A few weeks ago, I had lunch with the new priest of our neighbor Roman Catholic church – also St. George’s. It was a good meeting and we shared a worthwhile conversation. What impressed me most of all was his deep faith and sense of God’s call. For him, it’s a call that came in his 20s – while he had already studied pre-med in California – and not one without demands and limitations.
It also seemed that this was the first time he’d spent a substantial period talking with an Episcopal priest. Noting the small-town grapevine that’s our best (and sometimes worst) news source, he said: “Some of the ladies in my parish told me they heard I was having lunch with Fr. Greg. They call you ‘Father’. Is that normal?” I explained that, yes, in different contexts many male Episcopal priests are called ‘Father.’
“You have the sacraments?” he asked.
“Yes,” I explained (not wanting to visit the distinction the 39 Articles and our Catechism make between ‘Sacraments’ and ‘Sacramental Rites’, still unclear to me), “all seven. We, too, are a catholic church. We only disagree theologically on the issue of authority.”
“And you have a family?” he asked. I told him about my daughter and showed him some pictures. He, for his part, spoke beautifully that part of his priestly vocation meant that he would not have children biologically, even though his life would be filled with profound relationships, and such honesty shone through as a fundamental part of his Christian, indeed priestly character. I explained that children are certainly a gift and yet, in the demands of ministry, I’ve sometimes found it hard to balance my vocations as Daddy and ‘Father.’
It’s hard to find balance in life because we are often tossed to and fro between various responsibilities and opportunities and choices and challenges. In classical teaching, those are cares and occupations. The Christian church has often suggested the concept of vocation as one way to resolve this tension – that vocation is who you are (theologian Frederick Buechner suggested that ‘vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need’). The argument goes that your vocation, then, should guide your life’s choices and inform your occupation, being defined as merely what you do. I think, for this reason, many are attracted to the religious life, in part because it seems so peaceable and serene and marked by prayer and solitude and scripture study. Plus, priests seem only to work one day a week – a joke that’s not always a joke – and your priest shows up to your family reunions and friendly gatherings and takes part in your life’s celebrations, such as baptisms and weddings, and your life’s most fragile moments, such as funerals. In many ways, inasmuch as the concept of vocation is appealing, the fact is that the priesthood – as well as other vocations in the church – seem to be the last clear-cut ‘vocation’ around.
In this, the Christian church has done itself a disservice. All of us balance multiple vocations, not just a cornucopia of cares and occupations. Even celibate clergy have other callings; my neighbor and colleague is still vocationally a son to his parents and a brother to his siblings. Likewise, there’s no dissonance between my vocation as Carter’s father and that as priest of the church. This is not to say there aren’t tensions and times when one gets greater stress or needs to come into better balance with the others. This is to say, however, that a life that seems all too clean and pure, as if there is only one vocation, one guiding principle, is probably not real and, if one is trying to live life that way, it will only end badly.
Lucky for us, we have a plethora of examples of lives lived well and fully and lives lived only halfway. In fact, we have more of the latter than the former, but even in that imbalance is the call to find a more wholesome middle.
For starters, when God came among us in the person of Jesus he became the only one who lived wholly as one integrated person, at union with God and with himself. God did this in the person of Jesus because, well, God is God and only God is at perfect union with Godself and God’s creation. We who live on the other side of perfection are not able to fully replicate such balance, a fact which reminds me that Christ is not so much a model, nor an exemplar, but rather an eschatological hope, a promise of who we will ultimately become.
That’s why we get into a bit of trouble, then, when we turn God’s action and our hope for the life of the world into our action and God’s hope for the life of the world. There’s a story told around here of the Roman priest who, several years ago, was transferred from his parish in another part of St. Mary’s County to a new pastorate in the Archdiocese of Washington. He was a good and faithful priest, beloved by many, and he was ready to follow the Cardinal’s orders but also upset. In his mind and according to many who knew him, he was prepared to die as the pastor of that congregation – at the ripe age of somewhere in his late 40s – and he was miffed that God hadn’t taken his life just yet! Turning Jesus into a model of what ministry and vocation should look like in this world, on our part, is a highly dangerous thing. We, unlike Christ, are profoundly unable to sustain the fullness of the union between God and world, the balance among God and self and neighbor, the creative tension between an absolute love and convicting judgment.
