Thursday, July 29, 2004

What is a Priest?

July 25, the Feast of St. James, was the 15th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. This led to much reflection about this peculiar calling over the last week. Here's a few of my thoughts;

I was sent to seminary by a very Anglo-Catholic diocese. They sent me to
Nashotah House, the most Anglo-Catholic seminary within the Episcopal Church. I was trained to define a priest as a "sacramental person," or, to put it a different way, a priest is one who administers the sacraments. This is probably as good a definition as any, if you consider the three things a priest does that a layperson cannot; blesses, consecrates and offers absolution in the name of God, all sacramental actions.

A priest is not just a sacramental machine, of course. Today I might define the priest as one who represents Christ and Christ's church, and works towards the reconciliation of all people with God and one another. Ideally, this is the vocation of all Christians, meaning that the priest functions as an icon, or an example, of that which we are all called to manifest to the world.

On a day to day basis, a priest lives out his or her vocation in a variety of ways. One of the struggles of many priests in our current culture is being a "generalist" in a world of "specialists." Let me list just a few of the roles that a priest is called to fill;

Spiritual guide; guiding others in the formation of their spiritual lives and the development of their spiritual gifts. Spiritual Director. Retreat Conductor.

Liturgical leader; design, plan and conduct a variety of services of public worship. Be competent and confident within a wide range of worship settings.

Preacher; proclaim the Gospel by combining biblical scholarship and contemporary issues, allowing the Good News to transform lives.

Pastor; nurture members towards growth, respond to those in crisis situations, assist members in facing problems and difficult decisions and challenge the community to live into their Christian faith. Regular visitations to hospitals, nursing homes and homebound members. Training of Christian caregivers. Personal and marriage counselor. Youth advisor.

Teacher; design, plan and implement youth and adult Christian Education programs. Confirmation, Baptism and Marriage preparation. Youth group advisor.

Outreach organizer; develop, organize and support programs and organizations that reach out to the margininalized in our communities. Be an advocate for justice and peace.

Administrator; be responsible for maintaining the records of the church. Manage and support staff members. Chair vestry meetings, and attend other committee/commission meetings when necessary or requested. Facilitate timely completion of correspondence and other communication tools (newsletters, etc.).

Diocesan leader; participate in the life of the diocese by serving in either elected, appointed, or voluntary positions.

There are additional duties that I have not mentioned, but hopefully this gives you some idea of the different "hats" that most priests are called to wear.

None of the above, with the possible exception of the "sacramental person" definition, come close to another aspect of the priesthood that few speak about today; the more "mystical" side, for lack of a better word. I suspect it is not often mentioned because in today's culture there are many STs (sensory-thinking, in the Myers-Briggs terminology) in positions of leadership, and fewer NFs (intuitive-feelers). My experience is that NFs come across as somewhat flaky, or at least in need of better meds, to many STs, so they have learned to remain silent.

I am learning the lesson of silence on this aspect as well. Consequently, I will use the words of another; some quotes from
Ministry and Imagination, by Urban T. Holmes. He was professor of Pastoral Theology at Nashotah House for many years, and went on to be the Dean of Sewanee School of Theology. This book, specifically his chapter entitled "The Priest," played a major role in my decision to attend seminary. He describes the vocation in terms that resonated with my heart. Here are a few of his words from a section in which he is discussing the priest as "mana-person";

It was not until I read Jung that it occurred to me that the term refers to "mana," the extraordinary, supernatural power which religions, particularly primitive religions, attribute to persons and things that are related to the divine. It may be that Francoeur meant manna (with two "n"s), and was speaking of the priest as the person who brings the bread of God, as in the Eucharist, but this would not be unrelated to mana and to his function as one who bears in himself an extraordinary sacral power.

The mana person is related symbolically to the hero, the chief, the magician, the medicine man, the saint, the ruler of the spirits, and the friend of God. He is a person who is able in himself to strike a creative compromise between the conscious world of the ego and the antistructural world of symbol and myth. He is one who travels into chaos and returns to tell of it...

...In a society that domesticates God and craves certitude more than truth, it is very difficult to accept an image of the local pastor who lives poised amid darkly discerned potencies, exhibiting at the same time a kinship to both beasts and God, both the earth and the stars. Yet, I have written elsewhere of the need for the priest to be "creatively weird" and this is the ground for that dimension of personality.

How does one go about achieving this? Certainly he has to know himself. When I have found myself caught in a potentially destructive force within me, I understand it to be the result of living too much on the right hand. In a sense, the good priest is one who has been there before, as Christ has been there. To be an effective pastor we do not have to have done everything everybody else has. We do have to recognize the power that is there, the real possibility of misusing it, as well as appropriately using it, and what the creative use of power looks like when we do. The mana-person knows the diabols, as well as the symbols. As was Jesus, he is on speaking terms with demons (Mark 1:21-26; Luke 8:26-33). He knows them because he knows himself...if we are to be a mana-person, we have to run the danger of being devoured by the diabols and cast ourselves into the unknown.

There is that wonderful concluding passage in Castenada's Tales of Power, which I cited earlier in this book, where Don Juan and Don Genero take Carlos and Pablito to the top of the mesa. Pointing over the edge, Don Juan says, "There is the door. Beyond, there is an abyss and beyond that abyss is the unknown." Castenada goes on, "Then a strange urge, a force, made me run with him (Pablito) to the northern edge of the mesa. I felt his arm holding me as we jumped and then I was alone." So ended the making of a mana-person. Theological education cannot be an exercise is social conditioning, any more than it is spoon-feeding of theological theses. It is the equipping of a man to open doors for others through which he has already gone.
This passage still resonates with me as I read it 18 years later. Holmes goes on to speak of the priest as clown, wagon master and story teller. I commend Holmes' book to all those who may be exploring a vocation to the ordained ministry.

In other news, I saw and heard John Kerry at a rally in Philadelphia Tuesday night. He's an impressive candidate. I can say that, even after standing in the rain for 90 minutes to get through security! I heard Carter, Gore and both Hillary and Bill Clinton Monday night. Great stuff. Carter especially had me springing out of my chair to cheer a number of times, to the horror of the poor cats and pup, who must have thought I'd finally lost it. I missed Obama, but understand it's a speech worth hearing. Our future First Lady offered a fantastic message. John Edwards hit a homerun with his "hope is on the way" theme. Looking forward to hearing Kerry tonight.

I am still taking a break from the internet for awhile. I've been posting almost daily for about four months now. It's time to back away, and focus on things happening in the 3D world, as well as reflect on the nature and purpose of this medium. Thanks to all who have sent messages and left comments. I'll respond to them, and return to Jake's place, in a couple of weeks.



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