(One of an occasional series of articles on newly named saints in Lesser Feasts & Fasts 2018, as adopted by the 2018 General Convention.)
By Elizabeth (Liza) Anderson
Ammonius was one of the desert fathers, who lived in a monastic community of hermits in fourth-century Egypt. He was renowned for his great learning and asceticism, but he is most vividly remembered for the striking vehemence of his resistance to ordination.
Forcible ordinations were not unusual in the early church, so the residents of a nearby village resolved that this learned and holy monk should become their bishop, and the bishop of Alexandria agreed to ordain him. Ammonius, however, did not prove to be a cooperative candidate! He pleaded with the crowd not to do such a thing to him, but they would not listen and were prepared to drag him back to Alexandria by force. When he realized that he was too outnumbered to fight or to flee, Ammonius grabbed a sword and chopped off his own ear! He then calmly explained to the people that Leviticus 21 prohibits anyone who has been dismembered from serving as a priest, and therefore he was now permanently disqualified for ecclesiastical office.
Deeply shaken, the people reported this to the bishop of Alexandria. He assured them that this law was no longer observed by Christians, and affirmed that he would still gladly ordain the holy monk if given the opportunity. The crowd therefore sought Ammonius again. This time, however, he warned them that if they dared to do such a thing, he would cut out his tongue. Dismayed by the prospect of losing his preaching and exhortation, and having no doubt that he would indeed do such a thing, the disappointed crowd finally respected his discernment and departed.
Most of the people we commemorate in the Episcopal Church were clergy, or people for whom ordination was not a possibility because of gender or marital status. We have very few examples of saints who could have been ordained and yet nevertheless discerned a different vocation. It can thus be very easy to conflate rank with holiness, and to assume that ordination is simply a step that one eventually takes in one’s path toward spiritual maturity. It sometimes seems that we have lost an awareness that a life can be fully consecrated to God as a layperson or a vowed religious. An individual’s discernment that they are not called to ordination is often perceived as a sign of some deficiency, or (for those of us who are female) an indication that we must secretly oppose the ordination of women. The possibility that someone could be eligible for any Christian vocation, wholeheartedly offer themselves to God’s service, and yet nevertheless discern a “lesser” calling is often treated as inconceivable.
In working with seminarians, I have often been struck by how many of them narrate their spiritual autobiography as simply coterminous with their call to ordination. I don’t discount the validity of those accounts; there are surely many genuine vocations that were seeded in childhood, or during an adult conversion. What I don’t often hear, however, is the countermelody to those stories provided by figures like Ammonius — Christian leaders whose depth of theological training and spiritual authority within a community did not lead them to discern that they were called to ordination. We need both kinds of Christian witness within the church. We undoubtedly need holy bishops, priests, and deacons, but we also need figures who will remind us never to equate a call to Christian leadership with a call to ordination. Ammonius, who boldly chopped off his own ear in order remain true to his sense of vocation, offers us a vivid reminder.
Dr. Elizabeth Anderson is assistant professor of theology and religious studies at the College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, Minnesota, and a former member of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.