On Clerical Attire

Blessed Elder Epiphanios Theodoropoulos (+1989)

Orthodox Christians, even those who are of a worldly mind and spirit, find little, if any, spiritual comfort among the “progressive” and “modern” priests of our days. We thus make the following odd and strange observation: Priests who are strictly traditional, while serving as the ideal image for our conservative and traditional laity, also enjoy at the same time the immense respect, I dare say even admiration, of worldly laity. The latter even treat them with a great amount of respect which one might say it borderlines on the awe and fear that is usually directed towards our saints.

On the other side of the spectrum, “modernized” clergy exclusively provoke the anxiety and extreme uneasiness of traditionally-minded laity. Furthermore, while they are gladly accepted by the like-minded laity, they actually never gain their esteem and respect which is instead enjoyed only by priests who live a strict, spiritual life and have a traditional appearance.

The phrase “this is a holy man” has often been directed towards the strict and traditional clergy, irrespective of whether this clergy was married or celibate. Additionally, such characterization has been made not only by pious laity but even by those of a secular mind or others who are even indifferent towards religion or religious things. However, it has never been made by anyone, irrespective of their religious devotion, for the “progressive” and “modernized” priests or generally for any clergy that chooses, through their appearance, lifestyle and behavior, to exemplify “the spirit of our days.” This distinction carries many implications…

At this time, it would be proper to note the following: A lay theologian with progressive tendencies conveyed to me the following observation that he made during an American, non-Orthodox, clergy conference that took place in Athens, Greece.

“What can I tell you Father?” he asked. “You are absolutely correct in your thinking. I can not possibly consider these people as any kind of priests! You greet them and feel a complete lack of desire to show any respect, to spontaneously bend down and kiss their hand. You see them on the bus and you develop complete indifference towards jumping up and offering them your seat. Looking at them, I get the impression that I am staring at fancy restaurant waiters!… How very different I feel, though, when I see one of our priests, even if it is a simple monk!…”

One, of course, could easily misinterpret these words as the result of habitual observations, because in Greece we have been accustomed to see only cassock-wearing priests. For this reason, I must also mention a casual observation made during an interview of a well known European scientist (and published within the columns of the newspaper — “Ethnos” – several years ago, on February 17, 1970):

“It is so beautiful,” he said, “to watch a Greek priest and to pick him out from a distance; our clergy, on the other hand, must be literally sitting right next to you to distinguish them as such.”

These words must be repeated and heard over and over again by all those who for “aesthetic” reasons wish to abolish the use of cassocks. This testimony was made by a distinguished scientist and (interestingly enough) reported by a newspaper columnist who is well-known to be in clear favor of “ridding our clergy of their cassocks.” The subject scientist is surely accustomed to seeing his clergy with an outwardly appearance that parallels that of laity; nevertheless, he is inspired and exclaims upon seeing the cassock-wearing Greek priest, that “it is so wonderful to observe a priest dressed in this manner.”

One could, at this point, tell us:

“OK! Let us have different and peculiar attire for the clergy. Such garb, however, must not be so very unique and different from the dress code of laity. Let it be somewhat contemporary. The cassock is so ‘out of step with our times.’ Why should we thus not abolish it? The spirit of our times considers it as completely repulsive…”

Oh, this ancient and everlasting “spirit of our times!” It is exactly because every century and every generation has this same “spirit” (and the same thought process) that our clergy must be imposed upon a world that is flowing forward within a rapidly moving stream, constantly evolving and ever-changing. Science and technology are realizing dizzying leaps on a daily basis. Things of yesterday are unrecognizable by the people of today; things of today will be correspondingly unknown to the people of tomorrow. Thus, a little time passes and everything new and exciting becomes old and boring… It is within this unrestrained flow, these continuous alterations, this perpetual motion, these uninterrupted waves and oscillations, these terrible vibrations of the world that our clergy exists unaltered. Let us permit God’s priest to stand accordingly, as an unmovable rock and a sky-high column of light. He has neither a name nor an age. He is the one and the same from Jesus’ time (if not from the age of Malchizedek) and will be the same through the end of time! He, of course, has flesh, is born, lives and dies and is replaced by others. However, he is the same with the One Whom he represents on earth, even though he exists and has existed at millions of altars. The priesthood is one and the same, and emanates from Him.

This, therefore, is the Orthodox priest, the one and only that lies above place and time, binding together earth and heaven, uniting past, present and future, having been assimilated with the Son of God, possessing an infinite and eternal dimension, and whom we now wish to subjugate to the commands of the “spirit of time” of various generations. At times our priest may change but that is a process which occurring “naturally” through the forceful and violent nature of generational changes, for even he is subject to the illnesses of our “times.” However, is it not highly improper and awful to insist upon theoretical changes to the very foundation of clergy?

The Orthodox priest is the incarnation of the absolute, the expression of whatever is permanent, stable and motionless, the trumpet of heaven on earth, an icon of incorruptibility, and he who points out to all of us the pathway to eternity. Let us allow him to remain identical and unchangeable throughout the centuries, even in his external appearance, thus serving as a reminder and a symbol of the eternal and immutable Truths that he represents and upon which any type of change or the overshadowing of a social trend can carry no impact.

Let the world’s countenance be altered, let nature’s appearance be infected, but allow our clergy’s form and appearance (yes, their form and appearance) remain unchanged. Let Christ silently proclaim, through our priests, to the intoxicated, staggering, and continuously vibrating and evolving world: In the middle of this universal relativity and fluidity, in the middle of successive turnabouts, alterations, and changes, in the middle of corruption and extreme uncertainty, I remain. The Absolute and Ever-Lasting, the Incorruptible and Unaltered, the One and Only God!

from the book «Ἄρθρα, Μελέται – Ἐπιστολαί» (“Articles, Studies – Letters”), vol. 1, pg. 414, translated from the Greek by the staff of St. POIMEN Brotherhood