Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Wresting with Angels
'Tis the season.
There were two ordinations on Saturday and another this Saturday.
I was privileged to be a Eucharistic Minister this past Saturday for the priestly ordination of Sr. Eleanor Francis, Assistant Superior of Convent St. John Baptist in Mendham, NJ.
The story of her journey to her ordination as a priest in The Episcopal Church is a fascinating one and I have been privileged to walk the past 10 years of that journey with her. Indeed, I clearly recall the conversation we had when, after her first professional vows, a 'vocation within a vocation' was being revealed to her.
It is the story of her conversion to Christianity, however, which is most compelling. She had been a Vedantan nun for 20 years, living in a convent in California. She is also an excellent musician, and began playing the organ for a nearby Episcopal Church on Sunday as a source of income for her religious community.
The great hymns of the Episcopal Church became her vehicle of conversion. She became curious about This Jesus of whom so many great hymns were composed and sung with passion. She began studying and became convinced of his divinity and, more important, his meaning for her life.
So, she ran away from the convent in the dead of the night, and was baptized and became a practicing Christian.
Well, we joke about the fact that once you begin to "look East" it's only a matter of time before you move there. In her quest to fulfill her vocation to religious community, she joined one Episcopal order of nuns, which did not work out for her or them.
About 10 years ago, she finally settled in with the community of women known as the Sisters of Convent St. John Baptist in Mendham, NJ and the rest, as they say, is history.
The preacher was the guardian of the community, the Rt. Rev'd Herb Donovan, retired bishop of Arkansas and former rector of St. Luke's, Montclair. He took a close look at the ordination vows and spent quite a bit of time on the idea that the priest is to "share her ministry".
After the service, I was reflecting with a dear colleague, now retired, about the challenges of parish ministry. I said something to the effect that I wish someone had told me in seminary that when you "share your ministry" with others as priest, you share your life, and people share their lives with you, and that's the wonderful part.
The part that no one tells you is that when the people with whom you share your minitry become sick, or lose their jobs, or a child, or die, it breaks your heart and a little piece of you dies as well.
My wise friend said to me, "Vocational discernment is always about wrestling with angels and demons. We wrestle angels and demons in order to become priests because that will become our life-long vocation."
I have been reflecting on that for a few days and I realize that he is so right. A significant part of being a leader in a community of faith means that we wrestle with angels and demons - those God sends to us and those of our own making.
A long time ago, one of my spiritual directors told me that Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, is the one who coined the term "vocational discernment". He reportedly said something like, "whenever you come to a border crossing, all the angels in heaven and all the demons in hell arise and call to you from either side of the border. Vocational discernment is about listening to the voices, determining which ones to engage, and deciding which ones to follow."
We come to those "crucifyingly obscure borders of our faith" (Martin Smith) whenever we experience loss.
Vocational discernenment is not, of course, the sole task of the priest. However, when the priest enters into a shared ministry with others, we have the distinct privilege of making the journey with others as they wrestle with the angels and demons at the borders of their lives of faith, helping them to listen, determining which ones to engage and deciding which ones to follow.
It is an awesome, holy task, but not one without its personal costs.
It is one that I gladly pay, for I am much more the debtor for the experience and privilege. And, it is become my life's vocation as priest.
As we begin our approach to the manger, I am aware that many of us are approaching borders of faith. There are angels and demons everywhere. The task for us it to "hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing."
Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? It is not, I assure you.
It is as difficult as listening for the mighty voice of God in the pitiful, vulnerable cry of a newborn infant.