Orthodox Pastoral Theology

Razvan Porumb

This brief article delineates Orthodox pastoral theology by chiefly emphasizing the organic connection between Liturgical/sacramental life and social/pastoral involvement in the Christian Orthodox tradition. It shows how Orthodox pastoral theology, in encompassing the entire life of the Church, mirrors the holistic character of Orthodox theology. An aspect that is immediately evident is that Liturgical and/or spiritual life is central in the Orthodox tradition even in matters pertaining to ‘practical’ theology. At the same time, it remains equally important for the Orthodox tradition to never come to perceive Liturgical life in isolation, without its societal, pastoral component.

For Orthodox Christians, Liturgy has a clear practical involvement as it essentially prepares the faithful through the sacramental communion of the Eucharist for a full and tireless involvement in the life of the community, sending them back into the world into a context which retains a Liturgical character, although less explicitly. For if Liturgy comes to be seen as generator of praxis, pastoral involvement too becomes sacramental, as the Liturgy is made whole through the complementary ‘sacrament of the brother’, the ‘Liturgy after the Liturgy’. A tension becomes apparent between the rejection of the world on the one hand and social ‘incarnational’ involvement on the other.

1 Perspective and terminology

The term ‘pastoral theology’ as it is employed in the Eastern Orthodox world refers primarily either to the education of the Church’s ordinands or to the discipline describing or studying the activities of the clergy or ordained ‘hierarchy’ of the Church (bishops, priests, clergy), as well as the activity of monastics (although this category is not made up necessarily of ordained clergy). In keeping the focus on the ‘shepherds’, the Orthodox tradition follows the original ‘etymological’ approach focusing on the ‘pastor’, the ‘shepherd’ of the church’s flock. This is seen in multiple languages, for example, Greek: ποιμαντική θεολογία (poimantikí theología; the adjective ποιμαντική [poimantikí] derives from the Greek word for ‘shepherd’, ποιμήν [poimín], related also to ποίμνη [poímni] which means ‘flock’); Russian: Пастырское богословие (pastyrskoye bogosloviye); Romanian: teologie pastorală; and Serbian: пастирско богословље (pastirsko bogoslovlje). In Georgia, the term პასტორალური თეოლოგია (p’ast’oraluri teologia) is sometimes used, though that is perceived as a result of Western influence, whereas the preferred terminology is the more explicit სამღვდელო ღვთისმეტყველება, which translates roughly as ‘priestly theology’. By and large, the Orthodox tradition tends to follow the biblical imagery of both the Old and the New Testaments: ‘The Lord is my shepherd’, states Psalm 23:1, while Jesus is called the ‘great Shepherd of the sheep’ (Heb 13:20), or indeed as Christ Himself commands John, ‘[t]end to my sheep’ (John 21:16).

At the same time the Orthodox tradition – true to its holistic ethos, and inasmuch as the term ‘pastoral’ implies more widely serving or helping one’s neighbour – remains aware that ‘pastoral theology’ is a calling that is addressed to all Christians. Indeed, the Orthodox holistic view of theology sees an inextricable connection between the Liturgical and sacramental life on the one hand, and between social action and commitment on the other. In a sense, pastoral theology as a specialized branch of theology is contradicted by the very core view which in the Orthodox tradition sees all theology as inherently praxis. In other words, it can be argued that for the Orthodox all theology is implicitly practical/pastoral. (Some of the findings in this entry, particularly related to the connection between Liturgical life and the pastoral ministry of the faithful, the central role of theosis as well as the back-and-forth ‘commute’ between seclusion in prayer and social involvement have appeared before in Porumb 2017a and Porumb 2017c.)

However, in its primary understanding as work of the hierarchy of the church, pastoral theology is not perceived as a singular discipline in the Orthodox tradition, but as a cluster of branches of theology meant to enable (future) priests to conduct an efficient ‘shepherding’ of the community assigned to their care. As phrased in a Russian study book, ‘pastoral theology does not focus on any particular theme not included in the other subject matters that make up a programme of theological education. What is particular to it is the subject of its focus, which is the shepherd’ (Zaitsev 1960). From this perspective, it would not be an exaggeration to say that ‘pastoral’ theology contains in fact the whole of theology. A clear picture of this vision is reflected in Orthodox education for ministry, where ‘pastoral theology’ is a faculty or department, and not merely one of the disciplines, the syllabus of which comprises everything from church history, to dogmatic and systematic theology, to patristics and liturgics. Taken together, all these branches are deemed ‘pastoral’ simply because what is sought ultimately is a comprehensive training of future clergy.

For instance, the Pastoral Theology Department of St Petersburg Theological Academy (Russia) clearly describes its mission as the ‘training of clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church’ (St Petersburg Theological Academy 2022). Training priests is so clearly the object of pastoral theology departments, that in Iași, Romania, for instance, a knockout test establishes whether the candidate has a good singing voice – required at later stage in his priestly ministry for chanting during services (Faculty of Theology, Iași 2022). It is for the same reason that female candidates (who cannot be ordained in the Orthodox tradition) are not encouraged to apply. In some cases the emphasis on clergy training is so central that it is implicit, even when the adjective ‘pastoral’ is not used. For instance, the BA in Theology at the Moscow Theological Academy is addressed to ‘male and Orthodox believers with a general secondary education’ – with a clear focus on ordination (Moscow Theological Academy 2022). Those interested in theology who are not intent or able to become priests are advised towards other departments, such as the Theology and Social Work Department, as is the case at the central university in Iași (Faculty of Theology, Iași 2022). ‘Social Orthodox Theology’ is also taught sometimes in conjunction with the Departments of Psychology and Philosophy, but remains an adjacent sub-area destined primarily to ‘lay’ students. Other lay-oriented departments in Orthodox countries also include ‘Sacred Art’, ‘Didactic Theology’, ‘Religious music’, etc. The Belgrade Faculty of Pastoral Theology (Православни богословски факултет) appears to be more inclusive, stating that ‘candidates of both sexes may enrol at the Faculty upon obtaining the recommendation of their diocesan bishop’ with the aim to prepare them ‘for priesthood, a teaching career, or scientific research in the field of theology’ (University of Belgrade 2023).

However, in the case of Greece, a recent change in the nomenclature signals a movement away from a strictly clergy-oriented vision. Thus, instead of the traditional title of Τμήμα Ποιμαντικής Θεολογίας (Department of Pastoral Theology), Athens’ theological department is now called Τμήμα Κοινωνικής Θεολογίας και Θρησκειολογίας (Department of Social Theology and Religious Studies), while Thessaloniki’s twin department has become Τμήμα Kοινωνικής Θεολογίας και Χριστιανικού Πολιτισμού (Department of Social Theology and Christian Civilization). This name change ostensibly reveals the addition of a ‘sociological’ element in the training of both priests and lay theologians. The Thessaloniki department mentions ‘the theory and practice of social and pastoral work’, among a cohort of traditional theological themes addressed by the curriculum, but also including ‘the universality of Orthodoxy in dialogue with other Christians, with Philosophy, culture, society, natural sciences, technology, modern thought and other religions’ (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki 2022). A relatively recent shift seems to have occurred in Greece away from a male, clergy-oriented paradigm wherein ‘the current marginalisation and devaluation of women, as well as of the laity in general, can no longer be accepted’. This shift has occurred ‘in light of the church's eschatological self-consciousness’ and following ‘a fresh interpretation of relevant biblical texts’ (Kalaitzidis 2014: 153).

The traditional prevalent Orthodox approach favouring clergy education and/or activities springs from and perpetuates an eminently clergy-centred paradigm of life and ministry in the church. This perspective is understandable given the particular foci of the Orthodox tradition, and the centrality of the Liturgy and of the entire spectrum of sacramental life. Since the sacramental, Liturgical life of the church is seen as nourishing and informing the entire spectrum of church life, without which no other activity of the church is perceived to have any validity, it makes sense that the activity of those assigned to administer the sacraments, and even themselves as individuals, be attributed an essential and central role within the community. The priest is expected to be a model for the entire congregation who accompany him in the Liturgical eucharistic cycle. In order to prepare for the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments, the priest is expected to follow an ascetic, self-sacrificial, and self-giving way of life.

