“Let no man despise your youth; but be an example for the believers in word, in conversation, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (I Timothy 4:12)
The Orthodox Church in America continues our mother Russian Orthodox Church’s tradition; at least, it was like that a half century ago when I was ordained into the sacred priesthood of our holy Church. The silver cross given upon my ordination had the above words embossed on the back, my pectoral cross having been given to an unknown priest before the 1917 revolution. Thus, it was inscribed by Tsar Nicholas II. How many times had I turned the cross around and reread those bold admonishing words from St. Paul to his young disciple Timothy. By then the apostle to gentiles was an old man close to death in Rome. In my first few years I had a plethora of elderly clergymen, both priests and bishops who were my role models, and I recall trying to reach their expectations, burdened with the naiveté and opinions of a person in his early twenties. “Let no man despise your youth.”
Now in the last days of my priesthood, I reflect on another way of stating the same admonition: “Let no man despise your age.” Like most young priests I suppose I was filled with my own importance, eager and willing to share all that I had imbibed sitting at the feet of brilliant theologians, secure in my convictions that I had all the equipment required to “go forth, teach, preach, baptize…” as St. Matthew’s gospel concludes, trusting that my listeners, my flock as we say, would excuse and overlook the foibles of a neophyte priest making up in zeal whatever he lacks in wisdom and experience. I recall myself in my early years, confident beyond reason, untested and unproven, yet without hesitating to take on any and all situations with the promise of Christ: “If God is with us, who can stand against us?”
And now? What about the present? My faith ought to be much deeper, my confidence in my Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ having been tested, tried and found resilient time and time again, my soul no longer wondering if He would lead me out of all the dark pits in which I had found myself through the years, and yet – a new sensitivity. I catch myself doing what I found my elders doing in my early and middle years – measuring contemporary life styles and publicized news by what had been the formulae and solutions of their era. The sexual explosion in the new millennium was not only unheard of, certainly never addressed in the public arena, but taken without question as abominations in a previous age. Respect for all clergy of every denomination a given – before the plague of pedophilia and the exposure of the sins of those who proclaim a virtue otherwise.
None of that, thanks be to the Lord, have been part of my own ministry, and yet I wonder about the phrase: “Let no man despise [your age].” Is my word as much Christ’s word as when I was in my twenties? My conversation as inspiring and fulfilling as then? My spirit as vibrant as I thought it had been? My faith even enhanced by the challenges on the journey from then to now? The purity surely cannot be that of a youth fresh from seminary but is perhaps purified by the filter of people at all stages of spirituality, or absence thereof, who have been the Lord’s testing of my worthiness to be called now as I was on the day of my ordination, “as an example for the believers in word, discourse, affection, energy, belief and wholesomeness.”