When I was a graduate student in seminary, I was singularly blessed by the friendship of The Rev. Russell G. Harding. Father Harding was known to me simply as "Pop Harding." He stood all of about 5'7" with a shock of white hair. A bit rotund and with ruddy cheeks, he was almost always smiling. I always saw him as someone who could easily have played the part of Santa Claus.
Pop Harding was retired from nearly 40 years of parish ministry in the Episcopal Church. About 22 of those years he was Rector of a parish in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and was very proud of the fact that, "A brewery built our church." He and his wife decided to move south in retirement and made their home in my hometown of Winter Haven, Florida. He worshiped in and often assisted for my home parish of St. Paul's...especially at the Friday morning Eucharist. As a teenager, I often served as an acolyte at that liturgy during the summer or when Friday happened to be a school holiday. I got to know Pop Harding, who always treated me something like a grandson.
I was away from St. Paul's a lot during college years and then totally for the two years I was overseas with the Navy. Upon returning, I spent five months at home in Winter Haven preparing to transition into three years of studies at Nashotah House Theological Seminary (one of the, then, eleven seminaries in the Episcopal Church). Pop Harding was still at St. Paul's, though it was a bit harder for him to get around. His hips were in bad shape. Nevertheless, Pop Harding was elated that I was heading to Nashotah. He had graduated from that seminary nearly fifty years earlier. He became very invested in how my formation as a future priest was taking shape. Each time I would return to Winter Haven for a holiday visit, we would have lunch and talk for, sometimes, three hours.
Pop Harding was truly a man of deep prayer and quiet wisdom. In spending time with me, he was actually being my spiritual director (a person who listens deeply and guides another's spiritual formation and journey). He gave me much wise counsel and encouragement. He was pivotal in keeping me in seminary during a five week period in my second year of studies, when I was struggling with vocation and considering leaving seminary. Never forceful, Pop Harding spent quiet time on the telephone asking questions and sorting through the morass of my conflicted thoughts. He didn't tell me what to do, but, in the end, he made it possible for me to determine what was truly important for me to do. Obviously, I stayed.
In June 1978, I graduated from Nashotah with my Master's degree, completed my required "oral comp exams" for diocesan endorsement for ordination and prepared for being ordained on 29 June. I had eight days at home between comps and ordination. Pop Harding took me to a wonderful place for lunch. Amid the jocularity of celebratory conversation, Pop got suddenly serious. From across the table, he fixed me with a steady, blue-eyed stare and gravely stated, "I have only two pieces of advice for you, my friend. First, remember who it is you serve as a priest. If you ever go to the Altar and don't have a feeling deep inside of something akin to terror, leave immediately; for you are no longer connected to the reason you are there. Second, never make close friends with your parishioners. You will lose your objectivity and capacity to be their pastor."
I remember those words as if they were spoken yesterday. I was ordained a Deacon on 29 June 1978 and a Priest on 29 December 1978. The first Eucharist (Mass) at which I presided as Priest was on 31 December. From that day to this...almost 35 years later...I have never gone to the Altar as the one presiding and not felt that deep inner sense of terror. This terror isn't one of impending doom, or abject fear, or some kind of dark foreboding. It is what Rudolf Otto described as the "mysterium tremendum" or "tremendous mystery" (Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto, 1917). It is also known as "numinous dread" --- a deep, almost overwhelming awe at what is actually at work in that moment. Hint: it isn't about the Priest. Pop Harding was saying that, if I wasn't in touch with that "awe-fullness," I was relying on my own ego and will-fullness. If I was there for me, I should not be in that position, where being a vessel of Grace is the practice (craft) of Presence.
Pop Harding's second counsel that day in June 1978 has been not so well kept by me. In every parish I have been, as either Associate or Rector, I have made friends within the parish family. Those experiences have been like two-edged swords. I have remained close friends with several parishioners over the last 35 years. Others, who were good friends and co-workers during my tenure, seemed to have dropped out of communication following my departure. I have called that "friendship for a season." On a few occasions, being a friend with a parishioner has led to deep pain and, in three cases, deep conflict. Two of those situations were psycho-pathological. It opened a door for the perceived friend to project deep anger and fear in very inappropriate ways. One incident led to the Bishop having to take disciplinary action with the parishioner. Another, led to strong action on the part of elected parish leadership with the parishioner. The third led to an estrangement that has never been healed completely.
After sharing that, it is important for me to say that, while doing a vocational craft that deals with a lot of unseen ... but very real ... energy, it is essential to remain both a bit aloof and very neutral. It is hard for the average parishioner to fully comprehend how that works, and there is always subtle manipulation being played in parochial interactions. It is most often not even recognized.
Well, how have the persons with whom I have strong, ongoing friendships from parishes dealt with this? The only insight I have is that the level of balance in these folks is such that, when in personal crisis, they see me as their priest. When things are going well, they see me as a friend with whom they can have a coffee or a beer and talk sports or other pastimes of the day.
Now two years retired, my wife and I worship at St. Boniface, Siesta Key. It is about five miles from our home. Like Pop Harding (who died in 1986), I am now a "Retired Priest in Residence." When called upon, I do liturgical, pastoral or teaching work in the parish. I am also available to the larger diocese. Now, I have the silver hair. Unlike Pop Harding, I am tall and told I can be an "imposing figure" (whatever that means). Now, I am the guy who slips in with a briefcase, does the work needed, and slips out again.
I have never been able "not to love." Nor, have I ever been able to "not be a friend." I have been present in the tragedies of daily life and walked with those folks. I have been present to more deaths, funerals, births and weddings than I can count. I have worn clothing covered in tears, sweat and blood of those who have endured outrageous pain and injury....or experienced uncontainable joy. When I have been able to get to a place alone, I have wept my own tears of pain and grief....or shear joy in someone's healing or transformation in life.
To be allowed into those spaces shared above is an act of tremendous trust. It is foremost an act of love. In that love there is friendship....both Divine Friendship and the spiritual friendship of people engaged in a journey...even a journey of only moments. I have made friends...many, many friends. I have lost friends. I have been accepted and rejected. It is the price of the kind of love that knows no distinction between self and other. It is the space in which True Love dwells. In that space, all manner of things will be well.
I am grateful for Father Russell G. "Pop" Harding...a true formation mentor for me. His first piece of advice was absolutely "spot on." The second piece of advice...well...let's simply say, I was led down a different road in my vocational journey. It is the price of Love.
Love and Blessings,