Thursday, October 20, 2016

Holy Habits

For most of the last month I have been traveling, visiting family and attending a variety of church functions. It feels like I've spent more days in airports and hotels than I have at home. It has predictably been challenging during that time to maintain a regular schedule of disciplined sleep, eating, exercise, and prayer. I relaxed my usual routine, but instead of being freeing, it has actually felt very unsettling. It has been a huge relief to return home to a stable pattern of living, to the grounding of holy habits.

Maybe that sounds pretentious, dull, or overly pious. And that wouldn't surprise me. After all, in 2016, discipline is counter-cultural, especially when it pertains to religious belief and practice. Athletes embrace discipline as a an indispensable pathway to excellence; and yet it is strongly resisted, even among many clergy. But I believe discipline is a indispensable pathway to--well, not excellence, in a competitive sense--but to greater faithfulness and spiritual maturity. There's no doubt about it; discipline can be hard, unpleasant. So many days I'd rather just lounge on the sofa in front of the TV, and sometimes I do. Sometimes, I'm just lazy. I still believe, though, that discipline has value, and we need to work on it. Our cultural valuation of immediate gratification lets us off the hook way too easily way too often. In addition, our preoccupation with novelty and devaluation of discipline can feed into our impatient expectation to see instantaneous results. But excellence in any human endeavor requires patience and an unwavering commitment. As one of my mentors once said from the pulpit, "don't you want a religion that requires something of you?"

One of my trips this month was to Atlanta for the 2016 Society of Catholic Priests Annual Conference. This year the conference theme was priestly formation, which not only includes the structure and content of academic preparation, such as seminary, but also the spiritual shaping of priests, both new and seasoned. Over three days, we prayed, sang, and worshiped together. We heard scholarly presentations and engaged in deep theological reflection. We formed and nourished friendships and offered each other emotional support. Though the discipline of prayer and study can be exhausting, I always find those few days exhilarating, as well. I come back home feeling recharged and renewed in my commitment to do better, resolved to pray more regularly, to go to spiritual direction and sacramental reconciliation, to eat more healthily and exercise more. As Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson declared at the conference, the job of the priest is to work to become holy. Pretentious, dull, or pious as that assertion may sound (I can see people's eyes rolling), it's still true, and that is humbling ... and daunting.

This message was reinforced this past week, when I attended our diocesan clergy conference. Over two-and-a-half days, we explored the development of a personal rule of life. As a member of the Society of Catholic Priests, I have already vowed to keep the Society's rule of life, but the clergy conference raised a number of personal dimensions that would enhance my health and well-being, and as a Christian, my faith. These commitments, whatever we discern them to be, will take discipline, too. One of the confessions I made is that I often rely on the accountability of other people who love and care about me to endure in my spiritual disciplines when I don't have the willpower to keep myself on track. My husband has said to me more than once, "Ethan, aren't you supposed to be saying Evening Prayer right now?" "Hrmph," I reply, and then shuffle sulkily toward my study to pray. I'm very grateful to him for holding my feet to the fire, for all my adolescent sulking.

At least once a year, I listen to the sermon the Rt. Rev. Rodney Michel preached at my ordination to the priesthood, which reminds me of the vow I made to practice holy habits. It is a sobering experience. Holy habits do take practice, a lifetime of practice, as it turns out. I always pull the earbuds out with a sheepish determination to do better. Nobody said it would be easy, but then most things worth having don't come without a huge amount of commitment, even when that commitment is uneven and halting at times. Yet this reminder of my imperfect discipline never feels shaming, because I know the bishop's advice came out of love. As our clergy conference speaker, the Rev. Charles LaFond, expressed it, "I love you too much to let you mess up like this." The tough love is encouraging, even though it is also intimidating. I will end by sharing with you the words that the good bishop offered me:
"As a priest, Ethan, you will be a servant of the servants of God, a friend, a companion, a marker on the road to the life of holiness that every believer is called to. You will model for others how to hold one another up in prayer, and by your presence you will help God's people remember that each relationship we experience is precious." 
"Remember the awesomeness of priesthood: you will now bless and consecrate, forgive sins, dispense the Word of God and his holy sacraments, and stand at the altar to make Jesus present in the Sacrament and in the moment, and that is awesome. Ethan Alexander Bingham Jewett, please stand. Remember that God does not expect you to be successful. God asks only that you be faithful: faithful to the Lord and to the Word of God as you will promise to do here today; faithful to God's people; faithful to your family; and faithful to your own self. Be diligent in your prayers and study of the Holy Scriptures. Administer the Sacraments and preach the Gospel and model quietness, peace, and love among all people. Remember to keep balance in your life and make time for your beloved and your personal relationships. [...] Say your prayers everyday. Our Blessed Mother intercedes for the ordained--continually ask for her prayers and her love. And finally, keep your eyes on Jesus."
Thank you, Bishop Michel, for this advice about holy habits. And I now pass this advice on to you, my sisters and brothers, as I resolve to do better.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

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