Pat, St. John's sexton, was fixing yet another toilet paper holder when I came in the other morning. They are supposed to keep the toilet paper from being stolen, but what happens is the holders get broken and the toilet paper gets stolen. It may be a sign of hard economic times that people have started stealing toilet paper from our public bathrooms at such an alarming rate. I know I feel better knowing there is a 12 pack of rolls in the house--but then, I can afford to buy them. Toilet paper, it seems to me, is pretty much an essential personal product. I know I wouldn't want to try to live without it.
My son and I have an ongoing conversation about the intrinsic value of my work as a priest. And there is, objectively, a lot to say for considering what I 'do' day by day as rather vague and beyond definition. There are those liturgical moments--Eucharists, Funerals, Baptisms, Marriages, etc.--that obviously give me some claim to 'doing something'. But much of what I spend my time about is, as my son rightly observes, not so clearly 'work' as all that. But I now have a substantial product of my ministry--because St. John's is here and I am the Rector there are people who have toilet paper who wouldn't otherwise...never mind that they purloin it, they get it from us!
Actually, besides the occasional comments of my son, I do spend a bit of time each day reflecting on what I DO. And what my ponderings have left me with over the decades is this: A priest isn't about "doing"; a priest is about "being".
I 'be' a priest. What I do that couldn't be done by someone else, unordained, is pretty much contained in the realm of sacraments. In our tradition, more or less, a priest is necessary for the breaking of bread, for baptism, for confession, for burial, for 'blessing' stuff...and that's about it. And, truth be known, there are places where a deacon can do the baptism and burial part--not in my Diocese, but in others--and a lay person can do the rite of reconciliation. So I'm pretty much left with celebrating the Eucharist and blessing assorted 'stuff'.
So, what I 'do' is rather minuscule and, in the scheme of things, not that impressive...not impressive at all.
The key to being a priest is not 'doing', but 'being'. I 'be' an open space into which many things can flow and I recieve them without judgment--at least when I'm really 'being a priest'--and hand them back in a new way. I 'be' someone who walks around and talks a lot, unburdened by my ordination by time sheets and reports (though I do write lots of reports, by the way) mostly waiting for what shows up next. What I 'be' is a priest--no better or worse than any other person, but distinct in 'being set apart' within the community. I 'work for' and 'serve' the people I 'lead'--a strange kind of relationship to say the least. And what I seek to do is 'be' both a servant AND a leader--not a 'servant leader' since you have to be one or the other or both--and I seek to 'be' both in a way that remains unanxious and committed and open--always open. I don't always "be" that well, but it is what I seek to 'be'. What I 'do', well, that's a weird question...I don't 'do' much.
I talked to a seminary classmate a few years ago who left seminary, went to a parish in Florida and has spent his whole career there. "What is remarkable to me," he told me, "is that I actually get paid just to 'be'..." It amazes me too.
Lots of priests and ordained folks try to fill up their life with 'doing' to justify their existence. I gave up on that a couple of decades ago. People say to me, "I know you're busy...." and I reply,
"my only busy-ness is you...." They still don't believe me, most of the time. I walk around and talk a lot and listen more than I talk (I hope) and try to always be open and accepting and ready to 'be present' when I am needed to 'be present'. And all of it, in some way I scarcely understand but can talk about endlessly has to do with God. I don't know what exactly it has to do with God, but I suspect it does. I'll leave that--as I leave lots of things--to God to sort our her/himself.
Kurt Vonnegut, in the preface to a collection of short stories called, Welcome to the Monkey House, quoted letters from his brother and sister. His sister was dying of some horrible cancer and wrote to him, "everything is beautiful and nothing hurts". His brother had a new baby and corresponded, "here I am cleaning shit off almost everything."
I couldn't come up, even if I tried, with two more apt definitions of what it means to 'be' a priest. I stand in the face of the most awful stuff that can happen, be present to it, suffer with it and proclaim that 'everything is beautiful' and I clean shit off almost everything. That's what I 'do'. What I 'be' is a person who is willing to be in the presence of all the pain and loss and wonder and joy of love and clean up the shit along the way.
Maybe I should start handing out toilet paper. Wouldn't be a bad place to start in 'being' a priest. And it would be a holy gift to those who need it.....
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