.
My preference, lately, is for the priest who is just doing the best he can. I’ve known a couple of them. One used to travel to minister to us, at his own expense sometimes, with often little sleep. He wasn’t perfect – he was just genuine. Another feels free to say “I don’t know” but without fixing you up with some artificial (and gnostic) platitude like “maybe the question is more important than…”. He’ll just say he doesn’t know, and give you the best advice he can. Not to laud these men, but let me ask you a question. When someone close to you has fallen asleep (you might say “has died”), do you want platitudes, guru-ism, emotional manipulation, to try to swallow your grief so you fit in better, or the general uncertainty of all things, or do you want someone to say “Your pain is yours. I don’t know what to say. I’ll stay here with you.” I know which one I prefer.