Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Ministry in General, Craziness and Art

Fr. John Tobias

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First, a disavowal outlining what this essay is not about. Despite the title, the discussion is not about "the art of ministry." There is a surfeit of material on this subject, except for a possible sparseness in the study of the Orthodox pastorate.

It is not about "craziness in art." There is much of that, to be sure. But that vastly entertaining Gatling Gun of tut-tut's I'll reserve for the future, near and distant.

Also, despite the tendency of some previous posts, this is not a "youth ministry" theme. I fear I've contributed to the regrettable specialization that has produced a panoply of pastoral categories. Except for some practical considerations for age (i.e., children and adults) and for status (i.e., clergy and laity, employers and employees), there really isn't much interest in Scripture or Tradition for technical focus on special ministries. There is certainly little support for the telephone directory list of "ministry opportunities" and "small group" listings one might find at the kiosk, in the fern-and-fountain atrium after the seeker-service fade-out and rolling credits.

So I dislike the term "youth ministry." Everyone, not just youth, needs to think better, pray better, do better and live better. And for betterment to exist at all, as we all know, there needs to be a rightness to be aimed at (pay no attention to the whisper of "ortho" playing in the subscript right now) -- a rightness that also makes meaningful the ugly inevitability of "missing the mark."

Call me nave -- and I really wish you would (it would be pleasant, much like getting carded, gray-headed, at the wine shop by a compassionate clerk). Call me nave, but I continue to believe that Christianity is all about sanity. It is about rationality, balance of psychic powers, and an apprehension of real beauty.

Call me a doomsayer, too, (even "stormcrow," if you'd like) because I allege that we are surrounded by a tropical depression of craziness. Let us call the spade for what it is: most of the problems that scare us are due not to atheism, secularism, Islam, or paganism. Scary, frightening Jabberwockies for us professional religious types -- you know, googly-eyed monsters like membership attrition, doctrinal diminution, moral putrefaction and executive un-inhibition -- are not the fault of these "usual suspects," not even the fault of that googliest of them all, immorality.

Immorality, too, is the product of craziness, along with attendance decline, the "white flight" to megachurches, and daftness in some ecclesial HQ's.

Craziness, or insanity, is also the culprit behind what we call family "dysfunction." I hate that word -- "dysfunction" reduces the sacred family down to machine competence, down to the only transcendent known in the material world, the "system."

Nevertheless, even systems analysts (like Jay Haley, Salvador Minuchin and Virginia Satir) can tell when a thing-a-ma-bob like a home goes kerflooey. It is not just sin, and it is certainly not just free choice that causes a parent to reject his child, or to dance the rage-n-stomp. It is not just the inevitabilities of development that causes an adolescent to pierce his outer shell in masochistic excruciation. It is not just repressed, unfinished childhood issues that drag a soul into the ghastly twilight of lost weekends.

It is mainly madness. We err when we exhaust our analysis of sin at the point of ethical distinction. It is more helpful to apprehend the base irrationality of sin and especially passion. We continue to believe, or rather hope blindly, that sin can be argued with dialectically, and that passion can be pacified by reason.

It cannot. Believe me, I've tried.

I know parents today whose main problem, despite what their therapists and groups tell them, is their failure to grow up and think straight, to mature into a Christian mind where the powers of irascibility, appetite and intellect are set on an even keel, and the soul may drink in the cool bright waters of the mystic Christ. They, and their households, are repeatedly overthrown into a chaos of barbaric posturing, childish ultimatums, and tirades that used to be expected only from the toddler quarter.

I have a dark confession to make. In my former life as a therapist, I had many people who suffered from an undeniably physiological malady. However, in the majority of my cases, most of the agonies were self-wrought, due to -- I hate to say it -- simple and selfish immaturity. Most of the family problems I dealt with were due, in large part, to parents complaining of behavior that was remarkably similar to their own. I can't tell you how many mothers complained of messy rooms, and tried to present this as evidence of their child's "pathology," when the disarray of the rest of the house eclipsed all comers.

Some of the depression that appeared in my office was produced, yes, by cognitive distortions and by languid neuro-transmitters. But most of it was produced by the craziness of self-regard -- a regard that culminates in the reflexive deification of the ego. Crazy, too, was the feckless reason that crumbled in the face of every strong emotion. This is why so many people are depressed -- not because there are so many mean family members and bosses.

The problem of man today is not just that he chooses wrong, but that he cannot think straight. The reason why most conversation is bankrupt today is not because not much is said, but it is because not much can be said. There are not enough completed thought processes, not enough logical arguments comprehended, that can be rhetorically presented in valuable talk. What remains is the stuff that reigns in those ubiquitous cell phone dialogues, overheard in the darndest of places with the darndest of messages.

