On holidays in Greece I met another priest. Being both professionally religious, I ask myself ‘I wonder what kind of priest he will be?’ Well it didn’t take me long to find out. After dinner, we began sharing our ‘party pieces’. Mike (I’ll call him) began playing on the guitar. He sang this song from Jessie Winchester. It went
When you love somebody that means you need somebody
When you need somebody, that’s what makes you weak.
If you know you’re weak then you know you need someone
Oh, it’s a funny thing, but that’s what makes you strong.
That’s what makes you strong
That’s what gives you power
That’s how the meek come to sit
beside the king
That’s what lets us smile in our final hour
That’s what moves our souls
That’s what makes us sing.
Well my soul was moved. I thought ‘To have this man as my priest would really help me get in touch God. ‘ Then soon after, I thought
‘This is the kind of person I could give myself to.’
So there’s the beginning. I began to wonder about the opposite too, how in the Church there’s lots of anti-clericalism. People say ‘ I don’t need a priest, I can go to God on my own.’ But I wonder if this is not a defence against the kind of longing that was touched in me: to want to give myself to someone whose singing touched me and sort of proved that here was a person: someone who could help me find fellowship with God.
This kind of longing is the same kind of love that was mentioned in the song. It makes me aware of my need and vulnerability. It makes me aware of how much I need to give myself. This is like the prayer of Brother Charles de Foucauld who prayed
‘into your hands I commend myself with all the love of my soul.
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you Lord,
and so need to give myself, to s
without reserve and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.
This kind of vulnerability is not easy to show, and so it is possible that in the presence of a priest, the response of some is to defend against the knowledge of their own need to give themselves to God, that they end up ‘bagging’ the priest.
But I tell you, even priests find their own need to give themselves to God a difficult thing. We find it difficult really to be a symbol of that ‘giving of one’s self to God’ which it is our vocation to demonstrate. I think for myself there is a kind of self deprecating humor, or being the village idiot, that sends the message ‘this vocation is difficult to bear. I know it is true for me, I know that I really want to give myself to God, but I, like the rest, hide myself from this vocation under a veil of humor. It is a way of saying ‘ don’t take me seriously in this most tender of places, because this is where I really live.’ It is sometimes only in Church, when my own person, and the liturgy, and the vestments all come together to allow me to say ‘This is who you really are:This person who is wholly ‘for’ God: this person whose life is dedicated to struggling with the Gospel: this person who presides over and participates in the ‘divine communion.’ That’s the true me.
Often in daily prayer this person is ‘allowed out’ too.
I am also put in mind of some people I knew who came to the Christian community where I was living in the 1970s. They came expressing their need. They said ‘Maybe this is the place where we can find a spiritual home’ I was suspicious. I know about ‘spiritual gypsies’ who go around searching for the perfect religious community and giving themselves to it, only to be disappointed once the realities of life as a flawed community becomes apparent. At some level we all know that church life is imperfect, and that we are the holders of a treasure, but as earthen vessels. It’s only when an acceptance of the earthen-ness and cracked-ness of the vessels is embraced, that we can find a way of giving ourselves to God, but accepting the hurts of Christian community too.
Still, some communities are better than others at this. I also know people who have come giving their all to Christian communities, and then finding their narrowness or control too restricting. These communities have to be broken away from.
That is why I like being an Anglican. Hanging onto the Eucharist and not having to be a ‘star’ whose brightness attracts all those who need a star, means that connection with God can be about the structure and opportunities that the liturgy opens up, and not about ‘what I do’
I am reminded of Nick Kazanzakis’ book ‘The Last Temptation of Christ.’ Here, Jesus finds himself gripped by something that makes him do miracles and preach and cast out demons, but for most of his life, he is a stranger to himself about this fearful vocation. All he wants to do is to settle down and marry Mary Magdalene and have kids. As he is being crucified, Jesus has a vision of this life, and thinks that he really is in Paradise, with Mary and his children. Until he realizes the truth of his vocation: that this vision is ‘the last temptation’ and that in reality, where he is, bearing the sins of the world, is what he is meant to be doing. He can now say ‘it is finished’. Maybe it is only at our ‘final hour’ that we can smile because it is then that the truth of our lives can be lived. In the meantime the see-sawing between being vulnerable in my need before God, and defending against it goes on. At any rate, on these holidays I have thought that it might be possible to live a little more acceptance of my vocation than defending against it.
So my encounter with Mike has sent me in both directions. It has reminded me of my own devotion and. We’d to give myself. It has reminded me that to be this kind of person is my vocation. And it has reminded me that this process happens through human institutions which fulfill their vocation more or less well. We bear a big responsibility when we ask others to lay the weight of their souls on the offering of the Church.