My doctor is a good person. During the course of my physical exams, she often asks questions about spiritual matters that have her troubled. She confesses that she is concerned with her spiritual wellbeing as much as she is with my physical wellbeing. This, I am happy to hear.
Once as I was leaving her office she questioned if there was an equivalent of a physical for one’s inner life. She proposed that if people need physicals, maybe they also need spirituals as well. Made sense to both of us.
Over the years, I have become more aware of the amount of change taking place inside of my soul that I neither understand nor can fully control. These are impressions, attitudes, urges, motives, and initiatives that bubble up, causing rather strange and unaccustomed reactions. It’s similar to physical activity deep inside my body, but for my soul that I am still learning about. It just happens, usually without my conscious consent.
In my roles as a son, brother, husband, father, priest, friend, teacher, . . . I have experienced joy and heartache, achievement and failure, happiness and sadness, as well as a host of other roller-coaster emotions. I have learned lessons along the way, the most important to make sure I get a check-up of my personal, spiritual condition – spirituals – on a regular basis.
When I was younger and superficially more self-confident, I was my own examiner. I then came to appreciate the line that comes out of the medical profession: “The doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient.” Nothing is more pitiful, nothing more disastrous than to be one’s own spiritual director. Scripture gives us various examples of this entrapment. One of the best was the relationship of St. Paul to his friend Timothy.
Timothy, the child of a Jewish mother and a Gentile father, was a trusted friend of St. Paul. We understand this relationship in Paul’s opening salutation as he refers to: “Timothy, his true born son in the faith.”
This son in the faith was a good man but apparently not the strongest of men physically or temperamentally. The content of Paul’s letters would suggest that he needed someone to chide him about the living of his life.
Paul was bothered by a certain hesitance in Timothy’s leadership style. The young man appears to have been empathetic but not firm. He seems to have been a friend but not a mentor. He clearly abounded in mercy but may have lacked the courage to rebuke. This suggests serious leadership weaknesses.
All through his two letters to Timothy, Paul conducts a pastoral oversight of church order and the character of church ministers. At one point he outlines the categories of examination:
- Timothy’s speech – the way he talks and the things he says;
- his life – the way he conducts himself in real time;
- his love – the way he interacts with people;
- his faith – the way he walks with God;
- his purity – the quality of his personal life.
Apparently according to Paul, if one is lacking in any of these qualities, all the organizational genius and charisma in the world isn’t going to cut it. His spiritual influence will be ultimately neutralized. “Watch your life and doctrine closely,” Paul writes. He is telling him to regularly review how you’re living and what you firmly believe.
All these instructions suggest that Paul knows that each of us that carry the burden of Christian ministry without spiritual direction will drift in the direction of self-destruction.
St. John Chrysostom wrote in his treatise, Six Books on the Priesthood, back in the fourth century:
“The priest’s wounds require greater help, indeed as much as those of all the people together … because of heavy demands and extraordinary expectations associated with the pastoral office.”
Priestly leaders in Chrysostom’s time struggled to remain strong and agile each day, just as many Priests of our Armenian Church do today. As an Armenian Priest, I have lived a life of one both blessed and tasked with directing others to the way of life Christ has offered, a journey in which every Christian Armenian is asked to travel.
But some kind of a spiritual is a necessity for anyone who accepts the responsibility for shepherding others in either a clerical or a lay leadership position in today’s Church. Let me pursue this metaphor of physicals and checkups just a bit further.
There are physical examinations one can conduct for oneself. For example: checking blood pressure and blood sugar regularly, heart-rate, watching food intake, working out 3-5 days a week . . . These activities are part of a program of self-care.
And there is a parallel in spiritual care as well. As the physician asks questions concerning our daily lifestyle, there is the corresponding to one’s spiritual life.
As ordained Priests of the Armenian Church, my colleges and I have been given the role of a spiritual doctor for those of our Armenian faith. Hence, I would ask the “patient”:
Do you truly believe in the teachings and proclamations of the Nicene Creed, the Creed of St. Gregory of Datev, the words of the Gospels? Do you know what these words say? I would follow with how do you affirm those beliefs?
Any events in your recent or far-off past – resentments, anger, unresolved conflict or regrets – that need re-examination and resolution?
Do you foster certain behaviors, attitudes, or desires that are costing you the respect of your spouse, your parents or children, your colleagues, or your constituency? How about your forgiveness capacity and readiness to repent?
I would ask my patient: Why are you doing what you’re doing as a church leader? Do you sense that it is a calling from God, a call affirmed by others who are close enough to either see or not see the Spirit of God in you? Has your “call” decayed into merely a job, slowly sapping you of your spiritual vitality? I would listen carefully to those answers, watching for signals that might cause one to be recognized, admired, or even loved for the wrong reasons.
I would ask my patient: What are the things you systematically push yourself to do because they don’t come naturally to you, but which are necessary in order to make you a more effective person and leader? The practice of disciplines produces an artificial suffering designed to make us all better, more resilient people.
And, I would ask: What are your personal disciplines to bring you closer to God? Are your disciplines simply wishes or words, or are you actually maintaining them on a regular basis?
Would you call yourself a good friend to those 5 or 8 people who know you best? Have they grown from being close to you? Do all of these people in your intimate circle experience your persistent gratitude?
Finally, what are you seeing out in the larger world, and how do you feel about it? Are you in touch with any people who are among the so-called un-churched? Do you know people who are poor, from different cultural orientations, a part of other generations than yours?
Just as my doctor likes to talk about accidents and concerns for safety, my spiritual would include a little litany of cautions. Paul’s reminders to Timothy are illustrative: “don’t be hasty in appointing new leaders … keep yourself pure … speak boldly to the rich … turn away from godless chatter … endure hardship … don’t be intimidated.” This is good stuff to hear on a regular basis from someone you respect.
We submit to physicals and spirituals not merely for the sake of self-interest, not simply to dredge up interesting information about ourselves, but because as Christian leaders, we need to have our lives centered in Jesus Christ and his call for us to serve others in his name, not on self-interests and ourselves.
Discussions about authentic clerical and lay leadership in the Armenian Church, both in our Diocese and in our homeland, has become prevalent during the past several months and I believe will continue for the foreseeable future. There are serious matters that have come to light that need be given careful and thorough examination by the faithful members of the Church for resolution. These matters may very well determine the future of our stability and permanence as the Armenian Orthodox Church.
I offer my words to be a guide for those serving (and those who seek to serve) encouraging them to elevate themselves and become true and honest servants of Our Lord Jesus Christ, stewards of his Armenian Church through authentic Christian ministry, and to abandon any imaginable surreptitious motives.
Time will tell who is listening.