Priestliness Revisited

Why do I want to be a priest? Or, more specifically, what can I do as a priest that I can't do as the average layperson? (That, I suppose, is the question of my professional life, and also the question that I've been posed by the priest who is mentoring me through the process of discernment for ordination. Consequently, I'm told that it will also be a question that I'll be answering repeatedly over the next several months as I go through discernment.)

There are basically two types of answers that initially pop to my mind in answer to that question: practical and spiritual. The practical answer addresses the question of why the job of a priest is appealing to me--that type of answer seems relatively easy to formulate. The spiritual answer, however, seems to require me to describe some inward sense of "call" from God to the priesthood--something that transcends the physical and emotional, and stretches to the existential nether-regions of the soul. (Note to readers: the term "existential" is, in my estimation, completely useless, other than to make people think that you're deep and philosophical. It's essentially a statement of the obvious in the above sentence. Maybe I'm just dumb and don't know how to use it, but it seems to be one of several intellectual nonsense terms used to confuse readers.) I think I've been trained to think in these terms--as if the physical and the spiritual were seperate compartments of existence, and could easily be divided from one another. However, I've come to believe that it's incorrect to pretend that my practical and spiritual motivations are different from one another, just as it's incorrect to think that there's a spiritual reality separate from the physical. Being is being, reality is reality, and everything is interrelated--God and creation, physical and mental, past and present. I don't believe in disjunctions. Hence, in my estimation, the practical and the "spiritual" are interconnected to the point that we shouldn't pretend that they're different things.
Now that I'm done with that theological preface, on to the answer to the question:
When you're baptized or confirmed, you affirm that you'll serve Christ through loving your neighbor as yourself, strive for justice, "preach the good news", resist evil, persevere in faith, and other such good things. The baptismal covenant( http://www.diocal.org/blogs/mindev/cat_baptismal_covenant.php ) does sum up pretty well a lot about the type of person I'd like to be. However, it's a pretty general covenant, and really doesn't talk much about vocation or career--rightly so, as there are millions of ways in which you can live out the general calling of the Christian faith.

During the rite of ordination, however, one becomes very specific about vocation and career: you say, for instance, that you'll work as a pastor, priest, and teacher. You also say that you'll share in church councils (modern translation: join and head numerous committees), administer the sacraments, help pattern your community's life in the shape of Christ's teachings, preach, and be obedient to the Bishop and others over you in the institutional heirarchy. (You also repeat the themes of the baptismal covenant, making this rite a classic blurring of lines between the practical and the spiritual--it is essentially a job description in which you pledge to hold to a specific set of beliefs and communicate them, and commit yourself to specific spiritual practices).

At the most basic level, the reason that I want to take up the job described in the ordination rite is that I think it sounds like something I'd like to do. I've done ministry for years, and I enjoy most of the key roles: helping to pattern a community's life after Christ, ministering, preaching, providing sacraments, serving on councils, working as a teacher and priest. I don't think I'll mind the others--I'm a pretty trusting soul, so I'm only vaguely anxious about submitting to Episcopal authority. I'm interested in the big questions about God, and I like practicing and teaching the disciplines of Christian spirituality. That interest is both an accident of my personality type (a guidance-councellor issued career assesment from 9th grade listed "minister" as a possible good fit) and something I consider a spiritual aspect of "call". It's part of who I am at the deepest level, and I'll never be able to escape it.

Ordination, really, seems to be the best way--maybe the only way--that I can live out that "call". One thing I have noticed in ministerial work is that those who aren't ordained, at least in the Episcopal Church, are hampered because they can't employ the most powerful symbolic act that Christians have, because they can't administer Eucharist. (I'm not convinced that ordination should be a requirement for administering eucharist, but in my situation it is.) Once again we come back to the physical/spiritual interplay, because that is one of few experiences where Christians come to physically connect with one another and with God. To me, that experience is the most important element of the act of intentional, community based worship.
Ordination also puts me in a position where I am able to give my full-time energy to the task of ministry. It's a place where I not only am allowed to do the tasks that I enjoy, but where I have a responsibility to do them. That sometimes can make ministry less enjoyable, but it also makes it more of a central aspect of what you do. It requires you to devote your life to the tasks required, rather than just your free time--that inevitably shapes the person that you become, as well as the job that you do. That is a significant thing--you really are a priest 24 hours a day, without real time off, which isn't always true of other jobs. (I don't presently consider myself, for instance, and 24 hour customer service agent. If I'm not friendly and chipper outside of work, who gives a damn? As a priest, however, if I'm not dedicated to the church outside of office hours, plenty of people give a damn.) I'll talk about that in another post, about what scares me and turns me off about the priesthood.

Ordination also functions, for better or worse, as an "in" into the community. There is a recognition of your calling and fitness bestowed in ordination, which is in a way like a college degree--it's symbolic and ethereal, but represents years of study and preparation (Asburians, insert cynical joke here). It should demonstrate that you're trustworthy and loyal, and that you won't abuse your power (unfortunately, of course, not always true), so it rightly helps you establish a place among leadership in the Church. I want to have a say in where the Church goes in the future, and ordination seems an important step towards influence.

That's enough for now. I think my next post is going to be on "the Priest as Rockstar", or why I don't want to be a priest.

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