Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Upside-down and Inside-out: part 3

OK, so I may have overpainted the serious and boring self-portrait at the end of my last post. That's certainly not the whole of who I was.

But religiously speaking, a "scared escapee from life" who also happened to love to sing hymns and was drawn to the aesthetics of Episcopal liturgies--that's pretty accurate.

And my "deal" with God to protect me from heartbreak if I stayed away from intimate relationships and sex--well, let's just say that was more the ideal in my head than the reality in practice. The reality involved some pretty confused and confusing romantic relationships--some of them more or less platonic, some of them half-platonic (i.e., from my side of the table, not from the male side), and some of them more or less non-platonic except that sex was a contested arena, a kind of battleground, both within myself and with a male partner in those days.

Suffice it to say that this was not the most healthy or wholesome way to approach ordination to the priesthood. And how did that even come into the picture?

Well, let's see . . . . I was a new "convert", a religious devotee, as I've said. And I was a comparative literature major with no clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life as I approached my graduation from college in December of 1976. I believe it was during the summer of 1976, just before my final semester of college, that the Episcopal Church voted to allow women to be ordained to the priesthood.

There I was, a new Episcopalian wondering what to do with my life, when that news about women's ordination reached me, and a light bulb went on. Hmmm. . .  could it be? could this be my path? That's how my "vocation" started--not from any experience of active engagement in ministry, not from any significant involvement in the life of the Church apart from worship. Just an idea, a question, a maybe.

I thought about ordination for a couple of years while I pursued odd jobs--nine months as a cook on a schooner between Maine and the Virgin Islands; a summer at Mystic Seaport (during which, for the first time in my life I actually stood in front of large groups of people speaking fluently and entertainingly--not about the Gospel but about aspects of maritime history--and was surprised that I actually enjoyed myself!); and then a year as a prep school evangelist (which, in contrast to the work at Mystic Seaport, I did not enjoy at all).

When I look back at who I was and how green and naive I was when I entered seminary and first approached the ordination process in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, I am astonished that I made it through the selection process. I believe it was only because the Church's discernment process at that time was rather loose and lacking in rigor (and also rather still functioning as the "old boys' network" now having to figure out what to do with women).

There was still plenty of confusion, mixed messages, and what might, at least in retrospect, seem like warning signals that I did my best to ignore.

The discernment committee suggested that I do a year's internship in a church (five years in a non-church job might have been more appropriate!), because, they judged, that I was "too sweet and inexperience, at least in appearance". While the bishop in charge of the ordination process told me to "go on being your own sweet self"!

Meanwhile, when the shrink I saw for a mandatory evaluation concluded that I "had issues with death, sex, and authority," I figured I was cooked. But the bishop, who would later ordain me, only replied: "Welcome to the group."

While I am reasonably clear that I probably never had an honest vocation to ordained ministry in the church, I don't regret the years that I spent engaged in that life. For better or worse, that was the path that I chose to travel, and there's no point wishing it were different. I believe I did my best--even if much of the time I felt I had no clue what that meant!--I know I made a positive difference for a number of people and was blessed by being part of the lives of many.

Some days I marvel and am glad that I didn't leave a worse trail of damage behind me. God knows there was enough!

Much of the "damage", if that's the right word for it, was internal to me and carried largely in private, in a near-constant interior hunch that there was something wrong with me because I just couldn't seem to make the priesthood "fit" or make myself fit the priesthood, assuming that it was through some failing on my part that I just didn't feel cut out for it.

Rather than wonder if there had been something lacking or unclear in the discernment process, I bore that sense of unfitness like a shameful wound, blaming myself for being inadequate in one way or another (too introverted, too insecure, too self-centered--you get the idea), all because I believed I was under the holiest of obligations to fulfill the commitment I had made to God, the Church, and a couple hundred assorted parishioners, and everyone else I chose to lump into the picture.

What never seemed to enter the conversation and never occurred to me to ask was what kind of holy obligation I owed to myself. 

And for most of those years I found it hard to affirm, not for others but for myself, that the holiest obligation each of us has (whether understood as being an obligation to God or to the world or simply to ourselves) is to be as fully and wholly and unabashedly ourselves as possible. To express fully and robustly the unique and unrepeatable version of life that we are and that we have been given to embody and to carry forth.

Still, I can say that I received many, many gifts through my years as a priest in the Church, for which I will always be grateful. Without my ordination, I would not have met, fallen in love with, and married David, and that means too that without my ordination there would be no Bekah or Anna in the world. And the absence of those realities is just plain unthinkable!


Perhaps you noticed that I didn't say I thought that "God was calling me" to leave my ordination behind. And perhaps you may be wondering something like: Did I believe "God" was calling me to renounce my ordination, the way I had once believed God was calling me to be ordained? Or, did I believe it was "just my soul" talking?

To which I have three answers:

First, that would depend on what you mean by the word "God"--which is a lot like Bill Clinton saying, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." But that's another topic for another day.

Second, I believe that what you probably mean by "God" and what I mean by my "soul" (and everyone else's soul too, for that matter) are actually so interconnected and so similar in their make-up as to be almost indistinguishable from one another, at least when we are reasonably healthy and doing our best to pay close attention. And there are times when getting tripped up in definitions and distinctions, wondering where "God" ends and your own soul begins, is just another delaying tactic of the ego, one that I am very familiar with!

And third, I have to confess that in the year or two leading up to my  decision to renounce my ordination I had kind of taken a vacation from God, or at least from the whole idea of "God". I had finally given myself the total, absolute freedom and privilege of not worrying about God.

This was a liberation and an unburdening of immense proportions, one I had entertained off and on but, as you can imagine, found difficult to consider seriously while I was still actively practicing ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. Still, "taking a vacation from God" is putting things a bit more low-key and casual than it felt at the beginning.


Anonymous said...


I've just watched a DVD of David Whyte in San Francisco (the first ever DW DVD, I believe) in which he speaks so poetically---of course!---about "the conversation" Life wants to have with us. He suggests it's at the "intersect" of who we most know ourselves to be at the time, and the situations Life gives us to find out more about ourselves, that the holy encounter truly begins. Isn't that a pretty good fit for what you're describing in your own journey?

Amen, sister. You go, and keep going!

Sukie Curtis said...

I like that way of thinking about the "conversation" Life wants to have with us.

Thanks for your continuing presence and support!