Moreover, the priests are not only administrators of the holy sacraments, but their job is also to constantly monitor the spiritual life of the congregation ensuring that the faithful are prepared to partake of the Holy Eucharist and generally to participate in the other sacramental services. Thus, the faithful are to have regular confessions to a priest (often their parish priest), confessions during which they share and expose their eventual difficulties to conform to a life of love; the problems that hinder them in preparing for and benefiting from the partaking of the Eucharist; their struggles, their pains, their fears, and their worries. This essential pastoral ‘counselling’ activity of priests takes place at a personal level, with a view to addressing each individual’s problems in their own context or situation. Thus, guidance and monitoring of the faithful happens chiefly within a contextual paradigm, focusing on the individuals’ difficulties or inadequacies in their specific circumstances – with a view to ensuring that no ‘blanket’ pastoral requirements are applied to the faithful en masse.

However, as will be shown below, one has also to acknowledge the pastoral duty expected of the lay community, as a consequence of the core holistic structure of Orthodox theology. Additionally, deification is fundamental to pastoral theology, and there is an organic intermingling of the pastoral theme with that of Liturgical life in all its aspects. Liturgical life underpins any theological perspective in Orthodox thought. Although the holistic Orthodox approach to theology – with its web of interconnected themes that cannot be entirely explored in isolation – may make things appear rather prolix, it is nevertheless the only valid perspective that can unpack the fuller meaning of pastoral theology in an Orthodox context.

2 The universal calling of pastoral theology

The idea of ‘pastoral theology’ as a theological assemblage incorporating all aspects of theology required to adequately equip clergy for an effective running of diocese and parish activities certainly makes sense. But the question may rightly arise as to which aspects of theology are not indispensable for future priests. Indeed, there is a significant overlap between pastoral theology and the general theological knowledge and practice expected of all Christians, be they lay or ordained. This should come as no surprise, as one of the (in)famous characteristics of Orthodox theology is that it demands to be seen as a whole and not be split up in constitutive disciplines. Thus the idea of pastoral theology as a stand-alone branch of theology – akin somehow to ‘practical’ theology – may appear somewhat unnatural, as the core view in the Orthodox tradition is that all theology is inherently praxis. Any separation between pure and applied theology seems odd in an Orthodox context. Liturgical and sacramental life, social action and commitment are all interconnected and inform each other. Theology thus appears as an inseparable whole, in which societal commitment cannot be divorced from the sacramental spiritual element, or the other way around. As already mentioned above, all theology is seen as implicitly practical/pastoral.

A rediscovery of the pastoral calling addressed by Orthodox theology to all the faithful – who are thus called to a continual ministry to their community – is all the more important as the social involvement of the Orthodox Church has been sometimes felt to be feeble and diffident, eclipsed somewhat by a central focus on Liturgy and spiritual life. The Orthodox Church has received a degree of criticism for being overly ‘other-worldly’, with a ‘tendency to look inwards and “above” the affairs of this world, thus not focusing on direct missionary action or social service’ (Molokotos-Liederman 2010). Its ‘established reputation’, according to Orthodox academic John Meyendorff, ‘consists in its purported detachment from historical realities, its concern with mysticism, its one-sided dedication to Liturgical contemplation of eternal truths, and its forgetfulness of the concrete needs of human society, as such’ (Meyendorff 1979: 118). This is something that the influential theologian Georges Florovsky also mentioned in 1950, when referring to the Russian Orthodox context where, in his view, ‘there was no important movement of social Christianity’ (Florovsky 1974: 136) – although Russia, under the rule of Stalin, admittedly was facing other challenges at the time.

When Orthodox Christians speak of the holistic vision of their theology they often start with Evagrius of Pontus’ famous phrase: ‘If you are a theologian you pray truly; and if you pray truly you are a theologian’ (Clement 1993: 184). Prayer is a vast concept in the Orthodox tradition and it refers to the whole spectrum of church life: worship, the inner life of the faithful, their eucharistic communion. Even pastoral and charitable acts are seen as consequences of prayer. Without this life in prayer, or rather in the community of prayer, no one can be a theologian. In its primary understanding, theology implies participation in the prayer of the church and in its Liturgical life, it implies an organic experience of faith. Moreover – unintuitively – prayer is seen as praxis – or at least the ‘instigation’ and impetus of all practical involvement. Theologizing and prayerful praxis are set in inescapable interdependence.

Furthermore, the concepts of ‘prayer’, ‘worship’, and ‘community’ in the Orthodox tradition are all linked together through – and inseparable from – the eucharistic Liturgy, around which the whole life of the faithful is seen to revolve. Centred around Liturgical life and not focusing on texts, Orthodox theology is holistic; any of its particular foci (dogmatic, doctrinal, pastoral, etc.) will relate back to the regulating point of reference. This reference point is not a collection of texts, as it is often wrongly understood, but the eucharistic Liturgical life itself. To be pastoral, then, is seen as a continuation and a ‘consequence’ of the Liturgy, and the Liturgy has a main ‘reason’; that is, the bringing of the communion in love of the triune God into human society.

The Orthodox are gradually re-discovering what is essentially the ‘counterpart’ for the eucharistic Liturgy around which their lives are structured: the ‘Liturgy after the Liturgy’. According to this vision (which originated with St John Chrysostom, as discussed below in section 6), the faithful are expected to ‘continue’ the Liturgy in their societal contexts through acts of philanthropy, support, and ministry to their fellow humans. Apart from the altar of the church, the complementary ‘altar of the brother’ is made up of ‘the poor, the suffering, those in need, the homeless, all who are in distress’ (Ware 2004).

It is essential to speak about holistic theology when addressing pastoral theology, not for the sake of scholarly precision, but mainly as the holistic perspective reminds theologians and laity alike of the spiritual life component that has to result from and to generate social and inter-personal care. A profound analysis of Orthodox theology will determine that the ministry to the community is not expected of the clergy alone; the pastoral act – albeit in different ways – is in fact required from all the members of the church.

In fact, there is an acknowledgment (as explored below) that the laity is not excluded from the praxis of the church – it simply has not been the concern of pastoral theology so far, as it has focused on the ‘shepherding’ (understood as ‘teaching’ or ‘leading’) role of the ordained clergy. This may change in the future, particularly considering how modern societies have become more inclusive, with their unprecedented technological conduits of interpersonal communication and exchange, as well as their vast access to knowledge. Church communities have actively engaged with these new technologies. It is only a matter of time before Orthodox local churches may need to come up with curricula or models for a pastoral paradigm that would also inform the lives of the lay members of the church, and not only of its clergy. As is often the case in the Orthodox tradition, such models need not be ‘invented’ afresh, but only rediscovered, since the rich tradition of the church opens up countless avenues in that direction.

As things stand now, the literature on pastoral theology as a stand-alone ‘discipline’ or conceptual model is very scarce – even that referring to the ‘shepherding’ paradigm addressed to the clergy, since that represents, in fairness, only a rehashing of all the major theological themes and an enumeration of the moral virtues required for the job. It is, sadly, very difficult to find pastoral visions that include the praxis of the laity. However, by exploring the theological motifs that are central to Orthodox theology which inform pastoral care (or on which it can be said to rest) we can delineate this simultaneously ancient and incipient vocation.

3 Orthodox perspectives on pastoral theology – from ‘shepherd’ towards community

We find an early description of the ‘pastoral art’ in one of the great fathers of the church, St Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the first theoreticians of pastoral care:

The scope of our art […] is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God; to watch over that which is in his image; if it abides, to take it by the hand, if it is in danger, to restore it; if ruined, to make Christ to dwell in the heart by the Spirit: and in short, to deify, and to bestow heavenly bliss upon one who belongs to the heavenly hosts. (Gregory of Nazianzus 1894: 209)

This depiction is rather comprehensive and anticipates all of the important aspects implied by Orthodox pastoral theology: it emphasises salvation (‘giving [the faithful] to God’); sacramental life (‘to make Christ to dwell in the heart by the Spirit’); and theosis, or deification (‘to deify, and to bestow heavenly bliss’). This has remained an archetypal perspective on pastoral care in the Orthodox Church. The reference to the ‘rescuing’ of the soul ‘from the world’ reveals the tension between the rejection and the embracing of the world. Deification appears as one of the pivotal elements in the Orthodox vision of pastoral theology and it will be explored later in this article (in section 4).

