Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Ordinary Call (brief, curmudgeonly and unsystematic thoughts on vocation)

From the Catholic Illustrators Guild
(I wont look quite this cool on Saturday)
Well, in two days, God willing, the creek declining to elevate - or in upstate NY, the snow declining to fall- I shall be ordained to the sacred order of deacons in Christ's One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.  I have naturally been thinking a lot about the theology and 'practice' of the deaconate.  I admit to never having much sense of a call to the deaconate, except in so far as it is a part of the way to priesthood.  I once heard a lady who was a transitional deacon say she 'didn't identify with the deaconate.'  That comment has stayed with me, and continued to bother me for a number of reasons.  

It bothered me primarily, I think, because I have a very simple theology of vocation in general, which works something like this: if you are ordained a deacon, you are called to be a deacon.

Let me illustrate.  A priest I know once told the story  of a young couple he married, who came to him some weeks later, complaining that they didn't 'feel married.'  Now there may have been any number of underlying problems with their relationship, but he assured them that whatever they felt, they were in fact married.  Calling to ordination is much the same.  Whether we feel like we have been called or not, once ordination has happened, then the calling is clear.  Married people are called to be faithful, however they may feel when they got up this morning, and deacons are called to be deacons, even if they are moving toward the priesthood.  I don't mean of course that those pursuing ordination should not discern whether they have real gifts, just as those who are getting married should be discerning.  Still, once the vows are made, there is no question anymore. We always called first of all to be faithful where we find ourselves.

While I am on the subject of vocation, I should add that I think we often make the notion of a "call" into something rather too mysterious and spiritual.  There are people I know who have had visions and supernatural experiences which lead them to ordained ministry.  There are just as many who simply looked at what is involved in the work of a pastor, looked at their gifts, prayed about it and decided they would seek to be ordained.  Occasionally you'll hear people saying with great assurance that they are called, that they know they are called, that the Church would commit a sin by denying them ordination.

I am thinking of a few bull headed individuals I have known (men and women) who seemed to think that asserting a sense of calling with enough ferocity meant it must be a real calling.  The problem with this is that no one is ordained or called apart from the community of the Church.  If you believe you are called to be a priest or deacon, and the Church disagrees, then you are not somehow a priest or deacon in virtue of that sense of calling, because to be a pastor is always to be a pastor for the people of God. I don't mean that no one is ever wrongly excluded from ordination - people are - but at the same time, there is a real reason that we have ordinations.  God calls, and God ordains, but in the ordinary course of things, he uses the ministry of actual human beings in that process because it is these people who will be receiving ministry from the ordained. Part of being called is therefore being called by the Church, and I think there is a real sense in which that calling is not quite actual until ordination.  

In all this, no doubt, my theological preference for the ordinary and routine probably comes out.  There are individuals with striking charismatic and prophetic ministries, who break all the molds and rise up in the Church; there are individuals who have visionary experiences of calling that are incredibly powerful.  I simply get suspicious whenever we start elevating the exceptional, the idiosyncratic and the exciting above the ordinary and the common elements of life.  God surely acts in both ways, but the incarnation suggests to me that God works first and primarily through the humble and simple, in the form of a craftsman from Nazareth, in the simple realities of water, bread and wine.  Looking for exciting spiritual escapes and experiences is more characteristic of Gnostics than orthodox catholic Christians.

I think this preference for the ordinary is also rather characteristic of the ministry of deacons.  Deacons are not called to absolve, bless or consecrate; They are not called to do the most exciting things in the Church.  Instead, they are called first of all to ministry with the poor, to proclaim the gospel in action in the midst of the people, and to lead the people in prayer. The liturgical duties of a deacon all point toward this.  There is a sense in which a deacon is called to be much more 'in the congregation' than a priest is, in some ways to be much closer to the simple needs of the congregation.  Recall that deacons were first appointed to care for the poor.
The deacon's ministry, I think, is primarily to serve as an image of the ministry of humble service to which all Christians are called. In reality there is nothing concrete a deacon can do which a lay person cannot, and that is part of the point of the ministry of deacons.

