The pelican papers

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Vocation: The life of Brian

Posted by Ron George on March 21, 2016

Warrior Arjuna and incarnated Krishna converse on a divided battlefield: To fight or not to fight; to be true, or not, to one's dharma, one's sacred duty.

Warrior Arjuna and incarnated Krishna converse on a divided battlefield: To fight or not to fight; to be true, or not, to one’s dharma, one’s sacred duty.

Stephen Cope has some news for all of us: We will be unhappy until our lives align with our dharma.

Cope is senior scholar in residence and ambassador for the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Mass. He tells two kinds of stories in his 2012 book, The Great Work of Your Life: Heroic – think Mohandas K. Gandhi, Harriet Tubman, Walt Whitman and David Thoreau – and ordinary, people like us, all of whom struggle in coming to terms with their dharma. I’m not completely satisfied with how Cope plasticizes this term, but in at least one sense, it does indicate one’s “sacred duty” or “vocation.” Dharma is said to be said to be the essence of one’s being, implanted before birth. Fulfilling it ought to be one’s life purpose. Cope comments at length on the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred scripture of Hinduism, because it’s said to be all about fulfilling one’s dharma

One of Cope’s ordinarians is a Catholic priest he pseudo-names Brian. Brian is in the midst of a vocational crisis. He’s loved the church since he was a boy who admired the intelligence, grace and wit of his priestly teachers in Catholic school. He resonated with everything about the church – its liturgy, its music, its sacred traditions. He’s a fine teacher and preacher, but he concedes that he may not be much of a pastor. His crisis? Well, he’s 20 or so years into the ministry and, in his words, he feels like a transgendered person in the wrong body. His true love is church music. He’d rather be leading the choir  than celebrating the Mass.

Brian’s problem? He’s bored. He’s 40-something, celibate (perhaps) and he’s said all he has to say from the pulpit. There’s nothing new for him to impart in the classroom or the parish hall. It seems clear to an outsider that Brian’s isn’t a dharma issue. He’s just tired of the routines of ordained ministry. It doesn’t take long.

Krishna reveal himself to Arjuna as that which Christian theology knows as the ground of all being.

Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna as that which Christian theology knows as the ground of all being.

So, how do clergy deal with boredom? It’s a spiritual issue, really, because the actual work of ordained persons takes place within a relatively narrow frame. Someone once said that Christian theology has fences but that they enclose a playground. OK, whatever; but ordained ministry may be seen that way, too: fenced within a playground. The issue is how clergy choose to play when they’re not engaged in matters of life and death, preaching, teaching, worship and church administration. Clergy must have playtime.

In Brian’s case, it’s clear that, in order to keep his collar on and fulfill his musical yearning, he must find a way to perform that doesn’t take him away from his sacred duty as a priest. Cope would argue that Brian missed the target when he pursued ordination, but the Gita makes it pretty clear, according to one commentator (I.C. Sharma), that not to complete one’s chosen profession leads to a kind of death.

Brian sounds like a textbook case of “churchianity” (Richard Rohr’s term) a spiritual affliction from which I hope, one day, to recover. There is the matter of loving God, believing there is a God and that Jesus is that God in the flesh, in time and space. It means relating to that God in a personal way as a member of the church, the community of faith, the ekklesia, those called out from the world to save it from itself. Falling in love with the church is not the same as letting God love you (faith) in the name of Jesus Christ.

So maybe Brian’s faith was misplaced, but that’s not how he articulates his vocational problem.

We’re told Brian wanted to please his mother by becoming a priest. Perhaps he saw it as secure employment, provided he was willing to give up ever being especially well off financially. Or, he may have seen ordination as a path to a kind of power that would benefit not only himself but others, too – the power of a religious leader, a meaningful member of a meaningful group. He may have loved church music but was not as assured of employment in that role. The church needs far fewer musicians than it needs clergy. In any case, my guess is that Brian’s motives for seeking ordination were as mixed as anyone else’s, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We’re assured by Catholic tradition that there’s no such thing as a pure motive – but it is in the church’s interest to examine motives and, perhaps, to un-mix them just a bit before signing off on postulants.

I wonder whether the concept of dharma is an appropriate tool for examining Brian’s dis-ease. If he’s feeling “transgendered” as a priest, even though he’s effective in that karma (something about which Cope has little to say); if he wants to be a church musician instead, then what’s keeping him from leaving the priesthood to pursue church music?

Brian's vocation came to a crossroad.

Brian’s vocation came to a crossroad.

Well, there’s a host of considerations. One doesn’t just walk away from ordained ministry without bearing the grief of separation from a way of life that has been all-consuming for decades of education, formation and ministry. Then there’s the matter of how to support one’s self and whether the new career requires training and education. Priests leave the ministry broke. Plan B must have a financial component. In Brian’s case, just how does a forty-something former Catholic priest go about changing careers? I guess that’s part of the dharma case, too. My guess, though, is that Cope would say, don’t worry about finances. That takes care of itself. Follow your bliss, in Joseph Campbell’s well-worn phrase. The rest will fall into place. Well, it doesn’t, except for the fortunate few, and maybe Brian is one of them; but if not, then he’s facing years of genteel poverty as he changes professional lanes.

