Essay / Theology

Offering Ourselves to God

I write this as I am on my way home from two weeks of teaching at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin. It was a good two weeks and I am grateful to the hard-working, thoughtful students who represent all that is good about the Episcopal Church in the United States. I was teaching a class entitled “History and Theology of Priestly Spirituality,” which in non-Episcopalian language is a “History and Theology of Pastoral Ministry.” For these two weeks we worked our way through the history of how the Christian church has understood and theologized about the ministry of the priest/pastor (and by extension that of deacon and bishop) and read some of the greatest books on priestly spirituality: John Chrysostom’s Six Books on the Priesthood, Gregory the Great’s The Pastoral Rule, Bernard of Clairvaux’s Five Books on Consideration, Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor and George Herbert’s The Country Parson. One book in particular, however, that really generated lots of conversation, debate and even some disagreement was Dermot Power’s A Spiritual Theology of the Priesthood. Power has essentially taken the thought of the influential Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and distilled it into a delightful read. It is one aspect of Balthasar’s theology of the priesthood above all that I would like to comment on.

In von Balthasar’s vision of the Roman Catholic priesthood (and perhaps also in his mind non-Roman Catholic priests/pastors), the priest stands half-way between those who are monks and professed religious and the laity (perhaps, for some, a pejorative term but a helpful term nonetheless). Because of his position, the priest is to have one foot in the world and one foot in “heaven,” if you will. That is, the priest is not fully like lay persons nor is he a fully professed monk or religious, he possesses something of both of these states of life. Therefore, says Balthasar, the priest, when he is being like a monk or religious, should espouse the three “evangelical counsels”: celibacy, poverty and stability. By doing so the priest is giving of himself to such an extent that he is then able to give himself most fully to God. Of course, Roman Catholics require celibacy of their priests, most churches provide a rectory and priest’s are (with few exceptions) attached to a particular diocese or, in the case of monastic priests, to a particular monastery or house. In some ways, Roman Catholic priests seem to be observing the evangelical counsels simply by being a priest, that is, passively and not necessarily intentionally. Yet, von Balthasar’s words communicate a more intentional entering into the evangelical counsels, that even before being ordained future priests ought to give themselves wholly to celibacy, poverty and stability. Thus, at their ordination, they will be giving themselves fully to God — a complete gift and sacrifice in imitation of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ who gave himself fully for humankind.

Of course, what this seems to imply is that the laity do not or are unable to give themselves fully to God since they are weighed down with the baggage of the world (my words, not Power’s or von Balthasar’s), therefore, the temptation would be to view the priest/pastor as inherently or ontologically more holy than the laity (a view espoused by Roman Catholicism as well as Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians and perhaps others). The opposite side of the coin, it would seem, is that von Balthasar is saying that those in religious orders are, in turn, more inherently or ontologically holy than the priesthood. In essence, for von Balthasar, there is a threefold descending caste of holiness: monk/religious, priest/pastor and laity.

The hurdle that many would need to jump to espouse von Balthasar’s theology is that of an ontological holiness that is given in the act of ordination (for a priest) or profession (for a monk/religious). Though I am unsure of von Balthasar’s theology of marriage, I highly doubt that he suggests that those who participate in the sacrament of marriage receive some sort of inherent/ontological holiness, which would be of little consolation to a single person anyway. The most pertinent question to put to the heart of von Balthasar’s theology is this: are lay single and married persons unable to give themselves fully to God? Or, is marriage or the lack of ordination to the priesthood an impediment to one’s giving of himself or herself to God fully (whatever “fully” may mean)? Romans 12:1-2 tells the people of God (regardless of state) to give themselves to God as a holy sacrifice, a sacrifice that God finds good, pleasing and acceptable. Paul does not qualify this passage with any anachronistic talk of monk/religious, priesthood or laity. Rather, his exhortation is directed toward all of God’s people. The nature of this sacrifice it would appear is to simply give oneself back to God, not one’s “things” but one’s very self. In a sense, those who are not under the vows of celibacy, poverty and stability likely have more “stuff” to offer to God (home ownership, a small fleet of vehicles, kid’s toys, etc.) but it does not appear from this text that God wants our junk but rather he wants us, our very selves. What is common between me, a monk and a priest is that we are each a person created in the image of God. It is this which God asks of each of us, that we give ourselves to him, making a full and perfect sacrifice of ourselves unto God.

I know a number of monks and professed religious and all of them appear to have their own set of “stuff” that they need to dispossess themselves of in order to be fully available to God. I do too. Yet, in God’s economy, the sacrifice that he asks of each of us is the same — that we give ourselves to him fully and unconditionally. Though some have less baggage than others, God still wants everyone to present themselves to him as offerings whether monk, priest or lay person. A theology summed up well in a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer (1979): “Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as though wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”

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