At the moment, I am working a part time job at a newly opened Petco in town.  I need to right now to make ends meet.  I will admit freely that I hate retail, and I would rather be able to devote all my energy to full time ministry.  That said, I think there is something good about being in this situation during the time I am a transitional deacon.  There is something right about having to simply get by and try to minister to the people I am working with, through service and prayer.  In fact, I am making it my daily prayer that God would show me how to be a servant to the people I am working with.

Of course, for all the ordinary qualities of the deaconate, it is also the case that deacons have been among the first and greatest of the heroes of the Church, and  there is heroism in the ordinary as well.  St. Stephen, charged with feeding the poor, was also the first martyr; we can also mention St. Laurence, the saint, who while being burnt to death on a large grill requested that his torturers turn him over, "Because I'm done on this side;" or among women deacons, the great St. Olympias, the friend, confidant and supporter of St. John Chrysostom.   I will be praying for all their intercessions this Saturday, and as I undertake the ministry of a deacon.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

I aitn't dead yet...

...To quote Granny Weatherwax.  It is hard to believe that it has been six months since I last blogged.  Those six months have been highly interesting, to say the least.  I spent time in DC finishing my Clinical Pastoral Education, learning the city, working at Starbucks to make ends meet, working on my last semester of seminary classes by distance, and finally graduating last month.  I am now looking at Ordination in exactly two weeks.  I moved back to New York, partly because DC was too expensive, and partly because Albany is my home diocese and I needed to be here for a while.
It was a crazy six months, but definitely formative.  Important things happened on a personal and intellectual level for me.  The personal things, I plan to keep personal, but the theological ones I will comment on.  CPE was brutal, mostly in a good sense. It functioned as a sort of ministry boot camp, and I am grateful for it.  I have no desire to function as a hospital chaplain, although I enjoyed the actual interaction with patients and doing visits.  I disliked the theological approach to inter-religious ministry, and that probably deserves a whole post of its own.  I am not basically opposed to inter-religious ministry, and even inter-religious prayer, but it takes some care to know how to do it properly.  Still, I think my experience with CPE, not to mention the extended stay in DC, was both humbling and strengthening, and at least in my own eyes I seem to be a more poised, but less arrogant man for it.

Next, I will say that the last semester of school work was challenging, mostly because of how busy I made myself with other things, and I ended up having to cram a lot of work into the last few weeks.  Oddly, that ended up being a blessing.  I ended up writing a term paper on Hans Urs von Balthasar and Sergius Bulgakov, for a study on Christology that I was doing.  I don't know why I thought this was a good plan, since these men are two of the more challenging, controversial theologians of the last century (Bulgakov was tried for Heresy by his jurisdiction of Russian Orthodox Church, but never condemned), and I was almost totally new to both their works.  Modern theology isn't really my thing.

Anyway, I managed to get a feel for both of these thinkers in the space of about two weeks, reading Mysterium Paschale by Balthasar and The Lamb of God by Bulgakov.  This had the overall effect of something like the intensive language course I took a while back, where a whole semester of Greek is compressed into three weeks or so.  You begin by feel totally overwhelmed, and as if someone is holding your face underwater, but at some point around the middle of week two something happens and you suddenly become able to breathe in the strange new environment.  I am no Bulgakov expert, still less do I claim to understand Balthasar, but I don't feel totally overwhelmed by their ideas any more.  Further, I think discovering Bulgakov has been the most important thing that has happened to me theologically in the last three or four years.

Fr. Sergius Bulgakov
I am not saying I am an out and out 'Bulgakovian,' whatever that would mean; there are some problems with his thought, some of which are pretty serious.  Still, he does provide a way of thinking and speaking about the relationship between God and the World that I find helpful.  Expect more on this, as I attempt to make a return to blogging.

I expect that the blog may take a slightly different path in the near future, as I transition from the life of a seminarian to that of an actively ministering transitional deacon, and finally a priest, but I don't want to let the blog die.  I think it helps me to have it, to get my thoughts out and even from time to time, to start conversations with people.  So anyway, I will be blogging again, especially as I have more sermons to put up. I think my sermons are among my best writings, and I hope they may, in fact, be of use to other preachers who might stumble across the blog.   See you soon.
Peace in Christ
Paul Hunter