The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Ontological pain

Priest in abstract by Ernest Williamson III

It’s more than an itch you can’t scratch, although it’s akin to that nagging kind of vocation to ministry that won’t let people go until they finally give in and seek postulancy. I’ve heard that story from men and women who figuratively fled from their sense of vocation to ordained ministry because — pick one:

  • Didn’t want to uproot my family.
  • Didn’t want to give up my job.
  • Didn’t want to take on the challenges of seminary academics.
  • Couldn’t believe God wanted me in the priesthood.

And dozens more, I guess. The dark side of that itch you can’t scratch (until you, in bumper-sticker theology terms, “let go and let God”) is how it feels when one has been deposed from ordained ministry. The vocation doesn’t go away. It’s not put on hold. It’s still operative, but there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do with it. I don’t doubt that it’s at least part of the reason many deposed clergy leave the church and never come back. Yes, there’s lots of shame and embarrassment to get over (and you never do, by the way, not really, not way inside), but there’s that nag of a vocation, too.

I may say this too often, but it feels obligatory, somehow: Nothing of what I say about deposed priests should be taken as making excuses for misconduct, especially sexual misconduct. I don’t want to provoke sympathy for men (and some women but mostly men) who break faith with the church by violating their ordination vows. I’m sure that sexually abusive priests should be deposed, and that having sex with church members is, by definition, abusive. My prayer, though, is that the church, especially its bishops, might appreciate the predicament deposed clergy create for themselves.

My experience, at least, has been that one doesn’t just walk away from ordained ministry. Breaking one’s vows does not mean that one has broken the tie that binds. Nothing has made this clearer to me than returning to the church after some years away and then trying to fit in as a layman, something other than what I’ve been set aside to be.Some days, especially Sundays, it’s just plain maddening. The yearning makes my heart ache. The liturgy of the church owns me. It is the text of my expression of praise and thanksgiving before God. It is in the fiber of my limbs, and every prayer evokes a memory of my being in liturgical leadership, of having been set aside for the special, limited purposes of the presbyterate. My body and soul ache to be free of deposition.

My conscience tells me, however, that that simply can not be, must not be. It’s not a mill stone matter, but my offense has put the fulfilling of my vocation to ordained ministry on hold and out of reach.Therapy and spiritual direction have helped but not relieved the ache I have come to call ontological pain. It’s as though I were disabled by having done something stupid. Let’s say I had dived into a lake without testing the depth, broken my neck and become a quadriplegic. Disabled for life for want of a moment’s good judgment, bound forever, aching to walk again, to be whole. Let’s say I had done something stupid as a priest, had an affair. For want of judgment, I am now disabled, aching to be whole. Not a chance.

I wonder how other deposed clergy experience these things. I wonder whether they know what I mean by ontological pain, the disorienting experience of being set aside for a special purpose — not made better, not elevated in any sense — but ordained to serve, instrumentally and sacramentally, only to squander God’s spiritual gift. No longer set aside but sidelined.

Ordination changes the structure of your being. It’s an ontological event. You’re changed forever into something other than you were before. It’s no longer possible not to be a priest. That’s why the shoe doesn’t fit when you try to be other than a priest, within or without the church.

I wonder whether priests who have not been deposed appreciate fully what’s happened to them. I hadn’t. I believed some things in an abstract way about the nature of ordination, its indelibility, its soteriological implications. (Mill stones, again. Don’t ever forget the mill stones.) We Episcopalians make a big deal of ordination, and we should, but why hadn’t I appreciated more fully the theology of ordination? I suspect it had something to do with wishing to avoid the idea that ordained ministers have some sort of special status. We spent a lot of time in seminary talking about not wanting to be thought of as a privileged caste, even though every external expression of our hierarchical system screams privilege. I’m willing to accept the paradoxical aspects of ordination — special but not elevated, highly trained and educated but not privileged — and I understood these issues intellectually as I left seminary. I did not, however, grasp the ontology of ordination; indeed, I chose not to explore it, because the very idea smacked of elitism. Imagine. Human beings actually changed by prayer and the invocation of the Holy Spirit.

Well, it’s true, and nothing brings that home more than being deposed. If I were a bishop facing a class of postulants and candidates on retreat, I would warn them about what they were taking on. Not a role. Not a function. Not a profession. Not a career. A sacrament, holy orders: Personal, material substance set aside for the limited, special purposes of service to the church, bodies, souls and minds dedicated to bind and loose, bless, hallow and sanctify, witness and anoint.

It changes you, I would say. Forever. Don’t squander it by doing something stupid.

June 5, 2005

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