According to a more recent father of the church, St Nectarios of Aegina (1846–1920), pastoral theology is ‘the systematic teaching of the subject of the office of the Spiritual Shepherd in the Church of Christ, and concerning what sort of a person the Spiritual Shepherd ought to be, in order that he may govern the flock entrusted to him by God’. He also referred to pastoral theology as ‘applied theology’ (quoted in Vlachos 2022: 268).

A popular Romanian study book focusing specifically on pastoral theology and which has been in circulation since 1862 (a sign of scarce engagement with today’s world) defines pastoral theology as:

the systematic exposition of those rules and instructions which assist us in usefully carrying out our pastoral service and, through it, putting to use the holy religion of Christ for the salvation of mankind. The chief object of pastoral theology [...], is one and the same with that addressed by all theological disciplines, namely the Christian religion. […] At the same time, pastoral theology is distinct from the other theological disciplines [… as it has] a particular aim: it teaches the application and practical usage of Christian religion for the salvation of others. From this point of view it is a discipline of practical theology. (Ștefănescu 2011: 51)

However, the usage of pastoral theology is meant for the pastors (shepherds) as their duty is not only ‘to deepen their own holy Christian religion and to live according to its ethos but to propagate this knowledge and ethos to others’ (Ștefănescu 2011: 51).

For Russian-born American Archbishop John Shahovskoy (1902–1989), ‘[g]ood pastorship is the power of the One Good Shepherd, which has been poured out into the world and has found sons “according to his heart”’ (2008: 30). He employs a metaphor through which pastors may be likened to ‘sheepdogs guarding the flock of the One Shepherd’.

A good and intelligent sheepdog zealously runs around the flock and, always gentle with the sheep, pushes with its nose every sheep that lags behind, driving it to the rest of the flock; but as soon as danger appears it is transformed from a peaceful dog into a fierce one. (Shahovskoy 2008: 30)

Archbishop Shahovskoy describes a shepherd of the church as a responsible teacher, liberated from the world (‘above all secular disputes’) and from the flesh (practicing asceticism), a ‘spiritual architect’ (‘builder of souls’), a physician, and a warrior (see 2008: 22–31).

Contemporary Orthodox scholar Joseph J. Allen writes that his book on The Ministry of the Church ‘was written to have a true value to both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians’, ‘to both clergy and laity’ (1986: 11). It focuses on the ministry of the clergy, the ‘shepherds’, whose ministry is one of leadership. ‘To shepherd is to lead’, he says.

In light of this understanding, however […] although there is certainly the ministry of the laity […] and that ‘ministry’ truly belongs to all members of the Body of Christ, the term ‘shepherding’ points to the specific function of the clergy, e.g., the presbyters. (Allen 1986: 21)

In a different study, Allen recognizes ‘interpersonal relations’ within the parish to be crucial to the pastoral enterprise, but the pastor’s leadership role remains central. To Allen, the priest’s relationship with his community is ‘just as central to the communal life of the Church as is their relationship with each other’ (1988: 41).

However, Allen also acknowledges the ministry of the laity, as essentially ‘ministry means service’ (1986: 13, original emphasis):

Whether one is in the ministry of the clergy or of the laity, it means only that he is to serve as one appointed by God. If the word ‘disciple’ means ‘called’ […] then the one who ministers is to be a disciple called by God. If the word ‘apostle’ means ‘sent’ then the minister is to be an apostle sent by God. Ministry within the Church, however, ‘does not belong to either the priest or the lay person,’ but is the gift of God’s grace, as phrased in 1 Pet 4:10: ‘As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace’. (Allen 1986: 13–14)

By comparison, a summation of all the significant commonalities of pastoral theology definitions in the Protestant world was produced by scholars Stephen Pattison and James Woodward, somewhat contrary to their acute awareness that any attempt to reach a comprehensive definition is bound to be inherently deficient:

Pastoral and practical theology are concerned with practice. They are also concerned with relating practice to the Christian theological tradition. The Christian community, the church, and its work is a very important focus for pastoral and practical theology. Practical and pastoral theology have traditionally been closely associated with the ministry of the church. An important focus for pastoral or practical theology is contemporary practices, issues and experiences that bear upon or form a concern for the Christian community. (Pattison and Woodward 2000: 6)

Along the same lines, the definition of Catholic pastoral theology proposed by Catholic academic Arthur David Canales is: ‘Pastoral theology is a theological discipline that has its roots in Catholic biblical, systematic, and moral theologies, which includes practical knowledge, human interaction, reflection of experience, and leadership skills for ministry’ (2018: 79). Distinguished scholar Ryan LaMothe attempts a contemporary definition of both Protestant and Catholic pastoral theology, as theology which develops

in relation to the concrete needs of persons, families, and communities, especially those who suffer. Any encounter with suffering begs for a pastoral theological analysis – an analysis or diagnosis that is a necessary step toward developing pastoral interventions aimed at meeting the needs of individuals, communities, and societies. (LaMothe 2018: 73)

What would be characteristic to an Orthodox definition in addition to the aspects mentioned above would be an immediate and essential mention of Liturgical life. While the Christian community is described by Western Christians as an essential focus for pastoral theology, there is little to suggest any relation to the participation in the sacramental/Liturgical life of the church. For Orthodox Christians, Liturgy has a clear practical contribution to the faithful’s involvement in society, as it essentially prepares them through the sacramental communion of the Eucharist for a full and tireless participation in the life of the community, sending them back into the world, into a context which retains a Liturgical character, although less explicitly.

This broad approach to theology as life as Liturgy, with the emphasis on ‘human gestures to the transcendent’ – as put by Protestant scholar Peter Berger (quoted in Miller-McLemore 2011: 7) – appears mirrored to a degree in the vision of some modern Orthodox theologians when speaking about pastoral theology and its ultimate goal. Canadian academic John Jillions demarcates two essential constituent elements of an Orthodox pastoral theology, treated here in its community-based understanding:

While there is much common ground in pastoral theology, what is distinctive vis-à-vis other Western Christian traditions […] are the particular tools and experience of the Orthodox Church. Two areas in particular are emphasized in the Orthodox tradition of pastoral theology: Liturgical life (‘where two or three are gathered’, Matt 18:20) and the inner life (‘go into your room and shut the door’, Matt 6:6). The one reinforces the other. (Jillions 2003: 164, added emphasis)

The areas of Liturgical life and inner life are emphasized here as foci of Orthodox pastoral theology, and this represents a very realistic approach to the Orthodox view. When talking about pastoral theology or care, the Orthodox faithful will immediately make reference to their life in the Church and to praying for each other. For a Westerner this may seem unconvincing, as what initially seems to be simply attendance of church services and praying for one another seems to do little in practical terms for helping our brothers and sisters in need. The vision that keeps resurfacing in the Orthodox perspective is that Liturgical life is pastoral par excellence, as the eucharistic Liturgy shapes a particular type of community, maintaining in each member of the church an attitude of self-giving to the other members of the community. (See below section 6 on the Liturgy after the Liturgy.)

Spiritual growth and betterment through Liturgical participation and prayer are then the starting points in Orthodox practical and pastoral theology. Consequently, a key concept in Orthodox tradition is that of ‘spiritual guidance’, or spiritual parenthood. This implies that every member of the church is expected to have a ‘spiritual guide’, belonging to the ordained clergy, but also to the monastic community (both ordained and lay), therefore intimately connected with the Liturgical life of the church. These spiritual guides are to constantly supervise, advise, and direct the life of the faithful – the ‘watching over’ and the ‘taking by the hand' mentioned in St Gregory’s definition. According to this model, every pastoral case is seen as so ‘unique,’ as it can only be addressed separately in its own context.

