Pastoral Ministry and the Art of Flying / Fr. Dr. K. M. George

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(It is with delight that I contribute this article in honour of H.G. Dr. Mathews Mar Severios who is celebrating his 60th birthday. His humanitarian contributions to Church and Society are laudable. Metropolitan Mar Severios has taken with utmost seriousness the gospel message of our Lord to care for the poor and the needy. The Church is proud of the many institutions and projects he has pioneered in order to serve the weaker and marginalized sections of our society.

In addition to all this remarkable social work, he is shouldering the big responsibilities of the Secretary of the Synod and is actively teaching Theology at the Orthodox Theological Seminary. I pray for continuing guidance and all blessings in his very fruitful ministry.)

“The scope of our art is to give wings to the soul”, so wrote Gregory of Nazianzus, the 4th century theologian, poet, orator and philosopher. He was referring to the vocation of a theologian who is also called to exercise pastoral ministry for the people. Gregory, called “theologian” by the Christian tradition for his monumental work of expounding the doctrine of the Trinity, was one of the most learned men among the ancient Fathers of the Church. Having spent 10 years in ‘secular’ learning in the academy in Athens, Gregory, a lay person of aristocratic background, returned to his native Cappadocia with a deep desire to lead a quiet contemplative life. Through the intense study of the Scriptures he aspired to turn the celebrated Greek learning (logos) or “the bastard letters”, as he called it with both admiration and criticism, to the wisdom of the true Logos, the Word of God incarnate. He was forcibly ordained to priesthood by his own father, bishop of Nazianzus in spite of his resistance. He left the place in protest and fled to a solitary hermitage for meditation and study with his close friend Basil, but later returned and accepted the call of the Church. The well-known speech he made on that occasion gives us an inspiring vision of the pastoral ministry and the person of a pastor-teacher-theologian vis-à-vis the people of God. His oration on pastoral ministry and why he was reluctant at first to accept it inspired both John Chrysostom and Pope Gregory the Great in their own famous writings about the pastoral ministry.

My intention here is not to discuss the life and work of St. Gregory of Nazianzus. Let me simply dwell on the rich metaphor of wings Gregory makes use of as he addressed the question of ministry in an age and place different from ours, but also similar in many respects. The metaphor of wings has echoes in the liturgical-spiritual practice of the Church. Wings stand for upward movement, for soaring high up in the sky. Wings can carry up a body that is otherwise heavy and pulled down to earth by the gravitational force. In spiritual exercises, especially in the Eastern Christian ascetic tradition, standing posture for prayer is an effort to overcome the natural inclination of our body to yield to the force of the dust of the earth, a metaphorical expression for death. The model here is the risen Christ who overcomes the grip of evil and death, and is portrayed in iconography in an ascending/flying mode. In the Eastern Christian tradition in general all community prayers and the liturgy are done standing (kaumo) in an emulative participation in the resurrection (kyomto) of Christ. Observing a vigil or state of wakefulness has the same principle. Sleep stands for weight of the body, downward pull, lying down and returning to the dust of the earth or death. Resisting sleep and standing up symbolise the quest for life and hope for resurrection.

Bodies of Adam and Eve in paradise, according to Patristic exegesis, were weightless and transparent. The fall consisted in adding weight to their bodies and they became opaque, resistant to light. This is our present human condition. We lost our wings, fatigue and sleep weighing on us, bodies being constantly pulled to the ground. All transparency between human beings and between humans and nature is lost.
The human desire to fly, therefore, is a spiritual quest at its core. It is the ancient aspiration of humanity to break loose from the clutches of gravity and finally of death and disintegration. A story attributed to Fr. Raimundo Panikkar goes thus: One of his nephews was trained as a pilot. The young pilot went to receive blessings from his grandmother before the first flight. The elderly grandmother was happy but a bit concerned about her little boy going up in the air. While blessing him, she gave him a piece of advice: ‘My child, when you take the plane, always fly low and slow’. We can easily imagine the outcome of flying low and slow!

Christian spirituality is about flying high, and helping others fly too. This is what St. Gregory attributes to the vocation of pastor-theologians – participating in the work of Christ, redeeming creation from its downward course of disintegration to non-being and lifting it up to the source of light and life. Eucharistic anaphora (from anaphero = lift up), the heart of the liturgy, does exactly the same thing. The celebrant in Christ-like manner carries up the whole creation in the form of bread and wine to the presence of the Creator God in praise and thanksgiving. This is to provide wings to the world weighed down by the power of death.
Let me identity three broad areas which require the special attention of a wing-providing pastoral ministry:

1. Ministering to the Mystery

For the early patristic tradition the sense of the mystery of God and the absolute unknowability of God’s being was the starting point not only for theology, but also for pastoral ministry. The six-winged seraphim, in Isaiah’s vision, who cover their face with two wings and the feet with two and fly with two around the throne of God singing holy, holy, holy…. (Is. 6:2-3) was a favourite exegetical theme for the Eastern Fathers. The liturgical tradition assimilated this and interpreted the Church’s priestly ministry in terms of ministering primarily to the mystery of the incomprehensible and ineffable Reality.

