(It's long. Take your time.)
A seminary classmate of mine who was also a priest in West Virginia when I was there was once riding an airplane from Los Angeles to Chicago. My friend, let’s call him Joe, was wearing, as he seemingly always did, a clerical collar and black shirt, black suit and black wing-tips. Joe is a very large man so his priest outfit always made him look like a black-out curtain from the London Blitz. He spent the flight talking amiably with salesman from the mid-west. They developed one of those airplane friendships and exchanged business cards as the descent began toward O’Hare. Just as the 747 was taxiing up to the gate, Joe’s new friend asked, “What do you do?”
Joe glanced down to make sure his uniform was in place—and hadn’t they talked about the church somewhere over Idaho?
“I’m an Episcopal priest,” Joe replied, confused.
The salesman smiled. “Oh, I know what you are,” he said, “I was just wondering what you do.”
It is an interesting observation and question. What on earth does an Episcopal priest do? How can we describe a role that I believe is more ontological than functional? What’s the job description?
Once, at a cocktail party in New Haven, surrounded by Yale ‘people’—the population of New Haven is divided between Yale ‘people’ and the masses of the unwashed—I had a long conversation with a physicist from India with one of those delightful post-Raj English accents that sound like a bird’s song. You hear that accent most every time you call customer services (aka “help!”) for your computer—they all seem to be in India. Since I didn’t have on a clerical uniform—and never once flew in an airplane with a collar on lest I be seated besides some psychologically disturbed stranger who wanted to confess at 40,000 feet—I had told him when we greeted each other what I ‘did’. And he told me what he ‘did’. It’s what people do.
(Here’s a fascinating thing: back in the Appalachian Mountains where I grew up, when people met for the first time, the question that came trippingly off each of their tongues was “where are you from?” not “what do you do?” I haven’t asked enough people who grew up in rural places if that was true back home to know if it is purely an urban/rural distinction. But I know and know fair well that back home you could tell a lot more about a stranger by knowing where they were from and “who their people were” than you could by finding out how they earned their money. I still have the tendency to ask people where they spent their formative years, believing as I do that there is a wealth of instant knowledge and intimacy in discovering someone’s roots. But, in the place I live now and amidst the people I know now, the first question is almost always, “What do you do?”)
So I told the Indian physicist that I was an Episcopal priest and he asked me with the guilelessness of someone who was ‘from’ a place half-a-world away and who was Hindu if he was anything religious at all, what my ‘work’ consisted of.
Even then, I had begun to believe that being a priest is an ontological rather than a functional thing, so I fished around in my brain for some way to describe succinctly what my “being” in the midst of a parish looked like. I came up with a thought that I’d stand by today. “I am a member of a community,” I told him, “and I function as the leader of that community in our ritual life. And I am very aware of what is going on in and around the community so that when I think I see God breaking in to the day-to-day, I can say ‘Stop! Look! There’s God’….”
He considered that in that lovely, calm and timeless way people from the Indian sub-continent have naturally, took a sip of wine and then said, smiling knowingly, “You’re a process observer.”
He, of course, had to explain to an English major that a ‘process observer’ was an indispensable role in the sciences. Much of what science is about is watching experiments and noting what happens. It is, he told me, rather tedious and painstaking work (not unlike the day-to-day ‘duties’ of a parish priest) but finally indispensable to the march of scientists to the day when they will have the String Theory down pat—the theory that explains just about everything.
“A process observer”, I said to myself, giving that little voice in my head a line to speak of my composition instead of just listening to it chatter on of its own volition. I rather liked it, yes I did.
The actuality is this: one of the things parish priests DO, it seems to me, is “point to God in the process.” We do it in the Eucharist—all the sacraments—in a most obvious way. “You may think this is just fish food and bad port, priests say in the Mass, but I’m going to ‘point out’ to you that this is ALSO the very Body and very Blood of Christ. How about them apples?” Or, like this: “You may imagine this is just a little baby and some water and some oil, but I’m going to reveal to you a different way of looking at all this…a way that brings to mind the Creation and the Exodus and John the Baptist and Jesus and the oil of anointing a royal child and the fact that this squirming little creature is actually the most loved Child of God.” Or this, for example: “I know everyone here believes you are simply a man and a woman anxious to get dinner over and shed these clothes and do what men and women do in the dark, wine-soaked night. But I tell you a Mystery—you are beloved of God and God approves, blesses and watches over you. Go after each other with passion and zeal, it is as the Almighty has arranged it!” Stuff like that is what priests “do”. Process observing—seeking to un-conceal the oldest String Theory of them all: that God is in control in some way we cannot recognize or even understand.
