Did you know that all priests die much earlier than the average human being?
Walking the hallowed halls of my alma mater a few weeks back set me to reflecting upon a piece of my journey that unfolded there: the discernment of my vocation to the priesthood. There are, of course, lots of ways of looking at the journey, lots of ways to narrate the story and plenty of reasons this call materialized, but at the heart of the matter for me is the articulation of my life’s work; what I got into this for, what, even–especially–on bad days, I know I was made to do.
At the very beginning of an ordination service, the person being ordained lays down on the ground, usually at the front edge of the aisles, or up closer to the altar at the front of the church. In times past, the soon-to-be priest would lay down on top of a sheet–the sheet which would one day cover his dead body when he was put in the ground. Nowadays, many people don’t prostrate themselves, but I did, because I thought it was important for me to make a sign of my intent to give up worldly success, popularity, and comfort not only in my heart, but also with my body. I died to myself that day (and have to continually lay my life down again and again, because I have fingers sticky with pride that love to pick it up again).
When my friends started their jobs at McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, they didn’t lay themselves down on the floor of the skyscraper to give up their lives, or open a vein to drain their lifeblood into the company’s coffers (though some of them surely did that in a figurative sense). My friends who went on to law school and medical school put in blood, sweat, tears, brain power, and lots of money toward tuition, but they didn’t surrender their very bodies to the work they were undertaking.
That’s the thing about a sacrament; it’s an interaction between the human and divine that substantially changes the physical, human element in the equation. Baptism ushers the Holy Spirit into a human body; Holy Eucharist binds together disparate people into one spiritual body. Ordination sets aside a human body for specific work within that spiritual body called the church.
That specific work to which a priest is called is outlined both throughout Scripture and in the Book of Common Prayer (the book that Episcopalians and Anglicans around the world use to guide their worship) and it boils down helping God and people communicate with each other. This means they’re to administer sacraments (lead worship, consecrate the bread & wine for communion, anoint the sick, bury the dead, bless marriages), a way God communicates to people, and to pray–how people communicate with God.
I’d never considered pastoral work; I grew up in a denomination that called dedicated church leaders “minister” or “pastor,” and I knew I didn’t want to be dealing with people all the time (both of those titles describe the person’s relationship to people more primarily than to God). Being a priest is different; no where (in Scripture, or in my church’s Constitution or Canons) do I promise to mediate arguments amongst church ladies or listen ad nauseam to compulsive complainers; placating bad behavior is not the work of a priest (or any Christian, I’d argue).
Throughout Scripture, the priests are in the temple praying, they’re offering sacrifices, and listening for God’s voice. From the Exodus on, members of God’s people are given this particular job to help along all the people (just like farmers are given work to help along all the people, and are doctors, and lawyers, and mothers) as a group.
So on a practical level, this means that I’ve offered my life and body (my hands and feet) to praying, preaching, and blessing; I pray the Daily Office (a system of prayers for morning and evening used by monastics for more than a thousand years), I celebrate Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper, Communion), I try to keep quiet and to fill my head and heart with God’s voice revealed in Scripture so that when he talks in other ways, I can hear him.
Though I enjoy planning programs, organizing documents, and researching material, those are not my primary work as a priest. They happen to equip me well for parish ministry–and I suspect they’re part of the reason I’ve been offered the jobs which I’ve had–but they actually serve to distract from the real work I’ve been called to do. My job in the midst of any people is to be the designated driver toward Jesus (whether I’m at the wheel or saying prayers in a back seat).
This is a disappointment to people who want a free therapist or a human comment box or an office worker bee. But I became a priest because I came to the conclusion that the only difference between priests and other parts of the spiritual body of the church was blessing things–sometimes as a light-hearted abbreviation, I call it “having magic hands.” Ordination was, for me, more of an ending than a beginning; I’d been a connection between people and God for years–since I was a child and family would pray with me–and my call to ordination was an affirmation and continuance of my life’s work, begun from my infancy.
photos via the Church of St. Michael & St. George Facebook page
I very much appreciate this post and find it both instructive and inspirational. You have definitely brought some of us much closer to God through your priesthood and have inspired us to seek an even closer relationship with him through increased study of scripture and the maintenance of a regular discipline in the making of prayers.
While I agree that the work of the priest calls one to lay down ones life I would beg to differ that the priest is different from the pastor in that the work does not entail the tasks of “free therapist or a human comment box or an office worker bee.” While these tasks can certainly be distracting, they too are part of the work of the priest as they too are included in directing the lives of the parishioners towards God. Your view of the sounds similar to the monastic tradition rather than the pastoral tradition. Brother Lawrence states we can worship in prayers and in peeling potatoes. We can do the same by incorporating the other tasks of modern ministry.
The resistance I’ve received in response to stating that it is not a priest’s “job” to swallow parishioners’ bad behavior and to bury oneself in paperwork is telling of the ways I believe most of the Christian church has forgotten what it means to be called to the priesthood. Spending hours praying next to a dying parishioner is absolutely part of my call; while spending days’-worth of time every week in meetings and allowing abuse under my authority are not part of my call (whether that abuse is trespassing physical, psychological, spiritual, or personal boundaries), as I see it.
Tim R: you’ve clearly never been to one of my dinner parties; as a Midwesterner, I’ve spent plenty of time peeling potatoes.
Emily, you are correct that I have not had the honor of meeting you. You are also correct that your exercise of spending time with a dying parishioner is a proper exercise of your calling whereas meetings can be an abuse. Granted I am a layman (though I did attend seminary) so my perspective is a bit different. I would say that unfortunately our culture loves meetings and abuse are not, they do come with the territory of parish ministry. You are also right that it is not your calling to swallowing bad behavior, however, there is no simply formula for deciding whether behavior is bad or not. I hope in time you will find the proper balance in your calling. Based on what I have read in your blogs, you have much to offer the church and I would hate to see you “burned out.” Keep peeling potatoes.
Good and faithful words, Emily. Live on in your calling 🙂
I think your calling is balanced. Being one of your parishioners, having met you personally, and worked with you on parish projects I can truthfully say I do not believe your trying to turn your parishioners into monastics. Nor do I see you ignoring their pastoral needs or concerns. However, I know first hand about some of the abusive and bad behavior you refer to and it really is abusive and bad and tolerating it is not part of your calling. I agree with Tim R that you have much to offer the Church and would also pray that you are able to endure and navigate the hard times in order to bring your talents to bear as they are truly needed.
Reblogged this on franiel32.
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