Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. Ephesians 6: 18-20
Good morning Prayer Team!
Lord, grant long life to him who blesses and sanctifies us.
Saint Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, asked for this early church community to pray for him. He was in prison at the time. Yet, he still made the effort to write and to lead the early church. He didn’t ask for prayers for deliverance, or for health, or for joy. Rather, he asked for prayer to be a good ambassador for Christ, to be able to proclaim the mystery of the Gospel in a way that would edify the people.
Throughout the course of the Liturgy, the priest has offered prayers on behalf of the people in the congregation. His role is as the celebrant of the service. Or perhaps more accurately stated, he serves as God’s vessel to offer the service of which Christ Himself is the celebrant.
As the priest offers the dismissal prayer of the Divine Liturgy, the people of the congregation sing a brief hymn for him, asking the Lord to grant long life to the priest who has offered the Liturgy.
Allow me to share a few personal thoughts on the priesthood as I reflect on why this line of the Liturgy is important. Someone once asked me to describe the priesthood to them. I said that the priesthood is at the same time one of my life’s greatest blessings and its greatest struggle. The priesthood has offered to me some of the highest highs you can have in life and some of the lowest lows imaginable, and sometimes both occur on the same day.
There can’t be too many feelings in the world greater than holding the Light of Christ on Pascha and singing “Come, receive the Light.” Kneeling before the Holy Altar and consecrating the Gifts, offering with my own mouth the sacred prayers of the Divine Liturgy, celebrating the wedding of two friends, being able to do the funeral of my own father, hearing confessions and watching people be loosed of their burden of sin. These are blessings that are so great it is nearly impossible to describe the feelings of ecstasy that accompany them.
On the other side, there are the tough days, like burying children (something I have done far too many times). There are tough problems people bring—marriage problems, loss of faith in God, lack of self-confidence, life setbacks, divorce, job loss, serious medical problems, and spiritual sicknesses. Seeing people in their greatest sorrows and trying to bring meaning to difficult circumstances is hard, and humbling. It is also something I could not adequately describe.
Perhaps the worst feelings I have felt as a priest as the feelings of betrayal. When parishioners, friends, and even fellow clergy turn on you, when they gossip and criticize you seemingly without ceasing, when you have to make a choice between helping someone and hurting someone, or when it all gets to be too much and you just can’t please everyone.
The other feeling that I never considered before I was ordained was the profound sense of loneliness that a priest feels at times. I remember a funeral I celebrated where there were nearly one thousand people in attendance, many of them close friends. The deceased was a good friend as were all the members of her family. And despite being surrounded by friends, and the feelings they brought to the service (certainly no one was hoping I was going to blow it at the funeral), I still felt a profound sense of loneliness, since I was the only priest. I remember looking down the aisle of the church, as the front door of the church opened. Instantly, the light from outside came in and “backlit” everyone who was at the door, making them all look like dark shapes. In the midst of all the dark shapes was a dark square, the end of the casket in which lay a good friend. And then I made the “long” walk down the center aisle to the back, to greet the “dark square” and a grieving family. I’ve made this walk hundreds of times, and it always feels lonely, and long. I remember on that particular day, because we were burying someone who had died at a young age, asking a friend to make eye contact with me when I walked down the aisle, so that I would not feel alone.
I’m not writing this reflection for any pity, but to point out, on behalf of my brother priests, that we priests count on the prayers of the people. We need them. Many studies have shown that most priests suffer from depression and experience serious doubts in themselves, in the church, and even in the Lord, on a regular basis. Most clergy do not exercise regularly. Most struggle to balance work and family. And most suffer from feelings of loneliness on a regular basis.
Again, speaking on behalf of priests, please pray for us, and please encourage us. Many times we feel like we’re “selling a ‘product’ (salvation) that no one wants to buy.” Mistakes that others make are overlooked but when a priest makes the same mistake, it becomes a big deal. Think about cursing for a minute—almost everyone curses and no one notices. But if the priest curses, people will remember. Many people drink too much on occasion and no one remembers. If a priest does that, everyone remembers.
At most Divine Liturgies, the hymn at the beginning of this reflection is sung only by the choir. How glorious it would be for a priest if everyone sang it at the Divine Liturgy! And then pray for us, encourage us, ask those who say bad things about us to please stop.
I wouldn’t trade my priesthood for anything. It is, as I said, one of God’s greatest blessings in my life. It is also my life’s greatest struggle. And many times, the difference between blessing and struggle is determined by the people that I am serving. When I wish “peace be to all” to all of you, I’m hoping you’ll say “and with your spirit” because I want that “peace” also. When I ask for forgiveness before I receive Communion, I’m hoping you are looking up and offering it because I need forgiveness to. And when I pray at the Great Entrance, for the Lord our God to remember all of you in His Kingdom, I really mean that. I hope that by His grace and mercy, that we will all find our way there. I pray that my ministry, and my writings, however lacking they may be at times, will help you in your journey to His Kingdom.
Arise, O Lord, and go to Thy resting place, Thou and the ark of Thy might. Let Thy priests be clothes with righteousness and let Thy saints shout for joy. Psalm 132: 8-9
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Photo Credit: Russian Orthodox Church of St. Sergius of Radonezh
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