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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.


Ostrich said...

The Larger Hope
(From "In Memoriam") Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Oh yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life will be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another gain.

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last – far off – at last to all,
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream; but who am I?
An infant crying in the night;
An infant crying for the light,
And with no language, but a cry.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ah, yes. I had forgotten all about Tennyson's poem. No original thought here. Perhaps Tennyson's words were running around my head when I wrote that sentence.

Lovely. Beautiful. And absolutely terrifying. Thanks, Ostrich.

VTcrone said...

Elizabeth-Would you please pass on our congratulations and very best wishes to Sr. Eleanor. (Rob was a member of her discernment team when she was at Redeemer and decided to take the step to priesthood.)
Seriously, how does one address a nun who has been ordained a priest-"Rev. Sister" or "Sr. Rev."?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Will do, my dear. You can also send her a card at CSJB in Mendham.

Frair John said...

I do believe that it is The Rev. Sister {Blank}.
That matches the way a male religious who is ordained is addressed (ie: The Rev Father).
"Mother" has a whole set of other connotations for women religious, I am given to understand. For that reason I tend to call women clergy "Ama" in direct address.

Thank you for sharing this. II shall now chew for a long while since I'm trying to discern my own vocation still.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

She'll always be EF to me, and the Superior, Barbara Jean, who is also a priest, will always be BJ.

I think their identity as monastics are primary in their lives, so formally, in this diocese, I would refer to Sr. EF or Sr. BJ. In some places it would be "Mother."

If you are mailing something to them, it would be "the Rev'd Sister" EF or BJ

But never EVER "Father

I like Ama. Very much. Thanks, Friar John. Let me know if you need some help wrestling with angels or demons. I'm pretty well practiced.

Jane Priest said...

"We wrestle angels and demons in order to become priests because that will become our life-long vocation."

Oh, God, Elizabeth. This is the truth and now I see the framework of my past, present, and future. Now I understand my upbringing and vocation much better.

Blessed remainder of your Advent.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Joie - It's so true, isn't it? We experience things now that will help us in the future or help explain our past. It's all connected.