In Patristic exegesis, not without Platonic undertones, Moses is considered to be the model par excellence for a priest-theologian. In the Exodus narratives, Moses goes up the holy mountain to the presence of God on behalf of the people. As he reaches the summit he goes into the cloud, to “thick darkness” of total unknowing. When he returns to the people and holds the tablets in front of the people, they see only one side of it, the side inscribed literally with the 10 commandments. The other side, the apophatic and spiritual dimension, is visible only to Moses who as pastor-theologian was initiated into the presence of God. We are reminded that Paul the Apostle wants us to consider the apostles as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (I Cor.4:1). Ministering to the mystery of the Triune God as the source of our being and the end of our existence constitutes the foundation of the pastoral ministry of the Church.

Some of these Patristic perspectives remind us that the academic, the pastoral and the mystical are not different and discrete domains in the understanding of the Church. Unlike in Western academic tradition, where systematic theology, biblical theology, pastoral theology and spirituality are all differentiated one from the other, the Christian Church holds them all together. One should not lose sight of their holistic and integral character.

It seems there is a shift in contemporary theology towards the recovery of the apophatic and the sacramental dimensions of theology. It is recognized that the ‘hiddenness of God on the cross’ and the ‘incomprehensibility of God in theological discourse’ have been marginalized in modern theology (David Tracy). The heyday of Enlightenment rationality and the celebration of the secular city are definitely over. The emptiness of much of the merely secular has been uncovered in our times. One need not talk any longer in a hushed tone about the “rumour of angels” or “signals of transcendence” (Peter Berger) as one did three or four decades ago in the West. The word spirituality, though amorphous and not necessarily conceived in terms of our traditional religious categories, has gained currency in so-called non-religious as well as theological discourse. The two powerful 20th century movements – the feminist and the ecological – seem to have altered human consciousness and spiritual sensitivity to such a degree that much of our anthropocentric and gender-insensitive patriarchal theological constructions are rendered obsolete. Both movements have unveiled very insightful and rather subversive spiritual dimensions in the form of eco- and feminist spiritualities.

Christian faith’s incessant seeking of understanding (fides quaerens intellectum) produced the great achievements of Western theology in the second millennium ever since Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century, following St Augustine, put it that way. With some of the Scholastics and then later with the Enlightenment, it became increasingly a rational enterprise. But St. Anselm never stated it as a presumptuous definition of theology. He simply put it as part of a humble prayer to God: “I am not trying, Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for my understanding is not up to that. But I long in some measure to understand your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I am not seeking to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order that I may understand….”(Proslogion I). A praying theology is different from a self-confident propositional theology. Evagrius of Pontus, 4th century ascetic writer, reminds us that ‘a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian’. The World Council of Churches in its world assemblies every 7 years used to announce its themes in affirmative slogans, albeit biblical, like ‘Jesus Christ Light of the World’, Jesus Christ Life of the World’, ‘Jesus Christ Frees and Unites’ and so on. In the last two assemblies, however, they have formulated the theme as a prayer, like ‘Holy Spirit, Come and Renew the Creation’ and ‘God, in your Grace, Transform the World’. This is symptomatic of some of the significant changes happening in (Western) Christianity as well as Western civilization. It is a shift from a Euro-centric, male-dominated and Christomonistic world view to a new humble and liberating awareness of the wider horizon of God’s creation and God as communion.

2. Ministering to the “Many Mansions”

“In my father’s house are many mansions”, said Jesus to his disciples towards the end of his earthly life (Jn. 14:2). Even some of the traditional Christian interpreters found in this rather enigmatic statement of Christ a potential opening to accommodate the unaccounted, all those “sheep outside the fold” (Jn. 10:16). Western civilization has woken up rather late to discover, to its consternation, that the world is plural. Apparently history is now being divided as pre- and post 9/11. Gigantic efforts are being made to understand and tackle the pluralistic context. It might certainly yield some good fruits. One should not judge it too hastily. But when there are still highly ‘civilized’ western nations that ban, in the name of the secular principle, simple headscarves worn by cherubic young girls in state schools or reputed western airline companies that object to little crosses being worn by their staff women, we are puzzled about all discourse on pluralism. Although we have several reasons not to be complacent about our home situation, we should rejoice in the fact the Indian nation is still capable of displaying an enormous degree of diversity. Relishing its beauty and fostering this in the name one humanity and exploring its common spiritual roots and its diverse routes are certainly an urgent task of our ministry.

