The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view


Artwork by Sister Jane Morningstar

Artwork by Sister Jane Morningstar

My 34-year-old daughter graduated from college today, bless her. We gathered in a convention center with several thousand others to celebrate the achievements of those who took more than the conventional 4-5 years.

Our day began driving 45 miles to church, then 3 1/2 hours to graduation. Then back. Sounds arduous, but my wife and I agreed that we were in good company the whole day — our small-town congregation, each other, children and grandchildren who live in the large cities to the north. A long day made short by the quality of our relationships. How time flies when you’re having a good time.

On our way to graduation, the mix of memories led me to recall someone — a family, actually — I hadn’t recalled for years, maybe decades. The monk and the recent convert, brothers, and their mother, dying of cancer when her son the monk called the church where I worked and asked that a priest come to the hospital. She died, but not before the brothers nearly came to blows over whether we should pray for healing or a good death. Why not both? That’s not faith, said the convert. We’ll get what we want if we believe we’re going to get it. That’s not faith, said the monk. Jesus himself prayed to be delivered from his passion but submitted to the will of the Father.

Then came I, the freshly minted priest.

Seminary sensitizes those to be ordained to a variety of theological and pastoral issues, making them think about what they believe, and then turning it inside out to invite them to believe what they think. You make choices in seminary, such as whether to believe in order to understand or to understand in order to believe. Seminary is relatively short, just shy of three years. One scarcely has time to digest all the matter presented in the classroom, let alone all that is dredged up in the chapel. It’s no solution to make the process last five years or even 10. I suspect one comes out of this type of formation half-baked, no matter how long it takes. Only pastoral experience completes the process — but under what circumstances?

I was fortunate, because I was a problem child from the beginning. A suffragan bishop of our diocese took me on for six months after I was ordained deacon. He was my spiritual director, and he skillfully examined my pastoral sense, not after the manner of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), but in non-sentimental conversations about spirituality: What I did, not how I felt. He put me in touch with the ontology of ordained ministry in a way that had not become clear to me in seminary. It’s his teaching that I now hark back to as I examine my vocation as a deposed clergyman. Had I fully explored his intimations in those early months of my ordained ministry, I might not have run off the rails as I did just six years later.

My mentor bishop questioned me at length about my pastoral conduct in the case of the monk, the convert and their mother dying of cancer. Whose side did I take? (Neither.) How did I resolve the dispute. (I didn’t.) How did I respond as a pastor to the death of the mother? (I went to the funeral home service. I felt resigned and melancholy at what I considered a pastoral failure.) How did I pray about the monk, the convert and their mother? I didn’t know. I hadn’t really, and that’s what really bothered me at the end. I hadn’t prayed the matter, only “dealt” with it. Would things have been different had I “prayed better.” I don’t know, and it’s probably irrelevant. As my favorite seminary professor once said (maybe quoting someone else, which was his wont): “Things are the way they are and not another way.” God’s will be done. Things “might have been different,” but not much. It’s all in how you look at it; again, quoting the prof, religion is a perspectival activity. If so, the ministry is bringing a healthy perspective to life — and death. How would lives have been had I been more attuned spiritually to the case of the monk, the convert and their mother? I don’t know, and neither did my mentor bishop. He suggested, however, by the question more than anything else, that the quality of life would have been different, even though the inevitable chronology would have been the same. Mom would have died in either case.

My mentor bishop died years ago, and I was nowhere near enough to attend his funeral or even to know that he had died. He had baptized one of my sons, and God knows he had loved me at a crucial moment in my life. At this moment, I have to say I’m missing him a lot. What would he say of this obverse way I have begun, finally, to understand and appreciate what he wanted me to know about the priesthood, that it is, first of all, a life of prayer and instrumentality, of losing one’s life in order to save it? It all seems so obvious now, so painfully and wonderfully obvious, now that I am no longer worthy to be called his son.

Posted by Prodigal + to The prodigal priest at 6/12/2005 10:51:00 PM


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