Audio length: 14:22 minutes
How does someone know they are called to the priesthood? Steve discusses his lifelong "call" and where he was ordained.
It is no secret to those who know me that I aspired to the priesthood for about 50 years of my life. For 30 of those years since I got fired from my one “full time ministry job” I’ve been a construction worker to put a lot of food on a large table under a large roof for a large family. Since I became Orthodox almost a dozen years ago, I’ve been “THIS close” to being ordained a few times, but by God’s grace it hasn’t happened. It didn’t look like God’s grace when it was happening. The best I could do is mouth the words “the will of God” but what I meant was “in God’s time”, which really meant “MY will sooner or later”.
Now I know… well, actually it’s more like “now I can admit”... why I’ve never been ordained.
Oh, to be sure I had good intentions, I’ve always wanted to “serve God”, but rarely is any intention pure or a motive is without a tinge of hypocrisy or self-serving. But I live like most of us do, in the condition unaware that our existence is being rotted away at its core by such a tiny cancer.
You see, I was raised Roman Catholic. I started serving as an altar boy in first grade at daily Mass at St. William’s elementary school. Fr. Wiley remains an icon of the priesthood for me, a kindly grandfather whose shoes had holes in the bottoms. He was loved by the kids and his parish and the nuns who taught at the school. I saw the love for the priest and I wanted to be a priest so I would be seen and regarded as “a priest”. For nearly 50 years the priesthood was a goal that would make me something in other people’s eyes that I was not in my self. So, I “knew” I was called to the priesthood at age six, and I continued to “know” it for the next 50 years. But when I showed up at my parish priest’s office in 1969 in my senior year of high school with John Lennon glasses and long hair asking about seminary, we weren’t far enough past Vatican II in my parish and I was told my type wasn’t wanted in the priesthood. So, I left the Catholic Church and became a protestant where it was easier to become a minister. At 18 I was preaching and teaching. At 20 years old, I got married, cut my hair and went to Bible college in a small west Texas town. I established myself as a leader of the radicals by adhering to the hair code by shaving my head bald, which several other men did in protest too. In a small Texas town in the early 70’s being a hippie wasn’t easy, but anarchists can always find company. I excelled in classes and even though I was a pain in the butt to “the establishment” a lot of my professors and area preachers admired my guts for taking on issues and standing up for the underdogs and speaking out. In my mind I was Jeremiah, Elijah, and yes, even Christ with a whip of cords cleansing the temple of the moneychangers. I knew that this is what I was called for. This was my ministry.
But as sure as I knew I was “called”, I also knew I wanted other people to know I was called. Someone recently asked, “How do I know if the fire I have inside is from God?” I said, “It is whether you want other people to notice the fire.” I know this because I confess that even then, I wanted people to notice the fire. And a lot of people did, and I was glad they did. And it both confirmed my “knowing” and even then, it convicted me of my falsehood.
In my senior year, my good friend Dr. Jim, an elder of the Church and teacher at the college, and the closest thing I’d had to a spiritual director sat down with me at our weekly lunch together. He asked me, “Steve what are your plans after graduation?” I told him I’d look for a youth ministry or assistant job, maybe pastor a small rural church. He looked pained. I’d seen that look. He looked down into his plate then up at me over the top of his glasses that were always down on his nose. He pushed his glasses up and said, “At the risk of being unkind…” he always said that when he was about to punch you in the solar plexus, “Jesus waited until He was 30 to begin his public ministry. You should do yourself and the Church a favor and follow His example.” Ouch. But I knew he was right. So, I didn’t look for a preaching job, my wife and I went to work for a Church supported residential treatment center for boys where we were house parents and I helped run the program in various capacities for about 5 years. It wasn’t being a “priest” but it was a ministry. If they had put up a billboard sign over the Children’s Home that said, “Now Showing: True Religion is Taking Care of the Orphans in Their Affliction: Starring Steve Robinson” I would have been falsely humble about it. I burned out at the Home and worked at Thrifty Drug Store for a few months then got a job as an assistant minister, where I was eventually fired for… well, that story is in another podcast called “In the Company of Sinners”. I won’t repeat it all here. The upshot is, I’ve ended up being a construction worker instead of a minister for the last 30 years.
All that to say, most of my life has been spent chasing a dream of “priesthood” and wrestling with God and myself about what that meant about me.
When we decided to convert to the Orthodox Church we went to a Missions and Evangelism Seminar where we met priests, bishops and zealous laypeople. I saw men in black and immediately contracted the cancer of cassock envy. I was talking with someone I had just met during a lunch session and the person looked at me and said, “You need to be a priest.” I knew I was in the right place, the Holy Spirit was at work here. That wasn’t the last time that would happen. Since becoming Orthodox about 12 years ago there have been laypeople, monks, abbots and abbesses, priests and even bishops who have tried to get me ordained. Of course I always humbly deferred to their judgment of me and would piously say, “May it be blessed” because that is the Orthodox response. But as I got older, I knew I was buying my own private lies to myself, that it was my me calling me not God. It was about serving my ego, not Christ. In a dark place I dared not go too often or too deeply, I knew that those who wished me the priesthood were responding to a well crafted facade, an illusion of piety, a chameleon-competence in putting on appearances and role playing. They only knew me for minutes at a time, perhaps a few hours now and then. Their attempts to get me ordained were a strong delusion… I often was able to convince myself they were right. After all, this was the “Church calling me” to the priesthood even though I knew I was putting piety flyers up all over the place in front of them.
