The Good and Faithful Parishioner
Archpriest Chad Hatfield · May 3, 2009
Fr. Alexander Atty continues his three-part lecture at the 2009 Lenten Retreat at St. Vladimir's. Today he addresses the Good and Faithful Parishioner.
Fr. Alexander Atty: So the expectation of the priest is high, but you know what’s not taught, not given, is the expectation of what’s required to be a member of the faith. Where are you going to find that in print? There [are] no expectations. [In] my last presentation, I’m going to hit upon what a good parish is, but all these expectations of being a good parishioner… By the way, if we only realized if we put that kind of investment into being a good parishioner, what the runoff would be, the trickle-down economics would be.
When we’re the shining example of our faith, we bring people to Christ. We bring people. It doesn’t mean you have to be a theologian. You don’t have to discuss the seven ecumenical councils, in depth, and write a 40-page paper the next day. What you have to do is learn your faith and live it, not sermonize. Too many people give too many lectures in a community. I call that “yiayia theology.” And I respect the old people tremendously, but sometimes they would say, “Oh, you can’t do that!” Why? “I don’t know.” Famous words: “I don’t know.” Or, if you live in Kentucky, “I dunno”: D-U-N-N-O. Put that in your lexicon. That means “don’t know.”
The expectation of being a good parishioner was never there. And if I instilled something into my people: if you say you’re an Orthodox Christian, act like one, think like one, talk like one. Speak, think, and act. Very important.
When we baptize in the Church, everybody thinks we baptize children, just children, and that those words are for that child who doesn’t understand those words. [The] Holy Spirit makes everything understandable, though, even to children. We say these prayers in the Great Litany. We say that he or she who is baptized therein may be made worthy of the kingdom incorruptible; for her or him who is now come of the holy baptism and for his or her salvation; that she or he may prove themself a child of the light and an heir of eternal good things; that he or she may be a member and partaker of the death and resurrection of Christ our God; that he or she may preserve their baptismal garment and the earnest of the Spirit pure and undefiled unto the dread day of Christ our God; and that this water—it’s not magic—may be to him or her a laver of regeneration unto remission of sins and a garment of incorruption.
We’re so used to [doing] infant baptism because that’s our way. I’m finding out more and more that I’m sorry I don’t have the facility, because I’ve baptized more adults in the last ten years than I’d ever thought was possible. But in baptism, it’s not just for children. The prayers are not just for the child; they’re for all of us attending. It’s clear that God expects us to raise our children as members of his kingdom. He expects that they will cooperate with him and ultimately be saved, that they will be the children of light. Just substitute: instead of “children,” “people”: that we will be people of the light, and inherit that which comes from Christ himself; that they will die to the old Adam and be raised in Christ and will be come Christ-like.
We want the definition of a good parishioner: Christ-like. I didn’t say, “Christ ‘lite.’ ” I said “Christ-like.” A good parishioner, to me, is not one who just comes to church. I don’t take attendance. I don’t take attendance, but I think a good parishioner is one who is always in the mode, always in the mode of repentance. I think the older I get, I get a little more agitated in my old age, of parishioners who think they have a little knowledge. Sometimes a little knowledge is worse than no knowledge. And they want to correct everybody and tell everybody what to do, how to do it, when to do it, where to do it. That’s not a good parishioner.
The baptismal service says, “to be a light.” A light means to be a good example, to be a witness. Being a witness wasn’t just for Protestant Evangelicals. I sort of resent a lot of that stuff. I resent them claiming the Scripture, that they know more about the Scripture. I resent them acting like they know the Lord Jesus. I’m not going to criticize another religion here; don’t take that away from me, that you got that out of this talk. All of this is Orthodoxy. Our people should know the Scripture. We brag about our roots.
We brag about our roots—I mean our theological roots, our spiritual roots; about the Church being… We gave the Protestants the Bible. Then why don’t we read it? Why is it the centerpiece on the coffee table, with an inch of dust on it? That’s how I know they don’t read it. A gift from the Freemasons… just kidding. I’ve seen them at bookstore sales, you know. Open them up: “A gift from the Freemasons.” A Masonic Bible. Most of them come from funeral homes.
