People have been asking me – and fair enough – since I left my work at BC and moved to New York in September, “what are you doing? What’s up? What’s next?” I have been able to tell the fullness of that tale to a few people, but for most who know me, the questions have remained open, or been populated by what people have heard, or what others think might be going on.
It is likely that I’ve let the situation stand thus for too long. However, I needed to come to a point, in what is a pretty massive transition for me in almost every respect, when I had communicated the full story to folks in authority, whose leadership and authority I respect, and to whom I had not yet spoken in detail. Those communications I have undertaken in just the last three days.
So here I am to tell you that I have come to New York for this reason.
After years of inward struggle, after hour and hour and hour of prayer, after conversations with spiritual directors and therapists, after sabbaticals and retreats, after ten thousand tons of hesitation, after substantial inward work to get my head and heart, theology and spirituality on the same page, after heartfelt talks with my Mom and with family members, after deeply considering where to go to make this decision real, after coming to realize that I am called to ministry in the church but for reasons I will write of later not in the Catholic church, I have come to New York to become a member of the Episcopal church and to become a postulant for priesthood in the Episcopal diocese of Long Island. Presently I am living in Brooklyn. I am serving as a diocesan intern in Grace Church in Brooklyn Heights. I am working also on communication matters for the diocese itself.
Whew! That’s that.
I am going to share here a bit of what I began to write – for myself and close friends – in terms of explaining how I got to this point. I’ll be adding more to this in days and weeks to come. It’s a lot of words (!), so if it doesn’t really matter to you why, then save your eyes some tiring! But if you’d like to read, you are most welcome. And if you’d like to comment, I’ll respectfully hear you. But for those of you who know me well, you know this move has been made only after much much much serious consideration.
Life is always full of change. Sometimes it feels like continuity. Other times it feels like a rupture, like the breaking through of something entirely new.
I am unsure where the balance between those two falls at the present moment of my life. Inwardly I experience a sense of continuity, that is, of being guided by the same foundational principles and beliefs that have been mine and developing in me throughout my life, and by the same faith in the Father of Jesus Christ. But externally, when I crane my neck to try in good faith to see this moment in my life as if from another’s perspective, I see massive change indeed.
These words are being written for you, whomever you may be whose eyes scan these lines today. At the suggestion of a wise man I am writing in order neither to explain nor to justify, but to offer what I can of insight into the moves I am making these days. This is written for those who care about me, and whom I love. It is written in the hope that these words will one day stand in the middle of the story of our lifelong conversation with one another; in the center, and not at the end.
I have just spent the years 2006 to 2010 working at Boston College. By any measurement these have been years of blessing. Coming onto leave from priestly ministry and pulling away from the ministry to the people of Sacred Heart in Lynn in 2006 was a jarring and difficult experience. I have learned more than once in my life that transition and change – even when chosen – are not easy. To come to Boston College, to be able to work at the IREPM and then at C21, to be able to offer resources for the good of the church, to be able to work together with amazingly talented and dedicated people, to be able to laugh with them and to come to know them well, to be appreciated and to experience the success that I did, both in directing continuing education at the IREPM and then in directing the C21 Center – all of this has been radical blessing, beyond my wildest dreams, a portion of my life for which I will always remain profoundly grateful.
If this is true, why did I choose to leave that work?
It is for the same reasons I chose it in the first place.
Living priesthood, as it is lived in the Catholic Church in late 20th and early 21st century America, can be to live an ultimately dehumanizing life. This was my unfortunate experience. Am I saying that there is nothing good to be found in that experience? Not at all. In fact I believe that for us all the fundamental call of life is to service of one another in God’s presence. We each are called to do so in our own way. Many do so in the raising of a family, sometimes combined (and this is always a blessing) with a career outside the home that is life-giving and energizing. For me the way to serve was priesthood. I believe that I was called to that way. In that way I found myriad good things: deep sharing of prayer and worship, privileged invitations to be with persons at some of the most profound and vulnerable points of life, the growth of friendships that endure over years and decades, the opportunity to reflect continuously on the meaning of life and love and on where God is found in all of it.
But I also found a distancing from my own humanity. I recall the moment when I realized that aside from a handshake and the now-and-then special-occasion hug, I had not known physical human contact in years. There is such a deeply-embedded and determined culture around priesthood in the Catholic Church that the majority of people interacted with me, when they did, as one example of a type of being known as a priest, rather than as a person like themselves, a believer like themselves, who was called to serve as a priest.
In and of themselves, these things are neither entirely wrong nor entirely disabling. In some sense this quite deliberate distancing of the priest from the people has enabled the ordained ministry in the Catholic Church to flourish in past ages and cultures. And even in our time, there are both priests and people who approve of this structure, see it as fitting, and find it to be just right for them and for their way of being followers of Christ.
It was not that for me. It was different and ever more difficult. For me, try as I might and did, I found my emotional life, my creative life, my prayer life, my spiritual life, my ability to hope and to love all receding into a place that I could rarely see or access. I understood the call to priesthood as the call to put my humanity at the service of God’s people. As the years went by, that very humanity was so removed that I couldn’t find the way to engage it in the service I was giving. The liturgies continued. The administrative tasks increased. People brought their needs, looking for a listening ear, an open heart, a perspective on their lives from faith. I continued to give all that I could. I strove never to hold back. But there was less to give. The well was drying and no new waters were flowing in. “Nemo dat quod non habet,” goes the old Latin saying: “No one can give what they do not have.”
I knew in my heart of hearts that the issue for me was intimacy. Was there a way in which I could be linked, connected, sharing of human life in a depth fashion? This I needed if the well were to be filled anew.
For years I tried without success to bring this fundamental need to voice, first to myself and then to others. There was no time, no space, no means of really doing so. I couldn’t find it. I wanted to go on but I did not know how to, without drying up within and offering only an outer husk to the ministry. I had seen 85 year-old men as fresh in their priesthood as they were at 25. But I had also seen 55 year-old priests going through the motions, their hearts – if they beat still in any more than a physical fashion – apparently empty.
On sabbatical at Glenstal Abbey in Ireland for three months in the summer of 2005 I importuned God with this dilemma of the heart. Having failed to find a healthy intimacy in diocesan priesthood I wanted to experience a monastic community and to ask how I might fit in there, how true community might live there.
And it did live there. In very human fashion, with bumps and wrinkles and roadblocks and detours, I found in that Benedictine house real community in Christ. My heart knew a real healing there. At the end of three months I knew that mine was not to remain there, but I knew two other things as well: that to belong to others in the Lord, with all our foibles, is possible; and that God had created me and sustained me as free to choose where and how I would live in God’s service.
More to come . . .
2 thoughts on “Decision, transition, the call I hear and the grace I receive”
Congratulations John! You are always a part of the fabric of my life and I am so happy for you! It’s been a long time coming and I pray for you always. I would love to see you if and when you are near. Much love,Mary Ann
I’ve prayed for the last few years that you would find happines and peace in your life.
I know how hard this must have been for you to make this decision but I’m glad you are following your heart. Stay in touch.