Sunday, 5 February 2012

A reflection on clerical crushes and expectations

On Tuesday, 24 January, as I was waiting for Ari to show up online, I idly flicked through Sky channels to see if there was anything worth watching, and stumbled onto The world against apartheid. Now, anyone who has known me for oh, any length of time, knows that all things South African trip over me. Seriously. I went to Orkney and the first sign I saw was in the travel agent's window: 'Fly to South Africa'. And that's just one of at least a thousand examples. I've been fascinated by South Africa since I first saw the song We are marching to Pretoria in my elementary school music book - they've had a while to accumulate.

So tripping over this excellent programme was about as much surprise as the pope being Catholic. I've been sucked into the first two parts, drinking in the oral and social history that I'd never had a chance to dive into before. After seeing Desmond Tutu appear at the end of the first part, I looked forward to the appearance of his colleague - my third clerical crush after JPI and Oscar Romero: the late Archbishop Denis Hurley.

I'd heard of Tutu first - of course, since he became a Nobel Laureate - and absolutely adored him, but somehow, it was Hurley who caught my imagination. It may have been tied to my early draw to the Catholic Church, or something pulled in I sensed in him that I didn't sense in the exuberant Tutu: a shyness, a reserve, a weight on his shoulders - something I wanted to draw out, to help carry, to support. (Yes, that tendency of mine began very young indeed.)

I was SQUEEing about the show and Archbishop Hurley to Ari - who, like the true friend she is, sent me a copy of Guardian of the Light by Paddy Kearney, which I've started reading. Of course, being one who reads character from photographs, I went straight to the 2 sets of photos in the book, and found myself completely arrested by this one:

Seriously hot is not the way one should describe a bishop in full vestments, so I shan't. (Yes, really.)

But look at that face. Look at the character. He was 31. 31, people. Today, most males in our society are still boys playing men at 31, desperate to be the eternal Peter Pan. Here, we see the face of a man - a young man with much destiny in front of him, but a man nonetheless. The character is there already: strong, firm, determined, not easily swayed - balanced with thoughtfulness, strong principle and the ability to listen. And he is aware: so aware of what has been placed on his shoulders, and in that face, one can also see the 'I'm not ready. Oh God.' But he will say 'yes', because 'yes' is what is needed. There is great power in this 31 year old - true power, not what often masquerades as power. It is this character, this true power, that makes him the two words that I said I wouldn't use about a bishop in full vestments.

The photo makes me want to weep, even as it fills me with hope - for one can sense the terrible aloneness. I find myself torn between inclining my head to acknowledge the true power present and the urge to throw my arms around his shoulders and tell him all will be well.

He, like JPI and Oscar Romero, holds such power and is so deeply human. The two are not unconnected: one can only hold true power if one is truly and fully human.

As I read, I am startled to discover that he had not always been so passionate about the equality between the races: he was once startled to see a white woman and an Indian woman speaking animatedly on the bus, not having realised that non-whites had the same needs/wants as whites. It wasn't till he came to Rome as a seminarian and counted two Sri Lankans amongst his closest friends that his views truly began to change. This surprises me (though it shouldn't, he would have been a product of his time) and I put down the book to think about how it makes me feel - on its own then, more specifically, about him.

I find, to my surprise, that I am absolutely fine with it. More than absolutely fine. Why? Because it means he was open to change. That he could be open to experience, think it through, and come to a fair conclusion. I don't need him to have been perfect: I need him to have been real; to be able to listen and care; to stand up for what he felt was right, whatever the risk to himself. What I would have found unconscionable was a resistance to growth; a need to believe he was always right, even in the face of evidence; a need for approval that meant that he said 'yes' to those above him no matter what.

What Denis Hurley did was grow up, to develop, to begin to unfold into who he really was. And that is as it should be.

These musings lead me to understand how my conversion to Catholicism was, in large part, due to these men: men of truth; men passionate about the same things I was; men who wielded the power of the organisation behind them to try to overcome corruption, oppression, injustice, no matter what it cost them. Because shepherding God's people was their vocation.

When I joined the Catholic Church, these were the men I thought were going to lead me, the men I thought I was going to be working alongside to make the whole world a better place, to serve all people, no matter what religion they identified with.

I soon learned just how special my trinity of clerical crushes were.

Thus began my inner - and outer - struggle with the Catholic clergy. On the one hand, I was drawn to many of them. On the other, I found myself wanting to slam so many clerical heads into the nearest concrete wall as I told them exactly what I thought of them. What was going on?

In part, I figured, I was playing out my relationship with my father in a place that was slightly more sane. That makes a lot of sense, and is certainly part of the truth. But it was Ari who really began to crack it a few months ago, as I vented my rage at a cleric who I felt had failed abysmally in his duty to offer some help I had asked for. It was an unexpected failure, and therefore, felt like a betrayal, though I'd given him no sign how I really felt.

Then, she said it:

You are constantly asking them [the clergy] for things you know they can't give you. You can't seriously be surprised when they fail you.

Me: I set men up to fail all the damn time, don't I?
Ari: Yes.
Me: and especially men in authority
Ari: Yes.
Me: Some part of me takes immense pleasure in that
Ari: Sometimes it's justified: you're the child with the naked emperor. But yes, a lot of it is unnecessary.