So when I look at the good parishioner… I like a parishioner, first of all… The redeeming quality of a good parishioner, to me, is one who is honest with themselves. When they come in to you and bare their heart, struggle with the Lord, struggle… My spiritual father had a skete on Mount Athos. If you’re [unfamiliar] with the term “skete,” it was like a little building, a house, three or four. It had little bedrooms. You slept on a wooden bed, no mattress. It had a little chapel, a little dining room—they read the Fathers there. And in the back yard, he had grapevines and [an] olive tree and a pond. A pond. And the pond was as big as this room, and one day I went out there with him.
I used to think this guy was crazy. He’d tell me these stories and I’d think, “He’s crazy.” And it was limited discussion, because my Arabic is poor, my Greek is worse, and his English was worse, his Greek was perfect, and his Arabic was perfect. So we had a three-way conversation. When I went to confession with him, I had to use a lexicon. I did, because I couldn’t describe to him some of the things that went through this ear and stayed in my brain and then finally left.
But he took me out to the pond, and he said to me, “See that pond?” Sure. “How could I not see it?” I’m thinking in my head. He said, “Do you see anything moving?” No. It was like glass; there wasn’t a ripple. And he said, “That’s your parish when people fail to repent. There’s no movement. There’s no life, no struggle to breathe.” Even fish struggle to live, and they have to come to the surface every so often to get air. Well, he felt like that was our struggle. If the waters were turbulent, then there is a struggle. There was no surrender.
And that’s what a good parishioner should be like: never give up. No matter what sin you possibly could do, you can’t give up! And don’t let anyone tell you it’s worthless. The devil thinks differently than you and I do, by the way. He’ll put into your brain—and mine also—that you can’t win. You’re not going to win. You’re not going to win, and he says it so often in so many different ways that you begin to believe him, and you wave the white flag and you surrender and you say, “Everybody else is doing it. Why should I?”
I had a woman come to me in confession one year, and it’s really bothered me, because I thought, “What took her so long?” She confessed that she had had an abortion 30 years ago. It took her 20 to tell me. And it really bothered me because I felt like, first of all, I thought… It was my ego is why I was bothered, not her sin. What did it mean [that] she didn’t tell me for 20 years? What, she didn’t like me? She didn’t trust me? The real reason was: it finally took her 20 years to see that there was a struggle and it was worth cleansing her heart.
When I heard the words that she’d had an abortion—and I’m not a legalist or a fundamentalist—what penance would I give her? And you know, I gave her none, because I think she carried this sin for 30 years, and I think she repented and repented and repented and just didn’t know how to confess it. I admired her. And so, people would say, “Oh, you admired someone who had an abortion?” You’re darn right I did, because she was honest. She showed to me that the fight is worth it.
This is how the devil deludes us. He puts into our heads that it’s not worth it. “You’re not going to hell. You’re not going to hell. You didn’t make it. You don’t have to listen to all that stuff.” That’s the struggle. A good parishioner realizes the gift: that the devil is talking to them. A gift called discernment. That gift of discernment is that you can recognize when someone’s blowing smoke in your face and telling you that you’re a good person. That’s what TV evangelists do all the time, by the way. They hit you a couple of times: a little guilt, just a little; not enough to make you feel bad. And then the bottom of the TV comes up and says, “Please send your checks and donations to… Heart of Fire Ministries.” That’s how they get you. Where is the struggle?
When the Church Fathers talked about confession—and this seems to be such an option in our Church life today. They don’t feel like they have to confess to man. A priest is a man. I don’t care what a priest hears when he hears my confession. I feel sorry for him. Seriously. The guy who hears my confessions, I feel sorry for him, because anything that comes in this mind is confessed: road rage. The Fathers of the Church didn’t have road rage. I have road rage. I go down the highway, and I thought the highway was built just for me! As I go 65 miles-per-hour in my hybrid; it can’t even go the speed limit, but I have road rage. A lot of times, I’m really intolerant of people, like I’m somebody special. The real sin there is, for a lot of people, they don’t confess things like that, and our pride gets in the way.
They call pride the mother of all sins. You have to think of the image of mother here. Mothers give birth to children. If pride is a mother, the birth, the children of pride are sins that never stop, never stop. Why don’t we have one Orthodox Church in America? Why should there be a difference between us Lebanese and Greeks and Russians and people who convert? Pride! Ownership!