Construction work paid well, it is honorable labor, and I’ve been able to do a lot of cool things like build Churches and monasteries with it. But I was discontent with only that. It was the priesthood that would give me my true identity, the robe would affirm to others my self perception as a “spiritual person” better than drywall crusted jeans and a paint stained T-shirt. I would be at the altar, I would be talking up in the front not merely on the internet, people would seek me out for spiritual counsel. I would hear confessions. The collar would be instant street cred. But I haven’t been ordained. I shouldn’t be ordained. And I’m finally able to admit that to myself.
You see, the Scriptures tell me that I already AM a priest. By virtue of my baptism, I have a royal priesthood. By virtue of marriage and family, I am the Father of my household church, I am to offer myself to my wife and children and them to God in thanksgiving. I knew that even as a Protestant. But in my younger days that was not good enough for me. Being the priest of a wife and two kids at Sierra Vista Street was not fulfilling enough. I needed to be admired, listened to and the leader of dozens, not three. My then-wife didn’t want me to be a “priest” of a church. I did. This issue became partial fodder and an occasional topic during years of marriage counseling. She knew before we got married that I was “called” and I was going to be a minister. She didn’t want to be a minister’s wife and married me anyway because she didn’t think it could ever happen, I was too “radical”. But it did for 3 years, and it was still on my agenda for my future when I got fired for being too radical. I know now that the bottom line was not her but that my self-perception was more important to me than she was. I was not willing to lay down my self generated calling for her sake. I resented that she was a roadblock to me being what I thought I was supposed to be, even though she would have reluctantly followed. Reluctance was not good enough for me, I wanted a cheerleader. But she would not cheer, she’d only wear a martyr’s smile. And we never overcame my ego. After 35 years, I now know she was right, my Catholic priest was right, Dr. Jim was right and all the laymen, bishops, monks, priests and elders since them were wrong. I am not fit for the priesthood. My intimate community knew what those who have “church authority” didn’t. But I didn’t want to hear my intimate community, I wanted to hear what I wanted to hear, even if I knew it was false and coming from people who had been deceived.
So I came into Orthodoxy as a former divorced protestant minister. It is called a “canonical impediment”. On a “legalistic” level, a Bishop is well within his rights to relax the canons. In the back of my mind I always figured I would be the one that would get the “economia”, the bending of the canons because… well, because I was special, of course. Over the years I got plenty of recommendations, attempts, Synodical votes, and when those didn’t pan out I got lots of advice from clergy, laity and monastics about where to go and who to schmooze to get ordained. I’ve been enough of a “screw authority anarchist” throughout my life that I refused to play the “schmooze or lose game” even with the Church even if it meant getting ordained, so I’ve never followed up on any of the advice. But that’s not the point.
On a spiritual level, I look at what it means to be the “husband of one wife” and to “rule one’s household well” as a qualification for the priesthood and I see the genius of the requirement. It is simply St. Paul’s instruction to husbands in Ephesians 5: if I am not willing to give up the priesthood for the sake of the love for my wife, then how can I imagine that I will be able to love the Church and my spiritual family with maturity and with integrity and in truth? In the one case I am posing as a husband while serving my self, in the other I am posing as a priest to massage my ego. The proving ground of the priesthood of the Church is the priesthood of home and family. If I do not love my wife enough to sacrifice myself for her sake, I am a poser as a husband. If I cannot sacrifice in marriage, I will not truly sacrifice myself for the Church, I will serve it for the reward, not the Cross. My ministry will be on the street corner, not on Golgotha. In both situations it is about “ME”, not love, it is about using others for my own sake, not giving my life for the sake of the Gospel. It was because I did not realize this and was not able to live it I lost both my first church and my second ordination.
There are stories of men who were forcibly dragged to the altar and ordained. I had delusions of this happening to me. But I had been forcibly dragged to my true altar already, but I rejected it. I can admit now who I really am and why I am called to what I do. I’ve been given the grace of being rejected by God for ordination to the sacramental priesthood of the Church. But by that same grace I now wear the vestments of my true priesthood willingly. My torn carpenter’s jeans, my stained T-shirts, my rotting tennis shoes, these are the vestments of my true priesthood. These are the vestments of every man’s true priesthood. These vestments are the most difficult to wear because they are common, unremarkable, even perhaps repulsive. They do not shine, they do not attract attention, but have a hidden glory. And frankly, most of us are not truly looking for hidden glory. But if a man will not wear these vestments in peace, with joy, diligence and gratitude and offer himself to put bread on the altar of his family’s supper table, he is not fit to wear the gold vestments and offer the bread of the table of the Lord for the Lord’s family.