How One Should Begin The Office Of Preacher

by Humbert of Romans



We now consider the manner of beginning the office of preaching, and make two observations about it: Firstly, what can be found reprehensible in it; secondly, the great evils resulting from it.

XIII. Wrong Motives Which Lead Some to Undertake the Office of Preaching

In regard to this, there are three classes of faults to point out; some with regard to the person, others with regard to wrong motives which make the person act, others with regard to the premature beginning of this office.

1. There are some who want to be preachers before they are entirely rid of their faults, and they claim the right by referring to Isaiah, who said to the Lord,

“Lo, here am I. Call me” (Isaiah 6:8).

They do not observe that the Prophet had been first of all purified.

“He who asked to be sent thus,” St. Gregory tells us, “had previously felt the angel purify his lips with a burning coal taken from the altar, so that no one dared claim afterwards the right to enter upon the holy ministry before having been worthily purified.”

2. Some, purified though they may be, have not yet received all the supernatural gifts indispensable to them in order that they may distribute them to others.

“There are some,” says St. Bernard,[2] “who show such an ardor to communicate spiritual benefits to others, that they deem themselves able to dispense these benefits before they possess them”;

and it is against these that the holy doctor protests:

“If you wish to act with discernment, take care first to become a reservoir, before becoming a canal; for the former has for its function to receive and diffuse, while the latter waits to be filled before it discharges a superabundance.”

It is a question of the plentitude which St. Luke says comes from the Holy Spirit:

“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak” (Acts 2:4).

St. Paul, writing to the Romans, explains how this plenitude consists in charity and knowledge:

“. . . you yourselves are full of love, filled with all knowledge, so that you are able to admonish one another” (Rom. 15:14).

According to St. Bernard, such a plenitude results from the abundance of several graces which he specifies, namely: compunction, devotion, a constant effort to do penance, works of piety, prayerfulness, repose in contemplation, ad the abundance of pure and tender love.

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3. Others, although endowed with some good qualities, are not strengthened by supernatural virtue but remain plunged in darkness. It often happens that such preachers perish while working to save others. We read in the account of the lives of the Fathers of the desert that St. Apollonius retired to solitude at the age of fifteen; and having devoted forty years to the spiritual life, he heard one day a voice saying to him:

“Apollonius, it is my wish to use you to confound the false wisdom of the wise men of Egypt; go therefore into the cities, for you shall raise up to me a righteous people.”

Frightened, the poor anchorite replied:

“My God, keep far from me the spirit of vainglory, lest being elevated above my brethren, I swerve from the path of righteousness.”

Then the voice was heard again:

“Put your hand on your head, and do not let what you grasp escape, but go bury it under the sand.”

Having put his hand to his head, he found there a little black demon, which he buried under the sand as it cried:

“I am the demon of pride.” The voice again spoke: “Now go.”

And without hesitation he departed to preach. We should gather from this example ho much the weak ought to fear the mission of preaching, seeing a man so perfected in the spiritual life filled with such terror. It is for this reason that St. Bernard said to one who was soliciting for this office:

“What folly possesses you, my brother, what extravagance moves you to do this, seeking to take care of others, when you are still so weak; you whose very salvation is uncertain, whose virtue is a new and vacillating thing; you who are like a reed which bends before the least puff of wind; you whose charity would go beyond the commandment, loving your neighbor more than yourself – that charity which is still so weak that it melts like snow before the heat of the commandment, so entangled is it with ambition, so tormented by suspicions, disturbed by discussions, oppressed by trifling cares, smothered by the swellings of pride, and shriveled up by envy?”[3]

Secondly with regard to blameworthy motives, let us remark that many preachers are fascinated by the excellence of the office of preaching, and are moved by ambition to attain it. They would like, St. Gregory tells us, to bear the title of doctor, to rise above others, and to sit at the head of the table, so to speak. They forget that the devil, seeking to tempt the Master, conducted Him to the pinnacle of the temple, where were located, according to the gloss, the high seats from which the doctors, smugly complaisant in their position and bloated with pride, addressed the people. It is against these that St. James said:

“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren . . .” (James 3:1);

teachers in preaching, adds the gloss.

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There are others who do not fear to turn what is done only for the salvation of souls, to their own glory and for the attainment of worldly goods, Aroused against these, St. Bernard says:

“What a shame it is when those who have received the gift of the knowledge of God and are able preachers, seek in religion only their own gain, using for the sake of vanity what should serve solely the interests of God!”

Others, motivated by a false zeal, seek to compete with those who are more gifted, like the young Eliud who, thinking himself as clever as Job’s more learned friends, said with assurance:

“I will also show you my wisdom” (Job 32:10).

But as St. Paul observes:

“Are all apostles?” (I Cor. 12:29);

or, as the gloss interprets it, are all destined to be preachers? As if St. Paul were to say: Since this grace is not destined for all, all must not make it the object of their ambition.

Thus it is evident that the desire to be devoted to an office in itself so laudable, can be tainted either by ambition, or by having a wrong end in view, or by a misdirected zeal. It is for this reason that the gloss says of the “first places” spoken of by St. Matthew (Matt. 23:6), that it is not forbidden for teachers to occupy these places, but that it is forbidden them to love inordinately the places that they have, and to covet ambitiously the places of others.

As to the rash and premature acceptance of this mission, let us remark that not a few show an undue eagerness to assume this mission as soon as it is proffered them. St. Bernard ironically expresses their sentiments:

“Although my knowledge is limited and I seem to know even less, yet I will not remain silent, for I must be ever ready to speak and instruct with my meager knowledge.”

Quiet different was Jeremiah, who, as St. Gregory notes, although called by God Himself, exclaimed in humility:

“Ah, ah, ah, Lord God, behold, I cannot speak, for I am a child’ (Jer. 1:6).

Others not only rashly accept this office when called, but seek through their own efforts or through the efforts of others to have this mission entrusted to them. How far have they strayed from the example of Moses, who besought the Lord to dispense him from the office of liberator and to give it to another.

“I beseech thee, Lord, send whom Thou wilt send” (Exod. 4:13),

and so insistent was he that the Lord commissioned Aaron to speak in his stead. Is it not astonishing that this great man, chosen by God to be the instrument of His word, should procure the office for another; for another who is mediocre and who dared to arrange it that he be chosen!

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There are yet others who are indignant because no one thinks of calling them to the ministry of preaching.

“I am full of matter to speak of, and the spirit of my bowels straighteneth me”

Eliud said to holy Job,

“Behold my belly is as new wine which wanteth vent, which bursteth the new vessels” (Job 32:18-19).

This is the error of those who, pushed on by ambition to preach, are thwarted in their desire, becoming interiorly disturbed, and like new wine which bursts from a leather bottle, they give vent to their impatience. However, says St. Gregory, it is safer to refuse than to exercise such a ministry. Indeed, humble and holy men seek to have it given to others rather than seek it for themselves; and far from being impatient when they are ignored, they consent from time to time to accept this office with great reluctance. It is a laudable constraint which compels some to accept, for, says St. Gregory, again:

“It is good to constrain some to the apostolate.”

To sum up, it is clear that in order to fill his office competently, the preacher must be capable, he must have a worthy end in view, and he must be summoned in virtue of holy obedience.

About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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