A friend of mine told me on Sunday that, through her work in a small rural parish, she’s learned to love a little more. I smiled, because I’d recently said something similar to my spiritual direction mentor. I don’t remember the question she asked that stirred me, but I found myself saying, with tears in my eyes, that I’m learning to love in ways I hadn’t thought possible.
For a couple of years before I was ordained, I seriously considered abandoning the ordination process. At that point I had been actively discerning, talking with committees, and praying about a priestly vocation for a decade. I had then strong qualms about our understanding of priesthood and the institutional church, and I wasn’t sure I could honestly make the vows that would be required of me.
All through my discernment process the question that kept niggling me was, “what is the difference between a priest and a lay person?” When I was a child I had the strongest sense that God had claimed me. That sense followed me, often hounding me, until finally it pushed me into a monastery. Until I came to the monastic life, I thought that claim meant I was called to be a priest. But when I joined the monastery I began to see that the drive to be close to God and to love God with every fiber of my being was, at least in my case, the call of a monk, not of a priest.
My then spiritual director told me that being a monk was about how I was called to love God. Being a priest was about how I was called to love God’s people. After that conversation my understanding of my vocation shifted. My decade-long discernment process had been focused on me, but priesthood isn’t about me. I have something to do with it, sure. But priesthood is about allowing God’s love for God’s people to move through me. To be a priest, I need to become transparent.
Something settled in me after that shift. When I met with the standing committee for the final approval for my ordination to the priesthood, they only asked me one question. “You’ve been at this discernment process for a long time (it was 12 years by then). How has your discernment changed in that time?” I chose to answer honestly. I told them that I no longer felt called to be a priest, at least not from my own inner sense of certain calling. Instead, I was learning to rely on my community and the Church’s judgment. Others saw the gifts of a priest in me. They saw the Church’s and my community’s need for priests, and they wanted me to fill that role for them. That was enough.
Letting go of the “me” at the center of my priestly vocation paradoxically enabled me to inhabit that vocation more fully and authentically. I knew beyond knowing when the bishop lifted his hands from my head that I was changed. God’s claim that I had felt all those years ago was deepened, strengthened, and more fully fulfilled within me.
A few years now into my priesthood, I can see the work of the Holy Spirit bearing fruit. Having stepped out of the center of my priesthood (much of the time, anyway), I find myself loving more than I ever thought possible. It’s not an experience I’m not normally conscious of, but when I take a pause, it’s there.
It’s there when a guest walks through the front door of the monastery, and I really stop and look at their face–God is loving them through me. Or when I’m sitting in direction with someone and I feel this surge of something that is not me and yet is moving through me, and I realize I love this person in front of me, and that love is really God’s love for them and God’s love for me. Or when the parishioners at the little church where I’ve been supplying are gathered for coffee hour, laughing and smiling, and I step back for a moment and realize, yes, here too is God’s great love for all of us, and I get to be a part of that love.
For so long I have been suspicious of love. I have my reasons, as we all do, but today that list is rather tired and boring. Suffice it to say, my life is a miracle. There is so much more love than I could ever have imagined. And all I have to do is say yes to it and step out of the way.