4 Deification in Orthodox pastoral theology

Referring to hesychasm – a concept of monastic extraction describing a life of contemplative prayer, fasting, and self-giving to the Other – Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, described it as ‘the spiritual method through which the heart is cleansed so as to retain only the name of Christ within’ (1994: 12). He thus defines remarkably succinctly deification as well as the methodology to attain it. To this however he immediately adds: ‘[a]nd precisely this activity takes on, at the same time, social character, for when the human person is treated, he/she becomes at once the most sociable of persons’ (1994: 12). Thus, if in the Orthodox vision all theology is inherently pastoral, nothing in relation with Orthodox theology – practical, pastoral, or otherwise – can be really understood without a basic comprehension of its underlying principle, direction, or goal of the life of all the faithful within the Orthodox tradition, without that which justifies and nourishes the entire spectrum of spiritual life. This is the concept of theosis, that is the deification of the human being. Without referring to deification as the ultimate goal of Christian life, it is indeed irrelevant to speak about spiritual life as part of the pastoral praxis within Orthodox communities. In the words of one of the more recent and very popular Orthodox saints, Seraphim of Sarov:

Prayer, fasting, vigils, and all other Christian practices, although wholly good in themselves, certainly do not in themselves constitute the end of our Christian life: they are but the indispensable means for the attainment of that end. For the true end of the Christian life is the acquiring of the Holy Spirit. As for fasts, vigils prayers, alms, and other good works done in the name of Christ – these are the means whereby we can acquire the Holy Spirit. (Seraphim quoted in Lossky 1957: 196)

Therefore, even when exploring the pastoral dimension of the life of the Orthodox Church, elucidating deification as a concept which gives meaning and direction to the whole of Orthodox theology and life appears necessary and indeed crucial. While it may seem somewhat abstract, it is in fact a theme that impels and motivates Christian life and, moreover, it can only find its fulfilment in the practical spiritual/Liturgical life of the faithful. Theosis is a vast and complex theological theme, resting on centuries of patristic thought, which cannot be explored in appropriate depth here. It is however essential to visit it briefly when defining the pastoral praxis of the Orthodox Church.

St Athanasius expressed this concept concisely, through his famous phrase: ‘Christ assumed humanity that we might become God’ (Athanasius 1953: 93). Thus, the understanding is that, through the incarnation of Christ, what would otherwise seem absurd – that the fallen, sinful man may become as holy as God – becomes possible. To partake of God’s nature is seen as the very reason or plan of God’s creation. In the words of St Maximus the Confessor, ‘God has created us in order that we may become partakers of the divine nature’ (Maximus quoted in Lossky 1957: 90). Indeed, the same vision was shared by St Basil the Great: ‘Man is nothing less than a creature that has received the order to become God’ (Basil quoted in Ware 1984: 7).

Deification, leading to or being practically concurrent with salvation, can be achieved ‘fully’ only in the kingdom of heaven; yet reaching this union with God during earthly life is nevertheless possible and the example of the saints, seen as people who have achieved the state of holiness, is essential in Orthodox spirituality. However, since it can never be fully achieved before the eschaton, the calling to deification during earthly life is unceasing. In other words, theosis is not perceived as an appropriated ‘state’ that can be achieved and maintained, but rather like a continuous struggle towards perfection, towards the union with God. This struggle and constant aspiration toward perfection, representing in fact the spiritual life of the faithful, retains a perpetually dynamic character. Theosis is therefore a continual process.

Going one step further, the starting point in approaching God and in trying to understand divine life is the understanding of God as Trinity, as a ‘social being’, as a being living in a perpetual communion of love. In the words of Romanian Patriarch Daniel Ciobotea: ‘the Holy Trinity is the source, the starting point and the ultimate goal of the entire theology and spirituality, of the entire anthropology and ecclesiology, of the entire understanding of the world and of existence’ (Ciobotea 2002: 67). The Holy Trinity represents the Orthodox conception about the world, and both Metropolitan Kallistos Ware and Patriarch Daniel Ciobotea employ Russian thinker Nikolai Fedorov’s statement that ‘the dogma of the Holy Trinity is our social program’ (Ciobotea 2002: 67; Ware 1963: 216).

Orthodox theology sees in the incarnation of Christ the revelation of the Trinity, as the Logos does not reveal himself as a singular person, but as a divine person in relation with other two divine persons: in relation to the Father and the Holy Spirit. By his incarnation the son of God has introduced human nature within the deepest intimacy of the Trinity and given it the ability of eternally participating in the trinitarian life. Hence, Liturgical or prayerful life in Christ represents participation in the life of the Holy Trinity. The entire Holy Liturgy, the prayer of the Church par excellence, is a gradual spiritual introduction into the kingdom or communion of the Holy Trinity. By the invocation of the Holy Spirit the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ of the Trinity. Thus ‘the Holy Spirit reveals the eucharistic as being Trinitarian, and the ecclesiastic as being eucharistic’ (Ciobotea 2002: 72).

The concept of theosis as seen from a trinitarian perspective is of particular relevance to understanding the pastoral praxis of the Orthodox Church and the spiritual life of its community. First of all, it is important to note that the search for deification cannot be self-orientated, as the salvation of the others is as important as one’s own salvation. Indeed, the church as a community of the faithful can be seen as a ‘a communion of deification’ (Mantzaridis 1984: 57). This view of the church has as its main source the trinitarian approach to theosis, where ‘mankind is one being but multi-hypostatic, just as God is One Being in Three Persons’ (Sophrony 1977: 88). Human beings come closest to their nature created in the image of God, when the same communion of love that exists between the persons of the Holy Trinity exists between them. According to the model of the Trinity, human beings should also be in a continuous communion of ministry for and self-giving to one another.

Yet love alone between human beings is not, in Orthodox spirituality, seen as sufficient in itself, and does not constitute the ultimate encounter of God. Romanian theologian Dumitru Stăniloae acknowledged that ‘the “I-Thou” relation constitutes a locus for the experience of God’, yet this love is nourished from the supreme source of love which is God:

We experience God through our fellow human beings and in the love we have for them […] but we do not identify him with them, do not identify him with our love for one another. Rather we recognize him as a source of supreme personal love who gives us the strength to rise higher and higher in our love for one another. […] If God were simply identical to the love between the two of us, prayer would be of no avail. (Stăniloae 1980: 199)

Thus a ‘link’ must be maintained with God through which humankind could constantly receive the never-ending love of God, which in turn nourishes and increases one’s love for others. This connection with God is materialized in Orthodox theology through the sacramental life of the church. It is through the sacraments (particularly the Eucharist) and through our own spiritual life and prayer, that a connection with the Trinity is maintained. Deification appears unlikely to be achieved, in the Orthodox tradition, outside the ecclesiastical life of the church. It can be achieved only through an event of communion, not only between each individual and God, but between the whole community of the church and the community of the Trinity. Indeed, this deifying communion between humankind and God could be seen as the very definition of the Church:

[…] through communion in the sacraments of Christ man partakes of His uncreated grace and is united with him into one body and one spirit. This immediate and personal link between every believer and Christ calls for a genuine unification and communion between believers themselves. In this way a new relationship, beyond words and beyond nature, is set up between man and Christ. This is the Church. (Mantzaridis 1984: 57)

When members of the church’s body are entering into communion with its head – Christ – it is expected they are also entering into a special communion with one another. This is another specifically Orthodox starting point of the pastoral vision, grounded in the trinitarian-based, self-emptying love, total self-giving, and passionate service of the persons to one another. This reciprocal love and service is nourished regularly by the eucharistic Liturgy – where the integrity of the Body of Christ is restored and where the faithful sing together: ‘let us entrust ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God’ (Chrysostom 2011: 21). This mutual servce in love takes hold of the entire life of the faithful, permeates their family life, their daily activities, their social involvement, their response to the problems of the whole world.

5 The Holy Liturgy

Within this exploration of pastoral theology, engagement with the multifaceted dimension of Liturgy is necessarily limited, although an exclusive focus on the societal and communitarian aspect of Liturgical life is nevertheless important. The Liturgy is a complex reality that informs the mystical, eschatological dimension of Christian faith, and is the supreme point of reference for spiritual life. For the sake of brevity we will focus on the eucharistic Liturgy, as core and archetype of the church’s entire Liturgical cycle of services, of the entirety of its sacramental life.

