Saturday, January 31, 2015

Doing my sums--Anthony and Ron

When you're an Episcopal priest a good part of your life is involved in being present at rather important moments of peoples' lives: baptism, confirmation and reception into this particular (and peculiar!) branch of the Holy Catholic Church, marriage, sick rooms, celebrations, funerals.

And, from time to time, you experience both in a short amount of time. Like today.

At 10 a.m. I was the celebrant at the baptism of Anthony Salvatore (just as a clue "Anthony" and "Salvatore" shows up in lots of the males of this family). And at 3 p.m. I was present at the celebration of the life of my good friend and one time colleague, Deacon Ron Cebic, who died in October.

A lot of what a priest 'does' is to 'be'. Just that. Be in the moments of peoples lives. I'm convinced that if priests (and other professional religious folks) would do and little less 'doing' and 'be' a tad more, they would be happier and, in addition, more effective. "Doing" on a regular basis will drive clergy types into 'clergy burnout' (a thriving cottage industry, by the way). While spending time 'being' is full of healing and reconciliation and wonder. (That's just me talkin', by the way. It's not the Truth.)

Little Anthony is the son of a friend of Howie, one of the most active members of St. James Church in Higganum, one of the three little churches I serve. With Salvatore being a common name in the family, I can only assume that many of the family are what I call "recovering Roman Catholics"--off the addiction but always in recovery. Since Anthony is almost a year old, if they were going to have his baptism be Roman Catholic, it would have happened already. (Two of his grand-parents told me they could 'rest easy' now that Anthony was baptized.)

I'd never met Anthony and his family before this morning. Howie is the "baptismal minister" of St. James and does the preparation and all that. In fact it is Howie and the parents and god-parents which actually do the baptism, pouring the water while I try to say, v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, "We baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost". (Baptisms are the only time I use that language for the Trinity. Normally I say "God, our Creator; Jesus, our Savior, and the Holy Spirit, our Companion.") But baptisms deserve the ancient language since it is an ancient rite.

What a great group of people were there. Family from both sides--full of life, loving toward each other, joyful for Anthony.

(One of the on-going and probably never-ending arguments I have with other priests is this: I would never, ever, not even in eternity DENY baptism to anyone. Many other priests have higher standards than mine. My standard is this--you want to be baptized or you want your child baptized...I'll do it. Period. The privilege of smearing oil and declaring that someone is 'marked as Christ's own forever' is humbling and blessed. I think the sacraments really MEAN SOMETHING, so how could we deny them to anyone? They are God's sacraments, not the church's.)

And who knows, someday they might wander back to St. James. And even if they don't, 'hospitality' is the work of the church.

Ron Cebic was a Congregational Minister who, when he got his first pension check from the Congregational Church, felt free do do what he always wanted to do--become an Episcopalian! His father and (I believe) his grandfather were Congregational ministers. It was the family business. But when he retired, he became a part of the Episcopal church. And, eventually, was ordained a Deacon.

He came to work at St. John's, Waterbury when I was there. He was also a accredited therapist, which made our relationship, in some ways, problematic. He was always 'thinking psychologically' about the parish and the members and I almost never thought that way. He would want 'interventions' and I would want to 'do nothing'. Those were interesting years.

Ron was also highly organized and thought I was too likely to 'wing it'. (The truth is, I never 'wing it', I always know what I'm doing. I just think the appearance of 'making it up as you go along' brings out the best in others.) Once we were about to strip the altar on Maundy Thursday and Ron was worried that we hadn't had a 'run through'. I told him it would be fine. And it was...more than fine. And in the vesting room afterwards he said, almost unbelieving, 'that really worked!' The lack of rehearsal and 'run through' brought out Ron's creativity. I think he was thankful for the experience.

Ron developed a rare and debilitating disorder while working with us at St. John's. It looked for all the world like Parkinson's disease, but actually wasn't. He called it 'faux Parkinson's'. It took him from a strong man full of words and presence, to a man in a wheel-chair communicating with a computer. And he bore it all with wondrous grace and good humor. For a dozen years or more, he learned to live in a different way--a totally different way--and became expert in living that way.

At the memorial today, Ron's son talked about how his disability made him laugh more. And it did. He laughed at his own debilitation, at the irony of life's problems, at most everything.

I told Ron's son afterwards that I know very few, if any people, who would adjust and transform and become bigger than their disease the way Ron did. I hope I never have to find out if I can. And I've known only two or three people who rivaled Ron in dealing/coping/overcoming such remarkable disabling circumstances.

(Once, 5 or 6 years into his disease, we were having lunch. He still could walk with a cane but had to be careful what he ate since his swallowing was compromised. I am a very clumsy person and during lunch, I knocked over my water glass, making a proper mess.

Ron laughed, just as his son said, long and hard and then said, since he could still speak but very slowly and deliberately, "that's how it started for me...."

Who but Ron could joke about his own disability in such an ironic way? We laughed together for a long time.)

Anthony and Ron on the same day. What a privilege to be with them both. What a wonder to know Anthony at the beginning of his life and remember Ron after he's moved from glory to glory.

I wrote in my last post about a character in a novel 'doing his sums' and what he meant was 'counting his blessings'.

Today, in doing my sums, I count the blessings of Anthony and Ron, count them well and give great thanks.

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.