I hear them, in the blank Mall, giving commentary on their travels from one advertisement to another, talking of menus, the byzantine stratagems of societal competitors, complaints of spouse and family, the endlessly recursive dialectic of whether to purchase now or wait for the sale later, and what's on TV tonight.

And I know that they are not one whit prepared for challenges or temptations. They will be set on fire by the merest of slights. They will jump to defcon red at the tiniest sight of rolling teenage eyes. They will be crushed by the first tragedy. They will run into the arms of the first seducer. They will lurch, inexhorably, to the siren throb of the burning cyber sites. Even clergy will embrace Bre'r Rabbit's Tar Baby, and find themselves caressed, luxuriously, by the soporific pride of despondency.

It is because, among other things, they have little moral imagination. They have no good stories or fables from a decent canon of literature. They have been shielded, by a cabal, from any poetic strain that could have made them root themselves into history, breathe in prayer, and reach like saplings into the sky of glory.

Instead, they web themselves into the Soma crowd, murmuring the cloying mantra, "You have every right to be mad."

They have not grown into adults who can command themselves, their thoughts and their feelings. They can do this only by orienting their "psychic vision" (i.e., the nous) to Someone Higher: this orientation is the sine qua non of the Church's ministry in general.

It is hardly necessary to add that such has not been done. The sane vision of Christ is not, in practice, the ministry of the Church. Recruitment has been done in the name of ministry, yes. Vague forms of team development, yes. Encouragement, yes. Entertainment (and too much), yes. Grotesque consciousness-raising and liberationist experimentation, yes. Various and regrettable political garblings, yes.

Real Christian ministry, in contrast, usually does not excite, and will never titillate. Occasionally, it may not even succeed at bringing in the sheaves. But it will produce reason and peace ... even in the land of the Gadarenes.

I suspect that the doctrinal content of catechesis, the apostolic mystagoguery if you will, was seen by the Fathers as a medicine of rationality. There was no stupefying division into "pastoral ministry" and "christian education" (whatever that is). It was all one. It was all a seamlessly unified ecclesial work to push the soul into reason, peace and beauty.

But we live in a science fiction world, where -- psychically -- all the techno-dystopias have actually come true. Experience, in this world, is immediate, formless and chaotic, where the style is completely, and exhaustively, barbaric. The style of man has been dredged from life, and from his existence the image has been effaced.

So we are raising people, and children, in not a secular world, but a mad one -- one that has been assiduously prepared for the prevention of thought.

I began by claiming that this is not about youth ministry, but I will say this at the end. Among the many ideas that will be offered, in this theme, I suggest this. I really think that youth ministry and all ministry is about good catechesis. Not that Barney stuff of feeling good about yourself when you probably shouldn't. But about the Holy Trinity. About the transforming love of God that informs the cosmos with the beauty of meaning, and the meaning of beauty. About the economy of Salvation, brought by the God-Man Jesus Christ, and radiated throughout the universe by the Church. About the duty of Mystery and the privilege of Prayer.

And I would teach them the Fathers, and the stories of Scripture. Just as Zosima once said,

[The priest] could open the Book and read to them out of it; there would be no need for him to spout wisdom to them, to give himself airs, and to feel himself superior to them. He need only read with feeling and humility and be gratified if they listen to him and understand him; he himself should enjoy the words he reads ... let him not worry: the heart of a Christian will, in the end, understand everything! ... a nation is lost without the Word of God, for every human soul thrists for His Word and for the good and the beautiful.

I would teach, also, without embarrassment, the old Western Canon of literature (at least, the little I know of it). I want them to know those long, multi-footed similes of Homer and those moralistic metaphors of Dante. I want them to know about Childe Roland's war with the Paynim, and his approach to the Dark Tower. I want them to get the gags that are all of Bertie's allusions to Shakespeare, Browning, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, Coleridge and Cervantes delivered in the space of a single schtick.

I want to teach them how to think and how to laugh, and why they owe it all to Christ, who gave meaning to story in the Incarnation, and joy to the poem at Pascha.

Maybe then, the young and the old would find themselves shielded, not inured, from the craziness of Antichrist. That very craziness is the real sound of the whimper, not the bang, at the end.

Fr. Jonathan Tobias is an Orthodox priest and edits the Second Terrace blog.

Read the entire article on the Second Terrace website (new window will open).

Posted: 17-Jan-07

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