The Priest and Contemplative Living

In every Christian life, the art of living, the ars vivendi, the art of making a radically new start, cannot be practised without an art of dying, the ars moriendi. Life through death is the very paradox of the Christian living. This art of dying is not an expression of resignation or despair but a constitutive element in the ars vivendi, without which neither can be living signs of the Spirit, since it is through this that what is genuinely new emerges and grows, teaching us to make room for new initiatives and institutions of the Spirit. People who have responded to God in such a dying and rising way of living reflect its fruits in their immense humanity in which they are so much at ease with themselves and others in the strong and confident faith that radiates from them.

Broken heart

‘It is doubtful’, writes Michael Ramsey, ‘if any of us can do anything at all until we have been very much hurt, and until our hearts have been very much broken.’ Earlier it was noted that in his Apologia Gregory of Nazianzen, who had himself experienced ‘the despair of being a priest’, describes the priest as a servant of God, and no-one is worthy of God unless he has offered himself completely as a living and holy sacrifice. The suddenness with which his father, the Bishop of Nazianzus, had ordained him priest against his wishes impelled him to flee in terror to Pontus. He had a high conception of the duties of a priest, and was appalled by those around him who were pressing to be priests from worldly motives: love of money, position, ambition, power and authority, pushing and thrusting themselves forward, though ignorant of religion and unworthy in their lives. A sense of the difficulties entailed by a cure of souls, by correct theology, by beneficial preaching, overwhelmed him. Inspired by the example of Jonah, whose refusal to preach to the men of Nineveh brought him so many troubles, he returns home and said to the people of Nazianzus:

‘A man must himself be cleansed before cleansing others; himself become wise that he may make others wise; become light before he can give light; draw near to God before he can bring others near; be hallowed before he can hallow them; be possessed of hands before leading others by the hand and wisdom before he can speak wisely.’1

This kind of inner transformation of which Gregory speaks is the fruit of letting oneself become such a living and holy sacrifice, the art of making a radically new start in the way of the ars moriendi. As a runaway priest, his soul was in turmoil, and he the unworthy incumbent of the priesthood. When he realized that no-one had a right to resist a call from God, so too did he see that one must not anxiously avoid difficulties. On the contrary, on his return to the remote and ugly little town in which he was to exercise his priesthood, described as the least among the townships of Cappadocia and far worse than what is now termed the ‘urban desert’, he knew he had to go right through the midst of his difficulties and descend to the cause of his terror. For it is there that the greatest chance of meeting God awaits us. ‘Whoever wants to save his life will lose it; and whoever loses it will save it.’

Solitary refinement

Like Gregory, it is not only one’s unworthiness but also a sense of one’s own inadequacy that consciously, but to a large extent unconsciously, impels one on one’s own journey to ‘Pontus’, tempting one to run away into a spirit of alienation from reality. Consequently, one is led into escape routes in which one is tempted to hide from the real and essential task of priesthood. Priesthood and prayer are a way of living rather than a series of acts, in which the way to life is through death, an existential disposing of ourselves in the way of the Pascha Christi, so that the death and resurrection of Christ can take hold of one’s life and transform it. Such prayer is not a way of doing something, but a way of becoming someone, becoming oneself, one’s real self, created by God, redeemed by the Son and a temple of the Holy Spirit. The emphasis is on the words life and refinement, since one enters a whole new kind of existence, discovering an inner centre of motivation and love which makes one see oneself in a new light and everything else.

Call it faith, contemplative illumination, the sense of God. These are different aspects or levels of the same kind of the awakening of ourselves to a new kind of awareness in Christ. Blake’s words ‘the doors of perception are opened’ describe it. All life takes on a new meaning and we stop living like a machine and being pushed around by impulsions and suggestions from others. We see everything transfigured ‘in God’.

Arthur Middleton is a Tutor at St Chad’s College, Durham.

Extract from his book, Towards Renewed Priesthood (Gracewing 1995)