I knew, at the deepest level, that she - that WE -were absolutely right. As we unravelled it further, what became clear was that there were certain areas in which I expected perfection from Catholic priests. Or if not perfection, certainly an absolute commitment to developing the following to the best of their ability:

1. Living a life of integrity. For me, this is the biggie, because everything else flows from this. Be aware of your issues and work on sorting out your shit, rather than running to the priesthood to try to hide from your shit. Because let me tell you, a collar that gets you some kind of station, pretty vestments, obsessing about liturgy, thinking, 'Hey, I can turn wafer and wine into body and blood, I am so much better than non-clerics' and being able to promulgate your point of view to a captive audience every week may taste like ice cream - but if you're not working through your stuff and moving towards personal holiness, it's ice cream on top of shit. No matter how much you shift the ice cream, the taste of shit will always come through. Work from the inside, instead of adjusting the externals, and everything else will follow.

And no, just saying office doesn't count as personal holiness. Prayer is much more and much deeper than that. "Your daily life is your temple and your religion," remember? So how you act matters. Take responsibility for your life. For your emotions. If you truly have a vocation to the priesthood, you have a vocation to shepherd God's people. God's people have a vocation to support you - this is symbiosis, not a one way street. But what God's people do NOT have a vocation to is to contain your unconscious stuff/emotion that spills out on them, nor do they have a vocation to be your co-dependent and prop up your dysfunction or your fragile ego. That's YOUR job to sort out - through self-awareness, with God, maybe with a therapist. By the way, the stuff you're doing you think is secret? It ain't, trust me. For example, if you've been sniping about me behind my back to other clerics or laity, I know about it. Everything leaks. So don't do anything that shouldn't.

2. Think for yourself. Seriously, one more 'The Church says...and so it's right' and some dog collar wearing male is going to get kneed in the balls. THINK, man. Is IT? One of the things I love about Denis Hurley is that he called Pope Paul VI on Humanae Vitae - robustly, via written correspondence. There was NEVER any question of his loyalty to the Church or God's people - dissent is part of growth and development. But Hurley thought, came to a conclusion and spoke his truth. He didn't let anyone do his thinking for him. God gave you a mind of your own. Use it. What does your experience tell you? Your compassion? Does it make you uneasy? Then FACE IT and follow it through. Know what you TRULY believe and take it to God. Lather, rinse, repeat. See #1.

3. Grow up - eternal Peter Pans have no place in the clergy. I've seen far too many boys, particularly neocons, claim a vocation because they can't or don't want to face the real world - essentially, they want to continue living their university days around people who agree with them or will hold them in such high regard that they never have to do any real work. They can join groups that do absolutely no pastoral work whatsoever, prance about in pretty costumes and vestments, hold high ritual, swan off to various parts of the world for the rest of their lives, all supported by the Catholic laity and held up as examples by the hierarchy as 'an increase in vocations'. Sorry, boys - I'm afraid that's not what Our Lord had in mind for you. I'll tell you what I do, though - a year in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ministering to the people. You have a vocation, right?

4. Pastoral care above all else. Seriously, anyone who can follow instruction can learn to the say the mass. Not that hard, I could do it within months of becoming Catholic. And frankly, the same goes for the other rituals. Anybody can learn to say them, it's just that the Church holds that because your hands were anointed with oil, like He-Man, you have the power.

But genuine pastoral care? That's something else altogether. That requires the ability to be in genuine relationship with someone else. Now, if you can't be in relationship with yourself and with God, you can't do this (again, see #1). You're a shepherd - THIS is your raison d'etre. Your real work, your real vocation, is to be with the people. To be there when they are dying; when those they love are dying. To comfort, to hold, to witness. To be tender, yet firm, in the confessional, when people are most vulnerable. To forever hold the sanctuary and the space - and to perform the sacraments from this space, letting God work through you. To die in the middle of mass because you have spoken out for your people. To be ready to go to prison for your people. To protect your people no matter what it costs you.

God may not be calling you to martyrdom, or to pay a great price. But if He is calling you to the vocation, He is calling you to be broken - at the very least in the way Mary Oliver speaks of:

I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

That is your vocation - and not just yours, but everyone's. That is what this pilgrim church is about - witnessing to each other's lives and helping each other break wide open: to themselves, to God, and to the rest of the world. For if your heart isn't broken open, you cannot be what God means for you to be.

Do I have the right to expect this of my clerics? I firmly believe I do - and going back to the cleric I'd ranted about to Ari, even the initial response wasn't the problem - it became a problem when he showed no awareness around it. What I needed him to do was come back to me and say, 'Hey, look, I was in a bad place - let me try again.' That was all it would have taken. That is the mark of a man with true power - a Hurley, a Romero, a Mandela, a JPI. My genuine frustration and anger is with those who willfully use the clerical vocation, which I consider to be deeply holy, as a way to resist growth, to hide, to wield power so they can take out their conscious and unconscious pain on others. That, I have a right to be angry and speak up about.

What I DON'T have the right to expect is perfection, or even, as Ari pointed out to me, that priests be BETTER than me at all those things. I can insist that they be my equals, my partners on the journey to truth, awareness, authenticity and service - and we can help each other be that. I can call them on being false and hold up a mirror to them. But I cannot despise them for not being relentlessly good or for falling on their way. They too, are human.

After all, even Denis Hurley wasn't always the champion of equality he became.

Nor would I dream of denying them laughter and play along the way - even my clerical heroes took time out:

And look at that picture closely - who's in it? So often, much more is achieved through the intensity of playfulness than through the importance of being earnest.

A lesson my clerical friends and I could all come together to learn...

...Royal Oak, next week?

1 comment:

CEAD said...

This is one of your best essays, I think, and the reason is that it draws from all sides of you: the emotional intensity combined with the articulate reason. And it is completely fair: you're critical in places, but of yourself as well. One of the currents running through this most strongly is your love for the heart of the Church - the true one. A lot of your anger comes from seeing potential thwarted and dissonance between what is preached and what is done.

I love you. And apparently I was more right than I knew when I realised you had to have that book.