A reflection on the occasion of the 2nd anniversary of my ordination to the Holy Priesthood
Experience is the knowledge of how to approach decisions and events based upon a collection of previous observations. It’s sort of a database of experiential information, at least, that it what I would have told you two years ago. I would like to qualify that idea.
Having left the cocoon that is seminary, I think much differently. Experience that is simply informational can be acquired, one simply needs to know how to act based upon the observations of others. For example, it takes little time and effort to “download” instructions on how to react when a fly falls in the chalice or when a parishioner announces their wedding is planned for Holy Friday. The frustrating part about real experience is that there is no way to study our way to experience, to get an A+ in experience. There are no shortcuts.
What is Experience? It seems to me that experience, real experience, is something like an acquired pastoral instinct. The experienced pastor carries out his ministry, not as a computer algorithm, processing people and circumstances through a complex matrix of “if A, then B” decisions. Instead, he simply fulfills his vocation as though it were second nature. He does not think, he does not process, he simply acts. A story from the Desert Fathers comes readily to mind in which a monk, who out of humility had refused to exorcise a demon possessed girl, does so nevertheless by unflinchingly turning his other cheek when the girl slaps him. Elder Sophrony observed that the monk cast out the demon without a word since the Gospel command had become second nature to him. Pastoral experience seems much the same.
Perhaps, to arrive at a closer understanding of experience it would be enough to observe that circumstances that would throw an inexperienced pastor completely off his path and into a ditch would cause an experienced pastor to simply shrug his shoulders and trudge on, nothing surprises him (Elder Sophrony once said this regarding his experience of the spiritual life).
I recently had the chance to observe this in practice: A circumstance arose at the St. Tikhon’s Monastery Bookstore (where I am the manager) and I immediately called Fr. Sergius, our Abbot. I had to leave for a pastoral call and left Fr. Sergius in my office with the situation. I was a bundle of nerves and worries the entire trip and anxiously hurried back. I had to serve that evening and I’m standing at the altar, in a panic, dying to know how the situation had developed. Fr. Sergius shuffles into the altar as though nothing had happened, we greet one another, he venerates the altar and leaves and never once, then or later, mentioned “what happened,” it simply didn’t seem to phase him. Obviously, I felt like the inexperienced fool that I am.
Naturally, being the over-achieving, ambitious and approval-seeking person that I am, I don’t like being a fool. There is nothing a young priest like me welcomes less than being told, “You’ll realize this later, it comes with experience.” We want experience and we want it right now! I was once discussing this with a senior priest who intimated that experience is like climbing a mountain: one can either climb the mountain in five days, five weeks, or five years. Experience, in this sense, is not merely the passage of time. Nonetheless, he explained, you can’t get to the top of the mountain without climbing it, every painful and exhausting step.
This reminds me of something my dear father-confessor, Fr. Joseph, has often reminded me. When I’ve come running to him with some trouble or another, he has drawn an image of the spiritual life as a slow and steady ascent, not the cardiograph of dramatic highs and lows I have presented to him. Undoubtably, the same applies to pastoral life.
There are no shortcuts, only hard knocks, over and over and over. Slowly, slowly these experiences start to seep into the soul, to become a part of the pastor’s being. Again, they might be intellectually present from the very beginning, but they remain at a distance and awkward in the hands of the inexperienced, the situation is already too far progressed by the time the intellect snaps into gear. Steadily, over the course of years or even decades, the pastor becomes less reactive and begins to “level out” from his previous wild oscillations. Elder Zacharias of Essex recalled once Fr. Sophrony’s words to him at his ordination, “Not by becoming a priest will you ‘lord it over them,’ only after you have picked them off the floor a thousand time will they grow to love you and will listen.”
Reflecting over the past two years, there have been a few hard knocks and countless mistakes and failures. But, experience is not just about making better decisions and lesser mistakes, it also has a lot to do with simply the “art of survival” (to borrow Fr. John Kowalczyk’s phrase), that is, just sticking to the path, getting up again and again after getting knocked down, and finishing the race. There’s no grand promise that with another 10 years of pastoral ministry I won’t offend anyone or say anything terribly stupid, but there’s a good chance that if I survive, I’ll be less anxious about these mistakes and might have gained a small degree of real experience.