Thoughts on the Mysteries of Ordination
1 - The Tonsure
by Fr Paul Kitchenham OB. OSBA, Ph.D.
I would like to suggest three aspects of the Tonsure for consideration. Firstly, the fact that it is about the Body. That a person entering upon the clerical life should submit to a bodily change is a potent reminder that we are part of a bodily, incarnational Faith. We affirm our belief, not merely in the survival of the spiritual element of our being, but in the Resurrection of the Body. In the Old Testament, we find God prescribing circumcision as a bodily sign to His people, and under the new dispensation, we read of St Paul shaving his head in fulfilment of a vow. It is to such precedents that the rite of Tonsuring a Cleric looks back. To us, then, it is a reminder that we should serve God, not only with our minds, but with our bodies, for they are His. This lesson is underlined and broadened by the use of Psalm 24 directly after the tonsuring in the Latin Rite – The earth is the Lord’s, and all that therein is. Our bodies belong to Him –and so does everything that we see around ourselves on this wonderful Earth. We are being challenged to ask ourselves how we can better serve God in our bodily existence, and how we can recognise in practical ways that all of the Earth, all living things, are called to serve and belong to God in a similar way.
Secondly, the Tonsure is about Renunciation. A person submitting to this ceremony is giving up something of themselves, renouncing an aspect of their individuality. This aspect of symbolism is shared with other great religious traditions across the world, particularly Buddhism, an incidental reminder of the commonality of many concepts between religions. When a person is tonsured, they repeat the words of the Psalmist: “The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance; and of my cup: ‘tis Thou that restorest mine inheritance to me”. This signifies that as they give away aspects of their individuality and independence to God, He can give us all far greater gifts, those of our true inheritance. Sometimes the things that we cling onto, that are precious to us, are those things which may impede our spiritual growth, and by giving them up to Him, we are opening ourselves to receive far more valuable gifts.
Finally, the rite of Tonsuring is about Service. It is a commissioning or setting aside a person in a special way in the Lord’s service, but each of us may profit from considering exactly what the ceremony is saying about the nature of that service. After the actual snipping of hair has been concluded, the new Cleric is usually clothed with a Surplice –referred to in a prayer as “the vesture of Thy sacred service” –the white of this garment signifying the purity of intention needed to serve God. The words the Bishop says to the candidate as he puts on the Surplice underline this: quoting from St Paul’s words to the Ephesians, he speaks of “putting on the new man, created after God’s likeness in the justice and holiness of truth”. We are called to live in the image of God, to be like His Son in all our doings. Some words from the final prayer of the traditional rite of tonsure may deepen
our appreciation of quite what it means to live in His image – the Bishop is said to have made the candidate “to bear on his head the likeness of Thy Crown”. To serve God is to share in the sufferings of Our Lord’s Passion, exemplified in the Crown of Thorns and the tonsure is a sign of this, too. We should not be afraid, because the Crown of Thorns points ahead to the radiant crowns of the Saints in Glory, the fullness of the inheritance which will be for all who truly seek to serve Him. How might each one of us be called to share in that Crown of Thorns in His service?
I have focussed on the words and concepts in the traditional Latin rite of tonsuring a cleric, but will close with an insight from the Orthodox tradition, which underlines that the mysteries of the Body, Renunciation and Service which we have touched on are for all, not just for clergy. In many strands of Orthodoxy, there is a Baptismal Tonsure, as well as a Clerical & Monastic one – signifying that to all the baptised there is a call to serve God in our bodies, to give up those things that hold us back, and to share in the vocation of the Suffering Servant, so that with Him we may receive the Crown of everlasting life.
(F Paul is an Oblate of the Holy Cross)