In our own Anglican tradition, George Herbert is the one shimmering and, equally, dangerous beacon of this all-or-nothing stance. I’ve written elsewhere of the unhealthy patterns we’ve established by reading backward into Herbert’s life the countours of his poetry and prose, and I maintain, along with Justin Lewis-Anthony’s poignant contribution, If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him (subtitle: ‘Radically Re-Thinking Priestly Ministry’), that George Herbert, at least the peaceable country vicar Herbert we’ve created posthumously, is not a sufficient nor a healthy model for the priesthood, not in the 21st century, neither in his native 17th. I am a huge George Herbert fan, don’t get me wrong; I love his penetrating religious poetry and moving prose and I’m attracted very much to his story. At the same time, there is a greater deal of complexity in the actual man than we’ve allowed to surface and, at once, a truly dangerous tendency in him toward an extremist, all-consuming determination, couched in pietistic language and single-minded vocational certainty.
A balance to such extremism, in our tradition, is John Donne, whose feast day is today, March 31 (the day he died in 1631). An elder contemporary and, at times, mentor and guide to the aspiring young George Herbert, John Donne’s path is similar in many ways to his younger fellow priest but markedly different. Where it differs, there’s a notable level of health and wholeness, at least of balance. I’ll be honest that I’m not such a fan of Donne, at least not as much as Hebert, at least not in the literary sense. I am, from time to time, moved by the stirring metaphysics, indeed sacrament of language Donne crafts but, unlike Herbert’s apparently natural gift, Donne seems to work awfully hard at it; the mechanics are too obvious and the not un-occasional stretches clunky, forced.
For these reasons, as well, Donne has been in and out of favor among literary communities. He was admired among circles in his day – first as a poet among a relatively small circle [only a few of his poems were actually published in his day] and then, on a much grander scale, as a preacher in the final stage of his life – but in the Restoration and throughout the 18th century his work was dismissed, as by Samuel Johnson, as “no more than frigidly ingenious and metrically uncouth.” Coleridge in the late 18th and Robert Browning in the 19th centuries were appreciative of Donne, but Matthew Taylor’s 1880 anthology of English verse had no mention of him and appreciation only resurged when, in the 1920s and 30s, T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats saw in Donne “the peculiar fusion of intellect and passion and the alert contemporariness which they aspired to in their own art.”
More than a comment on his reception among literary communities, this vacillation has as much to do with Donne’s own life, and the hard choices and rather circuitous path he took. His early years were spent choosing between his ancestral Catholicism and the Church of England which, obviously, he went on to join, but not without losing some family members and friends, some to the bloody siege of those violent times. His intellectual and literary gifts earned him access to good schools and desirable positions in civil service. But in 1602 he lost his job as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the lord keeper of England – a result of his secret marriage to Anne, the young daughter of one of Egerton’s relatives. Even though he would become the father of twelve children in sixteen years of marriage, Donne did not find regular, paid employment until he was ordained a dozen years later. Instead, we find in Donne’s earlier years a vast collection of passionate love poems, many quite good and now famous, and, in the middle years of his marriage, verse and prose written to several benefactors and friends who provided for the growing Donne brood – among them, Lady Herbert, George’s mother. Donne exercised his wit and intellect in countless genres in these years, no doubt the expression of his searching and wondering mind. There was satire and theology, love poetry and scores of letters, prose and epigrams and sonnets – all a working-out of a long vocational journey.
Early in January 1615, John Donne was ordained a priest in the Church of England. Given that he was, then, forty-two years old and had tried out a number of jobs and fields and occupations, the tendency would be to think that Donne settled, at long last, on his life’s one true pursuit: the vocation of clergy. That tendency, rooted in the idea that life has certain definitive chapters and is not one long narrative, has little to do with the historical John Donne and is, itself, a dangerous misconception for us, today. In an elegy for his contemporary, John Cudleigh noted: “He kept his loves, but not his objects, wit / He did not banish, but transplanted it, / Taught in his place and use, and brought it home / To Pietie, which it doth best become” Indeed, becoming a priest, for Donne, “should be regarded … not so much as a decision [but] a response to a totality of circumstance which had been accumulating over many years in both his private and public life.”
