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Advice for the weary pastor: Seneca and the Stoics

A commonplace among clergy is that seminary hardly prepares the pastor for all the difficulties and trials found in the crucible of parish life, but a good seminary education at least furnishes an ability to identify the hardships as they come. The emotional stress of trying to learn how to apply this good theory and turn it into good practice remains exhausting, however, and puts you on edge. As a mentor recently reflected about a stressful time in one of his cures, he was a difficult person to live with.

In a season when I have been difficult to live with, I have recently discovered an ally in my growing pains: the Stoic writer and philosopher named Seneca. I’ve come to think of Seneca as a post-seminary tutor in surviving life as a pastor. Today, the Stoics have a fairly bad reputation: their detractors argue that the Stoic ideal of detachment from the world and from passions is a less-than-human ideal. But this perspective is a caricature, and fails to represent Stoicism, especially its principal representatives. Historically, the Stoics have received a warm welcome, especially among Christians.

Joseph Hall, the 17th-century English bishop and Puritan, defended the light found in these pagan philosophers. He suggests they have a particular knack for diagnosing the problems of human existence. Though he laments that Seneca was not a Christian, in the opening paragraphs of Heaven upon Earth, he writes:

Never any heathen wrote more divinely, never any philosopher more probably. Neither would I ever desire better master, if to this purpose I needed no other mistress than Nature.

Seneca was born in Spain about the time of our Lord, and came to Rome as a young man. He studied philosophy, and eventually became a tutor and then later a political adviser to the infamous Nero. As so often happens with tyrants, he fell out of favor with the Caesar, and retired from public life in A.D. 62. Accused of being part of conspiracy against Nero, he was forced to commit suicide in 65, and died of poisoning, as recorded in a moving account by Tacitus, reminiscent of the voluntary suicide of Socrates.

Throughout history, many have admired Seneca’s writings, especially his Moral Epistles, though, like Thomas Cranmer, historians have often struggled to reconcile his exalted morality with the biographical details of his political and personal life. The author of the article on Seneca in the Oxford Classical Dictionary notes that “Seneca the man has appealed to few; his failings are obvious and out of place in a moral teacher; there were nobler Stoics.” There was in Seneca a “disconcerting rift between his preaching and his practice.” As a Christian who tries to reckon with the reality of sin and grace, I am not alarmed or particularly disturbed to learn that Seneca was a hypocrite and sinner like me and like all.

Now Seneca doesn’t teach the pastor everything that needs to be known about grace and forgiveness, but he does provide a few suggestive strategies for the weary pastor. The following are a few helpful insights I have gleaned from the Moral Epistles.

In some of the opening Epistles, Seneca advocates that Lucilius, to whom he writes the letters, withdraw from public life, in much the same way that he had retired in 62. The Loeb translation of the Moral Epistles has given suggestive titles to some of these epistles: “On the Philosopher’s Seclusion” (VIII), “On the Value of Retirement” (XXXVI), and “The Reasons for Withdrawing from the World” (XIV). The weary pastor might find some encouragement for a favorite reverie: fantasizing about the lush, green grass on the other side of the hill, usually in the form of some kind of secular employment far from the madding crowd of congregational life.

But this would be a misreading. In a later epistle (LV), Seneca excoriates a certain Vatia who had abandoned public life for a life of idleness. Going out one day for a walk to “shake out the bile in my throat,” Seneca relates how he came across the remote villa of this Vatia. His contemporaries had celebrated Vatia because he avoided the fate of many of his peers, who in a tumultuous period of Roman history had come to unhappy political ends. But Seneca did not see it this way: “What [Vatia] knew was how to hide, not how to live. … I never drove past his country-place during Vatia’s lifetime without saying to myself: ‘Here lies Vatia!’” Seneca understood that the villa to which Vatia fled from worldly strife was a tomb and not a home. Seneca concludes with these stinging words:

The man who has fled from affairs and from men … who through fear has taken to concealment, like a frightened and sluggish animal — this person is not living for himself; he is living for his belly, his sleep, and his lust.

