Today is the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. Theotokos literally means the one who bore God. This term is more descriptive than simply saying, ‘the Virgin Mary’ (although we Orthodox call her this as well). Mary is the example as she had Jesus developing inside of her and coming through her. We should also have Christ inside of and purifying us and seen coming out of us in the way we act, speak, and think.
It is more mournful that the commemoration of death (dormition = falling asleep) of the holy Mother is in the wake of such horribly disturbing revelations of child sex abuse by the Roman Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania. Catholicism is not alone in dealing with damaging sinfulness. Recently, a sex abuse scandal has arisen in a major mega church near Chicago. Other Protestant congregations have had ministers arrested for such wickedness. While little is heard of Orthodox clergy failures in America, I am (alas) certain that such scandals do arise where our faith is more dominant.
Why do these things happen? On the surface, we outside of Rome can say that the Catholics should allow their clergy to be married. Almost all Protestants expect their pastors to have a wife. Orthodoxy encourages men to carefully consider marriage and marry as we accept married and unmarried men into the diaconate and priesthood. Biblical and theological scholars greater than myself can argue this to death. Again, this is more of a surface argument.
I think the greater reason of why such sins arise in all Christian clergy is that we are not as watchful as we should be over our own souls. As a former Baptist pastor and current Orthodox altar server, I know how easy it is to be distracted by other functions of ministry. We want to write and deliver sermons that invoke a response from our congregations. We want to make sure we say each portion of the liturgy clearly and reverently. We want to make sure that our Christian education, evangelism, and social service programs are efficient and effective. Yes, all of these exterior things are important and we should watch over them.
There is a danger in watching too much on our exterior aspects of ministry. We become so attentive of our outward projections that Satan convinces us to make an allowance for one or two, what seems to be, minor weaknesses. In time, these “minor” weaknesses can become major and obvious. At this point, we can become criminals such as the priest in the investigation. We can become hypocrites like those caught in consensual affairs. We can slowly rot with our layers of secret sins that are easily hidden from public view. Sex, greed, anger, pride; all of these and other sins grow inside of us when we become careless about and make excuses for them. There is no seminary degree we can earn, honor that can be bestowed on us, nor number of years of service that can substitute for watchfulness and repentance of “minor” weaknesses. We must either struggle against them, or they will enslave us in one form or another.
St. Paisios of Mt. Athos gave a good word of advice on being watchful, “Thoughts are like airplanes flying in the air. If you ignore them, there is no problem. If you pay attention to them, you create an airport inside your head and permit them to land!” From the Bible, St. Paul taught us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts (Romans 13:14). Even when there is a sin that we are particularly weak to, it is still our responsibility to strive against it. St. Moses the Black taught that wise and continual meditation on God’s laws, prayer, and thinking of the world to come will cause wicked thoughts to weaken and find no place (Philokalia vol. I pg. 97). Even still, there are times when a temptation stands right in front of us. Our Lord gives us the example of victory in such a circumstance. “As it is written, man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. You shall not tempt the Lord your God. Get behind me … you shall love the Lord your God and serve Him only” (from Matthew 4:1-11).
And when we confess and repent, we must do so with humility, remorse, and resolve not to fall again. Going through a rite for the sake of hiding a sin is not confession. Pointing out that other people have done worse is neither humility nor remorse. Yet, we cannot condemn ourselves as if we are beyond hope and restoration. In our tears of repentance, let them be tears of a sorrowful joy that we can be healed and grow closer to Christ.