When we think of John Donne, today, many may think of the erudite and well-known preacher and Dean of St. Paul’s – the great success he went on to enjoy in the last decades of his life. But focusing too much on that ending, alone, would only blur the long journey and overlook the searching back-and-forth of the man himself. Or, conversely, he may be compared too much with his contemporary, George Herbert, perhaps (in my opinion at least) a better poet and more compelling read, but one who threw himself over to the grip of a single-minded imbalance and exhausted himself, serving barely three years until his untimely death as rector of Bemerton. Does John Donne look more worldly, less holy next to George Herbert? Does Donne’s long religious searching and spiritual journey, his bouncing between those many and, at times, conflicting roles of devoted husband and aspiring socialite, priest and man of the world, father and scholar make his priestly vocation seem any more or less a retreat from the world, or his long life’s story more or less a working-out of holiness and sanctification? Does worldly success run contrary to the Gospel of Jesus? Does a pursuit of simplicity and relative poverty mean therefore, that it’s either God or the world? Does an invitation to try new things mean we must cut off the old? Does vocation grow, in time, and do new vocations also emerge?
In his poem, printed in full below, “To Mr. Tilman after he had taken orders,” Donne reminds Mr. Tilman, apparently, and us that “Thou art the same materials, as before” and that only the image, not the substance of “God’s old Image by Creation” is changed to “Christ’s new stamp.” That at every stage in life we have the opportunity to realize there is a fullness in our story, which is hardly as long as God’s own hope for us and for the world. That opportunity is not necessarily to know or achieve or ‘get there’, but to be and keep becoming, to progress and keep growing, to emerge as a child of the living God.
I don’t suspect that God is calling us to one thing and one thing only, whether it’s a job or a place or a community or an entire lifestyle. Rather, I suspect that God is inviting us, sometimes challenging us to find in life a more wholesome balance, a middle way so we, too, might catch a glimpse in this world of that eschatological hope in the next.
|TO MR. TILMAN AFTER HE HAD TAKEN ORDERS
Thou, whose diviner soul hath caused thee now
To put thy hand unto the holy plough,
Making lay-scornings of the ministry
Not an impediment, but victory;
What bring’st thou home with thee? how is thy mind
Affected since the vintage? Dost thou find
New thoughts and stirrings in thee? and, as steel
Touch’d with a loadstone, dost new motions feel?
Or, as a ship after much pain and care
For iron and cloth brings home rich Indian ware,
Hast thou thus traffick’d, but with far more gain
Of noble goods, and with less time and pain?
Thou art the same materials, as before,
Only the stamp is changèd, but no more.
And as new crowned kings alter the face,
But not the money’s substance, so hath grace
Changed only God’s old image by creation,
To Christ’s new stamp, at this thy coronation;
Or, as we paint angels with wings, because
They bear God’s message and proclaim His laws,
Since thou must do the like and so must move,
Art thou new feather’d with celestial love?
Dear, tell me where thy purchase lies, and show
What thy advantage is above, below.
But if thy gainings do surmount expression,
Why doth the foolish world scorn that profession,
Whose joys pass speech? Why do they think unfit
That gentry should join families with it?
As if their day were only to be spent
In dressing, mistressing and compliment.
Alas! poor joys, but poorer men, whose trust
Seems richly placèd in sublimèd dust,
—For such are clothes and beauty, which though gay,
Are, at the best, but of sublimèd clay—
Let then the world thy calling disrespect,
But go thou on, and pity their neglect.
What function is so noble, as to be
Ambassador to God, and destiny?
To open life? to give kingdoms to more
Than kings give dignities? to keep heaven’s door ?
Mary’s prerogative was to bear Christ, so
‘Tis preachers’ to convey Him, for they do,
As angels out of clouds, from pulpits speak;
And bless the poor beneath, the lame, the weak.
If then th’ astronomers, whereas they spy
A new-found star, their optics magnify,
How brave are those, who with their engine can
Bring man to heaven, and heaven again to man?
These are thy titles and pre-eminences,
In whom must meet God’s graces, men’s offences;
And so the heavens which beget all things here,
And the earth, our mother, which these things doth bear;
Both these in thee, are in thy calling knit
And make thee now a blest hermaphrodite.
 “John Donne,” at The Poetry Foundation website. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/john-donne
 In John Booty, “Introduction” in John Donne in The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press), p. 21
 Charles M. Coffin, “Introduction” in The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne (New York: Modern Library), p. xxxvi
Donne, John. Poems of John Donne, vol I. E. K. Chambers, ed. (London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896.) 191-193.