Indeed, Orthodox pastoral theology – understood as societal, interpersonal involvement of both laity and clergy – is fundamentally grounded in the Holy Liturgy. The role of the Liturgy (in its original etymological understanding, λειτουργία/leitourgia meaning ‘a public work’ or an ‘activity of the people’) is seen primarily as offering a sacramental space, centred around the mystery/sacrament of the Eucharist, a place where people live and experience their faith. The emphasis on lived experience expands Liturgical operation beyond the prescribed text of the Liturgy. Indeed,

the actions and practices of Liturgy in all their rich variety […] must be interpreted as part of any exploration of Liturgical ‘meaning,’ as part of the hermeneutic circle, which cycles not only between parts and wholes of texts, but also between texts and actions, as well as between specific actions and larger ceremonies. (Gschwandtner 2019: 26)

Ritual itself is ‘originally and essentially, the most appropriate way of experiencing faith’s existential substance, its living content’ (Costache 2018).

Orthodox theology emphasizes that Liturgy is the event when human life is closest to its fullness, wherein participants are closest to the transcendental reality of God’s kingdom. In the words of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware,

Orthodoxy sees human beings above all else as Liturgical creatures who are most truly themselves when they glorify God, and who find their perfection and self-fulfilment in worship. Into the Holy Liturgy which expresses their faith, the Orthodox peoples have poured their whole religious experience. (Ware 1963: 272)

Or, as expressed by seminal theologian Father Georges Florovsky, ‘Christianity is a Liturgical religion. The Church is first of all a worshipping community. Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second’ (Florovsky 1978: 172). Father Alexander Schmemann, another influential theologian, also wrote that worship

is a truly essential act, and man an essentially worshipping being, for it is only in worship that man has the source and the possibility of that knowledge which is communion, and of that communion which fulfils itself as true knowledge: knowledge of God and therefore knowledge of the world – communion with all that exists. (Schmemann 1982: 128–130)

Consequently, Liturgy is often seen in the Orthodox tradition as pointing the way to a spiritualized form of existence, or as offering a ‘foretaste’ of the kingdom. The Liturgical assembly is the Father’s House, where the invitation to the banquet of the heavenly bread is constantly voiced and addressed to the members of the church. This feast is meant to transport the Liturgical community beyond this reality into the life of the triune God. It is a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven, a journey from our world into the reality of God. Schmemann pointed out the characteristic of Liturgy as a Pascha, a Passover into a different reality: ‘It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the kingdom […] our entrance into the presence of Christ is an entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see the ultimate reality of life’ (Schmemann 1966: 29). Moreover, in the community of the Eucharist ‘we subsist in a manner different from the biological, as members of a body which transcends every exclusiveness of a biological or social kind’ (Zizioulas 1985: 60). Here the human being acquires an ‘ecclesial identity’ in which ‘we appear to exist not as that which we are but as that which we will be’ (Zizioulas 1985: 59), that is, we acquire an eschatological way of being. The Liturgical ritual ‘constitutes therefore a mystical vehicle, a way of transferring the celebrating community illo tempore, “to those times”’, while also transporting them ‘to the eschatological realities foreshadowed, signified, and anticipated by the events of salvation’ (Costache 2018).

On the other hand, as pointed out by Christina Gschwandtner in her phenomenological study of Liturgy, ‘Orthodox Liturgy is not simply some sort of highly spiritualized transport to heaven, but is meaningful for our lives here and now’ (Gschwandtner 2019: 202). Seeing Liturgy as something eminently otherworldly, ‘self-centred’, and purely transcendental, denies its role in building the one body of Christ in one locality, and its place within the economy of salvation, which is for all people throughout history:

Many books on Orthodox spirituality give the impression that Orthodoxy is a religion for male monks sequestered on Mount Athos, an angelic life not involving human bodies or ‘worldly’ concerns. That is simply not true—or at least it shouldn’t be true. Orthodox Liturgy is fully temporal, spatial, corporeal, and affective. […] To contend—as many do—that it is ‘cosmic Liturgy’ must also mean that it concerns this cosmos, not some other, heavenly, world, removed from this one. Liturgy matters to our lives as they are lived in their day-to-day existence on this earth in our flesh and bones, engaged with the real people around us, their (and our) affects and emotions in all their concrete, particular, finite, frail, and fully human reality. (Gschwandtner 2019: 202–203)

Thus the otherworldly Liturgical universe has implications in the here and now: it functions as a platform for anamnesis and catechization; it shapes the community members’ identity as Christians; and, not least, it gathers the community of the church into a solidary body of distinct individuals. The eucharistic event as well as all other sacramental interactions in the church are seen as maintaining a ‘communication channel’ with the dimension of the triune God, thus nurturing and informing our societal interactions. If we are to recognize the face of Christ in the face of our neighbour, and if we are to show Christ’s responsibility and love to our neighbours, we must be in communion of love with God and always be seeking to deepen still further this life-giving communion.

This is the nature of love: the more we depart from the centre and do not love God, the more we depart from the neighbour; but if we love God, then the closer we come to him in love, the more we are united in love of the neighbour. (Ciobotea 2002: 40)

6 The Liturgy after the Liturgy

In the section above, a quote from John Zizioulas mentioned how, through our subsistence in the eucharistic Liturgy, we transcend every restrictedness of a biological or social kind, and we acquire an ‘ecclesial identity’ (Zizioulas 1985: 60). But how is this ecclesial identity manifested in the lives of Christians? A response to this question – which is certainly relevant for this exploration of pastoral theology – comes from a recent saint of the Orthodox Church, Maria Skobtsova of Paris (1891–1945), who by ‘churching’ is likely addressing the same concept:

We like it when the ‘churching’ of life is discussed but few people understand what it means. Indeed, must we attend all the church services to ‘church’ our life? Or hang an icon in every room and burn an icon-lamp in front of it? No, the churching of life is the sense that the whole world as one church, adorned with icons that should be venerated, that should be honoured and loved, because these icons are true images of God that have the holiness of the Living God upon them. (Skobtsova 2003: 80–81)

We see here a remarkable transition from the space of the church to the outside world, the sacramental dimension remaining an unobstructed continuum. Indeed, despite constituting the ultimate mystical event for the Orthodox faithful and despite its centrality in the life of the community, the eucharistic Liturgy with its transcending transfigured reality does still not represent in itself an isolated or ‘sufficient' involvement of the faithful in the life of the church. Although it is perceived as informing all church life it does not represent the sole required or expected commitment of the Christians within the church community. In fact the very person who shaped the order of the eucharistic Liturgy celebrated most frequently by the Orthodox up to this day, St John Chrysostom, saw the existence of two complementary altars; the one inside the church, but also another altar which we encounter in our daily life, which is in effect ‘the poor, the suffering, those in need, the homeless, all who are in distress’ (Ware 2004).