The pastor needs to hear both of these counsels: it may be best to retire “from the world” by not engaging every congregational dispute and staying out of the fray on those things that are not essential to the care and cure of souls. On the other hand, the impulse to flee from fear “like a frightened animal,” while perhaps not being an uncommon emotion, should hardly be acted upon. For better or worse, the pastor is called to serve the Lord and shepherd his people; it is a sacred duty and honor. I seriously doubt whether the Lord answered the Psalmist’s prayer to be “given the wings of a dove” that he “might fly away and be at rest,” even if it might be the petition occasionally on the heart of the weary pastor.

A second application for the weary pastor can be gleaned from other Epistles. On nearly every page, Seneca advocates that Lucilius pursue virtue and philosophy, not the philosophy of academic learning divorced from practice, but rather what the ancients and early Christians understood as philosophy: a life well-lived. Seneca, like the Stoics in general, particularly values the idea of not being anxious or perturbed by external matters, especially those out of one’s control. He defines the true philosopher with these words:

The happy man is not he whom the crowd deems happy, namely, he into whose coffers mighty sums have flowed, but he whose possessions are all in his soul, who is upright and exalted, who spurns inconstancy … [who is] unshaken, unafraid, who may be moved by force but never moved to distraction. (XLV)

The chaos of the world around does not touch such a philosopher — not because of a lack of care and love, but because that which is truly important has been distinguished from all the things that are out of one’s control or that are ultimately inconsequential.

Pastors are invariably confronted with a whole host of unsettling difficulties in a congregation. There are decaying facilities, a process the philosophers helpfully remind us will never cease, and there are congregational feuds, a vast array of which are about matters that have no relation to the gospel or its proclamation. There are folks who demonize and obstruct a pastor’s best-intentioned efforts. There are other folks who will lionize and flatter, and perhaps only the pastor will know just how discordant these praises will sound next to the real complexity of life as a pastor, moral or otherwise. Of course, none of these alters the duties of a pastor to be a shepherd of God’s people, whether loved or hated, whether the building is brand new or falling apart.

Although Seneca wouldn’t use these precise words, I think what he is trying to get at is that we who live in a transitory and fleeting world need to build up the life of the mind to meet this challenge. Pastors especially need to be those who no matter how much they are poked are not going to alter in their fundamental purpose to show the gospel in Word and Sacrament by being signs of God’s justice and love. To do this, they need to build up the life of the mind: in prayer, both corporate and private; in study that is not linked to some secondary end (a sermon, Bible study, or parish class) but solely for the pursuit of knowledge and truth; in joy cultivated in the daily activity of being a pastor and whatever else the Lord has called you to be (a husband and father, in my case).

The weary pastor who confronts decaying buildings and contentious parishioners, who is the object of malice, gossip or flattery, would do well to become such a philosopher. It’s hard for a Christian not to read these words from Seneca as a prayer:

Death is on my trail, and life is fleeting away; teach me something with which to face these troubles. Bring it to pass that I shall cease trying to escape from death, and that life may cease to escape from me. Give me courage to meet hardships; make me calm in the face of the unavoidable. Relax the straitened limits of the time which is allotted me. Show me that the good in life does not depend upon life’s length, but upon the use we make of it; also, that it is possible, or rather usual, for a man who has lived long to have lived too little. (XLIX)

Let’s get down to living big, fellow clergy, for the Lord’s sake, for our people’s sake, and even, dare I say, for our own sake. I now think it rather uncanny what Seneca wrote nearly two thousand years ago, and have to wonder if it was for me and perhaps for you:

I have withdrawn not only from men, but from affairs, especially from my own affairs; I am working for

later generations

, writing down some ideas that may be assistance to them. (VIII, emphasis added).


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