Friday, March 7, 2014

Bonded by Ashes

With Fr. Robert Cristobal and Mthr Kate Guistolese
braving the elements.
In the two years I have been ordained, I have found  Ashes-to-Go a deeply rewarding and transformative experience, and was of course excited about venturing out onto the street corner again this year with my pyx.  This is a ministry that begs to be shared, and so I thought it might be fun to invite two of my closest clergy friends to join me.  Neither of them had done it before, but both have an adventurous spirit and were eager--forgive the pun--to get their hands dirty.  But I'm not going to talk, as I have in years past, about the many wonderful people who were touched by the Church's attempt to seek them out in the community.  Instead, I want to share one of the unexpected outcomes the day: good old-fashioned clergy bonding.

It is very easy for many clergy to feel isolated, even if their cures are happy and satisfying.  Few parishes are able to support a large clergy team, let alone a single curate or associate to share ministry with the rector/vicar.  So, many of us work alone in our parishes, in chaplaincies, or secular employment.  Sure, there is Credo, clergy conferences, and the deanery clericus, but these often don't provide adequate space for authentic, safe, and deep bonding.  Having lived in a clergy house with other priests, I have been fortunate to live the daily rhythm of going to mass and Evensong together, eating at the same table, answering unexpected knocks at the front door, and sleeping under the same roof.  It provides an environment of support that is hard to duplicate.  And yet, this week I recaptured a bit of that spirit.

Even though the three of us gathered at my apartment the night before to ensure we would get an early start on Ash Wednesday, the time together amounted to more than just good logistics.  We cooked and ate together around my kitchen table; we prayed together; we shared stories of our respective vocations; we asked for and offered each other counsel.  We stayed up talking until 2 am, and then we slept under the same roof.  We woke up at six, vested, and gathered (a bit bleary eyed)  around the table to make holy water and bless the ashes.  We ate a light breakfast and prayed before setting out for the EL platform.  Over the course of the day, we reflected on the experience of ashing people in front of the Starbucks, and how this informed our understanding of ourselves as priests.

At the end of the evening rush hour, we retreated to the warmth and safety of the coffee shop, and were graced with a half-hour conversation with a man curious to understand the theological significance of the ashing.  He had been hurt by the Church, but was very open to talking about religion.  He had studied Zen Buddhism and was now exploring Kabbalah.  It was instructive for us to watch each other think on our feet and offer him a piece of the theological puzzle--as best we could make out.  After he left, I said to my friends, "That conversation was definitely the Holy Spirit offering us an encouraging capstone to this day."  It was as if the Lord had hit us over the head and said to us, "Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear."  And, then, we walked together to church for the Ash Wednesday mass.  We joined the congregation in one of the pews with our heavy winter gear still on and our dirty thumbs, and we prayed and received communion.

The lesson for me, at least, was that I'm not nearly as faithful or effective a priest alone as I am when I'm bonded with other clergy.  I learn so much from them, and I gain strength and nourishment for my ministry from their mere presence, as well as from their prayers, advice, and spiritual gifts.  The same can be said for many lay people I know, and with whom I have ministered.  But, there is a special bond that comes from sister and brother priests that trust each other and know each other well.  This is one reason that I have found the Society of Catholic Priests (SCP) in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada such a blessing to my ministry, especially in difficult times.  We are in the process of establishing a chapter in Chicago, and so, I will end with the Society's prayer as an invitation to others to join us, expand our circle of fellowship, and nurture the spirit of clergy collegiality that makes all of us better priests:

Father, we thank you
that you have called us to your service,
to feed your people by word and sacrament.
By the power of your Spirit,
keep us faithful to you and to those in our care.
Keep united in the bonds of peace and love
the members of our Society,
that by sharing in Christ's priesthood here on earth,
we may come to share
in the joys of his eternal kingdom,
where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
for ever and ever. Amen.

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