Chrysostom strongly emphasized this ‘sacrament of the brother’ (Bria 1978: 90). This referred to the philanthropy and service which Christians are to offer and perform in their social public life and which he saw as inextricably connected and complementary to the eucharistic worship. This second altar and sacrament have often been referred to by modern day Orthodox theologians as ‘the Liturgy after the Liturgy’ (see Bria 1978; Ware 2004). Indeed ‘having received Christ in the Holy Gifts,’ says Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, ‘we then go out from the church, going back to the world to share Christ with all those around us’ (2004). Ware sees a biblical foundation in this view of two complementary sacraments:

First there was the Eucharistic meal, where Christ blessed bread and gave it to the disciples, ‘This is my body,’ and he blessed the cup, ‘This is my blood.’ Then, after the Eucharistic meal, Christ kneels and washes the feet of his disciples. The Eucharistic meal and the foot washing are a single mystery. We have to apply that to ourselves, going out from the Liturgy to wash the feet of our fellow humans, literally and symbolically. (Ware 2004)

Or, as put by Romanian theologian Ion Bria:

Renewed by the Holy Communion and the Holy Spirit, the members of the Church are sent to be authentic testimony to Jesus Christ in the world. The mission of the Church rests upon the radiating and transforming power of the Liturgy. It is a stimulus in sending out the people of God to the world to confess the Gospel and to be involved in man’s liberation. (Bria 1978: 87–88)

There is an organic, unbreakable relation that the Orthodox tradition sees between social involvement or ministry and the eucharistic worship; between a spiritual way of life continuing the prayerful state achieved during the Liturgy, and the everyday service within the community. In fact, this second ‘everyday Liturgy’ of each and every member of the church cannot be seen as distinct from the spiritual life of the community, but they are in fact a single reality. It is in that same prayerful state of peace acquired during the Liturgy that Christians become active within their communities. Again, that prayerful state is not to be seen as passive contemplation, but as something transfigurative, participatory, and dynamic. In Ware’s words: ‘Peace is to be something dynamic within this broken world. It’s not just a quality that we experience within the church walls’ (2004). Ware sees in the final dismissal of the Liturgy, ‘Go forth in peace’, not merely a ‘comforting epilogue’ or a call to meditative prayer, but ‘a call to serve and bear witness’, a sign that ‘the Liturgy after the Liturgy is about to begin’ (2004).

Extremely inspiring, again, are the words of St Maria of Paris (who will be discussed more in section 8), the quintessential archetype of Orthodox pastoral care, who is fascinated by this concept of ‘Liturgy outside the church’:

The church Liturgy and the words spoken in it give us the key for understanding this notion. We hear: ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess.’ And further on: ‘Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.’ These ‘others’ whom we love with one mind in the church also work with us outside the church, rejoicing, suffering, living. And those who are His and of Him, offering unto Him on behalf of all and for all, are indeed ‘all,’ that is, all possible encounters on our way, all people sent to us by God. The wall of the church did not separate some small flock from them all. On the other hand, we believe that the eucharistic sacrament offers up the Lamb of God, the Body of Christ, as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. And, being in communion with this sacrificial Body, we ourselves become offered in sacrifice — ‘on behalf of all and for all’. In this sense, the Liturgy outside the church is our sacrificial ministry in the church of the world, adorned with living icons of God, our common ministry, an all-human sacrificial offering of love [...] In this Liturgical communion with people, we partake of a communion with God, we really become one flock and one Shepherd, one body, of which the inalienable head is Christ. (Skobtsova 2003: 81)

This call to dynamic peace, to active prayer, to participatory spiritual life is where pastoral theology – as community-oriented paradigm – begins in the Orthodox Church. It is in this self-giving service to the neighbour, in that support and guidance of others, that the Orthodox faithful become ‘pastors’ in their own right, ‘sharing Christ with all those around them’ (Ware 2004). This is in effect part of that spiritual life Jillions referred to when trying to define pastoral theology from an Orthodox perspective. The Orthodox tradition however would rather refer to this sort of post-Liturgical care as ‘brotherly’ rather than ‘pastoral,’ since the priest’s role as a shepherd or ‘father’ of the community and his pastorship are seen as singular and having a fixed determinate place within the church community.

Thus, when seen in relation with the sacramental character of life in the church, Orthodox pastoral theology has had two closely linked aspects – Liturgical and social. Participation in the services performed in the churches was never (or should not have been) seen as divorced from the participation outside the temple as service within the community. Besides a constant committed societal involvement, one other aspect of ‘the Liturgy after the Liturgy’ remains contemplative or spiritual; the faithful need to constantly reengage with the theological sources – scriptural or patristic, modern or springing from one’s own narrative – not merely as a theoretical exercise, but in order to rediscover, to renew, and ever purify their Orthodoxy.

Orthodox theology then – pastoral or otherwise – seeks to constantly ensure that the life of the faithful within the church, starting from their Liturgical participation and down to their interpersonal engagement in society, does not succumb to a vision wherein the Orthodoxy of the faithful is perceived as a safeguarded ‘birth right’. Orthodox life is not a ‘mechanical’ participation within the life of the church as inherited from the forefathers. Life in Christ needs to be viewed as a constant, dynamic, passionate engagement. Failure to do so constitutes one of the main obstacles to a genuine dynamic and participatory life of Orthodox Christians in the activities of the church, and this bears particular relevance in the case of pastoral/practical theology.

7 Orthodox pastoral theology

Before attempting to define a ‘model’ for Orthodox pastoral theology, a tension or polarity should be acknowledged in Orthodox thought between rejecting and embracing the secular world, between withdrawing from society and sanctifying it by bringing Christ's presence into its midst. This follows the Orthodox paradigm of thought according to which Christians are both ‘outside’ the world, while remaining a part of it or, moreover, being called to serve the world and to bring to it the witness of eternal life. This is perhaps best exemplified in the early Christian apologetics text of Mathetes’ Epistle to Diognetus (c. 130–180 CE) which famously exposes this apparent contradiction:

But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities […] and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, [the Christians] display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. […]. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh (2 Corinthians 10:3). They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). (Roberts and Donaldson 1903: 26–27)

These two divergent tendencies of the Orthodox faithful vis-à-vis their societal environments (withdrawal versus involvement) are perceptively addressed by American theologian Stanley Harakas, who exposes a revelatory vision of the Orthodox society:

One [tendency] is a radical rejection of the world. In this vision only the ‘people of God’ are holy, while the world by definition finds itself in full submission to the demonic. [...] The other tendency is contrasted to this essential denigration and rejection of the world in what might be called the incarnational vision of the world. Here, the Church sees itself as obligated to reach out to the world, to be somehow a vehicle for injecting at least some measure of the divine in an environment which has rejected it, but which cannot find its own purpose and fulfilment without it. Christian evangelisation seeks to convert it; philanthropy to correct its worst effects upon the lives of people; and social concern to modify its structures for the sake of fairness and justice. (Harakas 1988: 13–14)

This incarnational vision of the world is therefore the locus wherein the Orthodox pastoral theological process takes place, the space where philanthropy and social engagement become vehicles for inoculating the presence of God into the world. These two opposing tendencies are held together in an ‘unresolved, yet mutually influential paradox’ (Harakas 1988: 14). Church members seem to constantly vacillate between contemplative isolation and immersion in an uncertain societal reality, bringing the divine peace and love of Christ into society while at the same time carrying this fellowship with them back into the solitude or communion of prayer. In seclusion they can only find fullness by relating to the community that binds them to God's triune society – whether that community is ecclesiastical or not, as Christ’s face is imprinted in all people, not just in those belonging to the church. When in the world, they feel like strangers in an ominous secular realm that largely rejects the truths of faith. In this theological vision, therefore, they commute ceaselessly between the two realities, finding meaning and strength only in the element of communion – communion with God through the sacraments, as well as the parallel communion with society through a prayerful, ‘Liturgical’ ministry to the others.

A clear illustration of this tension in the Orthodox world is evidenced by the polarity between monasticism and life in society. Monasticism represents total dedication to a life of prayer, a life centred on the mysteries of the church. But it is also seen in the Orthodox context as a rejection of the secular world, a world inherently corruptible and following a life other than that in Christ. This tension may cast doubt on Christians’ engagement with the ‘treacherous’ secular society in which they live. This distrust perhaps explains the sometimes default mode for Orthodox believers living in today’s world to view the act of faith as either a retreat to the safety of the parish community or as solitary prayer in their homes. On the other hand, Christians are called to ‘minister to’, or serve their community, according to the communitarian model of the triune God.

A reconciliation of this contradiction is resolved in the Orthodox tradition through the particular dynamic that exists between monastic communities and the secular world. The monasteries are not closed to society, their withdrawal does not mean a ‘break’ with the city’s ecclesial or even secular community. They are seen as simply stepping aside to pray while society is invited to step out of their comfort zone to explore such spaces, where they can encounter a different paradigm of Christian living. Monasteries interact with society, sometimes very directly, by organizing projects to help the poor, sick, and suffering, along the lines of the ancient Basiliades, which were essentially hospitals run by monastic communities. There is certainly much spiritual counselling available in monastic communities, and people in the secular world often use them as an alternative to secular therapy programs. Monasticism is not a paradigm through which a group of people seeks to save themselves, rather it represents a structure that seeks to save the world by withdrawing from the world. While this is not always reflected in reality, it nonetheless represents the theological vision underlying the monastic reality in the Orthodox world.

