The Church As Mystical Vessel and the Bishop as Protagonist
The purpose of the Church is not to create individuals who do something, but rather who are something. That was what author and academic Stephen R. Lloyd-Moffett discovered when he studied how a bishop and his monastic spiritual children transformed a scandal-plagued town into one of the most spiritually vibrant regions in modern Greece. Beauty for Ashes, from St Vladimir’s Seminary (SVS) Press, tells the fascinating story of Bishop Meletios of Preveza and Nikopolis and how he used the power and force of his own virtuous example, and that of his clergy and monastics, to influence the townspeople within his diocese.
The book covers the political history and religious character of the region of Nikopolis, from the time of the Apostle Paul in AD 63 to the arrival of Bishop Meletios in 1980. With great sensitivity, Lloyd-Moffett deals with the issue of sexual misconduct within the church, the restoration of the local church to spiritual health, and the renewed trust between church leaders and laity. He also offers a short biography of Meletios, the church leader who applied his ancient faith in a modern context to inspire spiritual and religious change.
Meletios had originally planned to be the abbot of a new monastery on Mount Athos with several of his spiritual children. Instead, in 1980, he is elevated to the episcopal throne Preveza and Nikopolis. From his election homily, Meletios is clear that the bishop’s role should not bring personal glory but co-suffering with Christ:
The chief mission of our Lord Jesus Christ was to offer his soul, his entire self, as ransom on behalf of the world. And in this way of “mystagogy,” the Lord taught his disciples saying, “Pay attention dear friends. Nothing separates you from me. For if I suffer, it is for the sake of the world. Therefore, if you are friends of mine, imitate me . . .” The bishop sits in the place of Christ. His throne and glory is the Cross. His joy and jubilation are persecution and reproach from the men of this world, who live far from God.
Lloyd-Moffett found that it was the power of virtue in Meletios himself, as well as his clergy and monastics, that became like a magnet for the people of Preveza. “His [Meletios’s] ability to be simple yet erudite, strict with himself yet compassionate with others, apolitical yet politically astute—these are rare qualities to put together in a single person,” he writes. “But as he himself notes, the specifics of any spiritual ‘personality’ are not as important as the continual struggle for virtue, self-denial, humility, and love. This struggle is what should be emulated—and it is contagious.”
The author also found that Meletios did not have a specific program for renewing his diocese. He would often say that he did not know how long he would be bishop, that he could lose his position at any moment, and that the power to change and heal comes from “an encounter with genuine holiness.” Writes Lloydd-Moffett:
Underlying all programs, Meletios is arguing, is human arrogance, the desire to play God. Good intentions are not enough if those intentions are attached to a personal agenda. The challenge is to eliminate one’s will: or rather, align one’s will with the will of God. The purpose of the Church leaders should be to act as a conduit or vessel of the divine, not a marketing arm of God. . . . Yet this hope is predicated upon an understanding of the Church as the mystical vessel of God’s grace and will. It is not an institution that we run, but a mystery in which we dwell. Only then will we be energized by the imperishable Life of Jesus Christ.
When Meletios became bishop, his diocese was accustomed to his predecessor favoring right-wing political parties. This alienated those on the left who viewed the Church scandals of Preveza as proof that the Church had no real place in modern Greece. In our own day of hyper political partisanship, it is instructive to note that Meletios was careful to never favor any particular political party, nor would he allow his clergy to stake out political positions. Said Meletios:
We avoid mingling in politics. “Politics” for every individual is a preference of certain viewpoints about the governance of the world. It gives rise to profits and passion. It stimulates antagonism and fanaticism. The cleric who is tangled up in politics ceases to have the correct communion with the opposite party. And so he does harm to the Gospel. His duty is to love. And like a father, he has to counsel all the leaders without bias. And also he has to counsel even to the leaders who have anti-ecclesiastical attitudes.
Lloydd-Moffett goes into tremendous detail to describe not only Meletios but his monastics and how they went about establishing an Orthodox monastery in the heart of a bustling market town. He also describes the “Alpha and Omega” work of developing the quality of the clergy, which was a chief priority for Meletios in his goal of renewing the Church. In the end, it is Meletios himself who stands as the main protagonist of this story, as he movingly describes himself here:
And even more, I never served my own interests above those of the Church. I boast that in this world I have nothing except my rason (monastic cloak), which is of minimal value, and a few books. My most valuable treasure is my pure conscience and my freedom. I boast that I am absolutely free from worldly attachments. My target and my aim is to be and to remain always such: absolutely free from men—absolutely and completely a servant of Christ.