Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
–Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty”
The Rev. Pat Henking made some great observations about the advantages to a residential seminary experience in a recent Daily Episcopalian article, and she’s right. Yet, at the same time, there’s hope and excitement in the various other ways priests are being formed in our church. Both options, I believe, are needed in the 21st century institutional church.
I did have to chuckle, though, at the idea that the phrase “formed for the priesthood” implies a tidy little process. I am only five months into my postulancy, but it’s safe to say that my process has been anything BUT tidy. It started with a call that literally was concealed for at least two years like Moses in the bullrushes (there were good reasons for that), followed by a convoluted four year discernment process, and punctuated with a cancer surgery and radiation. The untidiness continues as I juggle life as an online student at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific with my long-time job in Kirksville, MO, and my life as a grateful member of my home parish. When we insert Clinical Pastoral Education and Field Ed in this sometime in the future, we’re going to be moving from untidy to downright messy–possibly even chaotic. Frankly, I’ve never had a single delusion of tidiness in all this.
But you know, as raw as this all feels, as uncertain as all this is, and as unsettling as all this seems these days, I’m settling into the pied beauty of it all, and discovering that even in the chaos, one can begin to discover an authentic spiritual center that, (to borrow from William Countryman,) can illuminate the fundamental priesthood of others–one that can “guide each person living and ministering in the border country that is the very presence of the holy.”
Have there been times I wish I could have just packed up the truck like Jed Clampett and moved to a residential seminary experience? You bet I have. With a quarter-century of formal schooling under my belt, I KNOW how to go to school, and there are times I ache to be formed by a spiritual journey within a somewhat cloistered academic milieu. I have friends within the larger church that would have preferred this version of the journey for me, and they have not been shy about expressing that opinion. Yet at the same time, it also makes sense that, if we’re serious about the institutional church being out there at the margins, it’s equally as important that some of us be formed in the border country.
These innovative formation processes also create opportunities for wonderfully dappled formation communities. Clearly, the people in my home parish and my vicar are active participants in my formation. (I even manage to wheedle a little help in my academic studies from a couple of folks there.) Yet my formation community also includes my online formation group at CDSP, the Morning Prayer Webcast crowd at dailyoffice.org, the members and companions of the Anamchara Fellowship, and a whole slew of people in the larger church who share a social media life with me. I suspect all these people would claim a stake in my formation process, if asked. Granted, at times the introvert in me finds this incredibly public–I have days where I really do wish I could disappear a little out of the eye of these people who know my faults and rough edges oh too well, slipping out of view and returning at an unspecified date looking all spiffy and priestly. I wish I didn’t have to display the awkward uncertainty of all this in such plain view. Yet, this may well be part of how the luminous radiance of a formation community’s own fundamental priesthoods as believers shine. I am grateful for their light.
An additional discovery has been that God has been providing formation experience outside the residential seminary experience for a long time, but when residential seminary was the norm, we simply didn’t pay as much attention to the rich formation substrate out there. For me, so far, this has mostly been illustrated in the process of learning to trust in others and beyond my own delusions of self-control–particularly as it pertains to the unpredictability of the Holy Spirit and in the power of imperfection. Anything (and I do mean anything) can become fertile soil for a formation experience, if we only remain open to possibility. Just recently it was manifested in an unplanned encounter between a deer and my Ford Escape, seven hours from home, as our vicar and I returned from a conference. We were catapulted into an alternative universe of waiting for a day and a half in a small town in southern Illinois until the repair could be made. Within that alternative universe, it was necessary to depend on the kindness of strangers and figure out how to live in community for a period longer than we’d anticipated. It brought me to a greater understanding as to how even having a workable vehicle buffers us from the plight of homelessness–something I pondered as I wandered the streets on foot in search of snacks and sundries. I worried I might get rained upon. I had to ask for information from complete strangers. I fretted that when I walked into the Dollar General for the third time, they might think I’m a shoplifter. Yet the flip side of that unplanned wait was it also gave me some wonderfully unencumbered time to listen and learn from my vicar and about some of the experiences that formed her.
We are an imperfect people in imperfect communities, called to be the church on the hinterlands of the holy. Yes, I believe we do need people called to Holy Orders who are led through this process of learning in the traditional way–and we also need some who have meandered along the blue highways. Glory be to God for the freckled, speckled mess that is priestly formation–in whatever form it takes.
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds time to write about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.