Thursday, October 12, 2017

living into the heart...

One of the on-going challenges I wrestle with has to do with integrating and/or shedding my public persona as pastor with my unfolding spirituality. Yes, I know I have blathered on about this dilemma often in the past few years - yet still it continues to be daunting. While reading The Life You Save May be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, an extended reflection on how Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor explored their own religious questions through acts of writing, I found myself drawn back to my own discernment in a fresh way. Author Paul Elie is masterful in blending the biographical and literary insights of these four modern saints. And his prose invites introspection for this book is as much a spiritual pilgrimage as it is biography.

A pilgrimage is a journey taken in light of a story; and in The Life You Save May Be Your Own Paul Elie tells these writers' story as a pilgrimage from the God-obsessed literary past of Dante and Dostoevsky out into the thrilling chaos of postwar American life. It is a story of how the Catholic faith, in their vision of things, took on forms the faithful could not have anticipated. And it is a story about the ways we look to great books and writers to help us make sense of our experience, about the power of literature to change-to save-our lives. 

Time and again, I recognized aspects of my own quest for self-understanding and vocational clarity in Elie's description of Merton and Day. Both yearned to live an integrated spirituality that was sacramental and contemplative. Both also intuitively knew that their life of faith was a critique of American consumerism. As they ripened over the years - and became more settled in their counter-cultural commitments - a seasoned tenderness shaped their words and actions. Think of the iconic photograph of Dorothy Day sitting in solidarity with striking farm workers while surrounded by seething and armed policemen. Or Thomas Merton's light hearted but profound engagement with Asian Buddhist monks. They learned to shrink the gap between their public and private lives - and that quest drives me, too.

Certainly this has been part of my journey since returning from Montreal: one of the reasons I no longer feel myself to be a pastor - as much as I love visiting and being in prayer with my people - is that I want my heart to be fully present in all my living. I yearn to have my time integrated with my deepest values. I need my friends to be a part of my ordinary experiences. And, if you want to be healthy and reasonably professional, that is simply not possible in contemporary ministry. 21st century ministry is always a public relationship. It is defined by necessary and exaggerated boundaries. It is our current way of being in but not of the world.

And, after all these years, I find it to be extraordinarily lonely. Perhaps that is part of the paradox of ministry: there are intimacies I have been welcomed into during some of life's most demanding and beautiful moments; but then, after standing on holy ground with those I have loved and comforted, I am asked to compartmentalize our encounter and keep my distance. It is possible to do this, of course. And for nearly 40 years I have practiced doing so with clarity and conviction. But like so much of contemporary living that celebrates commodified relationships and professionalized acts of the heart, there is a schizophrenia to this as well. I understand that boundary violations of the most destructive types - from sexual exploitation of innocents to the manipulation of hearts and bodies by devious spiritual leaders - have wounded God's beloved, giving just cause to our current professional caution. I honor and respect the sacred nature of confidentiality, too. And, as one of my cherished retired clergy friends wrote to me recently: There comes a time when we have no more room in our hearts or souls for the secrets of others and must close that door forever.

Business ethics don't really work for the Body of Christ, nor do those of the so-
called helping professions. Pastors are not lawyers, nor are we doctors, nurses or psychological counselors. Rather we are women and men called to nourish the love of Jesus in the lives of broken and wounded people. Our work is about presence and integrity, not programming and administration. It is about opening up God's grace to those who have been slammed by shame. It is about cultivating community in a lonely and confusing culture. In a word, it is about opening our hearts to one another in Christ's love. Yes, there is an old aphorism that "even the Pope needs a Confessor."  Clergy need a reality check from time to time and our own source of external accountability. At the same time, I have experienced the sterile and even demoralizing limitations of our current practices. We denigrate the movement of the heart in lofty terms. We restrict and even diminish the movement of the Holy Spirit within and among us. And I sense it is starving Christ's church and malnourishing its pastors.

I wonder what my young clergy friends think of this conclusion? My older lay friends, too? What alternatives to the current public/private bifurcation of ministry have you discovered? As I bring this chapter to a close, in anticipation
of a more integrated spirituality, I am eager to know how you have addressed this in your lives? 

Maybe this quote from Jean Vanier cuts to the heart of the matter? When he discovered that he thrived during the quiet and secure morning prayers of the monastery, but fretted and anguished over his daily work caring for hurting people, he refused to institutionalize this split:  "All that inner pain obliged me to go more deeply into the (emerging) spirituality of L'Arche."

It was important for me to find unity in my being, not to have just a deep spirituality early in the morning and the business for the rest of the day. I had to find how to put love and prayerfulness into all my activities and bodily gestures, into all the cleaning and washing up, into all the chores and togetherness of community living... How does Jesus (teach us) this?  He asks us to follow him on a path of littleness, forgiveness, trust, communion and vulnerability without giving up at other moments our role of responsibility where we exercise authority with force and justice, kindness and firmness. Jesus invites us to live the folly of the Gospel, not to judge others, but to be compassionate, to forgive and to love to the end, even to loving our enemies. And this is impossible unless we removed our garments and become poor and naked before God. (Essential Writings, pp. 84-85)

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