Once, a few years ago, the remarkable Organist/Choir Director of St. John’s—the finest musician I’ve ever known who doesn’t have a big, fat attitude—found a Spiritual he thought I would like, knowing I’m partial to Spirituals. It was called I Believe This Is Jesus and went like this: “I believe this is Jesus….Come and see, Come and see….” Bob’s idea was that I would, after the fracture of the host, sing the “I believe this is Jesus” part and the choir would respond, “Come and see. Come and see” and then do the rest of the song while I administered communion to those at the altar. Great idea—real ‘process observer’ stuff…I’d break the bread and then indicate the bread and wine and sing, “I believe this is Jesus.”
So, without telling anyone but the choir, that’s what we did. I broke the bread, took a deep breath since I’m rocky about my singing ability, then broke into song. When the choir responded, “Come and see. Come and see.” I did something like point to the bread and wine and sing along, shifting from foot to foot, remembering why I loved Spirituals—you can’t stand still and sing them. I turned to give communion to the others at the altar—including the assistant Rector and our Parish Administrator—and they were all staring at me as if I were a crazy person just escaped from the sanatorium with sharp, deadly weapons. After I force fed them the bread and wine—fattening up the Christmas goose—they nearly dissolved into that kind of laughter that there is simply no way, no way in heaven and earth, no act of will available to human beings to repress. The “I believe this is Jesus” Mass passed immediately into St. John’s lore. We still laugh about it—others laughing more than me since I was just ‘process observing’ and ‘reporting’—and I can still do it. I’ll do it for you if you ask me nicely.
I have this ongoing conversation with my bishop and others about ontology and function and what a priest “does”. I come down hard on the “being” side of the distinction. I actually think a priest’s job description is to ‘be’ in the midst of the community. The functional stuff is neither rocket science or brain surgery. In fact, most everything a priest does—since we are the last of the ‘generalists’—someone else could do much better. Say Mass, for example—I’d suggest training in theatre would make for a more dramatic Eucharist than studying Theology ever could. Visiting the sick, another example—couldn’t a nurse or social worker pull that off with great aplomb? Teaching adult classes—well, give me someone trained in education every day to someone who can recite the Nicene Creed by heart. Counseling the troubled—a seminary education makes you a ‘counselor’ as much as a class in auto mechanics makes you a jet pilot. Parish priests, if they took my advice, would avoid counseling like the plague and get a rolodex full of references. I can ‘listen’ to someone’s problems but I seldom, if ever, do I know an answer. I actually get ‘hung up’ in the problems, find them fascinating and probably wouldn’t want them to go away. Call a real professional, that’s my advice to a parish priest!
So, here I am, trying to describe “what I do” when the reality I deal with tells me that being a priest is much more about ‘being’ than ‘doing’. I have this argument with my bishop and lots of colleagues that will go on and on. I truly think that priesthood is about ontology, about ‘being’, much more than it is about ‘doing’ or the function we fulfill in the Church of God. This obviously is a result of my remarkably high view of the sacraments. I believe ‘being a priest’ is contained and fully lived out in the ‘being’ part. What I “do”—like talk to the leader of the Narcotics Anonymous group that uses St. John’s on Tuesday mornings about how most of the folks in that group—unlike the other 12 step groups that use the space—are ‘court ordered’ and there to score some dope and don’t give a good god-damn about the fact that there are other people in the building—the soup kitchen, the office staff, the clericus group, a meeting of a diocesan committee, just plain folks coming in and out to ask for help or tell us something or just check in with the staff. And never mind that there are sometimes funerals on Tuesday morning and receptions in the Library after the funeral and that we need some level of quiet and respect in the building. And then I have to deal with the email from the leader promising to ‘fix’ the problems if they can only, only, please, please, continue to use the meeting space. And I have to deal with the countless ‘drop-ins’ looking for a bus ticket or a meal or a motel room or something even beyond all that. I can refer most of them to the social worker in the soup kitchen but I have to talk with them and get enmeshed in their stories along the way, before sending them to someone who might actually be able to help them. And I attend endless meetings—in the parish and without—to deal with endless issues and come up not knowing our elbows from our assholes most of the time. And there are statistics to keep in a big red book about what we’ve done in terms of services. And there are budget matters to be addressed—can we buy this or pay for that…stuff I never got taught in Seminary. And there is the eternal ‘planning’ for things that are going to happen or not in the parish. And there are meetings…oh, I already mentioned that, but there are so many that it seems to require a second mention. And did I tell you about the parking lot and making sure the rented spaces are used by those who rented them and the dozens of people who come through the church each day aren’t in some lawyer’s space? I don’t do all of that, but I fret about it.
Most of the day-to-day stuff I do is fretting about something or another. And, in most cases, there are about three billion people who could fret about those things and be more effective than me. So, what do I DO? I’m not sure, not at all. My “doing” of stuff seems in many ways a bit crazy. And the source of great fretting and anxiety.