The Orthodox model of pastoral or practical involvement is then not annulled by this tension between the ‘inward’-‘outward’ vectors as an irreconcilable contradiction, but in fact rests on it as a positive constructive complementarity. Orthodox pastoral theology – indeed all theology – is seen as a continuous inward-outward motion, without ever breaking up into its elements. There is not an ‘inward’ without an ‘outward’; there is never any rest or status quo but always a dynamic ceaseless pulsation. A model for such a dynamic model was proposed by Dionysius the Areopagite (fifth–sixth century CE) in a helpfully visual description:

And the soul hath (1) a circular movement—viz. an introversion from things without and the unified concentration of its spiritual powers—which gives it a kind of fixed revolution, and, turning it from the multiplicity without, draws it together first into itself. (2) And the soul moves with a spiral motion whensoever (according to its capacity) it is enlightened with truths of Divine Knowledge (for this, as I said, is the circular motion), but goes forth unto the things around it and feels an influence coming even from the outward world, as from a rich abundance of cunning tokens, drawing it unto the simple unity of contemplative acts. (Dionysius the Areopagite 2007: 98–99)

This three-stage cycle is in fact illustrative of any Orthodox approach to theology: (1) the ‘centripetal’ movement within, towards prayer and contemplation. This represents the faithful’s intimate dialogue with Christ in the Trinity. They are thus ‘replenished’ with God’s grace, their thoughts and feelings re-calibrated according to the pattern of triune love. (2) This prayerful gathering within is gradually pulled upwards in a movement of ascendance or transcendence and ultimately represents the journey of theosis, when the faithful gradually join the communion of the Trinity as ultimate fulfilment and plenitude of life. (3) The plenitude thus attained generates the movement without (or outwards), when human beings ‘escape’ (temporarily) the inward centripetal drive and are propelled towards the outer world (the society). This third stage brings completion and gives meaning to the theological act, and is best encapsulated in the Liturgical gathering centred around the Eucharist and the sacraments, both inside, within the walls of the church (as a first stage), but also outside the church, in people’s homes and in the squares of the city (cf. Porumb 2017a and 2017c).

This cycle is repeated in a pulsation that characterizes the fundamental dynamic of Christian life: ‘retreat to engage’, an individual growth in Christ that is shared with and ‘transferred’ to one’s community. Humans move inward so that they can then move outward meaningfully. Although Dionysius mentions the outward motion as focusing on ‘a rich abundance of tokens’, the inner matrix of Orthodox theology implicitly connects this outward movement with human society. There cannot be theologically any action in isolation, but only within the community of the Church, according to the trinitarian model of God, in the image of whom humans function – as one multi-hypostatic being.

Thus, what may initially seem like a contradiction, becomes the very internal logic of Orthodox pastoral theology. Orthodox pastoral theology may start with a ‘self-centred’ movement ‘within’, of prayer and introspection, or with an inward gathering in the Liturgy – but only in order to then move outwards, towards a selfless communion with the church community and with the entire society. The Orthodox vision on pastoral theology is – or ought to be – that of church life as a community of continual self-giving, a communion of all of its members with each other but also with Christ. This applies, of course, to both clergy and laity, even if the Orthodox maintain priesthood as central to their communities due to its leading, archetypal, or mediation functions.

The sacramental life of the church is made up of two joined dimensions: the ‘sacrament of the altar’ and the ‘sacrament of the neighbour’. Liturgical life and societal involvement encounter one another in inseparable complementarity. The Orthodox regard any activity within the church community – including pastoral or social activity – as implausible, should this not be related or connected to the spiritual, Liturgical, and sacramental life of the church. The ‘sacrament of the brother’ – the starting point of any pastoral/societal process in the Orthodox context – has its roots in the eucharistic Liturgy, which it continues and completes. The church thus becomes a communion of deification, whence union with God starts in communion with the other humans.

The Eucharist informs the communion of the church and directs it towards deification, the state in which every person eventually becomes ‘the most sociable of persons’ (Vlachos 1994: 12). One of the most well-known sayings of St Seraphim of Sarov has a direct relevance here: ‘Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved’ (Woodley 2009: 156).

8 Luminous figures of lived pastoral theology

Since pastoral theology concerns the personal service or ministry of Orthodox people to their neighbour (or more generally to the Other), it would remain a rather sterile field and all the theorizing on the theme would indeed be rendered pointless, had we not been gifted with living examples of pastoral devotion that embodied the Orthodox pastoral paradigm. We will thus briefly present four such figures, all from the recent history of the Orthodox Church – although, of course, many more such examples of self-giving praxis and love are to be found in the Christian East.

An exceptional figure of Orthodox spirituality and a pastoral ‘practitioner’ in the truest sense of the word was Mother Maria Skobtsova, now known as St Maria of Paris (1891–1945). She was born Elizaveta Pilenko in an aristocratic family in Riga, the Russian Empire (now Latvia). After a turbulent and rebellious youth spent writing poetry and getting involved in radical revolutionary circles, her politics led to her being targeted by anti-Bolsheviks and then Bolsheviks. She was forced to flee Russia when communists came to power and eventually settled in Paris in 1923. A mother of three, Elizaveta devoted herself more to theological readings and social work. As her marriage was falling apart she took monastic vows in 1932, with the unusual concession that she was to live not in a monastery but in the city.

Bearing the monastic name Maria, she lived in a rented house in Paris, which quickly became a welcoming place for refugees, those in need and those who were lonely, but also a centre for intellectual and theological debate. Mother Maria was indeed a living example of Orthodox pastoral theology as she always combined theological reflection with the service to her fellow humans. When France fell during the Second World War in 1940, Mother Maria would shelter Jews and issue baptismal certificates for many in order to save their lives, or help them flee the country. This unique, eccentric, cigarette-smoking (often controversial) figure, was never shy to criticize established structures of the church. She devoted herself passionately to helping those whose lives were being ruined by the war, and consequently the house was soon closed down by the Gestapo, who arrested her and sent her to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. At Ravensbrück she continued to minister to all the detainees, helping and encouraging them ceaselessly and becoming much loved by all (many surviving prisoners testifying to her many acts of kindness and self-sacrifice). She eventually fell gravely ill, and was transferred to an extermination section, alongside other detainees in poor health. She was sent to the gas chamber, after she offered – as legend has it – to take the place of another woman who was scheduled for execution that day. She is considered a modern martyr of the church.

Very importantly, from the point of view of Orthodox theology, Mother Maria’s vision of pastoral care was formulated in a series of essays which have now been published in many languages. Mysticism for Mother Maria does not only refer to the communion with God but also to the communion with our neighbours. She proposes that

Communion with man is simply another form of communion with God. In communing with people we commune not only with like-minded people, friends, co-religionists, subordinates, superiors […] we commune with Christ Himself, and only a peculiar materialism with regard to Christ’s appearing and abiding in the world can explain our inability to meet Him within the bustle. (Skobtsova 2003: 79–80)

This kind of sacrificial love is accompanied by a clear theological view. Thus when we receive the poor and the downcast person,

we receive him in the name of the love of Christ, not because we will be rewarded, but because we are aflame with this sacrificial love of Christ and in it we are united with Him, with His suffering on the Cross, and we suffer not for the sake of our purification and salvation, but for the sake of this poor and unhappy man whose suffering is alleviated by ours. One cannot love sacrificially in one’s own name, but only in the name of Christ, in the name of the image of God that is revealed to us in man. (Skobtsova 2003: 49)

A similarly unconventional lay figure was Romanian writer Nicu Steinhardt (1912–1989), known in his later monastic years as Father Nicolae de la Rohia. He had a significant impact in his society, both during his lifetime and after his death through his writings, during the communist and post-communist periods. He was born near Bucharest to Jewish parents, and was educated in law (BA and PhD) in the 1930s. He began his writing career soon thereafter, publishing literary criticism, philosophical and political reflections, and satirical pieces. After the communists came to power and soon initiated a purge of dissidents and reluctant intellectuals in the 1950s, he bravely refused to testify as a witness at a trial against Romanian philosopher Constantin Noica. He was consequently imprisoned and served his sentence in incredibly harsh and humiliating conditions in several prisons, from 1960 until 1964. It was in prison that he took the momentous decision to become a Christian and was baptized ‘covertly’ by a fellow inmate who was a priest. This episode and his faith experience are described in his book, Journal of Joy which made him hugely popular in Romania, sadly, after his death. The Journal is a versatile stream-of-consciousness novel or long essay, an unusual book of cultural, philosophical, and theological reflections. Previously banned, his Journal now brings to readers a testimony on the communist prison gulag and a severe critique of the communist regime – but also, more importantly, a guide to living a Christian life and to maintaining one’s dignity, even in a hostile environment such as the communist one.

