Monday, April 18, 2011

More than a Religious Technician

A priest friend of mine, serving in a diocese far away, recently remarked that he no longer would consider calling graduates from one particular seminary to serve as his assistant. He said—with only a small amount of sarcasm—that the grads he had worked with from that particular school seemed to know pitiable amounts about theology, scripture, liturgy, or pastoral practice: the only thing they seemed to really be “educated” in was self care. “Imagine thinking that being ordained was an 8-5 job,” he said.

I don’t need to imagine. Like most clergy, in my weaker moments I’ve fantasized about this. Being able to go home at day’s end and not think about the pastoral life any more—concentrating on “my own stuff.” I particularly like to do this when I am in self-pitying moments. “It’s all so unfair,” “No one knows what I have to deal with,” and the like.

I say “in my weaker moments,” because that is exactly what they are. When I choose to let being a priest become a “job,” or a career (and it is a choice, consciously made or not), I open the door to all sorts of false logic about life. Suddenly it’s all about me: my limits, my feelings, my strengths, &c.

When I was a child, if I stood between my mother and what she was looking at, she would sometimes say: “you make a better door than a window.” This is true about clergy. Part of the nature of ordained life is to become ever more transparent to God’s work in us. “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” says St. Paul in Galatians. We are meant to point to God, to be a window through which others may see God at work in the world, in the lives of particular humans in particular situations.

The only way a follower of Christ can possibly live faithfully is by offering all of one’s life, all of one’s various trials and needs, to Christ. By handing them to him, we are relieved of the burden we cannot bear, and are given clear instruction about we not only can, but must do at this moment. Without this essentially Eucharistic way of living—giving thanks and offering to God—the demands placed on us, lay or ordained, will likely crush us. Without this, we become doors rather than windows. No matter how much we paint or decorate it, it remains a door that obscures the view.

As the years progress, I am noticing a shift in the language and “culture” of many clergy. I hear much less about the art and craft of being a cleric—the life of prayer, the gradual deepening of the journey into the unspeakable mystery of Christ and the sharing of the fruits of that journey—and much more about the latest books or seminars, various “proven techniques.” One hears a lot about self-care, but much less about humility; a great deal about relevance, but not too much about spiritual depth or maturity. It is a concerning trend, and I cannot help but wonder if the general decline of many parishes is not connected to it.

The role of priest or deacon has little to do with being a sort of religious technician. It is to be an icon of the Christian life, in all of its struggles as well as in all of its riches. We are meant to live in the paradox of knowing when to rest, while also being available and present even at odd hours or in difficult situations. We know we will fail at this, and when we admit to our failures in humility to others, they learn not only that we are open to just criticism, but that being a Christian means accepting one’s faults in humility, and then calling on Christ and returning to the road of discipleship. It is all part of the vocation.

Knowing various “tricks of the trade” can be helpful, but they are only that: tricks. They are like a birthday candle attempting to match the sun’s light. People do not want to see only the clergy person (and if they do, then they are mistaken in their desire, and/or we are grossly in error in feeding this perversion of ordained ministry); they want to see Jesus through us, to see the full light of day, not just the well-cared for but opaque door of clericalism.

If all we give them is an assortment of the latest techniques, or keep talking about our own needs, they will quickly learn that instead of being windows to heaven, we have become closed doors. The Church needs true pastors, not clever technicians.

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