Here’s the quintessential Jewish joke, my friend, John, told it to me today. An e-mail arrives. “Start worrying,” it says, “letter to follow.”
I’m always ‘worrying’ about my ‘doing’…but I truly subscribe to the notion that ‘doing’ isn’t what being a priest is all about. What being a priest is all about is exactly that—“being” a priest.
You want to know the thing I hear most from parishioners of St. John’s? Here it is: “I didn’t want to bother you, I know how busy you are….”
My theory is that either we priests have created “busy-ness” out of nothing or else we are so deluded as to think that the nonsense we use to fill our days and make us feel like we’re ‘doing’ something has overcome the glaring reality that we are ordained to ‘be’, not to ‘do’. Back in 2000 when I visited 37 of my Virginia Seminary classmates, one of them—a guy who was only with us for a year and who had been a RC priest before he married a woman with five children—told me that he was pleased to have left VTS and gone to a parish where he had remained for 25 years. “I’ve been here long enough,” he told me, “so that people accept the fact that ‘being a priest’ is the only job in the world that is focused on ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’.”
What a thought—a whole career path focused on “being” rather than “doing”! And what a pity that people think I’m busy and shouldn’t be bothered by their petty concerns and wonderings and questions and longings. That is, in fact, precisely what my job entails, to be free and available and ready to “be” with people whenever they need that from me. I don’t suggest that my ‘being’ will “save them” or “heal them” or do anything much more than simply ‘being’ with them in their joy or confusion or pain or loss or wonderment. There is a wonderful term in psychology—the “non-anxious presence.” Therapists long to provide that service for their clients—just to ‘be’ with them, whatever is going on, without anxiety. A calming presence is what most of us need when ‘stuff’ is happening in our lives. We just need someone to “be” there—at our death bed, in labor hall, in the ER, when we’re troubled and confused, at the celebrations of the transforming moments of our lives. Just that—a shadow in the background who is simply “there” without attaching themselves to the emotions and feelings of the moment—that is what most of us need, most of the time. And that is, so far as I can see, how a priest can “be” in the midst of the community he/she serves.
I have done what used to be called “EST training”. Almost all ‘religious folks’ think EST was mind-control and a monstrous intrusion into the life of those who submitted themselves to it. I am still involved in a group—The Mastery Foundation—that continues the work EST began. The Mastery Foundation is the religious spin-off of EST and I have been a leader of the Making a Difference Workshop for almost 20 years now. I took that workshop when I was considering renouncing my vows as a priest and what I came out of the three days with was my priesthood all new and shiny. The Workshop is ‘ontological’—it is about ‘being’, not ‘doing’. And back over a quarter of a century ago, when I was in an EST workshop, I called to tell them I couldn’t come to the second weekend because a beloved parishioner of St. Paul’s (the parish I served at that time) was dying and I had to be with him. The workshop leaders gave me much shit—understandable shit but shit none the less—about my ‘commitment’ to the workshop and what if I’d gotten hit by a truck, who would be with Aaron, who would be his priest then? But I rejected all the bullshit they threw at me—some of it reasonable bullshit, but b.s. all the same—and went to visit Aaron when I should have been in my chair at the EST training.
Aaron was in a coma and I couldn’t “do” much of anything. I couldn’t give him communion or talk with him or reassure him as he was slipping into that good night. So, after 15 minutes or so, I left his room, having anointed him and given him final unction—I could “do” that, after all. I rode the elevator to the lobby and was unlocking my car when I remembered the first weekend of the EST training and the emphasis on “being” that I had learned there. So I went back to the elevator and rode back up to the 5th floor and entered Aaron’s room again. I sat by his bed for over two hours. From time to time I would read a psalm from my Prayer Book aloud, but mostly for me, since he wasn’t in my time/space continuum. And after two hours I kissed his 88 year old face and headed for the door.
At that very moment, he awoke momentarily from the coma of his last sleep and said, with the basso voice I’d known from him before this illness, “Jim, thanks for BEING with me….”
It never occurred to me in that moment to “do” anything. I didn’t rush to his bedside and give him communion. I didn’t open my BCP and say a prayer. I only said, “You’re welcome, Aaron.” And I left. Three days later I was the celebrant and preacher at his funeral. I had done my job. I had “be-ed” with him. That was what he needed and all that I could do.
Actually, I do have a definition of the job description of a priest. I’ve used it in a couple of ordination sermons that did not get me in trouble and I think I would bet the farm on it being—if not RIGHT—at least in the county where RIGHT lives. Here’s how it goes: the ‘job’ of a priest is simply this: to tend the fire, tell the story and pass the wine.