Both through his Journal and theological writings (all published posthumously), but equally through his interactions with those around him, with the many ‘literary-spiritual’ disciples he had amassed long before he became a monk later in life, he was an inspirational figure of living faith and defiance of totalitarianism, through a constant liberating engagement with both faith and art. A Don-Quixotesque character, his enormous erudition coupled with his cheerful openness and generosity of spirit made any encounter with him memorable and transformative. As suggested by the title of his Journal, his main feature was his boundless joy (at odds, somewhat, with the totalitarian gloom), which had its roots in the mystical encounter with God he had had while in prison. When recounting this mystical experience, he writes that ‘the light surrounds me from all parts. It’s total joy, and it does away with everything’. Steinhardt saw joy as a fundamental characteristic of Christian life. His message is one of supreme hope and positivity even in the face of unspeakable hardship: ‘If evil is bottomless, so goodness too is boundless’ (Porumb 2017b: 19–20).

Steinhardt’s spirituality which he passed on (and still does) to his followers is driven by a passionate receptivity and inclination towards integrating a multitude of literary, philosophical, or cultural sources – irrespective of the Christian context in which they originated – within the Orthodox theological discourse. This approach has been called a sort of ecumenism through culture. The kind of pastoral involvement he based his human interactions on was one focused on ‘justice, mercy and faithfulness’ (Matt 23:23), and any approach to faith that disregards these principles was pointless to him. To witness and defend truth meant for him primarily to shout out against any abuse committed against our neighbours – a particularly inspiring but extremely brave philosophy to espouse during the communist reign, notorious for its numerous instances of egregious breaching of human rights.

Another luminous example of an influential shepherd was Elder (now Saint) Porphyrios (1906–1991, also known as ‘the Kafsokalyvite’). His full love and devotion to all those who sought his spiritual help, his boundless compassion, and humble wisdom became quickly known in Greece in his lifetime, and later in the entire Orthodox world. He was born Evangelos Bairaktaris in the Greek province of Evia into a poor farmers’ family. Interested in monasticism from an early age, he became a monk at the age of fourteen with the name Nikitas at the skete of Kafsokalyvia on the monastic island community of Mount Athos. He devoted himself eagerly to a life of hesychasm, profound prayer, and unbroken obedience to his spiritual fathers. While on Mount Athos, he was visited by the Holy Spirit, an experience which changed him profoundly and endowed him with the gift of discernment and of profound knowledge and wisdom. Severe illness soon forced him to move back to mainland Greece, closer to his birthplace. Soon after, Nikitas was ordained a priest, under the name Porphyrios, aged twenty-one. He was later appointed as a hospital chaplain in Athens, after which he founded the Holy Convent of the Transfiguration of the Saviour, the development of which he was occupied with for a number of years. At the same time, as his physical health continued to decline, he returned to Mt Athos where he spent the last years of his life.

Particularly after his ordination, when he was appointed as a father confessor, through his otherworldly warm love, his wise discretion, and unparalleled discernment, he became an extremely popular spiritual guide, and more and more people came seeking his advice and support. He was a unique character, always displaying deep humility and humbling hospitality. The door to his cell was always open to people from all walks of life: monastics, lay people, ordained clergy, city-dwellers, or people from the villages. He was an inspiring character, not only through his constant love and pastoral care, but also through his boundless love of learning. He never displayed – as one of his biographers notes – ‘any kind of fanaticism’ (Ioannidis 1997: 51). The teaching he offered to his spiritual followers was that the basic element of spiritual life in Christ is unity in Christ. He grieved profoundly as he decried how evil often targets this human weakness, by encouraging people to put their own interest first, separating themselves from one another, and often ignoring the consequences of their actions when they concern others. His radiant figure of joyful grace – immediately visible in many of his photographs and icons – has been embraced by the consciousness of the church’s flock as an example of unconditional love and of life in Christ.

A priest in Soviet Russia, Father Alexander Men (1933–1990), was another embodiment of Orthodox pastoral theology. He was targeted by the communists both for his Jewish ancestry (which prevented him from studying at leading Moscow universities) as well as for his Christian belief (for which he was denied university graduation after he had studied biology). Not giving up, he took a correspondence course in theology and was ordained a priest in 1960. During his service in rural parishes outside of Moscow – near Sergiev Posad and finally in in Novaya Derevnya – he built dynamic congregations which attracted many Moscow intellectuals. He had the rare courage to spread the Christian message even when Soviets punished any religious engagement, and later – after the relative ‘relaxation’ of the communist ban on the church during the perestroika years – he devoted himself to an intense dialogue with the post-communist secularized society, with scientists and intellectuals. He was murdered mysteriously one day, likely due to his increasing popularity as a spiritual leader, leading many Orthodox people to refer to him as a martyr of the church.

His motto was ‘Christianity is only now at its beginning’. As a shepherd, Father Alexander adopted a simple and subdued style of worship, in which the lay people were encouraged to participate in the Liturgy and were made to feel like co-celebrants. An erudite scholar, he attracted many academics and intellectuals, which aroused the distrust of the authorities and the envy of his peers. On a personal level Father Alexander was a friendly and welcoming figure and loved to talk to people. ‘He saw in each the unique person, whom he loved uniquely’ (Evdokimov 2021: 89), and knew how to make everyone feel comfortable. Father Alexander had a great sense of humour, was a social person and often played the guitar and sang with young people. As put by Father Michel Evdokimov in his book devoted to a comparative exploration of the lives of Father Alexander Men and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: ‘He radiated joy, warmth, inner peace. He emanated a profound and open faith and he passed this fire onto a multitude, young and old, theologians, writers, priests’ (Evdokimov 2021: 89).

These pastoral luminaries have exemplified precisely how the pastoral vector follows a cycle that takes the faithful from inward prayer to social engagement and back, while at the same time endeavouring to achieve a godly state. They demonstrated, perhaps better than any manual or definition, how Orthodox practical/pastoral theology indeed takes place in a sacramental universe wherein the faithful commute between the altar of the church and the altar of their neighbours.


Copyright Razvan Porumb (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Bria, Ion. 1996. The Liturgy After the Liturgy. Mission and Witness from an Orthodox Perspective. Geneva: WCC Publications.
    • Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. 2022. ‘For the Life of the World. Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church’, https://www.goarch.org/social-ethos
    • Gschwandtner, Christina M. 2019. Welcoming Finitude. Toward a Phenomenology of Orthodox Liturgy. New York: Fordham University Press.
    • Jillions, John A. 2003. ‘Pastoral Theology: Reflections from an Orthodox Perspective’, British Journal of Theological Education 13, no. 2: 161–174.
    • Skobtsova, Maria (Mother). 2022. ‘The Second Gospel Commandment’, St Tikhon Orthodox Church. https://www.orthodoxchattanooga.com/news/2020/7/20/5vatpc3kun65b272il769qsuime4l0
    • Ware, Kallistos. 2004. ‘Go Forth in Peace. The Liturgy After the Liturgy’, In Communion: Website of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. http://incommunion.org/2004/12/11/go-forth-in-peace/
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    • Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. 2022. ‘Τμήμα Κοινωνικής Θεολογίας και Χριστιανικού Πολιτισμού [Department of Social Theology and Christian Culture]’, https://past.auth.gr/
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