Tend the fire,
Tell the story,
Pass the wine
(Memories of Priesthood)
“Farther along we'll know all about it,
Farther along, we'll understand why;
Cheer up, don't worry, live in the sunshine,
We'll understand it all by and by.”
(refrain to a mountain hymn)
“...nothing could more surely convince me
of God's unending mercy than the
continued existence on earth of the
--Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
“...Then the well spoke to me.
It said: Abundance is scooped from abundance,
yet abundance remains.”
- The Archangel Mariah
The one question that drives people in seminary crazy is this: “Why do you want to be a priest?”
There are several reasons that question so bedevils those studying for Holy Orders. First of all, everyone and their cousin has asked you that since the first moment you imagined it might be a possibility—your being a priest and all. There is no end to the people wanting to know why you want to be a priest—those already parish priests, discernment groups, bishops, commissions on ministry, standing committees, admission committees, seminary professors, strangers you meet at cocktail parties, on and on....there is no end to the people wanting to know why you want to be a priest.
A second reason is that a call to a priest is, primarily that: an invitation from God to you. It's a deeply personal and profoundly important event or series of events. There is, even in this era of “tell all”, some needs for privacy. If what God has to suggest in your heart of hearts isn't one of those things you have a right to keep to yourself, then what is?
But finally, the most prominent reason nobody in seminary wants to answer that question is that, on the deepest level, you don't have a clue! For most of the priests I know—not all, certainly, but most—the 'call to priesthood was as complex as a jet engine. There are lots of parts to it, most of which can't be extricated or distinguished from the parts right next to them or at either end of the whole contraption. I doubt that there are many people who can explain all the intricacies of a jet engine. The same is true, it seems to me, about a call to ordination.
I once witnessed one of my seminary classmates lose it when asked the question. We were at some reception or another at Virginia Seminary and a well-meaning, sincere woman was talking with him and asked, “Why do you want to be a priest?”
He took a gulp of sherry and said, “One night I was sleeping naked with my window open during a thunderstorm” (being southern, he said 'necked' instead of 'naked') “and lightening came in my window, struck me on the genitals and didn't kill me....It was either become a priest or go live in Tibet.”
I swear this really happened.
Once the woman recovered from apoplexy, she said, in a gentle Tidewater Virginia accent, “I imagine tat doesn't happen often.”
“Only once to me,” my friend said, looking around for more sherry.
My friend, Scott, when he was a seminarian at Yale and working with me at St. Paul's, New Haven, told me he was about to lose his mind with the Standing Committee in the Diocese of West Virginia.
“No matter how many times I tell the,” he said, “or how many different ways, they ask me again.”
“Why don't you tell them you want to be Magic?” I asked.
Scott laughed. “Are you crazy?” he said.
“Who knows,” I told him, “it might shut them up.”
After I preached at his ordination, Scott gave me a wondrous pen and ink sketch based on 'being magic'. It's here in my little office with me. I still love it, two decades later.
I don't have to resort to tales of lightening storms or the longing to be magic. I know why I decided to be a priest. The sky didn't open up. I didn't hear God speak to me out loud and in English. It was simpler and yet more marvelous than any of that.
I was visited by the Archangel Mariah.
Mariah was the only member of St. Gabrial's mission, the campus ministry at West Virginia University, back in the late 60's and early 70's who was older than 35 besides Snork, the priest. Mariah was in her late-70's back then. St. Gabrial's had a ministry of hosting international students in the basement of Trinity Church on Friday nights for games and food and companionship. Mariah was the source of that ministry. That's one reason she came to St. Gabe's. The other reason was that she wanted to be around young people. She couldn't stand stuffiness in any guise. The three-piece suits and women in hats at Trinity's services were too much for her. She preferred the company of college students and week-end hippies.
I strain to remember her over 40 years of memories. She was a tiny woman—no more than 5'2” and most likely about 90 pounds fully clothed and soaking wet. She had wild gray hair that she wore tied back as best she could. And there was her face: her eyes were an indescribable color—blue, green, hazel in different light—and lost in the most remarkable set of smile wrinkles I've ever seen. Mariah smiled and laughed so much that she tended to look a tad Asian—there were small spaces for her eyes to shine through. She had all her own teeth and showed them off smiling and laughing. Her face, in spite of her age, was actually 'girlish', elfin, like the face of a loris or a lemure—some exotic animal whose name begins with an L.
Mariah's passion (what Joseph Campbell would have called her 'bliss') was the international students at WVU. Every Friday night you could find her in Trinity's undercroft playing card games and listening, playing backgammon and listening, playing some American board game and listening. She was always listening to the young people from far away places with strange sounding names. WVU had a remarkable Engineering program so there were hundreds of students, mostly young men, from Third World Countries studying in the part of the middle of Nowhere called Morgantown, West Virginia. One of the informal courses they were forced to study on their own was Culture Shock 101. In the '70's there were no ethnic enclaves in Morgantown, unless you consider Rednecks and Sorority Girls ethnic groups. Those students from Africa, Asia, central Europe and the Middle East had no contact with their homelands besides each other. There was no Internet back then and international phone calls were still ridiculously expensive. It wasn't like living in New York or DC. Morgantown was referred to by many of the students at WVU—many of whom, like me, were from the sticks to begin with—as “Morgan-Hole”.
At that time there wasn't much in Morgantown for anyone, much less people thousands of miles from home. And nobody much was interested in the well-being of those foreign students except Mariah. Mariah was interested in them with a vengence.