A parish priest has an enormous amount of discretionary time—don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. And that time should be spent being the Shaman of the Tribe. I really believe the metaphor of the Shaman is the one we priests should embrace. We walk backward and sideways, we speak words our mouths are unfit for, we do the holy acts and we dwell in the “being” of our being in the midst of the tribe. We are irrelevant except in moments when we are relevant. We wait with the expectant father, we sit by the sick bed, we pour water on the babies, we whisper nonsense syllables over bread and wine, we light the candles, we tell and re-tell the story of our tribe in old ways and ways made new, we anoint the sick and dying, we rejoice with the joyous, we are there when one of the tribe moves into that Good Night, we pour dirt on the casket, we unite the lovers, we sit and wait and are not anxious whatever is happening. Shamans are the role we can play in the Tribe who loves us and we love to death.
So, we tend the fire. Everyone else is too busy in the tides and times of living to pay attention. The priest must add the green branch to the dying fire and blow on it until it takes and burns. The priest must know the history of the Tribe and breathe it into the fire as the fire turns to embers. We are the fire-tenders, the wood gatherers, the ones who choose between the green wood and the seasoned. That is who we “are” and how we “be” in the midst on the Tribe.
We also “tell the story”. It is a story everyone in the Tribe knows, on some level, in some way. So the way we tell it must annoy and inspire and provoke. It is the story of our particular tribe and of the larger tribe we are a part of. It is the story of a God who created us in the very image of God and of a God who took on our flesh and a God who died, as we shall die, yet rose from death to prove to us that Life is the last word, the ultimate word, the only word that matters. So we tell this story with mouths full of pebbles and in halting, stuttering words and with an eloquence we neither deserve nor can rise to, except the Spirit leads us. We tell the story as the tribe sits by the fire we tend and we watch their eyes…heavy and full of sleep, confused and questioning, brimming with tears. It is always the eyes we much watch—those subtle pathways to the soul—as we tell the story in old ways, often heard, and in new ways to surprise and delight and confound. We have tended the fire and told the story.
What is left is this—to pass the wine.
Whenever I do baptismal classes, I bring out the symbols that will be a part of the service: bread, wine, water, oil, a candle and the scallop shell I use to pour the water. Sometimes I mix people up so they’re not with their baptismal group, and give them one of the symbols to talk about and report back to the whole group about after talking. I’m always interested in the report back about wine. We are a part of a remarkably Puritanical culture where wine is not openly valued. And of course, I know, church basements and parish halls are full each week with AA meetings—there is a downside to wine. But my thought has always been that the ‘value’ of something can be measured most accurately by how much it has been misused and abused. Oh, take Christianity for example: what crap we Christians have left on innocent yards! The Christian faith has been so misused and abused that it must be of great value—the value of pearls and gold and silver.
Most of the groups who report back on wine don’t fully emphasize the joy and gladness and goodness of alcohol. They seldom reflect on why it is we call alcohol “spirits”. They don’t have the courage to be politically incorrect in our day and say wine is a good and gracious thing. Never has any group reported back by saying, “In Vino, Veritas”. So I have to tell them how valued and important the wine is to the tribe and those gathered by the fire, listening to the story. Invaluable, I’d say—that’s what wine is to the life and metaphor and myth of the Tribe. There must be wine to make us mellow and accepting and to “inspire” us and to bring the story to full bloom and to make the dying fire look like a wondrous and warming blaze that enlightens the darkness all around us.
So, the priest passes the wine.
None of those ‘functions’, those ‘tasks’, those ‘acts’ require ordination—that I would tell you before you said it out loud. Just about anyone could tend the fire and tell the story and pass the wine. But in our Tribe, at any rate, we have decided that there must be someone ‘set apart’ for those acts, those rituals, those liturgies. So we ordain priests and entrust them with the work of “being” in our midst to ‘do’ these little, so significant tasks. The Shamans of the Tribe walk backwards, speak in nonsense syllables and touch the holy things.
A dear friend, the wife of a classmate of mine in seminary, told my wife that when her husband was ordained, “his hands changed.”
My wife, God bless her, said she hadn’t noticed that my hands had changed but she did like to feel them on her body.
Here is the conundrum about being a priest: nothing changes. It isn’t the ordination that matters, it is the willingness to simple “be” when all the world is “doing” that makes a priest different, set apart, unique. Her/his hands don’t change, not a chance, that’s just an illusion. What happens, so far as I can tell is simply this: some sap decides to “be” rather than “do”. And the church applauds.
Truth is, it’s a great job—process observing, tending the fire, telling the story over and over again, passing the wine. What’s the down-side of that? Just don’t take yourself too seriously or confuse yourself with Jesus or decide you can save the world or anyone in it—keep to the job description: observe the process, keep the fire burning, tell and retell the story, take a good sip of wine before passing it around, figure out how to “be” rather than “do”.
Well, it’s worked for the most part for me….