What’s a good parishioner, then? One who sees the image and likeness of God in every human being. Even if I don’t like him. You know what I mean? It’s not possible that we like everybody. It isn’t. I think I try, but there’s always something that I’m sure annoys me, and I’m quite sure I annoy them. It’s true! I know you find that hard to believe, don’t you? But the struggle there is for the priest to be who he is and for the parishioner to be who they are. We have to have that dissolution, that dissolving of pride.
The Liturgy, like I told you, expresses everything well, perfectly. We say, “Let us love one another.” Do you think they’re empty words? Do you think that John Chrysostom had nothing to do but put “love” in there just to put “love” in there? It makes the Liturgy… It fulfills our… It fulfills us as parishioners. To look at each other and say, “We love them.”
People expect me, or the pastor, the priest, to love everybody. They do. But for some reason, our pride gets in the way, that we have no expectations of the love we’re supposed to give other people. I think the Russians had a saying, that the parish is a mirror of the priest. The priest isn’t loving, they’re not going to be loving. The priest is hateful, they’re going to be hateful. The priest is a businessman, they’re going to treat the church like a business. And I find all that stuff, in my short focus-span, overwhelming. What I like in a person who comes to St. Michael’s Church, first and foremost, they’re not afraid to confess the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.
Scripture tells us that we have to present Christ unashamedly in our lives. Can’t wear three hats: one at church, one at home, one at the office. A good parishioner exposes their hearts to everybody. I love people who express themselves, who show their weaknesses as well as their strengths, and like I told you, I admire the people who confess most honestly. I’m not there to write a novel.
When I first became a priest, someone said, “Ooh!”—like one of my family members, to be honest with you—“You get to hear confessions. Wow.” Well, I said to them, they asked me what it was like. I said, “They don’t tell me nothing.” So many people in my early priesthood were telling me, “I feel good.” That was their confession: “I feel good. I don’t have any health problems. I had a cold last week.” Well, that didn’t excite me.
The role of the father is to teach people how to confess. That’s why education—go back to that word again—is so important. And that’s why the prayers of the Church are so important. And that’s why, as parishioners, we not only… we just don’t sit in the bleachers. I’m an athlete; I like sports. You could be on the ballfield, playing, throwing that ball, or you sit in the bleachers. I want to be in the field. People [who] sit in the bleachers, what do they do? “He should’ve passed” when he ran the ball. “He should’ve called a time-out. He should’ve done this. The coach was out-coached. He should’ve shot better.” And that’s what we become in parishes: outstanding critics of the holy.
I feel like the good parishioner, the faithful parishioner, is one who prays, who’s led their kids… You know it’s funny: I could take a poll. You know, the engineer in me is always statistical. When I moved to Louisville, KY, I will guarantee you that 95% of their children, maybe higher, did not marry Orthodox. You want a fatalistic demographic? Look at that one. What worries me is that we weren’t so good of a light of example, that robe of light, that we couldn’t even bring our own kids to church.
Even if our church school program’s a failure—and, by the way, I’m going to make this major confession: I didn’t go a day to church school; not one day. Didn’t serve in the altar, either, by the way. I sat with my parents in church. And that’s what… Maybe I didn’t learn a lot from the church itself because it wasn’t in English, but I had two great examples of parents who lived the faith. They didn’t fast like we do today. They didn’t know any better. I don’t think there [were] three books in English when I was a kid about Orthodoxy. Maybe one would be exciting.
But, you know, my parents were… Even during the Great Fast, my mother would’ve made, well, maybe not a great Catholic, but she always used to tell us: “No candy during Lent.” And maybe five days out of seven, we wouldn’t eat meat. We always had kibbe on a Sunday. Sorry. I overlook their sins, because I know they didn’t do it intentionally. There’s a letter of the law, there’s a spirit of the law, but my parents were just totally good people, and they loved their church. And I think that shows, and I’m not bragging, because I have kids and I don’t know what they’re going to do. But my brother and my sister and I all married in the Church, and all of their grandkids were baptized in the Church, and my parents didn’t know hardly anything about the Church, but they were faithful to the Church in listening to it.