There’s so much more I want to know about Brian; for example, has he explored options for engaging his musical interests short of leaving the priesthood? Why has this become a polarizing conversation? Are we really talking about needing a new career, or is there some way to infuse his priestly vocation with renewed vigor? Clearly, there was a time in his life when all that education and formation animated him as a preacher and teacher. He may not be much of a pastor, but that’s true of many clergy. Is he just bored with the ministry, or are we talking about a crisis of faith? Is churchianity the real problem, and has Brian finally come to the end of that rope?

All clergy have talents and interests other than those required for ordained ministry; in fact, it is these “secular” aspects of personality and character that make clergy interesting people. I’m thinking of a late seminary professor once famous for his talent as a piano player, quite the entertainer at parish gatherings; or the pastor famous for his kitchen skills, who blended these with theology into popular books; or the former professional football player whose ordained ministry was enhanced and, to some extent, guided by his athletic ability; or the bishop whose woodworking talent and skill relieved him of much of the political tension that imbues high church office.

A strict understanding of dharma seems to be the glue of India's caste system.

A strict understanding of dharma seems to be the glue of India’s caste system.

It’s no wonder that such talented people get bored with the day-to-day-ness of ordained ministry. Relief from such boredom may be found in their so-called dharma – their giftedness in a multitude of ways, some of which may be put in service to the church but all of which may serve as distractions from what often amounts to tedium; and, indeed, may keep ordained ministry from becoming tedious in the first place. What’s remarkable about Brian is that he hasn’t for many years, apparently, employed his love of music as a diversion from what he seems to experience as the disconcerting weirdness of being a priest.

I’d like to think it’s routine for the church to examine these matters when people present themselves as postulants for ordination. It ought to be part of one’s formation in ministry to appreciate how avocational gifts can keep one alert and interested not only in the gift but also in the ministry. One shouldn’t have to give up either.

I don’t believe “dharma” is the same as “purpose,” but that’s the concept that comes to my mind in working through these issues. What is my purpose in life? How am I put together? What do I bring to society that will give me a sense of purpose and society something of value? Is that a sacred calling? Am I to think of myself as, somehow, destined to accomplish something that fulfills my yearning for meaning by living into my gifts?

Given Cope’s assumptions about dharma, what kind of a world would it be if everyone fulfilled their potential? Or their sacred duty? Or their vocation? A perfect world? Unlikely, but it’s a vision of what ought to be, at least from the perspective of Hindu epistemology. It seems to me, though, that the concept of dharma also contributes to support of the awful jati (caste) system in Indian society; wherein, one is born (or “reborn”) into a certain caste, which is governed by a certain dharma, which one is morally bound to maintain and fulfill if one hopes to be “reincarnated” as a higher form of life. Now, that’s not at all a perfect world. (Incidentally, this aspect of dharma is a major theme in the Bhagavad Gita.)


Dharma: An ancient concept from Sanskrit texts

So, The Bottom Line: Brian lucked out. He takes a three-month leave-of-absence, and while in retreat meets a guy who hires him to be music director for a national program to invigorate Catholic church music. I wonder whether Brian made a decision; or, whether Brian’s decision was propelled by meeting the guy. Does it matter? Maybe. Had Brian not met the guy, he may have seen no path to take from the crossroads where he’s said to have found himself. As it turns out, he gets it both ways: He doesn’t have to leave the priesthood to take the music position. For him, it’s the best of all possible worlds, an opportunity that would not have come his way without an element of privilege afforded by his position in the Catholic hierarchy. Good for him.

We can but celebrate good fortune, and we try not to envy those who succeed – but we do hope that we, too, might one day have a bit of good luck in life; however, because it is a matter of chance, most of us aren’t so fortunate. In life, there are few “winners.” The rest of us live what Cope calls “ordinary” lives hoping for the best by living with what comes and making the best of it. Winners are those about whom book chapters are written; and then there are the heroic – those whose stars are in the heavens to be seen by all as inspiration for aspiration.

There’s nothing wrong with that – with what is and the way things are. Maturity in life brings acceptance of the way things are and not another way; also, we hope, a gracious disposition that rejoices in the success and happiness of others.

I’m sure Brian would agree.


3 Responses to “Vocation: The life of Brian”

  1. Karen Magee said

    Enjoying your blog, Ron. While I miss the Tuesday class, your contributions on Thursdays are one of the main reasons I attend on that day. Your blog is the icing on the cake for me. Thank you Ron.

  2. Jim Abbott said

    Reading the Hindu holy books?

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