American Catholic theologian David Tracy, arguing for ‘theology as public discourse’, says that each theologian “addresses three distinct and related social realities: the wider society, the academy, and the Church”. First, the wider society includes political, economic, scientific-technological and cultural realms and involves issues like social justice and the plight of the poor. Second, the academy represents the intellectual context of present-day theology and involves interdisciplinary interaction with other fields of knowledge and inquiry. Third, the domain of the Church calls for the exercise of the theologian’s responsibility to the ongoing life of the faith community.

In an Asian/Indian context this threefold distinction may not hold good. Nor can we have a neatly cut figure of a “theologian” like in a western university tradition. The “many mansions” of our complex religious-cultural relations require more of the friend and pastor in the theologian rather than the academician. We know of some of our pastors who, without any formal training for dialogue, can relate to people of other faiths or no faith in a deeply human and creative manner simply out of their genuine love and care for them as Images of God, and not as potential objects of conversion.

3. Ministering to the Margins

We have now a large number of refugees, living on the margins of society. They are not necessarily political refugees fleeing war zones or oppressive regimes. They are victims of environmental insensitivity or gender discrimination and oppression, the HIV/AIDS infected or the outcasts of a competitive market economy, the ruined addicts of consumerism or the youth who are culturally uprooted by globalization, the elderly and the differently able sidetracked by the rat race for success or those exploited by the huge medical-pharmaceutical establishment, the poor and the voiceless neglected by the institutions of Christian Churches, or those craving for spiritual certainty but are confused in a relativising post-modern cultural mind-set or children who are forced to undergo an educational system that does not recognize the multiple intelligence levels of their burgeoning personalities. Christian pastoral care reaches some of them, but their numbers are swelling day by day.

We should recall to mind that Christianity was born as a movement on the margins, a fellowship in Christ of mainly the poor and the unprivileged, the despised and the disinherited. As the Israelites were constantly reminded to show mercy to the alien in their midst, because they themselves were aliens, the Christian Church needs to remind herself that her serious pastoral concern should be directed to these exiles and vagrants, the powerless and the oppressed produced by the ever greedy market and the economic-cultural globalization. These ‘sheep’ are not always to be found within the rather neat borders of a traditional parish, but outside the camp, unprotected and vulnerable to the marauding wolves. Ministerial training in most seminaries is largely geared to the parish ministry, which, of course, is very important. But in our world in transition, all those border people and those wandering in no man’s land are equally in need of compassionate care by the Church. This is simply the ministerial model of Jesus who cared for the lost sheep and the least sparrow, admired the little child and the humble lily of the field, sought after the ‘sinner’ rather than the righteous, the sick rather than the healthy.

In Search of the Human

The heart of Christian faith is the mystery of the union of the divine and the human in Christ. This dynamic union never exhaustively defined the meaning either of God or of the human, nor did it furnish us with any epistemological key to make final pronouncements on them. Rather the union lights up an infinite number of paths for us to traverse the depth and breadth of the mystery of God and of our existence. A new search for the human is on in our period of history since some of the celebrated 20th century ideological definitions and political parameters for the human have been challenged, discarded or found empty. With the emergence of biotechnology, gene mapping, information revolution and with a host of new scientific-technological potential, the question what is human is sharply raised anew, but without hope of any immediate and satisfactory answer. This new uncertainty and unpredictability about the human may be taken positively as the infinite potential of the image of God. Peter Atkins, Oxford scientist and science writer, says that among countless number of ongoing cutting edge research projects in our world, “there are only two really deep problems left for science to solve…. One great problem is the origin of the universe; the other is the nature of consciousness”. It seems the latter might prove to be infinitely more complex and elusive if at all we succeed in making any sense out of these big questions. They may provide some insights at least for a provisional glimpse of what is human. Or one should probably wait for Stephen Hawking’s much vaunted final theory or

Theory of Everything for a complete answer!!

Simultaneously with this search for the human, there is a renewed quest for the divine, from New Age to Neuro theology. In this bewilderingly broad spectrum from God Revolution to God Delusion people tend to be disoriented and confounded. The ancient apophatic attitude of Christian theology to the God question probably will have some therapeutic value in this confusion of discourses. The Buddha’s silence is an ancient Asian model. The alternative to ontological silence was the experience of illumination.

What is, however, interesting today is that the questions on the human and the divine come to us not in separate dichotomous packets but deeply intertwined with each other. This inextricable connection between the human and the divine, as it happened in the incarnate Christ, constitutes the challenge as well as the joyful hope for our theology and ministry.