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Choosing a Shepherd

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Byzantine icon of Christ the High Priest

You must all exercise great diligence and fervent desire in this matter, that someone may be designated by the Holy Spirit to preside over you who will keep his eye fixed wholly on the things of God and will not allow his gaze to be distracted hither and thither by any of the things prized in this life. It was because of this danger, I think, that the levitical law gave to the Levite no share in the inheritance of the land, in order that, as it is written, he might have God alone as the portion of his possession (cf. Num 18.20), and that he might always be solicitous for this possession in himself, not allowing his soul to be dragged down by anything material. But if indeed there are some—and even we ourselves—who are indifferent, let no-one on seeing this be harmed on his own account. For what is done unfittingly by some does not make it lawful for others also to practise what is unfitting. You must rather look to what concerns yourselves, so that your church’s prospects might turn for the better, when those who are scattered return again (cf. Jn 11.52) to the harmony of the one body and spiritual peace flourishes among the many who glorify God piously.

To this end, I think it is well to look for one who wants the good of the church so that he who is appointed may be fitted for the leadership. But the apostolic word does not direct us to look for high birth, wealth, or worldly lustre among the virtues of a bishop (cf. 1 Tim 3.1–7, Tit 1.7–9)—although if some of these should, as a matter of course, attend your leaders, we do not reject them, as a shadow that happens to follow along. But if not, we shall welcome the more honourable endowments not one wit less if they are without these gifts. Why the prophet Amos was a goat-herd. Peter was a fisherman, and his brother Andrew was of the same trade. So also was the sublime John. Paul was a tent-maker, Matthew a tax-collector, and it was the same way with all the others. They were not of consular rank or generals or prefects or noted for rhetoric and philosophy, but poor and common folk who began in the humbler occupations. And yet for all that, their voice went out through all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world (Ps 18.5, Rom 10.18). Consider, he says, your calling, brothers, that not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble were called, but God chose the foolish things of the world (1 Cor 1.26–27). 13. Perhaps even now it is thought rather foolish, as things appear to human eyes, if one is not able to do much because of poverty, or is slighted because of humble parentage. But who knows whether the horn of anointing is not poured out by grace upon such a one, even if he is less than the lofty and more illustrious (cf. 1 Sam 10.1, 16.11).

What was of greater gain to the city of the Romans, that in its beginnings it should take for its leadership some high-born and pompous senator of consular rank, or Peter the fisherman who had none of this world’s trappings to attract esteem? What house did he have, what slaves, what property ministering to luxury through the accumulation of wealth? No, he was a stranger without a roof over his head, without a table—yet he was richer than those who have all these things, because having nothing he wholly had God (cf. 2 Cor 6.10).

So also with the people of Mesopotamia.Though they had immensely wealthy satraps among them, they approved Thomas as their leader in preference to any of their own. With the Cretans, it was Titus (cf. Tit 1.5), and with the people of Jerusalem, James, and with us Cappadocians, the Centurion who at the Passion confessed the divinity of the Lord (cf. Mt 27.54), though there were many at that time who came from illustrious families, who maintained horse studs and solemnized themselves with the first seats in the Senate. And one may find throughout the whole Church that those who are great according to God are preferred to those who are illustrious according to this world.

In the present situation, I think you also need to be looking for these qualities if you really mean to revive the ancient dignity of your church. You know better than anyone else your own history, how in ancient times, before the city near you flourished, you had the kingship and no city was more eminent than yours. At present, it is true, the fair form of its public buildings has disappeared, but the city which consists in human beings—whether we consider the number or to the character of its inhabitants—is rising to a level with its ancient beauty. It would therefore not be fitting for you to maintain a purpose meaner than the blessings that are now yours, but to raise your zeal for the task that is before you to the height of the magnificence of your city, that with God’s help you may discover such a one to lead the people as will prove himself not unworthy of you.

For it is disgraceful, brothers, and altogether bizarre, that although no sailor ever becomes a helmsman unless he is skilled in steering, yet one who sits at the helm of the church does not know how to safely bring into the harbour of God the souls of those who sail with him! 20. How many shipwrecks of churches, with all their members, have occurred before now through the ineptitude of their leaders! Who can reckon how many of the disasters before our eyes might not have happened, had there been at least some modicum of the helmsman’s skill in these leaders? 21. Look, we do not entrust the iron for being made into vessels to those who know nothing about the matter, but to those who know the art of the smith. Ought we not also trust souls to one who is well skilled in softening them through the fervour of the Holy Spirit (Acts 18.25, Rom 12.11) and who by the impress of rational implements may perfect each of you as a chosen and useful vessel (cf. Acts 9.15, 2 Tim 3.2)?

The divine Apostle commands that we exercise such forethought when in the Epistle to Timothy he lays down a law for all his hearers when he says that a Bishop must be irreproachable (1 Tim 3.2). Is this all that the Apostle cares about, that anyone proposed for the episcopacy should be irreproachable? And what is the advantage so great in this that it could sum up the good? But he knows that the subordinate is conformed to his superior and that the virtues of the leader become those of his followers. For as the teacher is, so is the disciple fashioned to be. For it is impossible that one who has been apprenticed to the art of the smith should fulfill his training by weaving, or that one who has been taught to work at the loom should turn out an orator or a surveyor. No, the disciple transfers to himself the pattern he sees in his master. It is for this reason it says, every disciple shall be fashioned like his teacher (Lk 6.40).

What then brothers? Is it possible to become humble-minded, calm in manner, moderate, superior to the love of money-making, wise in things divine and trained to virtue and fairness in one’s ways, if these qualities have not been seen in the teacher? 26. On the contrary, I do not know how anyone can become spiritual who has done his learning in a school of worldliness, for how shall they who are striving to become like such a one fail to be as he is?

Of what benefit to the thirsty is a magnificent aqueduct if there is no water in it? However symmetrical the placement of columns, with all their variegated form bearing the pediment aloft, which would the thirsty prefer to supply his need: to see bare stones beautifully laid out, or to find a spring, even if it flowed from a wooden pipe, provided only that the stream it pours forth is clear and drinkable?

Accordingly, brothers, those who look to piety should pay no attention to outward appearance. Indeed, if a man boasts of his friends or preens himself on the list of his honours or tallies his multiple annual profits or is puffed up at the thought of his ancestry or brags on all sides in his conceit, they should have no more to do with him than with a dry aqueduct, if he does not possess in his own life the qualities required.

Instead, you should employ the lamp of the Spirit in your search (cf. Mt 6.22, Lk 11.33–34, 15.8) seeking out as best you can a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed (Sg 4.12),254 as the Scripture says, so that when through the laying on of hands the garden of delight is opened and the water of the fountain is unstopped (cf. Ez 36.35), the grace that is in him will become the common possession of the whole church.

May the Lord grant that such a one may soon be found among you: one who will be a chosen vessel (Acts 9.15), a pillar and foundation of the Truth (1 Tim 3.15). But we trust in the Lord that this is how it will turn out, if you are indeed resolved to seek together the common good through the cooperation of minds having but a single desire, preferring to your own wishes the will of our Lord Jesus Christ concerning what is good and well-pleasing and perfect (Rom 12.2). May there be such a happy outcome among you that we can boast and you find delight and the God of all be glorified, to whom belongs the glory for ever and ever.

Reference: Gregory of Nyssa, The Letters, Anna M. Silvas (ed.) (Brill, 2006).

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