She welcomed them into Trinity's basement, into her home and into her vast, expansive heart. She got them to write home for recipes and tried to reproduce them as best she could from the local Kroger's selection of foods and spices. She tried to learn enough of their languages so she could greet each of them as they would be greeted at home. She matched them up with people and the University and in town—all of whom she seemed to know—who might have some faint connection to or interest in Afghanistan or Bulgaria or Korea or wherever they were from. She was a one woman network of 'connections' for those folks so far from home, those strangers in a oh so strange land.
There was something biblical in her commitment to the strangers in her midst. She would welcome them all and do any and everything possible to make them a little less anxious about finding themselves plunked down in such a place as Morgantown. Mariah was sometimes the victim of those she befriended. Being from a different culture and far from home doesn't make someone trustworthy. If there is a lesson to be learned from working with any minority group—racial, cultural or economic—it is this: People, so far as I've been able to discern, are, in the end, 'just People', heir to the same foibles and frailties, world-wide. We all share the same deep-down 'being of human beings'. The international students Mariah dedicated her energy to were so different than the outsiders and oddballs Snork, our Chaplain, loved and cared for—that is, some of them will rip you off big time!
The Lord only knows how much money Mariah parceled out to foreign students. And surely only the Lord knows how much of that money could have just as well been tossed of the bridge over Cheat Lake. But she never fretted about it. That's what she told me when I spoke to her after seeing $100 or so pass from her hand to the hand of a Nigerian I knew loved to gamble.
“Never mind,” Mariah told me, “I'll just let God sort it all out.”
On one level, that is ultimate foolishness. On another, deeper level, it may just be one of the best ways possible to live a life. And that, above all, was what Mariah was good at—living wondrously and well. I've never had the courage to live letting God 'sort it all out', but it certainly worked for Mariah.
While I was working as a social worker, Bern and I lived in the third floor apartment of a three story house down a charming brick street in Morgantown. During our time there, the home base for St. Gabrial's Wednesday evening Eucharists was the attic of that house, accessible only through our apartment. We would gather up there—20 or 30 of us—and celebrate the holy mysteries seated on the unpainted floor. When we passed the peace there was always the danger of getting a concussion from smacking your noggin on the exposed beams. It was a dimly lit, uncomfortable space, but it served quite nicely as the upper room of St. Gabe's.
It was after one of those outrageously informal communions that Mariah, who I had already determined was a saint (St. Mariah of the Nations) revealed herself as an Archangel. After Mass—if I can dream of calling our attic worship that!--we would all retreat down the stairs to our apartment. There was always food. People brought cooking and brownies (often with a special ingredient) cheese and home-baked bread, fruit both dried and fresh, nuts and seeds and we'd have some feasting. Plus, there was always a lot of wine. Some of St. Gabe's regulars would go down on the front porch to smoke a joint—not normal, I suppose, for most Episcopal coffee hours.
I was in the kitchen with Mariah. She'd managed to get me there alone by some miracle since people tended to clump around her wherever she was. There was something about how intently she listened to whatever nonsense you had to say that made her a people magnet. But we were alone in the kitchen when she said to me, balancing her plastic wine glass and a handful of cheese with remarkable grace. Then she said, “When are you going back to seminary and get ordained?”
I was three glasses of wine and a trip to the porch past whatever state of sober grace the Body and Blood of Christ had given me up in the attic. I was then, as I am to some extent today, a 'smart ass'. Ironic and Sardonic were my middle names in those days. I can still be depended upon to lower or deflate whatever serious conversation I come upon. “Nothing is serious or sacred” has been my motto most of my life. I never realized how annoying that can be until my son demonstrated, in his teen years, a genetic predisposition to that same world view.
So, in my cups, you might say, I replied in a typically smart ass way.
“My dear Mariah,” I said, “I'll go back to seminary and get ordained when I get a personal message from God Almighty.”
She smiled that smile that made her eyes almost disappear and, after a healthy drink of what I assure you was not good wine (we drank only that vintage in those days) said words that changed my life forever.
“Jim,” she said, “who in the hell do you think sent me and told me what to say?”
Never, before or after, did such a word as 'hell' pass through Mariah's sainted lips. She was never even mildly profane. I stared at her, suddenly as sober as a Mormon or a Muslim or both at the same time.
She finished her cheese, put her wine glass in the sink and embraced me. I held her like a fragile bird. She kissed my cheek and whispered in my ear, “You've got your message....”
She left me in my kitchen with dry ice in my veins and some large mammal's paw clutching my heart. I found it hard to breathe. Two trips to the porch and a full juice glass of the Wild Turkey I kept hidden under the sink on Wednesday nights changed nothing.
I called the bishop the next morning. Only after I had an appointment with him could I tell Bern what insanity I was up to and breathe properly again.
Mariah died a few months later. I was one of her pallbearers. She was as light as air for us to carry—three international students and three members of St. Gabrial's carried her. Archangels don't weight much. They are mostly feathers and Spirit. She was buried from Trinity Church. Snork did the service and did her proud in his homily of thanksgiving for so rare a soul. I had just been accepted to Virginia Seminary. Bern was in New York acting in an off-Broadway show. We would meet up in Alexandria in September.
Mariah's granddaughter, Clara, who was a member of St. Gabe's as well, embraced me at the reception following the funeral. It was in the basement of Trinity Church where Mariah had spent so many Friday nights. Many of the foreign students brought ethic food. Clara told me Mariah had asked about me on the day she died. I'd left my acceptance letter in Snork's office and he'd shown it to Clara. I hadn't tried to call when it came since Mariah was in the Intensive Care Unit. Her so full and generous heart had simply worn out from so much loving.
So it was Clara that told Mariah I was accepted at VTS. Clara said her grandmother smiled that eye disappearing smile when she heard. She smiled through her great weakness.
“You tell Jim,” she whispered to Clara, “that I told him so....”
Her last words for me: “I told you so.”
That works for me. That will do nicely.