From the earliest days of my ordained life (I was ordained to the Transitional Diaconate on 29 June 1978), there were two things I had learned from my elder priest mentors. My beloved mentor from St. Paul's, Winter Haven, Florida (where I grew up) had been retired from 40 years of parish ministry in the Diocese of Milwaukee and settled in Winter Haven. He was always proud that the Pabst family had built the church where he had served longest as Rector. We became good friends during my seminary days. Shortly before my ordination, he took me to lunch. After a wonderful meal and raucous conversation, Pop Harding (as I knew him), got serious and looked me dead in the eye. "Fred, if you ever go to the Altar to celebrate Eucharist and are not afraid deep down inside, leave immediately! You have lost the sense of tremendous mystery with which you are charged." I've never forgotten this....and I have never gone to the Altar and not been terrified deep within.
The second learning did not come from one priest but from observing a number of older clergy. Some of these showed up at our seminary each spring for graduation and alumni day. They seemed dour, cynical and cranky. They continuously spoke of the Church the "way it was in my day..." When they even bothered to speak with one of us seminarians, they would begin with, "In my day..." and proceed to speak of how they were trained and how easy we had it. Funny, seminary didn't seem at all easy. It was graduate school with rigorous, demanding academics and disciplined life of daily prayer and worship -- something like a monastic graduate school I suppose.
As I began active, ordained ministry in the summer of 1978, I made a vow: That I would never let myself become a shriveled up cynic who had not read a professional book in 20 years; and, should I not fear the tremendous mystery of the sacraments, for which I am steward, I would leave this work immediately.
On Monday, 29 June 2009, I will celebrate my 31st anniversary of diaconal ordination. On 29 December I will celebrate my 31st anniversary of ordination to the priesthood. To this day, I still find myself getting "butterflies" on Friday afternoons -- anticipating Sunday morning liturgies and the incredible experience of presiding at Eucharists -- sharing both Word and Sacrament with the people gathered and in my care. It is still scary...even doing weekday liturgies in the chapel with 15 people.
There are aspects of parish ministry that can create an environment of cynicism. I often grow weary of folks "advising" me (or my colleagues) how to be a better priest. How do they know? Do they do what I do? It never occurs to me to tell my medical doctor or my attorney how to be better in their professions. How would I know? They are the specialists in their fields. I also get regularly surprised by just how nasty folks can be regarding their dispostions in a Christian community. One thing about which we were warned in seminary: "Folks will project all of their unresolved anger toward key authority figures onto their clergy...especially the Rector...because they are the heads of the household." (Ethics and Moral Theology Professor, 1977).
I'm generally okay with most of that. I've learned techniques over the past three decades to deflect inappropriate anger without getting hijacked into an emotional triangle. I have "lost it" only five times in all that time. The trouble is, three of those were in one year....two years ago. Was I becoming a cynical priest at 56? My spiritual director (who is also much like a therapist --- Jungian trained) explored this with me at length. Seems as though the older I get, the more vulnerable I become as a person of prayer. At such times, it is easy to get hooked...especially by persons who are trying.
Over this past several months, I have been learning a better way of working. I am dragging less of the past behind me and bending more into the present and future moments. As I reflect on the past, I am asking, 'what is my best experience of that moment when things seemed not so good?' From there I ask, 'what value lies in that experience for which the moment was only a vehicle?' You see, the events that we often call "bad" or "unpleasant" are vehicles that carry a number of opportunities. There is always something good about the experience...even if it is only survival. The value may be only that of resilience in the face of attack. There is, in fact, no failure...just opportunity.
This seems simple enough but is both hard to remember and to employ -- especially when one is up to his/her butt in alligators. We had a sign in our office when I was in the Navy submarine service: "When you are up to your ass in alligators, it is hard to remember that your initial objective is to clear the swamp."
The discipline of mindfulness keeps us focused on the present and on the blessing of being in the moment...alive to what is happening around us and engaged in experiencing the gracious love of God. Mindfulness lets us see opportunity in what could be a painful experience. Mindfulness obliterates cynicism.
I'm still working at two-for-two on my worst fears. At 58, the Spirit still flows through me in the Sacraments with me being in both awe and wonder. Though I have flirted with it, I am still not cynical. I have a passion to learn, grow and experience deeper understanding. I still love the challenge of each day and the anticipation of what change will happen around each new bend.