When I first heard the term I was young and arrogant enough to think that the term itself was pretty arrogant. At least, to my young ears.
I thought, since God calls priests, God must form them. Right?
Well, I've come to understand that God sends people into your life to help shape and form "a priest after the order of Melchizedek" (Hebrews 7:13-17).
Some help to shape the heart of a priest. Others help to form the mind. Still others assist by nourishing the soul. And, if you're really fortunate, some do all three.
Some are ordained. Most are not. Many are not even Christian but, whether they know it or intend to - or not - they follow the teachings of Jesus. In so doing, they provide role models and icons to seeing and knowing God more clearly.
Others - many of whom are ordained and think themselves pious and holy and learned - provide perfect examples of how NOT to be priest.
Some can be found in church or church-related agencies like seminaries or at hospitals or psychiatric facilities during Clinical Pastoral Education, or internships at food banks or homeless shelters or transitional housing agencies and domestic violence shelters.
But, many of them have nothing to do with church. They are members of God's creation. Some are two-legged. Some four-legged. And, some are winged.
I call them "priestly potters".
They take the lump of willing clay of those the church calls 'aspirants' and help to shape and form them into a vessel of God's message of mercy and justice and hope.
Some are as gentle as the kiss of a butterfly's wing. They lead you into insights and plumb the depths of wisdom you didn't know you had that are often only discernible years after the encounter.
Others are as rough as sand paper, literally annoying and frustrating you until you fear you may lose your mind. It is, however, at what Martin Smith called the "crucifyingly obscure boundaries of faith" that you learn things about yourself and the human enterprise you'd never learn any other way.
One of my blessed spiritual directors called that "Divine Sandpaper" - people who come into your life and literally rub you the wrong way.
"How else," she asked, "would your natural grain come through so you could shine with authenticity?"
I was prompted to reflect on these priestly potters when I recently learned of the death of a beloved former seminary professor at the Episcopal Divinity School.
Owen Thomas was my Systematic Theology professor. That assignment provided him, I have no doubt, a Herculean effort if ever there was one. I mean, teaching someone like me something like theology is not for the faint of heart.
Systematic Theology? Well, let's just say that as developed as the left side of his brain was, my left brain was underdeveloped to the same degree. Perhaps even more.
He also had a doctorate in Philosophy from Columbia University and another from Union Theological School.
Our kids called him "Mr. Spock". His affect was pretty flat and he spoke in a maddening monotone, both of which sent this highly emotive Portuguese woman into a tailspin.
I have no doubt I provided him with an equal but different challenge.
He caught up with me in line at the refectory one morning, after I was lector at Morning Prayer. I have long forgotten the particular passage I read, but his criticism was that I ought not read with so much . . . he paused, searching for the right word . . "expression," he said, because I was, in fact, "interpreting the text," which, he assured me, was not the job of a lector.
I remember him looking at me with that maddeningly blank look, and then, as a wonderfully silly smile began to cross his face, his eyes lit up and he said, in perfect monotone, "Well, grits are pretty bland, I'll give you that much."
I was so delighted to see him smile and his eyes light up that I burst into laughter (Those of you who know me will know that I am incapable of a demure little giggle).
He was so startled by it he couldn't help himself and joined in. We stood there, blocking the breakfast line for a few minutes, in one of the best laughs either of us had had in a long time.
I fell in love with him that very moment.
We had breakfast together during which he told me about his own call to priesthood. After the war, he was very disillusioned by the loss of so many of his friends. The emptiness of war filled him with questions about God and he found himself searching for answers at the (then) Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, MA. And (much to his surprise), seeking ordination in The Episcopal Church.
He came back, eventually, to teach at EDS. He was there for forty years.
The first is "Introduction to Theology" which did two things simultaneously. First, it gave an overview of theology - the what, why and wherefore of the enterprise. And then, it broke things down into bite-sized pieces so I could more easily digest it.
It was his "Theological Questions: Analysis and Argument," however, that saved my butt.
I passed all seven canonical areas of my General Ordination Exams. Which was, in a word, a miracle. I am absolutely convinced that it was because of these two books.
That, and my one and only prayer was answered.
I prayed for good readers.
And, I got them. Thanks be to God.
But, I also had Owen Thomas, in whose hands I entrusted part of my priestly formation.
My trust was not misplaced.
I would not be the priest I am today without his guidance and instruction.
I have come to know that while it does, in fact, take a village to raise a child, it also takes one to raise and then shape and form a priest.
And, I can tell you from personal experience, that that formation continues long after one has "mastered divinity" and the ordination ceremony has ended.
Many people have many different opinions about what constitutes a "good" priestly formation. I have my own "recipe" for the "priestly potter's clay".It is this:
Take equal parts of intellectual stimulation, transformative pastoral care and a creative, imaginative spirit, add several heaping spoonfuls of challenge, a few healthy dollops of questioning and doubt, and several cups of tears and sorrow. Pour into a broken and contrite heart, mixing well with an abiding love for all of God's creation, and a deep passion for God's justice and mercy. Whisk together over some 'fire in the belly' for the painstakingly slow work of finding and creating the "thin spaces" in the world. Fold mixture into the intersection of the sacred and the profane, garnish with a keen appreciation for the absurd and sprinkle liberally with laughter and joy. Allow priestly potters to work with the basic clay mixture until shaped and formed to the glory of God.Thank you, Owen, for you invaluable contributions. You were a wonderful priestly potter.
Your memory will always be a blessing to me.