Nazerite Vow Completed – anybody have 2 bits?

The Setting: the church fire brings new challenges

At four-thirty in the morning of the feast of St. Michael, the police came to the rectory bearing some terrible news: the church was on fire.  It had obviously

In Mufti (i.e. civilian clothes)

In Mufti (i.e. civilian clothes)

been burning for several hours; fire was coming out of the roof and windows.  In that moment, I knew that my job was about to get a whole lot more difficult.

Some of the challenges were obvious: getting a handle on the emergency response, getting our services moved into the hall, and looking out for the best interests of the parish during the insurance and rebuilding process.  However, I knew it wouldn’t be my job as the rector of the parish and its property that would bring the greatest challenges (we had a good parish board, and I knew they would step up); I knew it would my job as spiritual shepherd that would bring the greatest challenges.  In the short term, I would need to guide my flock through a really difficult grieving process, and then I would need to ensure that they were delivered safe through whatever temptations and threats the recovery process would bring.  

Buckling Down, Reaching Out, and Praying Unceasingly

For this I would need help.  Of course, the Orthodox pastor has many tools at his disposal that allow him to meet the demands of parish life, and I took advantage of all of them: the prayers of our patriarch, His All-Holiness, Archbishop of Constantinople (he sent us a letter of condolence assuring us of his prayers and later assured us of the same at our audience with him in November 2014); the prayers of my bishop and mentor, His Eminence Antony, Metropolitan of the UOC-USA (my first phone call that morning was to him); the advice and prayers of my dean V. Rev. Stephen Masliuk; the prayers of faithful throughout the world; the support and grounding of my wife and family; regular participation in the mysteries of Confession and Communion; and a prayer rule.

I knew that it would be the last one that would be my greatest weakness.  Despite years of study and effort, I was still eons away from achieving the goal of the kind of unceasing prayer that allows the saints to respond to every moment with peace, rationality, and love.  In normal times, I could fake it with a pleasant disposition, but these would not be normal times.  My time in the military (I’m a retired Army MI Warrant Officer) taught me that stress cuts through our normal spiritual constitutions like knife through butter, leaving us vulnerable to all kinds of temptations and rendering us less effective at getting things done.  Given the enormity of the challenge, I needed to find a way to step up my game if I was going to deliver the flock God and my bishop had entrusted into my care and protection.

As Donald Rumfield correctly quipped back in 2004, “you go to war with the army you have.”  Crises are not the time to learn new skills – I wasn’t suddenly going to develop the ability to pray and love because the situation required it.  So I turned to ancient solution that took advantage of one of the things I could do without ceasing.  You see, I may not be an accomplished hesychast or ascetic, but I am pretty good at growing hair (with the exception of that balding spot on the top of my head).  All the time.  Without ceasing.  I could offer that growth up as a sort of prayer!

The Vow of the Nazarite

+1 Wisdom per 3" of beard (AD&D Supplemental Rules)

+1 Wisdom per 3″ of beard (AD&D Supplemental Rules)

The vow of the Nazerite was already an important enough part of Old Testament spirituality that God gave Moses rules for its regulation (Numbers 6:1-21) millennia ago.  Sampson is probably the most famous Nazerite, but he was a special case because he was consecrated to the unshorn life from his birth (Judges 13:2-7).  Most Nazerite vows are taken for a given purpose or limited duration.  So it was that on St. Michael’s day, 2012, I vowed “not to cut my hair or beard until the parishioners of St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church are delivered safe and united through this period of trouble”.  Note that the vow was not originally; “I vow not to cut my hair or beard until … we get back into the church” because it was not obvious that that would be God’s will for us.  Once that was clear, the end point of the vow took on more clarity.

How did it work?

Lord willing, the vow ends this Saturday after Vespers; God has delivered us through the valley of the shadow of death (I’m not exaggerating; fires and other disasters have destroyed, split, and poisoned many parishes).  I don’t know how much He worked through my beard and hair; there is no Nazerite Vow in the Book of Needs, and it isn’t an active part of our tradition (how much grace is in each inch of beard, anyways?).  What I do know is this: thousands of times a day, I noticed my beard and long hair (not just when I looked in the mirror, but also when I tried to eat, drink, walk in the wind, sit with my toddler that just loves to pull hair, kiss my wife :-), or found myself twisting, stroking, or braiding it), and this would remind me that 1) I was set aside and consecrated (OT Nazerite language) to a specific purpose and 2) it was time to pray and work towards that end.  Would we have made it without the long beard and hair?  Of course.  But habits and routines are very important, and I have no doubt that the Nazerite habit kept me more focused than I otherwise would have been.

What Next?

It’s been fun to see how the long hair and beard have changed the way many people react to me.  When I wear a cassock, I am more easily put into various categories like “over-zealous convert”, “Russophile,” or (heaven-forbid!) wise.  When I’m in mufti, the categories are different (redneck, cracker, hillbilly, uneducated and bigoted bum – the latter perception is augmented by my accent), but the reactions are no less fun to watch.  If I’m wiser (or more of a redneck) than when this ordeal began, it certainly has nothing to do with the length of my hair.

The Nazerite Comb-Over

The Nazerite Comb-Over

So what next?  Tomorrow night, after Vespers, we’ll have a bonfire on the steps of the newly renovated church of St. Michael.  My wife will cut my hair and trim my beard.  We’ll send most of the hair (that which can be pulled into a ponytail) to “locks of love.”  The rest, along with the shorn beard hair will be thrown into the fire as is suggested in Numbers 6:18; “And the Nazirite shall shave his consecrated head at the door of the tent of meeting, and shall take the hair from his consecrated head and put it on the fire which is under the sacrifice of the peace offering.”  It won’t be a “peace offerings” as all temple sacrifices have been subsumed in Christ, but the smoke will rise with our prayer as spiritual incense as we thank God for his deliverance.  

P.S.  This will not be the first such offering, although the first was unintentional.  After Vespers in June 2014, I was blowing out the litya candles and, you guessed it, a candle came back to life and caught my beard on fire.  It took out a huge chunk in the middle.