My mother didn’t… My parents wouldn’t argue if the priest says, “Abortion’s a sin.” It wasn’t a discussion. You listened to him. Now we have Orthodox who believe in abortion. Well, they’re not Orthodox. I’ll make that clear. Good and faithful Orthodox parishioners uphold the teachings of the Church. They’re doers of the Gospel, and they’re strugglers. People say I want perfection out of them. I don’t want anything out of them! It’s Christ who demands us to be perfect. He’s the one who’s calling us to be saints. And the saints were warriors. They were strugglers. And there’s all types of saints to prove to you and [me] that we could all be saints. You have theologians. We can’t be… yes, we could be apostles to a degree. Can’t be prophets, angels, but we can be monastics in our mind. We can be martyrs. We can be doers of the Gospel. Unmercenaries. That’s the good and faithful parishioner.
I get tired of people telling me, when they have someone dies that hasn’t been to church in 400 years… “He was Orthodox.” Oh. Good. “He paid his dues.” Oh. ... They think that makes us an Orthodox? They might have some kindness for the Church by giving some money. Can’t take that away from them, but one who is Orthodox is one who lives it. And I threw away the dues book when I first moved there. Get rid of it. We don’t have dues. You tithe. Teach people how to be stewards.
So the good parishioner, in my humble opinion, is one who learns, learns, learns, and learns. One who struggles intensely with this world that is taking the very life out of us. America’s a free country. I’m grateful my grandparents came here. There’s no country like America to me, but it’s also a vacuum. It’s like a Dyson vacuum cleaner. You ever see that commercial for Dyson vacuums? I bought one. I did. I have a German shepherd. They have one called Animal: Dyson Animal. And that dog sheds so much, I thought we had a carpet on the floor. But that Dyson was: shoom! A foot away, the hair would be sucked in. Never lost power! I’m not giving an ad for them; I don’t work for them, but that’s what the world’s doing to us. It’s sucking the very life out of us, and it’s relentless.
Right now, our kids are the most vulnerable, and you know who made them vulnerable? The lack of faithfulness on our part. We have to correct some things. Church is pure. We priests and we people of God share a ministry, and we have to correct that. We have to rejuvenate ourselves, knowing that this is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. And when we read those prayers of baptism, it’s for our salvation. Salvation is a very expensive word, costly. And it requires us to have a little action. Not bleacher-sitters.
Any questions on this part of the program? Good.
Q1: Why can’t we be prophets?
Fr. Alexander: Well, you know, you probably could. The question was, “Why can’t we be prophets?” You know what? You could, but I don’t know… I’m cautious about that, because you don’t know if that prophecy is from Him or from him, okay? I used to think that…
Well, I met monks before. I met a monk on Mt. Athos. I knew… The last time I was there, I got into the boat, I’m going home. This monk came up to me, and he said hello to me. I was just sitting there, sort of minding my own business. Sometimes they’re not the friendliest people. They’re very much to themselves, I mean, as they should be. And he says, “How are your children?” I said to myself, “Do I know this guy? Am I slipping?”
I took great, sort of not sinful pride, but everyone who walks into my church, I know their names. I know every name that comes to the Eucharist: 400, 500, 600 people. I know where they live, I know where they go to school, I know where they work. But lately I’ve been slipping. Sometimes I call their kids names by their mother’s name, that kind of thing. Especially when it’s a boy, it’s embarrassing.
But I went to Mt. Athos, and I’m getting on the boat, and I’m always a little heart-sick when I leave there. I always wonder if it’s my last trip to the holy mountain, and I have to thank God for the 15 times I’ve been there. It’s my second home; it’s my vacation home. I don’t go to Las Vegas or anyplace else. I go to Mt. Athos. And this monk, I think he had this gift. He had a gift, because he asked me how my children were. I didn’t know him. First time I met him.
I asked him, “Have we met before?” He said, “No, I’m from Romania. This is my first visit to Mt. Athos.” He goes, “How’s your daughter? How’s your son?” I’m thinking, “What did this guy do, steal my profile?” I mean, I’m not on Facebook or anything like that. I certainly hope he isn’t! And he asked me how my family was, and my parish, and he made a remark to me. And he gave me one of these woolen prayer ropes which is still on my arm; I don’t take it off. He says, “Don’t ever sell your church.” And he got off the next stop. And it scared me.
Talk about a prophet. The great enticement is to sell. You know us Lebanese are natural salespeople. We are. But that stuck in my head. That scared me. I called my wife from Greece, saying, “This guy scared me.” But it’s true. He said, “Protect your priesthood.” And I do. I try. That’s why I go to confession.